Best Reads


Senators Seek to Protect Mueller From Trump

By Niels Lesniewski
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Opinion: How Trump Could Plug the Leaks

By Jonathan Allen

‘Law and Order’ President Meets Ultimate Lawman

Should Trump be concerned? ‘Absolutely,’ GOP strategist says

By John T. Bennett

The Back Story on the 15 Senators Questioning Comey

By David Hawkings, Bian Elkhatib

Lessons from 44 Years of Special Investigations

By David Hawkings, Bian Elkhatib
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Trump Contradicts Aides on Comey Firing

By John T. Bennett

Trump-Russia Probe — Congress Can Boost Stature or Squander Opportunity

An important window of opportunity has been opened for Congress by the firing of James B. Comey as director of the FBI.

But the Republicans in charge on the Hill have only two narrow ways to move through it successfully. And the pressure is on for them to choose one quickly and then act fearlessly — or else they’ll likely squander a hard-to-come-by moment for gaining important credibility with the public as well as some lasting balance-of-power leverage in dealing with President Donald Trump.

The opportunity is for the legislative branch to seize control of a task that seemingly can no longer be entrusted to anyone in the executive branch’s chain of command: Getting to the bottom of Russia’s efforts to tilt the presidential election in Trump’s favor and discovering if there was any collaboration during the campaign between the government at the Kremlin and the team occupying Trump Tower.

One option is for the GOP to empower the Democrats as essentially equal partners as Congress tackles the work itself — probably by giving all the authority to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which currently stands out as the panel doing the only bipartisan and potentially serious work on the Trump-Russia nexus.

The alternative is for the congressional majority to agree with what the Democratic minority wants and assign an independent commission or investigator to the job, albeit with an explicit promise to embrace the findings and recommendations of such a panel or prosecutor.

Expecting one of those outcomes is not naive, but a critical mass of Republicans would have to conclude it’s clearly in their political self-interest to put a premium on standing up for the rule of law and standing up to the president.

It’s also important to remember how Trump himself has importuned Congress several times to get to the bottom of one of the most dramatic Russia story lines — Trump’s emphatic but wholly unsubstantiated claims that his predecessor Barack Obama overstepped his presidential authority and ordered the wiretapping of Trump’s telephones during the campaign.

Because the president has asked for it, he cannot credibly claim to be a victim of any earnest effort by lawmakers to follow the facts where they lead.

Promising to tackle the work by themselves, without fear or favor, presents the lawmakers with much greater risk but also the potential for a much greater reward.

By coincidence or fate, the GOP chairman of Senate Intelligence, Richard M. Burr, holds the same North Carolina seat once occupied by Democrat Sam J. Ervin Jr., legendary Democratic chairman of the special Senate committee that investigated the scandal leading to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Comey’s stunning dismissal Tuesday evening engendered a wave of comparisons to the so-called Saturday Night Massacre of 1973, when Nixon sought to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox and ousted the two most senior Justice Department officials who refused to follow the president’s orders.

It’s no sure thing that parallels between the Watergate scandal and Moscow’s meddling in the latest election will hold up in full light of history, but this much seems certain:

The inquiry Ervin led with his courtly manner and frequent invocations of the Bible — captured in a summer of televised hearings that riveted the nation — remain a high-water mark for the sort of sober, thorough and bipartisan work that can simultaneously defuse a potential constitutional crisis and revive sagging congressional approval ratings.

If Burr is able to replicate most of what his predecessor achieved, that would help restore respectability to a congressional oversight process widely derided as so much dispiriting political gamesmanship, and at the same time elevate GOP lawmakers so they might credibly look the president in the eye and declare themselves his equal on all fronts.

Of course, the opposite is at least as true.

If Republicans insist on their current commitment to keeping the Russia inquiry in-house, but then allow it to disappear down the easily predicable sinkhole of partisan finger-pointing and diametrically opposite narratives, the resulting impasse will further calcify the electorate’s view of Congress as a place with a minimal seriousness of purpose deserving of its minimal public regard.

And a president already sharply inclined to highly unusual assertions of executive authority will feel all the more emboldened to continue those practices — without worry that Congress will so much as bare some teeth to stand in his way.

If Comey accepts an invitation to testify next week before Senate Intelligence, what he’s asked and the tone of the questioning will send a strong signal about whether Burr and the panel’s top Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia, have a chance to live up to the example of consequential bipartisanship set four decades ago by Ervin and his ranking GOP member, Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee.

“We are finally making some significant progress” toward a report that will recommend “whether or not an inquiry from a law enforcement perspective is warranted,” one prominent committee Republican, Marco Rubio of Florida, told reporters Wednesday.

He warned that acting on legislation creating a special prosecutor, the course favored by many Democrats, “would probably shut down our ability to do our work because a significant amount of information would now be denied on the basis of an ongoing investigation.”

If Congress cannot decide to rely exclusively on its own investigative muscle, or exclusively on independent outsiders, a third alternative is to pursue both courses simultaneously — which is what happened during Watergate, with complications that were confusing but did not ruin the pursuit of Nixon’s abuses of power.

A final option is for lawmakers to essentially stand aside if the Justice Department names a credible special counsel empowered to autonomously investigate the ties between Russia and Trump.

But the Democrats have essentially dismissed this idea as a non-starter, because the appointee’s independent work would inevitably fall under the review of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who wrote the memo setting out the rationale for Comey’s firing, and then Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has promised to recuse himself from any aspect of the inquiry because of his not-readily disclosed contacts with Russian officials while he was an Alabama senator playing a senior advisory role in the Trump campaign.

In any case, the fate of congressional credibility during the climatic chapters of the Russian election meddling story looks, for the time being, to rest with a clutch of the Senate’s most independent Republicans. That’s in part because the House GOP leadership seems inclined to remain as collectively frozen in silence as it’s been since the Comey dismissal, and in part because the Democrats need buy-in from only a handful of Republicans to advance their preferred approach through the Senate.

Congressional Democrats are sounding united in their outrage at the FBI chief’s ouster, which seems to have made them more committed than ever to focusing the nation’s attention on the possibility that Trump is seeking to cover up collusion with Moscow in the campaign.

That stands in stark contrast to what the White House seemed to be counting on: that the Democrats would accept the dismissal as apt punishment for someone whose unusual series of public statements about Hillary Clinton’s private email server contributed to her defeat last year.

As of Tuesday afternoon, seven of the 52 GOP senators, including Burr and three others with prominent committee gavels, had gone public with statements questioning Trump’s motives and timing in dismissing the person in charge of a criminal investigation in which the president has such an obvious vested interest: Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee, Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Armed Services Chairman John McCain, his Arizona colleague Jeff Flake, Rob Portman of Ohio and Ben Sasse of Nebraska. (Only Corker and Flake are up for re-election in 2018.)

This group would have the leverage to decide that Russia’s ties to Trump are better probed by an independent commission or prosecutor — and whether anyone Trump might nominate should be allowed to become the eighth director of the FBI, unless confirmation is coupled with some path forward on the Russia investigation.

For these Republicans, and maybe a few others, the time is short for deciding what’s in their best interest — and whether moving to get on the right side of history means leaning into a potentially enormous showdown with Trump or subcontracting the conflict to others.

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Former FBI Director James B. Comey was a central figure in the investigations into scandals surrounding the 2016 presidential campaign and the Trump administration before he was abruptly fired Tuesday.

His unusual choice to announce, just a week and a half before Election Day, that the FBI had reopened its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server is widely believed to have impacted the course of the election.

His departure raises questions about the future of the FBI investigation into connections between the Russian government and members of Trump’s inner circle.

Here’s a look back at how it came to this:

The New York Times reports that Hillary Clinton used a personal email account while she was Secretary of State, a violation of State Department policies and a potential security risk.

Clinton announces she is running for president.

The inspector general for the intelligence community alerts Congressional oversight committees that classified material had been found on Hillary Clinton’s home email server that she had used as Secretary of State. The FBI opens a criminal investigation.

Officials at the Democratic National Committee learn that Russian hackers have invaded their computer system.

Comey delivers a blistering critique of Clinton at a press conference, saying her handling of classified material was, “extremely careless,” and hackers may have compromised her emails. But he concluded that he was recommending against charging Clinton in the case.

Comey testifies before Congress about the Clinton investigation, repeating his criticism and discussing his decision to close the case. He repeats his assertion that the case is closed.

Trump, at a press conference, says he hopes the Russian government has hacked Clinton’s emails and implores it to publish what it found. The comment fuels questions about the Russian government meddling in the campaign.

The FBI opens an investigation into members of the Trump campaigns’ contacts with the Russian government.

Reports surface that former Democratic New York Rep. Anthony Weiner had exchanged sexually explicit messages with a 15-year-old girl, potentially violating child pornography laws.

FBI investigators seize Weiner’s computer. Weiner was married at the time to Clinton confidante and campaign aide Huma Abedin. Agents discover that thousands of Abedin’s emails had been backed up on Weiner’s computers, including some that had apparently moved through Cinton’s server.

Wikileaks begins publishing hacked emails from the private account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.

Comey learns of the Clinton emails on Weiner’s server. He determines that he is obligated to tell Congress he is reopening the investigation. He does so in a letter on Oct. 28.

Days before the election, Comey sends a letter to Congress saying that the new emails did not contain any new information.

Trump is elected president.

Comey acknowledges for the first during testimony before the House intelligence Committee that the FBI is investigating connections between members of the Trump administration and the Russian government.

Comey testifies before Congress that Abedin regularly sent emails to Weiner so he could print them out, and that she had sent, “hundreds of thousands of emails,” to Weiner, “some of which contain classified information.”

ProPublica reports that Comey exaggerated the number of emails that Abedin sent to Weiner.

The Washington Post and the Associated Press report that none of the emails were designated as classified when they were sent.

The FBI sends a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley correcting details from Comey’s testimony.

Trump announces that Comey has been dismissed.

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Opinion: The Refrain Across Washington — ‘Not Since Watergate ...’

The abrupt firing of James B. Comey as FBI director revealed an enduring truth about the next four years — there will never be a normal day as long as Donald Trump is in the White House. When things seem placid and uneventful in this administration, it is probably because we do not yet know about the abnormalities that are transpiring beneath the surface.

Tuesday seemed like an ordinary spring day in Washington. There were no high-octane congressional hearings, legislative showdowns or significant protests in the streets. Even the FBI director felt secure enough in his position to leave town to attend a meeting in the Los Angeles field office.

What naifs we were from Comey on down.

Suddenly, we are expected to believe that Attorney General Jeff Sessions (who had promised to recuse himself from all matters relating to Russia) and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (on the job for just two weeks) had secretly decided on their own initiative to recommend that the president oust Comey.

And then — as a wise executive, acting on the recommendations from his team at the Justice Department — Trump decided on the spot to fire Comey by letter like he might discharge an underperforming painting contractor at one of his hotels.

There was none of the dignity of a formal face-to-face Oval Office meeting with the FBI director nor was there any time to line up a distinguished successor. Instead, this was Trump the Impetuous operating on his instincts while expecting his ham-handed White House staff and his chorus line of Capitol Hill apologists to clean up the mess behind him.

That unseemly haste (the documents from Sessions and Rosenstein were dated Tuesday) was in sharp contrast to the 18 days of dawdling and dithering after the White House was warned that national security adviser Michael Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

Maybe Trump in his Fox News-fueled fantasies convinced himself that Democrats would cheer him on since Hillary Clinton loudly maintains that Comey cost her the election. Maybe Trump actually believed that skeptics would be gulled by his claim in his letter to Comey, “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”

Instead, the Comey firing prompted everyone in journalism to type the same three words: “Not since Watergate …”

There are indeed similarities between Comey and Archibald Cox, the bow-tied special prosecutor fired by Richard Nixon in 1973 in what is remembered as the Saturday Night Massacre. In his exquisitely timed new Nixon biography, John A. Farrell quotes Cox as admitting that perhaps he had gotten “too big for my britches — that what I see as principle could be vanity.”

Comey might say the same thing if he had a reflective temperament. The only apparent principle that Comey followed in his explosive public statements about Clinton during the 2016 campaign was a fervent belief in his own stiff-necked rectitude.

It is easy to believe that Comey was sincere when he recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election.” But just lacking partisan motivation did not justify his thumb-on-the-scales interventions into the campaign.

Only an investor in a Trump casino or a graduate of Trump University would be gullible enough to believe that Comey was fired solely for his misjudgments during the campaign. It is impossible to see Trump, who reveled in chants of “Lock her up” about his Democratic opponent, as a late-in-life crusader on behalf of Justice Department guidelines.

An FBI director has a 10-year term for a reason — to remove a president’s temptation to curtail an investigation of his administration or personal misconduct.

That is why the Comey ouster is far more alarming than the removal of Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in New York, and Sally Yates as acting attorney general. Bharara and Yates were political appointees subject to the normal turnover of government. Comey, most decidedly, was not in that category.

The Comey firing is the latest installment in an ongoing test of the patriotism, courage and political morality of congressional Republicans. Only the GOP majority has the power to ensure an impartial and fully staffed investigation of the suspicious links that appear to connect Trump and his advisers with Russian interests.

There is the sense that many Republicans — following the lead of Mitch McConnell — are willing to swap any skepticism about Trump’s conduct for conservative judges and tax cuts. McConnell made this clear Wednesday morning in a nothing-to-see-here speech on the Senate floor as he chided Democrats for “complaining about the removal of an FBI director whom they themselves repeatedly and sharply criticized.”

What McConnell and company fail to understand is that conservative judges matter little if the president is allowed to meddle with the FBI and trample on the norms of democracy. And the tax cuts would come at the cost of the souls of those Republicans who continue to be Trump’s willing enablers.

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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Capitol Ink | Richard Milhous Trump

By Robert Matson

Capitol Ink | Out Like Flynn

By Robert Matson
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Capitol Ink | In Like Flynn

By Robert Matson
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Comey: No Charges Over New Clinton Emails

By Bridget Bowman
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Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's campaign chairman, has resigned, the campaign announced in a statement Friday.

"This morning Paul Manafort offered, and I accepted, his resignation from the campaign," Trump said. "I am very appreciative for his great work in helping to get us where we are today, and in particular his guiding us through the delegate and convention process. Paul is a true professional and I wish him the greatest success."

Manfort's role in the campaign was reportedly diminished this week with the Republican presidential nominee naming longtime adviser Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon as chief executive.

Trump told The Wall Street Journal that he was making the changes because “I want to win. That’s why I’m bringing on fantastic people who know how to win and love to win.”

Friction reportedly developed between Manafort and Trump over the campaign's direction as his poll numbers fell against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

Manafort himself has been a distraction to the campaign over questions about his previous business dealings in Ukraine.

[A Dangerous Gig: Working for Paul Manafort]

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Manafort helped a pro-Russia group in Ukraine secretly route more than $2 million in payments to two Washington lobbying firms to try to influence U.S. policy.

On Friday, the AP reported that emails showed Manafort's company led the effort to sway American public opinion in favor of Ukraine's pro-Russian government.

According to the AP, Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates tried to gain positive coverage of Ukrainian politicians in newspapers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

The report also said Gates, who worked for Manafort at the time, directed Washington, D.C., law firms Mercury LLC and the Podesta Group to set up meetings between Ukrainian officials and members of Congress.

The Podesta Group was co-founded by Tony and John Podesta, who now serves as campaign chairman for Clinton.

The New York Times reported this week that handwritten ledgers designated $12.7 million in payments to Manafort from the pro-Russian party of former President Viktor Yanukovych.

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Trump’s National Security Adviser Resigns

Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s mercurial national security adviser, submitted his resignation late Monday amidst growing controversy over his communications with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.

Flynn wrote in his resignation letter that he provided “incomplete information” about conversations with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Critics are questioning whether top Trump administration officials were misled, lied to — or perhaps, complicit. And beyond the disruption caused by the resignation of a senior official so early in a new administration, the circumstances surrounding Flynn’s departure will almost certainly increase scrutiny of others in Trump’s inner circle who allegedly have ties to Russia.

The conversations between Flynn and Kislyak reportedly began before the Nov. 8 presidential election and continued as outgoing President Barack Obama imposed sanctions against Russia in December — for allegedly meddling in that election. The narrative about what they discussed had become increasingly murky prior to the resignation.

Flynn, a retired three-star Army general, denied last Wednesday that he’d discussed sanctions with Kislyak, according to The Washington Post. The next day, the Post reported, a spokesman for Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

That was more than three weeks after Vice President Mike Pence had defended Flynn on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Pence was asked about a report that Flynn had talked with the Russian ambassador on the day that the sanctions against Russia were announced.

“What I can confirm, having spoken to him about it, is that those conversations that happened to occur around the time that the United States took action to expel diplomats had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions,” Pence told CBS’ John Dickerson on Jan. 15.

More recently, Trump administration officials have struggled with their message.

White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller dodged when asked Sunday on NBC’s “Meet The Press” whether Trump had confidence in Flynn.

Miller told host Chuck Todd that was a question “you should ask the president” or White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, told MSNBC Monday afternoon that Flynn had “the full confidence of the president.”

Hours later, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump was “evaluating the situation.”

Flynn wrote in his resignation letter that as the incoming national security adviser, “I held numerous phone calls with foreign counterparts, ministers, and ambassadors.”

“Unfortunately, because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador,” Flynn wrote. “I have sincerely apologized to the president and the vice president, and they have accepted my apology.”

The White House released a copy of the letter. Flynn did not describe what he had specifically discussed with Kislyak.

Trump named retired Army Lt. Gen. Joseph K. Kellogg Jr. as the acting national security adviser. Kellogg is a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran.

California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, praised Flynn in a statement late Monday.

“Michael Flynn served in the U.S. military for more than three decades,” he said. “Washington, D.C., can be a rough town for honorable people, and Flynn — who has always been a soldier, not a politician — deserves America’s gratitude and respect for dedicating so much of his life to strengthening our national security.”

Others in Congress were less charitable.

California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell suggested in a statement that Flynn is “only resigning because he got caught by the press for improper prior and existing relationships with Russia.”

“Questions remain about whether he made such contact of his own volition or on orders; whether Trump administration officials were misled about the contact or lied to cover it up; and whether Flynn might’ve been susceptible to Russian blackmail, as the Justice Department reportedly informed the White House late last month,” Swalwell wrote.

The Washington Post has reported that acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates told the White House in late January that she believed Flynn had misled senior administration officials about what was said and warned that he could be vulnerable to blackmail. Yates was fired by Trump late last month for refusing to enforce his executive order on immigration.

Swalwell described Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak as “part of a larger pattern of Russian involvement with and support for Trump and his team before and since the 2016 election.” He and other House Democrats have called for an independent, bipartisan commission “to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.”

New York Democrat Eliot L. Engel, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, echoed the call for a bipartisan investigation.

“Far too many questions remain unanswered about this administration's ties to Russia,” he said in a statement. “The latest reporting shows that Gen. Flynn was in contact with Russian officials during the campaign, and we know Putin was working to tip the scales in President Trump’s favor.”

Where such an investigation might lead appeared to be on the minds of several Democratic members of Congress late Monday.

“The Trump administration has yet to be forthcoming about who was aware of Flynn’s conversations with the ambassador and whether he was acting on the instructions of the president or any other officials, or with their knowledge,” California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on House Intelligence, said in a statement.

Michigan’s John Conyers Jr., ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and Maryland’s Elijah E. Cummings, ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, issued a joint statement on Flynn’s resignation.

The veteran lawmakers said they were shocked at reports that U.S. law enforcement officials warned the White House counsel that Flynn “had provided false information to the public about his communications with the Russian government, but that the Trump administration apparently did nothing about it.”

“We need to know who else within the White House is a current and ongoing risk to our national security,” Conyers and Cummings wrote, adding that “a full classified briefing by all relevant agencies, including the Department of Justice and the FBI” is warranted.

Flynn was an early Trump supporter who shared his expertise in intelligence and foreign affairs with the campaign.

He was outspoken and provocative. In one tweet, he dared Arab and “Persian” leaders to “step up to the plate and declare their Islamic ideology sick.” He advocated closer ties with Russia, and at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last July, he also called for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to be locked up.

Flynn had served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency until he was reportedly forced out in late 2014.

Early on, some critics raised concerns about Flynn’s purported links to Russia. Those included a series of paid speaking engagements he did for RT, the Russian state-run television channel. In 2015, he attended a banquet celebrating the network and was seated next to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Several others who are or who been close to Trump also have connections to Russia.

Among them: Paul Manafort, Trump’s onetime campaign manager, who resigned last August amid questions about his alleged ties to pro-Russia forces in Ukraine; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Exxon Mobil’s former CEO, who was awarded the Order of Friendship by Putin in 2013, one of Russia’s highest honors to foreign citizens; and Wilbur Ross, Trump’s Commerce secretary nominee, who reportedly was a business partner with a Russian oligarch.

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