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The Daily 202: Trump’s Russia headache gets worse, as Sessions struggles to spin undisclosed meetings

March 2, 2017 2:23 PM
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The Daily 202: Trump’s Russia headache gets worse, as Sessions struggles to spin undisclosed meetings

THE BIG IDEA: Jeff Sessions wakes up this morning with potentially serious legal and political problems.

-- The attorney general and his team are in damage-control mode, trying to explain confusing and seemingly inconsistent statements.

-- A handful of top Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi and Claire McCaskill, called for his resignation overnight. Others are expected to follow in the coming hours. Many more are clamoring for a special prosecutor, both to explore whether Sessions should be charged with perjury for making apparently false statements to Congress and more broadly to explore links between Trump campaign officials and Russia during the election. There is consensus among Democrats in both chambers that Sessions must, at the very least, immediately recuse himself from all Russia-related investigations to preserve the integrity of the Justice Department and the ongoing FBI investigation, something he has repeatedly resisted.

-- Notably, few Republican lawmakers are rushing to vocally defend their longtime colleague this morning. Some worry about what shoes might drop next.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on “Morning Joe” that Sessions should recuse himself. “I don’t have all the information in front of me, I don’t want to prejudge, but I just think for any investigation going forward, you want to make sure everybody trusts the investigation,” he said. “I think it’d be easier from that standpoint.”

The Washington Post reported that then-Sen. Sessions (R-Ala.) spoke twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, encounters he did not disclose when asked about possible contacts between members of President Trump’s campaign and representatives of Moscow during his confirmation hearing to become attorney general. “One of the meetings was a private conversation between Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place in September in the senator’s office, at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race,” Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller report. The second meeting happened after a Heritage Foundation event during the Republican National Convention, when the two spoke individually in Cleveland. A Sessions spokeswoman confirmed both meetings.

Testifying under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was asked in January by Al Franken what he would do if he learned of any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign. “I’m not aware of any of those activities,” he responded. He added: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”

There’s more: Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) sent Sessions an additional written question: “Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?” The AG’s one-word answer could not have been more categorical: “No.”

-- The New York Times revealed that some Obama White House officials were so concerned about possible contacts between Trump associates and the Russians that they took active measures to ensure the incoming administration would not be able to “cover up or destroy” key evidence.

“American allies, including the British and the Dutch, had provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officials — and others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — and associates of President-elect Trump,” three former American officials told Matthew Rosenberg, Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt. “Separately, American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates.”

“The opposite happened with the most sensitive intelligence, including the names of sources and the identities of foreigners who were regularly monitored,” the Times reporters add. “Officials tightened the already small number of people who could access that information. They knew the information could not be kept from the new president or his top advisers, but wanted to narrow the number of people who might see the information."

-- Sessions’s spin is quite a stretch. Justice officials claim that Sessions’s secret sit-down with Ambassador Kislyak on Sept. 8 was in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, not as a Trump campaign surrogate. Officials told The Post’s reporters who broke the story that the attorney general did not consider the conversations relevant to Franken and Leahy’s questions and did not remember in detail what he discussed with Kislyak. “There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer,” claimed Sessions spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores (who used to be Sean Spicer’s #2 at the RNC).

But The Post’s Adam Entous contacted all 26 members of the Senate Armed Services Committee from 2016 to see whether any lawmakers besides Sessions met with Kislyak in 2016. Of the 20 lawmakers who responded, every senator, including Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), said they did not meet with the Russian ambassador last year. The other lawmakers on the panel did not respond as of last night.

Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat who called for Sessions to resign this morning, is a senior member of that committee and a former prosecutor. “A good prosecutor would have known these facts were relevant to the questions asked,” she said in a statement. “It’s clear Attorney General Sessions misled the Senate—the question is, why? I’ve been on the Senate Armed Services Committee for 10 years, and in that time, have had no call from, or meeting with, the Russian ambassador. Ever. That’s because ambassadors call members of Foreign Relations Committee.”

Approached by an NBC camera crew this morning, Sessions carefully denied meeting with any Russian officials during the course of the election to talk about the Trump campaign. "I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign," he said, "and those remarks are unbelievable to me and are false. And I don't have anything else to say about that." When asked about the calls by Democrats to recuse himself from investigating any alleged ties between Trump's surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government, Sessions added: "I have said whenever it's appropriate, I will recuse myself. There's no doubt about that."

Al Franken says Sessions’s answer to his question was “at best, misleading” and “very” troubling: “It is now clearer than ever that the attorney general cannot, in good faith, oversee an investigation at the Department of Justice and the FBI of the Trump-Russia connection, and he must recuse himself immediately.”

-- “Republicans were more cautious in their remarks, but there were signs that they could step up calls for an outside investigation of the Trump team’s ties to Russia as a result of the Sessions news,” Karoun Demirjian reports. Last Friday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, became one of the few Republican representatives to state publicly the need for an independent investigation.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said during a CNN town hall last night that if the substance of Sessions’s conversations with the Russian ambassador proved to be improper or suspect, he too would join the call for Sessions to go. “If there is something there and it goes up the chain of investigation, it is clear to me that Jeff Sessions, who is my dear friend, cannot make that decision about Trump,” he said, adding that the communications could have been innocent. “But if there’s something there that the FBI thinks is criminal in nature, then for sure you need a special prosecutor. If that day ever comes, I’ll be the first one to say it needs to be somebody other than Jeff.”

-- Another Russia story to keep an eye on: Jon Huntsman is now in the running to be Trump’s ambassador to Moscow. “Eight years after he was sent to China by a Democratic president, the former Utah governor and Republican presidential candidate, is under consideration to be Trump’s ambassador to Russia,” Mark Landler writes in the Times this morning. “And like eight years ago, there is a political dimension to the choice: Sending Mr. Huntsman to Moscow would remove him as a primary challenger to Utah’s 82-year-old Republican senator, Orrin Hatch — just as when former President Barack Obama chose him for Beijing in 2009, it was seen as a way to keep him off the field during the 2012 presidential campaign. Mr. Huntsman’s name had already circulated for secretary of state and, more recently, for deputy secretary. But a person briefed on the talks, which were first reported by CNN, said the Moscow ambassador’s post was a more genuine prospect.”

-- The White House has decided to remove Iraq from a list of countries subject to the forthcoming travel ban, amid concerns in Washington and Baghdad that keeping the country on the list would undercut relations with a critical ally in the fight against Islamic State. (Wall Street Journal)

The Senate confirmed Ryan Zinke’s nomination to lead the Interior Department by a 68 to 31 vote. ( Darryl Fears)

DREAM-er Daniela Vargas was arrested by ICE officials in Jackson, Miss., after speaking out about the new administration's immigration policies. Vargas had let her immigration status under DACA lapse. (Samantha Schmidt)

-- Missy Ryan and Thomas Gibbons-Neff examine the NAVY SEAL raid in Yemen that killed Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens, which sparked the emotional moment at Trump's joint address to Congress on Tuesday night in which he saluted Owens's widow, Carryn. "According to current and former officials, the discussions leading up to the Jan. 29 raid, intended as the first step in a major expansion of U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen, marked a departure from the more hands-on, deliberative process used by the previous administration ... The raid, which took place just over a week into the Trump administration, came as U.S. military officials sought to restore their counterterrorism capability in Yemen, severely damaged in the country’s ongoing civil conflict."

The process was criticized for being too brief and less deliberative than in other administrations: "On Jan. 25, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis requested urgent approval at a dinner meeting with Trump of a nighttime mission that represented a first step in expanding activities against AQAP ... In part because the operation had already been approved by Trump and in part because the meeting was also scheduled to cover other topics, discussion of the raid was as short as around 25 minutes, according to several accounts, and as long as 40, according to the senior administration official. In either case, the brisk treatment of a high-risk operation stands in contrast to similar deliberations during the Obama administration, known for its extensive litigation of risks in military activities and tight control of tactical decision-making."

-- Ten current U.S. officials across the government who have been briefed on the details of the raid told NBC News that, so far, no truly significant intelligence has emerged from the haul. While the SEALs scooped up laptops, hard drives and cell phones, the sources told NBC’s reporters that none of the intelligence gleaned from the operation so far has proven actionable or vital — contrary to what President Trump said in his speech to Congress Tuesday. “The Associated Press quoted a senior U.S. official as describing a three-page list of information gathered from the compound, including information on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's training techniques and targeting priorities. Pentagon officials confirmed that to NBC News, but other U.S. officials said the information on that list was neither actionable nor vital. One senior Pentagon official described the information gathered as ‘de minimis,’ and as material the U.S. already knew about,” per NBC.

-- He is preternaturally unable to take any personal responsibility for bad things that happen under his watch, whether bankruptcy or the death of a Navy SEAL, which he publicly blames on the generals.

-- This is an emerging pattern of his presidency: Trump has blamed Obama for fometing protests against him, a judge for any future terrorist attack on the homeland, and the weather for the relatively small size of his inauguration crowd. "For a businessman who views the world through a binary win-or-lose lens, Trump has become the 'don’t blame me' president — struggling to adjust to the reality of a job often revealed in shades of gray," Abby Phillip and Ashley Parker write. "The man in the nation’s highest elective office, who is eager to claim credit for positive developments, has yet to show signs of accepting responsibility or blame when things go wrong.

-- "When you run on a campaign of win, win, win, you never can admit a setback," said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian who has met with Trump several times. "If that’s the case, that’s a pathological situation."

-- Trump's use of "radical Islamic terrorism" on Tuesday night suggests that H.R. McMaster, who has told his staff not to use the phrase and asked the president not to include it in the speech, has little juice vis-a-vis Stephen K. Bannon. The disagreement is more than rhetorical and shows a divide between the national security adviser and the president's chief strategist, Greg Jaffe reports: "Bannon leads the Strategic Initiatives Group, an internal White House think tank, and was also named by Trump to a position on the National Security Council, giving him a major role in the formulation of foreign policy. Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president, is one of his senior advisers, focusing on issues involving counterterrorism."

-- Meanwhile, McMaster is taking steps to control the NSC, eliminating the jobs created by his predecessor, ousted security adviser Michael Flynn, reports Politico.

-- The Environmental Protection Agency has been informed by the Office of Management and Budget that Trump wants to slash the agency's budget by one-fifth in one year and eliminate dozens of programs, Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report: "The plan to slash EPA’s staff from its current level of 15,000 to 12,000, which could be accomplished in part through a buyout offer as well as layoffs, is one of several changes for which the new administration has asked agency staff for comment by close of business Wednesday. ... The proposal also dictates cutting the agency’s grants to states, including its air and water programs, by 30 percent, and eliminating 38 separate programs in their entirety. Programs designated for zero funding include grants to clean up brownfields, or abandoned industrial sites; a national electronic manifest system for hazardous waste; environmental justice programs; climate-change initiatives; and funding for native Alaskan villages ... The agency’s Office of Research and Development could face a cut of up to 42 percent, according to an individual apprised of the administration’s plans. The document eliminates funding altogether for the office’s 'contribution to the U.S. Global Change Research Program,' a climate initiative that then-President George H.W. Bush launched in 1989."

-- Anxiety is high across the federal government, where civil servants realize the math of Trump's proposed budget -- a 10 percent hike in defense spending with cuts to fall on domestic discretionary spending and not entitlements -- does not add up for them. Lisa Rein reports: "The math seems clear: To shrink government by that much, layoffs are inevitable, say federal officials, unions and budget experts ... Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said a voluntary buyout program across the government may be a more palatable option ... And words like buyouts, furloughs and RIFs (or reduction in force) — government-speak for layoffs — are now being tossed around at the water cooler as civil servants face the possibility of massive downsizing."

-- Trump's drive to massively cut the foreign aid budget could literally kill people in Africa, where famine is spreading. Kevin Sieff reports from Nairobi that four countries are approaching famine and 20 million people are nearing starvation levels, according to the United Nations: "It is the first time in recent memory that so many large-scale hunger crises have occurred simultaneously, and humanitarian groups say they do not have the resources to respond effectively ... In Nigeria, millions have been displaced and isolated by Boko Haram insurgents. In Somalia, a historic drought has left a huge portion of the country without access to regular food, as al-Shabab militants block the movement of humanitarian groups. In South Sudan, a three-year-old civil war has forced millions of people from their homes and farms. In Yemen, a civil war along with aerial attacks by the Saudi-led coalition have caused another sweeping hunger crisis." The United States provided 28 percent of foreign aid to those four countries alone. "'Nobody can replace the U.S. in terms of funding,” said Yves Daccord, the director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who said of the current crises.'" Kevin writes. “I don’t remember ever seeing such a mix of conflict, drought and extreme hunger.”

-- Trump seemed to at least gently support some aspects of the House GOP leadership's plan to repeal and replace the ACA during his speech to Congress. Mike DeBonis and Kelsey Snell report. "By specifically mentioning 'tax credits,' Trump appeared to side with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) in a key intraparty debate over what the ACA’s replacement ought to look like. Influential conservatives in the House and Senate have balked at offering refundable tax credits to help Americans buy insurance, advocating instead for a less expensive tax deduction. ... The tax-credit issue has become a flash point between GOP leaders and their conservative flank, rooted in the amount of government spending it would take to achieve adequate health coverage in the ACA’s absence."

-- House leaders tried to sell their plan to the Senate GOP late yesterday, but they're taking special measures to ensure that it doesn't leak to the press, Bloomberg reports: "The document is being treated a bit like a top-secret surveillance intercept. It is expected to be available to members and staffers on the House Energy and Commerce panel starting Thursday, but only in a dedicated reading room, one Republican lawmaker and a committee aide said. Nobody will be given copies to take with them." I'm old enough to remember when these very same Republicans attacked Democrats for negotiating health care policy behind closed doors...

-- “North Korean regime is finding new ways to stop information flows, report says,” by Anna Fifield: “As ordinary North Koreans have found ways to get information the state denies them — soppy South Korean dramas and peppy pop songs, novels, news from the outside world — so too has the Kim regime found news ways to crack down on them. … The regime has developed sophisticated new tools to check just what its citizens are up to … [underlining] the challenges in getting information into the most tightly controlled country on the planet — and the challenges that North Korea watchers as diverse as the U.S. Congress and small defector-led groups face in trying to penetrate it.” Access to outside networks has also been curtailed: “Once, I went into a house and made a call to China and inspectors came within 30 seconds,” said a 59-year-old man who used to work for a trading company near the Chinese city of Dandong. “There are inspectors going around with an eavesdropping device to control calls to China."

Trump, in his 2015 book: "To me, for politicians to claim that we have an answer to every problem is silly."

Trump, in his Tuesday night speech: "Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved."

-- New York Times Magazine, “How the Trolls Stole Washington,” by Amanda Hess: “It was during the summer of 2014 that internet trolling boiled over into a mainstream crisis. It began with a seething, accusatory blog post about a video-game developer named Zoe Quinn, written by an ex-boyfriend. What seemed like a small, personal conflict managed to explode into a culture war … some even hoping to compel Quinn to ‘an hero’ herself — tittering 4chan code for committing suicide. But as [#GamerGate] grew … it coalesced into a movement that looked awfully political. Despite their self-presentation as ciphers, trolls have always had a point of view, and #GamerGate offered a platform for a whole coalition to express its distrust of media, resentment toward women and anger at progressive critiques of racism and misogyny. They had demands, too: They worked to get journalists fired, to pressure advertisers, to silence feminist critics. To outsiders, #GamerGate looked like a cesspool of angry, entitled young men nobody else wanted to talk to. But some right-wing figures spied an opportunity.”

-- The New York Times, “Uber Case Could Be a Watershed for Women in Tech,” by Farhad Manjoo: “Few women in Silicon Valley were surprised by the revelations about Uber detailed this month by Susan Fowler, a software engineer who published an exposé on the culture of sexism and sexual harassment [she reportedly encountered at the company.] For many women in Silicon Valley, the contours of Ms. Fowler’s story rang true from sorry experience. This week, The Guardian reported that a female Tesla employee had filed suit against the electric-car company for what she called ‘pervasive harassment.’ And even in cases where abuse is well documented … the men responsible are rarely punished, and the overall picture rarely improves. Still, the Uber scandal feels different. It feels like a watershed. For gender-diversity advocates in the tech industry, Ms. Fowler’s allegations, and the public outcry they have ignited, offer a possibility that something new may be in the offing. What could happen? Something innovative: This could be the start of a deep, long-term and thorough effort to remake a culture that has long sidelined women — not just at Uber but across the tech business, too.”

Trump is flying to Langley Air Force Base to visit the Gerald R. Ford CVN 78 and talk about his request for increased defense spending. He’ll attend an operations briefing, attend a leadership meeting and give a speech. Then he’ll fly back to the White House. Sean Spicer will gaggle on Air Force One during the flight down.

Mike Pence will travel to Cincinnati to participate in listening sessions with Ohio business leaders and their employees. The Vice President will be joined by Tom Price. And then he’ll give a speech.

-- While spring warmth may be winning the war, winter is battling back for a cameo performance. We have a wind-swept chill today, and it’s downright cold Friday and Saturday. From the Capital Weather Gang: “Some of those early cherry blooms are in trouble. The leading edge of the main cold surge arrives Friday morning, and snowflakes could fly. But fear not, spring is back in full force again early next week. Strong northwest winds will keep daytime temperature rises meager and are borderline hazardous in the morning as they gust as high as 50 mph or so. Highs only manage mid-40s to lower 50s. Skies may start out on the cloudy side but should clear out gradually.”

-- Gov. Larry Hogan ramped up Maryland's response to a growing opioid-addiction crisis, declaring a state of emergency and committing an additional $50 million over the next five years to bolster prevention, enforcement, and treatment services. “The action fulfills a campaign promise he made in 2014 but temporarily shelved after taking office in favor of other legislative and executive initiatives,” Bill Turque writes.

-- Hogan also condemned a recent spike in bomb threats targeting Jewish schools and community centers -- one of which was located in Rockville. “Our administration condemns all forms of racism and discrimination,” Hogan said in a Facebook statement. “If needed, he said, state police will assist local and federal law enforcement in investigating the threats. (Ovetta Wiggins)


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