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
President Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, voluntarily offered to be interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee over ongoing questions about Trump's campaign staff's possible collusion with Russia. Manafort reportedly earned tens of millions of dollars from 2006 to 2009 secretly working for a billionaire Russian aluminum magnate close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, toiling to promote Putin's interests and undermine anti-Kremlin opposition in former Soviet republics. A U.S. official told The Associated Press earlier this week that Manafort is a "leading focus of the U.S. intelligence investigation of Trump's associates and Russia."
— CNN (@CNN) March 24, 2017
In a press conference Friday, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) stressed that the committee was encouraging whistleblowers to come forward but that "we will not bring in American citizens in a neo-McCarthyism." FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers are being asked to come back in to be interviewed by the committee — ideally next Tuesday — before the committee can move forward with its investigation.
Nunes also reiterated that President Trump's claims that Trump Tower was wiretapped were unfounded. "There was no wiretapping of Trump Tower," he said. "That didn't happen." Jeva Lange
Top Democrat on House intelligence panel says there's 'more than circumstantial evidence' linking Trump campaign to Russia
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) added a new wrinkle Wednesday to the multiple lines of investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election and whether members of President Trump's team were involved. After being briefed by Nunes, Trump said he felt "somewhat" vindicated by the congressman's unsubstantiated assertion that he'd seen "intelligence reports that clearly show that the president-elect and his team were, I guess, at least monitored," legally and apparently incidentally, between the election and inauguration.
The top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), said it's "deeply troubling" that Nunes shared his information with Trump, a subject of the investigation, rather than the committee doing the investigation. But on MSNBC Wednesday evening, Schiff told Chuck Todd that he's already seen "more than circumstantial evidence" of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. "I can tell you that the case is more than that," he said. "I don't want to go into specifics, but I will say that there is evidence that is not circumstantial and is very much worthy of investigation, so that is what we ought to do."
On Monday, FBI Director James Comey said publicly for the first time that the FBI is investigating possible Trump campaign participation in Russian attempts to sway the election away from Hillary Clinton and toward Trump. There has so far been no evidence made public to tie Trump associates to Russia's hacking of Democratic and Clinton campaign officials and the dissemination of that material. Peter Weber
Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort earned tens of millions of dollars from 2006 to 2009 secretly working for a billionaire Russian aluminum magnate close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, to promote Putin's interests and undermine anti-Kremlin opposition in former Soviet republics, The Associated Press reported early Wednesday, citing business records and interviews with people familiar with Manafort's dealings. "We are now of the belief that this model can greatly benefit the Putin Government if employed at the correct levels with the appropriate commitment to success," Manafort wrote to Oleg Deripaska in 2005, before signing a $10 million annual contract starting in 2006.
Manafort has said he never worked for Russian interests, and he repeated that assertion to AP, saying his work for Deripaska is being mischaracterized as "inappropriate or nefarious" as part of a "smear campaign."
AP says it isn't clear how much work Manafort performed under his contract with Deripaska, or how long past 2009 the business relationship lasted — though it was apparently over by 2014, when Deripaska's representatives alleged in a Cayman Islands bankruptcy court that Manafort had taken $19 million to invest on the Russian oligarch's behalf then stopped responding to his calls. Manafort conducted his contract business with Deripaska not through his consulting firm but instead a company called LOAV Ltd., and he apparently did not detail his lobbying work with the Justice Department, a potential felony violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. When asked about Manafort in 2008, three years into his business relationship with Deripaska, a spokesman for the Russian tycoon said Deripaska had never hired his firm.
Manafort is a "leading focus of the U.S. intelligence investigation of Trump's associates and Russia," AP says, citing a U.S. official. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer tried to distance President Trump from Manafort, saying Manafort "played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time" in the campaign. Manafort, who ran Trump's campaign from March into August, has said this year he still speaks with Trump on the phone. You can read more at AP. Peter Weber