Trump close to choosing outside counsel for Russia investigation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much more here.

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

Aaron Blake, reporting for the Washington Post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Trump is practically giving them a road map.

The Trump Administration Talent Vacuum

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More here.

Trump, Back on Twitter, Complains of ‘Witch Hunt’

Mark Sandler, reporting for the New York Times:

President Trump lashed out Thursday at his predecessor, President Barack Obama, and his former campaign opponent, Hillary Clinton, complaining that what he called “illegal acts” committed during their time in office never led to the appointment of a special counsel. He complained that he was the target of a witch hunt.

The morning after Mr. Trump’s Justice Department named Robert S. Mueller III, a former F.B.I. director, to investigate ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, Mr. Trump sent out a Twitter message making his case.

“With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special councel appointed,” the message said, misspelling counsel.

Moments later, Mr. Trump added, “This is the greatest single witch hunt of a politician in American history!”

The posts, shortly before 8 a.m., were a stark contrast to his muted reaction to the announcement of Mr. Mueller’s appointment on Wednesday evening.

In a statement released by the White House, the president said, “As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know — there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity. I look forward to this matter concluding quickly.”

How Mr. Trump should respond to the appointment was the subject of brief, but lively debate in the Oval Office, several senior officials said, with most of the president’s aides counseling a conciliatory tone. Mr. Trump often takes his most combative stances in early morning Twitter posts.

The president is correct in his observation about the rarity of a special counsel, though his references to the Clinton campaign and the Obama administration may not bolster his case. There were multiple congressional investigations of the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and the role played by Mrs. Clinton, then the secretary of state, and Mr. Obama.

The 25th Amendment Solution to Remove Trump

Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times:

It was just three days and a lifetime ago that I wrote a column about Donald Trump’s unfitness for the presidency that affected a world-weary tone. Nothing about this White House’s chaos was surprising given the style of Trump’s campaign, I argued. None of the breaking scandals necessarily suggested high crimes as opposed to simple omni-incompetence. And given that Republicans made their peace with Trump’s unfitness many months ago, it seemed pointless to expect their leaders to move against him unless something far, far worse came out.

As I said, three days and a lifetime. If the G.O.P.’s surrender to candidate Trump made exhortations about Republican politicians’ duty to their country seem like so much pointless verbiage, now President Trump has managed to make exhortation seem unavoidable again.

He has done so, if several days’ worth of entirely credible leaks and revelations are to be believed, by demonstrating in a particularly egregious fashion why the question of “fitness” matters in the first place.

The presidency is not just another office. It has become, for good reasons and bad ones, a seat of semi-monarchical political power, a fixed place on which unimaginable pressures are daily brought to bear, and the final stopping point for decisions that can lead very swiftly to life or death for people the world over.

One does not need to be a Marvel superhero or Nietzschean Übermensch to rise to this responsibility. But one needs some basic attributes: a reasonable level of intellectual curiosity, a certain seriousness of purpose, a basic level of managerial competence, a decent attention span, a functional moral compass, a measure of restraint and self-control. And if a president is deficient in one or more of them, you can be sure it will be exposed.

Trump is seemingly deficient in them all. Some he perhaps never had, others have presumably atrophied with age. He certainly has political talent — charisma, a raw cunning, an instinct for the jugular, a form of the common touch, a certain creativity that normal politicians lack. He would not have been elected without these qualities. But they are not enough, they cannot fill the void where other, very normal human gifts should be.

There is, as my colleague David Brooks wrote Tuesday, a basic childishness to the man who now occupies the presidency. That is the simplest way of understanding what has come tumbling into light in the last few days: The presidency now has kinglike qualities, and we have a child upon the throne.

It is a child who blurts out classified information in order to impress distinguished visitors. It is a child who asks the head of the F.B.I. why the rules cannot be suspended for his friend and ally. It is a child who does not understand the obvious consequences of his more vindictive actions — like firing the very same man whom you had asked to potentially obstruct justice on your say-so.

A child cannot be president. I love my children; they cannot have the nuclear codes.

But a child also cannot really commit “high crimes and misdemeanors” in any usual meaning of the term. There will be more talk of impeachment now, more talk of a special prosecutor for the Russia business; well and good. But ultimately I do not believe that our president sufficiently understands the nature of the office that he holds, the nature of the legal constraints that are supposed to bind him, perhaps even the nature of normal human interactions, to be guilty of obstruction of justice in the Nixonian or even Clintonian sense of the phrase. I do not believe he is really capable of the behind-the-scenes conspiring that the darker Russia theories envision. And it is hard to betray an oath of office whose obligations you evince no sign of really understanding or respecting.

Which is not an argument for allowing him to occupy that office. It is an argument, instead, for using a constitutional mechanism more appropriate to this strange situation than impeachment: the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which allows for the removal of the president if a majority of the cabinet informs the Congress that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” and (should the president contest his own removal) a two-thirds vote by Congress confirms the cabinet’s judgment.

The Trump situation is not exactly the sort that the amendment’s Cold War-era designers were envisioning. He has not endured an assassination attempt or suffered a stroke or fallen prey to Alzheimer’s. But his incapacity to really govern, to truly execute the serious duties that fall to him to carry out, is nevertheless testified to daily — not by his enemies or external critics, but by precisely the men and women whom the Constitution asks to stand in judgment on him, the men and women who serve around him in the White House and the cabinet.

Read the things that these people, members of his inner circle, his personally selected appointees, say daily through anonymous quotations to the press. (And I assure you they say worse off the record.) They have no respect for him, indeed they seem to palpate with contempt for him, and to regard their mission as equivalent to being stewards for a syphilitic emperor.

It is not squishy New York Times conservatives who regard the president as a child, an intellectual void, a hopeless case, a threat to national security; it is people who are self-selected loyalists, who supported him in the campaign, who daily go to work for him. And all this, in the fourth month of his administration.

This will not get better. It could easily get worse. And as hard and controversial as a 25th Amendment remedy would be, there are ways in which Trump’s removal today should be less painful for conservatives than abandoning him in the campaign would have been — since Hillary Clinton will not be retroactively elected if Trump is removed, nor will Neil Gorsuch be unseated. Any cost to Republicans will be counted in internal divisions and future primary challenges, not in immediate policy defeats.

More here.

How Trump May Save the Republic

Bret Stephens, writing for the New York Times:

The question in the title of Timothy Egan’s latest column for The Times is “Who Will Save the Republic?” My answer is Donald Trump, of course.

I mean this in the Anna Sebastian sense — Madame Sebastian being the shrewd, sinister and very Teutonic mother played by Leopoldine Konstantin in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 classic, “Notorious.”

Anna’s adult son, Alexander (Claude Rains), is part of a group of well-heeled Nazis living and scheming revenge in Brazil when he marries Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), a beautiful young woman he deems trustworthy because her father was a convicted German spy.

Too late, Alexander realizes that Alicia is really an American agent, and that exposure of the fact will mean certain death for him at the hands of his fellow Nazis. When he confesses the problem to mother, she responds with the most reproachful reassurance in movie history:

“We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity — for a time.”

Just so with our 45th president. His views are often malevolent, and his conduct might ultimately prove criminal. But we, too, are protected, for a time, by the enormity of his stupidity.

So much was clear back in January, when Trump dropped his refugee ban on the public, like a dunce trying to squash a snail by dropping a brick on it, only to have it land on his own foot.

There were constitutional ways by which the administration might have made good on some of its obnoxious immigration promises. Trump managed to alight on the unconstitutional ones. His loud embrace as a political candidate of a comprehensive Muslim ban sealed its fate in court once he was president.

Tuesday’s dismissal of James B. Comey as F.B.I. director fits the pattern. I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice that a man whose signature line in showbiz was “You’re fired” turns out to be spectacularly incompetent even in this respect.

The president’s letter dismissing Comey revealed more about the president’s legal anxieties than it did about the director’s job performance. It was announced before it was delivered. Its supposed rationale — Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s memo on Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email case — could not withstand a cursory examination of Trump’s motives. It had the effect of rehabilitating Comey’s once-tarnished reputation, while tarnishing Rosenstein’s once-sound one.

What was meant to quash an investigation into the obscure tangle of Trump’s possible Russia connections is now certain to revive it. The Senate will be hard-pressed to confirm an F.B.I. director who is an obvious political lackey. And anyone who takes the job will feel honor bound to pursue the investigation with maximum legal and bureaucratic muscle.

This is how we save the Republic — one self-inflicted Trumpian political wound after another.

All the more so since Trump seems to be digging in. The president is now threatening to cancel all live White House press briefings while issuing ill-concealed threats against the former director. On Friday, he tweeted that “James Comey better hope there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

Hang on: There could be tapes? Can someone please ask Bill Safire in heaven to drop in on Richard Nixon in purgatory so they can walk us through this one together?

In corporate life, the usual practice when firing someone is either to say nothing or to say something nice, on the theory that the unlucky person is likelier to respond in kind. Trump has now given his former director the opportunity and incentive to do the opposite. Congressional hearings, should they happen, will be fun.

What makes all this so much more astonishing is how unnecessary it is, at least from Trump’s point of view.

If the president has nothing to fear from a Russia investigation, then why not let it run its course toward exoneration or irrelevance? If he does have something to fear, then Comey — distrusted by Republicans and Democrats alike — would have been his ideal foil. Trump’s critics can now take heart that, no, we won’t soon be moving on from l’affaire russe.

On Friday, I asked an astute source with long experience in the intelligence community if he suspects a smoking gun.

“I would guess there is something on paper or derived through witness questioning that has given the bureau an opening, assuming that Trump’s actions are in response to growing concern about the Russian probe,” he replied, while adding the caveat, “Since we’re talking about Trump, a rampantly insecure ego, such an assumption isn’t mandatory.”

I’d add another caveat: Incompetence may protect us — but as Madame Sebastian knew, only for a while. The blunders may often be self-defeating, but not always. Trump is our president. The enormity of his stupidity, inescapably, is also our own.

Presence of Russian photographer in Oval Office raises alarms

Carol Morello and Greg Miller, writing in the Washington Post:

A photographer for a Russian state-owned news agency was allowed into the Oval Office on Wednesday during President Trump’s meeting with Russian diplomats, a level of access that was criticized by former U.S. intelligence officials as a potential security breach.

The officials cited the danger that a listening device or other surveillance equipment could have been brought into the Oval Office while hidden in cameras or other electronics. Former U.S. intelligence officials raised questions after photos of Trump’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were posted online by the Tass news agency.

Among those commenting on the issue was former deputy CIA director David S. Cohen. Responding to a question posed online about whether it was a sound decision to allow the photographer into the Oval Office, Cohen replied on Twitter: “No it was not.” He declined to elaborate when reached by phone.

The White House played down the danger, saying that the photographer and his equipment were subjected to a security screening before he and it entered the White House grounds. The Russian “had to go through the same screening as a member of the U.S. press going through the main gate to the [White House] briefing room,” a senior administration official said.

Other former intelligence officials also described the access granted to the photographer as a potential security lapse, noting that standard screening for White House visitors would not necessarily detect a sophisticated espionage device.

The administration official also said the White House had been misled about the role of the Russian photographer. Russian officials had described the individual as Lavrov’s official photographer without disclosing that he also worked for Tass.

“We were not informed by the Russians that their official photographer was dual-hatted and would be releasing the photographs on the state news agency,” the administration official said.

As a result, White House officials said they were surprised to see photos posted online showing Trump not only with Lavrov but also smiling and shaking hands with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

More here.

And there you have it. The White House officials were surprised. Who the hell is controlling security over there?

Sally Yates Tells Senators She Warned Trump About Michael Flynn

Matt Apuzzo and Emmarie Huetteman, reporting in the New York Times:

Less than a week into the Trump administration, Sally Q. Yates, the acting attorney general, hurried to the White House with an urgent concern. The president’s national security adviser, she said, had lied to the vice president about his Russian contacts and was vulnerable to blackmail by Moscow.

“We wanted to tell the White House as quickly as possible,” Ms. Yates told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Monday. “To state the obvious: You don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians.”

But President Trump did not immediately fire the adviser, Michael T. Flynn, over the apparent lie or the susceptibility to blackmail. Instead, Mr. Flynn remained in office for 18 more days. Only after the news of his false statements broke publicly did he lose his job on Feb. 13.

Ms. Yates’s testimony, along with a separate revelation Monday that President Barack Obama had warned Mr. Trump not to hire Mr. Flynn, offered a more complete public account of Mr. Flynn’s stunning fall from one of the nation’s most important security posts.

It also raised fresh doubts about Mr. Trump’s judgment in keeping Mr. Flynn in place despite serious Justice Department concerns. White House officials have not fully explained why they waited so long.

“I don’t have any way of knowing what, if anything, they did,” Ms. Yates said. “If nothing was done, then certainly that would be concerning.”

At the heart of Monday’s testimony were Mr. Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak. Mr. Flynn denied that they had discussed American sanctions, an assertion echoed by Vice President Mike Pence and the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer. But senior F.B.I. and Justice Department officials knew otherwise. Mr. Kislyak, like many foreign diplomats, was under routine surveillance, and his conversations with Mr. Flynn were recorded, officials have said. Investigators knew that Mr. Flynn had, in fact, discussed sanctions.

Much of what Ms. Yates said was previously known, but her testimony offered a dramatic firsthand account of a quickly unfolding scandal at the highest level of government.

On Jan. 26, Ms. Yates said, she called the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, regarding “a very sensitive matter” that they could discuss only in person. Later that day, at the White House, she warned Mr. McGahn that White House officials were making statements “that we knew not to be the truth.” Ms. Yates said she explained to Mr. McGahn how she knew Mr. Flynn’s statements were untrue, though she did not go into details Monday, citing concerns about sensitive information.

“Why does it matter to D.O.J. if one White House official lies to another White House official?” Mr. McGahn asked at a second meeting the next day, according to Ms. Yates.

It was not just a political concern, Ms. Yates replied. Intelligence services constantly look for leverage against foreign officials. If Mr. Flynn lied to his bosses, and Russian officials knew it, Moscow could use it as leverage against him. “This is a classic technique they would use going back to the Soviet era,” said James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence, who testified alongside Ms. Yates.

Mr. McGahn also asked Ms. Yates for the underlying evidence, she said, and she told him how he could see it.

Nearly two weeks later, The Washington Post reported that Ms. Yates had expressed concerns to the White House about Mr. Flynn. He was fired, with the White House citing “an eroding level of trust.”

But it was clear from Ms. Yates’s testimony that the White House had known for weeks that Mr. Flynn had been untruthful. Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said that if the information had never been made public, “Michael Flynn might still be sitting in the White House as national security adviser.”

Even since leaving office, Mr. Flynn has been a persistent headache for Mr. Trump. He retroactively registered as a foreign lobbyist and failed to disclose Russian contacts, resurrecting questions about the administration’s close ties to Russia. The F.B.I. is investigating whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russian operatives to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Mr. Trump blamed Obama officials on Monday, noting on Twitter that it was his predecessor’s administration that gave Mr. Flynn a security clearance.

“General Flynn was given the highest security clearance by the Obama Administration — but the Fake News seldom likes talking about that,” Mr. Trump wrote.

Mr. Flynn, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, has long been a controversial figure. He has incorrectly declared that Shariah, or Islamic law, is spreading in the United States and once wrote on Twitter, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” His dubious assertions were so common that subordinates called them “Flynn facts.”

Mr. Obama fired Mr. Flynn from his defense intelligence job. And two days after the election, he warned Mr. Trump against making Mr. Flynn his national security adviser, two former Obama administration officials said on Monday. Mr. Obama said he had profound concerns about Mr. Flynn’s taking such a job.

Mr. Spicer sought to cast doubt on Mr. Obama’s warning, noting that the Obama administration had renewed Mr. Flynn’s security clearance in April 2016, well after his departure from the D.I.A.

“If President Obama was truly concerned about General Flynn, why didn’t they suspend his security clearance, which they approved just months earlier?” Mr. Spicer asked during his daily press briefing.

But Mr. Spicer’s comments also called into question the Trump transition team’s own assessment of Mr. Flynn. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who led the transition in the days after the election, wanted Mr. Flynn to be slotted as director of national intelligence, a cabinet-level job but one with narrower responsibilities. Mr. Christie had reservations about Mr. Flynn that he shared with Mr. Trump, according to three people close to the transition.

The wiretapped conversations between Mr. Flynn and Mr. Kislyak remain classified, and Ms. Yates avoided even acknowledging them. Senators, though, were far less circumspect in both their questions and their commentary.

Though Ms. Yates said she had expected the White House to act on her concerns, she spared the Trump administration outright criticism for not doing so. That is because she was fired on Jan. 30 after refusing to defend the president’s executive order banning refugees and travel from several predominantly Muslim countries. She said she was not sure what the White House had done after she left.

More here.

Trump has a dangerous disability

George F. Will, writing in the Washington Post:

It is urgent for Americans to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either. This seems to be not a mere disinclination but a disability. It is not merely the result of intellectual sloth but of an untrained mind bereft of information and married to stratospheric self-confidence.

In February, acknowledging Black History Month, Trump said that “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” Because Trump is syntactically challenged, it was possible and tempting to see this not as a historical howler about a man who died 122 years ago, but as just another of Trump’s verbal fender benders, this one involving verb tenses.

Now, however, he has instructed us that Andrew Jackson was angry about the Civil War that began 16 years after Jackson’s death. Having, let us fancifully imagine, considered and found unconvincing William Seward’s 1858 judgment that the approaching Civil War was “an irrepressible conflict,” Trump says:

“People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

Library shelves groan beneath the weight of books asking questions about that war’s origins, so who, one wonders, are these “people” who don’t ask the questions that Trump evidently thinks have occurred to him uniquely? Presumably they are not the astute “lot of,” or at least “some,” people Trump referred to when speaking about his February address to a joint session of Congress: “A lot of people have said that, some people said it was the single best speech ever made in that chamber.” Which demotes Winston Churchill, among many others.

What is most alarming (and mortifying to the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated) is not that Trump has entered his eighth decade unscathed by even elementary knowledge about the nation’s history. As this column has said before, the problem isn’t that he does not know this or that, or that he does not know that he does not know this or that. Rather, the dangerous thing is that he does not know what it is to know something.

The United States is rightly worried that a strange and callow leader controls North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. North Korea should reciprocate this worry. Yes, a 70-year-old can be callow if he speaks as sophomorically as Trump did when explaining his solution to Middle Eastern terrorism: “I would bomb the s— out of them. . . . I’d blow up the pipes, I’d blow up the refineries, I’d blow up every single inch, there would be nothing left.”

Much more here.

100 Days of Noise From Donald Trump

Via the Editorial Board of the New York Times:

It was fitting that President Trump closed out his first 100 days in another bumbling attack on Obamacare, trying and failing to jam a bill through the House this week that had no chance of passing the Senate, just to create the illusion of action.

The sorry saga of health care under this president bears all the Trumpian hallmarks that Americans are learning to expect: the dishonest campaign promise (“health care for everyone”); the clownish attempts to write a bill; the miniaturization of Paul Ryan (remember that guy?); the rivalrous White House confederation of Bannonite anarchists and glittering cosmopolites; the dearth of nonwhites and nonmales at the table; the absence of any strategy and of any vision beyond “winning.”

All that’s needed to complete the Trump pattern is the insultingly obvious effort by the president’s kin to cash in. A health care summit meeting at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, maybe.

If only this administration could simply play as comedy, as pratfalls and double takes. Unfortunately, the saga of health care also reveals the capacity of Mr. Trump to do harm, through incompetence and indifference, if not effective action. Rather than build on the foundation of the Affordable Care Act, and take credit for a strengthened system, Mr. Trump is causing the prospect of nationally affordable care to recede through malign neglect.

Governing, so far, has turned out to be more than Mr. Trump can manage. He didn’t know very much coming into the job of president, including how little he knew, and the extent of his own ignorance has come as a continual surprise to him. “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” he famously marveled the first time he was preparing to fail at passing legislation. He expressed the same wonder of discovery at the complexity of North Korea.

In private life, Mr. Trump was accustomed to negotiations based on the simple reality that everyone involved shared the same objective: profit. He has struggled to bargain with legislators, who want to satisfy many constituencies and have conflicting notions of the national interest. In that sense, legislative deals require far more art than commercial ones, and for that reason, Mr. Trump has found himself in over his head. This week, after congressional Democrats called his bluff, threatening a government shutdown rather than acceding to his bluster, he slunk away from a demand that Congress start paying for his wasteful border wall — you know, the one Mexico has refused to pay for.

“I thought it would be easier,” Mr. Trump admitted about his job to Reuters this week.

Does he show any signs of learning on the job? In fact, yes. He has backed off dangerous pledges like tearing up the Iran nuclear deal and accusing China of manipulating its currency. He replaced his first national security adviser — the cartoonish Michael Flynn, who turned out to have been on not only the Russian payroll but also the Turkish one — with the formidable Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster.

But since his risible assertion of “American carnage” in the streets during his Inaugural Address, Mr. Trump has continually fomented fear and bullied vulnerable groups, particularly unauthorized immigrants. He has shown no interest in reaching beyond the minority of Americans who elected him, one reason his approval ratings are the lowest on record for a president at this point in his term.

And what of his central campaign pledge, to make America great again, presumably by creating vast numbers of jobs for those who helped elect him? This may prove the emptiest of his promises. The giant infrastructure program, which would indeed yield jobs, is nowhere to be seen. In its place are proposed tax cuts to benefit mainly the wealthy and photo-op executive orders to deregulate energy businesses that, even if sustained by the courts — a long shot — will merely enrich the likes of the Koch brothers.

Yet if his ratings are dismal, the other measure Mr. Trump has always lived by — his revenue — is booming, as he uses the presidency to promote his properties. His determination to leverage his office to expand his commercial empire is the only objective to which Americans, after 100 days, can be confident this president will stay true.

From ‘build that wall’ to kick the can: Trump’s border promise might be hard to break

Jenna Johnson and Sean Sullivan, writing in the Washington Post:

Rush Limbaugh and listeners of his conservative radio show were not happy with reports this week that President Trump was, as Limbaugh put it, “caving on his demand for a measly $1 billion in the budget for his wall on the border with Mexico.”

Tim from Detroit called in to say he’s worried Trump will “kick this can down the road” like any other politician. Ray from Chattanooga, Tenn., wished he could tell Trump: “Be the man we elected you to be.”

And John from Polk City, Fla., added: “Number one, build the wall. Every time he spoke: Build a wall. I’m afraid he’s starting to dip his foot into the swamp. And, boy, I just don’t want to see that happen.”

In his bumpy first three months in office, Trump has reversed himself on campaign promises now seen as impractical or unnecessary, from repealing and replacing Obamacare in a single day to labeling China as a currency manipulator.

But Trump’s promise to build an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall” paid for by Mexico was special. It was his most vivid campaign promise, and its proposed height grew with every obstacle thrown in Trump’s way, from naysayers saying it wasn’t possible to the Mexican government saying it wouldn’t foot the bill. The most popular chant at campaign rallies became “Build that wall!”

Failing to quickly follow through on a wall carries real political risks for Trump, whose success is due in large part to his embrace of hard-line positions on immigration. There is also peril for fellow Republicans — who have been split for years on how the United States should reform its immigration system — in not taking the idea of the wall seriously enough.

Mark Krikorian, the longtime executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates reduced immigration, said that he has never considered a border wall a top priority.

But now that the wall has taken on a life of its own, Krikorian said that Trump and Republicans have to make some sort of progress in securing a chunk of the border with a wall or heavy-duty fence — or else blow the opportunity to show Americans the party is ready to take action to crack down on illegal immigration.

“Following through on wall construction is one of the ways that the political class can win back trust on this topic,” Krikorian said. “It’s a tangible thing. You can take pictures of it and imagine it in your head.”

He added: “Even if the border wall did no good at all to control immigration, it would be important to build . . . Even if it did nothing, even if it was completely ineffective, it’s important politically.”

To Trump, the wall is a concrete symbol of his commitment to cracking down on illegal immigration. To many lawmakers, it’s a fantastical joke that they have to carefully navigate.

Since Trump took office, many lawmakers have been trying to steer him toward more practical solutions for the border involving fencing, increased border patrols and technology. They argue that constructing a wall would cost tens of billions, still wouldn’t solve many of the country’s border problems and could create whole new challenges as well.

“I think we’re all recognizing that his message is one that he wants a secure border. I think at one point that he may have very well thought that that was the best way to do it,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.).

Even at the White House, aides have been shifting their messaging to the broad topic of “border security,” with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus using the phrase six times on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday while only saying the word “wall” twice. The next day, Trump softened his demand to include wall funding in a must-pass spending bill — a comment widely viewed as caving to pressure from the same lawmakers that Trump once bragged he could outsmart.

More here.

The Flynn Story Isn’t Going Away

Via the New York Times Editorial Board:

Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, was fired weeks ago, but his ties to Russia keep raising questions this White House won’t answer and dark suspicions it can’t seem to dispel.

Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Elijah Cummings, the committee’s top Democrat, got right to the point on Tuesday, saying Mr. Flynn may have broken the law by failing to disclose payments totaling over $65,000 in 2015 from companies linked to Russia. They included $45,000 received from Russian state television for a speech in Moscow; on the same trip, he attended the network’s gala, sitting at the elbow of President Vladimir Putin. With his background, Mr. Flynn clearly knew that the failure to disclose payments on his security clearance forms could have disqualified him for a sensitive national security role.

Mr. Chaffetz also said Mr. Flynn, as a retired general and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, should have sought permission from the secretary of state and the secretary of the Army for his trip to Russia and for the payment. “I see no evidence that he actually did that,” Mr. Chaffetz said at a news conference on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Cummings said that the White House is stonewalling committee requests for documents related to Mr. Flynn’s hiring and firing, including records of his phone calls and correspondence. Mr. Chaffetz, amazingly, described the White House as “cooperative.” Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, later called the committee’s records requests “outlandish” and “ridiculous.” Which can hardly be called cooperative.

The fact remains, though, that a Republican committee chairman has said Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser concealed payments from Russia while Moscow was under investigation for meddling in the election, and that deepens an already serious problem for this White House.

After Mr. Flynn was fired in February, he disclosed that he’d been working as a foreign agent throughout the campaign, collecting more than $500,000 in consulting fees from a Turkish company with ties to both Ankara and Moscow. He registered as a foreign agent only after he left the White House.

These aren’t simple bookkeeping errors on Mr. Flynn’s part: Failure to disclose foreign payments is a federal offense that carries a potential five-year prison term. Richard Painter, White House ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration, wrote on Twitter: “US House must subpoena the docs. If no compliance, impeach. Zero tolerance for WH covering up foreign payoffs.”

If Mr. Chaffetz believes, as he said, that Mr. Flynn may have violated the law, he should unleash his committee’s formidable investigative powers. Yet he has declined to open an investigation, or subpoena the records the White House is withholding. Mr. Chaffetz said on Tuesday that he would defer to existing investigations by the Pentagon and the House Intelligence Committee. What’s really needed is a special prosecutor, because each time this administration is given a chance to clean up its Russia mess, it works instead to keep the facts under cover.

Republicans Agree on No Shutdown, but Not on How to Avoid One

Carl Hulse, reporting for the New York Times:

After their already shaky start, it is hard to imagine Republicans would want to top off a chaotic first 100 days of unified government control with a disruptive federal government shutdown.

But that astounding scenario remains a live possibility this week as lawmakers and the Trump White House have so far been unable to agree on a plan to fund the government beyond Friday despite months of staring at the hard April 28 deadline. It is an unsettling but not unfamiliar position for congressional Republicans who have forced government closures in the past and know well that they will be assigned the brunt of the blame if federal agencies are shuttered yet again.

Should a shutdown occur, this one would have a defining new wrinkle. The politically charged spending fights that closed the government during the Clinton and Obama administrations were the product of clashes between congressional Republicans and a Democratic White House in a sharply divided Washington. Today, Republicans control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and allowing the federal government to go dark on their watch might be hard to explain.

“Our Republican colleagues know that since they control, you know, the House, the Senate and the White House, that a shutdown would fall on their shoulders, and they don’t want it,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader.

Republican leaders from President Trump on down insist they are determined to avoid a shutdown and will be successful in doing so. Failure would put a bizarre exclamation point on the symbolic 100-day marker that the administration coincidentally will reach Saturday.

“No one wants a shutdown,” Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, told reporters on Friday. “We want to keep it going.”

* * *

The spending drama is the first Trump-era clash in which minority Democrats have real leverage, and they intend to use it to stop the White House and congressional conservatives from pushing through spending that Democrats oppose, such as money for a wall on the southern border.

Lawmakers, who have been negotiating for weeks to try to reach a compromise, say they were steadily progressing until the White House in recent days began taking a more aggressive posture, insisting that Mr. Trump wanted a least a down payment on the construction of a border wall that was central to his successful presidential campaign.

“Elections have consequences,” Mick Mulvaney, the former House conservative who is now the head of the Office of Management and Budget, told The Associated Press in an interview. He offered Democrats a deal: The administration would support continued subsidies for millions of people receiving health insurance through the Affordable Care Act in exchange for Democrats agreeing to the initial wall funding.

Mr. Schumer called that proposal a nonstarter. Other Democrats suggested they saw no reason to accept that offer because Republicans are separately but simultaneously trying to unravel the health care program. They also believe that if White House refusal to fund the subsidies caused a collapse of the health insurance market, Republicans would get the political blame for that upheaval, as well.

More here.

Ryan promises to keep government open — and makes no promises on health care

Kelsey Snell, writing in the Washington Post:

House leaders told GOP lawmakers Saturday that they plan to devote their energy in the coming week to keeping the federal government open, conspicuously avoiding an immediate commitment to take up health care despite pledges to do so by conservatives and the White House.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), speaking on a conference call with GOP members Saturday afternoon, offered no specific plan on how or when lawmakers might see details of a new proposal to revise the Affordable Care Act, which White House officials suggested might receive a vote by Wednesday.

Ryan also made clear that his top priority was to pass a stopgap spending bill to keep government open past April 28, an objective that requires Democratic support. “Wherever we land will be a product the president can and will support.” Ryan said, according to a senior GOP aide on the call.

Less clear was whether even a narrow focus on spending would allow Republicans to avoid a showdown with President Trump, whose top aides have in recent days that any spending bill must include funding for a border wall. Such a demand would almost certainly prompt Democrats, whose support is needed to pass the budget bill in the Senate, to vote no.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said leaders in Congress could reach a spending agreement, but only if the White House stays out of the negotiations.

“I want to come up with an agreement,” Schumer said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters. “Our Republican colleagues know that since they control, you know, the House, the Senate and the White House, that a shutdown would fall on their shoulders, and they don’t want it.”

On the flip side, there was no guarantee that Trump would sign a spending plan without funding for the wall, several aides said.

The Ryan call comes as GOP leaders find themselves trapped between proving that they can complete basic tasks of governing such as funding the government, while also meeting the demands of Trump, who is looking for a legislative win ahead of his 100th day in office next Saturday.

Trump and his top aides have been calling on Congress to take dramatic action in the coming week: vote on health care, take up tax reform and demand that Democrats agree to a stopgap spending measure that includes funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ryan’s comments suggested that he and other House Republicans are pushing back on that pressure. He said, for instance, that the House will vote on a health-care bill when Republicans are sure they have the support to pass it, according to several GOP aides on the call — suggesting that he does not believe that to be the case currently, despite renewed negotiations between House conservatives, moderates and the White House.

The direction of the border wall fight was less certain. Ryan and other Republican leaders have suggested that it is more important to protect a spending deal with Democrats, who have vowed to oppose spending on the wall. The speaker assured members on the call that the spending talks were still promising and ongoing, but close Trump aides continued to insist in public that the spending bill should include money for the wall.

“I think it goes without saying that the president has been pretty straightforward about his desire and the need for a border wall,” Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly said in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper scheduled to run Sunday morning. “So I would suspect, he’ll do the right thing for sure, but I would suspect he will be insistent on the funding.”

The comment is likely to further threaten bipartisan budget talks, which were jostled after Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, was the first suggested that Trump would demand border wall funding in the upcoming spending bill.

“This president should be allowed to have his highest priorities funded even though the Democrats rightly have a seat at the table because of the Senate rules,” Mulvaney said Friday in an interview with Bloomberg Live. “You cannot expect a president who just won election to give up very easily on his highest priority.”

Mulvaney repeated his expectation that the spending talks will include border spending at several events throughout the week, causing a flurry of confusion among congressional aides who say the spending bill must remain free of major controversies if it is to pass.

More here.

Rice denies compiling, leaking names of Trump officials from intelligence reports

Via The Washington Post:

Former Obama national security adviser Susan E. Rice said Tuesday that she “absolutely” never sought to uncover “for political purposes” the names of Trump campaign or transition officials concealed in intelligence intercepts, and she called suggestions that she leaked those identities “completely false.”

“I leaked nothing, to nobody, and never have and never would,” Rice said in response to the latest charges and countercharges flowing from politically charged investigations into Russian interference in the presidential election.

Since they first surfaced over the weekend, the Rice reports have quickly overtaken the steady drumbeat of revelations about connections to Moscow that have dogged President Trump for months. On Tuesday, the subject dominated cable news and flooded Twitter.

“RICE ORDERED SPY DOCS ON TRUMP?” the president retweeted, with a link to the Daily Caller and a Drudge Report headlined “Boiled Rice.”

A number of Republican lawmakers said that Rice should be called to testify before congressional inquiries into what U.S. intelligence has said were Russian efforts not only to roil the presidential race, but also to tip the scales in Trump’s favor.

“If the reports are right, then she will be of interest to us,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which, along with its House counterpart and the FBI, is investigating the matter.

“When it comes to Susan E. Rice, you need to verify, not trust,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview with Fox News. “I think every American should know whether or not the national security adviser to President Obama was involved in unmasking Trump transition figures for political purposes.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), called Rice the “Typhoid Mary of the Obama administration.”

Beyond Trump’s tweets, however, the White House was uncharacteristically restrained on the subject, as its media and Capitol Hill allies expressed outrage on its behalf. “It’s not for me to decide who should testify or how they should do it,” press secretary Sean Spicer said.

* * *

Asked Tuesday whether she was willing to testify, Rice told MSNBC, “Let’s see what comes.” Investigations on “Russian involvement in our electoral process are very important, they’re very serious, and every American ought to have an interest in those investigations going wherever the evidence indicates they should,” she said.

“I have an interest as an American citizen, as a former official,” Rice said. “I would want to be helpful in that process if I could.”

The focus on Rice comes as lawmakers are trying to iron out why Nunes went to the White House two weeks ago to view documents that he later said suggested that the names of Trump transition team members had been improperly “unmasked.” Top officials can ask intelligence agencies to reveal the names to them for national security or other reasons.

The term refers to revealing a name that has been blacked out in an intelligence surveillance report. The law does not permit surveillance of U.S. people without a warrant; if one shows up in authorized surveillance of a foreign person, it is “masked.”

News media reports on contacts between Russia and Trump associates, including in The Washington Post, have included names said to have appeared in intelligence reports — either persons named in conversations between foreigners, or conversations directly between foreigners and U.S. persons.

Most prominent among them is former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, whose ­December phone conversations with Russia’s ambassador in Washington included references to U.S. sanctions imposed under President Barack Obama. After a Post report on the conversations, Trump ousted Flynn for mischaracterizing them to Vice President Pence.

More here.