'all-time & very dangerous low'

'all-time & very dangerous low'

This week in Russia

In response to new US sanctions against Russia, Russian president Vladimir Putin said Sunday “that the United States will have to cut its diplomatic staff in Russia by 755 by Sept. 1.” Putin told the state-owned news channel Rossiya 1 that he’d hoped the relationship between the US and Russia would change, “but apparently if it changes, it won’t be soon…I thought it was the time to show that we’re not going to [accept the sanctions] without an answer.”

A day after signing the new sanctions into law, Trump “tweeted that Congress was to blame for the US relationship with Russia being at an ‘all-time & very dangerous low.’” Russian prime minister Dimitry Medvedev also took to Twitter to criticize the bill and the White House, claiming that “the Trump administration has shown its total weakness by handing over executive power to Congress in the most humiliating way.” Meanwhile, as Business Insider observes, “Trump still [has] not responded to Putin’s demand that 755 diplomatic workers, many of them American, be cut from the US Embassy in Moscow” and other US diplomatic missions in Russia.

According to an exclusive Washington Post report, President Trump overruled advisors in responding to the initial revelation of the June 2016 meeting between his son, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and a Russian lawyer, personally dictating the misleading statement “in which Trump Jr. said that he and the Russian lawyer had ‘primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children’ when they met.” Lawyers for both Trump and Trump Jr. refused to confirm this account of the events.

BONUS: Satire from Andy Borowitz at the New Yorker – “Trump Says Mueller Just Called Him and Said He’s the Most Innocent Person Ever.”

Special counsel Robert Mueller is impaneling a grand jury “in connection with his investigation into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election,” according to NPR – a development which coincides with Mueller’s expansion of the probe into “the web of financial ties” between Trump, his associates, and Russia. Trump told the New York Times last month that investigating his personal finance “would be a ‘violation’ of the scope of investigation.” According to the Washington Post, “two bipartisan pairs of senators unveiled legislation Thursday to prevent President Trump from firing special counsel [Mueller] without cause” – legislation made necessary due to reports in recent weeks that the Trump administration was looking for ways to undermine Mueller’s investigation or fire him outright.

At Vox, Zack Beauchamp and Andrew Prokop explain that the White House’s actions regarding Mueller “makes one thing very clear: The Trump team is deeply worried about Mueller’s probe.”

At the National Review, Andrew C. McCarthy asserts that, while “the impaneling of a grand jury is a highly significant development,” it “does not mean a crime has been committed.”

Staff changes

Last Friday former general John Kelly was named the new White House chief of staff, following Reince Priebus’s resignation on Thursday. Kelly had been “leading [the Trump administration’s] charge on immigration enforcement” as the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Following Kelly’s swearing in on Monday, Anthony Scaramucci, who’d been in his role as White House communications director for just 10 days, was abruptly fired – an irony, since many believe it was Scaramucci’s ugly public feud with Priebus which had led to the latter’s ouster. In announcing the changes, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders offered Scaramucci’s expletive-laced interview with the New Yorker as reason for his dismissal, saying that “the president certainly felt that Anthony’s comments were inappropriate for a person in that position.”

Just hours after Kelly’s swearing in he faced his first leak, which was about him: an exclusive CNN story reports that he “was so upset with how President Donald Trump handled the firing of FBI Director James Comey that Kelly called Comey afterward and said he was considering resigning.”

According to the Associated Press, Kelly also called “beleaguered” Attorney General Jeff Sessions shortly after his swearing in to assure him that his position was safe, despite the fact that Trump was “still miffed” at him.

BONUS: check out this Lawfare podcast from Shane Harris on Kelly's new role:

Christopher Wray, the former assistant attorney general under George W. Bush, was confirmed as the new FBI director by a vote of 92-5 in the Senate on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the White House let go of Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the 31-year-old who’d run the NSC’s intelligence division. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the National Security Advisor, had previously tried to push Cohen-Watnick out but was “rebuffed” by Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. As the New York Times reports, McMaster is engaging “in a slow-motion purge of hard-line officials at the National Security Council in recent weeks” – Cohen-Watnick was the fourth NSC staff member forced out in a month.

North Korea

Last Friday North Korea “launched the longest-range intercontinental ballistic missile it has ever tested” – according to CNN, it flew 621 miles and reached an apex of 2,300 miles. After the test, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un asserted the “whole US mainland” was now within reach, and President Trump criticized China on Twitter, claiming he was “very disappointed” with them, and that “they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk.” Despite Trump’s tough talk, the US has been negotiating with China on new United Nations sanctions on North Korea for nearly a month, and according to Reuters, are close to a draft resolution. Trump also spoke to Japanese president Shinzo Abe, who “told reporters after the call that Trump pledged to ‘take all necessary measures to protect’ Japan.” Abe also said that Japan would work with the US to “bolster defense system and capabilities.”

On Thursday, Air France announced it was “extending its no-fly zone around North Korea as a precaution” after learning that North Korea’s missile test came within 62 miles of hitting one of its passenger jets.

At The National Interest, Joe Renouard argues that “if this administration is to succeed in such difficult areas as the trade deficit and Northeast Asian security, it will have to be willing to forgo short-term political victories and instead put in the work to seek out viable, long-term solutions.”

On the climate crisis

The New York Times reports that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is reversing course on a decision to delay an Obama-era rule “on smog-forming pollutants from smokestacks and tailpipes” – a move that “environmental groups hailed as a victory.” The decision “came a day after 16 state attorneys general, all Democrats, filed a lawsuit challenging the delay.”

According to POLITICO, the White House “plans to reject a proposal that would let oil refiners off the hook for complying with the federal ethanol mandate…dashing the hopes of billionaire Carl Icahn,” an early supporter and longtime associate of Donald Trump.

Other notes:

The Trump administration slapped sanctions on Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro on Monday, after a Sunday vote in the South American country – boycotted by the opposition party – established a special constituent assembly to rewrite the its constitution, which many see as a way for Maduro to consolidate power for his “increasingly autocratic regime.” According to Bloomberg, the sanctions “freeze any of Maduro’s assets that are subject to U.S. jurisdiction and prevent anyone in the U.S. from dealing with him.” The White House stopped short of banning Venezuelan oil imports because, as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin claimed, the administration did not want to “do anything that will hurt the Venezuelan people.” Following the arrest of two high-profile opposition leaders, the White House released a statement condemning “the actions of the Maduro dictatorship.”

A lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges that “the Fox News Channel and a wealthy supporter of President Trump worked in concert under the watchful eye of the White House to concoct a story about the murder of a young Democratic National Committee aide,” according to NPR. The suit, filed by longtime paid Fox News commentator Rod Wheeler, claims Fox News and a wealthy Trump supporter sought to deflect attention from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian intelligence. The suit also charges “that a Fox News reporter created quotations out of thin air and attributed them to him to propel her story.” The story, about murdered DNC aide Seth Rich, was first aired in May and retracted a week later.

CNN's Jim Acosta sparred with White House advisor Stephen Miller in a seriously heated back-and-forth over immigration. Acosta told Miller, "What you're proposing or what the President's proposing here does not sound like it's in keeping with American tradition when it comes to immigration."

The Dow stock index breached 22,000 for the first time on Wednesday, continuing its steroidal growth rate: as Reuters observes, the index “hit the 20,000 mark in late January and crossed the 21,000 mark in just over a month on March 1.”

Despite Trump’s tweets urging them – through insults and threats – to continue working on healthcare legislation and kill the filibuster, Senate Republicans are moving on to other issues, according to a report from The Hill.

Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticized new US sanctions on Thursday, asserting that the White House will “use any excuse to make a fuss” against Iran. Another senior Iranian official claimed on state TV that the purpose of the new sanctions “is to destroy the JCPOA,” meaning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal.

Transcripts of Trump’s call with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto in January leaked to the Washington Post this week. In the transcript, Trump admitted the Mexican border wall “is the least important thing,” and acknowledges that both he and Peña Nieto were “in a little bit of a political bind” since each had vowed not to pay for the wall.

above image: "photo of the day: 8/3/17," the white house / flickr

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