Attorney General William Barr testifies Wednesday during a House Appropriations...

Attorney General William Barr testifies Wednesday during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing in Washington. Credit: Bloomberg News/Anna Moneymaker

A new hunting season

Will Attorney General William Barr be the instrument of Donald Trump's revenge against the "witch hunt?"

The president would be terribly disappointed if Barr said he wouldn't be. On Wednesday, Barr laid out the possibility that he could be. In an appearance at a Senate hearing, the head of the Justice Department said he thinks U.S. intelligence agencies engaged in “spying” on the Trump campaign as they investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election.

“Yes, I think spying did occur,” Barr said as senators from both parties pressed him about plans he previously disclosed to have a legal team examine the origin and handling of the Russian probe. Such an investigation of the investigators has long been demanded by Trump and his allies.

As Newsday's Tom Brune reports, Barr said he would not explain why he thought there was spying. He also hedged on whether surveillance would have been improper, acknowledging there could have been legitimate reasons for it. "The question is if it was predicated, adequately predicated, and I’m not suggesting that it wasn’t adequately predicated,” he said.

At the end of the hearing, Barr tried to backtrack. “Can I just add one point of clarification?” he said. “I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred. I'm saying that I am concerned about it and looking into. That's all.” That didn't quiet a chorus of outrage from Democrats already wrangling with Trump's attorney general over what he might hold back from special counsel Robert Mueller's report when it is released next week.

Barr "does a disservice to the men and women who work in the Department of Justice and the FBI, who if they had not started a counterintelligence investigation into Russia's intervention in the 2016 election, they would be skewered and rightfully so," said Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, "I don't trust Barr, I trust Mueller."

While unnerving to some, Barr's words about the Russia investigation more measured than Trump's on Wednesday: an "illegal investigation,” “attempted coup," "illegal witch-hunt,” “treason” and "attempted takedown of a president" by "dirty cops" and "bad people." Trump told reporters he was "most interested" in "going back to the origins of exactly" how it started.

Tricky Wiki thicket

Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012, was finally arrested, authorities announced Thursday. The web site's role in the 2016 release of politically embarrassing Democratic emails allegedly hacked by well-connected Russians raises interesting questions as to how the Trump administration will proceed. 

His arrest follows completion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian meddling. Assange was held in part due to an American extradition request. but he absconded in the first place facing a Swedish rape investigation. 

The elusive border fix

Now that he has turned Homeland Security inside out and done a few pirouettes about closing the southern border, what's the latest from Trump about the migrant influx? Frustration.

On a visit to San Antonio, Texas, Trump said he was looking to call up more troops, but he complained, "Our military, don't forget, can't act like they would normally act because if they got a little rough, everybody would go crazy." He went on: "They have all these horrible laws that the Democrats won't change." But he also saw a political upside: "I think they will pay a very big price in 2020."

Back in Washington, Trump's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, went to Capitol Hill with the new acting DHS secretary, Kevin McAleenan, to feel out half a dozen Senate Democrats about a possible solution, according to The Washington Post. "The situation at the border is challenging and we’re talking about what can be done,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).

The Associated Press reported that Democrats are coming under pressure to respond. A planned House bill would increase federal resources at border entry points for processing refugees, counseling children and treating people needing medical care. It also would create centers in Central America where asylum applications could be processed and provide aid to reduce poverty and violence in the region so fewer people would flee.

Senate Republicans pleaded with Trump not to fire any more DHS officials, warning that the department can’t function properly with a vacuum at the top.

Call it a Sofia's choice

Senior administration officials said they are considering a new family separation policy that they contend wouldn't be a family separation policy.

Migrant parents caught crossing the border illegally would be given a stark option, according to Politico: They can remain detained with their children indefinitely while they await a final removal order, or they can agree to let their children be taken to a separate government shelter where other relatives could take custody of them.

Explained one official: “Binary choice is different. That’s up to the parent. That means we wouldn’t be separating anybody. The parent makes that decision.”

Janison: General discontent

Once upon a time, Trump gushed, "I love the generals." His ardor for military brass has passed, with a retired Marine Corps major general, Secret Service Director Randolph "Tex" Alles, becoming the latest to get on the wrong side of the commander in chief.

The others whose tenure with Trump turned star-crossed included White House chief of staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.

Either the brass didn't want to march to Trump's tune any longer or the commander in chief fell out of step with them, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. They were leaders of warriors, from a culture of discipline. That's not the Trump White House way.

Trump's sister loses her 'honor'

Trump’s older sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, put in her retirement papers as a federal appellate judge 10 days after she was notified she faced an investigation into whether she violated judicial conduct rules by participating in fraudulent tax schemes with her siblings, The New York Times reported.

The court inquiry grew out of a Times investigation that alleged Trump family members, including Barry's famous brother, used dubious methods to avoid taxes during the 1990s — including instances of outright fraud — that greatly boosted their inherited wealth. The misconduct investigation ended when Barry quit the bench because ex-judges are not subject to the rules. 

Mnuchin takes tax extension

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said his department would not provide Trump’s tax returns to Congress by the Wednesday deadline set by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal.

Mnuchin said he needed more time to review the request because it raised questions of “constitutional scope of congressional investigative authority, the legitimacy of the asserted legislative purpose, and the constitutional rights of American citizens.”

He quoted Capitol Hill Republicans who called the Democrats' move “Nixonian." He also gave no indication of when he'll have an answer.

Poor old George Whatsisname

Trump seems to believe the father of our country was a flop at branding, according to a story in Politico.

During a guided tour of George Washington's Mount Vernon home last April with French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump learned that the first president was a big 18th century wheeler-dealer in real estate. So he couldn’t understand why Washington didn’t name his historic Virginia compound or any of the other property he acquired after himself.

“If he was smart, he would’ve put his name on it,” Trump said, according to three sources briefed on the exchange. “You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.” Mount Vernon is located a 17-mile drive from — drumroll — Washington!

Politico also wrote that Trump wasn't much interested in Mount Vernon's history but critiqued the property: The rooms were too small, the staircases too narrow and some of the floorboards uneven. Trump said he would have built it better, Politico wrote.

What else is happening:

  • Attorneys for former Obama White House Counsel Gregory Craig said that he expects to be charged in the coming days in relationship to legal work he did for the Ukrainian government in 2012. The case grew out of Mueller’s prosecution of Paul Manafort.
  • Herman Cain hasn't yet been officially nominated by Trump to the Federal Reserve, but he's already on the brink of mathematical elimination from confirmation. Three Republican senators said they won't vote for the 2012 GOP contender who bowed out amid a sex scandal and others are voicing doubts, Bloomberg News reported.
  • Bernie Sanders unveiled a "Medicare for All" plan that is more ambitious than his previous version. To pay for it, he would levy premiums on workers and employers, boost income and estate tax rates and establish a wealth tax.
  • Vice President Mike Pence, on a UN visit, urged the world body to recognize Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of the troubled South American country, reports Newsday's Zachary R. Dowdy.
  • A Trump 2020 campaign video was removed from Twitter after Warner Bros. Pictures objected that its musical background was lifted from the score of "The Dark Knight Rises" without authorization.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren raised more than $6 million for her presidential bid in the first quarter of 2019. That places her fifth among the Democratic contenders.
  • Trump congratulated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his election victory. He said a Middle East peace plan that the Trump administration is preparing to offer soon stands "a better chance with Bibi having won" but noted: "I never made it a promise."
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