Trump Declares ‘NO COLLUSION!’ in Early-Morning Tweet After Cohen, Manafort Memos Drop

After dubiously claiming the Michael Cohen sentencing memo “totally clears” him last night, President Donald Trump this morning sent out a mostly all-caps “NO COLLUSION” tweet.

[Mediaite]

Trump calls Russia deal ‘legal and cool’ as Mueller inquiry gathers momentum

Donald Trump, drawn deeper into an investigation into Russian meddling in US elections, has defended his pursuit of a business deal in Moscow at the same time he was running for president as “very legal & very cool”.

Trump appeared rattled this week after Michael Cohen, his former personal lawyer, confessed that he lied to Congress about a Russian property contract he pursued on his boss’s behalf during the Republican primary campaign in 2016.

In a series of tweets from Buenos Aires, where he is attending the G20 summit, Trump recalled “happily living my life” as a property developer before running for president after seeing the “Country going in the wrong direction (to put it mildly)”.

“Against all odds,” he continued, “I decide to run for President & continue to run my business-very legal & very cool, talked about it on the campaign trail. Lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia. Put up zero money, zero guarantees and didn’t do the project. Witch Hunt!”

The president frequently uses the phrase “witch hunt” to belittle Mueller’s investigation, which began in May last year and seems to have gathered momentum in recent days.

Trump repeatedly said during the election campaign that he had no ties to Russia. In July 2016 he tweeted: “For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia.”

But Cohen, who had already pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and other financial crimes in a separate case brought by federal prosecutors in New York, on Thursday said he had lied to Congress about a proposed Trump Tower skyscraper in Moscow.

Cohen told two congressional committees last year that the talks about the tower project ended in January 2016, a lie he said was an act of loyalty to Trump. In fact, the negotiations continued until June that year, after Trump had secured the Republican nomination, Cohen admitted.

Cohen told Mueller’s prosecutors that he briefed Trump on the project more than three times. He also briefed members of Trump’s family, had direct contact with Kremlin representatives and considered traveling to Moscow to discuss it.

Trump condemned Cohen after the plea deal was announced, calling him “a weak person” and a liar. As he departed for Buenos Aires, he acknowledged his business dealings with Russia, telling reporters: “It doesn’t matter because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign.”

Mueller’s team has brought charges or secured convictions against more than two dozen Russian nationals and entities, as well as several of Trump’s associates, but now the president himself is front and centre. Experts suggested that the walls are closing in.

Jeffrey Toobin, a legal analyst, told CNN: “Today is the first day I actually thought Donald Trump might not finish his term in office. I think this thing is enormous.” An opinion column in the Washington Post was headlined: “Trump should be freaked out right about now.”

Democrats have joined the criticism. Senator Chris Murphy tweeted: “This whole thing has likely been a scam from the start. It’s not some wild coincidence that the Administration’s foreign policy is most inexplicable toward the two countries – Russia and Saudi Arabia – where the Trump family pursues the most business.”

But the White House remains defiant. Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, issued a statement that said: “BREAKING NEWS ALERT: Michael Cohen is a liar. It’s no surprise that Cohen lied to Congress. He’s a proven liar who is doing everything he can to get out of a long-term prison sentence for serious crimes of bank and tax fraud that had nothing to do with the Trump Organization.”

He added: “With regard to the hotel proposal in Moscow, the President has been completely open and transparent.”

Trump still owns his private company but had said he would hand over day-to-day dealings to his sons Donald Trump Jr and Eric Trump when he took office in January 2017. He has repeatedly blurred the distinction between business and public office that has been observed by past presidents.

His meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki earlier this year drew fierce criticism after Trump appeared to side with Moscow’s denials over the findings of his own intelligence agencies. After Cohen’s plea, Trump cancelled his planned meeting with Putin at the G20, citing the Ukraine crisis. Russia’s foreign ministry on Friday said it believed the meeting was canceled over “the US domestic political situation”.

The Cohen confession comes as Mueller’s investigation gathers pace. Trump has provided responses to written questions while the special counsel has accused his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, of lying after his own guilty plea.

On Friday, Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the US District Court for the District of Columbia asked Mueller’s team to submit a report next week outlining how they believe Manafort breached a plea agreement struck shortly before he was to have gone on trial on charges including money laundering, failing to register as a lobbyist for the Ukraine government and conspiracy to defraud the US.

The judge set 5 March as a tentative date for sentencing of Manafort, a veteran Washington consultant convicted of financial crimes. Prosecutors also left open the possibility that new charges could be filed against Manafort for lying. “That determination has not been made,” prosecutor Andrew Weissmann said.

In August, a jury in Virginia had convicted Manafort of bank and tax fraud in a separate case. He is scheduled to be sentenced on 8 February for that conviction.

Mueller continues to investigate whether campaign associates had advance knowledge of hacked emails becoming public. Another potential target, Jerome Corsi, has rejected a plea offer and faces a possible indictment.

[The Guardian]

When Trump Phones Friends, the Chinese Listen and Learn

When President Trump calls old friends on one of his iPhones to gossip, gripe or solicit their latest take on how he is doing, American intelligence reports indicate that Chinese spies are often listening — and putting to use invaluable insights into how to best work the president and affect administration policy, current and former American officials said.

Mr. Trump’s aides have repeatedly warned him that his cellphone calls are not secure, and they have told him that Russian spies are routinely eavesdropping on the calls, as well. But aides say the voluble president, who has been pressured into using his secure White House landline more often these days, has still refused to give up his iPhones. White House officials say they can only hope he refrains from discussing classified information when he is on them.

Mr. Trump’s use of his iPhones was detailed by several current and former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could discuss classified intelligence and sensitive security arrangements. The officials said they were doing so not to undermine Mr. Trump, but out of frustration with what they considered the president’s casual approach to electronic security.

American spy agencies, the officials said, had learned that China and Russia were eavesdropping on the president’s cellphone calls from human sources inside foreign governments and intercepting communications between foreign officials.

The officials said they have also determined that China is seeking to use what it is learning from the calls — how Mr. Trump thinks, what arguments tend to sway him and to whom he is inclined to listen — to keep a trade war with the United States from escalating further. In what amounts to a marriage of lobbying and espionage, the Chinese have pieced together a list of the people with whom Mr. Trump regularly speaks in hopes of using them to influence the president, the officials said.

Among those on the list are Stephen A. Schwarzman, the Blackstone Group chief executive who has endowed a master’s program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and Steve Wynn, the former Las Vegas casino magnate who used to own a lucrative property in Macau.

The Chinese have identified friends of both men and others among the president’s regulars, and are now relying on Chinese businessmen and others with ties to Beijing to feed arguments to the friends of the Trump friends. The strategy is that those people will pass on what they are hearing, and that Beijing’s views will eventually be delivered to the president by trusted voices, the officials said. They added that the Trump friends were most likely unaware of any Chinese effort.

L. Lin Wood, a lawyer for Mr. Wynn, said his client was retired and had no comment. A spokeswoman for Blackstone, Christine Anderson, declined to comment on Chinese efforts to influence Mr. Schwarzman but said that he “has been happy to serve as an intermediary on certain critical matters between the two countries at the request of both heads of state.”

Russia is not believed to be running as sophisticated an influence effort as China because of Mr. Trump’s apparent affinity for President Vladimir V. Putin, a former official said.

China’s effort is a 21st-century version of what officials there have been doing for many decades, which is trying to influence American leaders by cultivating an informal network of prominent businesspeople and academics who can be sold on ideas and policy prescriptions and then carry them to the White House. The difference now is that China, through its eavesdropping on Mr. Trump’s calls, has a far clearer idea of who carries the most influence with the president, and what arguments tend to work.

The Chinese and the Russians “would look for any little thing — how easily was he talked out of something, what was the argument that was used,” said John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency who served in Moscow in the 1990s and later ran the agency’s Russia program.

Trump friends like Mr. Schwarzman, who figured prominently in the first meeting between President Xi Jinping of China and Mr. Trump at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s Florida resort, already hold pro-China and pro-trade views, and thus are ideal targets in the eyes of the Chinese, the officials said. Targeting the friends of Mr. Schwarzman and Mr. Wynn can reinforce the views of the two, the officials said. The friends are also most likely to be more accessible.

One official said the Chinese were pushing for the friends to persuade Mr. Trump to sit down with Mr. Xi as often as possible. The Chinese, the official said, correctly perceive that Mr. Trump places tremendous value on personal relationships, and that one-on-one meetings yield breakthroughs far more often than regular contacts between Chinese and American officials.

Whether the friends can stop Mr. Trump from pursuing a trade war with China is another question.

Officials said the president has two official iPhones that have been altered by the National Security Agency to limit their capabilities — and vulnerabilities — and a third personal phone that is no different from hundreds of millions of iPhones in use around the world. Mr. Trump keeps the personal phone, White House officials said, because unlike his other two phones, he can store his contacts in it.

Apple declined to comment on the president’s iPhones. None of them are completely secure and are vulnerable to hackers who could remotely break into the phones themselves.

But the calls made from the phones are intercepted as they travel through the cell towers, cables and switches that make up national and international cellphone networks. Calls made from any cellphone — iPhone, Android, an old-school Samsung flip phone — are vulnerable.

The issue of secure communications is fraught for Mr. Trump. As a presidential candidate, he regularly attacked his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, during the 2016 campaign for her use of an unsecured email server while she was secretary state, and he basked in chants of “lock her up” at his rallies.

Intercepting calls is a relatively easy skill for governments. American intelligence agencies consider it an essential tool of spycraft, and they routinely try to tap the phones of important foreign leaders. In a diplomatic blowup during the Obama administration, documents leaked by Edward J. Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, showed that the American government had tapped the phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

Foreign governments are well aware of the risk, and so leaders like Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin avoid using cellphones when possible.

President Barack Obama was careful with cellphones, too. He used an iPhone in his second term, but it could not make calls and could receive email only from a special address that was given to a select group of staff members and intimates. It had no camera or microphone and could not be used to download apps at will. Texting was forbidden because there was no way to collect and store the messages, as required by the Presidential Records Act.

“It is a great phone, state of the art, but it doesn’t take pictures, you can’t text. The phone doesn’t work, you know, you can’t play your music on it,” Mr. Obama said on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” in June 2016. “So basically, it’s like — does your 3-year-old have one of those play phones?”

When Mr. Obama needed a cellphone, the officials said, he used one of those of his aides.
Mr. Trump has insisted on more capable devices, although he did agree during the transition to give up his Android phone (the Google operating system is considered more vulnerable than Apple’s). And since becoming president, Mr. Trump has agreed to a slightly cumbersome arrangement of having two official phones: one for Twitter and other apps, and one for calls.

Mr. Trump typically relies on his mobile phones when he does not want a call going through the White House switchboard and logged for senior aides to see, his aides said. Many of those Mr. Trump speaks with most often on one of his cellphones, such as hosts at Fox News, share the president’s political views, or simply enable his sense of grievance about any number of subjects.

Administration officials said Mr. Trump’s longtime paranoia about surveillance — well before coming to the White House he believed his phone conversations were often being recorded — gave them some comfort that he was not disclosing classified information on the calls.

They said they had further confidence he was not spilling secrets because he rarely digs into the details of the intelligence he is shown and is not well versed in the operational specifics of military or covert activities.

In an interview this week with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Trump quipped about his phones being insecure. When asked what American officials in Turkey had learned about the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he replied, “I actually said don’t give it to me on the phone. I don’t want it on the phone. As good as these phones are supposed to be.”

But Mr. Trump is also famously indiscreet. In a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office with Russian officials, he shared highly sensitive intelligence passed to the United States by Israel. He also told the Russians that James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, was “a real nut job” and that firing him had relieved “great pressure.”

Still, Mr. Trump’s lack of tech savvy has alleviated some other security concerns. He does not use email, so the risk of a phishing attack like those used by Russian intelligence to gain access to Democratic Party emails is close to nil. The same goes for texts, which are disabled on his official phones.

His Twitter phone can connect to the internet only over a Wi-Fi connection, and he rarely, if ever, has access to unsecured wireless networks, officials said. But the security of the device ultimately depends on the user, and protecting the president’s phones has sometimes proved difficult.

Last year, Mr. Trump’s cellphone was left behind in a golf cart at his club in Bedminster, N.J., causing a scramble to locate it, according to two people familiar with what took place.

Mr. Trump is supposed to swap out his two official phones every 30 days for new ones but rarely does, bristling at the inconvenience. White House staff members are supposed to set up the new phones exactly like the old ones, but the new iPhones cannot be restored from backups of his old phones, because doing so would transfer over any malware.

New phone or old, though, the Chinese and the Russians are listening, and learning.

[The New York Times]

Trump says US is ending decades-old nuclear arms treaty with Russia

President Donald Trump announced Saturday that the US is pulling out of the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, a decades-old agreement that has drawn the ire of the President.

“Russia has violated the agreement. They’ve been violating it for many years,” Trump told reporters before boarding Air Force One to leave Nevada following a campaign rally.

“And I don’t know why President Obama didn’t negotiate or pull out. And we’re not going to let them violate a nuclear agreement and go out and do weapons and we’re not allowed to,” he said. “We’re the ones that have stayed in the agreement and we’ve honored the agreement.

“But Russia has not, unfortunately, honored the agreement. So we’re going to terminate the agreement. We’re gonna pull out,” he said of the agreement, which was signed in December 1987 by former President Ronald Reagan and former USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Following the announcement, Russia’s state-run news agency, RIA Novosti, reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to discuss the decision with US national security adviser John Bolton when he visits Russia this week.

According to the report, the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said, “It’s likely that an explanation from the US will be required following the latest scandalous statements.”

What is the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty?

The treaty forced both countries to eliminate ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between approximately 300 and 3,400 miles. It offered a blanket of protection to the United States’ European allies and marked a watershed agreement between two nations at the center of the arms race during the Cold War.

Former State Department spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby, a CNN military and diplomatic analyst, explained that the treaty “wasn’t designed to solve all of our problems with the Soviet Union,” but was “designed to provide a measure of some strategic stability on the continent of Europe.”

“I suspect our European allies right now are none too happy about hearing that President Trump intends to pull out of it,” he said.

Why leave the agreement now?

The Trump Administration has said repeatedlythat Russia has violated the treaty and has pointed to their predecessors in the Obama administration who accused Russia of violating the terms of the agreement.

In 2014, CNN reported that the US had accused Russia of violating the INF Treaty, citing cruise missile tests that dated to 2008. CNN reported in 2014 that the United States at the time informed its NATO allies of Russia’s suspected breach.

However, it wasn’t until recently that NATO officially confirmed Russia’s activity constituted a likely violation.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said earlier this month that the military alliance remained “concerned about Russia’s lack of respect for its international commitments, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the INF Treaty.”

“This treaty abolishes a whole category of weapons and is a crucial element of our security,” Stoltenberg said, speaking at a defense ministers’ meeting. “Now this treaty is in danger because of Russia’s actions.”

He continued, “After years of denials, Russia recently acknowledged the existence of a new missile system, called 9M729. Russia has not provided any credible answers on this new missile. All allies agree that the most plausible assessment would be that Russia is in violation of the treaty. It is therefore urgent that Russia addresses these concerns in a substantial and transparent manner.”

Moscow’s failure to adhere to the agreement was also addressed in the most recent Nuclear Posture Review published by the Defense Department in February, which said Russia “continues to violate a series of arms control treaties and commitments.”

“In a broader context, Russia is either rejecting or avoiding its obligations and commitments under numerous agreements and has rebuffed U.S. efforts to follow the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with another round of negotiated reductions and to pursue reductions in non-strategic nuclear forces.”

What does this mean for US security?

Pulling out of the treaty could provoke a similar arms race across Europe akin to the one that was occurring when the agreement was initially signed in the 1980s.

“I don’t think we’re at the stage right now that if we pull out of the INF Treaty, you’ve got to go sort of build a bunker in your backyard,” Kirby said.

“I don’t think we’re at that stage at all,” he said. “But I do think, if we pull out, we really do need to think about how we are going to, right now because we don’t have the same capability as the Russians have with this particular missile. How are we going to try and counter that? How are we going to try and help deter use of it on the continent of Europe?”

How does China work in all of this?

Administration officials believe the treaty has put the US at a disadvantage because China does not face any constraints on developing intermediate-range nuclear missiles in the Pacific and it does not allow the US to develop new weapons.

Trump, speaking with reporters on Saturday, referenced China when explaining his reasoning for pulling out of the agreement.

“Unless Russia comes to us and China comes to us and they all come to us and say, ‘Let’s really get smart and let’s none of us develop those weapons.’ But if Russia’s doing it and if China’s doing it and we’re adhering to the agreement, that’s unacceptable,” Trump said.

In 2017, the head of US Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, told Congress that approximately 95% of China’s missile force would violate the INF Treaty if they were part of the agreement.

“This fact is significant because the U.S. has no comparable capability due to our adherence to the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia,” Harris said in a statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

National security adviser John Bolton is expected to discuss the treaty with Russian officials on his trip to Moscow next week.

Kirby said he thinks the Russians will be OK with the decision.

“This gives Putin an excuse to just continue doing what he’s doing, only doing it more blatantly,” Kirby said.

Outspoken Russian senator Alexey Pushkov tweeted Sunday that the “United States is bringing the world back to the Cold War” in reaction to Trump’s decision, which he called a “massive blow to the entire system of strategic stability in the world.”

Senior Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev warned on his Facebook page that “the consequences would be truly catastrophic.” However, he said it’s not official that the US has pulled out of the INF, saying “it’s still possible to consider Trump’s statement as continuous blackmail rather than a completed legal act.”

[CNN]

Trump Insists Russian Hackers ‘Probably Liked Hillary Clinton Better than Me’

During a press opportunity in Scottsdale, AZ on Friday, President Donald Trump was asked about the indictment of a Russian national accused of influencing the election.

Trump promptly suggested that it had nothing do with his campaign, and if anything, the hackers probably liked Hillary Clinton more.

“Nothing to do with my campaign,” Trump said.  “All the hackers, and all of the everybody that you see, nothing to do with my campaign. If they are hackers, a lot of them probably liked Hillary Clinton better than me. Now they do. Now they do. But you know, they go after some hacker in Russia, oh, had nothing to do with my campaign.”

Trump’s comments come on the same day as the Justice Department indicted a woman for interference in the midterm elections.

Elena Khusyaynova was charged with sowing discord in the United States by pushing misinformation on divisive political issues. It is the first case of a foreign national being indicted for interfering in the upcoming midterms.

[Mediaite]

Trump begins 9/11 anniversary with angry early morning tweet about Russia and Hillary Clinton

Donald Trump began the 17th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US with an early morning tweet about Russia, law enforcement agencies and Hillary Clinton.

The post, which appeared to be a quote taken from Fox News, sought to perpetuate an argument – often used by supporters of the president – which seeks to shift focus from the investigation into his presidential campaign’s links to Russia on to unfounded speculation around the FBI, Department of Justice (DoJ) and his rival Ms Clinton.

“‘We have found nothing to show collusion between President Trump & Russia, absolutely zero, but every day we get more documentation showing collusion between the FBI & DOJ, the Hillary campaign, foreign spies & Russians, incredible’ @SaraCarterDC @LouDobbs,” Mr Trump wrote.

He followed up four minutes later with another post that retweeted his assistant Dan Scavino, with a picture of him signing an executive order designating “‘Patriot Day 2018’ to honor the memories of the nearly 3,000 lives lost on September 11, 2001”.

The US president included the hashtags #NeverForget and #September11.

Mr Trump next launched a renewed attack on the FBI and the DoJ, which he said were doing “nothing” to look into an alleged “media leak strategy” by two FBI agents investigating links between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“Eric Holder could be running the Justice Department right now and it would be behaving no differently than it is,” Mr Trump continued, quoting one of his favourite Fox News presenters, Lou Dobbs.

Eric Holder is a former Democratic attorney general appointed by former president Barack Obama in 2009.

Mr Trump later tweeted in praise of his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who was mayor of New York City at the time of the terrorist attacks.

“Rudy Giuliani did a GREAT job as Mayor of NYC during the period of September 11th. His leadership, bravery and skill must never be forgotten,” Mr Trump wrote. “Rudy is a TRUE WARRIOR!”

In 2013, three years before he became president, Mr Trump sparked anger after using the 9/11 anniversary to reference “haters and losers”.

“I would like to extend my best wishes to all, even the haters and losers, on this special date, September 11th,” he posted on Twitter.

It is just one of a litany of questionable comments the US president has made about 9/11.

On the day of the attacks, Mr Trump noted his skyscraper, at 40 Wall Street, went from being the second-tallest in downtown Manhattan to the tallest, following the collapse of the Twin Towers.

In 2015, Mr Trump claimed when talking about Muslims that “thousands of people were cheering” in Jersey City, situated across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan, as the towers fell. There is no evidence of mass celebrations there by Muslims.

Three months later, he said he lost “hundreds of friends” in the attack, but failed to provided any names, other than mentioning knowing a Roman Catholic priest who died while serving as a chaplain to the city fire department.

Despite Mr Trump’s apparent preoccupation into the Russia investigation, on Tuesday he visited a Pennsylvania field that became a 9/11 memorial.

Mr Trump and his wife, Melania, were due participate in a remembrance in Shanksville, where a California-bound commercial airliner crashed after the 40 passengers and crew members learned what was happening and attempted to regain control of the plane. Everyone on board was killed.

Nearly 3,000 people died on 9/11 when other planes were flown into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in an attack planned by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Nearly a decade later, bin Laden was killed in May 2011 during a US military operation ordered by Mr Obama.

Shortly before he was due to deliver a speech at Shanksville, Mr Trump tweeted: “17 years since September 11th!”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said of Mr Trump’s visit to Shanksville: “Certainly the focus will be on remembering that horrific day and remembering the lives that were lost, and certainly honouring the individuals who were not only lost that day, but also put their lives of the line to help in that process.”

Mr Trump was in his Trump Tower penthouse — 4 miles from the World Trade Center — during the 2001 attacks.

[The Independent]

Trump Cites ‘Failing New York Times’ Article to Exonerate Himself From Russian Political Meddling

President Trump issued a…um, bizarre and contradictory statement on Monday where he slammed The New York Times while using it as proof that he wasn’t involved in Russian efforts to interfere with American political institutions.

Its possible Trump was referring to this recent Times article describing FBI’s efforts to convince Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with ties to Paul Manafort, to become an informant on the Russian government’s misdeeds. FBI officials approached Deripaska and other prominent Russian officials over the years in hopes of tracking organized crime, countering Russia’s foreign political meddling, and, eventually, gaining insight on any possible collusion between Trump and the Kremlin.

The line Trump invoked in his tweet doesn’t appear in the Times‘ article, though it does contain this somewhat-resemblant portion that makes reference to Bruce Ohr and Christopher Steele.

The contacts between Mr. Steele and Mr. Ohr started before Mr. Trump became a presidential candidate and continued through much of the campaign.

The piece says Ohr and Steele were both involved in efforts to convince Russian oligarchs to cooperate with the FBI. The campaign was reportedly unsuccessful, and Trump and his defenders have been escalating their attacks on Ohr recently in order to discredit Robert Mueller‘s investigations.

Going back to Trump’s tweet, however, reactors online felt that he sorta garbled his point by bashing the Times while – at the same time – using them as the basis for his claim against the “rigged witch hunt.” Others pointed out how American intelligence workers obviously tried to counter Russia’s objectionable behavior long before Trump became politically-relevant.

[Mediaite]

Trump again threatens to ‘get involved’ in the Justice Department

President Trump on Thursday evening again threatened to “get involved” in the Department of Justice (DOJ) “if it doesn’t straighten out.”

Trump said during a rally in support of Indiana Republican Senate candidate Mike Braun that the DOJ and the FBI “have to start doing their job and doing it right and doing it now.”

“I wanted to stay out, but if it doesn’t straighten out … I will get involved and I’ll get in there if I have to,” Trump said.

The president’s comments echoed those he made in May, when he threatened to “get involved” in a rolling dispute between conservative House Republicans and the top DOJ official overseeing the Russia probe.

Trump has frequently attacked the DOJ and Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The president’s feud with the DOJ has escalated since last week, when he said during an interview on “Fox & Friends” that Sessions “never took control of the Justice Department.”

“The Dems are very strong in the Justice Department,” Trump said. “And I put in an attorney general that never took control of the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions. Never took control of the Justice Department. It’s sort of an incredible thing.”

Sessions quickly fired back, saying in a statement that the DOJ “will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.”

Weeks before that interview, Trump wrote on Twitter that Sessions should stop the special counsel’s investigation “right now.” Trump has repeatedly cast the investigation as a “witch hunt.”

Sessions has long drawn the ire of Trump for recusing himself from the Russia investigation a month after being installed at the DOJ last year.

The president’s attacks against Sessions have continued to fuel speculation that he could move to fire the attorney general at some point.

Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) both predicted last week that Trump will eventually fire Sessions.

Trump told Bloomberg News earlier in the day Thursday that Sessions would remain in his job until at least the November midterm elections, but declined to say whether he would keep Sessions after the elections.

The president appeared in Indiana on Thursday night in an effort to boost Braun, who is seeking to unseat Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) in November.

[The Hill]

Media

Trump Admits He Revoked Brennan’s Security Clearance Over “Rigged Witch Hunt”

All it took for the White House’s James Comey story to collapse was a single TV appearance by Donald Trump. After the administration had sworn up and down that the former F.B.I. director was fired on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for mishandling the probe into Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server, the president appeared on NBC and famously told Lester Holt, “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said: ‘you know, this Russia thing . . . is a made-up story.’” Trump has since contradictedhis own words, denying that the Department of Justice’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election had anything to do with his decision to cut Comey loose.

Nevertheless, the incident is reportedly of critical interest to Robert Mueller as he seeks to determine whether the president obstructed justice. So it was with a strange sense of déjà vu that many read Trump’s Wednesday night interview with The Wall Street Journal,wherein he suggested that the security clearance of former C.I.A. director John Brennan was not revoked over fears that he would spill classified secrets on cable news, as the White House claimed, but because of the key role Brennan played in the beginning of the Russia probe. “I call it the rigged witch hunt, [it] is a sham. And these people led it!” Trump told the paper. “So I think it’s something that had to be done.”

His tirade, of course, flies in the face of the White House’s purported reason for stripping Brennan of his clearance: during Wednesday’s briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders read aloud a statement declaring that Brennan’s alleged “lying and recent conduct characterized by increasingly frenzied commentary” and “wild outbursts on the internet and television” prompted the unprecedented move, arguing that someone prone to making “unfounded and outrageous” claims in public should not have access to the country’s most closely held secrets. Putting aside the obvious irony, many were skeptical of this line of reasoning, including Brennan himself. “This action is part of a broader effort by Mr. Trump to suppress freedom of speech & punish critics,” he wrote on Twitter.

By what the White House would almost certainly argue is pure coincidence, much of Brennan’s “frenzied commentary” has been anti-Trump. Last month, the former intelligence chief was critical of Trump’s performance during the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, likening him to Bernie Madoff in that the two share a “remarkably unethical ability to to deceive & manipulate others.” More recently, Brennan chided Trump over his characterization of Omarosa Manigault Newman as “that dog.” “It’s astounding how often you fail to live up to minimum standards of decency, civility, & probity,” he wrote in a widely shared tweet.

In fact, the White House’s list of those whose security clearances are under review—Director of National Intelligence James Clapper; former F.B.I. Director James Comey; former Director of the National Security Agency Michael Hayden; former National Security Adviser Susan Rice; former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates; former Deputy Director of the F.B.I. Andrew McCabe; Peter Strzok, an F.B.I. agent who was fired over the weekend; former F.B.I. attorney__Lisa Page;__ and Bruce Ohr,who still works at the Justice Department but was demoted earlier this year—reads like a laundry list of people Trump views as his enemies. While speaking with the Journal, Trump suggested that any number of them could face the same retribution as Brennan. “I don’t trust many of those people on that list,” he said. “I think that they’re very duplicitous. I think they’re not good people.” He also referenced the F.B.I.’s Clinton e-mail probe, in which a number of those whose security clearances are now under scrutiny were involved. “You look at any of them and you see the things they’ve done,” he said. “In some cases, they’ve lied before Congress. The Hillary Clinton whole investigation was a total sham.” (Comey and McCabe have said that their security badges were automatically demagnetized after they were fired.)

Some level of blame-shifting is to be expected from Trump, who has repeatedly sought to turn the “collusion” spotlight on Democrats and the Clinton campaign. But here he seems to be cementing a new strategy, a sort of feedback loop in which actions taken by his own administration serve as evidence that Mueller’s investigation should be shut down. After Deputy F.B.I. Director David Bowdich overruled the recommendation of Inspector General Michael Horowitz and ordered that Strzok be fired over a series of anti-Trump texts, Trump wrote on Twitter, “Strzok started the illegal Rigged Witch Hunt – why isn’t this so-called ‘probe’ ended immediately? Why aren’t these angry and conflicted Democrats instead looking at Crooked Hillary?” On Wednesday morning, foreshadowing the Brennan announcement, he expanded on this argument: “The Rigged Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on as the ‘originators and founders’ of this scam continue to be fired and demoted for their corrupt and illegal activity,” he wrote. “All credibility is gone from this terrible Hoax, and much more will be lost as it proceeds.”

The president, of course, has routinely cast the Russia probe as orchestrated by his political enemies, failing to acknowledge the continued threat Russian hackers pose to U.S. elections, not to mention the dozens of indictments Mueller has delivered. But Trump’s spin could prove to be the only thing that matters. While Republican leadership has repeatedly signaled that any move against Mueller would be met with Congressional opposition, stripping Brennan’s security clearance may have been a litmus test of sorts—in an interview with CNN Wednesday night, Clapper confirmed that Trump could do the same to Mueller, effectively hamstringing him: “The president does have the authority to exercise here if he so chooses,” Clapper said. Indeed, if the White House was holding its breath for Congressional uproar, it’s unlikely to arrive: though Paul Ryan said the president was merely “trolling” people when the White House first floated the idea of revoking security clearances last month, he has so far stayed quiet on Trump’s choice to follow through with the threat.

[Vanity Fair]

Trump Claims Power to Bypass Limits Set by Congress in Defense Bill

When President Trump signed a $716 billion military spending bill on Monday, he claimed the authority to override dozens of provisions that he deemed improper constraints on his executive powers.

In a signing statement that the White House quietly issued after 9 p.m. on Monday — about six hours after Mr. Trump signed the bill in a televised ceremony at Fort Drum in New York — Mr. Trump deemed about 50 of its statutes to be unconstitutional intrusions on his presidential powers, meaning that the executive branch need not enforce or obey them as written.

Among them was a ban on spending military funds on “any activity that recognizes the sovereignty of the Russian Federation over Crimea,” the Ukrainian region annexed by Moscow in 2014 in an incursion considered illegal by the United States. He said he would treat the provision and similar ones as “consistent with the president’s exclusive constitutional authorities as commander in chief and as the sole representative of the nation in foreign affairs.”

The statement was the latest example of Mr. Trump’s emerging broad vision of executive power. His personal lawyers, for example, have claimed that his constitutional authority to supervise the Justice Department means that he can lawfully impede the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election no matter his motive, despite obstruction-of-justice statutes.

Signing statements, which are generally ghostwritten for presidents by Justice Department and White House lawyers, are official documents in which a president lays out his interpretation of new laws and instructs the executive branch to view them the same way.

Once obscure, the practice became controversial under President George W. Bush, who challenged more provisions of new laws than all previous presidents combined — most famously a 2005 ban on torture championed by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. (Democrats are pressing for access to any White House papers of Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett M. Kavanaugh, related to that statement.)

Mr. McCain is now fighting brain cancer, and Congress named the new military law in his honor. But Mr. Trump pointedly did not mention his name when signing the bill, the latest slight in the long-running acrimony between the two men. Mr. Trump’s signing statement also quoted only part of the bill’s title, evading any acknowledgment of the senator.

Last month, Mr. McCain issued a statement calling Mr. Trump’s Helsinki summit meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”

The American Bar Association in 2006 took the position that presidents should not use signing statements, but should instead veto legislation if it has constitutional defects so that Congress has an opportunity to override that veto if lawmakers disagree. But presidents of both parties, including Barack Obama, have continued to use them, with current and former executive branch lawyers arguing that the focus should be on the credibility of the legal theories that presidents invoke when they make their objections.

Mr. Trump’s new statement relied upon a mix of theories, some of which had greater support in Supreme Court precedent than others. For example, in 2015, the court upheld presidents’ constitutional authority to disregard a statute requiring American passports to say that Jerusalem is part of Israel, which could support Mr. Trump’s claim that he could recognize Crimea as part of Russia if he wanted.

But many of Mr. Trump’s challenges invoked his purported powers as commander in chief, a type of objection that the Bush administration frequently made but that the Obama administration generally shied away from.

For example, Mr. Trump also declared that he could bypass a provision in the bill that extended restrictions on certain bilateral military-to-military cooperation between the United States and Russia.

He also challenged a provision requiring the Pentagon to create a senior civilian position charged with coming up with uniform standards for counting — and reducing — civilian bystander deaths as a result of American military operations, and a provision that would halt certain in-flight refueling of Saudi and Emirati aircraft over Yemen unless those countries took more steps to bring an end to the civil war there and to reduce civilian suffering and collateral damage from their airstrikes.

And the president said he could disregard a restriction against reducing the number of active-duty troops stationed in South Korea below 22,000, unless Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis were to certify that doing so would be in the national-security interest of the United States and would not undermine the security of regional allies like South Korea and Japan.

In May, Mr. Trump had ordered the Pentagon to prepare options for drawing down troop levels in South Korea ahead of his Singapore summit meeting with North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un. But later in June, Mr. Mattis said that current troop levels of about 28,500 would remain in place.

[The New York Times]

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