President Trump and some of his lawyers are actively looking at ways to undermine, discredit, or fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading a broad investigation into the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election, including compiling a list of potential conflicts of interest that might be used to force out Mueller or some of his investigators, The New York Times and The Washington Post report, both citing people familiar with the effort. That effort has apparently ramped up as Mueller begins digging into Trump's financial history.
"Trump has been fuming about the probe in recent weeks as he has been informed about the legal questions that he and his family could face," The Washington Post reports. "He has told aides he was especially disturbed after learning Mueller would be able to access several years of his tax returns."
A conflict of interest is one potential reason an attorney general can use to remove a special counsel, and the Trump team is casting its net wide, including whether Mueller is close to fired FBI Director James Comey, an alleged dispute over membership fees between Mueller and Trump National Golf Course when Mueller resigned in 2011, and political contributions to Democrats by some of his team's prosecutors. "Prosecutors may not participate in investigations if they have 'a personal or political relationship' with the subject of the case," The New York Times explains. "Making campaign donations is not included on the list of things that would create a 'political relationship.'"
In a wide-ranging interview Wednesday with The New York Times, Trump also suggested that Mueller has a conflict of interest because he interviewed for the FBI director job before he was appointed special counsel, though he did not explain how that is a conflict of interest. Trump and his lawyers are also making the argument that Mueller could be sacked for exceeding what Trump sees as the scope of the Russia investigation. When Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who would have to fire Mueller, appointed him, he gave Mueller broad authority to investigate any links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government plus "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation" and any crime committed in response to the investigation. Peter Weber
As President Trump becomes increasingly concerned and angry about the Russia investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which has reportedly expanded into Trump's financial transactions, he has been talking with aides and his legal team about the president's power to pardon aides, family members, and even himself, people familiar with the effort tell The Washington Post. One of those people described the discussion as being mostly among Trump's lawyers, and two people familiar with the conversations said the discussions are purely theoretical at this point, largely to satisfy Trump's curiosity. "This is not in the context of, 'I can't wait to pardon myself,'" a close adviser told the Post.
Presidents have broad powers to pardon people for federal offenses, as laid out in the Constitution, but no president has tried to pardon himself — though Richard Nixon explored the question, CBS's John Dickerson points out — and it is unclear if that would be legally permissible. "This is a fiercely debated but unresolved legal question," Michigan State University constitutional law expert Brian C. Kalt tells the Post. "There is no predicting what would happen."
It would certainly spark a political firestorm, as would any pardon related to the Russia investigation. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned Trump in a statement Thursday night that "pardoning any individuals who may have been involved would be crossing a fundamental line." He called the possibility that Trump is "considering pardons at this early stage in these ongoing investigations ... extremely disturbing." You can read more about Trump's pardon deliberations at The Washington Post. Peter Weber
Trump's enthusiasm for Russia and Putin is dividing his White House, frustrating friends and foes alike
President Trump is eager to hold a formal bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a G20 summit in Germany next month, to the dismay of top advisers at the State Department and National Security Council, The Associated Press reports. And Trump's refusal to acknowledge that Russia interfered in the 2016 election is causing consternation in Congress, among government officials, and even some Trump supporters, Maggie Haberman says at The New York Times. All 17 U.S. intelligence agencies concur that Russia hacked and released Democratic emails to help Trump win, and there is a growing body of reporting on the other ways Russia tried to interfere in the election.
Trump and some of his advisers want a full meeting with Putin, with all the diplomatic trappings and photos, while many other advisers would prefer a more informal chat between the two leaders, given the ongoing investigation into possible Trump team collusion with Russia and other sensitive global issues. Part of the issue is that Trump prefers strategic ambiguity, and wants to makes deals. "He doesn't want to be set by this narrative that the Russians hacked the election when he has to negotiate with Russia, who, by the way, sits on China's border," Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide, tells The New York Times. "If Putin adamantly denies that he did it, it's frankly not an issue to the president."
His refusal to publicly make it an issue, or deal with the vulnerabilities in the U.S. electoral system the Russian hacking exposed, isn't quite so easy to explain, Haberman reports, "but aides and friends say the matter hits him where he is most vulnerable. Mr. Trump, who often conflates himself with the institutions he serves, sees questions about Russia as an effort by Democrats and stragglers from the 'Never Trump' movement to delegitimize his election victory." You can read more about Trump, Russia, and Trump's flummoxed advisers at AP and The New York Times. Peter Weber
White House insists Russian state photographers didn't bug the Oval Office during Putin-arranged meeting
If the scene seemed awkward for President Trump — hosting the Russian foreign minister for an Oval Office meeting that only Russian media was allowed to attend, just hours after he fired an FBI director in the midst of ramping up a federal investigation into the Trump campaign's potential election-meddling collusion with Russia — don't worry, it gets worse. First, the White House was reportedly shocked to see photos like this — Trump laughing with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — released publicly:
No U.S. reporters or photographers were allowed at the meeting — which Trump had agreed to at the personal insistence of Russian Vladimir Putin, Politico says — and a senior Trump administration official "said the White House had been misled about the role of the Russian photographer," The Washington Post reports. "Russian officials had described the individual as Lavrov's official photographer without disclosing that he also worked for Tass," the Russian state-owned news agency. "We were not informed by the Russians that their official photographer was dual-hatted and would be releasing the photographs on the state news agency," the official told the Post. Russia seemed pretty eager for people to see the photos.
Former U.S. intelligence officials were also alarmed that the White House allowed Russian state photographers into the Oval Office, given the Russians' skill at installing listening devices and other surveillance equipment. The senior White House official downplayed those concerns, telling The Washington Post that the Russians "had to go through the same screening as a member of the U.S. press going through the main gate to the [White House] briefing room." That did not, in fact, allay concerns, with one former intelligence official noting that standard screening for White House visitors might not catch sophisticated eavesdropping devices.
The meeting itself, and especially "the images of Trump putting his arm genially on Lavrov's back — and a later White House official readout of the meeting that said Trump 'emphasized his desire to build a better relationship between the United States and Russia,'" were already a win for Lavrov and Putin, says Politico's Susan Glasser. "Lavrov was right where he has always wanted to be Wednesday: mocking the United States while being welcomed in the Oval Office by the president himself." Peter Weber
Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper are testifying Monday in front of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Russian election-meddling, and a main topic of discussion is expected to be ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Before President Trump fired Yates for declining to defend his first, since-withdrawn executive order limiting travel to the U.S. from several majority-Muslim nations, she had reportedly warned Trump's White House counsel about Flynn's preinaugural discussions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, saying his mischaracterization of those conversations left him potentially compromised. Two weeks after firing Yates, Trump fired Flynn for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Kislyak.
Just about everyone in the Trump White House is ready to give Flynn the heave-ho, especially after new revelations that even Trump transition officials were concerned about Flynn and Russia, says Jonathan Swan at Axios. "Sources from all factions of the White House seem unified in their distrust of the president's former national security adviser — and their willingness to throw him under the bus. I haven't seen such broad contempt for a member of Trumpworld since the reign of Corey Lewandowski." But there's one notable exception: President Trump, Swan reports. "The president wants any of his staff who've been feeding negative lines about Flynn to the media to stop immediately."
Trump reportedly argues that Flynn is being smeared by Democrats spreading "fake news" about Russian election interference, that Flynn did nothing wrong, and that when he apparently broke Pentagon rules by going to Moscow for a paid speech for Kremlin news outlet RT, he still had security clearance from the Obama administration. Other Trump insiders characterize Flynn as a poor manager who tried to sell Trump on his own agenda rather than presenting him with all relevant information. Either way, the return of focus to the Russian election-meddling is unwelcome news for a White House that would rather still be talking about health-care legislation. Peter Weber
Russia begins Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's Moscow visit with a warning not to bomb Syria again
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday morning, amid growing U.S.-Russia tensions over Syria. The meeting started off with a warning from Lavrov, who said Russia has "seen very alarming actions recently with an unlawful attack against Syria," and considers it "of utmost importance" the U.S. refrain from "similar actions in the future." Tillerson acknowledged the "sharp differences" between Russia and the U.S., adding "We both have agreed our lines of communication shall always remain open."
At a G7 summit in Italy on Tuesday, Tillerson had issued Russia an ultimatum, saying it must side with the U.S. and other Western nations or with Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah; Russia President Vladimir Putin responded by inviting the foreign ministers of Syria and Iran to Moscow on Friday. "Our policy is consistent and it's formulated exclusively on the basis of international law," Lavrov told Tillerson on Wednesday, "and not under the impact of current opportunistic motives or false choice: 'You are with us or against us.'"
Russia has not said whether Tillerson will meet with Putin during his two-day visit. Putin once personally awarded Tillerson an "Order of Friendship" medal, but on Wednesday he said Russia's already poor working relationship with the U.S. has "most likely has degraded" since President Trump took office in January. Trump, in a Fox Business Network interview to air Wednesday morning, said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is "an animal" and warned Putin he's "backing a person that's truly an evil person. And I think that's very bad for Russia, I think that's very bad for mankind, it's very bad for this world." Peter Weber
Colleagues of Devin Nunes have now seen his 'unmasking' intelligence. They're bipartisanly underwhelmed.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) caused something of a stir in March by saying he'd seen classified information suggesting Obama administration officials improperly "unmasked" members of President Trump's transition team — meaning someone in the Obama administration had requested that the NSA identify Trump associates whose names had been redacted in surveillance of foreign officials. Conservative media and Trump pointed the finger at former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, with Trump telling The New York Times he thinks she committed a crime by requesting the unmasking of his team members. Rice and outside experts disagreed.
Now, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have viewed the intelligence Nunes discussed and shared with Trump, and several of them tell CNN they've seen no indication that Rice or any other Obama official did anything unusual or illegal. One congressional intelligence source told CNN that Rice's requests were "normal and appropriate" for a national security adviser, while another said there's no smoking gun, urging the White House to declassify the documents so everyone can see what's in them.
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) April 12, 2017
Nunes has temporarily recused himself from the Russia-Trump investigation after the House Ethics Committee opened an investigation into his actions involving the documents. Rice is expected to be called to testify in front of the House and Senate intelligence panels. The House Intelligence Committee has agreed to a list of witnesses, CNN reports, with the GOP picks focused on possible leakers of damaging information on Trump and the Democrats calling people who may shed light on any Trump-Russia connections. Peter Weber
Last summer, the FBI applied for and was granted a secret court order allowing agents to monitor the communications of Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to candidate Donald Trump, "after convincing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge that there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case Russia," The Washington Post reported Tuesday night, citing "law enforcement and other U.S. officials." FISA warrants are valid for 90 days, but Page's warrant was reportedly renewed more than once.
The reported FISA warrant for Page is the clearest evidence of contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian agents, the basis for an acknowledged FBI counterintelligence investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to sway the presidential election away from Hillary Clinton. Page is the only American in that investigation to have his communications directly monitored under a FISA warrant in 2016, officials tell The Post, though the FBI routinely gets FISA warrants to surveil foreign diplomats in the U.S. He has not been accused of a crime.
In order to obtain a warrant for Page, the FBI had to convince a judge that Page was likely an agent of the Kremlin who had knowingly done clandestine intelligence work for the Russian government, officials told The Post. FISA warrants must be approved at the highest level of the FBI and Justice Department, and the bar for obtaining the warrants is quite high.
For the uninitiated, here is what the government must have shown in order to obtain a FISA warrant on Carter Page as agent of foreign power. pic.twitter.com/Y0CuKBJnwM
— Susan Hennessey (@Susan_Hennessey) April 12, 2017
The Justice Department, FBI, and White House declined to comment, but Page told The Washington Post that the FISA warrant "confirms all of my suspicions about unjustified, politically motivated government surveillance," comparing his FBI monitoring to that conducted against Martin Luther King Jr. You can read more about Carter's FISA warrant at The Washington Post, and below, hear Post report Adam Entous discuss on CNN what we know — and still don't know — about Page, Russia, and Trump. Peter Weber