Rep. Darrell Issa: Trump-Russia probe requires a special prosecutor

Politico reports: A Republican congressman who aligned with President Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign called Friday for a special prosecutor to oversee the investigation into Trump associates’ contacts with Russia.

Rep. Darrell Issa said on HBO’s “Real Time” that Attorney General Jeff Sessions — who Trump appointed as the nation’s top law enforcement officer — should not handle the problem.

“You cannot have somebody, a friend of mine Jeff Sessions, who was on the campaign and who is an appointee,” the California Republican said in response to a question from host Bill Maher. “You’re going to need to use the special prosecutor’s statute and office to take — not just to recuse. You can’t just give it to your deputy. That’s another political appointee.”

Issa emphasized that “there may or may not be fault” with Trump’s associates but said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutality toward political enemies highlighted the need for such a probe. [Continue reading…]

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Will Republicans break with Trump over Russia?

Susan B Glasser writes: President Donald Trump is “dangerously naïve.”

He has a “pathological unwillingness to criticize anything the Kremlin does.” He is discrediting U.S. intelligence agencies and “telling the world they can’t be believed.”

As for Trump’s refusal to disavow Russian President Vladimir Putin and the murders and poisonings of Putin critics in recent years because, as Trump put it, America has “killers” too? “I don’t think we’ve ever had a more harmful statement come out of the Oval Office than that one,” says Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House intelligence committee, in an extensive interview for our new podcast, The Global Politico.

Schiff, a Harvard-trained lawyer who made his career by prosecuting an FBI agent caught in a sex-for-secrets trap by the Soviet Union, has been one of the leading Democrats calling for a more serious investigation of Trump’s mysterious ties to Russia. Last week, when national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign after misleading the vice president about his December phone call with the Russian ambassador, Schiff quickly demanded an expansion of the House intel panel’s probe of the 2016 election hacking to include the Flynn matter, an expansion Chairman Devin Nunes reluctantly agreed to late last week. [Continue reading…]

Bloomberg reports: U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham promised that Congress will press ahead with a bill to sanction Russia for interfering in the U.S. presidential election, and investigate the methods it used, to make sure other countries don’t fall victim to similar hacking attacks.

Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, called on President Donald Trump to make a clear statement that Russia must pay a price for interfering with the election even though Democrats suffered most from the hacking. A Senate bill to sanction Russia is likely to get more than 75 votes and Trump should sign it, he told the Munich Security Conference on Sunday. [Continue reading…]

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Feinstein: Trump trademark in China may violate Constitution

Politico reports: A decision by the Chinese government to grant President Donald Trump a trademark for his brand could be a breach of the U.S. Constitution, a senior Democratic senator warned Friday.

“China’s decision to award President Trump with a new trademark allowing him to profit from the use of his name is a clear conflict of interest and deeply troubling,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in a statement. “If this isn’t a violation of the Emoluments Clause, I don’t know what is.”

The Emoluments Clause of the Constitution prohibits federal officials — including the president — from accepting payments from foreign governments. Trump’s critics have argued that Trump’s opaque and byzantine business network could run afoul of this principle. [Continue reading…]

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Senate Judiciary Committee wants Justice Department to hand over transcripts of Flynn’s intercepted calls

The Hill reports: The Senate Judiciary Committee wants the Justice Department to hand over details on Michael Flynn’s resignation as President Trump’s national security adviser.

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) — the top two members on the committee — sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James Comey asking for a briefing and documents tied to Flynn’s resignation.

“We request that individuals with specific knowledge of these issues from both the FBI and Justice Department brief Committee Members and staff,” they wrote in the letter.

They added that they also want copies of the transcript of Flynn’s “intercepted calls and the FBI report summarizing the intercepted calls referenced in the media.” [Continue reading…]

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Flynn’s ouster leads to more chaos in Trump world

Politico reports: The resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn did little to calm the chaos at the White House, where staff spent Tuesday scrambling to deflect blame for the rising scandal about Flynn’s contacts with Russian officials — including who knew what about the conversations and when.

Other ongoing controversies intruded on the White House’s ability to impose its own narrative on the Flynn situation, adding to the sense of confusion in President Donald Trump’s Washington.

Office of Government Ethics director Walter Shaub released a letter recommending that the White House investigate Kellyanne Conway and consider disciplinary action against her for encouraging the public to buy clothes from the line marketed by Ivanka Trump, the president’s oldest daughter, after Nordstrom stopped carrying it.

Republicans on Capitol Hill, who have been hesitant to chastise the new administration, also began asserting some distance from the president. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a request to the White House on Tuesday for answers about security protocols at Mar-a-Lago and details about potentially sensitive documents after club members photographed the president and senior staff reading on the club’s dining terrace Saturday.

And Senate Republicans called for investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) left the door open to supporting an independent investigative commission, while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) appeared to support the idea of requiring Flynn to testify before committee investigations. “What I’d like to know is, did Gen. Flynn make this phone call by himself? If he was directed, by who?” Graham asked. “Did they try to engage the Russians before they were in office? Was this part of a continuing pattern between the Trump people and Russia?”

White House staff seemed disorganized in their response to the crises.

For the second time in less than a day, White House press secretary Sean Spicer contradicted statements from others in the White House. He told reporters at Tuesday’s daily press briefing that Trump demanded Flynn’s resignation, whereas senior administration officials said Monday night that Flynn decided to step down on his own. [Continue reading…]

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Congress should call for special counsel to investigate Flynn and Trump

Adam Goldberg writes: All U.S. attorneys general have the authority to appoint someone to conduct investigations, vesting investigative and prosecutorial powers in them. Wholly apart from the independent counsel law that expired in 1999, U.S. attorneys general have used this authority precisely at times like these when greater independence is necessary. Most recently, President Bush’s Department of Justice exercised this ability in 2003, when Attorney General Ashcroft recused himself from the investigation into the leaking of a CIA officer’s identity and Deputy Attorney General Comey appointed Patrick Fitzgerald as special counsel.

That we need a special counsel now is clear from three key facts. First, General Flynn discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador before President Trump took office and lied about it. If, as some say, this could not possibly be a violation of the Logan Act — prohibiting private citizens from interfering with U.S. foreign policy — why lie about it? If General Flynn’s discussions were typical transition work, why deceive the country and the Vice President?

Second, in General Flynn’s resignation letter he stated that he gave “incomplete information” to the Vice President and others, but General Flynn notably omitted giving incomplete information to President Trump. Perhaps that is because he never discussed the issue with President Trump. It is at least as likely, however, that he did — that President Trump knew about the full content of General Flynn’s discussions and did so at the time General Flynn made them. Can we trust President Trump’s own Department of Justice to investigate him? [Continue reading…]

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Top Republican senators say Congress should probe Flynn situation

The Washington Post reports: Top Republican senators said Tuesday that Congress should probe the circumstances leading up to the resignation of Michael Flynn as President Trump’s national security adviser, opening a new and potentially uncomfortable chapter in the uneasy relationship between Trump and congressional Republicans.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), vice chairman of the Senate GOP Conference and a member of the Intelligence Committee, said lawmakers ought to look at the matter as part of an existing probe into Russian meddling in the United States political system — a sensitive topic that has lingered over Republicans since Trump’s election win.

“I think in all likelihood it should be part of the intel committee’s review of what’s happened with Russia, yes,” said Blunt. He added that he “certainly wasn’t kept informed” about the situation surrounding Flynn.

Blunt’s comments came at a tense moment when congressional Republicans are finding it increasingly difficult to defend Trump after a tempestuous start to his term has stoked frustration, fatigue and fear on Capitol Hill. [Continue reading…]

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Gerrymandering is why American democracy is broken

Brian Klaas writes: There is an enormous paradox at the heart of American democracy. Congress is deeply and stubbornly unpopular. On average, between 10 and 15 percent of Americans approve of Congress – on a par with public support for traffic jams and cockroaches. And yet, in the 2016 election, only eight incumbents – eight out of a body of 435 representatives – were defeated at the polls.

If there is one silver bullet that could fix American democracy, it’s getting rid of gerrymandering – the now commonplace practice of drawing electoral districts in a distorted way for partisan gain. It’s also one of a dwindling number of issues that principled citizens – Democrat and Republican – should be able to agree on. Indeed, polls confirm that an overwhelming majority of Americans of all stripes oppose gerrymandering.

In the 2016 elections for the House of Representatives, the average electoral margin of victory was 37.1 percent. That’s a figure you’d expect from North Korea, Russia or Zimbabwe – not the United States. But the shocking reality is that the typical race ended with a Democrat or a Republican winning nearly 70 percent of the vote, while their challenger won just 30 percent. [Continue reading…]

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Michael Flynn’s deceptions present bigger problem than violation of the Logan Act

David Ignatius writes: Michael Flynn’s real problem isn’t the Logan Act, an obscure and probably unenforceable 1799 statute that bars private meddling in foreign policy disputes. It’s whether President Trump’s national security adviser sought to hide from his colleagues and the nation a pre-inauguration discussion with the Russian government about sanctions that the Obama administration was imposing.

“It’s far less significant if he violated the Logan Act and far more significant if he willfully misled this country,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, in a telephone interview late Friday. “Why would he conceal the nature of the call unless he was conscious of wrongdoing?”

Schiff said the FBI and congressional intelligence committees should investigate whether Flynn discussed with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December the imminent imposition of sanctions, and whether he encrypted any of those communications in what might have been an effort to avoid monitoring. Schiff said that if some conversations were recorded by U.S. intelligence agencies, “we should be able to rapidly tell if Gen. Flynn was being truthful” when he told Vice President Pence and other colleagues that sanctions weren’t discussed. [Continue reading…]

Flynn’s ongoing obfuscation around the content of his conversations would appear to be a delaying tactic driven by the fact that he doesn’t know how much more detail in his exchanges might soon be leaked.

It’s also, no doubt, a product of the reliable expectation that in a political climate flooded with too many controversies for the media to closely track, the Flynn story is likely to get overshadowed by yet another drama.

The 24/7 Trump soap opera is effective in both sickening and exhausting an audience that will soon transition from interminable distraction to mass catatonia.

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Gorsuch unwilling to show he has enough backbone to publicly criticize Trump

The Hill reports: Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) on Thursday warned that the country is heading toward a “constitutional crisis,” moments after President Trump attacked him for sharing Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s concerns with the president’s attacks on judges.

“I said to Judge Gorsuch and I believe that ordinarily a Supreme Court nominee would not be expected to comment on issues or political matters or cases that come before court, but we’re in a very unusual situation,” Blumenthal said on CNN’s “New Day.”

“We’re careening, literally, toward a constitutional crisis. And he’s been nominated by a president who has repeatedly and relentlessly attacked the American judiciary on three separate occasions, their credibility and trust is in question.”

Blumenthal said the president has also established a litmus test for his nominee to be “pro-life, to be pro-Second Amendment, to be conservative.”

Blumenthal told reporters Wednesday that Gorsuch called Trump’s tweets attacking federal judges “disheartening” and “demoralizing.”

A spokesman for Gorsuch later confirmed to CNN that the judge used the terms when describing Trump’s tweets during his meeting with Blumenthal.

Despite the confirmation by Gorsuch’s spokesman, Trump tweeted Thursday morning that those weren’t the judge’s true feelings.

“Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who never fought in Vietnam when he said for years he had (major lie), now misrepresents what Judge Gorsuch told him?” the president tweeted.

Blumenthal on Thursday urged Gorsuch to make his concerns public.

“Behind closed doors, Judge Gorsuch expressed disappointment with President Trump’s attacks on the judiciary, but a Supreme Court Justice must prove that he has the courage and independence to stand up to a President in public,” Blumenthal said.

“I asked Judge Gorsuch to make that statement publicly, and he declined.” [Continue reading…]

When Trump announced his nomination of Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, he made a public display of his ability to push the judge around.

 

Gorsuch is now showing both a lack of courage and lack of integrity. He is the only person who can confirm, without the possibility of contradiction, his own words and by so doing also that Trump is now, completely without justification, maligning Blumenthal.

Instead, Gorsuch is presenting himself as so desirous of a seat on the Supreme Court and so fearful of the man who offered him the job, that he dare not cross swords with Trump. And yet if he plucked up enough courage to merely confirm what he already said, what’s Trump going to do? Withdraw the nomination? I doubt it. More likely, he’ll brush it off and declare (while gritting his teeth) that it just goes to show how wonderfully independently minded is his pick.

The truth is, when Gorsuch described Trump’s attacks on judges as “disheartening” and “demoralizing,” these were not fighting words, but on the contrary, a rather mealy-mouthed challenge to a president who has very little respect for the U.S. Constitution.

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Shutting down speech by Elizabeth Warren, GOP amplifies her message

The New York Times reports: Republicans seized her microphone. And gave her a megaphone.

Silenced on the Senate floor for condemning a peer, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, emerged on Wednesday in a coveted role: the avatar of liberal resistance in the age of Trump.

Late on Tuesday, Senate Republicans voted to halt the remarks of Ms. Warren, already a lodestar of the left, after she criticized a colleague, Senator Jeff Sessions, the nominee for attorney general, by reading a letter from Coretta Scott King.

Instantly, the decision — led by Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, who invoked a rarely enforced rule prohibiting senators from impugning the motives and conduct of a peer — amplified Ms. Warren’s message and further inflamed the angry Senate debate over Mr. Sessions’ nomination. He is expected to be confirmed later on Wednesday.

In the meantime, some of her peers from the Democratic caucus, including Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, have read Mrs. King’s letter without facing any objection, prompting some activists to raise charges of sexism. [Continue reading…]

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Senators seek Hill veto power over Trump on Russia

CNN reports: A growing number of senators from both parties plan to ratchet up their push to stiffen sanctions on Russia and demand Congress have the final say if President Donald Trump decides to weaken penalties on the country unilaterally.

The move by six senators is the latest warning from Capitol Hill to the new administration over US-Russian relations.

On Wednesday, a group led by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, plan to introduce legislation that would impose strict new congressional oversight and veto power over the Trump administration if it decided to lift sanctions on Russia.

The Russia Review Act would require the White House to submit a report detailing why it was seeking to lift sanctions, setting into motion a 120-day review period where Congress could vote to disapprove of easing the penalties on the country, according to a summary of the measure provided to CNN.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is cosponsoring the Graham-Cardin measure, along with Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Republican John McCain of Arizona.

Rubio said support is broad within the Senate to push back against the White House if it eased sanctions before Russia pulls out of Ukraine, potentially enough to overcome any Trump veto. [Continue reading…]

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The march to impeachment

Robert Kuttner writes: There are already plenty of grounds to impeach Donald Trump. The really interesting question is when key Republicans will decide that he’s more of a liability than an asset.

If Trump keeps sucking up to Vladimir Putin, it could happen sooner than you think.

The first potential count is Trump’s war with the courts. The Supreme Court is likely to give expedited review to the order by the 9th Circuit upholding Judge James Robart’s order that tossed out Trump’s bans on immigrants or refugees from seven countries, even permanent US residents and others with valid green cards.

It’s encouraging that the agencies of government, such as the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, immediately deferred to the court order, not to a president who thinks he can govern by decree.

But suppose the Supreme Court finds against Trump? Will he try to defy the high court? That would be a first-class impeachable offense. Even Richard Nixon deferred to a Supreme Court order to turn over the Watergate tapes.

A second category of impeachable offense involves his mixing his personal profits with his official duties as president. That describes his bizarre romance with Vladimir Putin, who presides over a nation where Trump has extensive business interests, as well as Trump’s double standards in determining which Muslim nations were exempted from his executive order. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. developing counter-propaganda initiative targeting Russia

The Daily Beast reports: President Trump may be continuing his public pursuit for Vladimir Putin’s affections. But behind the scenes, the United States is quietly preparing to wage an information war against Russia.

The 2016 presidential campaign alerted the public to the concept of information as a weapon — and to its incredible effectiveness when used just right. From WikiLeaks to RT to Sputnik, the Russian government tried to sow discord among Americans, according to a recent U.S. intelligence report. To some extent it succeeded, by facilitating public skepticism of American institutions and the press—and undermining Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

“Russia is trying to create civic chaos, questions about what is reliable, and mistrust about institutions,” said Karl Altau, director of the Joint Baltic American National Committee, which advocates against Russian misinformation. “It’s a national threat. This is something responsible citizens need to be aware of.”

Russian intervention in the U.S. democratic process caught many American policymakers dozing at the wheel, observers say. But the dramatic nature of the intelligence community’s findings, both before and after Trump’s election, has woken them up.

“This was not paid much attention to until the Hillary Clinton [presidential campaign was upended by hacked and leaked emails] last summer,” said Donald Jensen, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a leading think-tank on Russian information warfare. “If you went around town last spring and asked senators and lawmakers if this is a problem, they would have said ‘no’… People are playing catch-up.”

Without fanfare, the catch-up is slowly beginning. The United States government is spending tens of millions of dollars to counter propaganda from Vladimir Putin and other state actors, a move slipped into the thousands of pages of the annual defense policy bill passed by Congress. [Continue reading…]

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James Baker on how to run a White House that works and why the world is so scared right now

Politico reports: Democrats and Republicans agree on one thing: James A. Baker III was the gold standard when it came to running a White House. And so far he’s not overly impressed when it comes to the troubled kickoff of the Trump administration.

In his first extensive comments on America’s controversial new president, the former chief of staff, campaign manager, diplomat and all-around GOP wise man offered a serious and substantive critique of the early days of President Trump’s takeover. His advice: Stop blowing up the U.S. relationship with Mexico, don’t expect them to pay for the wall, don’t act as “Israel’s lawyer,” don’t be an isolationist, support NATO and do a much better job of working with the other power centers of Washington — Congress and the Cabinet — before unveiling disruptive new policies like the temporary refugee ban. “The rollout here was deficient, we have to acknowledge that,” he says.

When we met in his Houston office last week for the launch of The Global Politico, our new weekly podcast on international affairs in the Trump era, Baker held forth for nearly an hour about how things are supposed to work in a West Wing that’s got its game on, the ways in which the brash billionaire in the White House is — and is not — like his old boss Ronald Reagan, and his disappointment in Barack Obama for leaving “the world in much worse shape than it was eight years ago.”

He also weighed in on Russia sanctions, taking a firm line that they should remain in place to remind the Russian President Vladimir Putin that “rolling the tanks” into neighboring countries like Ukraine will not be tolerated, worried that Trump will trade those sanctions away for “nothing” and argued that Israel is risking its future by building more settlements. “We have allies that are just scared to death,” he notes, as a result of Trump’s early rhetoric and unpredictable foreign policy. [Continue reading…]

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Democratic lawmakers seek Pentagon probe of Mike Flynn’s Russia Today ties

The Wall Street Journal reports: Several top Democratic members of Congress are asking the Defense Department to investigate whether retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, violated the Constitution when he accepted money from a Russian television network that U.S. intelligence officials say is part of a state-funded media apparatus.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the lawmakers said that since Mr. Flynn retired from the Army in 2014, he has appeared regularly on Russia Today, or RT, a state-sponsored television network. The letter also said that Mr. Flynn acknowledged he was paid to speak at a gala in Moscow celebrating RT’s 10th anniversary in December 2015. At the event, he dined alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The lawmakers said that Mr. Flynn may have violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits someone “holding any office of profit or trust” — meaning a public office or military position — from accepting gifts or payments from a foreign country.

“The Department of Defense has made clear that this restriction applies to retired military officers because they continue to hold offices of trust,” according to the letter, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Flynn didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Flynn’s Russia trip and his media appearances have come under scrutiny before. But this is the first time that lawmakers have formally requested that the Pentagon investigate the RT payment and have suggested it may have been illegal. [Continue reading…]

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