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
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), undergoing cancer treatment in Arizona, has been unable to appear on the Sunday news shows, but he still joined a thin chorus of Republicans on Sunday to defend Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election meddling and possible collusion with President Trump's campaign. Over the weekend, Trump lashed out at Mueller by name on Twitter for the first time, raising concerns that he would fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a prelude to ordering Mueller's ouster.
Special Counsel Mueller has served our country with honesty and integrity. It’s critical he be allowed to complete a thorough investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election — unimpeded.
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) March 18, 2018
Trump's error-filled tweets prompted several top Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, to urge Congress to pass stalled bipartisan legislation to shield Mueller from political interference and Trump's wrath. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his top deputies have not commented on Trump attacking Mueller, and House Speaker Paul Ryan said through his spokeswoman simply that "Mueller and his team should be able to do their job."
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) all voiced support for Mueller on Sunday, as did Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), but the GOP leaders of the House and Senate intelligence and judiciary committees have remained silent. One Trump lawyer, John Dowd, urged an end to the Mueller investigation on Saturday, but a second lawyer, Ty Cobb, said late Sunday that Trump "is not considering or discussing the firing of the special counsel, Robert Mueller." Trump can't fire Mueller directly, and the man who can (for cause), Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, said last week that Mueller "is not an unguided missile" and "I don't believe there is any justification at this point for terminating the special counsel." Peter Weber
Three people who have spoken with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team or congressional committees investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election told Reuters that during their interviews, they contradicted the testimony of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who last November told the House Judiciary Committee he "pushed back" against a proposal in 2016 to have Trump campaign representatives meet with Russians.
The three witnesses were at the March 2016 meeting, where former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos suggested reaching out to the Russians, and while their accounts differed slightly, they all said that Sessions had no objections to Papadopoulos' idea. One told Reuters that Sessions was polite, and told Papadopoulos something similar to, "okay, interesting." Last November, a meeting attendee named J.D. Gordon said Sessions was opposed to the plan, and on Saturday he told Reuters he stood by his statement.
At the time, Sessions — who also failed last year to disclose to Congress he met with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak — was still a Republican senator from Alabama, and he was chairing the meeting as head of the campaign's foreign policy team. President Trump posted a photo of the meeting on his Instagram feed that showed Trump, Sessions, Papadopoulos, and other men sitting at a table. In October, Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his Russia contacts, and he's now cooperating with Mueller. Catherine Garcia
CNN's Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota grill Maggie Haberman on whether Mueller has now crossed Trump's 'red line'
The news that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has subpoenaed documents from President Trump's family business, the Trump Organization, "impinging on the president's red line of family finances, is sure to get under Trump's skin, and may make him want to fire Mueller," Axios noted Friday morning. CNN's New Day brought on New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman to ask her that very thing.
The big picture is "it's pretty clear that not only is this not going away, that it is moving closer to the president," Haberman said. It also "adds another pound to the president's sort of mental weight on this issue, which we know eats at him on a daily basis." Trump's lawyers kept him calm last year by saying the investigation was wrapping up, she said, but it's clear now that it isn't, and "the longer this goes, the more you are going to see the president frustrated by it."
Alisyn Camerota asked if these subpoenas cross Trump's "red line," playing a recording of Trump telling Haberman last July that Mueller would be out of bounds digging into his family business. "He wasn't a definitive, 'Yes, that would cross a line for me," Camerota noted. "That was him trying not to answer the question, that was not him being uncertain," Haberman said, adding that she doesn't have enough information to speculate if these subpoenas crossed "what the president has described as his personal red line."
Chris Cuomo said he's heard Trump's advisers are spinning this as good news, and Haberman said yes, but "they are basically advising him on best-case scenario," and candidly, advisers say they have no idea where Mueller is headed. "There's only one way for the president to know," Cuomo said: "If he sits down with the special counsel, he will have all his questions answered about what is in this about him. But that is a big roll of the dice." Peter Weber
Lebanese-American businessman and international fixer George Nader was on his way to Mar-a-Lago in January when Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigators stopped him during a Dulles layover, seized his electronics, and released him to his lawyer, The Associated Press reports, citing people familiar with the case. Mueller is investigating Russian election meddling in 2016 and President Trump's campaign, and Nader — who, AP reports, was convicted of pedophilia in Prague 15 years ago — agreed to cooperate with Mueller's investigation.
Mueller is reportedly looking into two high-level meetings Nader attended after Trump's election: one in Trump Tower with Jared Kushner, Stephen Bannon, and the crown prince who leads the United Arab Emirates and employs Nader as an adviser, Mohammed bin Zayed; and the second in the Seychelles involving bin Zayed, alleged Trump secret envoy Erik Prince, and Russian banker Kirill Dmitriev, who is close with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Prague Municipal Court spokeswoman Marketa Puci told AP on Wednesday that Nader was convicted of 10 cases of sexually abusing minors between 1999 and 2002, and sentenced to a year in a Prague prison in 2003. He was specifically convicted of "moral corruption of minors, sexual abuse, and impairing morals," after paying or offering to pay underage boys for sex, Puci told AP, which saw a copy of the verdict. Sandeep Savla, a lawyer for Nader, called the newly revealed conviction "nothing more than an orchestrated, disgusting scheme by those who are trying to intimidate Mr. Nader into silence. It won't work. Mr. Nader will continue to answer truthfully questions put to him by the special counsel." You can read more about Nader and his legal woes at AP. Peter Weber
Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released a status report on the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election Tuesday evening, one day after the Republicans on the committee abruptly ended the probe.
The report lists more than 30 key witnesses who were not interviewed, investigative threads Democrats say they were prevented from pursuing, and outstanding lines of inquiry. House Republicans said on Monday they agreed with intelligence agencies who said Russia interfered in the election, but saw no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, told The Washington Post "there's no way for them to reach the conclusions that they want to start with unless they ignore or mischaracterize what we've been able to learn." Read the entire Democratic status report here. Catherine Garcia
George Nader is a key figure in the Russia investigation. The House investigation's leader says he's never heard of him.
On Wednesday, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said he hadn't heard of George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman whose name was splashed on the front page of The New York Times on Sunday and Wednesday for his testimony and reported cooperation with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian election meddling in 2016 and possible collaboration with President Trump's campaign. Conaway is the Republican leading the House Intelligence Committee's equivalent investigation.
“I don’t have any clue who George Nader is,” says Rep. Mike Conaway, who leads House Intel’s Russia probe.
— Olivia Victoria Gazis (@Olivia_Gazis) March 7, 2018
Nader, an adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, set up and attended a January 2017 meeting in the Seychelles between Trump adviser Erik Prince and Russian official Kirill Dmitriev to initiate a secret channel of communication between the Trump team and Moscow, according to the Times. Prince reportedly lied to the House Intelligence Committee about the nature of that meeting. There are a lot of figures in the Trump-Russia investigation, but Nader, who also met with Jared Kushner and Stephen Bannon in Trump Tower, should probably be on Conaway's radar.
"If you're getting the idea that maybe Conaway and his party aren't utterly determined to uncover foul play between Moscow and Trump Tower, your suspicions are warranted," Jonathan Chait suggests at New York. On Tuesday, Conaway said he thinks the House Russia investigation is nearing it's "natural conclusion," and "we're coming toward the end of it." Chait rolled his eyes: "So while Conaway's committee has not forced the witnesses to answer questions Democrats believe they should answer, or even learned the names of major figures in the underlying investigation, there's no arguing with nature. Anyway, it's not like they're investigating something like Benghazi, which took place in 2012 and was still being investigated four years later in a fruitless attempt to establish that the Obama administration deliberately lied." Peter Weber