Sessions again changes his account of what he knew about Trump campaign’s dealings with Russians

Via The Washington Post:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday again revised his account of what he knew about the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russians, acknowledging for the first time that he recalled a meeting where a foreign policy adviser mentioned having contacts who could possibly broker a meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.

Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, Sessions said he now remembered adviser George Papadopoulos saying in March 2016 that he knew people who might be able to help arrange a Trump-Putin meeting.

When Sessions was asked last month whether he thought surrogates from the Trump campaign had communications with the Russians, he said, “I did not, and I’m not aware of anyone else that did, and I don’t believe it happened.”

But at Tuesday’s hearing, Sessions said his memory had been refreshed.

“I do now recall the March 2016 meeting at the Trump hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said at that meeting,” Sessions told lawmakers. “After reading his account, and to the best of my recollection, I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government or any other foreign government, for that matter.”

Sessions added later: “I remember the pushback. I remember that he suggested an ability to negotiate with Russians or others, and I thought he had no ability, or it would not be appropriate for him to do so.”

The more-than-five-hour hearing marked the first time Sessions has personally addressed apparent discrepancies that have emerged in recent weeks between what he has said publicly and what other Trump advisers have claimed about their Russia-related dealings.

Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in early October to lying to the FBI, admitting he told Trump, Sessions and other campaign officials that he had contacts who could help arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin.

Separately, former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page testified before the House Intelligence Committee recently that he had told Sessions of his plans to travel to Moscow.

Democrats questioned Sessions about his dealings with both men, noting that their accounts were out of sync with what Sessions had said previously and that his account of Russia-related matters had shifted multiple times.

“I hope the attorney general can provide some clarification on this problem in his remarks today,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.).

The hearing at times grew heated, as Sessions insisted that he had “always told the truth” and bristled at the suggestion that he had ever misled legislators or the public. He said his memory had been refreshed by news accounts and asserted that he still did not recall his conversation with Page — though he added that he was “not able to dispute it.”

Page has also said the interaction was brief and forgettable, as he was not traveling to Moscow for the campaign.

“Does that establish some sort of improper contact with the Russians?” Sessions rhetorically asked Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).

The hearing was Sessions’s first appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, and it came as the attorney general found himself a key figure in several major news events.

A day earlier, the Justice Department sent a letter to committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), saying Sessions had directed senior federal prosecutors to explore whether a second special counsel should be appointed to probe a host of GOP concerns — possibly including alleged wrongdoing by the Clinton Foundation and the controversial sale of a uranium company to Russia.

More here.

There are no grounds for a special counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton

Via The Washington Post Editorial Board:

PRESIDENT TRUMP has made his position clear: He would like to see Hillary Clinton investigated. After leading chants of “Lock her up!” during his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump has moved on to tweeting his disappointment over the Justice Department’s failure to look “into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary.” These demands for the politically motivated prosecution of Mr. Trump’s former political opponent are profoundly inappropriate and degrading to democracy. The good news is that, so far, the Justice Department appears to be holding firm against the president. But as events this week show, it remains under pressure.

Twice, in July and September, Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee have requested that the Justice Department appoint a special counsel to investigate a host of matters related to Ms. Clinton and former FBI director James B. Comey. On Monday, the department notified committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) that “senior federal prosecutors” will determine whether the majority’s concerns merit an investigation by the Justice Department or an additional special counsel.

The letter raises questions about political pressure on the department — especially given Mr. Trump’s reported discontent with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recusal from the Russia investigation and failure to investigate Ms. Clinton. It’s especially worrying given the absurdity of the matters that committee Republicans would like to see addressed. The lawmakers’ first letter to Mr. Sessions requested an investigation into, variously, Mr. Trump’s evidence-free insistence that President Barack Obama wiretapped him; the debunked conspiracy theory over Ms. Clinton’s supposedly nefarious involvement in the sale of Uranium One in 2010; and Mr. Comey’s alleged leaks to New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt dating back to 1993, when Mr. Schmidt would have been in elementary school. Any credence given by the Justice Department to such a nakedly partisan attempt to kick up dust would be cause for concern.

Mr. Sessions’s appearance Tuesday before the committee should put some of those concerns to rest. Mr. Sessions pushed back against demands for a special counsel to investigate Ms. Clinton, confirming that he intends to abide by Justice Department guidelines requiring a factual basis for initiating an investigation. In this light, the letter to Mr. Goodlatte may be read less as the Justice Department’s caving to political pressure than as a polite rebuff of the House Judiciary Committee’s request.

But Mr. Sessions still should explain how his role in responding to the committee’s request is consistent with his promised recusal from any matters arising from either candidate’s 2016 presidential campaign. He says he will recuse himself later, if appropriate. But why was this matter not immediately handed to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein?

Even if the Justice Department handles this particular inappropriate request appropriately, Mr. Trump shows no intention of letting up his efforts to degrade the democratic cornerstone of independent law enforcement. The latest revelations about his son’s interactions with WikiLeaks remind us why the president might want a change of subject, but the rule of law cannot be perverted in furtherance of political distraction. Testifying before the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Sessions declared his dedication to “maintaining and strengthening the rule of law.” That commitment must remain strong no matter the provocation.

Trump’s Embrace of Racially Charged Past Puts Republicans in Crisis

Via The New York Times:

President Trump’s embrace of the country’s racially charged past has thrown the Republican Party into crisis, dividing his core supporters who have urged him on from the political leaders who fear that he is leading them down a perilous and shortsighted path.

The divisions played out in the starkly different responses across the party after Mr. Trump insisted that left-wing counterprotesters were as culpable as neo-Nazis and white supremacists for the bloodshed in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend. Much of the right was ecstatic as they watched their president fume against the “violent” left and declare that “very fine people” were being besmirched for their involvement in the demonstration.

Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, said in an interview that if Democrats want to fight over Confederate monuments and attack Mr. Trump as a bigot, that was a fight the president would win.

“President Trump, by asking, ‘Where does this all end’ — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln — connects with the American people about their history, culture and traditions,” he said.

“The race-identity politics of the left wants to say it’s all racist,” Mr. Bannon added. “Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it.”

Much of the party’s political class, however, was in shock. Former Presidents George and George W. Bush issued a rare joint rebuke of Mr. Trump’s stance, saying hate should be rejected “in all forms.”

And among younger Republicans there was a sense that the damage would be profound and enduring.

“The last year and especially the last few days have basically erased 15 years of efforts by Republicans to diversify the party,” said David Holt, a 38-year-old Oklahoma state senator running for mayor of Oklahoma City. “If I tried to sell young people in general but specifically minority groups on the Republican Party today, I’d expect them to laugh me out of the room. How can you not be concerned when the country’s demographics are shifting away from where the Republican Party seems to be shifting now?”

The political blow that Mr. Trump has sustained is deep and worsening. Barely one-third of Americans now say they approve of the job he is doing, according to two polls released this week — a fresh low for a president who was already among the most unpopular in modern times.

With midterm elections looming next year, Republican leaders find themselves in precarious territory, unwilling to abandon Mr. Trump for fear of losing his supporters even as the president’s position slips with the broader electorate.

“The political price we may pay almost should be catastrophic,” said Mike Murphy, a longtime Republican strategist. “A hanging in the morning will clarify the mind.”

But Mr. Trump’s tenacious base sees in the Charlottesville fallout something to cheer: a field general leading the latest charge in the battle to take their country back. Much as Mr. Trump promised he would restore America to its lost greatness during his presidential campaign — a vow that, to many, clanged with sentimentality for a whiter, less tolerant nation — he is using symbols of the Confederacy to tell conservatives that he will not allow liberals to blot out their history and heritage.

“Good people can go to Charlottesville,” said Michelle Piercy, a night shift worker at a Wichita, Kan., retirement home, who drove all night with a conservative group that opposed the planned removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

After listening to Mr. Trump on Tuesday, she said it was as if he had channeled her and her friends — all gun-loving defenders of free speech, she said, who had no interest in standing with Nazis or white supremacists: “It’s almost like he talked to one of our people.”

Conservatives like Ms. Piercy, who have grown only more emboldened after Charlottesville, believe that the political and media elite hold them and Mr. Trump to a harsh double standard that demands they answer for the sins of a radical, racist fringe. They largely accept Mr. Trump’s contention that these same forces are using Charlottesville as an excuse to undermine his presidency, and by extension, their vote.

But Republicans who are looking at the country’s rapidly changing demographics — growing younger, less white and more urban — say Mr. Trump’s Republican Party is not the party of the future.

Much more here.

Trump’s iceberg looms

Kathleen Parker, reporting for the Washington Post:

Donald Trump had his worst day since he was elected president — we’ll just call it Friday — and his worst week since the last one.

Things can only get worser and worser, as the Bard would permit me to say.

Let’s start with the vote-a-rama and the “skinny repeal,” which puts me in mind of a state fair ride and placing an order at Starbucks.

I’d like a skinny repeal, please — venti, with mocha.

As all know by now, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) didn’t get the skinny on repeal and shocked the chamber by voting no with a thumbs-down. Not even with a Republican majority could Trump dump Obamacare in its slimmest version yet. McCain, who postponed treatment for aggressive brain cancer and flew to Washington to cast his vote, joined fellow Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, as well as all the Democratic members, to put the kibosh on any real hope of repeal this year, much less replace.

In most ways, McCain’s seemingly last-minute maneuver should have surprised no one. Always the maverick, McCain, who has defied death before, is no one’s wingman. If he thought this vote might be his last stand in the arena, he would make it worthwhile and memorable.

Back at the Ponderosa, Trump at least had a soul mate in whom to confide, Anthony Scaramucci, the White House’s new communications director. “Mooch” or “Mini-Me” to Washington insiders, Scaramucci is Trump’s kneecapper. Good cop, meet seriously bad cop.

Scaramucci is the personification of Trump’s deep brain. To the extent that the president ever withholds a thought, Scaramucci is there to express it for him. He’s his human Twitter feed. Thus, we may assume that what Scaramucci says, Trump thinks. Thanks to the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, we’re privy to enough premium quotes to entertain ourselves for months.

As you may have heard, Scaramucci called Lizza on Wednesday in a rage over his “leaked” financial records and Lizza’s reporting of an intimate Trump dinner that included Fox News’s Sean Hannity and Kimberly Guilfoyle, who, sources say, told Trump that then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus is a leaker. When Scaramucci demanded that Lizza divulge his source, Lizza, a polite, erudite fellow, declined and did what reporters sometimes do: He taped the conversation, capturing a hailstorm of profane tirades against leakers and, specifically, Priebus — “a [expletive] paranoid schizophrenic.” By late Friday afternoon, Priebus was out of a job, with Trump tweeting that he was replacing him with Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly.

Next, we visit El Salvador, where, strangely, we find Attorney General Jeff Sessions. We know Trump wants to get rid of Sessions, but sending him into the maw of the beastly MS-13 gang seems excessively aggressive even for this president. While Poor Sessions (see previous column) was practicing Spanish for “I have nothing against tattoos, but seriously?,” Trump was making a play in Ohio for tighter immigration by focusing on the gang’s murderous record.

And, lest we ignore the gold coin Trump magically pulled from his ear, the president randomly ordered transgender people out of the military. What, no women bleeding this week?

Health care, schmealth care, in other words. As buffer to the inevitable, Trump made sure to create a little sidebar drama — expelling thugs and transgender people, rooting out leakers and traitors, and threatening to fire anyone who says “Russia” in his presence.

So many shiny objects, so few left to fool.

A few Trump loyalists may wait for the last lifeboat, but it’s only a matter of time before this administration capsizes, titanically. Trump’s first-year agenda is DOA along with health-care reform. Going after Sessions has hurt the president with conservatives. His chaotic White House operation is a constant reminder that no one’s in charge. The cumulative effect of all of these affronts to normalcy, decorum and democracy is to reveal the profile of a deadly iceberg off the ship of state’s bow.

Light shifts to a small lifeboat off in the distance. Rowing slowly is an old man whose posture betrays a straight spine despite obvious injury to his arms and shoulders. A smile creases his face as moonlight catches a twinkle in his eye. A deep scar above it imitates a wryly arched brow. He chuckles at the memory of Trump saying he was a war hero only because he was captured and turns to make yet another final gesture.

This time, he doesn’t use his thumb.

Sessions Is Likely to Be Grilled on Reports of Meeting With Russian Envoy

Matt Apuzzo and Matthew Rosenberg, reporting for the New York Times:

In the days since the dramatic congressional testimony last week by James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, numerous questions have swirled about the role that Attorney General Jeff Sessions played in Mr. Comey’s firing, as well as how much Mr. Sessions may be enmeshed in the bureau’s Russia investigation.

Senators will have the opportunity to confront Mr. Sessions about these topics on Tuesday, when the attorney general appears before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Members of the committee are expected to press Mr. Sessions about what he did — and did not do — after a private Oval Office meeting in February when President Trump reportedly asked Mr. Comey to end the F.B.I.’s investigation into Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser.

Mr. Sessions will almost certainly also be grilled on vague — and unsubstantiated — reports that he had a secret meeting with the Russian ambassador last year at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. Mr. Sessions is expected to deny that the meeting took place.

Mr. Sessions initially told Congress that he had no contacts with Russian officials last year, but in March he was forced to acknowledge meeting the ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, on two occasions. A third meeting could prove devastating for the attorney general, who reportedly has already offered to resign.

The origin of the Mayflower story can be traced, according to several American officials, to raw intelligence picked up by American spy agencies last year that is now held at C.I.A. headquarters in Virginia. The intelligence appears to be based on intercepts of Mr. Kislyak discussing a private meeting he had with Mr. Sessions at a Trump campaign event last April at the luxury hotel.

Lawmakers have reviewed the intelligence — which remains classified — as part of the congressional investigations into Russia’s attempts to disrupt last year’s presidential election. Several news outlets have reported that Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and now a senior White House adviser, may have also attended the meeting.

But the intelligence has not been corroborated, several officials said. Unlike finished intelligence reports, which include assessments by government analysts about the credibility of the information, raw intelligence is merely transcripts of intercepted phone calls or information from human sources. Such information is generally treated skeptically until it can be confirmed by multiple sources.

Lawmakers from the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have read both finished and raw intelligence as part of their investigations.

“Some of it’s very compelling, and some of its import is unclear to me,” said Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

The Justice Department and the White House have been deluged by questions about the alleged meeting at the Mayflower. Sarah Isgur Flores, a department spokeswoman, said she had spoken with Mr. Sessions and his former aides, scoured his schedules and reviewed a video of the campaign event for any sign that Mr. Sessions met with Mr. Kislyak, and found nothing.

“I’ve watched that video so many times,” Ms. Flores said.

In his testimony last week, Mr. Comey spoke vaguely about unspecified classified information that could further embroil Mr. Sessions in the Russia investigation. After a closed-door session with Mr. Comey after the public testimony, senators fueled speculation about a Mayflower meeting.

“There’s one meeting we don’t know about and people would like to know about it,” said Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia.

During that hearing, Mr. Comey said Mr. Trump encouraged him in a private Oval Office meeting on Feb. 14 to end an F.B.I. investigation into Mr. Flynn, and repeatedly pressed him to publicly announce that the F.B.I. was not investigating him personally.

More here.

Comey firing shows White House problems go far beyond communications strategy

Dan Balz, writing in the Washington Post:

The firing of James B. Comey as director of the FBI has left the credibility of President Trump’s White House in tatters. The White House now appears to be an institution where truth struggles to keep up with events, led by a president capable at any moment of undercutting those who serve him.

This past week wasn’t the first time that the president’s spokespeople have been asked to explain the inexplicable or defend the indefensible. But what it showed is that this is far more than a problem with the White House communications team, which initially bore the brunt of criticism for offering what turned out to be an inaccurate description of how the president came to dismiss Comey. Whether the communications team is or isn’t fully in the loop is not the pertinent issue.

Instead, the responsibility for what has been one of the most explosive weeks of the Trump presidency begins at the top, with the president, whose statements and tweets regularly shatter whatever plans have been laid for the day or week.

It includes Vice President Pence, who in an appearance on Capitol Hill quadrupled down on what turned out to be, at its most benign interpretation, an incomplete and therefore misleading description of how the decision was made. It includes White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who must try to bring discipline to White House operations in the face of a president with a practice of frustrating those efforts and who then blames others when things go bad.

For Pence, this is the second time in four months that he has gone out in public with a description of events that turned out not to be fully accurate. In January, he was flat-out wrong when he vouched for Michael Flynn about whether the then-national security adviser had discussed sanctions against Russia in a telephone call with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. In that case, Pence repeated what Flynn had told him when Flynn was not telling him the truth. Chalk that up to misplaced confidence in an untrustworthy colleague who is now in legal jeopardy.

On Wednesday, Pence did something different. He went to Capitol Hill and in a brief scrum with reporters described the decision-making process that led to Comey’s dismissal as one that originated at the Justice Department and moved up to the chain of command to the president for action. This wasn’t a statement made in passing. Four different times he pointed to the Justice Department as the catalyst and cited Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein’s memo critiquing Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state as being critically influential.

As Pence explained it, Rosenstein recently “came in [to the Justice Department], sat down and made the recommendation for the FBI to be able to do its job that it would need new leadership. He brought that recommendation to the president. The attorney general [Jeff Sessions] concurred with that recommendation.” Pence said the president’s role was to act on that recommendation, saying Trump provided “strong and decisive leadership” in following the Justice Department’s advice.

Everyone now knows there was much more to the sequence of events, based on reporting by news organizations. The Post, citing many sources, reported that the president had told his senior staff Monday morning he wanted to move against Comey — hours before his meeting with Rosenstein and Sessions. On Thursday, the president told NBC’s Lester Holt he had made up his mind to fire Comey before he heard from the Justice Department and that, no matter what Sessions and Rosenstein recommended, he was going to do so.

Much more here.

Sessions recuses himself from any Michael Flynn investigation

Louis Nelson, reporting for Politico:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Friday that his recusal from Justice Department investigations into the 2016 campaign for president will extend into inquiries into the activities of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, under fire for his ties to foreign governments.

“My recusal deals with the campaign issues,” Sessions told NBC’s “Today” show. “But I would expect not to be involved in this one.”

“You would recuse yourself from any decision dealing with general Flynn?” asked Today anchor Matt Lauer.

“Yeah,” Sessions replied.

Flynn, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency who served briefly as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, has been the subject of scrutiny in recent weeks amid reports surrounding lobbying work he did for the Turkish government and a paid speech he delivered at an event for RT, a propaganda arm of the Russian government.

Sessions, too, has been tied to Russia: The attorney general recused himself from the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference in last year’s election amid reports that he had met on multiple occasions with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. during the campaign even though he had testified during his Senate confirmation hearing that he had not interacted with Russian officials.

Sessions later explained the discrepancy by saying he had met with the ambassador in his capacity as a senator and not as a representative of Trump’s campaign, for which he was a high-profile surrogate.

Jeff Sessions, Unleashed at the Border

Via The New York Times Editorial Board:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions went to the border in Arizona on Tuesday and declared it a hellscape, a “ground zero” of death and violence where Americans must “take our stand” against a tide of evil flooding up from Mexico.

It was familiar Sessions-speak, about drug cartels and “transnational gangs” poisoning and raping and chopping off heads, things he said for years on the Senate floor as the gentleman from Alabama. But with a big difference: Now he controls the machinery of federal law enforcement, and his gonzo-apocalypto vision of immigration suddenly has force and weight behind it, from the officers and prosecutors and judges who answer to him.

When Mr. Sessions got to the part about the “criminal aliens and the coyotes and the document forgers” overthrowing our immigration system, the American flag behind him had clearly heard enough — it leaned back and fell over as if in a stupor. An agent rushed to rescue it, and stood there for the rest of the speech: a human flag stand and metaphor. A guy with a uniform and gun, wrapped in Old Glory, helping to give the Trump administration’s nativist policies a patriotic sheen.

It was in the details of Mr. Sessions’s oratory that his game was exposed. He talked of cities and suburbs as immigrant-afflicted “war zones,” but the crackdown he seeks focuses overwhelmingly on nonviolent offenses, the document fraud and unauthorized entry and other misdeeds that implicate many people who fit no sane definition of brutal criminal or threat to the homeland.

The problem with Mr. Sessions’s turbocharging of the Justice Department’s efforts against what he paints as machete-wielding “depravity” is how grossly it distorts the bigger picture. It reflects his long fixation — shared by his boss, President Trump — on immigration not as an often unruly, essentially salutary force in American history, but as a dire threat. It denies the existence of millions of people who are a force for good, economic mainstays and community assets, less prone to crime than the native-born — workers, parents, children, neighbors and, above all, human beings deserving of dignity and fair treatment under the law.

Mr. Sessions is ordering his prosecutors to make immigration a priority, to consider prosecution in any case involving “transportation and harboring of aliens” and to consider felony charges for an extended menu of offenses, like trying to re-enter after deportation, “aggravated identity theft” and fraudulent marriage.

He said the government was now detaining every adult stopped at the border, and vowed to “surge” the supply of immigration judges, to increase the flow of unauthorized immigrants through the courts and out of the country. He has ordered all 94 United States attorney’s offices to designate “border security coordinators,” no matter how far from “ground zero” they are.

Mr. Sessions and the administration are being led by their bleak vision to the dark side of the law. The pieces are falling into place for the indiscriminate “deportation force” that the president promised. Mr. Sessions and the homeland security secretary, John Kelly, have attacked cities and states that decline to participate in the crackdown. Mr. Sessions has threatened these “sanctuary” locales with loss of criminal-justice funding, on the false assertion that they are defying the law. (In fact, “sanctuary” cities are upholding law and order. They recognize that enlisting state and local law enforcement for deportation undermines community trust, local policing and public safety.)

More here.

Reality is creeping into the Trump show

David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post:

The House Intelligence Committee hearing Monday marked the end of the opening installment of “The President,” the must-watch reality/horror show that has transfixed the nation and the world. Now the plot gets more serious, perhaps darker, with some new characters likely to emerge in key national-security roles.

President Trump should be less of a stage hog going forward, and his Twitter storms less intense. He is often described as a narcissist, but he’s not suicidal. He knows he has been rebuffed in a public hearing that he can’t ridicule as “fake news.” With his approval rating below 40 percent, he needs to broaden his base. Trump wants to disrupt, but he also wants to succeed.

Trump and the nation would be well served if his two leading Cabinet secretaries, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, played more prominent roles. Trump needs the solid outriggers that Mattis and Tillerson can provide. This presidency is wounded at a time of potentially serious crises.

Mattis and Tillerson are stabilizers. They have both led big organizations under pressure, and they know what command is. Both have been moving cautiously in the early weeks, feeling their way and mostly keeping their mouths shut in public. They don’t like talking to the press, but in that they’re hardly alone among former chief executives and military leaders.

Mattis and Tillerson aren’t communicating much with the public, but they’re talking to Trump and to each other, while they figure out the strategic positions this administration will take on key issues. The two Cabinet secretaries try to have breakfast once a week, talk frequently by phone, and hash out common positions before each big meeting in the Situation Room.

These two know how to say no to Trump. Mattis famously did so on torture, and Tillerson did the same rebutting a presidential musing about abolishing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Mattis and Tillerson have three paramount tasks — matters of war and peace on which their advice will be crucial for a beleaguered president with big ideas but limited experience.

The first test is “eradicating” the Islamic State. Trump claimed during the campaign he had a secret strategy, but in office he has sensibly expanded the approach recommended by Gen. Joseph Votel, the Central Command leader, which focuses on capturing Raqqa, the Islamic State capital in Syria. Centcom favors using a militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is multiethnic but led by Syrian Kurds from a group known as the YPG.

U.S. commanders rightly argue that while the Kurdish warriors are anathema to Turkey, they’re the only hope for quickly seizing Raqqa. Turkey’s claims about an alternative Sunni militia known as the “First Corps” aren’t credible. Raqqa is an urgent priority: Terrorists there are hatching plots targeting Europe and the United States.

The message to Turkey should be blunt: Let the United States work with the Kurds to clear Raqqa now (and get them out afterward), or Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime will seize the initiative.

Much more here.

Trump Seeks Inquiry Into Unproved Allegations That Obama Tapped His Phones

Michael D. Shear and Noah Weiland, reporting for the New York Times:

President Trump, a day after leveling a widely disputed allegation that President Barack Obama had ordered the tapping of his phones, on Sunday demanded a congressional inquiry into whether Mr. Obama abused the power of federal law enforcement agencies before the 2016 presidential election.

In a statement from his spokesman, Mr. Trump called “reports” about the wiretapping “very troubling” and said that Congress should examine them as part of its investigations into Russia’s meddling in the election.

“President Donald J. Trump is requesting that as part of their investigation into Russian activity, the congressional intelligence committees exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016,” Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said in the statement.

Mr. Spicer, who repeated the entire statement in a series of Twitter messages, added that “neither the White House nor the president will comment further until such oversight is conducted.”

A spokesman for Mr. Obama and his former aides have called the accusation by Mr. Trump completely false, saying that Mr. Obama never ordered any wiretapping of a United States citizen.

“A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice,” Kevin Lewis, Mr. Obama’s spokesman, said in a statement on Saturday.

Mr. Trump’s demand for a congressional investigation appears to be based, at least in part, on unproved claims by Breitbart News and conservative talk radio hosts that secret warrants were issued authorizing the tapping of the phones of Mr. Trump and his aides at Trump Tower in New York.

In a series of Twitter messages on Saturday, the president seemed to be convinced that those claims were true. In one post, Mr. Trump said, “I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!”

On Sunday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy White House press secretary, said the president was determined to find out what had really happened, calling it potentially the “greatest abuse of power” that the country has ever seen.

“Look, I think he’s going off of information that he’s seen that has led him to believe that this is a very real potential,” Ms. Sanders said on ABC’s “This Week” program. “And if it is, this is the greatest overreach and the greatest abuse of power that I think we have ever seen and a huge attack on democracy itself. And the American people have a right to know if this took place.”

Senior law enforcement and intelligence officials who worked in the Obama administration have said there were no such secret intelligence warrants regarding Mr. Trump. Asked whether such a warrant existed, James R. Clapper Jr., a former director of national intelligence, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program, “Not to my knowledge, no.”

“There was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect at the time as a candidate or against his campaign,” Mr. Clapper added.

Mr. Trump’s demands for a congressional investigation were initially met with skepticism by lawmakers, including Republicans. Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said he was “not sure what it is that he is talking about.”

“I’m not sure what the genesis of that statement was,” Mr. Rubio said.

Pressed to elaborate on “Meet the Press,” Mr. Rubio said, “I’m not going to be a part of a witch hunt, but I’m also not going to be a part of a cover-up.”

This is absolutely outrageous. Trump is losing his mind, and is searching for some way to hide from the “facts.” They better put Pence on standby alert. The main point is that Trump has presented no proof of any connections from Obama.

Despite early denials, growing list of Trump camp contacts with Russians haunts White House

Rosalind S. Helderman, writing in the Washington Post:

Two days after the presidential election, a Russian official speaking to a reporter in Moscow offered a surprising acknowledgment: The Kremlin had been in contact with Donald Trump’s campaign.

The claim, coming amid allegations that Russia had interfered with the election, was met with an immediate no-wiggle-room, blanket denial from Trump’s spokeswoman. “It never happened,” Hope Hicks told the Associated Press at the time. “There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.”

In fact, it is now clear it did happen.

The past few days have brought a growing list of confirmed communications between Trump campaign aides and Russian officials, with each new revelation adding to a cloud of suspicion that hangs over the White House as critics demand an independent investigation.

Trump’s team has offered various explanations for the meetings: Some encounters, they have said, were brief, no more than casual, polite introductions. Others involved the routine diplomacy common for officials surrounding a candidate for the nation’s highest office.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was an early Trump campaign adviser, said his two interactions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, first reported this week by The Washington Post, came in his role as a senator, not as a campaign surrogate.

It is unclear why the White House has consistently denied contacts with Russian officials if the meetings that took place were innocuous.

As a result, the confirmations of the encounters have trickled out through a series of news stories that have proved increasingly damaging to the Trump administration, with some Trump associates appearing to shift their accounts over time.

Of course, there is much more here.

Jeff Sessions Had No Choice

Via The New York Times Editorial Board:

It’s no great credit to Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he finally recused himself from all Justice Department investigations relating to the 2016 presidential campaign — and specifically from all current or future inquiries into Russian attempts to influence the election. Short of tendering his resignation, he had no other real choice.

Mr. Sessions, who was President Trump’s first and most ardent supporter in the Senate, as well as a top national security adviser to the Trump campaign, was never in a position to serve as an impartial arbiter of any investigation involving Mr. Trump or his campaign. But until Thursday he refused to cede control over Justice Department investigations into contacts between the campaign and the Russian government.

That stance became untenable on Wednesday night, after The Washington Post reported that, while testifying at his confirmation hearings in January, Mr. Sessions had failed to disclose two meetings he had with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, during the campaign. In response to a question about connections between Russia and the Trump team, from Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, Mr. Sessions said under oath that he was “not aware of any of those activities.” Then, without prompting, he volunteered, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”

As it turns out, Mr. Sessions met twice with Mr. Kislyak, once at the Republican National Convention in July, and again in his Senate office in September — around the time that Russian efforts to meddle in the election on behalf of Mr. Trump reached their peak. Still, meeting an ambassador is no crime in itself, which makes Mr. Sessions’s denial even more inexplicable. On Thursday, he said he “never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries” about the campaign. Yet a Trump administration official told CNBC’s John Harwood that Mr. Sessions had talked about the election with the ambassador, if only in “superficial” terms.

Mr. Sessions is the latest administration official to be caught between his words and the truth on Russia. Just a few weeks ago, the president fired Michael Flynn, his national security adviser, for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.

Mr. Sessions’s recusal is only a first necessary step. The second must be the appointment of a special counsel — an independent, nonpartisan actor who can both investigate and prosecute any criminal acts in relation to Russian interference, whether by Mr. Sessions or anyone else. That’s the only way an investigation can have credibility with the public. Simply shifting investigative authority to one of Mr. Sessions’s deputies, who report to him on all other matters, would do nothing to cure the underlying conflict.

More here.

Top GOP lawmaker calls on Sessions to recuse himself from Russia investigation

Via The Washington Post:

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Thursday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should recuse himself from investigations of whether Russia interfered in the presidential 2016 election at the Justice Department and FBI.

To maintain “the trust of the American people, you recuse yourself in these situations,” McCarthy said during an appearance on MSNBC Thursday morning, noting it would simply “be easier” for the public to have confidence in the investigation if Sessions bowed out.

McCarthy’s comments follow revelations that Sessions met with the Russian ambassador during election season. Under oath in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing in January, Sessions had said that he had not met with any Russian officials.

“I don’t have all the information in front of me, I don’t want to prejudge, but I just think for any investigation going forward, you want to make sure everybody trusts the investigation,” McCarthy said. “I think it’d be easier from that standpoint” for Sessions to recuse himself.

According to Justice Department officials, Sessions, a top Trump supporter, met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice in 2016, including one September meeting in his office.

McCarthy is the first prominent Republican to call for Sessions to recuse himself. Some Democrats went further, calling on Sessions to resign and demanding an independent investigation.

“After lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians, the Attorney General must resign,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement released late Wednesday, adding that “Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country.”

Much more here.

It’s now political suicide for Republicans if they don’t call for deeper investigations on Russia

Chris Cillizza, reporting for the Washington Post:

President Trump’s Russia problems just got a whole lot worse.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kisylak twice in 2016, according to The Washington Post, conversations that run directly counter to Sessions’s assertions during his confirmation hearing to be the nation’s top cop.

In that Judiciary Committee hearing Jan. 1o, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked Sessions whether he was aware of any contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence officials. “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians,” Sessions replied.

It does not take a political genius to understand how big a problem this is for Sessions, Trump and congressional Republicans more broadly. (Sessions’s response — I talked to a lot people! — isn’t going to cut it.)

Before this report, most congressional Republicans were resistant to the idea of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the contacts between Russia and Trump campaign officials and surrogates — insisting that the ongoing FBI investigation and congressional committees looking into the issue were more than enough.

That’s going to become an untenable position for Republicans — starting with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — in light of this new information about Sessions. Not only is there a very serious question about whether Sessions misled — purposely or accidentally — his colleagues while under oath, but this is only the latest incident involving unanswered questions about the ties among Trump, his top advisers and Russia.

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn lost his job last month after lying to Vice President Pence — and lots of other people — about the nature of his conversations with Kisylak. Trump has repeatedly refused to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin while insisting that stories about his ties to Russia are “fake news.”

In short: Where there’s smoke and smoke and smoke and smoke and smoke, most reasonable people will assume there is fire — or that there should be an independent investigation to determine whether there is fire. Arguing that “there’s nothing to see here” is simply not a tenable position for Republicans at this point.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R), who has been outspoken in raising doubts about Trump and Russia, was blunt about what needs to happen if Sessions spoke to Kisylak.

I suspect lots of Republicans will follow Graham’s lead over the next 24 or 48 hours. The details here — particularly given the Flynn resignation — almost certainly will force an act of political triage from GOPers. They need to find a way to wall themselves off from what, with each passing day, is becoming more and more toxic. Otherwise, the spillage could leak all over them.

More here.

Democrats Call for Sessions to Recuse Himself From Russia Inquiry

Charlie Savage, reporting for the New York Times:

Democrats escalated their demands late Wednesday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions recuse himself from overseeing an investigation into contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government after a disclosure that Mr. Sessions himself spoke with the Russian ambassador last year, seemingly contradicting his testimony at his confirmation hearing.

And some Democrats went further, suggesting that Mr. Sessions had perjured himself and demanding that he resign.

“Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country and must resign,” said Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader. “There must be an independent, bipartisan, outside commission to investigate the Trump political, personal and financial connections to the Russians.”

But the Trump administration rejected the accusations as partisan attacks, and Mr. Sessions said in a statement issued shortly before midnight that he had not addressed election matters with the ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak.

“I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign,” Mr. Sessions said. “I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”

The clash was the latest escalation in the continuing fallout from what intelligence officials have concluded was Russian interference in the 2016 election to help President Trump, including by hacking Democratic emails and providing them to WikiLeaks for release.

F.B.I. officials have been scrutinizing contacts between people affiliated with the Trump campaign over communication with the Russian government. And last month, the national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, resigned after it emerged that Mr. Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence about a conversation with Mr. Kislyak.

Now, Mr. Sessions appears to be at risk of becoming caught in that same wave. He was the first senator to endorse Mr. Trump and became an architect of his populist campaign strategy who sharpened the candidate’s message on immigration and trade. Mr. Sessions became a trusted adviser and is seen as one of the power centers in the administration.

At the confirmation hearing for attorney general in January, Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, asked Mr. Sessions about a CNN report that intelligence briefers had told Barack Obama, then the president, and Mr. Trump, then the president-elect, that Russian operatives claimed to have compromising information about Mr. Trump.

Mr. Franken also noted that the report indicated that surrogates for Mr. Trump and intermediaries for the Russian government continued to exchange information during the campaign. He asked Mr. Sessions what he would do if that report proved true.

Mr. Sessions replied that he was “not aware of any of those activities.” He added: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”

But the Justice Department acknowledged on Wednesday that Mr. Sessions had twice communicated with the Russian ambassador last year. The first time was in July, at the Republican National Convention, after he gave a speech at an event for ambassadors sponsored by the Heritage Foundation. The second time was a visit to his office by Mr. Kislyak in September. The Washington Post earlier reported both encounters.

More here.