Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked last week if the White House had led Devin Nunes to documents suggesting the Donald Trump transition had come under “incidental” surveillance -- a discovery Nunes urgently shared with the president. Spicer depicted that scenario as ridiculous.
“I don’t know why,” Spicer said, the House Intelligence Committee chairman would “come down here to brief us on something that we would have briefed him on.”
It turns out that’s just what happened, according to The New York Times. When Nunes went on his secretive, solo mission to the White House, his sources were officials there -- not the “whistleblowers” from the intelligence community he had described.
One, the report said, was Ezra Cohen-Watnick of the National Security Council, a holdover from Mike Flynn’s brief stint as national security adviser, whom Flynn’s successor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, had tried to get rid of. The other, Michael Ellis, is a White House lawyer and former counsel to Nunes’ committee.
Spicer ducked renewed questions Thursday on Nunes’ visit. Nunes told Bloomberg News columnist Eli Lake: “I did use the White House to help to confirm what I already knew from other sources.” Which wasn’t the story Nunes told Lake, and everyone else, last week. “He misled me,” Lake wrote.
What a coincidence
The White House on Thursday invited the congressional intelligence committees to review secret surveillance materials, which it said National Security Council staff had found in the “ordinary course of business.”
Nunes’ Democratic counterpart, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), noting the Times’ story, said “The timing certainly looks fortuitous.” See Newsday’s story by Emily Ngo and Tom Brune.
Schiff and other critics say Nunes’ contacts with the White House have compromised the independence and integrity of the House panel’s investigation into Russian election meddling.
Flynn wants immunity deal
Flynn has told the FBI and congressional officials investigating the Trump campaign’s potential ties to Russia that he is willing to be interviewed in exchange for a grant of immunity from prosecution, The Wall Street Journal (pay site) reported, citing officials with knowledge of the matter.
So far, he has no takers.
Flynn was ousted for misleading White House officials about the nature of his phone conversations with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition.
Flynn’s lawyer, Robert Kelner, tweeted a statement Thursday night that his client “has a story to tell,” but should not “submit to questioning in such a highly politicized, witch hunt environment without assurance against unfair prosecution.”
The take-away: What in the world
Two and a half months along, this new administration’s foreign policy remains a piecemeal work in progress. The president has asked to expand the military budget, but there are still broad questions as to where the new billions of dollars would be spent.
The budget as filed included no specific mention of North Korea, Iran or China. The direction of trade policy also remains unclear. See Dan Janison’s column for Newsday.
To the same point: On Friday, the Washington Post (pay site) reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appears isolated and aloof from his own department, its mission adrift.
Trump’s elephant rumble
When court decisions displease him, Trump tweets: “See you in court.” When it’s the House Freedom Caucus, it’s: See you at primary time.
Trump threatened revenge on the hard-right Republicans who bucked him and House Speaker Paul Ryan on the failed health care bill, tweeting:
“The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!” Another tweet called out three of them by name.
Caucus member Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) appeared to resent Trump’s tweet and told reporters, “Most people don’t take well to being bullied. ... It may allow a child to get his way, but that’s not how our government works.” See Ngo’s story for Newsday.
Moscow’s means and motives
The first Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian election meddling Thursday heard experts paint a sinister picture of fake news, cybertrolls and smear campaigns as part of a strategy to undermine democratic institutions in the West.
Former FBI agent and cybersecurity expert Clinton Watts said Hillary Clinton wasn’t the only target. Republican opponents of Trump were targeted by Russians too, he said.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said they would support Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch for the U.S. Supreme Court.
That gives Republicans two of eight Democratic votes they would need to avoid a filibuster.
What else is happening
- Trump called NAFTA a “disaster” during the campaign, but his administration is signaling to Congress it will seek mostly modest changes in the trade pact during upcoming negotiations with Mexico and Canada, The Wall Street Journal (pay site) reports.
- Questions about the FBI arise amid the Russia probe, including this one: Would the agency compromise its informants if it reveals what it has discovered regarding Trump allies' involvements in Eastern Europe?
- Trump will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time on April 6-7 at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
- House Speaker Paul Ryan said Trump assured him he had no idea Fox News commentator Jeanine Pirro was going to call for the Republican’s leader’s resignation last weekend after the president tweeted a plug for her show. Ryan spoke Thursday on “CBS This Morning.”
- Grousing on Twitter about how The New York Times covers him, Trump revived a campaign-time idea: “Change libel laws?” He had second thoughts about that last year when he was advised he could get sued more, too.
- Broad disapproval of Trump in a new AP-NORC poll doesn’t extend to his handling of the economy. Most Americans -- 56% -- describe the national economy as good, up from 42 percent last April.
- Vice President Mike Pence cast the tiebreaking vote in the Senate to advance legislation that would allow states to block federal family-planning funds to Planned Parenthood.