Senators from both parties pledge to deepen probe of Russia and the 2016 election

Via The Washington Post:

Top Republican and Democratic senators pledged Tuesday to deepen their investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election in the wake of Michael Flynn’s resignation as President Trump’s national security adviser, opening a new and potentially uncomfortable chapter in the uneasy relationship between Trump and Capitol Hill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said such an investigation is “highly likely,” and the top two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), stood side by side Tuesday to announce that the committee’s ongoing probe must include an examination of any contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government.

Flynn resigned late Monday after revelations of potentially illegal contacts with Russia last year and misleading statements about the communication to senior Trump administration officials, including Vice President Pence.

“We are aggressively going to continue the oversight responsibilities of the committee as it relates to not only the Russian involvement in the 2016 election, but again any contacts by any campaign individuals that might have happened with Russian government officials,” said Burr, the chairman of the intelligence panel.

Added Warner, the vice chairman, “The press reports are troubling, and the sooner we can get to the veracity of those press reports or not, then we’ll take the next appropriate step.”

The consensus among lawmakers came at a tense moment, when congressional Republicans were already finding it difficult to defend Trump as the tempestuous start to his term has stoked frustration, fatigue and fear on Capitol Hill.

Many congressional Republicans have endured Trump’s unpredictability — including his criticism of the federal judiciary, and an immigration order that caught them by surprise and drew intense national blowback and a legal rebuke — because they think he holds the key to passing laws they have talked about for years.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the Freedom Caucus, a conservative group of House members, put it this way: “I would rather accomplish something with distractions than not accomplish anything with smooth sailing.”

Burr and Warner’s agreement is also striking given the partisan feuding that has characterized investigations into Russia and the election — and relationships on Capitol Hill generally. The two senators were initially at odds over whether the committee’s probe should include potential ties between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government, with Burr suggesting that it was outside the panel’s purview.

On Tuesday, Burr defended the committee’s right to look at those potential contacts, including any that may have occurred before Trump’s inauguration. And he has the support of Senate GOP leadership; in addition to McConnell, Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the majority whip, and Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the GOP conference vice chairman, also called for investigations into Flynn’s actions.

Their pronouncements contrasted sharply with remarks by Republicans in the House, who applauded Flynn’s resignation but for the most part stopped short of calling for further investigation.

“I’ll leave it up to the administration to describe the circumstances surrounding what brought [Flynn] to this point,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters.

Some took aim elsewhere. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said the most significant question posed by Flynn’s resignation is why intelligence officials eavesdropped on his calls with the Russian ambassador and later leaked information on those calls to the news media.

“I expect for the FBI to tell me what is going on, and they better have a good answer,” Nunes said. “The big problem I see here is that you have an American citizen who had his phone calls recorded.”

Democrats cautiously applauded plans to expand the Senate investigation, even though several of them had called for an independent probe run by a special prosecutor. McConnell and Republicans will certainly have more control over an in-house investigation, but even Warner said he favors that approach.

“Not only do we have oversight over intelligence and counterintelligence, but it works in a bipartisan basis,” Warner told reporters.

Many Democrats think the slow, painstaking but largely public process of an independent commission, such as the 9/11 Commission, is preferable to leaving the investigation in the hands of committees that work in secret, giving leaders more latitude to pull political strings.

More here.

Elizabeth Warren Persists

Gail Collins, writing in the New York Times:

It’s a dark and dismal time for American liberals. Except for the part where the opposition keeps shooting itself in the foot.

We will now pause to contemplate the fact that this week the Senate Republicans attempted to forward their agenda by silencing Elizabeth Warren while she was reading a letter from Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow.

In explanation, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell basically called Warren a pushy girl.

Talk about the gift that keeps on giving. Never has a political party reached such a pinnacle of success, and then instantly begun using it to inspire the opposition.

We’re less than three weeks into the Trump administration, and almost every day the people in power stop delivering the message of the day and veer off into a Strange Tale.

Which do you think the Democrats found most empowering — Trump’s first full day in the White House, when he marched off to the C.I.A. to deliver a rambling tirade about the inauguration crowd size? The Holocaust Remembrance Day proclamation that eliminated any reference to the Jews? Or the new Supreme Court nominee saying the president who named him was being “demoralizing” and “disheartening”?

Or this Senate-silencing moment? The subject at hand was the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general. The debate was going to be endless. It was evening and nobody was listening. Warren was taking her turn and reading a letter Coretta Scott King wrote about Sessions in 1986.

That was when Sessions was rejected for a federal judgeship on the basis of an impressive record of racial insensitivity as a U.S. attorney in Alabama. The charges included referring to a black assistant U.S. attorney as “boy,” joking about the Ku Klux Klan and referring to the N.A.A.C.P. as “un-American.”

His supporters say he’s changed. Indeed, Sessions has evolved into a senator who is well liked by his peers and obsessed with illegal immigrants. Totally different person.

More here.

McConnell rebukes Trump’s judge attack

Isaac Arnsdorf, writing in Politico:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Sunday distanced himself from President Donald Trump’s positions on Russia, voter fraud and the travel ban, while criticizing the president for attacking a federal judge.

“It is best not to single out judges,” McConnell told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union. “We all get disappointed from time to time. I think it is best to avoid criticizing them individually.”

McConnell was asked about Trump’s tweet on Saturday calling the George W. Bush-appointed judge who temporarily halted his travel ban a “so-called judge.”

The Kentucky Republican said he wouldn’t consider legislation to implement the travel ban, instead leaving it to courts to determine the legality of Trump’s executive order.

“The courts will decide whether or not the executive order of the president that is issued is valid or not,” he said. “I think proper vetting is important, but there is a fine line here between proper vetting and interfering with the kind of travel or suggesting a religious test.”

McConnell declined to directly comment on Trump’s statement in an interview with Bill O’Reilly comparing Vladimir Putin‘s killings with some past American actions. (“We’ve got a lot of killers,” the president said. “What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”) But McConnell made clear he does not share the president’s view of Putin.

“He is a former KGB agent, a thug, not elected in a way that most people consider a credible election,” McConnell said of the Russian leader. “No, I don’t think there is any equivalency with the way the Russians conduct themselves and the way the United States does.”

More here.

Senators Push to Broaden Inquiry on Election Hacking

Via The New York Times:

Pressure mounted on Sunday for a broader congressional investigation of Russian cyberattacks aimed at influencing the American election, even as a top aide to President-elect Donald J. Trump said there was no conclusive evidence of foreign interference.

The effort was being led by a bipartisan group of senators, including John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate Democratic leader, who called on Sunday for the creation of a Senate select committee on cyberactivity to take the investigative lead on Capitol Hill.

“Recent reports of Russian interference in our election should alarm every American,” the senators wrote on Sunday in a letter to Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, who has said a select committee is not necessary. “Cybersecurity is the ultimate cross-jurisdictional challenge, and we must take a comprehensive approach to meet this challenge effectively.”

The developments served to deepen the fissures between high-ranking lawmakers of both parties who see American intelligence reports implicating Russia as the basis for additional inquiries and Mr. Trump, who continues to reject the conclusions of those reports.

But the developments also put new strain on Mr. McConnell. He now faces calls from Mr. McCain and Lindsey Graham, two Senate Republicans considered well versed on national security issues, to form a select committee. If he were to reject that appeal, he would be subject to criticism that he was trying to avoid a spotlight on an issue that senators in both parties believe is worthy of more focused scrutiny.

Mr. McConnell said last week that while he respects the intelligence agencies’ conclusions, the Senate Intelligence Committee is “more than capable of conducting a complete review” itself. He also acknowledged that Mr. McCain could conduct an investigation on the Armed Services Committee, an option that remains open should Mr. McConnell decide against a select committee.

Those divisions, coming as the Electoral College prepares to meet on Monday to ratify Mr. Trump’s election and the president-elect completes his cabinet choices, all but ensured that the issue would cloud the first months of Mr. Trump’s presidency, when he will be asking Congress to approve an aggressive legislative agenda.

Several permanent congressional committees have already been tasked with examining various aspects of the Russian interference, which has been largely accepted as fact by most members of Congress.

But in their letter on Sunday, the lawmakers argued the issue was too important and complicated for an existing committee to take on properly.

“We share your respect for, and deference to, the regular order of the Senate, and we recognize that this is an extraordinary request,” the senators wrote to Mr. McConnell. “However, we believe it is justified by the extraordinary scope and scale of the cyber problem.”

In addition to undertaking a “comprehensive investigation of Russian interference,” the senators recommended that such a committee also develop “comprehensive recommendations and, as necessary, new legislation to modernize our nation’s laws, governmental organization, and related practices to meet this challenge.”

Select committees, which are typically created to examine a particular issue for a limited time, are rarely formed. The most prominent recent example is the House Select Committee on the attacks in 2012 on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, an inquiry that Democrats have denounced as unduly partisan.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan said last week that the House Intelligence Committee would continue its own examination of Russian hacking.

Senate Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, was also part of the effort. “We want to find out what the Russians are doing to our political system and what other foreign governments might do to our political system,” he said. “And then figure out a way to stop it.” 

 

Mr. Schumer said in a news conference on Sunday that they intended to avoid such charges of partisanship.

“We don’t want it to just be finger pointing at one person or another,” Mr. Schumer said. “We want to find out what the Russians are doing to our political system and what other foreign governments might do to our political system. And then figure out a way to stop it.”

A spokesman for Mr. McConnell, David Popp, referred to Mr. McConnell’s earlier comments and said the majority leader would be reviewing the latest letter.

The letter was also signed by Mr. Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that Mr. McCain leads. It follows a signed statement from the lawmakers, released last week, warning that any congressional investigation into the hacks “cannot become a partisan issue.”

Mr. Trump, for his part, has sought to paint the intelligence community’s conclusions about the matter as just that — a partisan attack against him. He said last week that the reports were “just another excuse” by Democrats frustrated with the election results that might be used to try to undermine his victory.

Asked on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday what information Mr. Trump had received that led him to reject intelligence assessments, Kellyanne Conway, one of Mr. Trump’s top advisers, insisted that the reports about the hacking were groundless.

“Where is the evidence?” Ms. Conway asked, turning the question around. “Why, when C.I.A. officials were invited to a House intelligence briefing last week, did they refuse to go?”

Robert M. Gates, the former defense secretary under President Obama and President George W. Bush who has offered counsel to Mr. Trump, speculated on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the president-elect “felt the way this information came out through newspaper stories and so on was somehow intended to delegitimize his victory in the election and that he’s reacting to that rather than ‘the facts on the ground,’ as it were.”

But Mr. Gates also said the Russian hacking was aimed at discrediting the American electoral process.

“Whether or not it was intended to help one candidate or another, I don’t know,” said Mr. Gates, who also served as C.I.A. director under President George Bush. “But I think it clearly was aimed at discrediting our elections, and I think it was aimed certainly at weakening Mrs. Clinton.”

Much more here.

Mitch McConnell announces probe of Russian hacking

Via The Washington Post:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday strongly condemned any foreign interference with U.S. elections and announced that the Senate intelligence panel will investigate Russia’s suspected election interference.

“The Russian are not our friends,” McConnell told reporters at a scheduled year-end news conference.

McConnell’s announcement came a day after a group of senators called for a thorough, bipartisan investigation of Russian interference. Some have endorsed the idea of a special select committee to lead an investigation, but McConnell stopped short of endorsing that, saying that any congressional probe would follow “regular order” through the current committee structure.

“This simply cannot be a partisan issue,” McConnell said, before adding that the Intelligence Committee “is more than capable of conducting a complete review of this matter.”

McConnell declined to address his own role in a September briefing for lawmakers, where he reportedly dismissed intelligence assessments suggesting Russia was trying to sway the election in favor of Donald Trump. Instead, McConnell credited Senate Republicans for standing firm against Russia and blamed Obama for Russian encroachment around the globe.

“The Obama administration for eight years attempted to reset relations with Russia, and sat back while Russia expanded its sphere of influence and intervened in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Syria, and attempted to bully Baltic countries. It defies belief that somehow Republicans in the Senate are reluctant to either review Russian tactics or ignore them,” he said.

McConnell also expressed strong support for the intelligence community, putting him at odds with Trump’s public doubts about the reliability of the nation’s intelligence agencies.

“I have the highest confidence in the intelligence community and especially the Central Intelligence Agency,” McConnell said. “The CIA is filled with selfless patriots, many of whom anonymously risk their lives for the American people.”

Let’s wait and see just how well this approach works. John McCain is calling for a select committee, rather than McConnell’s demand for only the Senate Intelligence Panel to handle the investigation,.

More here.

Baseless Trump claims of a “rigged” election

Via The New York Times Editorial Board:

It may be too late for the Republican Party to save itself from the rolling disaster of Donald Trump, but the party’s top leaders still have the duty to speak out and help save the country from his reckless rhetoric. The most frightening example is Mr. Trump’s frenzied claim that the presidential election is being “rigged” against him — a claim he has ramped up as his chances of winning the presidency have gone down.

Instead of disavowing this absurdity outright, Republican leaders sit by in spineless silence. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, and Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, are the two most powerful Republicans in the country and should be willing to put the national interest above their own. Both know full well that there is no “rigging,” and yet between them they have managed one tepid response to Mr. Trump’s outrageous accusations: “Our democracy relies on confidence in election results,” Mr. Ryan’s spokeswoman said, “and the speaker is fully confident the states will carry out this election with integrity.”

This is like standing back while an arsonist pours gasoline all over your house, then expressing confidence that the fire department will get there in time.

Mr. Ryan and Mr. McConnell could hardly dishonor themselves more than they already have in this sordid election year, but their refusal to stand up to Mr. Trump’s pernicious lie may be their lowest moment yet.

Other high-profile Republicans have amplified Mr. Trump’s charges and further riled up his angry base. On Saturday, Senator Jeff Sessions, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee from Alabama, told a crowd at a Trump rally in New Hampshire that “they are attempting to rig this election.” On Sunday, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and now Mr. Trump’s race-baiting surrogate, told CNN that he would be a “moron” to believe that the voting in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia would be fair to Mr. Trump. “I have found very few situations where Republicans cheat,” Mr. Giuliani said. “They don’t control the inner cities the way Democrats do.”

More here.

9/11 Bill now called into question by Republicans

Via The New York Times:

Congress [under the control of Republicans] seems determined to set a new standard for craven incompetence. Less than 24 hours after the Senate and House delivered a stinging rebuke to President Obama by overriding his veto of a bill that would let the Sept. 11 families sue Saudi Arabia, Republican leaders raised the possibility of a do-over.

On Thursday the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said that “nobody had really focused on the potential downside in terms of our international relationships, and I think it was just a ball dropped.”

It’s rare to hear such a baldfaced admission of gross ineptitude. But instead of putting the responsibility entirely where it belongs — on Congress — Mr. McConnell went on absurdly to blame Mr. Obama for failing to communicate the potential consequences of the bill. In fact, Mr. Obama, the national security agencies, the Saudi government, retired diplomats, the European Union and big corporations had all bombarded Congress with warnings. Yet lawmakers ignored all of them in a rush to pass the legislation and then, this week, override Mr. Obama’s veto by a large bipartisan vote.

* * *

Just what has caused Republican leaders to have second thoughts is unclear. “I’d like to think that there’s a way we can fix [it] so that our service members do not have legal problems overseas while still protecting the rights of the 9/11 victims,” Paul Ryan, the House speaker, told reporters on Thursday, acknowledging one of the dangers.

It is even less clear what lawmakers could do to mitigate that or the other problems with this ill-conceived law. The Saudi government, in a statement, said it hoped Congress would “correct this legislation” in its lame duck session after the November election. Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has suggested that changes could include limiting suits to the Sept. 11 attacks or creating a separate legal tribunal.

What the hell is going on in Congress? Why is McConnell now raising questions which should have been explored carefully prior to the vote? Incompetence.

Mitch McConnell on Donald Trump

Trump clearly needs to change, in my opinion, to win the general election. What I’ve said to him both publicly and privately: ‘You’re a great entertainer. You turn on audiences. You’re good before a crowd. You have a lot of Twitter followers. That worked fine for you in the primaries. But now that you are in the general, people are looking for a level of seriousness that is typically conveyed by having a prepared text and Teleprompter and staying on message.’ So my hope is that he is beginning to pivot and become what I would call a more serious and credible candidate for the highest office in the land.

Mitch McConnell, speaking yesterday.

Supreme Court quote of the day

Mitch McConnell, Feb. 13, 2016: “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Law Journal, Vol. 59, 1970: “The Senate should discount the philosophy of the nominee. […] The president is presumably elected by the people to carry out a program and altering the ideological directions of the Supreme Court would seem to be a perfectly legitimate part of a Presidential platform.”

Editorial in today’s New York Times

It is well past time

While a lot can happen before the expiration of the Patriot Act on June 1, it looks like Congress (or at the least the House) are prepared for major reductions in US domestic spying and surveillance.

From the New York Times:

After more than a decade of wrenching national debate over the intrusiveness of government intelligence agencies, a bipartisan wave of support has gathered to sharply limit the federal government’s sweeps of phone and Internet records.

On Thursday, a bill that would overhaul thePatriot Act and curtail the so-called metadata surveillance exposed by Edward J. Snowden was overwhelmingly passed by the House Judiciary Committee and was heading to almost certain passage in that chamber this month.

An identical bill in the Senate — introduced with the support of five Republicans — is gaining support over the objection of Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, who is facing the prospect of his first policy defeat since ascending this year to majority leader.

The push for reform is the strongest demonstration yet of a decade-long shift from a singular focus on national security at the expense of civil liberties to a new balance in the post-Snowden era.

Under the bipartisan bills in the House and Senate, the Patriot Act would be changed to prohibit bulk collection, and sweeps that had operated under the guise of so-called National Security Letters issued by the F.B.I. would end. The data would instead be stored by the phone companies themselves, and could be accessed by intelligence agencies only after approval of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.

The legislation would also create a panel of experts to advise the FISA court on privacy, civil liberties, and technology matters, while requiring the declassification of all significant FISA court opinions.

More details from the Times here.

Mitch McConnell pushes to continue telephone meta-data collection through 2020

McConnell is shameless. He is using a maneuver designed to block debate on his proposal. Currently the program is set to expire on June 1.

The legal authority enabling the National Security Agency’s bulk telephone metadata collection program that Edward Snowden exposed two years ago is set to expire June 1. But not if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others have their way.

The Republican from Kentucky introduced the legislation (PDF) late Tuesday that would allow the once-secret program, authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act, to continue through 2020. McConnell invoked a rule that bypasses the usual committee vetting process, enabling the bill to go directly to the Senate floor, where a vote has not been scheduled.

The measure, which immediately drew criticism from privacy advocates and some members of Congress, allows the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to essentially rubber-stamp government requests for so-called “business records” held by just about any institution, including the phone companies. Interpreted to require the telcos to cough up millions upon millions of calling records about their customers, it requires them to provide the National Security Agency with the phone numbers of both parties in a call, calling card numbers, the length and time of the calls, and the international mobile subscriber identity (ISMI) number for mobile callers. The NSA keeps a running database of that information, saying that it runs queries solely to combat terrorism.

The bulk data collection program has not proven effective in stopping terrorist attacks, and it is both expensive and anti-privacy to boot. It is time to end the surveillance society in this country and around the world. Contact your Senators.

Iraq quote of the day

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Congressional leaders left the White House on Wednesday “deeply frustrated” that President Obama had not found a swift resolution to the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that began in the seventh century A.D.

After meeting for more than an hour with the President in the Oval Office, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed disappointment that Mr. Obama “came up empty” when asked for a plan to heal the rift between the two religious groups, which began in the year 632.

“All we ask of this President is that he do one thing: settle a religious conflict that has been going on for a millennium and a half,” McConnell said. “What did he offer today? Nothing.”

Speaker of the House John Boehner acknowledged that there was a possibility that Obama might find a way to resolve the centuries-old Sunni-Shiite conflict, but the Ohio Republican was not optimistic.

“This struggle between Sunnis and Shiites has been going on for almost fifteen hundred years,” he said. “That means President Obama has had ample time to fix it.”

Andy Borowitz, writing on the New Yorker website.