The chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees say they plan to wind down their respective investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election by next February, before campaigning for midterm elections kicks off, and they don't sound convinced they will have reached a verdict on whether President Trump's team colluded with Moscow to win, Politico reports. This leaves Democrats with "a wrenching choice," Politico adds:
The painful choice for Democrats is whether to attempt to forge a fragile compromise with Republicans that depicts what both parties generally agree on: that Russia orchestrated a massive interference campaign to undermine U.S. politics and stoke intense division. That would likely mean abandoning a definitive determination on collusion — or punting to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who's leading a criminal probe of possible crimes connected to the Russian plot. [Politico]
Republicans have that covered, too, Politico reports separately, with several conservatives and Trump allies "setting up a fight over how much the [Mueller] probe is costing taxpayers — and the fact that there's no end in sight." Congress doesn't actually have direct control over Mueller's budget, but they will get spending reports every six months and will likely try to make political hay out of the costs.
Some Republicans on the intelligence committees say they have seen no concrete evidence of Trump-Russia collusion, while Democrats point to compelling evidence of intent to collude and say the investigation isn't complete. "If there’s evidence that there was something there, that will be laid out," said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) says. "If there's no evidence, how could anybody object to it?" We may find out. Peter Weber
This week, Michael Cohen, President Trump's personal lawyer and public advocate, will meet behind closed doors with the House and Senate intelligence panels as part of their investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, several people familiar with the matter told CNN on Monday.
On Tuesday, Cohen will meet privately with members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and on Wednesday, he will speak with Senate Intelligence Committee staff investigators, CNN reports. Cohen had originally been slated to have a private interview with the Senate Intelligence Committee last month, but it was canceled after he gave his opening statement to the media, saying he never colluded with the Russians to get Trump elected or to "hack anyone or any organization." He is expected to still participate in a public hearing sometime in the future.
Cohen was named in the infamous dossier on Trump compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele; the dossier says he traveled to Prague to meet with Russians, a claim Cohen denies. Catherine Garcia
On Thursday, CIA Director Mike Pompeo told a conservative think tank that the "intelligence community's assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election," significantly mischaracterizing a report the intelligence community issued in January. A CIA spokesman quickly clarified, "The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed, and the director did not intend to suggest that it had."
The unclassified January report from the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) office did "not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election," describing the Moscow-linked activities as unprecedented in scope and aimed at undermining American faith in its institutions and helping elect President Trump. Former DNI James Clapper said on CNN in September that "our intelligence community assessment did, I think, serve to cast doubt on the legitimacy of his victory."
Pompeo, a former GOP congressman, has been accused of downplaying Russia's effect on the election, as has Trump. "This is another example of Pompeo politicizing intelligence," a former senior U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Post. Pompeo "is the most political CIA director since Bill Casey" during the Reagan administration, the official added. "This significantly undermines the intelligence community's credibility." In his talk on Thursday, Pompeo also said the "former CIA talking heads on TV" are required to stay quiet about their work far "beyond the day you turn in your badge." Peter Weber
Ex-Russian oligarch says there's a 90 percent chance Putin 'personally' tried to collude with Trump campaign
Two new reports suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his top associates were directly involved with attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. election, including an interview with exiled former oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whom Putin jailed on iffy charges for a decade. "I am almost convinced that Putin's people have tried to influence the U.S. election in some way," Khodorkovsky told MSNBC's Ari Melber, and the likelihood that Putin "personally" tried to cooperate with President Trump's campaign is a "9 out of 10," he said, adding: "Whether or not that proposal was accepted, I would let the people responsible for investigating the matter answer that question."
— TheBeat w/Ari Melber (@TheBeatWithAri) October 17, 2017
When he ran Russian oil giant Yukos, Khodorkovsky's human resources chief was Sergey Gorkov, now the head of Russian state development bank Vnesheconombank (VEB), who met with Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner in December — the White House says it was a diplomatic nicety, VEB says it was Kushner family business. Khodorkovsky described Gorkov as a "fine employee" who "carries out orders," saying of the Kushner meeting, "I have no doubt that he wouldn't do anything on his own behalf." He said Gorkov was likely ordered to meet with Kushner by either Andrey Kostin or Herman Gref, Kremlin-backed bank chiefs with close ties to Putin.
Separately, CNN reported Tuesday night that Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian catering magnate dubbed Putin's "chef" in the Russia press, is believed by U.S. intelligence to have financed a Russian "troll factory," the Internet Research Agency (IRA), that used social media to spread fake news during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Prigozhin appears to be the unidentified "close Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence" an unclassified U.S. intelligence assessment called the "likely financier of the so-called Internet Research Agency of professional trolls located in Saint Petersburg," CNN says. Peter Weber
Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to President Trump during his campaign, told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday he will not testify in front of the committee as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and would plead the Fifth, a person with knowledge of the matter told Politico.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has privately met with several people connected to Trump, including his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, and is interested in interviewing people like Page to see if Russians infiltrated the campaign. It was reported last year that Page, a former naval officer, had meetings in Moscow with several high-level people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It's not clear if a formal request has been sent to Page asking him to testify, but the committee's chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), and vice chairman, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), have both said they will use subpoenas to compel any official or Trump associate who refuses to testify. Catherine Garcia
Hours after Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said that his committee had been unable to verify claims in the dossier on President Trump compiled last year by former British MI6 officer Christopher Steele, Reuters reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team had taken over inquiries into the Steele dossier. Steele, reputedly one of MI6's most respected Russia experts, put the dossier together as opposition-research on Trump, financed first by a Republican primary rival and then backers of Hillary Clinton. It was controversially published by BuzzFeed News after the election, and along with some memorably salacious details, it contained allegations that the Russian government had financial and personal leverage over Trump and his team.
A Mueller spokesman and the FBI declined to comment to Reuters, which cited "sources familiar with the inquiry" for its scoop. Three of those sources also told Reuters that Mueller's team has "assumed control of multiple inquiries into allegations by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the election to benefit Trump." Burr said his committee had made several attempts to contact Steele and arrange an interview, but "those offers have gone unaccepted." Perhaps Mueller will have more luck. Peter Weber
In recent days, a New York Times reporter happened to be seated next to Ty Cobb and John Dowd, two of President Trump's top lawyers handling the investigation into Russian election interference and the Trump campaign, during lunch at a popular Washington, D.C., steakhouse, and Cobb was overheard alluding to the tensions with White House Counsel Don McGahn, The New York Times reported Sunday night.
— Kenneth P. Vogel (@kenvogel) September 18, 2017
Cobb discussed an unidentified White House lawyer he believes to be "a McGahn spy," suggested he would like access to "a couple of documents locked in a safe" in McGahn's office, and spoke of a colleague he blamed for "some of these earlier leaks" who also "tried to push Jared out," apparently affirming earlier reporting that some of Trump's legal team wanted the president's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner to step down, the Times recounts. After the Times contacted the White House for comment, McGahn "privately erupted" at Cobb, the Times adds, citing "people informed about the confrontation," and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly "sharply reprimanded" Cobb for being indiscreet. Cobb and Dowd told the Times they have nothing but respect for McGahn and his skills, noting that his job is different than theirs.
The tensions all stem from the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and how best to respond. Cobb reportedly wants to turn over as many requested documents and emails as possible to end the investigation quickly; McGahn also advocates cooperating but is apparently concerned about preserving executive power and prerogatives and believes Cobb is naive to believe he can protect Trump from Mueller, who has hired 17 prosecutors. The Times then drops in this little tidbit:
Tension between the two comes as life in the White House is shadowed by the investigation. Not only do Mr. Trump, Mr. Kushner, and Mr. McGahn all have lawyers, but so do other senior officials. The uncertainty has grown to the point that White House officials privately express fear that colleagues may be wearing a wire to surreptitiously record conversations for Mr. Mueller. [The New York Times]
Susan Rice's explanation for why she 'unmasked' Trump officials raises new questions about Trump's team
Last week, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice told the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors that she had requested the identities of U.S. citizens whose names were redacted in U.S. intelligence reports last December because she wanted to understand why the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates was making a secret visit to the U.S., breaking protocol by not informing the Obama administration, multiple sources told CNN. The "unmasked" Americans turned out to be members of Donald Trump's presidential transition team, and Rice reportedly discovered that Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, Stephen Bannon, and other Trump officials had met with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in New York.
After the Dec. 15 meeting, al-Nahyan helped set up a secret meeting in the Seychelles islands between a Trump envoy, Blackwater founder Erik Prince, and a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin, The Washington Post reported in April. (Prince said he was just there "for business," and not for Trump.) But in the three-hour-long meeting, Nahyan and the top Trump officials did not discuss Russia or setting up back-channel communications, two sources told CNN. Instead, they reportedly discussed Iran, Yemen, and the Mideast peace process.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who has mostly recused himself from the Russia investigation, accused Rice of improperly unmasking Trump officials, and Trump — who jumped on Nunes' statements to claim vindication for his since-disproved accusation that former President Barack Obama wiretapped him — accused Rice of committing a crime. Few other officials saw anything improper in Rice's actions, and "her explanation appears to have satisfied some influential Republicans on the committee, undercutting both Nunes and Trump and raising new questions about whether any Trump associates tried to arrange back-channel discussions with the Russians," CNN reports. You can read more at CNN. Peter Weber