This week in Russia
Last Friday, during a joint news conference with visiting Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, President Trump called former FBI Director James Comey a liar and a leaker, escalating what the New York Times called “an extraordinary public feud,” and claimed he’d be willing to testify under oath regarding the events Comey spoke of in his testimony last Thursday.
On Tuesday Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding the Russia investigation and his role in Comey’s firing.
You can read Sessions' full opening statement right here.
Take a look at this piece from Colleen Shalby at the Los Angeles Times on the nine key takeaways from Sessions’ testimony.
Also on Tuesday: close Trump associate and Newsmax Media CEO Christopher Ruddy speculated on CNN that Trump was considering firing special counsel Robert Mueller “because Mueller is illegitimate as special counsel.” Following Ruddy’s statement, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that “While the president has the right to [fire the special counsel], he has no intention to do so.” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein also noted on Tuesday that he was the one with the authority to fire Mueller, and he’d seen no reason to do so.
Robert Farley at FactCheck.org answers the question “Can President Trump fire special counsel Robert Mueller?”
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Mueller’s investigation had expanded to include “an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice.”
On Thursday, during his annual call-in show, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed “Russia was ready for a constructive dialogue with the United States,” and noted sarcastically that he was willing to grant James Comey political asylum.
Also on Thursday, the Washington Post was first to report that Vice President Mike Pence had hired high-profile lawyer Richard Cullen “to help with both congressional committee inquiries and the special counsel investigation into possible collusion between President Trump’s campaign and Russia,” despite Trump’s lawyer’s insistence that White House staff did not need to hire their own lawyers. News of Pence’s hiring a personal lawyer broke as the Associated Press was reporting that CNN was suing the Department of Justice in order to gain access to James Comey’s memos detailing his conversations with Trump AND as the Senate was voting, near-unanimously, to impose new, stricter sanctions on Russia as punishment for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
At the National Interest, Dimitri Alexander Simes asserts that Russia “is likely to retaliate” against the new sanctions.
The latest on North Korea
Otto Warmbier, the US student detained in North Korea since January 2016, was evacuated to a Cincinnati hospital on Tuesday, “gravely ill and in a coma,” according to the New York Times. In a statement on Thursday, North Korea said it had released Warmbier on ‘humanitarian grounds.’ Later on Thursday, doctors confirmed that Warmbier has severe brain damage, although they don’t know what caused it.
On Sunday, Puerto Ricans voted overwhelmingly in favor of statehood in a non-binding referendum. The vote is the second time in Puerto Rico’s history that the small US commonwealth has voted for statehood (the first occurred in 2012), but low turnout – only 23% of eligible voters voted – may have skewed the results.
Ryan Zinke, the Trump administration’s Secretary of the Interior, is “urging the White House to reduce” the size of Bears Ears National Monument, “while asking Congress to take further action on tribal co-management and special designations for lands that would be ultimately removed from the monument.” The decision is seen as a compromise between the positions of Utah’s political leadership – which sought to rescind monument status entirely – and the five Native tribes in the region, which had originally petitioned the Obama administration to expand the monument’s size to its current 1.3 million acres.
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) introduced the Communications Over Various Feeds Electronically for Engagement (COVFEFE) Act on Monday, which would amend the the Presidential Records Act to include social media. As The Hill reports, the new legislation “has the same acronym as an infamous Trump Twitter typo last month.”
The attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit against President Trump on Monday, accusing him of violating the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause “and seeking to uncover the tax returns the president has thus far been unwilling to release.” As POLITICO reports, “the suit focuses on the president’s continued ownership of his family’s business empire…far from the blind-trust standard adopted by past presidents, Trump continues to receive some information about the Trump organization, including profit reports, from his sons.”
On Wednesday, 196 members of Congress filed a similar lawsuit against Trump, “alleging that by retaining interests in a global business empire he has violated constitutional restrictions on taking gifts and benefits from foreign leaders.” As the Washington Post reports, the suit by members of Congress “is distinctive because of the special standing granted to Congress…[to] protect our democracy from foreign corruption.”
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis on Monday called the Gulf nations’ ongoing blockade against Qatar “a very complex situation,” even as Kuwait, acting as mediator in the dispute, has claimed that “Qatar is willing to hold a dialogue [and is] ready to listen to [the Gulf states’] concerns,” according to al Jazeera.
After an appearance before Congress on Tuesday in which Mattis claimed that “we are not winning the war in Afghanistan right now,” he was given the authority by President Trump to set troop levels in the embattled country, “two months after being given similar authority in Iraq and Syria.” Late on Thursday, the Associated Press reported that the US would send nearly 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, a man “who had expressed anger toward President Trump” on social media opened fire on Republican lawmakers during baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, wounding four people, including Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), the third-ranking Republican in Congress. Scalise was in critical condition after undergoing a third operation on Thursday. Both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence visited Scalise in the hospital.
In what NBC News calls “a striking break from how Congress normally crafts legislation,” Senate Republicans are working on their version of a healthcare bill to replace the Affordable Care Act, but doing so behind closed doors: “there are no hearings with health experts, industry leaders, and patient advocacy groups” and the senators crafting the bill have not responded to questions about what’s in it.
According to a draft memo leaked on Thursday, “President Trump will announce efforts to restrict U.S. companies from doing business with Cuban ventures controlled by that country’s military and strictly enforce rules on Americans traveling to Cuba.” The restrictions would roll back the Obama administration’s progressive policy toward the island nation.
This week in Russia
In an interview with Megyn Kelly that aired on NBC on Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin again denied that Russia meddled in the 2016 US election and “insisted the hackers could have come from ‘anywhere’ and then they could have – in a savvy and professional way – shifted the blame to make it look like Russia was behind the hacking.”
On Monday, The Intercept published a classified NSA report detailing specific Russian military intelligence efforts to interfere with the election. According to the report, Russian intelligence “executed a cyberattack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days” before the election.
Later in the day, news broke that the leaker had been identified as Reality Leigh Winner, 25, who’d been arrested on June 3 and will be charged “with removing classified material from a government facility in Georgia.” The charges were announced less than an hour after The Intercept published its report.
At NeimanLab, Laura Hazard Owen reports on the ways in which Winner’s and The Intercept’s handling of the leaked documents led to Winner’s public outing.
On Wednesday, the nation’s four top intelligence officials – Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, Mike Rogers, head of the NSA, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe – testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, which “had one key question they asked again and again,” according to NPR: “Did President Trump want you to downplay investigations surrounding Russia?” The “often contentious” hearing revealed little new information, as each of the intelligence officials responded in broad, often vague terms to Committee questions.
On Thursday, in what had been billed as Washington D.C.’s “Superbowl,” former FBI director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. At NPR, Brian Naylor details some of the highlights of the hearing:
Regarding Trump’s assertion that Comey was fired due to poor leadership and disarray among the FBI’s rank-and-file: “Those were lies, plain and simple.”
On why he decided to take notes during meetings with Trump: “I was honestly concerned he might lie about the content of our meeting, so I felt I had to write it down.”
On Trump’s remarking that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations”: “Lordy, I hope there are tapes!”
On leaking his notes from meetings with Trump to the press: “I thought it might prompt the appointment of a special counsel.”
In response to being asked whether Trump’s attempts to persuade him to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia amounted to obstruction of justice, Comey said that was for special counsel Robert Mueller to decide, although he did call it “disturbing” and asked, rhetorically, “Why did he kick everybody out of the Oval Office [when he made that request]? That, to me as an investigator, is a very significant fact.”
Comey’s testimony also raised new questions about the details surrounding Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation.
At the New Yorker, Evan Osnos recounts the “three astonishing hours” of James Comey’s testimony and argues that Trump “took a step” in the direction of impeachment.
Don’t forget about North Korea
Last Thursday North Korea launched multiple surface-to-ship projectiles off its east coast, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a continuing acceleration of its missile development program despite harsher UN sanctions imposed last week. The missiles “likely flew about 125 miles…[and] landed in waters between the Korean peninsula and Japan, where the U.S. carriers Carl Vinson and Ronald Reagan participated in joint exercises with the South Korean navy” last week, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In an official statement released on Tuesday, North Korea condemned the US for pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, calling it a “shortsighted and silly decision,” while labeling global warming as “one of the gravest challenges humankind is facing today.”
At the National Interest, Doug Bandow asserts that North Korea’s leadership “appear[s] to be eminently rational,” and that any productive negotiation will require the US to recognize it as such.
The diplomatic crisis in the Gulf
On Monday, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain severed diplomatic and transport ties with Qatar, ejecting Qatari diplomats and recalling citizens, as they accused Doha “of supporting ‘terrorists’ and Iran.” Yemen’s internationally-recognized-but-exiled government, the Maldives, and “Libya’s out-of-mandate Prime Minister” later joined the Gulf states in cutting ties.
On Tuesday, Kuwait’s ruler met with Saudi King Salman to mediate the dispute.
Also on Tuesday: President Trump expressed his support for the move against Qatar in a series of tweets, claiming that “his call for an end to the financing of radical groups” is what prompted the severing of ties. A little more than a week ago, Trump had visited the region and announced the Gulf Cooperation Council’s leadership in working to cut off funding for terrorist groups in the region. Now, as al Jazeera reports, “there are many analysts who believe that a potential break-up of the GCC has to be considered.”
Trump’s response conflicted with the official response of his administration – both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis sought to downplay the dispute among the key US allies. Qatar hosts the US’s largest military base in the Middle East, with about 10,000 US troops stationed there.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen at The Atlantic argues that “the roots of the tensions between Qatar and its neighbors go deep,” and provides historical context to the current crisis.
On Saturday night, in what London police have labeled a terror attack, a van crossing the London Bridge “veered into pedestrians,” hitting five or six people according to witnesses. Three men then exited the vehicle and chased people with knives, stabbing indiscriminately. Ultimately, seven people were killed and 48 were injured in the incident. On Monday, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. This is the third terror attack in the UK in four months, following the attack on Westminster Bridge in March in which five people were killed, and last month’s bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, in which 22 people were killed and dozens more injured.
ABC News reported on Tuesday that the relationship between Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions became so strained that “Sessions at one point recently even suggested he could resign,” a suggestion Trump refused, despite lingering anger over Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
Early Wednesday morning President Trump took to Twitter to announce former Justice Department official Christopher Wray as his nominee for FBI Director. Wray served as an assistant attorney general in the Bush administration, and later represented New Jersey Governor Chris Christie during the “Bridgegate” scandal.
In a short address to the UN Human Rights Council, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley claimed that “the United States is looking carefully at this Council and our participation in it,” criticizing in particular the Council’s treatment of Israel and its unwillingness to address human rights abuses in Venezuala.
Hawaii governor David Ige signed two bills on Wednesday “committing the state to fulfilling key provisions of the Paris climate agreement.” Though several states and nearly 80 cities pledged to follow the climate agreement last week despite federal policy, Hawaii becomes the first state to take steps toward legal compliance.
17 people died and more than 40 people were injured in two coordinated terrorist attacks in Tehran on Wednesday. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. In its official statement of condolence, the White House claimed to “grieve and pray” for the victims of the attack, but also “underscore[d] that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”
Exit polls from the UK’s snap election Thursday indicate a ‘hung parliament’ with no clear majority party, a major blow to Prime Minister Theresa May, who’d called for the election in order to strengthen her hand in negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union.
A tough week for the climate
On Thursday, in a move that was globally condemned, President Trump announced he was officially pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord. However, “under the terms of the agreement,” as NPR reports, “he wouldn’t actually be able to withdraw until November 2020.”
The US joins Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries to completely reject the climate pact.
Following Trump’s decision, the governors of California, New York, and Washington State announced they were forming a United States Climate Alliance, “a coalition that will convene U.S. states committed to upholding the Paris Climate Agreement and taking aggressive action on climate change.” A growing number of cities are also committing themselves to meet the standards of the climate agreement.
In related news: according to an internal EPA memo seen by Reuters, the agency is offering some employees a buyout, as Trump “proposes slashing the agency’s budget and workforce to reduce regulation.” In Trump’s 2018 budget proposal, the EPA would see a 31 percent budget reduction, along with the elimination of 3,200 of its 15,000 employees.
You can read Trump’s announcement here, along with annotations by NPR staff.
At The American Conservative, Daniel Larison argues that withdrawing the US from the climate pact was a poor decision because “it needlessly creates rifts with other governments whose cooperation we need on many other issues.”
This week in Russia
Former UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage, who was one of the leading voices in favor of the ‘Brexit’ campaign last year, has become a ‘person of interest’ in the FBI investigation into possible collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian intelligence, the Guardian reported on Thursday. Farage “raised the interest of FBI investigators because of his relationships with individuals connected to both the Trump campaign and Julian Assange.”
At an economic forum in St. Petersburg on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that Moscow “had no choice but to build up its own forces in response” to US anti-missile activity in Alaska and South Korea.
Former FBI Director James Comey will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee next Thursday regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Don’t forget about North Korea
Last Monday, North Korea fired a missile that “appears to have landed inside Japan’s economic zone where fishing and cargo ships are active,” according to the New York Times. Japanese President Shinzo Abe condemned the action and asserted that Japan would continue to work closely with South Korea and the US to “make the utmost efforts to ensure people’s safety.”
In March, North Korea launched four short-range ballistic missiles at once, with three of them landing inside Japan’s economic zone.
Both China and Russia condemned the launch, although Russia urged ‘restraint’ in its official statement.
On Tuesday, new South Korean president Moon Jae-in ordered an investigation into the US THAAD anti-missile system, after learning of “shocking” delivery and installation of four additional launchers. The South Korean Defense Ministry had not informed the president of the new launchers. President Jae-in’s probe announcement came the same day the US successfully shot down “a missile similar to the type that North Korea could someday use to threaten the United States.” As NPR reports, this was “the first time a ground-based midcourse interceptor has destroyed an intercontinental ballistic missile target.”
Following the G7 summit in Sicily last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a crowd at a beer hall on Sunday that Germany “really must take our fate into our own hands” – an apparent reference to her fraught relationship with the Trump administration. Merkel repeated this sentiment after a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday, telling reporters that “the times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days.”
Mike Dubke, who’d been the White House communications director for a little more than three months, resigned from his post on May 18th, though he remained in his role during President Trump’s recent trip abroad. Press Secretary Sean Spicer is expected to take on his functions in the interim.
Amid jockeying among the US, China, and India for solar industry dominance, the US has announced to the World Trade Organization (WTO) that it is “considering putting emergency ‘safeguard’ tariffs on imported solar cells,” according to a Reuters report filed Monday.
Heading into what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts will be an “above-normal” hurricane season, both NOAA and FEMA, the federal disaster relief agency, are without chief administrators and facing proposed budget cuts, as NPR reports.
A truck bomb “devastated a central area of Kabul near the presidential palace and foreign embassies on Wednesday,” as the New York Times reports, killing at least 80 people and injuring hundreds more.
The Trump administration has introduced “a new questionnaire for U.S. visa applicants worldwide that asks for social media handles for the last five years and biographical information going back 15 years,” in an effort to more thoroughly vet foreign visitors. The Office of Management and Budget approved the new questions on a six-month emergency basis.
This week in Russia
The New York Times reported last Friday that, during a May 10 meeting in the White House with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, President Trump bragged that firing former FBI Director James Comey – whom he referred to as “crazy, a real nut job” – relieved “great pressure,” and again claimed that he was not under any investigation. The report was based on a document summarizing the meeting, itself “based on notes taken from inside the Oval Office.” As the Times observes, “the comments represented an extraordinary moment in the investigation…a day after firing the man leading that inquiry, Mr. Trump disparaged him – to Russian officials.”
On Monday, the Washington Post reported that Trump urged Daniel Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, and Admiral Michael S. Rogers, the Director of the National Security Agency, to “publicly deny the existence of any evidence of collusion [with Russian intelligence] during the 2016 election,” a request which both refused, deeming it inappropriate to comment on an ongoing investigation. The Post also reported that “senior White House officials sounded out top intelligence officials about the possibility of intervening directly with Comey to encourage the FBI to drop its probe of Michael Flynn.”
Following Michael Flynn’s decision on Monday to plead the Fifth to its subpoena for documents, the Senate Intelligence Committee “said on Tuesday they would subpoena two…of his businesses.” On Wednesday, Adam Schiff (D-CA) said the House Intelligence Committee plans to subpoena Flynn as well.
On Tuesday, former CIA Director John Brennan testified before the House Intelligence Committee, claiming he “encountered and [is] aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign…and it raised questions in [his] mind again whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.” Brennan also condemned the recent flood of leaks, calling them “appalling.”
On Thursday NBC News reported that Jared Kushner is a “person of interest” in the ongoing FBI investigation into the possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian intelligence. The Washington Post had reported last week that a senior White House official had come under FBI scrutiny, but did not name the person.
North Korea is still, still, a thing
On Sunday, North Korea conducted its second missile test in a week, this time successfully launching a medium-range missile. The test was immediately condemned by the US, Japan, and South Korea, whose new president, Moon Jae-in, “has said he wants to try to open talks with the North, but that provocative actions would make that difficult or impossible.” The launch, along with defiant rhetorical posturing, came just days after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted that previous policy toward North Korea in the past two decades had failed and “all options are on the table.” Jim Mattis, the Trump administration’s Secretary of Defense, claimed last Friday that war with North Korea would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.”
On Monday, the missile was approved for combat use by Kim Jong Un.
Early on Tuesday, South Korea fired shots at an unidentified object it believed to be a North Korean drone. Reuters reports that “more than 90 shots were fired” before the object “disappeared from radar screens.”
In a statement on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned North Korea “to not do anything to again violate U.N. Security Council resolutions,” and again urged a diplomatic resolution to the escalating tensions.
Other North Korea news: Evidence from this month’s WannaCry ransomware attack points to a group of hackers associated with North Korea, cybersecurity experts believe, although “flaws in the WannaCry code, its wide spread, and its demands for payment in the electronic bitcoin before files are decrypted suggested that the hackers were not working for North Korean government objectives in this case,” as CNBC reports.
At Lawfare, Luke McNamara explores the current cybersecurity landscape and concludes, like Homeland Security Secretary Jim Kelly, that “North Korea poses a more likely cyber threat than it does a nuclear concern.”
Trump’s ‘Grand Tour’
On Monday, on his first stop in his first visit overseas, Trump signed an arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth $110 billion, making it “the largest single arms deal in U.S. history,” along with $250 billion in various other deals. According to the State Department, the deal “will include tanks, combat ships, missile defense systems, radar and communications and cybersecurity equipment.”
“We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership.”
While in Saudi Arabia, Trump also gave a highly-anticipated speech to the leaders of about 50 Muslim-majority countries, urging them to “drive out the terrorists and extremists” and announcing the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a coalition of six Arab nations committed to cutting off funding sources for terrorist groups. In the speech, Trump also blasted Iran for “fuel[ing] the fires of sectarian conflict and terror” and urged “all nations of conscience” to “isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.”
Read the full transcript of Trump’s Riyadh speech here.
On Tuesday, Trump met with both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging both sides to put away the “pain and disagreements of the past.” Trump also became “the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, the most holy site at which Jews can pray.”
On Wednesday, Trump traveled to Rome to meet with the Pope, who gave him copies of his writings, most notably his encyclical on climate change.
On Thursday, standing alongside European leaders at a NATO summit in Brussels, Trump criticized NATO allies for not paying their fair share, claiming the US was owed “massive amounts of money” and calling the minimum payment of 2 percent of GDP the “bare minimum.”
At the New Yorker, Amy Davidson considers Trump’s performance at the NATO summit and concludes that he “fail[ed] another leadership test.”
The investigation continues into the Monday night bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England that killed 22 people.
The Trump administration is planning to reject a request by the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) for the “disclosure of ethics waivers granted to dozens of former lobbyists now working in the White House and other federal agencies," according to the New York Times.
The White House released its 2018 budget proposal on Tuesday, which, as The Economist notes, “calls for increased spending on defense and border security alongside deep cuts to health insurance for the poor, food stamps and other parts of the social safety net.” The proposal – officially termed “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” but nicknamed the “Taxpayer First” budget by Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney – can be found right here.
On Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its assessment of the revised American Health Care Act. According to its report, the law, if passed, would leave 23 million Americans uninsured by 2026, primarily due to cuts in Medicaid funding, while reducing the deficit by $119 billion, a far smaller reduction than what the CBO had predicted for the original version of the bill. The White House pushed back against the report, asserting that “History has proven the CBO to be totally incapable of accurately predicting how healthcare legislation will impact health insurance coverage” – an accusation which, as FactCheck.org points out, is not exactly correct. You can read the CBO’s official report here.
In a leaked transcript of a call between Trump and Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, Trump praised Duterte’s extrajudicial crackdown on drug crimes that has left thousands of people dead, and disclosed sensitive military information – that two nuclear submarines are now stationed near the Korean peninsula.
On Thursday the US 4th Circuit Court of Appeals forcefully rejected a White House bid to reinstate Trump’s temporary travel ban. In the decision, Chief Judge Roger Gregory claimed the executive order uses “vague words of national security, but in context drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions responded immediately, stating the federal government would seek to bring the case to the Supreme Court.
Less than a day after allegedly body-slamming a reporter, Republican candidate Greg Gianforte won a special election to fill Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke's vacant House seat in Montana.
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.
This week in Russia (it’s a lot, so buckle up)
On Monday, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, claiming that “she expected White House officials to ‘take action’ on her January warning that then-national security advisor Michael Flynn could be blackmailed by Russia.” Former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. also testified, warning that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was so successful that “they are now emboldened to continue such activities in the future both here and around the world and to do so more intensely.”
Following the testimony, federal prosecutors issued grand jury subpoenas to several of Flynn’s business associates, as part of the ongoing investigation into the links between Russian intelligence and the Trump campaign. Flynn himself was subpoenaed by the Senate Intelligence Committee for documents he’s already refused to provide.
FBI Director James Comey was fired by President Trump on Tuesday, following the news that there had been errors in his Senate testimony last week. In a publicly released letter, Trump claimed he’d been advised by the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General to dismiss Comey, who was “not able to effectively lead the Bureau” despite “informing [Trump], on three separate occasions, that [he was] not under investigation.” In a more detailed memorandum to the Attorney General, also released to the public, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein recommended Comey’s dismissal based on his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email use during the election. As the New York Times Daily podcast reported on Wednesday, Comey was not informed of his dismissal before the news leaked to the media. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Rosenstein threatened to resign “after the narrative emerging from the White House on Tuesday evening cast him as a prime mover of the decision to fire Comey and that the president acted only on his recommendation.”
You can read Comey’s dismissal letter, along with the Rosenstein memo listing out the reasons to fire Comey, right here.
The curious timing of Rosenstein’s memorandum has led to backlash from both Democratic and Republican officials: Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) asked “Why now? If the administration had objections to the way Director Comey handled the Clinton investigation, they had those objections the minute the president got into office.” Patrick Leahy (D-VT), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is investigating the ties between Trump’s camp and Russian intelligence, asserted that Comey’s firing was “nothing less than Nixonian,” and Richard Burr (R-NC), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee – also investigating the Trump-Russia connection – called the move “deeply troubling,” as did another Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, Ben Sasse (R-NE).
On Wednesday morning, Schumer called for an all-Senate closed-door meeting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, even as Trump met privately with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. All US press was barred from the room, but TASS, the official Russian news agency, was allowed in, and tweeted a handful of photos of the meeting.
Also on Wednesday: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor to reject the increasing number of calls for a special prosecutor to lead an independent investigation, asserting that “too much is at stake” to halt the current Senate Judiciary investigation.
There has been lots of speculation about why Comey was dismissed, but according to the New York Times, Comey had “asked the Justice Department for more prosecutors and other personnel to accelerate the bureau’s investigation” just days before he was fired. Comey’s request went to Rosenstein, who later wrote the memo detailing the reasons for the FBI Director’s dismissal. The Times also reported that Trump had been privately “nursing a collection of festering grievances” against Comey, “including Mr. Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation, his seeming lack of interest in pursuing anti-Trump leaks and the perceived disloyalty over the wiretapping claim.”
On Thursday, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Comey’s place, directly contradicting Trump’s assertion that Comey had lost the respect of the FBI and asserting that “you cannot stop the FBI from doing the right thing.”
Also on Thursday: in an interview with NBC News’s Lester Holt, Trump claimed that Comey was a “showboat” and that “regardless of recommendation, [he] was going to fire Comey.”
At The Atlantic, Julia Ioffe asks the all-important question: “What happens to the FBI’s Russia investigation now?”
Recommended Listening: Lawfare Blog’s “Emergency Edition” podcast on Comey's firing and the resulting backlash.
On Tuesday, Trump approved a plan to arm Kurdish insurgents fighting against ISIS in Syria. Turkey, a key NATO ally, described the decision as a “threat to Turkey.”
Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ), who possibly saved the House’s healthcare bill with an amendment that various Republican factions agreed to, took hostile questions from angry, anxious constituents at a town hall on Wednesday night that lasted nearly five hours.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed an Arctic Council agreement “recognizing the landmark Paris accord” on Thursday, but cautioned that Trump was still deciding “whether to leave or weaken [US commitment to]” the Paris Climate Agreement.
New South Korean President Moon Jae-in began his efforts to re-engage with North Korea diplomatically, speaking to Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe about “how to respond to North Korea’s rapidly developing nuclear and ballistic missile programs.” Meanwhile, North Korea called on alleged plot to assassinate Kim Jong-Un last month “a declaration of war,” and demanded the extradition of all those involved from the US and South Korea.
The 'North Korea problem' is starting to become everybody's problem
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster reassured South Korea in a phone call on Sunday that the US would bear the cost for installing a THAAD missile defense system on the Korean peninsula, despite President Trump’s claim last Thursday, during an interview with Reuters, that he wanted South Korea to pay for the system. On Monday, US officials told Reuters that THAAD was “initially capable,” though it won’t be fully operational for months.
In recent days, Trump has also increased his efforts to coordinate with other Asian countries regarding North Korea, speaking via phone with the leaders of China, Japan, Thailand, and Singapore. In addition, Trump spoke with Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, inviting the controversial leader to visit the White House, despite “an anti-drug campaign [in the Philippines] in which more than 8,000 people have died,” and he claimed in a Bloomburg interview on Monday that, “under the right circumstances,” he would be willing to meet with Kim Jong Un. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson kept up the diplomatic pressure on Thursday, urging the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to “minimize diplomatic relations…[and] to fully implement U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang.”
On Tuesday, North Korea warned the US it was pushing toward nuclear war after “a pair of strategic U.S. bombers flew training drills with the South Korean and Japanese air forces in another show of strength.”
On Thursday, North Korea’s state-run news agency published commentary critical of China, a rare move which marks “a rhetorical escalation for the North.”
This week in Russia
On Tuesday, President Trump spoke on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time since the US last month launched on airstrike on a Syrian airfield in response to a chemical bombing – which the US and others believe was conducted by Syrian government forces – which killed nearly 100 Syrian civilians. Both the Kremlin and the White House confirmed the discussion was productive, as Trump and Putin agreed to intensify diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict. They also agreed to “try to set up their first in-person meeting in July,” at a G-20 summit in Germany.
A bipartisan group in the Senate is seeking to address the growing crisis in Venezuela by providing $10 million in humanitarian aid, “requir[ing] the State Department to coordinate a regional effort to ease the crisis, and ask[ing] U.S. intelligence to report on the involvement of Venezuelan government officials in corruption and the drug trade,” according to Reuters. The legislation, sponsored by Democratic Senator Ben Cardin and Republican Marco Rubio and backed by other prominent senators of both parties, also demands that President Trump work to prevent Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, from acquiring any ownership in US energy assets – as Reuters reports, “The Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA, last year used 49.9 percent of its shares in its U.S. subsidiary, Citgo, as collateral for loan financing by Rosneft.”
On Wednesday FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding his role in the 2016 presidential election, asserting that, though it made him “mildly nauseous to think that [his actions] might have had some impact on the election,” he would not have done anything differently. Comey also disputed the claim that the way he handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email use was “dramatically different,” as Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) put it, than his handling of the investigation into the links between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian intelligence.
Russia was quick to denounce Comey’s assertion, during the hearing, that it presents “the greatest threat of any nation on Earth” to US democracy.
At the National Review, Andrew C. McCarthy explores whether Comey’s actions affected the election’s outcome, concluding that “what cost Clinton the election is her unfitness for public office.”
At Lawfare, Jane Chong, Quinta Jurecic, and Benjamin Wittes consider “seven different plausible theories of the Russia Connection case…[which] assign different relative salience to the known facts, link them differently, and make very different assumptions about [what’s] not known or claimed but disputed.”
American Health Care Act (barely) passes in Congress
By a four-vote margin – 217 for to 213 against – the House approved the Republican replacement to Obamacare, the American Health Care Act. No Democrats voted for the new bill, which now faces an even more difficult test in the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim 52-48 majority.
At NPR, Alison Kodjak provides a rundown of all the changes the AHCA would make, should it become law.
Donald Trump was the first president since Ronald Reagan in 1981 to skip the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, choosing instead to host a campaign-style rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to celebrate his first 100 days in office.
Congress passed a spending bill Sunday night to keep the government funded through September – notably absent is any funding for Trump’s Mexican border wall.
Thousands of people around the world marked the May Day holiday – otherwise known as International Labor Day – with protests “mostly centered on improving worker’s rights.”
Trump met with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday, with nothing concrete to show for it.
Department of Justice announced it will not charge the two police officers “involved in the shooting death of Alton Sterling, citing ‘insufficient evidence.’”
In her first interview since the election, Hillary Clinton blamed James Comey and Russian interference for her loss, claiming that “if the election had been on October 27, I would be your president” – a reference to Comey’s October 28th letter to Congress regarding possible new evidence in the already-closed investigation into Clinton’s email use.
On Thursday, Trump signed an executive order “meant to allow churches and other religious organizations to become more active politically,” although, as Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Foundation asserts, the order’s language is “rather weak.”
The 'North Korea problem,' continued
Both US and North Korean forces have begun posturing in what many experts are beginning to fear is the prelude to armed conflict. Following news on Tuesday that the US had (1) docked a submarine “designed to carry ballistic missiles and cruise missiles” in a South Korean port and (2) deployed an aircraft carrier strike group to Korean waters, North Korea launched “a large number of long-range artillery units on its east coast for a live-fire drill,” according to a spokesperson for South Korea’s military. In response, South Korea conducted its own live-fire drill and its Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff released a statement asserting its military was “firmly maintaining readiness.”
Tuesday also marked the 85th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s military.
Early on Wednesday, the US “started moving parts of an anti-missile defense system to a deployment site in South Korea.” The decision to deploy the THAAD system early was criticized both by the frontrunner in South Korea’s presidential election and by China, which believes THAAD’s “advanced radar can penetrate deep into [Chinese] territory and undermine its security, while it will do little to deter” North Korea. In a press briefing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang claimed that “China will resolutely take necessary steps to defend its interests,” without offering any further details.
China, North Korea’s only regional ally, has been critical of North Korean aggression, and is seen by the Trump administration as key to resolving the increasing tensions. In a potential sign of things to come, China launched its very first home-built aircraft carrier this week. As the Washington Post reports, “as China expands its navy, it is projected to have a total of 265-273 warships, submarines and logistics vessels by 2020…that compares with 275 deployable battle force ships presently in the U.S. Navy.”
In an unusual move that some experts believe might indicate how serious the issue is, the White House hosted the entire US Senate for a classified briefing. Following the Senate briefing, White House officials traveled to Capitol Hill to deliver a briefing to the House.
On Friday, the UN Security Council will meet to discuss sanctions against North Korea. As Rob Schmitz reports for NPR’s Up First podcast on Thursday, “If [China] really wanted to do something, it would probably put some pressure” on the China-North Korea Friendship Bridge, the “lifeline” for North Korea that sees around 70% of North Korea’s foreign trade pass into the country.
Trump's tax reform proposal
On Wednesday, the Trump administration released its tax reform proposal, and among the highlights is a cut in the corporate tax rate from 35% - one of the highest corporate tax rates in the developed world – to 15%. Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s Secretary of Treasury, asserted in his announcement of the proposal that, if passed, it would “be the biggest tax cut and the largest tax reform in the history of our country.” Other features of the proposal: the number of tax brackets would be reduced from seven to three – those who’d pay 10%, those who’d pay 25%, and those who’d pay 35% - and the first $24,000 earned each year would not be taxed at all. Also: the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), the estate tax (which, as Eric Farr has written, is not the bogeyman Republican politicians have made it out to be), and the Obama-era tax on investment income would all be repealed.
At The Atlantic, Derek Thompson takes a thorough look at the plan, concluding “it’s [either] political theater, or it’s hypocrisy.”
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget asserts the proposal would add $5.5 trillion to the federal deficit over the next decade.
This week in Russia
On Tuesday members of the House Oversight Committee asserted that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn “may have violated federal law by not fully disclosing his business dealings with Russia when seeking a security clearance to work in the White House.” On Thursday, the Pentagon’s inspector general announced he would be launching a probe into the issue.
Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 8th as part of an ongoing investigation into Russian meddling during the 2016 presidential election. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s inquiry is one of four federal investigations into Russia’s role during the election – the House Intelligence Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the FBI are also looking into the links between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in a phone call this week that sanctions against Russia won’t be lifted until Crimea is returned to Ukraine, as Newsweek reports.
A Russian intelligence ship sank off the coast of Turkey on Thursday after colliding with “a vessel carrying livestock.” Turkish authorities claimed the collision was due to fog and low visibility.
As the 100-day mark for the Trump administration approaches, take a look at this piece in NPR detailing Trump's accomplishments to date.
A ruling that Wisconsin legislators illegally gerrymandered districts along partisan lines is heading to the Supreme Court…On Saturday – Earth Day – tens of thousands of people across the world marched to support science and scientists…After advancing to the second round of the French presidential election on Sunday, Marine Le Pen stepped away from the far-right National Front party in an attempt to coax independent voters away from Immanuel Macron, the 39-year-old liberal centrist and former banker who currently has a commanding lead in the polls…Trump pulled back late Wednesday from an earlier report that he was considering withdrawing from NAFTA, agreeing instead to begin renegotiating the treaty with Canada and Mexico…the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs was heavily criticized for what some believe was an advertisement for Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort…on Monday, Barack Obama made his first public appearance since leaving the presidency, speaking to young activists at the University of Chicago…a San Francisco federal judge on Tuesday “blocked the Trump administration from enforcing a threat to take away funds from sanctuary cities”…Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney announced on Tuesday that Trump would sign a federal spending bill that does not include funding for a border wall, removing what many believed to be a major obstacle in passing the bill by Friday’s deadline.
The 'North Korea problem'
Following a failed North Korean missile test on Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence claimed that “the era of strategic patience is over” and warned North Korea “not to test [President Trump’s] resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region.” Pence, who landed in Seoul for a 10-day diplomatic tour through Asia just hours after Pyongyang’s failed missile test, also stressed the US’s willingness to work with China, Japan, and South Korea to achieve “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” and announced plans to continue the early installation of a THAAD missile defense system in South Korea. President Trump himself has said that North Korea’s “gotta behave” and, after receiving criticism for not following through on his campaign promise to label China a currency manipulator, took to Twitter defend his decision, tweeting “Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korea problem?”
China has in recent months banned imports of North Korean coal, and as Reuters reports, “has appeared increasingly frustrated with Pyongyang, speaking out against its weapons tests and supporting United Nations sanctions, while repeatedly calling for talks.”
North Korea has been defiant in response to US warnings and Chinese criticism, asserting it will continue to test missiles on “a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis” and claiming that it would respond to US military action with “a nuclear preemptive strike by our own style and method.” On Wednesday, after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters the administration was discussing ways to pressure Pyongyang into diplomatic re-engagement, North Korean state media threatened the US and South Korea with a “super-mighty preemptive strike.”
At the National Review, David French wonders if we’re ready for another Korean War, arguing that memory (or the lack of it) plays a powerful role in foreign policy.
Trump signs "Buy American and Hire American" executive order on Tax Day
In keeping with his signature campaign promise to spark US job growth, President Trump signed a “Buy American and Hire American” executive order into action on Tuesday during a visit to the Snap-on Tool Company in Kenosha, Wisconsin. With the order, the Trump administration intends to “promote economic and national security and to help stimulate economic growth, create good jobs at decent wages, strengthen our middle class, and support the American manufacturing and defense industrial bases” by directing the federal government to “maximize…the use of goods, products, and materials produced in the United States.” The order also directs certain Cabinet members to suggest reforms to the H-1B visa program, which, as NPR reports, “aims to crack down on what the administration calls ‘abuses’ of government guest-worker programs.”
At the New Yorker, Adam Davidson argues that Trump’s new executive order is “absurdist, self-contradicting theatrics.”
Jon Ossoff's 'victory for the ages'
Democratic congressional candidate Jon Ossoff fell just short of the vote total needed to win Georgia’s historically conservative 6th Congressional District outright on Tuesday. The special election to replace Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price had been billed as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency, and Ossoff, a 30-year-old documentary filmmaker and former congressional aide, had raised more than eight million dollars for his campaign.
In what he called “a victory for the ages,” Ossoff collected 48.1 percent of the vote, nearly two and a half times the vote total captured by his closest challenger, former Georgia secretary of state Karen Handel, who will challenge him in a June 20th runoff election.
President Trump was quick to frame the results as a victory for his presidency, taking credit for Ossoff’s “loss” in a tweet: “Despite major outside money, FAKE media support and eleven Republican candidates, BIG “R” win with runoff in Georgia. Glad to be of help!” Trump had spent much of the previous two days tweeting about the Georgia special election.
At The Atlantic, Clare Foran explores what Ossoff’s campaign might mean for the 2018 midterm elections.
This week in Russia
According to a Reuters special report, a Russian government think tank “developed a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump and undermine voters’ faith in the American electoral system.” The Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, which US officials believe is controlled by Vladimir Putin, suggested (1) the Kremlin launch a propaganda campaign in print and social media encouraging US voters to support a candidate who would take a softer stance toward Russia, and (2) launch a media campaign about US voter fraud, to undermine what seemed at the time the report was being prepared like an apparent electoral victory for Hillary Clinton.
RISS director Mikhail Fradkov has denied the allegations in the report, claiming that “It seems that the authors of this idea have failed to reconcile in their conspiratorial mindset the existing realities with the desired fantasies…the attempt to engage Russia as a co-conspirator is faulty at its core.”
Also: The FBI used a controversial dossier compiled by opposition researchers to gain approval to secretly monitor Trump campaign advisor Carter Page…The US and Russia are at odds over language omitted from a UN Security Council statement condemning North Korea’s recent failed missile test.
H.R. McMaster met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other high level officials in Kabul on Sunday – McMaster is the first US official to visit Afghanistan since the Trump Administration took over in January…Trump congratulated Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a close vote in a national referendum gave him sweeping new powers…Bill O’Reilly is leaving Fox News after 20 years amid accusations of sexual misconduct…Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), chair of the House Oversight Committee, announced he would not seek reelection in 2018, although he is considering a run for Utah governor…Rex Tillerson sends mixed signals on Iran, confirming in a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan on Tuesday that Tehran was upholding its commitment to the nuclear deal set in place during the Obama administration, but telling reporters on Wednesday that the deal was “a failure [while] accus[ing] Tehran of following in the footsteps of North Korea”…the House Freedom Caucus agreed on Thursday to the MacArther amendment to the Republicans’ Obamacare replacement bill, although, as POLITICO reports, a vote is still unlikely to take place next week…Louisiana governor proclaimed a state of emergency over the state’s eroding coastline, which is disappearing at “the equivalent of one football field of land every hour.”
Mr. Tillerson goes to Moscow (to discuss Syria)
On Tuesday Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Moscow amid increasing tension between the US and Russia over how to handle the Syrian conflict. During an interview broadcast as Tillerson was meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed the “level of trust on a working level” between the two countries “has not improved but has rather deteriorated.” Lavrov himself blasted Tillerson for the “illegal attack against Syria,” and Lavrov’s deputy, Segei Ryabkov, was even more blunt: “In general,” he claimed, “primitiveness and loutishness are very characteristic of the current rhetoric coming out of Washington.” Ahead of Tillerson’s visit, Russia’s Foreign Ministry had released a statement asserting the relations between Russia and the US “have never been so difficult since the end of the Cold War.” The Trump administration responded by releasing an intelligence assessment “demonstrating Syrian culpability” in the chemical bombing last week that killed at least 80 people, and accusing the Russian government of trying to cover up the attack.
Also on Tuesday: a proposal by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to impose sanctions on Russia for its continuing support of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was quashed in a G-7 meeting. Foreign ministers from the US, Britain, France, German, Italy, Canada, and Japan instead insisted diplomatic action be taken, urging Russia in a mild official statement to “work to promote a real and genuine political process in Syria.” On Wednesday, while Tillerson met with Putin for an unproductive two-hour discussion, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the chemical attack.
You can read the US intelligence assessment here.
At The Atlantic, Omer Aziz argues that “inadvertently, Trump may have breathed new life into the beleaguered Syrian peace process.”
Trump shifts away from three of his key campaign positions
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published Wednesday, President Trump shifted away from one of his favorite campaign promises, claiming he was no longer planning on labeling China a currency manipulator, a move that, had it been made, many experts believed would lead to escalating tensions with China and possibly a trade war. The move comes in the wake of several conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping – the first at Mar-a-Lago to discuss international trade and North Korean aggression – after which Trump confessed that Jinping had “explained the history of China and Korea to him,” – and the second coming in a phone call just days after the Syrian airstrikes, in which Jinping urged resolving North Korean tension “through peaceful means.”
In the Journal interview, Trump also praised Janet Yellen, the current chair of the Federal Reserve, indicating he’d consider appointing her for a second term, despite previously indicating otherwise.
Also on Wednesday: the Trump administration lifted a federal hiring freeze put in place during his first week on the job. The freeze, made originally to help Trump achieve his oft-stated goal of “draining the swamp,” resulted, as The Hill reports, “in an increased backlog of benefits claims at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Department…delays in the processing of Social Security checks, staff shortages at federal prisons, the closure of childcare facilities at military bases and fewer workers at the Food and Drug administration to work on drug approvals.”
And finally, in a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump (3) reversed his position on NATO, announcing that it “is no longer obsolete.”
The US dropped the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan on Thursday – MOAB, at more than 20,000 lbs., and with more than 10 tons of high explosives, is the largest non-nuclear weapon ever deployed in combat…Donald Trump signed a resolution Thursday allowing states to determine how federal funds for reproductive health and family planning are spent, a major victory for the anti-abortion movement…K.T. McFarland, the former Fox News commentator, has been asked to step down as the deputy National Security Advisor as H.R. McMaster continues his reorganization of the NSC…on Monday, Neil Gorsuch was sworn in as the 113th Supreme Court justice…Alabama Governor Robert Bentley resigned “after pleading guilty to abusing his office, allegedly to conceal an affair with a political adviser”…Republican Ron Estes won a Kansas special election Tuesday by about seven percentage points, in a district Trump carried in a landslide...Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, announced he’s planning to register as a foreign agent…Press Secretary Sean Spicer apologized on Wednesday for his gaffe the previous day comparing Hitler favorably to Bashar al-Assad…in a brief interview with the New York Post, Trump refused to unequivocally back chief strategist Steve Bannon when asked about White House infighting, fueling the rumor mill about Bannon’s job security…a federal judge ruled that Greensboro, NC’s districts were illegally gerrymandered by the North Carolina General Assembly.
‘Steps are under way’: the US response to the ongoing conflict in Syria
Between 70 and 100 Syrians died during what appeared to be a chemical bombing by Syrian government forces early Tuesday morning. The attack, which took place in Idlib Province, a northern region held by rebel forces, was roundly condemned by Western leaders, including President Trump, who in an official White House statement called it “reprehensible.” The White House later criticized former president Obama for failing to follow through on his famous “red line” statement in 2012 (which in 2013, Trump argued against) – Press Secretary Sean Spicer blamed the attack on “the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.”
When asked by reporters to comment directly on the bombing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said nothing, prompting a swift internet backlash. In an official statement released shortly after, Tillerson urged Syrian allies Russia and Iran to “exercise their influence over the Syrian regime and to guarantee that this sort of horrific attack never happens again.” On Thursday, Tillerson again changed his tone, asserting that “steps are under way” toward building an international coalition that would remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
Assad has denied that military forces carried out the attack, and a spokesman for Russia’s Defense Ministry has suggested a different explanation, as reported by the New York Times: that “Syrian warplanes had struck an insurgent storehouse containing toxic substances to be used in chemical weapons.”
On Wednesday the US called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to determine the UN response to the bombing, during which US Ambassador Nikki Haley criticized Russia for “blocking a robust response” to the attack and hinted that the US might act alone, if the UN fails to do anything meaningful.
On Thursday, Trump ordered missile strikes on a Syrian airfield, despite Russian warnings of “negative consequences” should the US choose to use military force. The Kremlin responded to the strike with a statement denouncing "aggression against a sovereign state...on a made-up pretext."
You can read Trump's official statement on the missile strike here.
At The Atlantic, Amarnath Amarasingam details the horrifying effects of sarin, the nerve agent suspected to have been used in the attack, along with its history of use as a chemical weapon.
The ‘nuclear option’ clears the way for Gorsuch confirmation
Following a successful Democratic filibuster, Senate Republicans deployed the ‘nuclear option’ in clearing the path for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, voting to lower the threshold for a confirmation from a supermajority of 60 votes to a simple majority. As the New York Times reports, “Both parties have warned of sweeping effects on the court itself [following the rule change], predicting the elevation of more ideologically extreme judges now that only a majority is required for confirmation.” Senate Democrats first voted in 2013 to lower the confirmation threshold for presidential nominees to lower courts and government positions.
At the National Review, Charles Krauthammer argues that changing the rules on Supreme Court nominations is “on balance, a good thing.”
At the New Yorker, Amy Davidson agrees, claiming “the sixty-vote requirement led to gridlock, not to governance. Instead of pushing Senators to compromise, it protected them from the consequences of their rhetoric and their extremism.”
This week in Russia
House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes will temporarily step away from the ongoing investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, after the House Ethics Committee opened an inquiry into whether he improperly disclosed classified information. Rep Mike Conaway (R-TX) will lead the Russia investigation until the ethics inquiry is completed.
According to The Washington Post, a week and a half before Trump officially took office, the United Arab Emirates “arranged a secret meeting in January between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump.” The story which, like most stories, is more complex than it seems, can be found here.
At a recent cyber forum, NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett described an attempt in 2014 by Russian hackers to access the unclassified State Department computer system as “hand-to-hand combat…a new level of interaction between a cyber attacker and a defender.”
14 people were killed and dozens more were injured when a bomb exploded on a subway train in St. Petersburg Monday. A second bomb was later found and deactivated at a second subway station. Russian authorities have confirmed the attack as a suicide bombing, naming Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, a 22-year-old native of Kyrgyzstan, as the bomber and arresting three people believed to be connected.
Recommended Listening: this Radio Times episode on the role of disinformation in the ongoing investigation into the links between Trump and Russia.
A Richmond Circuit Court judge has ruled against a claim that 11 Virginia districts were illegally gerrymandered…Chief White House Strategist Steve Bannon was removed from the National Security Council although, as Fox News reports, he “is still permitted to go to NSC meetings”…Trump donated approximately $78,000 of his presidential salary to the National Parks… US District judge approved $25 million settlement of Trump University lawsuit…Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “backed calls for a congressional investigation” of the claim that Susan Rice, “unmasked” members of Trump’s transitional team for political purposes…Trump met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Mar-el-Lago Thursday to discuss North Korea, trade…Twitter sued federal government after it demanded identity of owner of account critical of Trump’s immigration policies...Labor Department reported the slowest job growth in 10 months, as unemployment falls to just 4.5 percent.
Trump begins his assault on Obama’s climate policy
On Tuesday President Trump signed an executive order “On Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth” which (1) calls for an immediate “review [of] existing regulations that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources and appropriately suspend, revise, or rescind those that unduly burden the development of domestic energy resources” and (2) rescinds a number of Obama-era regulations and reports on the impacts of climate change and the “social cost of carbon.” The report also lifts the moratorium on leasing federal lands for coal industry use. Notably absent was any reference to the Paris Climate Agreement, which a senior White House official said “is still under discussion.”
The announcement included comments from Rick Perry, Secretary of Energy, Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior, Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the EPA, and Vice President Pence.
At Vox, Brad Plumer provides an in-depth explanation of the executive order and explores the impacts it will have, concluding that it “can’t halt all climate progress…thanks to market forces and policies that Trump can’t really touch.”
Congress votes to repeal Internet privacy rules that never went into effect
Following the Senate, the House has voted to repeal an Obama-era regulation “that would have required Internet service providers — like Comcast, Verizon and Charter — to get consumers' permission before selling their data.” The rule, which had yet to take effect, would not have applied to Google and Facebook, which are regulated under the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – a major point of contention from the ISPs, which are regulated under the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) claimed that giving the FCC and FTC jurisdiction over different parts of the Internet “create[s] confusion within the Internet ecosystem and end[s] up harming consumers.” The FCC’s chairman, Ajit Pai, agreed, claiming the regulation “picked winners and losers.”
A handful of Republican lawmakers voted against the repeal, and as AOL reports, many typically pro-Trump spaces on the Internet are calling on the president to veto the bill.
Sessions threatens ‘sanctuary cities’
In a press conference on Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration’s intention to withhold billions of dollars in federal funding from “sanctuary cities” that refuse to comply with immigration law. The city of Seattle sued the administration following the announcement, claiming Sessions’ “threat” was illegal and unconstitutional.
The Editors of the National Review explain why “It is entirely appropriate for the federal government to make law-enforcement funding conditional on jurisdictions not themselves ignoring the law.”
This week in Russia
Former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn offered to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee in exchange for immunity. In a statement Thursday, Flynn’s lawyer said that Flynn “certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it.”
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and top advisor, will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding meetings he held with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Sergey Gorkov, the head of Vnesheconombank, a Russian state bank.
Devin Nunes, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, has come under intense scrutiny for his actions last week in “disclosing the existence of a foreign surveillance warrant during a press conference.” Nunes’s behavior and contradictory public remarks regarding what he actually knows and secret meetings he’s held with White House staff have led to calls for his recusal, from both House and Senate members: Jim Himes, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, has called Nunes’s actions “loopy” and “bizarre”, and Jackie Speier, another member, went futher, calling for him to resign and claiming she doesn’t trust him.
Newsweek reports that, according to two unnamed sources, FBI Director James Comey was prepared in the summer of 2016 to write an op-ed revealing the investigation into Russia’s attempt at tampering with the election, but White House officials nixed the idea.
After witnessing the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the links between Russian intelligence and the Trump campaign devolve into partisan discord, Richard Burr and Mark Warner, the ranking Republican and Democrat, respectively, on the Senate Intelligence Committee held a joint press conference to pledge a bipartisan investigation in the Senate.
In a move meant to check Russia’s growing influence in the Balkan region, the Senate voted 97-2 to allow Montenegro into NATO. The vote came after the Trump administration urged the Senate to vote in favor of Montenegro’s admission, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson writing in a letter to Senate leaders that the move would be “strongly in the interests of the United States.” According to the Washington Post, Montenegro officials claimed that “pro-Russia factions attempted to stage a coup last October during parliamentary elections.”
UK Prime Minister Theresa May formally initiated Britain’s exit from the European Union in a letter to EU Council President…Trump’s approval rating hit new low: just 36% of Americans approve of Trump’s job performance after health care debacle, according to Gallup…Vice President Pence cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to pass legislation that would allow states to restrict federal funding to Planned Parenthood…North Carolina has repealed portions of it’s controversial “bathroom bill”.
Team of Rivals
In what many news outlets have described as a “bombshell” revelation, FBI director James Comey confirmed that the agency has been investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russia since last July, prompting a backlash from both Democrats – who believe Comey swung the election by making public updates regarding Hillary Clinton’s email use – and by the White House, most notably Trump himself, who called Comey’s testimony “FAKE NEWS!” During the hearing, Comey also responded to Trump’s assertion that the Obama administration had wiretapped the Trump Tower during the 2016 election, claiming the FBI had “no information that supports those tweets.”
On Wednesday Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, announced that Trump and members of his staff had been “caught up in U.S. surveillance of foreign targets overseas in the months after the election” – a charge for which he provided no evidence. Nor did he immediately brief the fellow members of the House Intelligence Committee, instead heading to the White House to brief the president, after which he spoke with reporters again before finally updating committee members. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the top ranking Democrat on the committee, denounced Nunes’ behavior and called for an independent investigation, a call that Senator John McCain (R-AZ) soon echoed. On Thursday, Nunes apologized to committee members for his behavior.
To compound the confusion and intrigue, the Associated Press just a day earlier reported that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had “secretly worked for a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago and proposed an ambitious political strategy to undermine anti-Russian opposition across former Soviet republics and at the highest levels of the U.S. government — the White House, Capitol Hill and the State Department.” According to the AP, in 2006 Manafort signed a contract to work in some capacity for Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch and close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, for $10 million a year, a contract which lasted at least through 2009. In responding to the story, Press Secretary Sean Spicer asserted that "nothing in this morning's report references any actions by the president, the White House, or any Trump administration official."
At the National Review, Andrew C. McCarthy explains why Comey’s testimony does not, in fact, contradict Nunes’s assertion.
Terrorist attacks Parliament in London
A terrorist drove a car into a crowd of pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge in London, killing two “before crashing it outside parliament and trying to enter the complex, armed with a knife.” Ultimately five people died from the attack, including the terrorist, identified as Khalid Masood, and 40 more sustained injuries. Among those killed was an American, Kurt Cochran of Utah, who’d been on the final day of an anniversary trip with his wife. Prime Minister Theresa May described the attack as “sick and deprived,” while London mayor Sadiq Khan declared that “Londoners will never be cowed by terrorism.” In the US, President Trump in a tweet and press release offered his condolences to PM May and “pledged the full cooperation and support” of the United States.
At The National Interest, Daniel R. DePetris touches on the terrifying truth about terrorism.
Trump meets with Angela Merkel
In an awkward meeting at the White House last Friday that prompted an internet reaction, President Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel touched on a number of topics, among them NATO, immigration, and the trade relationship between the two countries. During the meeting, Trump appeared to ignore or not hear Merkel when she suggested they shake hands for the reporters present, and reiterated his claim that the Obama administration had wiretapped the phones in Trump Tower during the 2016 election, telling Merkel that “as far as wiretapping, I guess, by this past administration, at least we have something in common perhaps,” – a reference to a 2013 claim by the German government that the US was monitoring Merkel’s phone.
Trump demanded vote after House Republican leadership postponed voting on the American Health Care act, the proposed replacement bill for Obamacare…Despite a relatively uneventful week of confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced his plans to filibuster Gorsuch’s confirmation, asserting the nominee will need to “earn 60 votes for confirmation”…State Department “instructed consular officials to broadly increase scrutiny” of people seeking entry to the US, the New York Times reported Thursday…Senate voted 50-48 to strike down Obama-era rule requiring internet providers to seek consent before “using precise geolocation, financial information, health information, children's information and web browsing history for advertising and internal marketing”…Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced he’ll skip a meeting with NATO next month to be present for a visit by Chinese president Xi Jinping, and will visit Russia later in the month.
Federal court rules three districts in Texas drawn illegally
Three congressional districts in Texas were illegally drawn, “violating the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act,” a panel of federal judges ruled on March 10th. According to NPR, “The panel found that Republicans had used race as a motivating factor in redistricting.” Texas can appeal to the Supreme Court.
This is the third decision on gerrymandering in six weeks – the first came in Wisconsin, where a separate panel of federal judges ruled that currently-drawn districts are unconstitutional and need to be redrawn by November 1, 2017, and the second came when the Supreme Court ordered the lower courts to reexamine eleven districts in Virginia to determine if they’d been illegally gerrymandered.
The ‘America First’ budget proposal
Trump administration released what Mick Mulvaney, the new director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, calls the “America First budget,” echoing Trump’s increasing use of the phrase in speeches and comments. In the budget: the administration seeks to boost military spending by 54 billion dollars over the next year – a 10 percent increase in the military budget – funded by corresponding cuts to other federal departments, most noticeably the State Department, which would see its budget cut by an estimated 28 percent and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by 31 percent. The National Institutes of Health would also see its budget cut by 20 percent, as would the Departments of Labor and Agriculture. Other highlights: the administration would boost the budget for the Department of Homeland Security by 6 percent and the National Nuclear Security Administration by 11.3 percent, but would eliminate funding entirely for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is currently allotted 445 million dollars, or 0.03 percent of the proposed budget, along with programs that poor Americans have benefitted from, including the Appalachian Regional Commission, which, as NPR reports, “promotes economic development in the region stretching from northern Mississippi to western New York,” a region of the country which strongly supported Trump in the 2016 election.
You can take a look at the full budget proposal here.
At the New Yorker, John Cassidy assesses Trump’s “Voldemort budget,” concluding that “someone in the Trump Administration appears to have gone through the entire budget looking to eliminate funding for small entities that try to do some good.”
Manhattan District Attorney fired by Trump after he refused to offer resignation
Preet Bharara, the US Attorney in Manhattan who “secured insider-trading settlements from Wall Street firms and won criminal convictions in high-profile corruption and terrorism cases” was dismissed Saturday after refusing to resign from his position at the request of the Trump administration. Bharara had served since 2009 and said in November that Trump had asked him to remain in his post – it’s not unusual for federal attorneys, as political appointees, to keep their positions until a new administration has a confirmed replacement. Bharara’s firing, though, is part of a larger dismissal of 46 federal prosecutors, raising questions “about President Donald Trump's ability to fill top jobs throughout his government,” according to Reuters.
At The Atlantic, Matt Ford explains why the move to dismiss so many politically-appointed federal prosecutors was not unusual, but still troubling.
Senator John McCain called on Trump to either substantiate or retract his claim that former President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the 2016 election…in an unpublished Senate testimony, Secretary of Defense James Mattis asserted climate change is real and “threat to American interests abroad and the Pentagon’s assets everywhere,” a statement at odds with the views of, among others in the Trump administration, Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA, who does not believe carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming…federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland issued a temporary freeze on Trump’s revised travel ban…White House released Trump’s 2005 tax returns after Rachel Maddow obtained them…the Federal Reserve raised its interest rate three-quarters of a percent on Wednesday…the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its analysis of the American Health Care Act, concluding the bill would cut the federal deficit by 337 billion dollars over the next 10 years, but increase the number of uninsured by 24 million.
Trump accuses Obama of wiretapping
In a series of early morning tweets on Saturday, President Trump accused former President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower in October 2016 “just before [Trump’s] victory.” Following Trump’s claim, Press Secretary Sean Spicer released a vague statement requesting that any congressional investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election include an investigation into “whether executive branch investigative powers were abused.” On Sunday, FBI director James Comey “asked the Justice Department to publicly reject President Trump’s assertion,” reports the New York Times, “a remarkable rebuke of a sitting president, putting the nation’s top law enforcement official in the position of questioning Mr. Trump’s truthfulness.”
A spokesperson for former President Obama formally denied the allegation, writing that “neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen.”
At Vox, Andrew Prokop traces the sources and series of events that led to Trump’s “tweetstorm” Saturday morning.
Travel Ban, Revised
On Monday, President Trump signed a new executive order on immigration, this time excluding Iraq from the list of countries whose citizens are barred from entering the US for 90 days while the administration “improve[s] the screening and vetting protocols and procedures associated with the visa-issuance process and the USRAP.” This time around, green card holders and people with US visas are not included in the ban and “the indefinite pause in Syrian refugee admissions has been removed.” The order is set to take effect on March 16th.
At FiveThirtyEight, Harry Enten and Oliver Roeder review the differences between the first executive order and the second, and explain why the new one may still be on legally shaky ground.
Draft of House GOP Healthcare Bill
Also on Monday: the House GOP released the draft of the American Health Care Act, their proposed replacement to the Affordable Care Act. In a comprehensive analysis for Vox, Sarah Kliff identifies a few of the noteworthy features: (1) the individual mandate is gone, but other more popular Obamacare features, like banning discrimination against people with preexisting conditions and allowing young adults up to the age of 26 to remain on their parents’ health insurance, remain; (2) Medicaid expansion will continue until 2020, likely thanks to “intense pressure from the 15 Republican governors who run states that have expanded Medicaid”; (3) under the new plan, people with a lapse in coverage could be charged an extra 30 percent; (4) tax credits, based on age – unlike the ACA, which based tax credits on income – would be used to purchase health insurance.
As the Washington Post reports, the proposed bill has received criticism from both ends of the political spectrum, from conservatives in the Freedom Caucus of the House that don’t believe the plan goes far enough, to Democrats and “moderate Republicans, AARP, the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association.”
The Trump Administration, which supports the bill, is promising a three-phrase approach to overhauling the current health insurance system: (1) passing the proposed American Health Care Act, (2) making adjustments on regulations that are too burdensome, and (3) “going back to Congress with bills that let insurance companies sell policies across state lines or allow the government to use its purchasing power to negotiate lower drug prices.”
You can read the bill in its entirety here.
WikiLeaks publishes CIA “hacking arsenal” that details how the agency uses phones, tablets, computers, and other smart devices as tools for spying…Women’s Strike shuts down school districts in Alexandria, Virginia, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina…people in at least 14 states were unable to dial emergency 9-1-1 Wednesday night when AT&T cellphone service was disrupted…former Utah governor Jon Huntsman is appointed as new US ambassador to Russia…former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page was granted approval by the Trump campaign to visit Russia in July 2016, on the condition he did not visit as an official representative of the campaign.
Sessions recuses himself
According to the Washington Post, Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke twice with Sergey Kislyak, Russian ambassador to the US in 2016, but failed to disclose these conversations during his confirmation hearing. Following this revelation, a growing number of Democratic and Republican congressional officials are renewing calls for an investigation into the ties between Russia and Trump’s campaign – an investigation from which Sessions officially recused himself on Thursday.
Click here to read the original story in the Washington Post.
Mr. Trump Goes to Washington
In a joint address to Congress Tuesday night, President Donald J. Trump makes a tonal shift from gloomy to optimistic, denouncing the recent shooting in Kansas City and bomb threats to Jewish centers nationwide, calling for increased infrastructure spending and bipartisan negotiation on immigration policy, and declaring that “the time for trivial fights is over.” In a speech Paul Ryan described as a “home run,” Trump stuck to the teleprompter and delivered few concrete policy details, but did honor the widow of Willliam “Ryan” Owens, the Navy SEAL killed in the botched Yemen raid a month ago, claiming his “legacy is etched into eternity,” prompting a standing ovation that lasted more than ninety seconds.
New DNC Chair
After being elected the new chair of the DNC, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez moves to appoint Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) as his deputy chair, in an attempt to unite the moderate and progressive factions of the Democratic Party. Perez has pledged to “rebuild [the Democratic Party] at all levels ‘from school board to Senate’ and reach out to chunks of rural America left feeling forgotten.” Following Perez’s election, Donald Trump tweeted congratulations to Perez and to “the Republican Party,” and accused the DNC of rigging the vote, arguing that “Bernie’s guy, like Bernie himself, never had a chance.”
At The Hill, Jonathan Easley discusses the five main challenges for Perez as he tries to rebuild the DNC.
At the National Review, John Fund is critical of Perez’s record at the Justice Department but concludes (grudgingly) that “in Tom Perez, Democrats have more than just an effective fundraiser; they have a partisan steeped in what it takes to mobilize voters.”
On NPR, Perez sits with Steve Inskeep to discuss, among other things, whether a 50-state strategy is possible.
War on the News
Donald Trump continues his campaign to delegitimize “the media,” barring select media organizations from attending a Q-and-A session with Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Friday. CNN, the New York Times, POLITICO, the BBC, the Los Angeles Times, BuzzFeed, The Hill, and the New York Daily News were among the organizations barred.
In a speech at CPAC that same day, Trump blasted the “fake news” for using anonymous sources, claiming such sources were “made up” and shouldn’t be allowed.
Also on Friday: Trump tweets criticism of the FBI for leaking information regarding chief of staff Reince Preibus’s requesting the FBI to deny any connection between Trump’s aides and Russian officials during the campaign.
In a (mostly) unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ordered the lower courts to re-examine eleven districts in Virginia to determine if they had been drawn illegally, along racial lines - this victory against gerrymandering follows a ruling last month in which Wisconsin was found to be gerrymandering illegally and required to redraw districts...The Trump Administration aims to reduce EPA staff “by one-fifth in the first year and eliminate dozens of programs,” according to the Washington Post…Thousands of people protest in Moscow against the government of Vladimir Putin to mark the 2-year anniversary of the death of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov…Trump’s pick for Navy secretary withdraws nomination…Wilbur Ross is confirmed as Secretary of Commerce in 72-27 vote…Ben Carson is confirmed as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 58-41 vote…Rick Perry confirmed as Energy Secretary in 62-37 vote…Moonlight wins Best Picture at the Academy Awards after Faye Dunaway reads the wrong cue card and accidentally awards the Oscar to La La Land…Actor Bill Paxton is dead at 61 after complications due to surgery.
On Monday, Director of Homeland Security John Kelly released two “implementation memos” regarding immigration enforcement, based on executive orders signed by President Trump in late January. The memos declare an end to the unofficial “catch-and-release” policy, in which undocumented immigrants are apprehended, given a court date months or sometimes years in the future, and then let go. The memos also announce plans to hire more than 5,000 new border patrollers, to begin allocating funding for the construction of a border wall, and to implement “expedited” removal of undocumented immigrants who “pose a risk” – a significantly vague expansion on the Obama-era policy of focusing deportation efforts exclusively on immigrants who’d committed violent crimes. President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is left in place.
A report made available on the Pew Research Center’s website explains that most undocumented immigrants are located in just twenty highly-urban areas, many of which consider themselves ‘sanctuary cities.’
At The New Yorker, Amy Davidson explains why the two implementation memos seem to point to mass deportation as the Trump administration’s ultimate immigration policy.
New National Security Advisor
Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, described by POLITICO as “one of the Army’s top intellectuals” is tapped to replace Michael Flynn as the National Security Advisor. McMaster is known for “challenging conventional thinking and helping to turn around the Iraq war in its darkest days,” as the New York Times reports: as a young officer, he published Dereliction of Duty, a book critical of military leadership during the Vietnam war – in particular, its failure to stand up to President Johnson – and as a commander in Iraq, he successfully demonstrated the counter-insurgency techniques adopted by Gen. David H. Petreus after other techniques had failed. The choice of McMaster has received praise from Republicans, like John McCain, who’ve been increasingly critical of the Trump administration in the wake of leaks that have re-opened questions about Trump’s ties to Russia.
Fox News reports that Trump would “seriously consider” removing Steve Bannon from the National Security Council, if McMaster asks.
New EPA chief
Longtime EPA opponent Scott Pruitt is confirmed as EPA head in 52-46 Senate vote, despite possible ties to the oil and gas industries. Pruitt, whose own official website calls him a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda,” has repeatedly sued the EPA over federal clean air policies. The day before he was confirmed, an Oklahoma court “ordered Pruitt to release thousands of pages of correspondence” between his office and the oil, gas, and coal industries, writing in its decision that Pruitt’s compliance in providing access had been “an abject failure.”
In 2014 the New York Times discovered that a 2011 letter sent by Pruitt to the EPA, arguing that the agency was “significantly overestimating” the pollution caused by the fracking industry in his state, had actually been written by oil-and-gas lobbyists.
In May 2016, Pruitt, along with newly-appointed Alabama Senator Luther Strange, wrote an op-ed for The National Review claiming that “Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”
At The National Review, Ian Tuttle argues that Pruitt will reduce the EPA’s regulatory overreach and restore it to its proper role.
According to POLITICO, the White House fired senior National Security Council aide Craig Deare after Deare criticized Trump at a public roundtable hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center. In particular, Deare complained about lack of access to the president for national security aides and “gave a detailed and embarrassing readout of Trump’s call with Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto.” Deare’s dismissal is not the first time Trump has brooked no dissent: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s choice for deputy, Elliot Abrams, was nixed after Trump learned Abrams had spoken critically of him.
Four die after powerful storms pummel California…at a rally in Florida over the weekend, Trump continues his campaign against the media…Milo Yiannoupoulos the ‘alt-right provocateur’, loses his book deal with Simon & Schuster and resigns from Breitbart over a video in which he appeared to speak approvingly of pedophilia…a new Harvard/Harris poll shows that most voters believe local authorities should be required to comply with federal immigration policy…following a number of bomb threats to Jewish community centers around the country, Trump is pressured to denounce anti-Semitism, and is harshly rebuked by the Anne Frank Center…The Economist reports that Russian TV’s mostly positive coverage of Trump has ended following the Trump administration’s increasingly confused signals toward Russia…at town halls across the country, Republican legislators are pressed on Trump Administration actions and policies by angry constituents.
Former Gen. Michael Flynn, the Trump Administration’s National Security Advisor, reportedly spoke to the Russian Ambassador on the phone about US sanctions of Russia, and did so before Donald Trump was sworn in as president – such a move, if true, is not just shady politics, it’s against the law. Following these reports, one of Flynn’s top aides was denied the high-level security clearance required to serve on the National Security Council, a sign of increasing tension between Flynn and the intelligence community.
On Monday, Flynn resigned, although White House press secretary Sean Spicer claims Flynn was fired due to “an evolving and eroding level of trust.” Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, Flynn’s former chief of staff, will serve as his temporary replacement. Flynn’s resignation reignited the controversy surrounding Trump’s relationship with Russia – on Tuesday, the New York Times published a report, based on phone calls intercepted by the NSA, alleging that there had, indeed, been contact between senior-level Trump aides and Russian intelligence operatives. Also in the report: the FBI is continuing to investigate the controversial dossier compiled by a British spy-turned-opposition-researcher during the 2016 election.
Late Thursday retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward turned down an offer to replace Flynn, citing family commitments.
You can read Flynn’s resignation letter here.
North Korea performed its first ballistic missile test since Donald Trump assumed the presidency, confirming it as a success on Sunday. South Korea’s defense ministry described the "surface-to-surface medium-to-long-range ballistic missile" as “an armed provocation to test the response of US President Donald Trump,” according to the BBC. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, on a visit to the US, condemned the test as “absolutely intolerable,” while Trump himself did not comment directly on the missile test, instead offering a vow of loyalty to Japan, claiming the US was “behind Japan, our great ally, one hundred percent.”
Trump was informed of the test while at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Boca Raton, FL, and quickly set up a situation room of sorts out on the terrace, in full view of staff and guests, a few of whom took photos and posted them on Facebook. Trump’s public “performance” of his duties is part of a troubling pattern of questionable security decisions, such as using his old unsecured Android phone and giving Steve Bannon a spot on the National Security Council.
That photo of Justin Trudeau hesitating to shake Donald Trump’s hand is, as TIME reports, not what it seems.
The ongoing saga of the queen of alternative facts
Kellyanne Conway is taking more heat for her comments last week regarding Ivanka Trump’s clothing line: the Office of Government Ethics, the federal government’s chief ethics oversight body, wrote in a letter to the White House that Conway’s actions appear to be “a clear violation of the prohibition against the misuse of a position,” according to the New York Times. The OGE letter comes after Conway’s credibility as a White House insider was called into question – just hours before former Gen. Michael Flynn resigned as the National Security Advisor, Conway had claimed Flynn had President Trump’s “full confidence.”
Fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder withdraws his nomination as Labor Secretary after four Republican senators express doubts…Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu…the Senate votes to repeal an Obama-era regulation designed to keep the mentally ill from purchasing guns…Trump holds bizarre, hour-long press conference Thursday nominating Alexander Acosta for Labor Secretary and again blasting the press for “dishonesty”.
The Ban, continued
On Friday a federal judge in Seattle temporarily blocked President Donald J. Trump’s immigration ban, after the states of Washington and Minnesota brought a suit against the order. US District Judge James Robart’s decision came shortly after a federal judge in Boston ruled against the temporary stay on the ban. On Saturday and Sunday, Trump pushed back against the Seattle decision in a series of tweets, writing, “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!” Trump later expanded his criticism to include the judiciary system as a whole, tweeting, “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system.”
On Thursday night, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals voted unanimously to uphold Judge Robart’s ruling. The Trump administration will likely appeal to the Supreme Court.
At Mother Jones, Ben Dreyfuss explains why Trump’s attack on the courts could trigger a constitutional crisis.
Cabinet Controversy #1
Betsy DeVos is confirmed as Secretary of Education after the closest vote on a Cabinet nominee in Senate history, despite 24 straight hours of entreaties by Democrats in the Senate. Vice President Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote, calling it “the easiest vote I ever cast.”
Click here to see the vote breakdown on POLITICO.
For more on Betsy DeVos and how the controversy surrounding her nomination might actually help the public school system, take a look at this essay in the Atlantic.
Cabinet Controversy #2
She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.
On Tuesday Republican senators voted to silence Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren for “impugning” fellow Senator and Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions. Warren had been reading from a letter written by Coretta Scott King in 1986 critical of Sessions’ record on civil rights as a US attorney in Alabama. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s explanation of the incident – “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted” – was quickly coopted as a rallying cry by progressives. Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Tom Udall of New Mexico, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Jeff Merkley of Oregon all read from the letter following Warren’s silencing. Despite the controversy, Sessions was confirmed as Attorney General Wednesday night. The 52-47 vote split nearly along party lines, with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin the lone Democrat to vote in favor of Sessions’ confirmation.
Alternative Facts 2.0
During an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, White House senior advisor Kellyanne Conway referenced the “Bowling Green massacre” in defense of President Donald J. Trump’s immigration ban: “Two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized, and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre.” She later clarified her comments on Twitter, claiming she meant to say “Bowling Green terrorists,” in reference to the two Iraqi men who’d been granted asylum in Bowling Green but were later arrested and convicted of terrorism charges after the FBI discovered that one of the men had built improvised roadside bombs in Iraq.
To learn more about the “Bowling Green terrorists” and Kellyanne Conway’s interview gaffe, take a look at this article from the Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog.
The power of protests
Following nearly a week of massive street protests across the country, Romania’s government trashed a bill that would have, if enacted, decriminalized corruption. As CNN reports, “the law would have freed some officials imprisoned for corruption, halted all investigations for pending corruption offenses and prevented further cases related to these offenses from being brought to justice.”
Iran responds after Trump administration institutes new sanctions…Trump vows to roll back Dodd-Frank banking regulations…on a business trip to Uruguay, Eric Trump wastes $97,830 of taxpayer money and reignites controversy over Trump business interests…during an interview with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, Donald Trump again praises Vladimir Putin while criticizing the US…the Kremlin demands on apology from O’Reilly for calling Putin “a killer”...Trump claims, without evidence, that “the media” doesn’t report acts of terrorism…Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch calls Trump’s verbal attacks on judiciary “demoralizing”…after Nordstrom’s pulls Ivanka Trump’s clothing line from their stores, Donald Trump complains on Twitter and Kellyanne Conway urges Americans to buy Ivanka’s clothes…a series of eight tornadoes sweep through southern Louisiana, causing severe damage...early Friday morning, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), a major opponent of the Affordable Care Act, is confirmed as Secretary of Health and Human Services - the final vote, 52-47, was along party lines.