Russian ambassador told Moscow that Jared Kushner wanted secret communications channel with Kremlin

Ellen Nakashima, Adam Entous, and Greg Miller, reporting for the Washington Post:

Jared Kushner and Russia’s ambassador to Washington discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring, according to U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports.

Ambassador Sergei Kislyak reported to his superiors in Moscow that Kushner, then President-elect Trump’s son-in-law and confidant, made the proposal during a meeting on Dec. 1 or 2 at Trump Tower, according to intercepts of Russian communications that were reviewed by U.S. officials. Kislyak said Kushner suggested using Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States for the communications.

The meeting also was attended by Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser.

The White House disclosed the fact of the meeting only in March, playing down its significance. But people familiar with the matter say the FBI now considers the encounter, as well as another meeting Kushner had with a Russian banker, to be of investigative interest.

Kislyak reportedly was taken aback by the suggestion of allowing an American to use Russian communications gear at its embassy or consulate — a proposal that would have carried security risks for Moscow as well as the Trump team.

Neither the meeting nor the communications of Americans involved were under U.S. surveillance, officials said.

The White House declined to comment. Robert Kelner, a lawyer for Flynn, declined to comment. The Russian embassy did not respond to requests for comment.

Russia at times feeds false information into communication streams it suspects are monitored as a way of sowing misinformation and confusion among U.S. analysts. But officials said that it’s unclear what Kislyak would have had to gain by falsely characterizing his contacts with Kushner to Moscow, particularly at a time when the Kremlin still saw the prospect of dramatically improved relations with Trump.

Kushner’s apparent interest in establishing a secret channel with Moscow, rather than rely on U.S. government systems, has added to the intrigue surrounding the Trump administration’s relationship with Russia.

To some officials, it also reflects a staggering naivete.

The FBI closely monitors the communications of Russian officials in the United States, and maintains near-constant surveillance of its diplomatic facilities. The National Security Agency monitors the communications of Russian officials overseas.

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said that though Russian diplomats have secure means of communicating with Moscow, Kushner’s apparent request for access to such channels was extraordinary.

“How would he trust that the Russians wouldn’t leak it on their side?” said one former senior intelligence official. The FBI would know that a Trump transition official was going in and out of the embassy, which would cause “a great deal” of concern, he added. The entire idea, he said, “seems extremely naïve or absolutely crazy.”

The discussion of a secret channel adds to a broader pattern of efforts by Trump’s closest advisors to obscure their contacts with Russian counterparts. Trump’s first national security adviser, Flynn, was forced to resign after a series of false statements about his conversations with Kislyak. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from matters related to the Russia investigation after it was revealed that he had failed to disclose his own meetings with Kislyak when asked during congressional testimony about any contact with Russians.

Kushner’s interactions with Russians — including Kislyak and an executive for a Russian bank under U.S. sanctions — were not acknowledged by the White House until they were exposed in media reports.

It is common for senior advisers of a newly elected president to be in contact with foreign leaders and officials. But new administrations are generally cautious in their handling of interactions with Moscow, which U.S. intelligence agencies have accused of waging an unprecedented campaign to interfere in last year’s presidential race and help elect Trump.

Obama administration officials say members of the Trump transition team never approached them about arranging a secure communications channel with their Russian contacts, possibly because of concerns about leaks.

The State Department, the White House National Security Council and U.S. intelligence agencies all have the ability to set up secure communications channels with foreign leaders, though doing so for a transition team would be unusual.

Trump’s advisers were similarly secretive about meetings with leaders from the United Arab Emirates. The Obama White House only learned that the crown prince of Abu Dhabi was flying to New York in December to see Kushner, Flynn and Steven Bannon, another top Trump adviser, because U.S. border agents in the UAE spotted the Emirate leader’s name on a flight manifest

Russia would also have had reasons of its own to reject such an overture from Kushner. Doing so would require Moscow to expose its most sophisticated communications capabilities — which are likely housed in highly secure locations at diplomatic compounds — to an American.

The Post was first alerted in mid-December to the meeting by an anonymous letter, which said, among other things, that Kushner had talked to Kislyak about setting up the communications channel. This week, officials, who reviewed the letter and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence, said the portion about the secret channel was consistent with their understanding of events.

For instance, according to those officials and the letter, Kushner conveyed to the Russians that he was aware it would be politically sensitive to meet publicly, but it was necessary for the Trump team to be able to continue their communication with Russian government officials.

In addition to their discussion about setting up the communications channel, Kushner, Flynn and Kislyak also talked about arranging a meeting between a representative of Trump and a “Russian contact” in a third country whose name was not identified, according to the anonymous letter.

The Post reported in April that Erik Prince, the former founder of Blackwater private security firm and an informal adviser to the Trump transition team, met on Jan. 11 — nine days before Trump’s inauguration — in the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean with a representative of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

How Michael Flynn May Have Run Afoul of the Law

Charlie Savage, reporting for the New York Times:

President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, is facing a mounting tangle of potential legal troubles arising from his business dealings with foreign entities and his interactions with both executive branch and congressional investigators.

One set of problems stems from Russia. In 2015, Russian-linked companies paid Mr. Flynn more than $65,000, including about $45,000 from the state-backed Russian television network RT for a December trip to Moscow, where he delivered a speech and sat next to President Vladimir V. Putin at a dinner. Last December, an American wiretap of the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak, intercepted conversations he had with Mr. Flynn discussing the Obama administration’s imposition of sanctions on Russia for meddling in the election.

The other set stems from Turkey. Last year, Mr. Flynn’s lobbying firm, Flynn Intel Group, was paid more than $500,000 by Inovo BV, a Dutch corporation. Inovo is owned by Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish-American businessman with ties to the administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. The work centered on research to discredit Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who lives in Pennsylvania, and whose extradition Mr. Erdogan has been seeking.

Robert Kelner, a lawyer for Mr. Flynn, declined to comment. But in a letter to the Senate this week, Mr. Kelner and other lawyers portrayed Mr. Flynn as being treated unfairly, saying he was “the target on nearly a daily basis of outrageous allegations.”

Here is a breakdown of some of the possible legal problems for Mr. Flynn.

Making false statements

Investigators are scrutinizing whether several of Mr. Flynn’s statements violated a statute that makes it a felony, punishable by five years in prison, to make a false statement to the government. To convict, prosecutors must prove that the violation was knowing and willful, not merely inadvertent.

In January 2016, Mr. Flynn, a former three-star general who retired in 2014 after being forced out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, applied to have his security clearance extended. As part of the process, he filled out and signed a so-called SF-86 form. It directed him to disclose his foreign travel, compensation and contacts. It also referred to the false-statement statute as part of a certification that the information was truthful and complete.

After viewing the form, Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said Mr. Flynn had concealed his Russia trip and the compensation when he filled it out.

In February 2016, investigators reviewing Mr. Flynn’s application to renew his security clearance interviewed him. According to a letter this month from Mr. Cummings, documents suggest that Mr. Flynn falsely stated in that interview that American companies had funded his Moscow visit and that he had had only “insubstantial contact” with foreigners, despite the dinner with Mr. Putin.

Mr. Flynn’s legal team has said he briefed the Defense Intelligence Agency about the trip. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, also failed to mention encounters with Russian officials on their SF-86 forms.

Separately, four days into the Trump administration, F.B.I. agents interviewed Mr. Flynn about his conversations with Mr. Kislyak in December. Several news outlets have reported that he initially told the F.B.I. that he had not discussed sanctions on Russia but then backtracked and said he could not remember.

Taking foreign payments without permission

The Constitution’s so-called emoluments clause prohibits people who hold government positions from receiving payments from foreign governments without prior consent from Congress. This rule extends to retired military personnel, and Congress enacted a statute to carry it out. It says retired military personnel may accept such compensation only if they get permission from their service secretary and the secretary of state.

Mr. Flynn apparently did not obtain permission before taking compensation from RT or Inovo. That failure is complicated by the fact that they are companies, not governments, but the American government has portrayed RT as an arm of the Kremlin. Mr. Alptekin has told reporters he hired Mr. Flynn with his own funds and did not coordinate with the Turkish government. But congressional investigators have expressed skepticism after receiving classified briefings.

“As a former military officer, you simply cannot take money from Russia, Turkey or anybody else,” Representative Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who is chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said in April. “And it appears as if he did take that money. It was inappropriate, and there are repercussions for the violation of law.”

Such a violation would not constitute a criminal offense; a Pentagon ethics document says the penalty is forfeiting the funds through withheld retirement pay, not prison time. The acting inspector general of the Defense Department, Glenn A. Fine, told Congress that his office had begun investigating whether Mr. Flynn violated emoluments rules.

Failure to register as a foreign agent

The Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, requires that people representing foreign governments or political parties register with the Justice Department within 10 days. Under departmental regulations, this rule extends to lobbyists hired by foreign companies if the “principal beneficiary” of their work is a foreign government.

In September, after signing the contract with Inovo, the Flynn Intel Group registered as an ordinary lobbyist for that firm but did not make a FARA filing, which requires greater disclosure. However, in March, after his ouster from the Trump administration, Mr. Flynn’s lawyers filed a belated FARA registration about the arrangement “to eliminate any potential doubt.”

“Because of the subject matter of Flynn Intel Group’s work for Inovo BV, which focused on Mr. Fethullah Gulen, whose extradition is sought by the government of Turkey, the engagement could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey,” the lawyers wrote.

Violating FARA is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, although legal specialists say the Justice Department rarely prosecutes that charge.

Failure to comply with subpoenas

Several congressional committees have been seeking information about Mr. Flynn’s activities, and there are signs more subpoenas are coming. The Senate Intelligence Committee voted unanimously Thursday to give its top Republican and Democrat broad authority to issue subpoenas.

The most advanced subpoena is one the Intelligence Committee issued to Mr. Flynn on May 10 seeking all records of his meetings and communications with Russian officials, and of his communications with Mr. Trump’s campaign about Russia in the 18 months before Mr. Trump’s inauguration.

On Monday, Mr. Flynn’s lawyers told the committee that he was invoking his right against self-incrimination to avoid complying with the subpoena. Although invoking the Fifth Amendment is usually associated with live testimony, his lawyers argued that it fell under a precedent for document production requests that are so broad that the act of acknowledging whether any such files exist could amount to self-incriminating testimony.

The committee can vote to hold anyone refusing to comply with a subpoena in contempt of Congress. If the full House or Senate chamber votes likewise, the dispute moves into court.

The Justice Department would have to decide whether to prosecute the subpoena recipient for criminal contempt of Congress, which carries a penalty of one to 12 months in prison. Lawmakers could also file a lawsuit asking a federal judge to order compliance with their subpoena.

Trump Budget Plan Offers No Clarity, and So Far No ‘Magic Unicorn’

Alan Rappeport, reporting for the New York Times:

The unveiling of President Trump’s first budget and the initial congressional hearings on overhauling the tax code should have brought clarity to the administration’s top legislative priorities.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, testimony from Mr. Trump’s top economic advisers cast even darker shadows over a murky legislative process that has fallen well behind schedule. Their explanations of the budget and their tax plans in public seemed to generate more questions with almost every answer.

Here’s where things stand.

Mixed messages on math

The most confounding aspect of the White House budget was that it appeared to double count the effects of economic growth.

It appears to improperly use the economic expansion that it predicts its policies will produce to both pay for tax cuts and reduce the deficit.

Senator Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, told Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Thursday that the administration was using accounting that would “make Bernie Madoff blush.”

After being called out for using fuzzy math, Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, explained at a congressional hearing on Thursday that the administration used a tax plan placeholder in its budget that was revenue neutral on a “static” basis.

The meaning? That it was not counting on economic growth to pay for its hypothetical plan.

This implied that the White House planned to compensate for any revenue lost through tax cuts by curbing deductions or finding ways to raise revenue. But that contradicts what the administration has been saying for months.

Mr. Mnuchin has repeatedly called himself a big believer in “dynamic scoring” that predicts tax revenue will increase with strong economic growth.

He reiterated at a separate hearing on Thursday that the tax cuts would in fact be paid for by economic growth and unspecified measures to broaden the tax base.

A panacea remains elusive

If economic growth is not going to be the primary way to “pay for” tax cuts, the White House and Republicans in Congress are going to have to come up with the money from other places.

The problem is that the White House has been down on some of the biggest potential revenue raisers that Speaker Paul D. Ryan has proposed.

Mr. Mnuchin doused more cold water on the border-adjustment tax this week, revealing his serious concerns about the impact of taxing imports and exempting exports from taxation.

That tax would have raised about $1 trillion over a decade. The White House also wants to maintain interest deductibility for businesses — a provision that could raise another $1 trillion if eliminated.

While Mr. Ryan and Representative Kevin Brady remain fierce proponents of the concept, it became clear this week that even Republicans on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee are deeply skeptical.

Mr. Brady and Mr. Ryan are now discussing modifications and phase-ins for the idea, but the White House appears to have no interest at all.

For his part, Mr. Brady appears to be ready to compromise but not prepared to scrap the border tax. At a conference this week, he said that if anyone had a more pro-growth tax proposal they should “bring it.”

If Republicans do not find a way to pay for their tax cuts, they most likely will be temporary and it would break Mr. Trump’s promise to balance the budget.

“The White House is still looking for a magic unicorn,” said Itai Grinberg, a tax policy professor at Georgetown University’s law school.

More here.

In NATO Speech, Trump Is Vague About Mutual Defense Pledge

Michael D. Shear, Mark Sandler and James Kantor, reporting in the New York Times:

President Trump on Thursday punctured any illusions that he was on a fence-mending tour of Europe, declining to explicitly endorse NATO’s mutual defense pledge and lashing out at fellow members for what he called their “chronic underpayments” to the alliance.

On a tense day when Mr. Trump brought the “America first” themes of his presidential campaign to the very heart of Europe, he left European leaders visibly unsettled, with some openly lamenting divisions with the United States on trade, climate and the best way to confront Russia.

The discord was palpable even in body language. When Mr. Trump greeted Emmanuel Macron, France’s new president, they grabbed each other’s hands, jaws clenched, in an extended grip that turned Mr. Trump’s knuckles white. When the leaders lined up to pose for the traditional photograph at NATO headquarters, Mr. Trump appeared to push aside the Montenegrin prime minister, Dusko Markovic, to get to his assigned place in the front.

The split was starkest at NATO headquarters, where Mr. Trump used the dedication of a soaring new building to lecture allies on their financial contributions. Far from robustly reaffirming NATO’s mutual defense commitment in the way that many members hoped he would, Mr. Trump repeated his complaint that the United States was shouldering an unfair burden.

“Twenty-three of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they’re supposed to be paying for their defense,” Mr. Trump declared, as the leaders shifted uncomfortably behind him, shooting one another sidelong glances.

“This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States,” he added. “And many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and not paying in those past years.”

Standing before a large piece of twisted wreckage from the World Trade Center that will serve as a memorial at the headquarters, Mr. Trump promised to “never forsake the friends that stood by our side” in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks — a pledge that White House officials later said was an affirmation of mutual defense.

But to European leaders, Mr. Trump’s words fell far short of an explicit affirmation of NATO’s Article 5 clause, the “one-for-all, all-for-one” principle that has been the foundation of the alliance since its establishment 68 years ago, after World War II.

“I think he was stingy with the U.S. commitment and very generous with his criticisms,” said Fabrice Pothier, a former head of policy planning at NATO and a senior associate at Rasmussen Global, a political consulting firm.

White House officials said Mr. Trump’s message on financial contributions had galvanized NATO to confront the issue. At a closed meeting after his speech, they said, the leaders unanimously approved a resolution on burden-sharing and on fighting terrorism.

“To see unanimous support for the two main priorities of the president is a great way to start it off,” said Sean Spicer, the press secretary. “When you have an entire meeting that is focused on the president’s agenda, that shows the power of his message.”

Publicly, though, the other leaders appeared less gratified than bewildered. During a photo-taking session, none of them spoke to Mr. Trump, except for the secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg. Afterward, several surrounded Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who has emerged as the strongest counterweight to the president.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Trump, a blunt critic of the European Union during his campaign, received a chilly reception from his European counterparts as they began meetings in Brussels.

His first meeting with the Continent’s leaders began with officials from the United States and Europe saying nothing to each other. After being welcomed to Brussels, Mr. Trump said, “Thank you very much,” but he was otherwise silent as he gazed at the cameras across the room.

Donald Tusk, who represents leaders of the bloc’s 28 member states as president of the European Council, made it clear after the morning meeting that there had been several areas of disagreement.

“Some issues remained open, like climate and trade,” Mr. Tusk said after the meeting at the European Union’s lavish new headquarters. “And I am not 100 percent sure that we can say today — ‘we’ means Mr. President and myself — that we have a common position, common opinion, about Russia.”

* * *

Climate change is another bone of contention, however. European leaders are turning up the pressure on Mr. Trump not to withdraw from the Paris climate accord that was ratified last year.

The campaign began on Wednesday at the Vatican, where Pope Francis gave Mr. Trump a copy of his influential encyclical on protecting the environment, and the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, urged the president not to withdraw from the accord.

Mr. Trump told Vatican officials that he had not made a final decision and that he was not likely to do so until after a Group of 7 meeting this weekend in Taormina, Sicily, according to Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson. The president’s senior advisers have been deadlocked for months over whether the United States should withdraw.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada was among those who said he planned to press Mr. Trump on climate change.

“One of the things that we understand in Canada is that investing in clean energy and investing in fighting against climate change is going to help us,” Mr. Trudeau said, citing efforts by governments and businesses to find ways to avoid polluting the planet.

Mr. Trump’s handling of Article 5 epitomizes the gulf between him and other leaders. His steadfast refusal to endorse it as a candidate, and later as president, has raised fears among NATO allies about whether the United States would come to their defense in the event of an attack.

Other American officials have offered reassurances. Mr. Tillerson told reporters traveling on Air Force One this week, “Of course we support Article 5.” But until Mr. Trump speaks those words, leaders of other NATO nations seem bound to remain concerned.

Instead, Mr. Trump criticized the other leaders for not contributing 2 percent of their countries’ gross domestic product to their defense, as they have agreed to do but have often fallen short of. He even took a shot at the new headquarters, a vast glass-and-steel edifice that looks like a series of interconnected airplane hangars.

“I never asked once what the new NATO headquarters cost,” Mr. Trump said. “I refuse to do so. But it looks beautiful.”

In 2014, NATO members agreed to increase their defense spending gradually to meet the 2 percent of G.D.P. goal, with 20 percent of that spending on military equipment. Those commitments have not changed, and after remaining flat in 2015, spending increased last year among non-American alliance members.

More here.

Former Trump campaign chairman submits Russia-related documents to intelligence panels

Tom Hamburger, writing in the Washington Post:

President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, turned over 305 pages of documents related to the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election to the House and Senate intelligence committees this week, according to people familiar with the ongoing inquiries.

Manafort’s submission came in response to letters the congressional panels sent in recent weeks to a handful of Trump campaign associates with potential ties to Moscow, a sign that lawmakers were starting to dig deeper for details as newly appointed special counsel Robert S. Mueller III assumes leadership of a separate Justice Department inquiry.

Congressional staff have not fully reviewed the new Manafort documents, but people familiar with them said they include calendar entries, speech drafts and campaign strategy memos that mention Russia or individuals from Russia. They also cite some specific meetings, including two large group sessions that involved Russia’s ambassador to the United States — one at the Republican National Convention and the other at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington when Trump gave his first major foreign policy address.

A spokesman for Manafort, Jason Maloni, declined to provide any details on what Manafort provided to lawmakers but said the submission illustrated Manafort’s willingness to work with Congress on the matter.

“This is just another sign that he is following through on his commitment to cooperate with investigators,” Maloni said.

Officials from the two committees declined to comment.

As Trump’s campaign chairman during several key months in 2016, Manafort was tasked with managing the chaotic effort as the New York businessman shifted from being a Republican outsider to taking control of the party apparatus as its presidential nominee. He left the campaign in August after a tumultuous period during which documents surfaced suggesting he had received off-the-books payments from a Ukrainian political party. Manafort denied receiving improper payments.

Manafort once did business with a well-known Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska. Most of Manafort’s financial dealings were with Ukrainian officials and business leaders.

As a result, there were few personal business details included in the response, one person familiar with the documents said.

The Senate letter to Manafort requested information about contacts with Russian government and business figures, according to people familiar with the request.

Manafort’s response became public one day after former CIA director John Brennan told the House Intelligence Committee about the extent of Russian interference.

“It should be clear to everyone that Russia brazenly interfered in our 2016 presidential election process,” Brennan said at the hearing. Trump has refused to fully accept the unanimous conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia stole thousands of sensitive emails, orchestrated online dumps of damaging information and employed “fake news” and other means to upend the 2016 race.

Similar letters were sent to Michael Flynn, who resigned as White House national security adviser, and Carter Page, who served briefly in the Trump campaign as a foreign policy adviser.

Flynn’s lawyers have said he will not provide the Senate with documents requested by subpoena saying Flynn plans to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Federal inquiries have focused for some time on Page, who was the subject of a secret warrant last year issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, based on suspicion he may have been acting as an agent of the Russian government. Page has denied all wrongdoing and has said he plans to cooperate with the inquiries.

Trump vs. Math

David Leonhardt, writing in the New York Times:

President Trump’s first budget has two themes: redistribution and innumeracy.

Let’s start with the redistribution. The budget calls for shifting many billions of dollars a year from the middle class and the poor to the very richest Americans. The very rich would receive this money through tax cuts. The rest of the country would lose out thanks to cuts in government programs that touch almost every citizen, including Social Security, Medicaid and food stamps.

“On top of all of this,” Jamelle Bouie of Slate writes, “Trump’s budget makes substantial cuts to job-training programs, rental assistance, heating assistance for the elderly, education, and projects at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as funding for rural health and substance-abuse programs.”

As for the innumeracy: The budget commits a jaw-dropping error of economic logic. Proponents of tax cuts have long argued that, while they may cause a short-term deficit, they pay for themselves in the long run by pushing economic growth (an argument not borne out by history).

The Trump budget goes even further. It imagines that the tax cuts won’t even have any short-term costs. When affluent families start paying less in taxes, the shortfall will magically, and immediately, be made up.

“This is a mistake no serious business person would make,” Lawrence Summers, the former treasury secretary, explains in The Financial Times. “It appears to be the most egregious accounting error in a presidential budget in the nearly 40 years I have been tracking them.”

In an Op-Ed in The Times, Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget calls the assumption “at odds with everything the administration has proposed and said on the issue.” In The Upshot, Susan Chira and Quoctrung Bui look at the effects of Trump’s budget on women.

But a president’s budget still matters. It’s a sign of how an administration plans to govern. It is a statement of his administration’s values and, apparently, attitude toward reality.

Top Russian Officials Discussed How to Influence Trump Aides Last Summer

Matthew Rosenberg, Adam Goldman, and Matt Apuzzo, reporting in the New York Times.

American spies collected information last summer revealing that senior Russian intelligence and political officials were discussing how to exert influence over Donald J. Trump through his advisers, according to three current and former American officials familiar with the intelligence.

The conversations focused on Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman at the time, and Michael T. Flynn, a retired general who was advising Mr. Trump, the officials said. Both men had indirect ties to Russian officials, who appeared confident that each could be used to help shape Mr. Trump’s opinions on Russia.

Some Russians boasted about how well they knew Mr. Flynn. Others discussed leveraging their ties to Viktor F. Yanukovych, the deposed president of Ukraine living in exile in Russia, who at one time had worked closely with Mr. Manafort.

The intelligence was among the clues — which also included information about direct communications between Mr. Trump’s advisers and Russian officials — that American officials received last year as they began investigating Russian attempts to disrupt the election and whether any of Mr. Trump’s associates were assisting Moscow in the effort. Details of the conversations, some of which have not been previously reported, add to an increasing understanding of the alarm inside the American government last year about the Russian disruption campaign.

The information collected last summer was considered credible enough for intelligence agencies to pass to the F.B.I., which during that period opened a counterintelligence investigation that is continuing. It is unclear, however, whether Russian officials actually tried to directly influence Mr. Manafort and Mr. Flynn. Both have denied any collusion with the Russian government on the campaign to disrupt the election.

John O. Brennan, the former director of the C.I.A., testified Tuesday about a tense period last year when he came to believe that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was trying to steer the outcome of the election. He said he saw intelligence suggesting that Russia wanted to use Trump campaign officials, wittingly or not, to help in that effort. He spoke vaguely about contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials, without giving names, saying they “raised questions in my mind about whether Russia was able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.”

Whether the Russians worked directly with any Trump advisers is one of the central questions that federal investigators, now led by Robert S. Mueller III, the newly appointed special counsel, are seeking to answer. President Trump, for his part, has dismissed talk of Russian interference in the election as “fake news,” insisting there was no contact between his campaign and Russian officials.

“If there ever was any effort by Russians to influence me, I was unaware, and they would have failed,” Mr. Manafort said in a statement. “I did not collude with the Russians to influence the elections.”

The White House, F.B.I. and C.I.A. declined to comment. Mr. Flynn’s lawyer did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The current and former officials agreed to discuss the intelligence only on the condition of anonymity because much of it remains highly classified, and they could be prosecuted for disclosing it.

Last week, CNN reported about intercepted phone calls during which Russian officials were bragging about ties to Mr. Flynn and discussing ways to wield influence over him.

In his congressional testimony, Mr. Brennan discussed the broad outlines of the intelligence, and his disclosures backed up the accounts of the information provided by the current and former officials.

“I was convinced in the summer that the Russians were trying to interfere in the election. And they were very aggressive,” Mr. Brennan said. Still, he said, even at the end of the Obama administration he had “unresolved questions in my mind as to whether or not the Russians had been successful in getting U.S. persons, involved in the campaign or not, to work on their behalf again either in a witting or unwitting fashion.”

Mr. Brennan’s testimony offered the fullest public account to date of how American intelligence agencies first came to fear that Mr. Trump’s campaign might be aiding Russia’s attack on the election.

By early summer, American intelligence officials already were fairly certain that it was Russian hackers who had stolen tens of thousands of emails from the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. That in itself was not viewed as particularly extraordinary by the Americans — foreign spies had hacked previous campaigns, and the United States does the same in elections around the world, officials said. The view on the inside was that collecting information, even through hacking, is what spies do.

But the concerns began to grow when intelligence began trickling in about Russian officials weighing whether they should release stolen emails and other information to shape American opinion — to, in essence, weaponize the materials stolen by hackers.

An unclassified report by American intelligence agencies released in January stated that Mr. Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.”

Before taking the helm of the Trump campaign last May, Mr. Manafort worked for more than a decade for Russian-leaning political organizations and people in Ukraine, including Mr. Yanukovych, the former president. Mr. Yanukovych was a close ally of Mr. Putin.

Mr. Manafort’s links to Ukraine led to his departure from the Trump campaign in August, after his name surfaced in secret ledgers showing millions in undisclosed payments from Mr. Yanukovych’s political party.

Russia views Ukraine as a buffer against the eastward expansion of NATO, and has supported separatists in their yearslong fight against the struggling democratic government in Kiev.

Mr. Flynn’s ties to Russian officials stretch back to his time at the Defense Intelligence Agency, which he led from 2012 to 2014. There, he began pressing for the United States to cultivate Russia as an ally in the fight against Islamist militants, and even spent a day in Moscow at the headquarters of the G.R.U., the Russian military intelligence service, in 2013.

He continued to insist that Russia could be an ally even after Moscow’s seizure of Crimea the following year, and Obama administration officials have said that contributed to their decision to push him out of the D.I.A.

But in private life, Mr. Flynn cultivated even closer ties to Russia. In 2015, he earned more than $65,000 from companies linked to Russia, including a cargo airline implicated in a bribery scheme involving Russian officials at the United Nations, and an American branch of a cybersecurity firm believed to have ties to Russia’s intelligence services.

The biggest payment, though, came from RT, the Kremlin-financed news network. It paid Mr. Flynn $45,000 to give a speech in Moscow, where he also attended the network’s lavish anniversary dinner. There, he was photographed sitting next to Mr. Putin.

A senior lawmaker said on Monday that Mr. Flynn misled Pentagon investigators about how he was paid for the Moscow trip. He also failed to disclose the source of that income on a security form he was required to complete before joining the White House, according to congressional investigators.

American officials have also said there were multiple telephone calls between Mr. Flynn and Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, on Dec. 29, beginning shortly after Mr. Kislyak was summoned to the State Department and informed that, in retaliation for Russian election meddling, the United States was expelling 35 people suspected of being Russian intelligence operatives and imposing other sanctions.

American intelligence agencies routinely tap the phones of Russian diplomats, and transcripts of the calls showed that Mr. Flynn urged the Russians not to respond, saying relations would improve once Mr. Trump was in office, officials have said.

But after misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of the calls, Mr. Flynn was fired as national security adviser after a tumultuous 25 days in office.

Trump close to choosing outside counsel for Russia investigation

Robert Costa and Ashley Parker, reporting for the Washington Post:

President Trump is moving rapidly toward assembling outside counsel to help him navigate the investigations into his campaign and Russian interference in last year’s election, and in recent days he and his advisers have privately courted several prominent attorneys to join the effort.

By Monday, a list of finalists for the legal team had emerged, according to four people briefed on the discussions.

That search process, in which Trump has been personally involved, is expected to yield a formal legal unit in the coming days, made up of lawyers from several firms who would work together to guide Trump as he responds both to the ongoing federal probe and the congressional investigations, the people said.

Although the list of finalists remains somewhat fluid and names could be added, two people close to the search said the president has concluded that he would like a team of attorneys, rather than a single lawyer, to represent him. The team is likely to have lead counselors, those people said.

The four people briefed on the discussions spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the matter publicly.

The attorneys who have spoken to the White House and who are seen as the finalists are Marc E. Kasowitz; Robert J. Giuffra Jr.; Reid H. Weingarten; and Theodore B. Olson, the people said.

Two other attorneys who were originally viewed as contenders but have since drifted away from the mix, at least momentarily, because of legal or professional obstacles are Brendan V. Sullivan Jr. of Williams & Connolly and A.B. Culvahouse Jr., a partner at O’Melveny & Myers who is known for vetting political candidates.

Kasowitz, who has known Trump for decades, is expected to take a leading role. A partner at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman in New York, Kasowitz has represented Trump in numerous cases, including on his divorce records, real estate transactions and allegations of fraud at Trump University.

A potential complication for Kasowitz is that former senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Trump’s leading candidate to head the FBI, is currently a senior counsel at his firm. Were Lieberman officially chosen to run the FBI, and Kasowitz chosen to help with Trump’s legal advice, both men — the one leading the organization investigating possible Russian collusion and the one offering Trump legal counsel on that very issue — would hail from the same firm, a likely conflict of interest.

Giuffra, Olson and Weingarten have already spoken with senior administration officials about the team, said a person familiar with the process.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment about how Trump would pay for his outside legal team, the cost of which cannot be covered by the federal government. But campaign finance lawyers said Trump could probably draw funds from his reelection committee to cover legal expenses related to the Russia inquiries, including money donated this year.

“When it comes to legal expenses, the test is whether the expenses would have been incurred irrespective of the campaign,” said Daniel Petalas, a Washington campaign-finance lawyer who served as the Federal Election Commission’s acting general counsel and head of enforcement. “So if the allegation is Trump — either as candidate or officeholder — is facing legal costs as a result of those statuses, then he is entitled to use his campaign funds to defray the legal expenses.”

In a break from precedent, Trump’s campaign committee has continued to aggressively solicit donations since his election. In recent days, the email and text appeals have invoked the controversies swirling around the White House.

“What you’re seeing in the news is a WITCH HUNT,” said a fundraising solicitation seeking $1 donations sent Friday. “But the real victim isn’t me. It’s YOU and the millions of other brave Americans who refused to bow down to Washington by voting for REAL CHANGE last November.”

The president, a former New York real estate developer and reality television star, also has the personal wealth to cover his legal costs.

Some outside experts noted that the president’s decision to consider a team of legal advisers, rather than a single outside counselor, could exacerbate his existing problem of competing power factions within an already chaotic White House.

Much more here.

Trump asked intelligence chiefs to push back against FBI collusion probe after Comey revealed its existence

Adam Entous and Ellen Nakashima, reporting in the Washington Post:

President Trump asked two of the nation’s top intelligence officials in March to help him push back against an FBI investigation into possible coordination between his campaign and the Russian government, according to current and former officials.

Trump made separate appeals to the director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, and to Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, urging them to publicly deny the existence of any evidence of collusion during the 2016 election.

Coats and Rogers refused to comply with the requests, which they both deemed to be inappropriate, according to two current and two former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private communications with the president.

Trump sought the assistance of Coats and Rogers after FBI Director James B. Comey told the House Intelligence Committee on March 20 that the FBI was investigating “the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”

Trump’s conversation with Rogers was documented contemporaneously in an internal memo written by a senior NSA official, according to the officials. It is unclear if a similar memo was prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to document Trump’s conversation with Coats. Officials said such memos could be made available to both the special counsel now overseeing the Russia investigation and congressional investigators, who might explore whether Trump sought to impede the FBI’s work.

White House officials say Comey’s testimony about the scope of the FBI investigation upset Trump, who has dismissed the FBI and congressional investigations as a “witch hunt.” The president has repeatedly said there was no collusion.

Current and former senior intelligence officials viewed Trump’s requests as an attempt by the president to tarnish the credibility of the agency leading the Russia investigation.

A senior intelligence official said Trump’s goal was to “muddy the waters” about the scope of the FBI probe at a time when Democrats were ramping up their calls for the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel, a step announced last week.

Senior intelligence officials also saw the March requests as a threat to the independence of U.S. spy agencies, which are supposed to remain insulated from partisan issues.

“The problem wasn’t so much asking them to issue statements, it was asking them to issue false statements about an ongoing investigation,” a former senior intelligence official said of the request to Coats.

The NSA and Brian Hale, a spokesman for Coats, declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

“The White House does not confirm or deny unsubstantiated claims based on illegal leaks from anonymous individuals,” a White House spokesman said. “The president will continue to focus on his agenda that he was elected to pursue by the American people.”

In addition to the requests to Coats and Rogers, senior White House officials sounded out top intelligence officials about the possibility of intervening directly with Comey to encourage the FBI to drop its probe of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, according to people familiar with the matter. The officials said the White House appeared uncertain about its power to influence the FBI.

“Can we ask him to shut down the investigation? Are you able to assist in this matter?” one official said of the line of questioning from the White House.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said the report is “yet another disturbing allegation that the President was interfering in the FBI probe.” Schiff said in a statement that Congress “will need to bring the relevant officials back to testify on these matters, and obtain any memoranda that reflect such conversations.”

The new revelations add to a growing body of evidence that Trump sought to co-opt and then undermine Comey before he fired him May 9. According to notes kept by Comey, Trump first asked for his loyalty at a dinner in January and then, at a meeting the next month, asked him to drop the probe into Flynn. Trump disputes those accounts.

Current and former officials said that Trump either lacks an understanding of the FBI’s role as an independent law enforcement agency or does not care about maintaining such boundaries.

Trump’s effort to use the director of national intelligence and the NSA director to dispute Comey’s statement and to say there was no evidence of collusion echoes President Richard Nixon’s “unsuccessful efforts to use the CIA to shut down the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in on national security grounds,” said Jeffrey H. Smith, a former general counsel at the CIA. Smith called Trump’s actions “an appalling abuse of power.”

Trump made his appeal to Coats days after Comey’s testimony, according to officials.

That same week, Trump telephoned Rogers to make a similar appeal.

In his call with Rogers, Trump urged the NSA director to speak out publicly if there was no evidence of collusion, according to officials briefed on the exchange.

Rogers was taken aback but tried to respectfully explain why he could not do so, the officials said. For one thing, he could not comment on an ongoing investigation. Rogers added that he would not talk about classified matters in public.

While relations between Trump and Comey were strained by the Russia probe, ties between the president and the other intelligence chiefs, including Rogers, Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, appear to be less contentious, according to officials.

Rogers met with Trump in New York shortly after the election, and Trump’s advisers at the time held him out as the leading candidate to be the next director of national intelligence.

The Washington Post subsequently reported that President Barack Obama’s defense secretary and director of national intelligence had recommended that Rogers be removed as head of the NSA.

Ultimately, Trump decided to nominate Coats, rather than Rogers. Coats was sworn in just days before the president made his request.

In February, the Trump White House also sought to enlist senior members of the intelligence community and Congress to push back against suggestions that Trump associates were in frequent contact with Russian officials. But in that case, the White House effort was designed to refute news accounts, not the testimony of a sitting FBI director who was leading an open investigation.

Trump and his allies in Congress have similarly sought to deflect scrutiny over Russia by attempting to pit U.S. intelligence agencies against one another.

In December, Trump’s congressional allies falsely claimed that the FBI did not concur with a CIA assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump win the White House. Comey and then-CIA Director John Brennan later said that the bureau and the agency were in full agreement on Moscow’s intentions.

As the director of national intelligence, Coats leads the vast U.S. intelligence community, which includes the FBI. But that does not mean he has full visibility into the FBI probe. Coats’s predecessor in the job, James R. Clapper Jr., recently acknowledged that Comey did not brief him on the scope of the Russia investigation. Similarly, it is unclear to what extent the FBI has brought Coats up to speed on the probe’s most sensitive findings.

Will the Presidency Survive This President?

Eric Posner and Emily Bazelon, writing in the New York Times:

As President Trump stumbled from crisis to crisis this past week, he reminded the country of a lesson it didn’t really need to learn: A president’s greatest asset is trust. Once he has lost it, he can’t govern. Mr. Trump’s serial recklessness may change not just the course of his presidency but also the office itself. Whatever happens to him, it’s not too soon to wonder what will happen to the presidency when he’s gone.

For decades, the power of the executive branch has been growing, a trend that Congress has encouraged, both actively and by default. And the courts, the other check on the executive, have often been willing to defer to the president’s prerogatives.

But President Trump’s words and actions are straining the relationship between the executive and the other branches of government in ways that may ultimately diminish the power of the office. By showing he’s unworthy of the trust that a president customarily enjoys, Mr. Trump has essentially been daring Congress, the courts and even the bureaucracy to act against him.

And those institutions are taking him on.

The firing of James Comey as F.B.I. director illustrates how the president’s rash words have invited the trouble he now finds himself in, paving the way to last week’s appointment of a special counsel by the Justice Department to investigate potential ties between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russian meddling in the election.

For a president, this is pretty much the definition of shooting oneself in the foot. Consider that, in explaining why he fired Mr. Comey, the head of the agency conducting the Russia inquiry, the president told Lester Holt of NBC, “And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.’ ” If that wasn’t startling enough, the president also reportedly told Mr. Comey in a private meeting, “I hope you can let this go,” referring to the agency’s investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

And then there was this report on Friday, which the White House did not deny, that in a meeting with Russian officials in the Oval Office this month, Mr. Trump told them: “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” He added. “I’m not under investigation.”

Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, these comments and other reports have raised concerns that the president was trying to obstruct F.B.I. investigations. It’s up to Robert Mueller, the newly appointed special counsel, to determine whether a crime was committed. But Congress, as a coequal branch, also has the responsibility to investigate allegations of wrongdoing. And in fact, Congress has seen this before. The articles of impeachment prepared against Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton accused both of obstructing justice.

Now the question is whether the Republicans who control the investigative committees in Congress will push as hard as necessary to find out whether Mr. Trump abused his power and violated his oath of office. In a crucial development, the House Oversight Committee and other Congressional panels have requested all materials related to Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Comey’s communications.

The Senate Intelligence Committee also made the welcome announcement on Friday that Mr. Comey will testify in public sometime after Memorial Day. Still, it remains to be seen whether the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and House Speaker Paul Ryan are committed to truth seeking, with its potential cost for the Republican Party.

If members of the Republican leadership think Mr. Mueller’s appointment lets Congress off the hook, they’re wrong. His authority is limited. He works for President Trump’s Justice Department. He has no responsibility to air his findings, short of an indictment. And his investigation may drag on for years before we learn anything. Given that, it is imperative for Congress to fulfill its mandate to explore all of the relevant goings-on and to report to the public what it finds.

As a structural matter, Congress is the institution best positioned to address the harms President Trump is causing, including trampling on norms separating politics from law enforcement and damaging America’s standing abroad, as well as the potential conflicts of interest posed by his wide-ranging financial holdings and the hiring of family members into key White House jobs.

The courts, for their part, have already served as an early-warning system for checking the president.

The clearest example is the legal battle over Mr. Trump’s revised order banning travel from six majority Muslim countries, which was the second one issued following his campaign promise of “a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

This month, at hearings on a case challenging the ban, judges from two courts of appeals wrestled over what weight, if any, to give Mr. Trump’s statements, which suggest that his underlying purpose was to, well, shut out Muslims rather than the stated purpose of protecting the country from terrorists.

Judges are normally unwilling to look beyond the text of an executive order to divine the motivations of the president, especially in the areas of national security and immigration, where his powers are at their zenith. But Judge Robert King of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., pointed out that Mr. Trump “has never repudiated what he said about the Muslim ban — it’s still on his website.” (The text has since been taken down.)

The president’s words also tripped up his effort to withhold federal funds from cities and states that limit their cooperation with federal immigration agents. Challenged in court, the administration argued that Mr. Trump’s order, directed at so-called sanctuary cities, applied only to relatively small amounts of money. But Judge William H. Orrick of the United States District Court in San Francisco didn’t feel bound by the official explanation.

“If there was doubt about the scope of the order, the president and attorney general have erased it with their public comments,” Judge Orrick wrote, pointing out that Mr. Trump called the order “a weapon” and Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatened to “claw back” funds that were already awarded.

The courts have refused to give Mr. Trump the customary deference they give a president because this president so obviously has not earned it. Employees of the executive branch have gotten into the act as well. While all presidents must contend with leaks, revelations have been pouring out of the intelligence community and even the White House.

With the courts and the intelligence community increasingly arrayed against him, and Congress now investigating his campaign and actions in office, Mr. Trump finds himself in a much diminished presidency. If he remains in office for an extended period in this weakened state, it’s possible that Congress and the courts will essentially put the presidency into a kind of constitutional receivership until his term ends.

More here.

The Trump presidency doesn’t seem sustainable

Ruth Marcus, reporting for the Washington Post:

So much for the notion that the second 100 days would be calmer or more reassuring.

As April drew to a close, and with it the artificial marker of the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, it was possible to conjure a relatively comforting scenario: It could have been worse.

After all, President Trump launched his administration with the dangerous duo of Michael Flynn as national security adviser and Stephen K. Bannon ascendant. The 100-day period ended with Flynn fired, Bannon diminished and the new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, joining forces with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to provide a protective buffer against presidential impulsiveness.

Meantime, notwithstanding atrocities such as the immigration orders and the House health-care plan, Trump backed away from some of his most jarring and irresponsible campaign-trail promises and rhetoric, from declaring NATO “obsolete” to labeling China a currency manipulator to moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

A 70-year-old man does not change his character or basic approach. Still, the immense responsibility of the presidency molds its inhabitant. Thus, it was possible to detect some glimmers of maturation and even learning. Health care turned out to be more complicated than anyone knew. Heartbreaking photos of dead Syrian children killed by chemical weapons managed to evoke previously unseen empathy.

Not that the first 100 days had been even in the exurbs of normal, with the inaugural invocation of “American carnage”; the flood of ego-boosting untruths, from the inflated crowd size to the purportedly fraudulent popular vote; and the reflexive assault on enemies, including a “so-called judge” and the Obama administration for its supposed wiretapping plot.

Still, in resolutely optimistic moments, you could imagine a White House whose learning curve would continue an upward climb, however gradual and episodic, in which the New York moderates — Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, et al. — would elbow aside the America Firsters.

No longer.

True, the institutions of U.S. government and society have proved relatively robust. The courts and the media have risen to the constitutional occasion; Congress not so much, and intramural GOP dysfunction has so far prevented the worst from being legislated.

But Trump himself is turning out to be the full-fledged disaster of our worst fears. He understands nothing and is uninterested in learning anything — not just the dreary substance of things such as tax reform but constitutional values, governing norms and the United States’ unique role in the world.

He sees things only through the distorting prism of an all-consuming ego. There is only one Trump instinct — “fight, fight, fight,” he said at the Coast Guard Academy — and one Trumpian dichotomy: friend or foe. He is impervious to embarrassment, no matter how blatant his falsehood. The stain of his behavior spreads to taint anyone within range.

The past few weeks have presented an alarming parade of proof. Authoritarianism? Trump summarily fired his FBI director over “this Russia thing” — after, according to reports, James B. Comey resisted Trump’s demand that he pledge loyalty and declined Trump’s importunings to drop the Flynn probe.

Trump met unapologetically with yet another dictatorial thug, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and remained shamefully silent as Erdogan’s security goons beat up protesters on U.S. soil. No surprise there, from the candidate who urged his crowds to “knock the crap out of” protesters and as president reportedly pressed Comey to jail reporters for obtaining leaks.

Overweening egotism laced with self-pity? Trump used the occasion of the Coast Guard graduation to lament his treatment — “No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly.”

Similarly, in the Trumpiverse, the Russia inquiry and the newly named special counsel represent “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.” In fact, Trump has only himself to blame — Comey’s firing made the appointment inevitable, and the episode demonstrates the justice system working to allay public fears of political interference.

Dangerous ignorance and lack of preparedness for his post? Without evident forethought, heedless of consideration of the consequences, classically boastful, Trump blurted out code-word information about the Islamic State to the Russians at his Oval Office yuk-fest — and, according to the New York Times, derided Comey as a “nut job” whose firing relieved “great pressure” on him.

The national security and diplomatic establishment shudders at the thought of this man at loose abroad.

It is impossible to know how this disastrous episode in our history will conclude, or how grave the damage will be. But an adage from conservative economist Herb Stein comes to mind: If something cannot go on forever, it will stop. This situation does not feel sustainable for a full four years.

Trump turmoil is spreading far beyond Washington to state and local races

John Wagner, reporting for the Washington Post:

As a cascade of controversies consumes the White House, anxiety is rising among Republicans well beyond the Beltway that President Trump’s troubles could take a severe toll on the party heading into next year’s midterm elections and beyond.

With a near-daily string of new scandals and unfavorable headlines — including this week’s news of a special counsel to examine possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia — a growing number of Republicans across the country are watching dispiritedly as Democrats become further energized to turn out their voters in 2018, potentially tipping not only congressional contests but state and local races down the ballot.

“There were a lot of things that were promised to be done, and we’re just getting a lot of noise out of Washington,” said Marc Rotterman, a longtime Republican consultant in North Carolina who was a Trump supporter ahead of last year’s election. “It seems it’s Russia 24-7. When you’re reacting and defending, you’re not moving on your agenda. You’re not fixing day-to-day problems for average Americans.”

Rotterman said that “there still could be a course correction” but that if Trump and Republicans don’t make good on their promises, they risk losing support — particularly from the blue-collar voters who helped propel Trump to victory last fall. “They’re counting on him,” Rotterman said.

Trump arrived in Washington in an uneasy alliance with establishment Republicans, many of whom were willing to overlook his eccentricities if they still were able to make good on shared legislative priorities, including repeal of the Affordable Care Act and tax cuts.

While Trump has issued a flurry of executive orders and delivered on one key conservative agenda item — the confirmation of a successor to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — there is mounting fear that other marquee campaign promises will not be realized, making it harder for Republicans to win elections.

Since Trump’s controversial firing of FBI Director James B. Comey last week, the White House has been in full crisis mode.

“We cannot sustain this level of chaos from the White House and expect it will be anything less than a tragic outcome on Election Day,” said Jennifer Horn, a former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

Horn, who was accused of anti-Trump bias during her tenure as chairwoman, said she has noticed “a significant increase in the level of anxiety about the president and his behavior” from party leaders around the country over the past two weeks.

Some Trump boosters offer a more measured take on what has transpired, suggesting the drama in Washington will not be foremost on the minds of voters.

“The next election will have a lot more to do with jobs numbers than Russia,” said Barry Bennett, a Trump political adviser during last year’s election campaign. If the economy “keeps perking along,” he said, Republicans could do just fine.

Midterm calculus

While many Republicans are frustrated by what is going on in Washington, polls have shown that Trump remains popular with most members of the party and continues to be viewed positively by his base.

Trump also could try to energize his voters next year by blaming Washington’s problems on the hostile establishment he says he is fighting.

However, it remains an open question how many of the blue-collar and other nontraditional GOP voters who backed Trump will turn out for other Republicans when he is not on the ballot. At the same time, Democratic voters tend not to turn out as strongly in nonpresidential years.

The Trump factor already is being tested in several special congressional elections this year to replace members plucked from the House to join Trump’s Cabinet. All have shaped up to be closer than expected, and Trump’s troubles are a particular factor in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District — an affluent, ­Republican-leaning jurisdiction in suburban Atlanta.

“It’s a close race that shouldn’t be close,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who is working for GOP candidate Karen Handel, said of the June 20 election.

Ayres said that Trump’s troubles are clearly a factor in Handel’s race against Democrat Jon Ossoff, as well as in other upcoming contests.

“It certainly doesn’t make it any easier for Republican candidates in highly educated districts,” Ayres said. “The atmosphere in Washington and attitudes toward the president create a far more energized Democratic base than you’d otherwise have.”

Much more here.

President Trump is practically begging to be accused of obstruction of justice

Aaron Blake, reporting for the Washington Post:

President Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey on May 9. And then he basically spent the next two days doing whatever he could to make it look like he had just committed obstruction of justice.

First came that infamous NBC News interview on May 11. After two days of the White House claiming the Justice Department had initiated Comey’s firing and that it was because of the Hillary Clinton investigation, Trump said to hell with it; he blurted out that he was determined to fire Comey all along and that the Russia investigation was on his mind when he decided to do it.

Now the New York Times is reporting that, in a meeting with top Russian officials on the day in-between — you know, the same meeting in which he gave highly classified information to those same Russians — Trump expressed relief at having taken Comey off his tail.

“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump said, according to a document summarizing the meeting that a U.S. official read to the Times. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Firing Comey in the first place was a highly suspect move. That’s because Comey, as FBI director, was leading the Russia investigation and had recently announced the probe was targeting alleged Russian ties to Trump’s campaign. So the White House set about saying this was Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein‘s decision and issued a memo from him focused solely on the Clinton investigation. Vice President Pence even said repeatedly that Russia was “not what this is about.”

Trump was apparently never on the same page — at all.

If we’re parsing Trump’s statements carefully, he still hasn’t technically said something akin to ‘I fired Comey because of the Russia investigation.’ He’s said just about everything but that, mind you, but he hasn’t quite said that.

In the NBC interview, he said that Russia was clearly on his mind when he considered Comey’s future:

“And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’ ”

And in the meeting with the Russians, he said, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

There’s no firm line from A to B in there. A well-paid lawyer would argue that Trump was saying in the NBC interview that he was thinking about Russia, but that it wasn’t necessarily the reason he acted. And maybe Trump did enjoy having Comey off the case, but perhaps that was merely a helpful byproduct of a more legitimate reason to fire him.

But Trump’s own statements aren’t the only news to raise questions about a possible obstruction of justice; he’s also pushed that cause forward by firing Comey in the first place. The firing has led to leaks indicating Trump asked Comey for a loyalty pledge and also that he requested that Comey drop the investigation into former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn.

The White House has denied these stories. But if they’re true, Trump fired Comey knowing that those conversations existed and that Comey may have documentation of them. That may one day look like a very bad call.

All of these point in the same direction: to Trump first trying to influence Comey’s investigations and then to getting Comey off his back by firing him. And all of these revelations flow from the same fateful decision to fire Comey in the first place. We may not have known about any of them if not for that.

It’s not completely clear that a president could be charged with obstruction of justice, but as our own Matt Zapotosky has reported, some legal analysts are starting to point in that direction.

And Trump is practically giving them a road map.

The Trump Administration Talent Vacuum

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times:

After an eruption, volcanoes sometimes collapse at the center. The magma chamber empties out and the volcano falls in on itself, leaving a caldera and a fractured ring of stone around the void, covered by deadening ash.

That’s about the shape of Washington after the last stunning fortnight. The White House at the center just collapsed in on itself and the nation’s policy apparatus is covered in ash.

I don’t say that because I think the Comey-Russia scandal will necessarily lead to impeachment. I have no idea where the investigations will go.

I say it because White Houses, like all organizations, run on talent, and the Trump White House has just become a Human Resources disaster area.

We have seen White Houses engulfed by scandal before. But we have never seen a White House implode before it had the time to staff up. The Nixon, Reagan and Clinton White Houses had hired quality teams by the time their scandals came. They could continue to function, sort of, even when engulfed.

The Trump administration, on the other hand, has hundreds of senior and midlevel positions to fill, and few people of quality or experience are going to want to take them.

Few people of any quality or experience are going to want to join a team that is already toxic. Nobody is going to want to become the next H. R. McMaster, a formerly respected figure who is now permanently tainted because he threw his lot in with Donald Trump. Nobody is going to want to join a self-cannibalizing piranha squad whose main activity is lawyering up.

That means even if the Trump presidency survives, it will be staffed by the sort of C- and D-List flora and fauna who will make more mistakes, commit more scandals and lead to more dysfunction.

Running a White House is insanely hard. It requires a few thousand extremely smart and savvy people who are willing to work crazy hours and strain their family lives because they fundamentally believe in the mission and because they truly admire the president.

More here.