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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Donald Trump and the Banana Republicans

Posted by on Tue, Jan 30, 2018 at 8:43 AM

This post is excerpted from the INDY’s morning newsletter, Primer. To read this morning’s edition in full, click here. To get all the day’s local and national headlines and insights delivered straight to your inbox, sign up here.

An absolute crapton of Russia/Trump/FBI news has broken over the last twenty-four hours. There are a lot of moving parts and stories within stories, but the three big threads are:
  • The FBI pushed out deputy director and Trump nemesis Andrew McCabe.
  • Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted to make public a hotly disputed and likely error-ridden memo that accuses the Obama-era FBI and Department of Justice of malfeasance in its surveillance of a Trump operative, while refusing to make public the Democrats’ counter-memo.
  • Despite a law passed overwhelmingly by Congress last year designed to punish Russia over its meddling in the 2016 election, the Trump administration is refusing to impose additional sanctions on Putin and his allies.

MCCABE: Over the last few months, Andrew McCabe, who worked on both the Clinton email investigation and the Trump-Russia investigation, abruptly stepped down Monday. He’ll be on paid leave until March, when he can collect his pension. As a civil servant, he couldn’t have been fired—as President Trump plainly wanted—just because the president didn’t like him; instead, McCabe told friends he felt pressure to leave earlier than planned.
  • NYT: “Though Mr. McCabe’s retirement had been widely expected soon, his departure was nevertheless sudden. It added to what has already been a chaotic upheaval at the F.B.I. under Mr. Trump, who has responded to an investigation into his campaign with broadside attacks against both the bureau and the Justice Department. … In a recent conversation, Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, raised concerns about a forthcoming inspector general report. In that discussion, according to one former law enforcement official close to Mr. McCabe, Mr. Wray suggested moving Mr. McCabe into another job, which would have been a demotion. Instead, the former official said, Mr. McCabe chose to leave.”
  • Trump’s beef with McCabe stems from the fact that, in 2015, before he was involved in the Clinton investigation, his wife ran for the Virginia Senate as a Democrat and took money from that state’s governor, a Clinton ally. The Times: “The [IG] report is expected to address whether Mr. McCabe should have recused himself from the Clinton investigation because of his wife’s failed State Senate campaign, in which she accepted nearly a half-million dollars in contributions from the political organization of Terry McAuliffe, then the governor of Virginia, who is a longtime friend of Mrs. Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.”
  • “Mr. McCabe did not become deputy director until after his wife was defeated, and records show that he disclosed her candidacy and sought ethics advice from senior F.B.I. officials. But critics, including some inside the bureau itself, said he should have recused himself from the Clinton investigation. The F.B.I. has said Mr. McCabe played no role in his wife’s campaign. Mr. Trump and his allies have sought to use Mrs. McCabe’s run for office as evidence that the Russia investigation was part of a Democratic-led effort to protect Mrs. Clinton and undermine Mr. Trump’s presidency.”
  • This anecdote from NBC paints the president in a particularly vindictive light: “The day after he fired James Comey as director of the FBI, a furious President Donald Trump called the bureau's acting director, Andrew McCabe, demanding to know why Comey had been allowed to fly on an FBI plane from Los Angeles back to Washington after he was dismissed, according to multiple people familiar with the phone call. McCabe told the president he hadn’t been asked to authorize Comey’s flight, but if anyone had asked, he would have approved it, three people familiar with the call recounted to NBC News. The president was silent for a moment and then turned on McCabe, suggesting he ask his wife how it feels to be a loser—an apparent reference to a failed campaign for state office in Virginia that McCabe’s wife made in 2015. … In the past, Trump had also reportedly asked McCabe how he voted in the 2016 election and repeatedly made public references to campaign donations his wife had received from an ally of Hillary and Bill Clinton.”
  • NYT: “The White House said Mr. Trump, who had taunted Mr. McCabe on Twitter for months, had nothing to do with Mr. McCabe’s exit. ‘The president wasn’t part of this decision-making process,’ said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, an assertion echoed by [FBI director Christopher] Wray.”
  • James Comey rose to McCabe’s defense [Politico]: “‘Special Agent Andrew McCabe stood tall over the last 8 months, when small people were trying to tear down an institution we all depend on,’ Comey wrote on Twitter. ‘He served with distinction for two decades.’ Comey, who was fired by President Donald Trump last May, added: ‘I wish Andy well. I also wish continued strength for the rest of the FBI. America needs you.’”

THE HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Led by Trump toady Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee voted along party lines yesterday to release a controversial memo Nunes cooked up accusing the FBI of all sorts of chicanery in the Trump-Russia probe.
  • WaPo: “The vote, which proceeded along party lines in the Republican-controlled committee, means that President Trump now has up to five days to review the material and decide whether to keep it secret, though he could agree to the release anytime before that deadline. If he does nothing, the committee can release the memo publicly. The Justice Department and the FBI are likely to lobby Trump in the interim, hopeful that he will prevent the memo’s classified contents from becoming public before lawyers for those agencies can review the material.”
  • “The Intelligence Committee also voted along party lines Monday against releasing a rebuttal memo from the panel’s Democrats, who denounced both moves upon leaving the closed-door hearing. … A person familiar with the Democrats’ document described it as a point-by-point rebuttal, about 10 pages long, of the GOP memo.”
  • “The GOP memo has become a flash point in the political battle surrounding efforts to understand the scope of the Russian meddling and whether any of Trump’s associates coordinated with the Kremlin. Republicans say the document shows that the investigation may be tainted by political bias. Democrats call it a cynical attempt to undercut the work of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the law enforcement agencies behind him.”
  • “People familiar with the Intelligence Committee’s memo say its main target is the FBI’s relationship with Christopher Steele, a British ex-spy who was hired in 2016 by a Washington research firm to examine any connections between Trump and Russian leaders. The work, which was funded by Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee, led to a dossier of allegations against Trump and some of his advisers—allegations that the president has denied. Within the FBI, some of Steele’s work was eventually incorporated into a 2016 application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to conduct surveillance on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser, according to people familiar with the matter. Republican lawmakers have suggested that Steele provided bad information to the FBI, leading to a broader probe of Trump associates. People familiar with the memo said it does not conclusively say whether Steele intentionally passed suspect information to the FBI or simply made a mistake.’
  • “The president wants the memo to go public. He has also told close advisers that the document is starting to make people realize that the FBI and the Mueller investigation are biased against him, according to one person familiar with his remarks. The Justice Department, however, has come out against the memo’s release before the agency can review the classified material in it. Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote to Congress last week, warning lawmakers that releasing the memo without giving the Justice Department and the FBI an opportunity to review it ‘would be extraordinarily reckless,’ because doing so could harm national security and ongoing investigations.”
  • According to Bloomberg, Trump fumed aboard Air Force One last week when he learned the DOJ had asked the Republicans to back off: “Trump erupted in anger while traveling to Davos after learning that Associate Attorney General Stephen Boyd warned that it would be ‘extraordinarily reckless’ to release a classified memo written by House Republican staffers. The memo outlines alleged misdeeds at the FBI and Justice Department related to the Russia investigation. … Trump’s outburst capped a week where Trump and senior White House officials personally reproached Attorney General Jeff Sessions and asked White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to speak to others—episodes that illustrate Trump’s preoccupation with the Justice Department, according to two of the people. Trump warned Sessions and others they need to excel at their jobs or go down as the worst in history, the two people said.”
  • The Times has an explainer on the FISA warrant in question: “To issue a FISA order authorizing investigators to eavesdrop on an American, a judge must agree that there is reason to believe the target was knowingly engaging in clandestine intelligence activities for a foreign power that violate American criminal laws—or is knowingly aiding or conspiring with someone else who is doing that.”
  • “Democrats on the committee, led by Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, maintain that the Republican memo is misleading—both making inaccurate assertions and omitting context in order to support a Republican narrative that the Russia investigation stems from a conspiracy by partisan F.B.I. officials who were biased against Mr. Trump. For example, people familiar with the memo have said it omits discussion of other evidence cited in the application that stemmed from other intelligence sources and methods, exaggerating the importance of Mr. Steele’s information.”
  • “The Republican memo is also said to disclose that [Rod] Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general appointed by Mr. Trump, signed off on an application to extend the wiretapping of Mr. Page. Under the law, FISA orders targeting Americans are good for 90 days, but extensions ‘may be granted on the same basis as an original order.’ The application, however, must consist of newly produced findings that the standards are met rather than merely recycling the previously signed documents. Mr. Rosenstein’s signing off on applying for an extension indicates that the Trump administration’s Justice Department agreed that there was probable cause that the president’s former campaign aide was an agent for Russia. Another implication of Mr. Rosenstein’s move is that he, too, approved providing Mr. Steele’s information to the FISA court—an act many Republicans and conservative news media commentators are portraying as scandalous.”

THE SANCTIONS: Lastly, the Trump administration announced that “it would not immediately impose additional sanctions on Russia, despite a new law designed to punish Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, insisting the measure was already hitting Russian companies.” [Reuters]
  • “Seeking to press President Donald Trump to clamp down on Russia, the U.S. Congress voted nearly unanimously last year to pass a law setting sweeping new sanctions on Moscow. Trump, who wanted warmer ties with Moscow and had opposed the legislation as it worked its way through Congress, signed it reluctantly in August, just six months into his presidency. Under the measure, the administration faced a deadline on Monday to impose sanctions on anyone determined to conduct significant business with Russian defense and intelligence sectors, already sanctioned for their alleged role in the election.”
  • “Monday’s deadline to release those reports was seen as a test of Trump’s willingness to clamp down on Russia. Critics blasted him for failing to announce any sanctions. ‘The State Department claims that the mere threat of sanctions will deter Russia’s aggressive behavior. How do you deter an attack that happened two years ago, and another that’s already underway? It just doesn’t make sense,’ said Representative Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. ‘I’m fed up waiting for this Administration to protect our country and our elections,’ he said in a statement.”
  • “Shortly before midnight (0500 GMT) on Monday, the Treasury Department released an unclassified ‘oligarchs’ list, including 114 senior Russian political figures and 96 business people. Those named on the list will not immediately face any immediate penalties like asset freezes or visa bans. But the law mandated that the U.S. Treasury and State Departments, and intelligence agencies, compile a list of political figures and business people close to Putin’s government and network, for potential future sanctions.”
  • Meanwhile: “CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Russia will target U.S. mid-term elections later this year as part of the Kremlin’s attempt to influence domestic politics across the West.” [Reuters]

WHAT IT MEANS: The end game is becoming increasingly clear. Both with McCabe and the House Intelligence Committee, Trump’s allies are seeking to muddy the waters ahead of Mueller’s investigation concluding.
  • Axios: “Trump's allies are betting that when all is said and done—and when special counsel Bob Mueller has completed his report—the American people will be so thoroughly disgusted with everyone that the political outcome is a wash. … Jonathan Swan and I are told that President Trump has already made up his mind to release the memo, which he sees as vindication, despite Justice Department resistance. Trump believes it will solidify in the public's mind that there's a Deep State out to get him.”
  • Get real: The idea that Comey’s FBI—which essentially installed Trump in office by hyping Hillary Clinton’s emails a few days before the election—was out to get Trump from the start is farcical.

Related: Wikileaks founder Julian Assange apparently tried to leak info about a Democratic senator leading the Russia investigations to a woman posing as Sean Hannity online. [Daily Beast]

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