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]

Trump says Trump Tower meeting meant to obtain information on Clinton

President Trump tweeted Sunday morning about the now-infamous June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Russians and Trump campaign officials, including his son, Donald Trump Jr.

“Fake News reporting, a complete fabrication, that I am concerned about the meeting my wonderful son, Donald, had in Trump Tower. This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics – and it went nowhere. I did not know about it!”

Why it matters: Trump and his son have repeatedly changed their stance on the purpose of the 2016 meeting. In a statement to The New York Times last July, which investigators now know was dictated by President Trump, Don Jr. said the meeting was primarily about Russian adoptions. Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen has also claimedthat the president approved the meeting ahead of time, contradicting continued denials by Trump and his legal team.

[Axios]

Trump urges followers to read Dershowitz book arguing against impeachment

President Trump on Thursday urged people to buy and read Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz’s new book arguing against his possible impeachment.

Trump tweeted that Dershowitz is “a brilliant lawyer, who although a Liberal Democrat who probably didn’t vote for me, has discussed the Witch Hunt with great clarity and in a very positive way.”

“He has written a new and very important book called “The Case Against Impeaching Trump,” which I would encourage all people with Trump Derangement Syndrome to read!,” Trump continued.

Dershowitz, who supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, has emerged as a regular voice in the media defending Trump on legal issues, including special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s election interference.

The Harvard law professor, who is an opinion contributor for The Hill, said earlier this month that his new book argues that the Supreme Court could intervene and reverse a vote to remove Trump from office.

Dershowitz also makes the case that if incriminating evidence of collusion with the Russian government emerged, it wouldn’t be a criminal offense because it’s “not a crime to collude with a foreign government.”

Dershowitz writes in the book that impeaching Trump would be possible “if he did it because he was paid or extorted.”

Democratic lawmakers have introduced articles of impeachment against Trump several times since he took office. None of the attempted votes have succeeded, and top Democrats have also warned against impeachment efforts.

This is the second book Trump has promoted this week: Fox News host Jeanine Pirro posted photos on Tuesday of her and Trump in the Oval Office with a copy of her new book, “Liars, Leakers and Liberals: The Case Against the Anti-Trump Conspiracy.”

[The Hill]

Trump says he’s worried about Russian meddling … to elect Democrats

President Donald Trump would like you to believe that Russia, which targeted the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016 and whose president, Vladimir Putin, said just last week that he wanted Trump to win, are interfering in American politics to boost … Democrats.

Trump is also “very concerned” about Russian meddling, despite, also last week, telling a reporter he doesn’t think Russia is still targeting the US and publicly doubting Russian interference on multiple occasions.

The president has faced mounting criticism over his handling of relations with Russia in the wake of his disastrous performance at a press conference with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, last week. After a one-on-one meeting with Putin, whose contents remain unknown to US officials, Trump failed to publicly denounce the Russian leader for his country’s efforts to interfere in US politics in 2016 and beyond and said he wasn’t so sure about the intelligence community’s consensus that Russia was and is meddling.

The White House’s cleanup efforts have largely centered on one strategy, which is, basically, gaslighting.

Trump claimed he misspoke at the Helsinki press conference and that when he told reporters, “I don’t see any reason why it would be [Russia]” who meddled in the 2016 election, he meant to say he didn’t see why it wouldn’t have been Russia. And when he told a reporter later in the week, “No,” when asked if Russia was still targeting the US, the White House claimed he was just saying he didn’t want to answer questions.

On Tuesday, Trump was at it again with another counter-reality tweet, this time claiming that Russians are interfering — but that they’re doing it to boost Democrats because Russia is so afraid of him.

[Vox]

Trump Claims Obama Did Nothing About Russian Election Meddling Because ‘It is All a Big Hoax’

On Sunday, President Donald Trump took to Twitter on his way home from his golfing weekend in New Jersey to claim that President Barack Obama didn’t do anything about Russian election meddling because it is “all a big hoax.”

“So President Obama knew about Russia before the Election,” Trump opined.  “Why didn’t he do something about it? Why didn’t he tell our campaign? Because it is all a big hoax, that’s why, and he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win!!!”

Trump’s tweet follows a busy morning of tweets where he claimed he had a “great” meeting with Russia President Vladimir Putinand quoted Fox News’ Pete Hegseth saying, “Source #1 was the (Fake) Dossier. Yes, the Dirty Dossier, paid for by Democrats as a hit piece against Trump, and looking for information that could discredit Candidate #1 Trump.”

Trump’s comments also elicited a strong reaction from news pundits, who were quick to point out that Trump’s comments come after a week of playing cleanup after he refused to denounce Russian meddling to Russian president Vladimir Putin‘s face.

[Mediaite]

Reality

The reality is the entire United States intelligence community concluded Russia did interfere with our election with the express purpose of making Donald Trump our president. And the FBI did tell Trump as a candidate Russia was trying to infiltrate his campaign.
The fact is Obama was ready to do more to stop Russian election interference, but was blocked personally by Mitch McConnell.

Trump tweets old video of Clinton talking up ‘a strong Russia’

President Trump on Thursday tweeted a partial clip of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arguing eight years ago that a “strong Russia” is in the world’s best interest.

Trump asked if “Dems and Fake News” will “ever learn” as he faces ongoing criticism about his handling of Monday’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The clip is from a 2010 interview Clinton did with First Channel Television, which is partially owned by the Russian government.

“We want very much to have a strong Russia because a strong, confident, prosperous, stable Russia is, we think, in the interests of the world,” Clinton says in the brief clip.

The clip has recently been shared by some pro-Trump figures on Twitter, including actor James Woods.

Clinton was responding to a question about “America’s place in the modern world” when she made the remarks.

“Is it a force aimed at supporting the world’s equilibrium? Or is it a force aimed at changing the status quo?” interviewer Vladimir Pozner asked.

“It’s both in this way, Vladimir. It is a force to sustain an equilibrium that permits countries and individuals to progress, to become more self-realizing,” she replied. “I mean, we want very much to have a strong Russia because a strong, competent, prosperous, stable Russia is, we think, in the interests of the world.”

“But at the same time, there are countries and places where the status quo is just not acceptable,” she continued. “Last summer, I went to the Democratic Republic of Congo. I went to Eastern Congo where 5.4 million people had been killed in the last 15 years, the greatest death toll since the second world war. We don’t want that status quo to be sustained.”

Then-President Obama made similar remarks about Russia during a 2009 speech, calling for a “reset” in U.S-Russia relations and saying the world would benefit “from a strong and vibrant Russia.”

Trump has faced intense scrutiny for his handling of Russia this past week, after he sided with Putin’s denials of election interference during a press conference in Helsinki, Finland.

Trump attempted to walk back the comments on Tuesday, saying he believes the U.S. intelligence assessment that found Russia meddled in the election.

[The Hill]

Reality

The video was before Putin, before Russia illegally annexed Crimea, before Russia invaded Ukraine, before Russia tried to assassinate world leaders, before Russia jailed critics, murdered critics, before Russia tried to murder civilians in England, and apparently before high-definition television.

Trump Calls Media ‘Real Enemy of the People’ While Revealing ‘Second Meeting’ With Putin

Amid widespread blowback this week over his comments relating to the summit in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Donald Trump is declaring the meeting a success, and going on the warpath against the media — which he’s labeling “the real enemy of the people.”

In a Thursday morning tweet, the president suggested that another meeting is forthcoming.

“The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media,” Trump wrote. “I look forward to our second meeting so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed, including stopping terrorism, security for Israel, nuclear proliferation, cyber attacks, trade, Ukraine, Middle East peace, North Korea and more. There are many answers, some easy and some hard, to these problems…but they can ALL be solved!”

The president then tweeted a montage which aired on Fox & Friendsearlier of times in which he’s acknowledged Russia meddled in the 2016 election. (Although he also left open the possibility of China and other nations or individuals also meddling.)

Trump is floating the possibility of a second meeting just as initial polling has been released on the first. According to a poll from Axios and SurveyMonkey, 79 percent of Republicans approve of the president’s handling of the summit. Overall, however, the public disapproved of Trump’s handling by a 58-40 margin.

[Mediaite]

Trump somehow still doesn’t understand NATO

Just a week after rattling NATO countriesin Europe, President Donald Trump once again put America’s commitment to the alliance in doubt on Tuesday night.

In an interview with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, Trump equivocated on whether the US would come to a NATO ally’s defense if attacked, called the people from Montenegro “very aggressive,” and worried aloud that protecting Montenegro might unleash a third world war.

There were two key parts of the exchange. Here’s the first:

CARLSON: NATO was created chiefly to prevent the Russians from invading Western Europe. I don’t think you believe Western Europe’s at risk of being invaded by Russia right now, so what is the purpose of NATO right now?

TRUMP: Well, that was the purpose, and it’s okay. It’s fine, but they have to pay.

And here’s the second:

CARLSON: Membership in NATO obligates the members to defend any other member who has been attacked. So let’s say Montenegro, which joined last year, is attacked: Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack? Why is that?

TRUMP: I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question. Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people.

CARLSON: Yeah, I’m not against it — or Albania.

TRUMP: No, by the way, they have very strong people — they have very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III. Now I understand that — but that’s the way it was set up. Don’t forget, I just got here a little more than a year and a half ago. But I took over the conversation three or four days ago and said, “You have to pay.”

Carlson’s questions were entirely fair ones to ask (more on that in a minute). But Trump’s responses were deeply disturbing. Here’s why.

Trump didn’t steadfastly commit to NATO’s collective defense — again

At the heart of the NATO military alliance is a provision known as Article 5. That says that an attack on one NATO country is to be considered an attack on all the countries — and therefore that all the member countries are obligated to come to the defense of whoever is attacked.

This is why NATO allies — yes, including Montenegro — are fighting alongside the US in Afghanistan to this day. The US invoked Article 5 after 9/11, and NATO countries kept their promise and came to America’s aid.

And, to use Tucker Carlson’s example, if a country were to attack Montenegro — which became a NATO ally in June 2017under Trump’s watch — the US would be treaty-bound to defend it.

But Trump made it pretty clear that he’s not wild about that fact, and only begrudgingly said he’d go along with it as long as they pay their fair share of defense spending — an issue he brought up over and over again at the NATO summit in Brussels last week.

This isn’t the first time Trump has done this, either. In May 2017, he refused to commit the US to Article 5 during a meeting with NATO allies. But two weeks later, he reversed course, saying in impromptu remarks that the US would abide by the provision.

Trump did seem to endorse NATO as a whole during Carlson’s interview when he said the alliance’s original purpose is still “okay.” Still, Trump’s outward skepticism about NATO worries many.

“His rhetoric has unsettled allies, empowered Russia, and undermined Alliance solidarity,” Amanda Sloat, a European security expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told me.

Trump still doesn’t get how NATO works

Trump said that if Montenegro got aggressive with another country, presumably Russia, then World War III would break out because the US would be obligated to defend it, thus dragging the US into a major war with Russia.

What Trump misses is that the US doesn’t have to defend Montenegro if that country starts a fight, only if it’s attacked. NATO is a defensive treaty. If you start an unprovoked war, that’s your decision, and no one in NATO has to help you at all.

So even if Montenegrins were, as Trump said, “very aggressive people” — whatever the hell that means — the US wouldn’t have to lift a finger to help them.

The fact that Trump doesn’t seem to understand that is beyond disturbing. If this were his first day in office, maybe it would be understandable. But it’s not. Trump has been in office for a year and a half. He’s met with NATO allies as a group not once but twice — including spending two days straight talking to them just a week ago.

There is no reason why he shouldn’t have that down pat at this point.

Carlson’s line of questioning was totally fair. It’s Trump’s responses that are the problem.

Debates about NATO’s usefulness have raged for decades, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, as have concerns about NATO’s expansion over the years to include more and more countries. (Here’s a really smart Twitter thread on that if you’re interested.)

It’s certainly reasonable to ask the sitting US president to explain why America’s sons and daughters should be obligated to fight to protect Montenegro, or why the US should risk a potential nuclear war with Russia to defend Estonia.

It’s Trump’s responses to this question that are concerning here. Instead of laying out the case for NATO being in America’s national security interest (and there is a case to be made on that), Trump makes it clear that he doesn’t actually get why the hell NATO matters at all.

If you’re a NATO ally wondering whether the US president will have your back if shit goes down, that’s not the most reassuring thing to hear.

[Vox]

White House: Trump will consider letting Russia question investor, former ambassador

President Donald Trump will consider allowing Russian investigators to question U.S.-born investor Bill Browder, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and others after President Vladimir Putin floated the idea, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday.

“He said it was an interesting idea. He didn’t commit to anything,” Sanders said at the daily press briefing. “He wants to work with his team and determine if there’s any validity that would be helpful to the process…It was an idea they threw out.”

Later in the day, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called the concept “absolutely absurd.”

“The fact that they want to question 11 American citizens, and the assertions that the Russian government is making about those American citizens — we do not stand by those assertions,” Nauert said.

In a joint press conference with Trump Monday, Putin proposed that the U.S. allow Russian officials to interview Americans in exchange for Russia allowing U.S. officials to interview Russians, such as the 12 people recently indicted for their role in hacking Democratic computer systems in 2016.

“This kind of effort should be a mutual one,” Putin said Monday. “We would expect that the Americans would reciprocate.”

The idea was “an incredible offer,” Trump said.

The Russian leader mentioned Browder, whom, he said, “we have an interest of questioning” over tax issues. Browder has been at odds with the Kremlin for years, including because of his advocacy for efforts to sanction Russians suspected of committing human rights violations.

On Tuesday, the Russian Prosecutor General’s office released a wishlist of potential people to extradite, including members of the State and Homeland Security departments and members of the CIA. McFaul, a former ambassador who had strained relations with the Kremlin and has since said he was banned from traveling to Russia, was also included.

“I hope the White House corrects the record and denounces in categorical terms this ridiculous request from Putin,” McFaul tweeted Wednesday. “Not doing so creates moral equivalency between a legitimacy US indictment of Russian intelligence officers and a crazy, completely fabricated story invented by Putin.”

It would be an extraordinary step to allow Russian investigators access to current or former U.S. officials. Browder, though born in the U.S., is now a British citizen, so it is unclear how a deal involving him would work.

[Politico]

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