At a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence today, U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris questioned FBI Director Christopher Wray on President Trump’s access to information and evidence from an investigation into the President’s own campaign.
“Do you believe there is an actual – or at least the appearance of – a conflict of interest when the President is put in charge of declassifying information that could complicate an ongoing investigation into his own campaign?” said Harris.
Harris noted the clear conflict of interest that exists and asked whether the President would have access to more information concerning the investigation into his campaign and that he could potentially receive more information of this kind from members of Congress.
Harris previously criticized the releases of the Nunes memo, calling it an effort to “weaponize classified information for political gain and expediency.”
In light of recent political attacks on the intelligence and law enforcement communities, Harris also thanked the men and women of the intelligence and law enforcement communities for their critical work in service to the American people. “I would like to emphasize the point that we all I think share in making, which is we thank the men and women of your agencies for their selfless work,” said Harris. “They do it on behalf of the American people without any expectation of award or reward and we cannot thank them enough for keeping us safe.”
Full transcript of Harris’ questioning below:
Harris: Thank you. I want to echo the comments of my colleagues in thanking the men and women who serve in your agencies. I am concerned that the political attacks against the men and women of your agencies may have had an effect on your ability to recruit, retain, and also the morale of your agencies. So I would like to emphasize the point that we all I think share in making which is we thank the men and women of your agencies for their selfless work. They do it on behalf of the American people without any expectation of award or reward, and we cannot thank them enough for keeping us safe. Director Wray, Chairman Nunes’ memo included sensitive FISA information regarding a person who worked on the President’s campaign. According to the White House statement, the President was the one who authorized the memo’s declassification. Do you believe there is an actual – or at least the appearance of – a conflict of interest when the President is put in charge of declassifying information that could complicate an ongoing investigation into his own campaign?
Wray: Well, senator, as we have been very clear what our view was about the disclosure and accuracy of the memo in question, but I do think it’s the President’s role as Commander in Chief under the rule that was invoked to object or not to the declassification. So I think that is the President’s responsibility.
Harris: Regardless of whether there is an appearance or actual conflict of interest?
Wray: I leave it to others to characterize whether there’s appearance or actual conflict of interest, but I think the President was fulfilling his responsibility in that situation.
Harris: If the President asked you tomorrow to hand over to him additional sensitive FBI information on the investigations into his campaign, would you give it to him?
Wray: I am not going to discuss the investigation in question with the President, much less provide information from that investigation to him.
Harris: And if he received that information and wanted to declassify it, would he have the ability to do that from your perspective?
Wray: Information from the –
Harris: However he received it, perhaps from members of the United States Congress.
Wray: I think legally he would have that ability.
Harris: And do you believe the President should recuse himself from reviewing and declassifying sensitive FBI material related to this investigation?
Wray: I think recusal questions are something I would encourage the President to talk to White House counsel about.
Harris: Has the FBI done any kind of legal analysis on these questions?
Wray: Well happily, I am no longer in the business of doing legal analysis. I now get to be a client and blame lawyers for things instead of being the lawyer who gets blamed. So we have not-
Harris: Have you blamed any lawyers for their analysis of this issue?
Wray: What’s that?
Harris: Have you blamed any lawyers for their analysis?
Wray: I have not yet, no.
Harris questioning about counterintelligence threat from social media:
Harris: Okay. Is the FBI getting the cooperation it needs from social media companies to counter foreign adversaries’ influence on our elections?
Wray: I think the cooperation has been improving. I think we’re continuing to work with the social media companies to try to see how we can raise their awareness so that they can share information with us and vice versa. So I think things are moving in the right direction but I think there’s a lot of progress to be made.
Harris: What more do you need from social media companies to improve the partnership that you would like to have with them to counter the attacks?
Wray: Well, I think we always like to have more information shared more quickly from their end, but I think from their perspective, it’s a dialogue. They’re looking to get information from us about what it is we see so that they can give responsive information. So I think we’re working through those issues.
Harris: Do you believe that the social media companies have enough employees that have the appropriate security clearance to make these partnerships real?
Wray: That’s not an issue I’ve evaluated but I’d be happy to take a look at it.
Harris: Please do and then follow up with the committee. Director Coats, one of the things that makes guarding against foreign intelligence threats on social media so complex is that the threat originates overseas and so that would be within the jurisdiction of the CIA and the NSA and then it comes to our shores and then it passes onto the FBI and also the social media companies themselves. I’m not aware of any written IC strategy on how we would confront the threat to social media. Does such a strategy exist in writing?
Coats: I would have to get back with you on that. I would be happy to look into it. From my perspective right now, a written specific strategy is not in place but I want to check on that.
Harris questioning about WH refusal to implement Russia Sanctions:
Harris: Okay, please do follow up. Also last year, Congress passed a bipartisan Russia sanctions bill, however, the Administration has not imposed those sanctions. From an intelligence perspective, what is your assessment of how Russia interprets the Administration’s inaction?
Coats: I don’t have information relative to what the Russian thinking is in terms of that particular specific reaction. There are other sanctions, as you know, that are being imposed on Russian oligarchs and others through the United Nations and through other things that have been done in reference to the JCPOA. But specifically on your question, I don’t have an answer for that.
Pompeo: Senator Harris, may I just comment?
Pompeo: I think we ought to look at that in a broader context, that is, how the Russians view all of the actions of this Administration, not just a particular set of sanctions or the absence thereof. So as we have watched the Russians respond to this Administration’s decision to provide defensive weapons in Ukraine, to push back against Russian efforts in Syria, sanctions placed on Venezuela were directly in conflict with Russian interests. The list of places that the Russians are feeling the pain from this Administration’s actions are long.
Harris: But Director Pompeo I’m sure you would agree that in order to understand the full scope of effect, it is also important that we analyze each discrete component, including what is the interpretation of this Administration’s failure to enact the sanctions as has been passed and directed by the United States Congress in a bipartisan manner. Have you done that assessment?
Pompeo: Senator, in closed session, I will tell you what we know and don’t know about that discrete issue.
Pompeo: And yes, I agree with you, it is important to look at each one in its own place. But I think what we most often see in terms of Russian response, it’s to the cumulative activities in response to Russian activities, and how the United States responds to those in a cumulative way.
Harris: Thank you, I look forward to our conversation.
Pompeo: Yes, ma’am.
Trump Ordered Melania to Make Salads for Clemson Players
President Donald Trump says he had ordered Melania Trump to make Salads for the hungry Clemson football players salads prepared by the first lady but decided to purchase them McDonald’s Hamburgers instead when he realized it would be more expensive to provide fresh food.
Trump paid for the $2,000 of fast food to the Clemson Tigers when the 2018 College Football Playoff champions visited the White House on Monday evening.
“We ordered American fast food. Paid for by me. Lots of hamburgers, lots of pizza, I think they’d like it better than anything we could give,” Trump told reporters as he arrived at the White House after an out-of-state speech.
“We have some very large people that like eating, so I think we’re gonna have a little fun,” Trump claimed.
President Trump later teased in his remarks that the players “wiped out more food than any human has ever seen before.”
Crazy Evidence that Trump is Working with Russia
The Wall Street Journal’s influential editorial board is known for being hard on presidents … OK, just the even-numbered ones, in recent years. That would be Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The bible of American finance — whose conservative editorial writers never met a corporate tax cut they didn’t like, or a Democrat that they did — could be ruthless toward the 42nd and 44th presidents, even encouraging some of the loopier conspiracy theories of the Whitewater era.
That’s why it was so jarring last week to see the Rupert Murdoch-owned broadsheet publish an editorial stating, “We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President” — when that president is a Republican, Donald Trump. The WSJ — which maybe isn’t as pro-Trump as that diner in southern Ohio that the New York Times has reported from 6,784 times now, but which generally likes POTUS 45 as long as he’s reducing marginal tax rates or dropping napalm on the Environmental Protection Agency — ripped the current commander in chief in a piece headlined, “Trump’s Cracked Afghan History.”
Yes, it’s a little weird that an editorial board that was nonplussed (or sometimes mildly “concerned”) about Trump’s 7,000-plus other lies, firing of Jim Comey, shredding of the emoluments clause, etc., etc., would wig out about the president’s strange thoughts on an invasion exactly 40 years ago by a country, the USSR, that technically doesn’t exist. But anticommunism both was, and is, central to the Wall Street Journal brand. Let’s hear them out on this one.
The editorial bashed Trump for asserting that Leonid Brezhnev’s USSR was justified in 1979 when it invaded Afghanistan, a move that was so vehemently opposed by the U.S. government that Jimmy Carter imposed an Olympic boycott and reinstituted draft registration for 18-year-olds. That, the Journal argued, was “ridiculous, adding: “The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a defining event in the Cold War, making clear to all serious people the reality of the communist Kremlin’s threat.”
Here’s the thing. Trump says crazy stuff every day of his presidency. But the Journal was absolutely right to home in on the weirdness and disturbing nature of this particular statement. For one thing, it’s surprising that the usually assertively anti-intellectual Trump has deep — albeit historically incorrect — thoughts about foreign policy in the late ’70s and ’80s, the decade he was busy trying to promote Herschel Walker and bed Marla Maples. Second, not one other person on this side of the Atlantic Ocean holds that notion advanced by the president: that the USSR invasion of Afghanistan was justified or was about anything other than world domination.
But now here’s where it gets much, much weirder — and much more disturbing. Because it turns out there is one prominent set of voices who — just in the last few months — started making the argument that the USSR was right to send those troops into Afghanistan, an action that even Russian higher-ups have conceded even before the USSR’s 1991 collapse was a horrible mistake, politically and morally.
That would be Vladimir Putin and his allies in the Russian government.
It’s doubtful that either you or Donald J. Trump read this online Washington Post opinion piece from Dec. 4 that outlines an otherwise little-reported push by Russian lawmakers allied with Putin for a resolution that would justify their country’s 1979 invasion and reverse an 1989 vote backed by then-USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev that had condemned it. The Putinists’ goal is to pass the resolution by the 30th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal, in February.
OK, maybe it’s a coincidence that a babbling Trump — who certainly gives the appearance of saying whatever pops into his mind — just happened to make the same obscure argument as Putin’s minions halfway across the globe. But on Thursday night, I and a couple of other million folks saw a remarkable report by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that tied together some wild threads (for which she credited other journalists such as Vladimir Kara-Murza, author of that Post op-ed, and New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, as well as her own Steve Benen).
It turns out Trump’s bizarre, historically incorrect Afghanistan riff is part of a pattern in which either the president or his administration has mimicked obscure foreign-policy points linked directly to Putin and/or Russian intelligence ops, and to virtually no one else — certainly not anyone in the American diplomatic community.
The most bizarre such episode happened early in Trump’s presidency. When Mike Flynn — who would later plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his phone calls with Russia’s ambassador — was still Trump’s national security adviser in the first weeks of the new administration, there was this little noticed report from the AP.
“According to one U.S. official, national security aides have sought information about Polish incursions in Belarus, an eyebrow-raising request because little evidence of such activities appears to exist,” the AP reported. “Poland is among the Eastern European nations worried about Trump’s friendlier tone on Russia.” Meanwhile, Putin’s interest in swallowing up Belarus — possibly using the fake “Polish incursions” as a pretext — has only intensified in the two years since the 45th president was sworn in.
Then there’s the strange matter of U.S. policy toward the tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro, which in 2017 became the first new member of NATO in a decade. A few weeks later, Trump caused a lot of head-scratching when he went on Fox News with Tucker Carlson and the president (echoed by Carlson) lashed out at the idea of defending his new NATO ally. “You know, Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. … They are very aggressive people,” Trump said. “They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.”
Actually, when it comes to Montenegro, Trump was arguably the “aggressive” one — with the viral clip of POTUS shoving aside the Montenegrin prime minister at a summit meeting two months earlier. Most viewers watched the clip for a laugh. What’s not so funny is that Russian intelligence officers had been involved in a 2016 plot to assassinate Montenegro’s leader — so determined was Putin to prevent the expansion of NATO. A goal that seems to have been shared by the current president of the United States.
These obscure Putin-flavored U.S. maneuvers have happened amid the highly publicized probe by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is tasked with finding out if the Trump campaign somehow colluded with Russia’s spies as they sought to interfere with and alter the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Although arguably a strong case for collusion has already been revealed, we won’t know the full extent of what he’s uncovered until later this year. None of Team Trump’s arcane moves on Belarus, Montenegro or Afghanistan is conclusive proof of a vast Trump-Russia conspiracy, but …
There’s a famous scene in All the President’s Men where Robert Redford as Bob Woodward says: “If you go to bed at night and there is no snow on the ground, when you wake up there is snow on the ground, you can say it snowed during the night although you didn’t see it, right?” When it comes to U.S. policy toward Russia under Trump, we are waking up to find 6-foot snow drifts outside. Beyond the bizarre echoes of Belarus, Montenegro and Afghanistan, we’ve watched the White House kowtow to Team Putin every chance it gets, from leaving Syria to dropping sanctions on Paul Manafort’s favorite Russian oligarch.
Thursday’s Maddow report was so alarming because it revealed the deep extent to which Trump — at least on Russia policy — is acting as a kind of “Manchurian Candidate” inside America’s seat of power. We don’t know the mechanics of how the Trump administration is receiving and absorbing these ideas like “Polish incursions into Belarus” or “aggressive Montenegro,” but the fact that he’s parroting the Putin line should be alarming enough. It’s one more reason why the nightmare of the Trump presidency needs to end long before January 20, 2021.
Look, I don’t want to see another Cold War, nor do I believe that’s necessary. That said, even those of us who prefer peace to rampant militarism can see that Putin keeps testing the limits of European expansionism — the same kind of aggressive fantasies that brought disastrous consequences within the last century. Putin is also not as strong as he likes the world to think he is. His ambitions can be contained — but only with U.S. policies that support our democratic allies and not the Russian dictator. If we’re not careful on this one, America could wake up from a long slumber with snow up to the second-floor windows, and then congratulations, you’re in World War III.
Trump Fires Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke on Twitter After Ethics Investigations Launched
Ryan Zinke is out as Secretary of the Interior.
Zinke will be leaving the Trump administration at the end of the year; his successor is expected to be announced next week.
On Saturday morning President Trump tweeted that Zinke is leaving after serving for almost two years. He said Zinke has accomplished much during his tenure, and thanked him for his service.
Zinke’s departure comes after a tumultuous two years at the department, marked by mounting allegations of misconduct in office. He also faced the prospect of congressional probes after newly-elected Democrats take majority control of the House.
The former Navy SEAL and one-term Montana congressman showed up for his first day at the Interior Department on horseback, promising to model himself after Theodore Roosevelt, the famed conservationist and 26th president.
“I shall faithfully uphold Teddy Roosevelt’s belief that our treasured public lands are ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of the people’ and will work tirelessly to ensure our public lands are managed and preserved in a way that benefits all Americans for generations to come,” Zinke said in a statement, released during his swearing in.
Zinke’s tenure has been marred by mounting ethics inquiries into his travel and personal financial dealings, among others.
He was vindicated in some cases, including investigations into his use of chartered and military aircraft, whether he improperly attended a GOP fundraiser in the Virgin Islands and whether he shrank the boundaries of a national monument in Utah to help a local Republican official. Others were closed because of lack of cooperation from his agency.
Still others remained, becoming sore points for the administration.
The most glaring centered on a land deal in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Mont., that involved an organization run by Zinke’s wife and the chairman of Halliburton, a giant in the oil and gas industry.
Democrats contend that the land deal constituted a conflict of interest for Zinke.
Mary Kendall, the acting inspector general at Interior, opened an investigation into it last summer, looking at Zinke’s involvement in the deal and whether any taxpayer resources were used to advance the development.
Zinke’s lawyer and spokeswoman have both said that he did nothing improper.
The inspector general is also looking at whether Zinke blocked a proposal from two Connecticut Native American tribes to expand a casino because of political pressure and lobbying from MGM resorts.
Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a lawyer and longtime lobbyist for the oil and gas industry, is expected to take Zinke’s place.
Bernhardt worked at Interior under George W. Bush as the department’s solicitor. He’s expected to pursue a similar agenda of deregulation on the nation’s public lands.
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