While headlines focus on Mueller, Trump’s ire is directed at Sessions and Rosenstein

The Washington Post reports: Advisers who have spoken recently with Trump about the Russia investigation said the president was sharply critical of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as well as Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller operation — but did not broach the idea of firing Mueller.

“I think he realizes that would be a step too far,” said one adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a private conversation.

Rather, Trump appeared to be contemplating changes in the Justice Department’s leadership. In recent discussions, two advisers said, Trump has called the attorney general “weak,” and complained that Rosenstein has shown insufficient accountability on the special counsel’s work. A senior official said Trump mocked Rosenstein’s recent testimony on Capitol Hill, saying he looked weak and unable to answer questions. Trump has ranted about Rosenstein as “a Democrat,” one of these advisers said, and characterized him as a threat to his presidency.

In fact, Rosenstein is a Republican. In 2005, President George W. Bush nominated him to be U.S. attorney in Maryland.

On Monday morning, after this story was published, a White House spokesman reached out to The Washington Post to say that Sessions and Rosenstein are safe in their jobs.

“The president is not considering changes to the Department of Justice leadership,” said Raj Shah, principal deputy White House press secretary. [Continue reading…]

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Why it’s far worse for Trump to fire Rosenstein than to fire Mueller

Asha Rangappa writes: Although under the Special Counsel regulations Mueller does not have to report to Rosenstein day to day, he does need to check in with the DAG three months before the end of the fiscal year with a status report on the progress of the investigation, and Rosenstein has the power to “determine whether the investigation should continue.” Separately, Rosenstein has the power to require Mueller to “provide an explanation for any investigative or prosecutorial step,” and can prevent Mueller from pursuing any action if, in his view, he believes that it is “inappropriate or unwarranted” under departmental practices. If he does so, he must report this decision to both the Senate and House Judiciary Committees. The fact that, six months into Mueller’s appointment, no such report has been made and Mueller continues to take significant investigative and prosecutorial steps (including, most recently, obtaining tens of thousands of transition team emails from the General Services Administration) suggests that Rosenstein is on board with the breadth, scope, and direction in which Mueller is taking the investigation.

Removing Rosenstein and replacing him with a DAG who is at the very least more sympathetic to Trump could have drastic repercussions on the investigation. The new DAG could burden the Special Counsel with a requirement to provide an explanation for every move he makes, and then decide that they aren’t necessary or appropriate. In fact, since Mueller is required to provide the DAG with at least three days’ notice in advance of any “significant event” in the investigation, she would have plenty of time to intervene and challenge Mueller’s actions (and a less scrupulous DAG could even leak Mueller’s plans to the White House or others). A new DAG would even have the ultimate—er, trump card: she could decide at some point that the investigation should not even continue at all.

Of course, any attempt to override a decision by Mueller would need to be reported and justified to Congress. However, given the increased clamor of some GOP members and right-leaning media outlets against the Mueller investigation, a DAG’s rationale for pushing back on Mueller’s investigation would find a receptive audience in some circles, including on the Hill. The situation is delicate, and a DAG has a powerful platform to shift the balance of power against the investigation. Imagine the next DAG simply expressing doubts about Mueller in testifying before the Congress, instead of the level of confidence Rosenstein expressed last week before the House Judiciary Committee. Those are important moments in the life of this investigation, and a DAG not fully committed to the rule of law but to insulating the president and the White House from political and legal accountability could wreak havoc. [Continue reading…]

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FBI warned Trump in 2016 Russians would try to infiltrate his campaign

NBC News reports: In the weeks after he became the Republican nominee on July 19, 2016, Donald Trump was warned that foreign adversaries, including Russia, would probably try to spy on and infiltrate his campaign, according to multiple government officials familiar with the matter.

The warning came in the form of a high-level counterintelligence briefing by senior FBI officials, the officials said. A similar briefing was given to Hillary Clinton, they added. They said the briefings, which are commonly provided to presidential nominees, were designed to educate the candidates and their top aides about potential threats from foreign spies.

The candidates were urged to alert the FBI about any suspicious overtures to their campaigns, the officials said. [Continue reading…]

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Trump predicts exoneration in Russia investigation as allies fear a ‘meltdown’

CNN reports: President Donald Trump is privately striking a less agitated tone on the Russia investigation, sources say, even insisting he’ll soon be cleared in writing. But his new approach has some allies worried he’s not taking the threat of the probe seriously enough.

Trump has spent much of his first year in office so enraged by the federal investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election that lawmakers who work with him tried to avoid the issue entirely and his friends worried that Trump might rashly fire the special counsel. But in recent weeks, Trump has privately seemed less frustrated about the investigation, according to multiple sources who have spoken with the President.

There’s no indication from special counsel Robert Mueller or his team that the probe is in its final stages. A tipping point in the showdown could come as soon as this week when Trump’s private lawyers and Mueller meet, sources familiar with the matter told CNN. Trump’s team is hoping to get a clearer sense of Mueller’s next steps in the investigation, an assessment that could either pacify Trump or inflame him. [Continue reading…]

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Trump and allies are trying to destroy Mueller

Julian Zelizer writes: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has come under fierce political attack. President Donald Trump and his allies are systematically attempting to destroy the legitimacy of the investigation in the eyes of the public. And without a strong congressional investigative counterpart, Mueller finds himself increasingly isolated and alone.

While the White House issued a recent statement that it has no intention of firing Mueller, that is almost beside the point. In what should now be considered the classic Trumpian playbook, the President has moved aggressively to raise doubts about the credibility of his opponent. Ironically, he and his allies are attempting to crush an investigation into whether his campaign colluded with the Russians by insinuating that the Hillary Clinton campaign may, in fact, be at fault for such behavior.

The President’s attacks should not be taken lightly. As Brian Stelter has argued on CNN, Trump and the conservative media have perfected echo chamber politics, whereby the multiple charges about the investigation — that FBI agents were out to systematically bring down this presidency, that the agency is damaged by rampant conflict of interest problems, that Mueller is illegally obtaining information about the transition — have moved to the forefront of the national conversation regardless of the veracity or relevance of any of these claims.

Peter Carr, a Mueller spokesman, made a statement soon after the allegation emerged: “When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process.”

The stories bleed into the rest of the media as well. On Sunday morning, a Washington Post headline read, “Mueller unlawfully obtained emails, Trump transition team claims,” which was likely music to the President’s ears. An allegation by the Trump for America legal team had quickly made its way into the headlines.

Indeed, it is telling of how effective Trump can be that Mueller’s decision to fire an FBI agent for his email conversations about the campaign was somehow turned into a black mark against him, rather than a sign of how cautiously the process has been handled. [Continue reading…]

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Key officials push back against Trump campaign’s claim that a federal office illegally turned over emails to special counsel

BuzzFeed reports: A lawyer for the Trump transition team on Saturday accused a federal agency of illegally and unconstitutionally turning over thousands of emails to the Special Counsel’s Office.

Specifically, the General Services Administration (GSA) turned over emails written during the transition — the period between Election Day 2016 and Inauguration Day 2017 — and the Trump campaign is claiming in a letter that the decision to do so violated the law.

Officials with both the Special Counsel’s Office and GSA, however, pushed back against the Trump campaign lawyer’s claims in the hours after the letter was issued. [Continue reading…]

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Trump allies say Mueller unlawfully obtained thousands of emails

Reuters reports: An organization established for U.S. President Donald Trump’s transition to the White House a year ago said on Saturday that the special counsel investigating allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election had obtained tens of thousands of emails unlawfully.

Kory Langhofer, counsel to the transition team known as Trump for America, Inc., wrote a letter to congressional committees to say Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team had improperly received the emails from the General Services Administration, a government agency.

Career staff members at the agency “unlawfully produced TFA’s private materials, including privileged communications, to the Special Counsel’s Office,” according to the letter, a copy of which was seen by Reuters. It said the materials included “tens of thousands of emails.”

Trump’s transition team used facilities of the GSA, which helps manage the U.S. government bureaucracy, in the period between the Republican’s November presidential election victory and his inauguration in January.

The Trump team’s accusation adds to the growing friction between the president’s supporters and Mueller’s office as it investigates whether Russia interfered in the election and if Trump or anyone on his team colluded with Moscow.

Asked for comment, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said: “We continue to cooperate fully with the special counsel and expect this process to wrap up soon.”

The GSA and officials at the special counsel’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Democrats say there is a wide-ranging effort by the president’s allies on Capitol Hill and in some media outlets to discredit Mueller’s investigation. [Continue reading…]

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The Russia facts are hiding in plain sight

David Ignatius writes: President Trump’s recent denunciations of the Russia investigation recall the famous legal advice: “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.”

Trump shouted out his defense earlier this month: “What has been shown is no collusion, no collusion!” he told reporters over the whir of his helicopter on the White House lawn. Since then, Trump’s supporters have been waging a bitter counterattack against special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, alleging bias and demanding: “Investigate the investigators.”

But what do the facts show? There is a growing, mostly undisputed body of evidence describing contacts between Trump associates and Russia-linked operatives. Trump partisans have claimed that Mueller’s investigation is biased because some members of his staff supported Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton. But Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein disagreed Wednesday, arguing that Mueller “is running his office appropriately.”

As Republicans seek to discredit the investigation, it’s useful to remember just what we’ve learned so far about how the Trump campaign sought harmful information about Clinton from sources that, according to U.S. intelligence, were linked to Moscow. This isn’t a fuzzy narrative where the truth is obscured; in the Trump team’s obsessive pursuit of damaging Clinton emails and other negative information, the facts are hiding in plain sight. [Continue reading…]

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FBI agent removed from Russia probe held views about Trump similar to those expressed by Tillerson

The Wall Street Journal reports: Two FBI employees who used to work for Special Counsel Robert Mueller have already been criticized by Republicans for texts they shared insulting President Donald Trump.

A review of their correspondence shows Mr. Trump wasn’t their only target: They held dim views of other prominent figures, from Chelsea Clinton to Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder to their new boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The 300-plus texts, contained in 90 pages of Justice Department documents handed over to Congress late Tuesday, reveal a more complete portrait of Peter Strzok, a senior counterintelligence agent, and lawyer Lisa Page, dealing with the stresses of their jobs, handling politically sensitive investigations, and their extramarital relationship.

Mr. Strzok was the lead investigator into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information on her email server, and he later was spearheading the work of agents assigned to Mr. Mueller’s team. When Mr. Mueller learned of his text messages this summer, Mr. Strzok was reassigned to the bureau’s human-resources division. Ms. Page worked temporarily for Mr. Mueller but has been reassigned.

Neither Mr. Strzok or Ms. Page could be reached for comment, and a spokesman for Mr. Mueller has declined to comment on the matter.

Mr. Trump’s allies say that their critiques of Mr. Trump—they called the then-candidate “an idiot,” “douche” and “TERRIFYING”—call into question whether Mr. Mueller’s probe into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election can be free of bias.

At a congressional hearing Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein defended the integrity of the Mr. Mueller’s investigation, saying it was free of any bias or taint.

Officials described the messages as having been flagged by the Justice Department’s inspector general as relevant to its investigation into how the Federal Bureau of Investigation handled its probe of Mrs. Clinton’s server.

Although many of their texts targeted Mr. Trump, others also drew their ire. Over the course of 16 months of correspondence, starting in August 2015 and ending on Dec. 1, 2016, that was culled from their work phones, Mr. Strzok said he loathed Congress and called presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) an “idiot.” He suggested the death penalty was appropriate for Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency contractor who pilfered reams of sensitive information. He said Ms. Clinton, daughter of Bill and Mrs. Clinton, was “self-entitled.” And he described House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) as “a jerky.”

He said, “I’m worried about what happens if HRC is elected,” apparently referring to Mrs. Clinton. He didn’t elaborate on his concerns. [Continue reading…]

What would be truly nightmarish would be to live in a country where government officials on all ranks felt duty bound to publicly and privately express unqualified admiration for political leaders.

Would Trump and his supporters prefer we live in a fascist state? Perhaps.

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Mueller sought emails of Trump campaign data firm, Cambridge Analytica

The Wall Street Journal reports: Special Counsel Robert Mueller has requested that Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that worked for President Donald Trump’s campaign, turn over documents as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, according to people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Mueller asked the firm in the fall to turn over the emails of any Cambridge Analytica employees who worked on the Trump campaign, in a sign that the special counsel is probing the Trump campaign’s data operation.

The special counsel’s request, which the firm complied with, wasn’t previously known. The emails had earlier been turned over to the House Intelligence Committee, the people said, adding that both requests were voluntary.

On Thursday, Cambridge Analytica Chief Executive Alexander Nix interviewed via videoconference with the House Intelligence Committee, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Mr. Mueller’s request for employee emails was made before media outlets reported in October that Mr. Nix had contacted WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange during the 2016 campaign, according to a person familiar with the matter. The Sweden-based WikiLeaks last year published a trove of Hillary Clinton -related emails that U.S. intelligence agencies later determined had been stolen by Russian intelligence and given to the website. [Continue reading…]

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As Russia probes progress, one name is missing: Bannon’s

Politico reports: As special Russia counsel Robert Mueller wraps up interviews with senior current and former White House staff, one name has been conspicuously absent from public chatter surrounding the probe: Steve Bannon.

President Donald Trump’s former White House chief strategist and campaign chief executive played critical roles in episodes that have become central to Mueller’s probe as well as to multiple Hill investigations.

Bannon was a key bystander when Trump decided to fire national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty earlier this month to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with foreign officials. He was among those Trump consulted before firing FBI Director James Comey, whose dismissal prompted Mueller’s appointment — a decision Bannon subsequently described to “60 Minutes” as the biggest mistake “in modern political history.”

And during the campaign, Bannon was the one who offered the introduction to data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica, whose CEO has since acknowledged trying to coordinate with WikiLeaks on the release of emails from Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state.

Yet Bannon hasn’t faced anywhere near the degree of public scrutiny in connection to the probe as others in Trump’s inner circle, including son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner — who was recently interviewed by Mueller’s team — or Donald Trump Jr., who was interviewed on Capitol Hill last week about his own Russian connections. [Continue reading…]

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Focus on Flynn, Trump timeline suggests obstruction is on Mueller’s mind

NBC News reports: Special counsel Robert Mueller is trying to piece together what happened inside the White House over a critical 18-day period that began when senior officials were told that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was susceptible to blackmail by Russia, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

The questions about what happened between Jan. 26 and Flynn’s firing on Feb. 13 appear to relate to possible obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump, say two people familiar with Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s election meddling and potential collusion with the Trump campaign.

Multiple sources say that during interviews, Mueller’s investigators have asked witnesses, including White House Counsel Don McGahn and others who have worked in the West Wing, to go through each day that Flynn remained as national security adviser and describe in detail what they knew was happening inside the White House as it related to Flynn. [Continue reading…]

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For Trump adviser at center of Russia probe, a rapid rise and dramatic fall in his ancestral land

The Washington Post reports: A brass band played, fighter jets streaked the clear blue sky and a red carpet adorned the airport tarmac on the day in May 2016 when Vladimir Putin came to Athens for a visit.

“Mr. President, welcome to Greece,” the Greek defense minister, Panos Kammenos, said in Russian as he smiled broadly and greeted a stone-faced Putin at the base of the stairs from the plane.

Kammenos, a pro-Russian Greek nationalist who bragged often of his insider Moscow connections, would receive a second key visitor that day, but with considerably less fanfare.

Not yet 30 years old, George Papadopoulos had been unknown in Greece — and everywhere else — only two months before.

But suddenly, just as Putin arrived, he was in Athens, quietly holding meetings across town and confiding in hushed tones that he was there on a sensitive mission on behalf of his boss, Donald Trump. [Continue reading…]

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FBI warned Hope Hicks about emails from Russian operatives

The New York Times reports: F.B.I. officials warned one of President Trump’s top advisers, Hope Hicks, earlier this year about repeated attempts by Russian operatives to make contact with her during the presidential transition, according to people familiar with the events.

The Russian outreach efforts show that, even after American intelligence agencies publicly accused Moscow of trying to influence the outcome of last year’s presidential election, Russian operatives were undaunted in their efforts to establish contacts with Mr. Trump’s advisers.

There is no evidence that Ms. Hicks did anything improper. According to former officials, American intelligence and law enforcement agencies became alarmed by introductory emails that Ms. Hicks received from Russian government addresses in the weeks after Mr. Trump’s election.

After he took office, senior F.B.I. counterintelligence agents met with Ms. Hicks in the White House Situation Room at least twice, gave her the names of the Russians who had contacted her, and said that they were not who they claimed to be. The F.B.I. was concerned that the emails to Ms. Hicks may have been part of a Russian intelligence operation, and they urged Ms. Hicks to be cautious.

The meetings with Ms. Hicks, what the F.B.I. calls a “defensive briefing,” went beyond the standard security advice that senior White House officials routinely receive upon taking office. Defensive briefings are intended to warn government officials about specific concerns or risks. [Continue reading…]

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Russia probe tests Pence in-the-dark defense

CNN reports: New revelations about Michael Flynn’s lies to the FBI are laying bare Vice President Mike Pence’s in-the-dark strategy when it comes to Russia’s election meddling, raising new questions about whether he could have been left in the dark as he has argued for nearly a year.

Advisers have long insisted that Pence was unaware Flynn spoke to then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak about a new set of US sanctions on the day they were announced last December.

But court filings unsealed last week, paired with new details about President Donald Trump’s own knowledge of events, indicate a wide circle of advisers were aware that Flynn raised the issue when he spoke by phone to Moscow’s envoy — even as Pence reportedly remained in the dark.

The new questions raised by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation signal what could be a pivotal moment in Pence’s careful calibration of trying to keep a safe distance from the Russia probe even while maintaining his credibility for being left out of the loop by the West Wing.

Pence — who was in charge of Trump’s transition — knew Flynn had contacted Russia, but was left unaware of the sanctions discussion, according to transition officials. It’s led to anxiety within Pence’s circle that he’ll eventually be called to sit for an interview with Mueller. [Continue reading…]

If Pence has to choose between lying to Mueller or betraying Trump, that’ll be the day Pence’s unwavering loyalty evaporates.

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Mueller subpoenaed Trump Deutsche Bank records, source says

Bloomberg reports: Special prosecutor Robert Mueller zeroed in on President Donald Trump’s business dealings with Deutsche Bank AG as his investigation into alleged Russian meddling in U.S. elections widens.

Mueller issued a subpoena to Germany’s largest lender several weeks ago, forcing the bank to submit documents on its relationship with Trump and his family, according to a person briefed on the matter, who asked not to be identified because the action has not been announced.

President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer John Dowd disputed that account, saying he had been told by Deutsche Bank that no such subpoena had been issued.

“We have confirmed that the news reports that the Special Counsel had subpoenaed financial records relating to the president are false. No subpoena has been issued or received. We have confirmed this with the bank and other sources,” Dowd wrote in an email.

When approached about the Dowd comment, the person familiar with the matter reiterated that the bank had received a subpoena. Handelsblatt reported the subpoena earlier Tuesday. [Continue reading…]

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Sessions argued in Clinton impeachment that presidents can be guilty of obstructing justice

Politico reports: Donald Trump’s personal lawyer argued Monday that, as the nominal head of federal law enforcement, the president is legally unable to obstruct justice. But the exact opposite view was once argued by another senior Trump lawyer: Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

In 1999, Sessions – then an Alabama senator – laid out an impassioned case for President Bill Clinton to be removed from office based on the argument that Clinton obstructed justice amid the investigation into his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

“The facts are disturbing and compelling on the President’s intent to obstruct justice,” he said, according to remarks in the congressional record.

Sessions isn’t alone. More than 40 current GOP members of Congress voted for the impeachment or removal of Clinton from office for obstruction of justice. They include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – who mounted his own passionate appeal to remove Clinton from office for obstruction of justice – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, who was a House member at the time.

In all, 17 sitting senators supported the obstruction of justice charge against Clinton in 1998 and 1999. [Continue reading…]

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Pence pleads ignorance as Russia probe deepens

Politico reports: As the White House contends with questions about who knew about former national security adviser Michael Flynn lying to the FBI, people close to Vice President Mike Pence are trying to make clear that President Donald Trump’s No. 2 knew nothing at all.

He was at a homeless shelter in Indiana, clad in an apron and doling out hot meals, the day last December when Egypt submitted a U.N. resolution that drew Flynn and Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner into international back-channel dealing.

He was celebrating his son’s wedding a week later when President Barack Obama slapped sanctions on Russia over its election meddling, setting off a chain of events that would culminate with Flynn pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials.

Pence’s aides have maintained for months that their man was out of the loop, blissfully ignorant of contacts between the Trump campaign and various foreign actors, from the Russian ambassador to WikiLeaks. [Continue reading…]

Are we to assume that Mike Pence’s sole means of communication is word of mouth within a hearing range of a few feet?

It’s hardly likely that Mueller’s team will accept at face-value all these assertions that Pence knew nothing. At some point, hopefully, they will subpoena his cell phone records and interrogate him.

If there’s anyone close to Trump who looks most likely to crumple under pressure after a few feeble gestures of defiance, it’s Pence.

Of course right now, the man with the pardon-power is Pence’s insurance policy, but if Trump looks like he’s going down then it will be time for the Et tu, Mike? moment.

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