Who blinked in Monday's high-stakes White House meeting about an FBI source: Trump or Rod Rosenstein?
President Trump hosted Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, FBI Director Chris Wray, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Monday for a meeting about Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian collusion and the Trump campaign. Specifically, the group discussed the demand by Trump allies in the House for highly classified documents tied to Mueller's investigation and Trump's demands that the Justice Department investigate the president's unsubstantiated suggestion there was improper political spying on his campaign. Everybody walked away with something, but it isn't clear what exactly anyone got.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the group agreed that "Kelly will immediately set up a meeting with the FBI, DOJ, and DNI together with congressional leaders to review highly classified and other information they have requested," probably by the end of the week.
"It was not clear after Monday's meeting how much of that information will now be shared with lawmakers and in what form, or who it will be shared with and in what venue," The New York Times notes. The FBI and CIA had "strenuously resisted" the request by House Republicans to see the documents about a covert intelligence source who met with members of the Trump campaign, warning it could cost lives and burn allies. It is already significant that "the president effectively requested, and apparently received, a review of the investigation into his campaign," The Washington Post adds, though the Kelly-brokered meeting could either be "a concession from the Justice Department" or "a bureaucratic maneuver to buy time and shield actual documents."
Trump's personal lawyer "Rudy Giuliani made it clear today that he wants these documents for the Trump legal defense team," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said Monday. "That is not appropriate, and I have a concern about anyone from the White House being present for review of these sensitive documents," including Kelly. Peter Weber
President Trump is raising a fuss and crossing some perilous lines over an American academic in Britain who met with three Trump campaign foreign policy advisers in the summer and fall of 2016 and passed some information about those interactions to the FBI. After Trump was elected, his top trade adviser, Peter Navarro (pictured), recommended naming Stefan Halper, widely reported to be the FBI source, as ambassador to an unidentified Asian country, Axios reports. "A White House official said Halper visited the Eisenhower Executive Office Building last August for a meeting about China," too.
Navarro put forward Halper's name, as well as several other candidates, because Halper is a fellow China hawk who worked with Navarro on an anti-China book and movie, Axios says. Halper, who taught international affairs, American studies, and intelligence seminars at Cambridge University from 2001 to 2015, is also a veteran of three Republicans administrations. "Most friends describe him as a moderate Republican who is hawkish on China and deeply committed to U.S. institutions, having worked for years inside and around the federal government," The Washington Post reports.
So Halper, 73, may not have been a perfect fit with the Trump administration, allegedly informing on the Trump campaign notwithstanding. "During classes at Cambridge, he often raised questions about [President George W.] Bush's decisions and embraced a traditional Republican approach to foreign policy that emphasized long-standing Western alliances and limited foreign intervention," the Post reports. Peter Weber
Senate Democrats suggest they saw evidence the Kremlin used the NRA to access and aid the Trump campaign
On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee dumped 2,500 pages of testimony and documents about its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, specifically the June 9, 2016, meeting Donald Trump Jr. set up with a Kremlin-linked lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was promising "dirt" on Hillary Clinton. But the committee Democrats, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), also released a separate summary of findings and outstanding questions about the Trump campaigns ties to Russia.
In one section, the Democrats state that "the committee has obtained a number of documents that suggest the Kremlin used the National Rifle Association as a means of accessing and assisting Mr. Trump and his campaign," especially Russian nationals Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of the Russian central bank and an ally of President Vladimir Putin, and his assistant Maria Butina. Specifically:
During the campaign, Mr. Torshin, Ms. Butina, and their intermediaries repeatedly offered the campaign back channels to Russia and relayed requests from President Putin to meet with Mr. Trump. The Kremlin may also have used the NRA to secretly fund Mr. Trump's campaign. The extent of Russia's use of the NRA as an avenue for connecting with and potentially supporting the Trump campaign needs examination. [Senate Judiciary Democrats]
The NRA has acknowledged receiving foreign donations, and Torshin hasn't exactly been shy about using his ties with the NRA to link up with Trump. Paul Waldman has more about the NRA-Russia-Trump nexus at The Week. Peter Weber
President Trump is starting to take a harder line on Russia, privately angered by Russian President Vladimir Putin's new nuclear missiles and pushed by his White House staff, but he is ambivalent about the pivot and asks aides not to publicly discuss any moves that might anger Moscow, The New York Times and NBC News report. In a recent call with Putin, Trump told the Russian president, "If you want to have an arms race we can do that, but I'll win," and bragged about the $700 billion Pentagon spending authorization he just signed, a White House official tells NBC News; publicly, Trump called it a "very good call."
A similar dynamic appears to be at play with the dozens of embassy personnel the U.S. and Russia each expelled over last month's nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England. The U.S. expelled 60 Russian "diplomats" — suspected intelligence operatives — last week in concert with similar moves by Britain, France, Germany, and other NATO allies, and closed Russia's Seattle consulate. Russia responded Thursday by kicking out 60 U.S. embassy personnel and 90 other Western diplomats and shuttering the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. But Russian state TV quickly quoted a Trump administration official as saying that Russia could send 60 more "diplomats" back to work in the U.S., and the State Department confirmed that caveat to Business Insider and USA Today's Oren Dorell.
I asked @StateDept about this, and it's true. Trump's expulsion this week of 60 Russian diplomats does not require the Russia to reduce its staffing levels in the U.S. and vice versa. https://t.co/gQ22BeChH8
— Oren Dorell (@OrenDorell) March 30, 2018
So that's nice news for Moscow. But it's less rosy for the new batch of Russian "diplomats," who presumably won't be able to work in lovely Seattle. Peter Weber
President Trump attacked Special Counsel Robert Mueller by name on Twitter over the weekend, veering from the White House legal strategy of cooperating with Mueller's investigation, but Trump's legal team is still trying to work out how Mueller can interview Trump, Axios reports. And Mueller, in his conversations with Trump's lawyers, is focused on "events since the election," Axios' Mike Allen says, specifically "the firings of FBI Director James Comey and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn."
Mueller is charged with investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, any possible collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign, and anything else he discovers in these lines of inquiries. But discussing post-election events "suggests a focus on obstruction of justice while in office, rather than collusion with Russia during the campaign," Allen says, acknowledging that "both sagas are interwoven with Russia," in part because Trump has woven them together.
The line between collusion and obstruction also appeared to befuddle Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who led the House Intelligence Committee investigation of Russian interference. Conaway told NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday that "our committee was not charged with answering the collusion idea" and "so we really weren't focused in the direction," only to be contradicted by a spokeswoman, who said Conaway "meant obstruction," not collusion. Conaway also told NBC's Chuck Todd that his committee did not interview some key witnesses because "we're trying to stay away from the Mueller investigation and not confuse that or hurt it one way or the other." The committee Republicans said "we found no evidence of collusion," he added, but did not draw any conclusions about whether collusion took place. Peter Weber
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), undergoing cancer treatment in Arizona, has been unable to appear on the Sunday news shows, but he still joined a thin chorus of Republicans on Sunday to defend Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election meddling and possible collusion with President Trump's campaign. Over the weekend, Trump lashed out at Mueller by name on Twitter for the first time, raising concerns that he would fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a prelude to ordering Mueller's ouster.
Special Counsel Mueller has served our country with honesty and integrity. It’s critical he be allowed to complete a thorough investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election — unimpeded.
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) March 18, 2018
Trump's error-filled tweets prompted several top Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, to urge Congress to pass stalled bipartisan legislation to shield Mueller from political interference and Trump's wrath. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his top deputies have not commented on Trump attacking Mueller, and House Speaker Paul Ryan said through his spokeswoman simply that "Mueller and his team should be able to do their job."
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) all voiced support for Mueller on Sunday, as did Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), but the GOP leaders of the House and Senate intelligence and judiciary committees have remained silent. One Trump lawyer, John Dowd, urged an end to the Mueller investigation on Saturday, but a second lawyer, Ty Cobb, said late Sunday that Trump "is not considering or discussing the firing of the special counsel, Robert Mueller." Trump can't fire Mueller directly, and the man who can (for cause), Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, said last week that Mueller "is not an unguided missile" and "I don't believe there is any justification at this point for terminating the special counsel." Peter Weber
Three people who have spoken with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team or congressional committees investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election told Reuters that during their interviews, they contradicted the testimony of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who last November told the House Judiciary Committee he "pushed back" against a proposal in 2016 to have Trump campaign representatives meet with Russians.
The three witnesses were at the March 2016 meeting, where former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos suggested reaching out to the Russians, and while their accounts differed slightly, they all said that Sessions had no objections to Papadopoulos' idea. One told Reuters that Sessions was polite, and told Papadopoulos something similar to, "okay, interesting." Last November, a meeting attendee named J.D. Gordon said Sessions was opposed to the plan, and on Saturday he told Reuters he stood by his statement.
At the time, Sessions — who also failed last year to disclose to Congress he met with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak — was still a Republican senator from Alabama, and he was chairing the meeting as head of the campaign's foreign policy team. President Trump posted a photo of the meeting on his Instagram feed that showed Trump, Sessions, Papadopoulos, and other men sitting at a table. In October, Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his Russia contacts, and he's now cooperating with Mueller. Catherine Garcia
CNN's Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota grill Maggie Haberman on whether Mueller has now crossed Trump's 'red line'
The news that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has subpoenaed documents from President Trump's family business, the Trump Organization, "impinging on the president's red line of family finances, is sure to get under Trump's skin, and may make him want to fire Mueller," Axios noted Friday morning. CNN's New Day brought on New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman to ask her that very thing.
The big picture is "it's pretty clear that not only is this not going away, that it is moving closer to the president," Haberman said. It also "adds another pound to the president's sort of mental weight on this issue, which we know eats at him on a daily basis." Trump's lawyers kept him calm last year by saying the investigation was wrapping up, she said, but it's clear now that it isn't, and "the longer this goes, the more you are going to see the president frustrated by it."
Alisyn Camerota asked if these subpoenas cross Trump's "red line," playing a recording of Trump telling Haberman last July that Mueller would be out of bounds digging into his family business. "He wasn't a definitive, 'Yes, that would cross a line for me," Camerota noted. "That was him trying not to answer the question, that was not him being uncertain," Haberman said, adding that she doesn't have enough information to speculate if these subpoenas crossed "what the president has described as his personal red line."
Chris Cuomo said he's heard Trump's advisers are spinning this as good news, and Haberman said yes, but "they are basically advising him on best-case scenario," and candidly, advisers say they have no idea where Mueller is headed. "There's only one way for the president to know," Cuomo said: "If he sits down with the special counsel, he will have all his questions answered about what is in this about him. But that is a big roll of the dice." Peter Weber