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Secret meeting sought a Trump-Putin back channel, report says

Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater Worldwide, held a

Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater Worldwide, held a secret meeting to establish a Trump-Putin back channel, The Washington Post reported. Credit: Bloomberg News / Andrew Harrer

Manifestly clandestine-y

The stories of intrigue over contacts with the Russians on Donald Trump’s behalf get stranger and stranger.

A secret meeting was held in January in the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean to try to establish a back-channel line of communication between Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, The Washington Post reported.

The participants were Erik Prince — founder of the Blackwater security firm — and a Russian official close to Putin. The meeting was arranged by the United Arab Emirates.

While Prince had no formal role in the Trump campaign or transition, he has ties to people in Trump’s circle, including chief strategist Stephen Bannon, and is the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is also a GOP megadonor, the report says.

U.S. officials said the FBI has been scrutinizing the Seychelles encounter as part of its broader probe of Russian interference in the election, the Post reported. There were no further contacts by Prince with Putin associates because they became too politically risky.

Hi, spy

Carter Page, a former campaign adviser for Trump, met with and passed documents to a Russian intelligence operative in New York City in 2013, BuzzFeed reported.

Page acknowledged the contact, but told BuzzFeed that he did not relay any sensitive information. He is an energy consultant, and the documents were about the energy business.

The Russian, named Victor Podobnyy, was later busted on federal charges of acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government.

A court filing included Podobnyy speaking with another suspected spy about efforts to recruit a man whom BuzzFeed said was Page, and observing, “I think he is an idiot.”

Unmask-erade party

Seeking to back up Trump claims that he was spied on, the White House and House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) have asserted that Obama administration officials improperly “unmasked” identities of Trump transition officials that came up “incidentally” in surveillance of foreign subjects.

Now Bloomberg News columnist Eli Lake reports that Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, sought to unmask names. Lake said the requests were “likely within the law” if they met the standard of having “some foreign intelligence value.”

The take-away: Different drum

Trump chose Nikki Haley to be his voice at the United Nations, but she doesn’t sound much like him, writes Newsday’s Dan Janison.

In weekend TV interviews, Haley strode right up to the line beyond which she would clearly have been disowning Trump’s posture on Russia.

“The president has not once called me and said don’t beat up on Russia,” Haley said.

Gorsuch showdown

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 11-9 along party lines to send Trump’s Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Senate floor, where Democrats say they now have enough votes to stage a filibuster against it.

The showdown will likely come on Thursday. Republicans say they are ready to use the so-called “nuclear option” to put Gorsuch over the finish line by changing the rules so that a simple majority vote will do the job. Otherwise, it would take 60 votes.

Trump hosts Egyptian leader

Trump signaled he will seek warmer relations with Egypt as he welcomed its president, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, to the White House on Monday and pledged close cooperation against terrorism.

“I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President al-Sissi,” Trump said, sitting next to his counterpart in the Oval Office.

President Barack Obama had refused to invite al-Sissi because of concerns about human rights violations.

What else is happening

  • The National Archives and Records Administration won agreement from the White House to keep each of Trump’s tweets, even those he deletes or corrects, The Associated Press reports. The Presidential Records Act requires such correspondence to be preserved for history.
  • The Justice Department is taking a new look at dozens of settlement agreements with police agencies around the country.
  • Syrian government forces, allied with Putin, may have used chemical weapons in attacking a rebel-held province.
  • House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn may have to give up tens of thousands of dollars that he got from Russia and Turkey because retired military officers are required to receive permission for payments from foreign entities.
  • As a Hungarian political figure 10 years ago, the White House’s chief counterterrorism adviser, Sebastian Gorka, gave support in a TV interview to a violent racist and anti-Semitic paramilitary group, the Forward reports.
  • Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner traveled to Iraq with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford. Capt. Greg Hicks, a spokesman for Dunford, said Kushner was there to show support for Iraq’s government and its fight against ISIS.
  • Corey Lewandowski is among the former Trump campaign brass offering lobbying services to foreign clients, Politico reports.
  • Trump is donating his presidential salary for the first quarter of 2017 — $78,333.32 — to the National Park Service, the White House announced. The Sierra Club said that if Trump “is actually interested in helping our parks, he should stop trying to slash their budgets to historically low levels.”
  • The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals indicated Tuesday that it will hear arguments sometime in May on the legality of Trump’s revised travel ban order, Politico reports. A federal judge in Hawaii blocked it.

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