Trump spins a ‘crime’ story
Much like when he insinuated he was amassing proof that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, President Donald Trump suggested Wednesday that he will have the goods on Susan Rice, the Obama national security adviser.
In a New York Times interview, Trump said Rice may have broken the law by seeking the identities of Trump associates who came up in U.S. intelligence surveillance of foreign targets.
She committed a crime? “Do I think? Yes, I think,” Trump said. What crime? He didn’t make that clear.
And his evidence for the extraordinary accusation from the Oval Office? He offered none, but pledged to explain himself “at the right time.”
Trump and his defenders have seized on reports of Rice’s role in “unmasking” to counter mounting revelations from the Russia investigation. The president originally charged in a tweet that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. After days went by with nothing to back that up, the charge morphed into a claim that the team came under improper surveillance.
A Rice spokeswoman said, “I’m not going to dignify the president’s ludicrous charge with a comment.” Rice has said she did what she was supposed to in her job and leaked nothing.
Nunes steps aside
After recently causing a morass of public confusion over how he conducted the Trump-Russia probe, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is stepping aside "temporarily" to let Rep. Mike Conway (R-Texas) conduct the investigation instead.
Nunes blamed unfair complaints from left-wing groups filed with the office of congressional ethics for the switch. His secretive meeting on the White House grounds with intelligence officials put a cloud over the panel's independence. The Senate is also investigating.
Missing piece in puzzle
One gap in the theories about improper snooping by Rice: If she was digging up dirt on Trump and his associates, what was the dirt? The Russian election meddling?
Not according to Nunes, who first disclosed -- with assistance from the White House -- that Trump transition figures turned up “incidentally” in the surveillance. Nunes said none of the reports he read mentioned Russia.
Apart from the contacts with Russians, which are under investigation by the FBI and congressional committees, there doesn’t seem to have been any other surveillance-based leaks fingering members of Trump’s team before the election or since.
Friend of Bill
Trump spoke up Wednesday for Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, whose sponsors are fleeing by the dozens following revelations that $13 million was paid to settle suits by five women who accused him of sexual harassment or verbal abuse.
O’Reilly is “a good person” and “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong,” Trump said in the Times interview. “I think he shouldn’t have settled; personally, I think he shouldn’t have settled.”
In 2016, Trump defended Fox News chief Roger Ailes, ousted from the network after sexual harassment allegations. Ailes later became a Trump campaign adviser.
Last week, Trump -- who himself has drawn accusations in this category -- declared April 2017 National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.
Harder attitude on Syria
As he hosted Jordan’s King Abdullah II at the White House, Trump said the suspected chemical bomb that killed dozens in Syria “crossed a lot of lines” for him and has altered his view of the country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad.
“My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” said Trump, who has not shared Obama’s goal of removing Assad from power. He did not indicate how he will respond, nor did he speak about Assad’s ally, Russia, during the joint news conference. (Video clip here.)
A forceful denunciation of Russia came from UN Ambassador Nikki Haley at a Security Council meeting.
“How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” said Haley, suggesting the United States will respond if the UN does not. See Emily Ngo’s story for Newsday.
The take-away: Message muddle
If it’s the Trump administration’s aim to keep friends, foes and everyone else confused about foreign policy, count that as a success. Syria is one case in point, and the North Korean nuclear threat is another, writes Newsday’s Dan Janison.
In a weekend interview with the Financial Times, Trump said: “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.” But then Gen. John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, told a Senate committee, “Any solution to the North Korean problem has to involve China.”
On Tuesday, after North Korea’s latest missile launch, a statement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States “has spoken enough” on the matter and, “We have no further comment.”
Big stakes in China meeting
Trade frictions and North Korea will be atop the agenda when Trump meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort Thursday and Friday, reports Newsday’s Ngo.
As president, Trump’s tone has been more measured than as a candidate, when he called China an “economic enemy.” But he tweeted last week that the meeting with Xi “will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits.”
Bannon bounced from NSC
He hasn’t yet faded into the alt night. But Steve Bannon’s removal from the National Security Council Wednesday suggests other players wanted his wings clipped.
The Washington Post said the heave-ho to the nationalist ideologue -- whose appointment to the NSC stirred controversy -- reflected the growing influence of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who took over the council after Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn’s ouster.
Politico said Bannon, whose White House title is chief strategist, has crossed swords with Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner -- and that influential Long Island donor Rebekah Mercer, a Bannon benefactor, convinced him to stay on at the White House.
Other officials in the reports asserted Bannon was never supposed to stay long at the NSC — he was just put there for tasks that are no longer needed, such as watching over Flynn.
What else is happening
- Donald Trump Jr. told members of the F6 Labs Gun Club in Hicksville on a visit he'd like to run for office just like Dad, and that the governor's job is more interesting to him than mayor, according to the New York Post's Page Six.
- Senate Republicans are expected Thursday to use the “nuclear option” to get around a Democratic filibuster against Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. Newsday’s Tom Brune outlines how the fight will likely play out.
- Trump won’t say yet whether he will support funding for a new train tunnel under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey and for extending the Second Avenue subway to East Harlem in his infrastructure plan. The question came in a New York Times interview.
- Kushner’s right-hand man at the White House is a Long Islander -- Avi Berkowitz, 28, a recent Harvard Law graduate who grew up in Lawrence. Business Insider has a profile of Berkowitz, who previously worked for Kushner’s real estate company and the Trump campaign.
- Divisions within Trump-land are surfacing, between loyalists and so-called "establishment" Republicans, Politico reports.
- It could get awkward at Trump’s summit with Xi at Mar-a-Lago if a Chinese billionaire who is a member of the club shows up. He is Guo Wengui, who has been an open critic of China’s ruling Communist Party and has been living abroad for two years, The New York Times reports.
- Tillerson will travel to Moscow next Wednesday to meet with Russian officials on issues including Ukraine, North Korea, Syria and counterterrorism, the State Department said.
- Ivanka Trump said on “CBS This Morning” that “where I disagree with my father, he knows it.” She wouldn’t say what they disagree on.
- Unhappy with CNN coverage last year, Trump directed an email to network president Jeff Zucker that concluded: “Just remember, I always seem to find a way to get even. Best wishes, Donald J. Trump.” The anecdote is in a New York Times Magazine story on the Zucker-Trump-CNN relationship.