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March 20, 2017

Last Thursday, the White House provoked a diplomatic spat with America's closest ally, Britain, when Press Secretary Sean Spicer reiterated a claim from Fox News judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano that Britain's GCHQ spy agency had wiretapped President Trump during the presidential campaign at the behest of former President Barack Obama. By Friday, Britain and the White House were sparring over whether the Trump administration had apologized for repeating the claim, and if so, how much, and Napolitano had pointed The New York Times to one of his "intelligence sources," Larry C. Johnson.

Johnson, who was a CIA analyst before leaving the government about 30 years ago, is perhaps most famous, The Times notes, for spreading "false rumors in 2008 that Michelle Obama had been videotaped using a slur against Caucasians." On CNN Sunday, he told Brian Stelter where his information had come from and said he was actually not "knowingly" a source for Napolitano, adding that the retired judge "didn't get it right, accurate either." "I'm not saying the British GCHQ was wiretapping Trump's tower," Johnson said. Napolitano "shouldn't have used the word 'wiretap.' I call it an 'information operation' that's been directed against President Trump."

Johnson explained that the day after Trump's tweets about Obama wiretapping him, he went on RT, the Kremlin-funded news channel, and talked about how "the British through GCHQ were passing information back-channel," then shared that on a discussion board for former intelligence operatives. "Apparently one of the individuals there shared that with Judge Napolitano," he said. "I don't know what his other sources are." Johnson said two people "who were in a position to know" told him about the back-channel communications, but "this was not done at the direction of Barack Obama — let's be clear about that."

Napolitano is reportedly standing by his claim, but Fox News anchor Shepard Smith noted tartly on Friday that "Fox News cannot confirm Judge Napolitano's commentary" and "Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now-president of the United States was surveilled at any time, any way. Full stop." Peter Weber

10:09 a.m. ET

Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer swears he never "knowingly" lied to the American people during his tenure in the Trump administration. In an interview Thursday with Good Morning America, Spicer acknowledged that he "made mistakes, there's no question." But when asked if he'd ever lied at the podium, he responded: "I don't think so."

Spicer proceeded to try to explain away every seeming untruth. He conceded that he "could have probably had more facts at hand and been more articulate" when he claimed the crowd size at President Trump's inauguration was bigger than at former President Barack Obama's. "I think it might've been better to be a lot more specific with what we were talking about in terms of the universe, not focus so much on photographic evidence, et cetera," Spicer said, pointing that "many people viewed the inauguration online versus in person" and there are now "more online platforms to view things."

As for that time he seemingly provided contradictory information about former FBI Director James Comey's firing, he pointed out that President Trump "set it straight himself." He blamed a lack of consistency in terminology for that time he bluntly told reporters that Trump's travel ban was unequivocally "not a travel ban," just after Trump tweeted it was, in fact, a ban.

But if anyone out there was hoping for "some blanket apology," it's "not happening," Spicer said as he fit in one last jab at the media, who "think that everything we did was wrong."

Watch it below. Becca Stanek

9:14 a.m. ET

The personal information of 143 million Americans might have been compromised in a massive cybersecurity breach at the credit-reporting service Equifax reported earlier this month, and in the intervening days, the company has been heavily criticized for its response to the crisis. The story, though, gets much worse: Equifax has reportedly been linking customers looking to determine if their information was compromised to a phishing website, Fortune reports.

The real website can be found at equifaxsecurity2017.com, but a customer service agent who signed tweets as "Tim" linked at least eight people to securityequifax2017.com.

The fake website was built by software developer Nick Sweeting, who wanted to prove how easy it was for scammers to replicate the Equifax website as a means of tricking people into handing over personal information, Fortune reports. Although Sweeting carefully labeled his website as "totally fake," it still worked — too well. "Equifax just linked customers to my fake phishing version of their website by accident," he tweeted.

Equifax has since removed all the incorrect posts and apologized for any confusion.

Sweeting added: "I just hope the employee who posted the tweet[s] doesn't get fired, they probably just Googled for the URL and ended up finding the fake one instead. The real blame lies with the people who originally decided to set the site up badly." Read the full report at Fortune and learn how to protect yourself after the breach here at The Week. Jeva Lange

8:41 a.m. ET

As the Russia probe continues to expand, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has informed the Trump administration that he is interested in speaking to former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Of particular interest could be "notebook after notebook" that Spicer filled while working for the Republican National Committee, the Trump campaign, and in the White House, Axios reports.

Spicer, for his part, was not feeling too generous about discussing the topic with reporters, Axios' Mike Allen writes:

When we texted Spicer for comment on his note-taking practices, he replied: "Mike, please stop texting/emailing me unsolicited anymore."

When I replied with a "?" (I have known Spicer and his wife for more than a dozen years), he answered: "Not sure what that means. From a legal standpoint I want to be clear: Do not email or text me again. Should you do again I will report to the appropriate authorities." [Axios]

Word of Spicer's notebooks is making some people nervous — in the words of one official, "people are going to wish they'd been nicer to Sean." Another noted, "Sean documented everything." Read the full report at Axios. Jeva Lange

7:39 a.m. ET
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the co-sponsor of the Republican health-care bill, was overheard on his cell phone at Reagan National Airport calling on colleagues to vote for the legislation despite "all its imperfections," The Associated Press reports. AP learned that Fox News host Sean Hannity was on the other end of the line.

"We're going to vote," Graham added to Hannity in an interview. "Everybody will be held accountable."

Graham is not the only one to think that Republicans are moving forward on less-than-ideal legislation, though. On Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told The Des Moines Register that "I could maybe give you 10 reasons why this bill shouldn't be considered." He explained, though, that "Republicans campaigned on this so often that you have a responsibility to carry out what you said in the campaign. That’s pretty much as much of a reason as the substance of the bill."

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill next week. Jeva Lange

6:03 a.m. ET
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Late Wednesday, the Securities and Exchange Commission said that it discovered last month that a 2016 hack of its computer filing system for publicly traded companies "may have provided the basis for illicit gain through trading." The "software vulnerability in the test filing component of the commission's EDGAR system" has been patched, and while the "intrusion" was discovered last year, the SEC said, it only learned about the possible use of pilfered information to trade stocks for illegal profit after SEC Chairman Jay Clayton ordered a cybersecurity review in May 2017.

The SEC statement did not say why the agency didn't disclose the breach last year, when the system was hacked, or whether specific companies were targeted. The SEC is the federal government's main Wall Street regulator. "Cybersecurity is critical to the operations of our markets and the risks are significant and, in many cases, systemic," Clayton said. "We must be vigilant. We also must recognize — in both the public and private sectors, including the SEC — that there will be intrusions, and that a key component of cyber risk management is resilience and recovery." Peter Weber

5:03 a.m. ET

Senate Republicans are planning to vote next week on the Graham-Cassidy health-care bill, and they can only lose two Republican senators to squeak it through with the vice president's tie-breaking vote. One of the Republicans who says he's a yes on Graham-Cassidy, Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), came on Stephen Colbert's Late Show Wednesday night and explained his thinking. "Why not wait to know what you're voting on before you affect one-sixth of the American economy?" Colbert asked. "Let me say, I want a bipartisan solution," Flake replied. "Part of the problem with ObamaCare is that it was pushed through by one party, and we're going to have the same kind of problem if we just do this long-term," but right now, 200,000 Arizonans don't have viable insurance options.

Flake said he thinks health care is better managed at the state level, and that governors will do a better job than federal officials at enabling health care for less money. (The last GOP health-care bill in July was supported by just 6 percent of Arizona voters, according to one poll.) Colbert asked Flake if he thinks Republicans have the votes to pass it, and he said yes. "It's going to come down to the final few senators," he said. "I hope we can. Like I said, people in Arizona are hurting, and that's who I'm responding to. We've got to fix it in a bipartisan way going forward — obviously it is never good for one party to push something through on its own. In the meantime, we've got to make sure that everybody has insurance." Flake did not connect those two thoughts, exactly, but you can watch his full argument below. Peter Weber

4:18 a.m. ET

Stephen Colbert's Late Show kicked off Wednesday night with an homage to the late horror director George A. Romero and the zombie genre he spawned, plus a dig at Zombie TrumpCare.

Yes, Republicans are trying once again to repeal and replace ObamaCare, Colbert said. "This is beyond beating a dead horse. This is getting damn close to beastiality." And they have until Sept. 30 to do it, minus three Jewish holidays, because that's when their filibuster-proof powers vanish for the fiscal year, and they've reserved next year for Democrat-free tax reform. "It's a race against the clock — they've got 10 days to overhaul the health-care system or everybody lives!" Colbert joked.

He explained how the bill works, roughly, then noted that former President Barack Obama, who has gotten very gray, ("That's how bad Donald Trump is," Colbert said. "Obama is aging faster watching someone else be president!") weighed in on Wednesday, defending the law that colloquially bears his name. But Colbert used a quote from Trump adviser Stephen Moore about people only wanting insurance for their families, and a fake TV ad, to remind everyone what health insurance is actually about.

Colbert then found some bemused mirth in President Trump's invention on Wednesday of a new African country while meeting with African leaders. "Now, there is no such country as Nambia," Colbert said. "Despite that, they might soon have a better health-care system than we do." Peter Weber

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