Last spring, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe wrote a confidential memo regarding a conversation he had at the Justice Department with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about President Trump's abrupt firing of McCabe's predecessor, James Comey. Rosenstein told McCabe that Trump had originally asked him to reference Russia in a memo he used to justify firing Comey, several people familiar with the discussion told The New York Times.
Rosenstein's memo instead took Comey to task for the way he handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. McCabe has reportedly given his memo and other documents to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating whether Trump attempted to obstruct the probe into his campaign's ties to Russia. Rosenstein never told McCabe what exactly Trump wanted him to say about Russia, the Times reports, but McCabe felt the anecdote could be potential evidence that Comey's firing was related to the FBI's investigation into Trump and Russia, and that Rosenstein was providing cover for Trump by writing about the Clinton probe.
McCabe was fired in March right before his retirement, after an internal investigation determined he released information to the media that he shouldn't have. He says this was politically motivated, an attempt to discredit him as a witness in the Mueller investigation. Catherine Garcia
Ex-intelligence chief James Clapper says Russia won the election for Trump. This study backs him up.
President Trump and his allies have been attacking former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper over the past few days, part of his attempt to make "Spygate" happen. Clapper is on a media tour to promote his new book, Facts and Fears, and along with explaining how Trump is distorting his words and the FBI's attempt to investigate Russia, Clapper has been explaining his contention in the book that the Russians, to their surprise, "swung the election to a Trump win."
"Since I left the government," Clapper told PBS NewsHour on Wednesday, "it's what I call my informed opinion that given the massive effort the Russians made, the number of citizens that they touched, and the variety and the multidimensional aspects of what they did to influence opinion and affect the election, and given the fact that it turned on less than 80,000 votes in three states, to me it just exceeds logic and credulity that they didn't affect the election, and it's my belief they actually turned it."
On CNN Thursday night, Clapper swatted down more Trump team attacks and reiterated his "informed opinion" about Russia handing the election to Trump, though, he told Jake Tapper, "I don't have the empirical evidence to go with it."
But there is some empirical evidence, if not conclusive, in a new working paper at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Automated Twitter bots — a key tool that Russians used in the election — may have added 3.23 percentage points to Trump's vote in 2016, as well as 1.76 percentage points to the "leave" vote in Britain's Brexit campaign, the researchers found. "Our results suggest that, given narrow margins of victories in each vote, bots' effect was likely marginal but possibly large enough to affect the outcomes," write authors Yuriy Gorodnichenko from U.C. Berkeley and Tho Pham and Oleksandr Talavera from Britain's Swansea University. You can read more about the study at Bloomberg News. Peter Weber
Trump has apparently branded the FBI informant a 'spy' because it sounds more nefarious and headline-worthy
President Trump is "a little rusty, but he's on offense" in the federal Russian collusion and obstruction of justice investigation, longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone told Vanity Fair's Gabriel Sherman. "And it's always better to be on offense than defense." His offense involves calling reports about an FBI informant feeling out a few of his campaign advisers in 2016 evidence that a "spy" infiltrated his campaign, and on Wednesday, Trump debuted his newest brand: "Spygate."
There is no publicly available evidence that there was any politically motivated "spying" on his campaign, and plenty of common-sense reasons to doubt the idea, but "the president himself is convinced that the secret FBI informant who reportedly met with several Trump campaign advisers in 2016 was not merely an informant, but an Obama political operative," Sherman reports. The Associated Press corroborated that narrative on Wednesday, but added in the suggestion from an ally of the president's that Trump's cynical showmanship came into play, too:
Trump has told confidants in recent days that the revelation of an informant was potential evidence that the upper echelon of federal law enforcement has conspired against him, according to three people familiar with his recent conversations but not authorized to discuss them publicly. Trump told one ally this week that he wanted "to brand" the informant a "spy," believing the more nefarious term would resonate more in the media and with the public. [The Associated Press]
Think about all the coverage Trump's unsubstantiated "spying" accusations and new nickname have been getting, and he may have a point. Peter Weber
Who blinked in Monday's high-stakes White House meeting about an FBI source: Trump or Rod Rosenstein?
President Trump hosted Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, FBI Director Chris Wray, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Monday for a meeting about Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian collusion and the Trump campaign. Specifically, the group discussed the demand by Trump allies in the House for highly classified documents tied to Mueller's investigation and Trump's demands that the Justice Department investigate the president's unsubstantiated suggestion there was improper political spying on his campaign. Everybody walked away with something, but it isn't clear what exactly anyone got.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the group agreed that "Kelly will immediately set up a meeting with the FBI, DOJ, and DNI together with congressional leaders to review highly classified and other information they have requested," probably by the end of the week.
"It was not clear after Monday's meeting how much of that information will now be shared with lawmakers and in what form, or who it will be shared with and in what venue," The New York Times notes. The FBI and CIA had "strenuously resisted" the request by House Republicans to see the documents about a covert intelligence source who met with members of the Trump campaign, warning it could cost lives and burn allies. It is already significant that "the president effectively requested, and apparently received, a review of the investigation into his campaign," The Washington Post adds, though the Kelly-brokered meeting could either be "a concession from the Justice Department" or "a bureaucratic maneuver to buy time and shield actual documents."
Trump's personal lawyer "Rudy Giuliani made it clear today that he wants these documents for the Trump legal defense team," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said Monday. "That is not appropriate, and I have a concern about anyone from the White House being present for review of these sensitive documents," including Kelly. Peter Weber
President Trump is raising a fuss and crossing some perilous lines over an American academic in Britain who met with three Trump campaign foreign policy advisers in the summer and fall of 2016 and passed some information about those interactions to the FBI. After Trump was elected, his top trade adviser, Peter Navarro (pictured), recommended naming Stefan Halper, widely reported to be the FBI source, as ambassador to an unidentified Asian country, Axios reports. "A White House official said Halper visited the Eisenhower Executive Office Building last August for a meeting about China," too.
Navarro put forward Halper's name, as well as several other candidates, because Halper is a fellow China hawk who worked with Navarro on an anti-China book and movie, Axios says. Halper, who taught international affairs, American studies, and intelligence seminars at Cambridge University from 2001 to 2015, is also a veteran of three Republicans administrations. "Most friends describe him as a moderate Republican who is hawkish on China and deeply committed to U.S. institutions, having worked for years inside and around the federal government," The Washington Post reports.
So Halper, 73, may not have been a perfect fit with the Trump administration, allegedly informing on the Trump campaign notwithstanding. "During classes at Cambridge, he often raised questions about [President George W.] Bush's decisions and embraced a traditional Republican approach to foreign policy that emphasized long-standing Western alliances and limited foreign intervention," the Post reports. Peter Weber
Senate Democrats suggest they saw evidence the Kremlin used the NRA to access and aid the Trump campaign
On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee dumped 2,500 pages of testimony and documents about its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, specifically the June 9, 2016, meeting Donald Trump Jr. set up with a Kremlin-linked lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was promising "dirt" on Hillary Clinton. But the committee Democrats, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), also released a separate summary of findings and outstanding questions about the Trump campaigns ties to Russia.
In one section, the Democrats state that "the committee has obtained a number of documents that suggest the Kremlin used the National Rifle Association as a means of accessing and assisting Mr. Trump and his campaign," especially Russian nationals Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of the Russian central bank and an ally of President Vladimir Putin, and his assistant Maria Butina. Specifically:
During the campaign, Mr. Torshin, Ms. Butina, and their intermediaries repeatedly offered the campaign back channels to Russia and relayed requests from President Putin to meet with Mr. Trump. The Kremlin may also have used the NRA to secretly fund Mr. Trump's campaign. The extent of Russia's use of the NRA as an avenue for connecting with and potentially supporting the Trump campaign needs examination. [Senate Judiciary Democrats]
The NRA has acknowledged receiving foreign donations, and Torshin hasn't exactly been shy about using his ties with the NRA to link up with Trump. Paul Waldman has more about the NRA-Russia-Trump nexus at The Week. Peter Weber
President Trump is starting to take a harder line on Russia, privately angered by Russian President Vladimir Putin's new nuclear missiles and pushed by his White House staff, but he is ambivalent about the pivot and asks aides not to publicly discuss any moves that might anger Moscow, The New York Times and NBC News report. In a recent call with Putin, Trump told the Russian president, "If you want to have an arms race we can do that, but I'll win," and bragged about the $700 billion Pentagon spending authorization he just signed, a White House official tells NBC News; publicly, Trump called it a "very good call."
A similar dynamic appears to be at play with the dozens of embassy personnel the U.S. and Russia each expelled over last month's nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England. The U.S. expelled 60 Russian "diplomats" — suspected intelligence operatives — last week in concert with similar moves by Britain, France, Germany, and other NATO allies, and closed Russia's Seattle consulate. Russia responded Thursday by kicking out 60 U.S. embassy personnel and 90 other Western diplomats and shuttering the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. But Russian state TV quickly quoted a Trump administration official as saying that Russia could send 60 more "diplomats" back to work in the U.S., and the State Department confirmed that caveat to Business Insider and USA Today's Oren Dorell.
I asked @StateDept about this, and it's true. Trump's expulsion this week of 60 Russian diplomats does not require the Russia to reduce its staffing levels in the U.S. and vice versa. https://t.co/gQ22BeChH8
— Oren Dorell (@OrenDorell) March 30, 2018
So that's nice news for Moscow. But it's less rosy for the new batch of Russian "diplomats," who presumably won't be able to work in lovely Seattle. Peter Weber
President Trump attacked Special Counsel Robert Mueller by name on Twitter over the weekend, veering from the White House legal strategy of cooperating with Mueller's investigation, but Trump's legal team is still trying to work out how Mueller can interview Trump, Axios reports. And Mueller, in his conversations with Trump's lawyers, is focused on "events since the election," Axios' Mike Allen says, specifically "the firings of FBI Director James Comey and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn."
Mueller is charged with investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, any possible collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign, and anything else he discovers in these lines of inquiries. But discussing post-election events "suggests a focus on obstruction of justice while in office, rather than collusion with Russia during the campaign," Allen says, acknowledging that "both sagas are interwoven with Russia," in part because Trump has woven them together.
The line between collusion and obstruction also appeared to befuddle Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who led the House Intelligence Committee investigation of Russian interference. Conaway told NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday that "our committee was not charged with answering the collusion idea" and "so we really weren't focused in the direction," only to be contradicted by a spokeswoman, who said Conaway "meant obstruction," not collusion. Conaway also told NBC's Chuck Todd that his committee did not interview some key witnesses because "we're trying to stay away from the Mueller investigation and not confuse that or hurt it one way or the other." The committee Republicans said "we found no evidence of collusion," he added, but did not draw any conclusions about whether collusion took place. Peter Weber