Trump campaign emails show aide’s repeated efforts to set up Russia meetings

Via The Washington Post:

Three days after Donald Trump named his campaign foreign policy team in March 2016, the youngest of the new advisers sent an email to seven campaign officials with the subject line: “Meeting with Russian Leadership – Including Putin.”

The adviser, George Papadopoulos, offered to set up “a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss US-Russia ties under President Trump,” telling them his Russian contacts welcomed the opportunity, according to internal campaign emails read to The Washington Post.

The proposal sent a ripple of concern through campaign headquarters in Trump Tower. Campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis wrote that he thought NATO allies should be consulted before any plans were made. Another Trump adviser, retired Navy Rear Adm. Charles Kubic, cited legal concerns, including a possible violation of U.S. sanctions against Russia and of the Logan Act, which prohibits U.S. citizens from unauthorized negotiation with foreign governments.

But Papadopoulos, a campaign volunteer with scant foreign policy experience, persisted. Between March and September, the self-described energy consultant sent at least a half-dozen requests for Trump, as he turned from primary candidate to party nominee, or for members of his team to meet with Russian officials. Among those to express concern about the effort was then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who rejected in May 2016 a proposal from Papadopoulos for Trump to do so.

The exchanges are among more than 20,000 pages of documents the Trump campaign turned over to congressional committees this month after review by White House and defense lawyers. The selection of Papadopoulos’s emails were read to The Post by a person with access to them. Two other people with access to the emails confirmed the general tone of the exchanges and some specific passages within them.

Papadopoulos emerges from the sample of emails as a new and puzzling figure in the examination of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials and their proxies during the 2016 election, now the subject of a special-counsel investigation.

Less than a decade out of college, Papadopoulos appeared to hold little sway within the campaign, and it is unclear whether he was acting as an intermediary for the Russian government, although he told campaign officials he was.

While the emails illustrate his eagerness to strengthen the campaign’s connections to the Russian government, Papadopoulos does not spell out in them why it would be in Trump’s interest to do so. His entreaties appear to have generated more concern than excitement within the campaign, which at the time was looking to seal the Republican nomination and take on a heavily favored Hillary Clinton in the general election.

But the internal resistance to Papadopoulos’s requests is at odds with other overtures Trump allies were making toward Russia at the time, mostly at a more senior level of the campaign.

Three months after Papadopoulos raised the possibility of a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner met with a delegation led by a Russian lawyer offering to provide damaging information on Clinton.

Manafort attended that Trump Tower session in June 2016, a meeting now under scrutiny in the special counsel’s collusion inquiry. But the new emails reveal that Manafort had rejected a request from Papadopoulos just the previous month to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian officials.

In July 2016 and again two months later, Jeff Sessions, then a senator and senior foreign policy adviser to Trump, met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

And also in July, a few weeks after Papadopoulos asked his superiors whether other campaign advisers or aides could accept some of the Russians’ invitations, Carter Page, another foreign policy adviser, spoke at a Russian university in Moscow. Page said he made the trip independently of the campaign.

Much more here.

Trump dictated son’s misleading statement on meeting with Russian lawyer

Via The Washington Post:

On the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany last month, President Trump’s advisers discussed how to respond to a new revelation that Trump’s oldest son had met with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign — a disclosure the advisers knew carried political and potentially legal peril.

The strategy, the advisers agreed, should be for Donald Trump Jr. to release a statement to get ahead of the story. They wanted to be truthful, so their account couldn’t be repudiated later if the full details emerged.

But within hours, at the president’s direction, the plan changed.

Flying home from Germany on July 8 aboard Air Force One, Trump personally dictated a statement in which Trump Jr. said that he and the Russian lawyer had “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children” when they met in June 2016, according to multiple people with knowledge of the deliberations. The statement, issued to the New York Times as it prepared an article, emphasized that the subject of the meeting was “not a campaign issue at the time.”

The claims were later shown to be misleading.

Over the next three days, multiple accounts of the meeting were provided to the news media as public pressure mounted, with Trump Jr. ultimately acknowledging that he had accepted the meeting after receiving an email promising damaging information about Hillary Clinton as part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign.

The extent of the president’s personal intervention in his son’s response, the details of which have not previously been reported, adds to a series of actions that Trump has taken that some advisers fear could place him and some members of his inner circle in legal jeopardy.

As special counsel Robert S. Mueller III looks into potential obstruction of justice as part of his broader investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, these advisers worry that the president’s direct involvement leaves him needlessly vulnerable to allegations of a coverup.

“This was . . . unnecessary,” said one of the president’s advisers, who like most other people interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. “Now someone can claim he’s the one who attempted to mislead. Somebody can argue the president is saying he doesn’t want you to say the whole truth.”

Trump has already come under criticism for steps he has taken to challenge and undercut the Russia investigation.

He fired FBI Director James B. Comey on May 9 after a private meeting in which Comey said the president asked him if he could end the investigation of ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats told associates that Trump asked him in March if he could intervene with Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus on Flynn. In addition, Trump has repeatedly criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing the FBI’s Russian investigation — a decision that was one factor leading to the appointment of Mueller. And he has privately discussed his power to issue pardons, including for himself, and explored potential avenues for undercutting Mueller’s work.

Much more here.

Jeff Sessions just got in more trouble — and now he’s put Trump in a box, too

Aaron Blake, reporting for the Washington Post:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions‘s bad week just got worse. And while his new problems would appear to threaten his job, they also put President Trump in a box when it comes to his apparent desire to be rid of Sessions.

The Washington Post is reporting that Russia’s ambassador has said he and Sessions discussed the 2016 campaign during two meetings last year. That is contrary to multiple public comments made by Sessions in March, when he recused himself from oversight of the Russia investigation.

Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller report that Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s accounts of those meetings were intercepted by U.S. intelligence and that in them he suggested that the two men spoke substantively about campaign issues. Yet Sessions said March 1 that he “never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign,” and the following day, while announcing his recusal, he said it again: “I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign.”

This is now the second time that Sessions’s accounts of his meetings with Russians have been seriously called into question. During his confirmation hearings this year, he denied having met with any Russians during the campaign. When the Kislyak meetings came to light, he clarified that he thought the exchange was in the context of the campaign only. He then quickly recused himself.

That flub was highlighted this week by none other than Trump. In a New York Times interview, Trump openly suggested that he wouldn’t have nominated Sessions in the first place had he known he would recuse himself. Then Trump turned to Sessions’s “bad answers” at his confirmation hearings:

TRUMP: So Jeff Sessions, Jeff Sessions gave some bad answers.

MAGGIE HABERMAN: You mean at the hearing?

TRUMP: Yeah, he gave some answers that were simple questions and should have been simple answers, but they weren’t.

If Trump does want to get rid of Sessions, it would seem that more of Sessions’s “bad answers” about his meetings with Kislyak are on the table to justify it. The problem for Trump is that using that justification would also lend credence to the idea that there was something untoward about those meetings. Trump has repeatedly suggested that the entire Russia investigation is a “hoax” and a “witch hunt,” so the idea that he’s suddenly that concerned about Sessions’s Russia contacts would be difficult to reconcile.

It would also be difficult to square with other top Trump allies and family members who have failed to acknowledge or be transparent about their meetings with Russians. How could Trump take issue with Sessions’s failures to correctly characterize his meetings with Russians but not with Donald Trump Jr., whose meeting seeking opposition research about Hillary Clinton allegedly from the Russian government came to light this month? And then what about Jared Kushner‘s meetings, which include that one, a meeting with Kislyak and a meeting with the head of a Russian state-owned bank. None of them were disclosed on his security clearance form when he joined the White House. Trump would need to explain why Sessions’s failures were bad and his son’s and son-in-law’s weren’t.

But Trump nonetheless seemed to get the ball rolling on that front in his New York Times interview. And given that more of Sessions’s comments have come into question now, we’ll see whether Trump keeps using that as justification for continuing to undermine one of his earliest supporters and top Cabinet officials.

Game of Trump

Maureen Dowd, writing in the New York Times:

Wicked siblings willing to do anything for power. Secret deals with sworn enemies. The shock of a dead body. A Wall. Foreign bawds, guns for hire, and snakes. Back-stabbing, betrayal and charges of treason. Little birds spying and tattling. A maniacal mad king and his court of scheming, self-absorbed princesses and princelings, swathed in the finest silk and the most brazen immorality, ruling with total disregard for the good of their people.

The night in Washington is dark and full of terrors. The Game of Trump has brought a pagan lawlessness never before seen in the capital.

So far in life, Donald Trump has survived and thrived on the same philosophy espoused by Littlefinger in “Game of Thrones”: “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder.”

But is the rampant deception and corruption in his gaudy, jangly realm about to engulf the Emperor of Chaos? Is this the grisly endgame for Cersei in King’s Landing and Donald in Washington? A talent to distract on Twitter, our Joffrey-like president will learn, is not the same as the ability to walk through fire.

The crowds are swelling, yelling: “Shame. Shame. Shame.”

Hugging their tattered brand, the family tried for a respite this weekend. Ivanka and Jared fled to Sun Valley to hang out with the global elite at Herb Allen’s conference. After escaping to the City of Light for Bastille Day — poor battered Sean Spicer had to settle for a party at the French Embassy here — Trump and Melania were going to his Bedminster club to attend the U.S. Women’s Open being held there. (Some women protested, saying the Open should be closed to Donald Trump.)

Trump always inflates his numbers, using his own special brand of ego arithmetic. But Don Jr. and Jared have been busy deflating their numbers.

Don Jr. pooh-poohed the meeting revealed in The New York Times’s scoop that he met with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with Kremlin contacts, and Rob Goldstone, a publicist who represents a Russian pop star who featured Trump in his music video. But it later turned out there was more to the picture.

First we learned there were six, not four, people in the meeting, including a lobbyist who just happened to be a former member of the Soviet unit dealing in counterintelligence. Then we found out there were eight. Next, we’ll find out Putin was FaceTiming from Moscow.

Don Jr. was not ashamed that he had gleefully met with Russians to collect dirt on Hillary Clinton. He was only annoyed, as he told Sean Hannity in the womb of Fox News, that the meeting turned out to be “a nothing” and “just a wasted 20 minutes.” The thought that it was improper has not entered his mind.

* * *

And who possibly could concoct Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz? According to ProPublica, after a man watching Rachel Maddow emailed Kasowitz Wednesday telling him to “Resign Now,” the lawyer shot back with a bunch of nasty messages, such as “Watch your back, bitch” and “I already know where you live, I’m on you. … You will see me. I promise. Bro.”

Kasowitz, ProPublica reports, has a drinking problem that could hamper him getting a security clearance. He has grown increasingly frustrated by Trump’s lack of discipline as the president sulks and rages in his tent over the Russia labyrinth, according to The Washington Post.

So this lawyer is the one trying to instill discipline in that president?

In an interview with reporters on Air Force One on the way to Paris, President Trump once more tried to deflect blame from Russia for the election hacks. “And I’m not saying it wasn’t Russia,” he said. “What I’m saying is that we have to protect ourselves no matter who it is. You know, China is very good at this. I hate to say it, North Korea is very good at this. Look what they did to Sony Studios.”

Much more here.

Trump Goes on Attack as Russia Revelations Appear to Take Toll

Mark Landler, reporting for the New York Times:

President Trump unleashed a new fusillade of tweets on Sunday morning, defending his son Donald Trump Jr., slashing the news media and tarring his long-vanquished opponent, Hillary Clinton.

After a leisurely Saturday afternoon spent at a women’s golf tournament at his club here, where he waved to the crowd from a glassed-in viewing stand, Mr. Trump awoke with a familiar list of grievances.

“HillaryClinton can illegally get the questions to the Debate & delete 33,000 emails but my son Don is being scorned by the Fake News media?” he tweeted shortly before 7 a.m. Forty minutes later, he posted, “With all of its phony unnamed sources & highly slanted & even fraudulent reporting, #Fake News is DISTORTING DEMOCRACY in our country.”

In between those posts, Mr. Trump thanked people who had turned out to cheer him at the United States Women’s Open, which is being played at Trump National Golf Club despite calls from women’s groups for it to be moved because of his record of degrading behavior toward women.

A small knot of protesters formed Saturday afternoon as well, but the police kept them well away from the club. “Thank you to all of the supporters, who far out-numbered the protesters, yesterday at the Women’s U.S. Open,” Mr. Trump wrote. “Very cool!”

Mr. Trump has gone through one of the rockiest stretches of his presidency since the disclosure of a meeting in June 2016 between his son and a Kremlin-linked lawyer. Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, also attended, as did a Russian-American lobbyist, Rinat Akhmetshin.

Besieged by the headlines about Russia and Mr. Trump’s eldest son, the White House planned to repackage the president’s economic message with a string of “theme weeks.” The first, this week, will be “Made in America,” focusing attention on American workers and goods they produce.

But on Sunday, the subject largely remained Russia. The top Democrats investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election said that emails that Donald Trump Jr. sent about the meeting appeared to confirm that members of the Trump campaign had intended to cooperate with Russian officials.

“This is about as clear of evidence you could find of intent by the campaign to collude with the Russians, to get useful information from the Russians,” Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he wanted to speak with those who attended the meeting. “You saw not only willingness, but actually glee from the president’s son, as well as involvement of the campaign manager and the president’s son-in-law to say, in effect, yes, bring it on,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

But the president tweeted his thanks to a former campaign adviser, Michael Caputo, “for saying so powerfully that there was no Russian collusion in our winning campaign.”

On Friday, Mr. Caputo testified before a closed session of the House Intelligence Committee. He emerged to say that he had witnessed no collusion between the campaign and Russia.

Jay Sekulow, who is part of Mr. Trump’s outside legal team, appeared on several Sunday morning talk shows to defend the president, saying that he had nothing to do with his son’s meeting.

“The president has said that he was not aware of it, wasn’t involved in it, and there’s been no indication otherwise,” Mr. Sekulow said on CBS.

Still, there is evidence that the drumbeat of Russia revelations is taking a toll on the president. A poll published Sunday showed that Mr. Trump’s approval ratings have eroded further in recent weeks, dropping to a level never before seen for a president during his first six months in office.

The Washington Post-ABC News poll said the president’s overall approval rating was 36 percent, down from 42 percent in April. His disapproval rating rose to 58 percent, and 48 percent of those polled said they “disapprove strongly” of his performance, citing a loss of American leadership abroad and the Republican health care bill, which remains bottled up in the Senate.

More here.

‘Category 5 hurricane’: White House under siege by Trump Jr.’s Russia revelations

Philip Rucker and Ashly Parker, reporting for the Washington Post:

The White House has been thrust into chaos after days of ever-worsening revelations about a meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a lawyer characterized as representing the Russian government, as the president fumes against his enemies and senior aides circle one another with suspicion, according to top White House officials and outside advisers.

President Trump — who has been hidden from public view since returning last weekend from a divisive international summit — is enraged that the Russia cloud still hangs over his presidency and is exasperated that his eldest son and namesake has become engulfed by it, said people who have spoken with him this week.

The disclosure that Trump Jr. met with a Russian attorney, believing he would receive incriminating information about Hillary Clinton as part of the Kremlin’s effort to boost his father’s candidacy, has set back the administration’s faltering agenda and rattled the senior leadership team.

On Wednesday, in his first Twitter posts since the email disclosures, Trump defended his son by repeating past claims that his administration is the subject of a “witch hunt” fueled by leakers.

“My son Donald did a good job last night,” Trump wrote, referring to his son’s appearance on Fox News. “He was open, transparent and innocent. This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political history. Sad!”

Trump also took aim at anonymous leaks from “sources” — even though Trump Jr. gave a step-by-step email chronology of the plans for the meeting with the Russian lawyer in 2016.

Even supporters of Trump Jr. who believe he faces no legal repercussions privately acknowledged Tuesday that the story is a public relations disaster — for him as well as for the White House. One outside ally called it a “Category 5 hurricane,” while an outside adviser said a CNN graphic charting connections between the Trump team and Russians resembled the plot of the fictional Netflix series “House of Cards.”

Vice President Pence sought to distance himself from the controversy, with his spokesman noting that Trump Jr.’s meeting occurred before Pence joined the ticket.

Inside a White House in which infighting often seems like a core cultural value, three straight days of revelations in the New York Times about Trump Jr. have inspired a new round of accusations and recriminations, with advisers privately speculating about who inside the Trump orbit may be leaking damaging information about the president’s son.

This portrait of the Trump White House under siege is based on interviews Tuesday with more than a dozen West Wing officials, outside advisers, and friends and associates of the president and his family, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.

The makeup of Trump’s inner circle is the subject of internal debate, as ever. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser; Jared Kushner, her husband and another senior adviser; and first lady Melania Trump have been privately pressing the president to shake up his team — most specifically by replacing Reince Priebus as the White House chief of staff, according to two senior White House officials and one ally close to the White House.

The three family members are especially concerned about the steady stream of unauthorized leaks to journalists that have plagued the administration over the nearly six months that President Trump has been in office, from sensitive national security information to embarrassing details about the inner workings of the White House, the officials said.

Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s communications director, said: “Of course, the first lady is concerned about leaks from her husband’s administration, as all Americans should be. And while she does offer advice and perspectives on many things, Mrs. Trump does not weigh in on West Wing staff.”

Lindsay Walters, a deputy White House press secretary, disputed reports about Priebus’s standing. “These sources have been consistently wrong about Reince, and they’re still wrong today,” she said.

After this story first published, Josh Raffel, a White House spokesman, said in a statement on behalf of Kushner and Ivanka Trump: “Jared and Ivanka are focused on working with Reince and the team to advance the President’s agenda and not on pushing for staff changes.”

Trump recently publicly praised Priebus’s work ethic, and the chief of staff’s allies note that Priebus has done as good a job as can be expected under the unique circumstances of this administration. Defenders of Priebus have long said they expect him to make it to a year in the position, and Trump is said to be hesitant to fire him or any other senior staffer amid the escalating Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

The mind-set of Trump Jr. over the past few days has evolved from distress to anger to defiance, according to people close to him. He hired a criminal defense attorney but maintains that he is innocent of any wrongdoing. After his tweets commenting on the matter drew scrutiny, he agreed to his first media interview — with his friend Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity on his show on Tuesday night.

Much more here.

White House tries to play down meeting of Trump Jr., Russian lawyer as new details emerge

Via The Washington Post:

The White House on Monday was forced to shift from denying contact between the Trump campaign and Russia to defending a meeting that President Trump’s eldest son had in the midst of the presidential race with a Russian lawyer purportedly offering damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

The White House sought to play down the significance of that encounter even as new details emerged indicating that it had been arranged at the behest of a Russian family that has ties to the Kremlin and a history of pursuing business deals with President Trump — including preliminary plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow.

The controversy deepened late Monday with a new report that Donald Trump Jr. had been informed via email that the information on Clinton was part of a Russian government plan to help his father’s campaign. The New York Times, which broke the story, cited three unnamed people who had seen the email.

The revelations put the Trump administration again on the defensive about its relationship with Moscow, and they seemed to add to a pattern of not disclosing Kremlin contacts or providing false information about them.

The latest information centers on Trump Jr., whose concession this week that he took part in the June 9, 2016, meeting contradicted statements he had made in recent months. It comes as investigators in Congress and the special counsel’s office probe the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that the president had learned of his son’s meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya only “in the last couple of days” and sought to play down its significance.

“The only thing I see inappropriate about the meeting is the people that leaked the information about the meeting after it was voluntarily disclosed,” she said.

She appeared to be referring to updated federal disclosures filed by Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, acknowledging that he had attended the meeting with Veselnitskaya in Trump Tower.

Asked whether the president was concerned about the encounter, Sanders said no and described such meetings as routine occurrences during campaigns. “Don Jr. didn’t collude with anybody to influence the election,” she said.

But Sanders offered no explanation for why Trump officials had not previously disclosed the meeting publicly or why their account of the meeting’s purpose had shifted so dramatically in the past several days.

Trump Jr. said in an interview earlier this year with the New York Times that he had not participated in any “set up” meeting with a Russian individual. Then, after learning that the Times planned to publish an article about his meeting with Veselnitskaya, Trump Jr. provided evolving explanations for what had been discussed.

At first he said the talk centered on policies restricting the ability of U.S. families to adopt Russian children. Then, on Sunday, he issued a statement acknowledging that the premise of the meeting was that Veselnitskaya claimed to have potentially damaging information about Clinton.

Trump Jr. said that Veselnitskaya failed to deliver and that “it quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.” But his participation on those terms, as well as the attendance of Kushner and then-Trump campaign aide Paul Manafort, amount to fresh evidence that the Trump campaign was willing to consider accepting help from a Russian source tarnishing Clinton.

Emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee were posted online shortly after the meeting. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia orchestrated the hacks with the intention of helping to elect Trump.

On Monday, New York lawyer Alan Futerfas confirmed that he had been hired to represent Trump Jr. in the Russia probes.

Much more here.

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.