Jared Kushner trying to secretly talk to the Russians is the biggest billow of smoke yet

Amber Phillips, reporting in the Washington Post:

The Washington Post’s national security team just reported that during the transition, Jared Kushner proposed to the Russians that they set up a secret channel of communication using secure Russian facilities. That’s what the Russian ambassador to the United States told Moscow about a December conversation he had with Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser.

This is a damning piece of news for the White House caught under an avalanche of revelations about its dealings with Russia.

If it’s true, it’s the most difficult for them to explain in the context of an FBI investigation into Russia meddling in the U.S. election and whether Trump’s campaign helped. Why would Trump’s transition team need to secretly talk to the Russians, using their Russian channels?

The White House declined to comment.

Everything we’ve learned these past few weeks as it relates to the FBI’s investigation into Russia is noteworthy, but it can be caveated with a reasonable explanation from the Trump White House. This news is much more difficult to caveat.

To wit:

1) Kushner is now a focus of the FBI’s investigation into Russia meddling. Of interest to FBI investigators is likely Kushner’s several meetings with the Russian ambassador.

Caveat: The FBI has accused Kushner of no wrongdoing, and he’s not their main focus.

2) Kushner didn’t share those meetings with the Russians on his security clearance form. A security clearance is required for anyone who is privvy to the nation’s deepest secrets.

Caveat: His lawyer said it was a mistake, and Kushner corrected it after the New York Times reported it.

3) CNN reported Friday that FBI investigators are also interested in how Russia helped use computer bots to target and push negative information on Hillary Clinton (and positive information about Trump) on Facebook. Trump campaign’s data analytics operation was supervised by Kushner.

Caveat: Kushner ran a media company, so it conceivably makes sense he’d take over social media for the campaign.

4) Now we learn that Kushner proposed setting up a secret communications channel between Trump’s transition team and Russia using Russian facilities, according to Russia ambassador’s report home. U.S. officials told The Post this was an apparent move by Kushner to block any monitoring of Trump’s activities ahead of the inauguration from the United States.

Here, we have a caveat: Russians at times feed false information into communication streams that they think the United States is watching.

But we have a caveat to that caveat: It’s unclear why the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, would misreport his conversations to his own people. (Although it’s conceivable Kislyak was exaggerating or misunderstood what was said.)

More here.

At a Besieged White House, Tempers Flare and Confusion Swirls

Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman, reporting for the New York Times:

The bad-news stories slammed into the White House in pitiless succession on Tuesday, leaving President Trump’s battle-scarred West Wing aides staring at their flat screens in glassy-eyed shock.

The disclosure that Mr. Trump divulged classified intelligence to Russian officials that had been provided by Israel was another blow to a besieged White House staff recovering from the mishandled firing of James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director.

And the day was capped by the even more stunning revelation that the president had prodded Mr. Comey to drop an investigation into Michael T. Flynn, his former national security adviser. That prompted a stampede of reporters from the White House briefing room into the lower press gallery of the White House, where Mr. Trump’s first-line defenders had few answers but an abundance of anxieties about their job security.

The president’s appetite for chaos, coupled with his disregard for the self-protective conventions of the presidency, has left his staff confused and squabbling. And his own mood, according to two advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has become sour and dark, and he has turned against most of his aides — even his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — describing them in a fury as “incompetent,” according to one of those advisers.

As the maelstrom raged around the staff, reports swirled inside the White House that the president was about to embark on a major shake-up, probably starting with the dismissal or reassignment of Sean Spicer, the press secretary.

Mr. Trump’s rattled staff kept close tabs on a meeting early Monday in which the president summoned Mr. Spicer; the deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders; and the communications director, Michael Dubke, to lecture them on the need “to get on the same page,” according to a person briefed on the meeting.

By the end of the day Tuesday, it seemed that Mr. Spicer had, for the moment, survived. People close to the president said Mr. Trump was considering the firing of several lower-level staff members, including several hired by Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, while weighing a plan to hand most day-to-day briefing responsibilities to Ms. Sanders.

Even as Mr. Trump reassured advisers like Mr. Spicer that their jobs were safe on Monday, he told other advisers that he knew he needed to make big changes but did not know which direction to go, or whom to select.

In the meantime, the White House hunkered down for what staff members now realize will be an extended siege, not a one- or two-day bad news cycle.

The stress was taking its toll. Late Monday, reporters could hear senior aides shouting from behind closed doors as they discussed how to respond after Washington Post reporters informed them of an article they were writing that first reported the news about the president’s divulging of intelligence.

As they struggled to limit the fallout on Monday, Mr. Spicer and other Trump aides decided to send Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, to serve as a surrogate.

They realized that selecting such a high-ranking official would in some ways validate the story, but they wanted to establish a credible witness account exonerating the president from wrongdoing — before the barrage of Twitter posts they knew would be coming from Mr. Trump on Tuesday morning.

Much more here.

The Trump-Russia Nexus

Via the New York Times Editorial Board:

The acting director of the F.B.I., Andrew McCabe, told Congress on Thursday that President Trump’s firing of James Comey has not derailed the agency’s investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Which is good news. Despite Mr. Trump’s assertion that the idea of collusion is “a total hoax,” and despite many unknowns, the links continue to pile up. Here is a partial accounting of the connections we do know something about.

THE TRUMP FAMILY BUSINESS There may be no Trump Tower in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but it is not for lack of trying. Mr. Trump and his family have sought to do business in Russia since at least the 1980s. They have also developed extensive commercial and personal relationships with politically connected Russian businessmen. In 2008, Donald Trump Jr. told a real estate conference, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York,” according to eTurboNews, a travel industry news site. The author James Dodson said that another son, Eric Trump, told him in 2013 that Russians have bankrolled Trump golf courses: “Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.” Eric Trump denies saying that.

In addition, Donald Trump worked with the Agalarov family, a prominent Russian business group, to host the 2013 edition of his Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. Mr. Trump met more than a dozen of the country’s most prominent oligarchs while he was there, Bloomberg News reported. Jared Kushner, who is married to Ivanka Trump and is a senior adviser to the president, has also been caught up in the Russia story. During the transition, Mr. Kushner met with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, as well as with the top executive of a Russian government-owned bank.

The world would know much more about Mr. Trump’s foreign partnerships if he had released his tax returns, as every president has done for the last 40 years.

MICHAEL FLYNN Mr. Flynn, the former national security adviser, had several conversations with Mr. Kislyak during the transition in which they discussed American sanctions against Russia. Mr. Trump fired Mr. Flynn after public disclosure that the had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of those talks. In addition, RT, a Russian government-backed news outlet, paid Mr. Flynn $45,000 for giving a speech in December 2015 in Moscow. On the same trip, he sat next to President Vladimir Putin at an RT gala. The Pentagon is investigating whether Mr. Flynn, a retired military intelligence officer, failed to disclose and obtain approval from the State and Defense Departments before taking money from a foreign government.

JEFF SESSIONS Mr. Sessions, the attorney general, said during his Senate confirmation hearing that he did not have any contacts with Russian officials while he was actively campaigning for Mr. Trump. In fact, he met with Mr. Kislyak twice, once in his Senate office and once at the Republican National Convention.
PAUL MANAFORT Mr. Manafort, a former chairman of the Trump campaign, worked as a consultant for a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine and for Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was backed by the Kremlin. Mr. Manafort has been accused of receiving secret payments from the pro-Russia party. About a decade earlier, Mr. Manafort also worked for Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with close ties to Mr. Putin. The Associated Press obtained a memo he wrote to Mr. Deripaska offering a plan that he said would “greatly benefit the Putin Government.”
CARTER PAGE American officials believe that Mr. Page, a foreign policy adviser, had contacts with Russian intelligence officials during the campaign. He also gave a pro-Russia speech in Moscow in July 2016. Mr. Page was once employed by Merrill Lynch’s Moscow office, where he worked with Gazprom, a government-owned energy giant.

ROGER STONE Mr. Stone, an informal but close Trump adviser, exchanged messages last summer with Guccifer 2.0, a Twitter account widely believed to be a front for Russian intelligence operatives who were involved in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. During the campaign, Mr. Stone seemed to know in advance that WikiLeaks would release emails from the account of John Podesta, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman.

Mr. Trump and his associates can cry themselves hoarse that there is neither smoke nor fire here. But all in all, the known facts suggest an unusually extensive network of relationships with a major foreign power. Anyone who cares about the credibility of the American electoral process should want a thorough investigation of whether and how Russia interfered in the election and through whom.

Trump’s no populist. He’s a swamp monster.

Dana Milbank, reporting for the Washington Post:

Last year, Mark Meckler, one of the founders of the tea party movement, had concerns about Donald Trump but gave the Republican nominee the benefit of the doubt, because Trump “at least says he’s going to attack” the crony-capitalist system.

Now the conservative activist has revised his opinion. Trump “said he was going to D.C. to drain the swamp,” Meckler said in a recent Fox Business interview, but “now it looks like we’ve got the Creature from the Black Lagoon in the White House.”

For everybody else who believed Trump’s populist talk about tackling a rigged system, it’s time to recognize you’ve been had. The president of the United States is a swamp monster.

The billionaire has embraced a level of corporate control of the government that makes previous controversies involving corporate influence — Vice President Dick Cheney’s attempt in 2001 to keep secret the names of industry officials who participated in his energy task force, for example — seem quaint by comparison.

In the quiet of Good Friday, President Trump’s White House announced that it would end the practice of releasing White House visitor logs, giving the public no way to know which corporate suitors have the ear of Trump and his staff. Trump was already insulated from such disclosure during the disproportionate amount of his presidency he spends at Mar-a-Lago and other Trump properties.

Trump seems to think people won’t care about this any more than they do about his refusal to release his tax returns and other disclosures that would reveal his conflicts of interest. It’s true that “transparency” is the sort of subject that usually excites only good-government types. But in this case the opacity is obscuring the rise of a new American plutocracy.

Steven Aftergood, who runs the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, said Trump’s actions are testing “the character of the U.S. government” and raise the possibility of the government “devolving into some kind of corporate mutation where the wealthy and well-connected rule.”

Trump has made a series of policy reversals in recent days from his populist campaign positions — on Chinese currency, trade, the Export-Import Bank and more — as the nationalist influence of Steve Bannon fades. This isn’t solely because Trump has stocked his administration at the highest levels with fellow billionaires, corporate types such as son-in-law Jared Kushner and veterans of Goldman Sachs.

ProPublica and the New York Times reported over the weekend that the Trump administration is being populated with former lobbyists, lawyers and consultants who are making policy for the industries that had been paying them. The arrangement has violated Trump’s (already weakened) ethics rules, and the administration is secretly issuing waivers exempting the former lobbyists from rules blocking them from working on issues that would benefit their former clients. Trump White House officials had more than 300 recent corporate clients and employers, the Times reported, and more than 40 former lobbyists are now in the White House and federal government. The director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics says even he has “no idea how many waivers have been issued.”

And these corporations are set to get what they paid for.

My Post colleague Juliet Eilperin reported Sunday on some of the 168 requests corporate interests have made, and are likely to be given, for regulatory relief, many of them seeking reduced environmental protections and worker rights. BP wants to make it easier to drill in the Gulf of Mexico. The pavement industry wants a halt to research on the environmental impact of coal tar. And my favorite: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s request that employers no longer be required to report their injury and illness records electronically to the Labor Department.

More here.

What a Failed Trump Administration Looks Like

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times:

I still have trouble seeing how the Trump administration survives a full term. Judging by his Thursday press conference, President Trump’s mental state is like a train that long ago left freewheeling and iconoclastic, has raced through indulgent, chaotic and unnerving, and is now careening past unhinged, unmoored and unglued.

Trump’s White House staff is at war with itself. His poll ratings are falling at unprecedented speed. His policy agenda is stalled. F.B.I. investigations are just beginning. This does not feel like a sustainable operation.

On the other hand, I have trouble seeing exactly how this administration ends. Many of the institutions that would normally ease out or remove a failing president no longer exist.

There are no longer moral arbiters in Congress like Howard Baker and Sam Ervin to lead a resignation or impeachment process. There is no longer a single media establishment that shapes how the country sees the president. This is no longer a country in which everybody experiences the same reality.

Everything about Trump that appalls 65 percent of America strengthens him with the other 35 percent, and he can ride that group for a while. Even after these horrible four weeks, Republicans on Capitol Hill are not close to abandoning their man.

The likelihood is this: We’re going to have an administration that has morally and politically collapsed, without actually going away.

What does that look like?

First, it means an administration that is passive, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing. To get anything done, a president depends on the vast machinery of the U.S. government. But Trump doesn’t mesh with that machinery. He is personality-based while it is rule-based. Furthermore, he’s declared war on it. And when you declare war on the establishment, it declares war on you.

The Civil Service has a thousand ways to ignore or sit on any presidential order. The court system has given itself carte blanche to overturn any Trump initiative, even on the flimsiest legal grounds. The intelligence community has only just begun to undermine this president.

President Trump can push all the pretty buttons on the command deck of the Starship Enterprise, but don’t expect anything to actually happen, because they are not attached.

Second, this will probably become a more insular administration. Usually when administrations stumble, they fire a few people and bring in the grown-ups — the James Baker or the David Gergen types. But Trump is anti-grown-up, so it’s hard to imagine Chief of Staff Haley Barbour. Instead, the circle of trust seems to be shrinking to his daughter, her husband and Stephen Bannon.

Bannon has a coherent worldview, which is a huge advantage when all is chaos. It’s interesting how many of Bannon’s rivals have woken up with knives in their backs. Michael Flynn is gone. Reince Priebus has been unmanned by a thousand White House leaks. Rex Tillerson had the potential to be an effective secretary of state, but Bannon neutered him last week by denying him the ability to even select his own deputy.

In an administration in which “promoted beyond his capacity” takes on new meaning, Bannon looms. With each passing day, Trump talks more like Bannon without the background reading.

Third, we are about to enter a decentralized world. For the past 70 years most nations have instinctively looked to the U.S. for leadership, either to follow or oppose. But in capitals around the world, intelligence agencies are drafting memos with advice on how to play Donald Trump.

The first conclusion is obvious. This administration is more like a medieval monarchy than a modern nation-state. It’s more “The Madness of King George” than “The Missiles of October.” The key currency is not power, it’s flattery.

The corollary is that Trump is ripe to be played. Give the boy a lollipop and he won’t notice if you steal his lunch. The Japanese gave Trump a new jobs announcement he could take to the Midwest, and in return they got presidential attention and coddling that other governments would have died for.

If you want to roll the Trump administration, you’ve got to get in line. The Israelis got a possible one-state solution. The Chinese got Trump to flip-flop on the “One China” policy. The Europeans got him to do a 180 on undoing the Iran nuclear deal.

More here.

Trump and Staff Rethink Tactics After Stumbles

Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman, writing in the New York Times:

President Trump loves to set the day’s narrative at dawn, but the deeper story of his White House is best told at night.

Aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the cabinet room. Visitors conclude their meetings and then wander around, testing doorknobs until finding one that leads to an exit. In a darkened, mostly empty West Wing, Mr. Trump’s provocative chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, finishes another 16-hour day planning new lines of attack.

Usually around 6:30 p.m., or sometimes later, Mr. Trump retires upstairs to the residence to recharge, vent and intermittently use Twitter. With his wife, Melania, and young son, Barron, staying in New York, he is almost always by himself, sometimes in the protective presence of his imposing longtime aide and former security chief, Keith Schiller. When Mr. Trump is not watching television in his bathrobe or on his phone reaching out to old campaign hands and advisers, he will sometimes set off to explore the unfamiliar surroundings of his new home.

During his first two dizzying weeks in office, Mr. Trump, an outsider president working with a surprisingly small crew of no more than a half-dozen empowered aides with virtually no familiarity with the workings of the White House or federal government, sent shock waves at home and overseas with a succession of executive orders designed to fulfill campaign promises and taunt foreign leaders.

“We are moving big and we are moving fast,” Mr. Bannon said, when asked about the upheaval of the first two weeks. “We didn’t come here to do small things.”

But one thing has become apparent to both his allies and his opponents: When it comes to governing, speed does not always guarantee success.

The bungled rollout of his executive order barring immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, a flurry of other miscues and embarrassments, and an approval rating lower than that of any comparable first-term president in the history of polling have Mr. Trump and his top staff rethinking an improvisational approach to governing that mirrors his chaotic presidential campaign, administration officials and Trump insiders said.

Chris Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and an old friend of the president’s, said: “I think, in his mind, the success of this is going to be the poll numbers. If they continue to be weak or go lower, then somebody’s going to have to bear some responsibility for that.”

“I personally think that they’re missing the big picture here,” Mr. Ruddy said of Mr. Trump’s staff. “Now he’s so caught up, the administration is so caught up in turmoil, perceived chaos, that the Democrats smell blood, the protesters, the media smell blood.”

One former staff member likened the aggressive approach of the first two weeks to D-Day, but said the president’s team had stormed the beaches without any plan for a longer war.

Clashes among staff are common in the opening days of every administration, but they have seldom been so public and so pronounced this early. “This is a president who came to Washington vowing to shake up the establishment, and this is what it looks like. It’s going to be a little sloppy, there are going to be conflicts,” said Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s first press secretary.

All this is happening as Mr. Trump, a man of flexible ideology but fixed habits, adjusts to a new job, life and city.

Cloistered in the White House, he now has little access to his fans and supporters — an important source of feedback and validation — and feels increasingly pinched by the pressures of the job and the constant presence of protests, one of the reasons he was forced to scrap a planned trip to Milwaukee last week. For a sense of what is happening outside, he watches cable, both at night and during the day — too much in the eyes of some aides — often offering a bitter play-by-play of critics like CNN’s Don Lemon.

Until the past few days, Mr. Trump was telling his friends and advisers that he believed the opening stages of his presidency were going well. “Did you hear that, this guy thinks it’s been terrible!” Mr. Trump said mockingly to other aides when one dissenting view was voiced last week during a West Wing meeting.

But his opinion has begun to change with a relentless parade of bad headlines.

Mr. Trump got away from the White House this weekend for the first time since his inauguration, spending it in Palm Beach, Fla., at his private club, Mar-a-Lago, posting Twitter messages angrily — and in personal terms — about the federal judge who put a nationwide halt on the travel ban. Mr. Bannon and Reince Priebus, the two clashing power centers, traveled with him.

By then, the president, for whom chains of command and policy minutiae rarely meant much, was demanding that Mr. Priebus begin to put in effect a much more conventional White House protocol that had been taken for granted in previous administrations: From now on, Mr. Trump would be looped in on the drafting of executive orders much earlier in the process.

Another change will be a new set of checks on the previously unfettered power enjoyed by Mr. Bannon and the White House policy director, Stephen Miller, who oversees the implementation of the orders and who received the brunt of the internal and public criticism for the rollout of the travel ban.

Mr. Priebus has told Mr. Trump and Mr. Bannon that the administration needs to rethink its policy and communications operation in the wake of embarrassing revelations that key details of the orders were withheld from agencies, White House staff and Republican congressional leaders like Speaker Paul D. Ryan.

Mr. Priebus has also created a 10-point checklist for the release of any new initiatives that includes signoff from the communications department and the White House staff secretary, Robert Porter, according to several aides familiar with the process.

The entire article is worth a full and careful read.