This week in Russia (again, it’s a lot)
In an early March letter released last Friday, President Trump’s lawyers asserted that “with a few exceptions,” the last 10 years of his tax returns don’t point to “any income of any type from Russian sources.” The two major exceptions are $12.2 million earned on a Miss Universe pageant held in Moscow in 2013, and the 2008 sale of an estate in Florida to a Russian billionaire for $95 billion.
Politifact investigates and concludes that “there’s not much people should read into” the fact that this same law firm was just named Chambers & Partners “Russia Law Firm of the Year” in 2016.
According to a Washington Post report on Monday, Trump revealed highly classified intelligence information in a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak last Wednesday. The information revealed had been, as the Post reports, “provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government.” This same partner had expressed frustration with the US in the past for its “inability to safeguard sensitive information related to Iraq and Syria.” Despite White House insistence that “Trump discussed only shared concerns about terrorism,” senior White House officials moved quickly to inform the intelligence community of the conversation and “also called for the problematic portion of Trump’s discussion to be stricken from internal memos” – an attempt at damage control, many believe.
In a series of tweets on Tuesday morning, Trump defended his actions, asserting that he “wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety.”
Later on Tuesday, the New York Times reported that, in a private meeting in the Oval Office, Trump asked former FBI Director James Comey to end the FBI’s investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn, just a day after Flynn was fired. The request was documented in a memo Comey wrote, as “part of a paper trail Mr. Comey created documenting what he perceived as the president’s improper efforts to influence a continuing investigation.” Lawmakers have since requested to see the memo, which was read to a Times reporter over the phone. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the Republican chair of the House Oversight Committee, demanded the FBI release all documentation of discussions between Trump and Comey, threatening to issue a subpoena if the FBI does not comply.
The Times report comes on the heels of a statement by Trump, made in a tweet last Friday, that “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
On Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as Special Counsel to conduct an investigation outside “the normal chain of command.” Mueller’s appointment was met with bipartisan approval, although Trump complained on early Thursday morning via tweet that “this is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” According to Axios, Trump was not informed of the appointment until after it was made.
Also on Wednesday: the Washington Post obtained a recording of a conversation among GOP leaders that took place in June of 2016, in which House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) asserted that “there’s two people, I think, who Putin pays: [Dana] Rohrabacher [R-CA] and Trump…swear to God.” According to the transcript of the conversation, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) immediately shut the conversation down, saying “No leaks…this is how we know we’re a real family here.”
As the Post observes, “it is difficult to tell from the recording the extent to which the remarks were meant to be taken literally,” although the fact that the discussion took place “shows that the Republican leadership in the House privately discussed Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election and Trump’s relationship to Putin, but wanted to keep their concerns secret.”
On Thursday, Reuters published an exclusive report asserting that “Michael Flynn and other advisors to Donald Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race,” according to US officials with knowledge of the exchanges. Although the discussions focused primarily on improving relations between the two countries, “the number of interactions…was exceptional.”
At The Atlantic, David A. Graham reviews the last ten days of Trump’s presidency and warns that it “appears to be on the verge of collapse.”
North Korea is still a thing that’s happening
Last Friday the foreign affairs sub-committee of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly sent to the US House of Representatives “a rare letter of protest” against newly proposed sanctions, calling them a “heinous act against humanity.” The foreign affairs committee itself has only recently been reinstated – after its discontinuation by Kim Jong Il in 1998 – as “an attempt to create a ‘window’ for contacts with the outside world – Seoul and Washington in particular.”
According to CNN, the US has moved a second aircraft carrier into Korean waters, just days after North Korea launched a successful missile test. According to Reuters, President Trump “told South Korea’s presidential envoy that Washington was willing to try to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis through engagement, but under the right conditions.”
In an angry tweet last Friday Trump threatened to cancel press briefings, claiming that “as a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!”
A ransomware attack which began last Friday “is believed to be the largest cyber exploitation attack recorded, according to multiple cybersecurity experts.”
In a move condemned by both Republicans and Democrats as an unnecessary return to the failed War on Drugs of the 1980s and 90s, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum ordering federal prosecutors to “pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” when it comes to drug crimes.
In a move that many voting rights activists consider a temporary victory, the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal to a decision by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals striking down a North Carolina voting bill as unconstitutional.
By agreeing to keep sanction waivers in place, the Trump administration keeps Iran nuclear deal alive.
Video has surfaced which appears to depict members of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s security detail attacking a group of peaceful protesters in Washington DC. Erdogan was in DC on Thursday to meet with President Trump.
The US military “carried out an air strike on Thursday against militia supported by the Syrian government,” according to Reuters.