Swats at a swarm
I'm not obstructing justice, Donald Trump tweeted last May — "it's called Fighting Back." Whatever you call it, the president is in his third year of warfare against his investigators.
Some of Trump's attacks are overt, as in his perpetual "witch hunt," "Russia hoax" and no "collusion" tweets. Others have been covert. Former FBI Director James Comey said the president pressured him to stop investigating Michael Flynn. In December 2017, Trump reportedly tried to fire special counsel Robert Mueller but then-White House counsel Don McGahn stopped him.
Now The New York Times reports that Trump wanted a friendlier prosecutor put in charge of the investigation by the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office that bagged his ex-fixer Michael Cohen. Those inquiries have widened, beyond the hush-money payments to women with stories of affairs with Trump, to scrutinizing the cash flows of Trump's 2017 inaugural committee.
According to the Times, Trump late last year asked Matthew Whitaker, his acting attorney general, whether the Trump-appointed ally, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman, could be put in charge of the investigation. But Whitaker knew Berman, who had recused himself at the outset because of a routine conflict of interest, could not unrecuse himself. Berman's deputy, career prosecutor Robert Khuzami, remains in charge.
It's unclear whether Whitaker took any steps to directly intervene, the report said. But the episode, along with Trump's public relations war against investigators, is part of a pattern of attacking the law enforcement apparatus of his own government like no other president in history, the Times wrote. The targets included former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who failed to protect Trump's interests by recusing himself from the Russia investigation.
House Democrats are now looking into whether Whitaker may have perjured himself when he testified earlier this month that Trump had never pressured him over the various investigations, the Times reported.
Trump responded to the story Tuesday with a denial, calling it "more fake news." The Justice Department said Whitaker stood by his testimony that "at no time has the White House asked for nor have I provided any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel’s investigation or any other investigation." For more, see Newsday's story by Laura Figueroa Hernandez.
Former FBI official Andrew McCabe said Tuesday he clued in leaders from both parties in Congress in May 2017 when the bureau began a counterintelligence investigation of Trump's ties to Russia after he fired Comey.
McCabe said no one objected from the "Gang of Eight" — the leaders from both chambers and the intelligence committees who receive the most sensitive classified briefings. “Not on legal grounds, constitutional grounds or based on the facts," he said on NBC's "Today" show.
McCabe said in his forthcoming book that he also figured the chances that the president wouldn't find out about the investigation were "less than zero." He fingered then-House intelligence chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who worked with the White House to try to discredit investigations, as the likeliest leaker.
Saudi nuke fallout
A House Democratic panel says it wants to know why White House officials, once including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, pushed a deal to build nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia despite warnings over legal and ethical issues.
The plan is still under consideration, and a staff report from the House oversight committee said “further investigation is needed to determine whether the actions being pursued by the Trump Administration are in the national security interest of the United States or, rather, serve those who stand to gain financially as a result of this potential change in U.S. foreign policy.”
The plan's backers blew off concerns that the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology without safeguards could be used for nuclear weapons development, the report said. One of those involved in the effort was Trump friend Tom Barrack, who has major business interests in the Middle East. Barrack stirred an uproar recently for playing down the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi by saying "the atrocities in America are equal, or worse."
Backs turned to the wall
By 61% to 36%, Americans disapprove of Trump's declaration of a national emergency to get more funds for a Mexican border wall, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.
Nearly 6 in 10 also don't believe there is an emergency at the southern border and that Trump is misusing his presidential authority, the survey found.
Trump on Tuesday predicted he will win court fights over the wall and tweeted a slam at California for its lead role among 16 states suing to challenge the emergency. He said California "wasted" billions more on a recently scaled back "fast train" project than was needed to build "desperately needed Wall!" He's trying to stop federal funding for the rail line.
Standing up for gays
The Trump administration, rarely in the vanguard on human rights issues, is launching a global campaign to end the criminalization of homosexuality in dozens of nations where it's still illegal, NBC News reported.
The drive, led by U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, the administration's most prominent openly gay official, is aimed in part at Iran. “Barbaric public executions are all too common in a country where consensual homosexual relationships are criminalized and punishable by flogging and death," Grenell wrote in a German newspaper recently.
It remains to be seen whether the administration will push the policy eagerly against allies in the Middle East and elsewhere that punish homosexuality, including Saudi Arabia.
Can't unthrow that Stone
A federal judge in Washington put Trump confidante Roger Stone on notice that she may revoke his bail after Stone posted a photo of her on Instagram with what appeared to be crosshairs of a gun.
Another option for Judge Amy Berman Jackson is to place a full gag order on Stone when he appears at a hearing Thursday. Stone apologized to the court Monday night. He has pleaded not guilty to charges that he lied to Congress, engaged in witness tampering and obstructed a congressional investigation into possible coordination between Russia and Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
What else is happening:
- Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose 2016 bid left a lasting imprint on Democratic politics, announced Tuesday that he is running for president again in 2020 to beat Trump and lead a government "based on the principles of economic, social, racial and environmental justice."
- Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered another saber-rattling speech on Wednesday in which he warned the U.S. against deploying new missiles in Europe and boasted there would be quick retaliation to any threat.
- Aides to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg are seeking support for his potential presidential bid from leaders of organizations that have benefited from his charitable giving over the years, Politico reported.
- Trump tweeted Tuesday that "The Washington Post is a Fact Checker only for the Democrats. For the Republicans, and for your all time favorite President, it is a Fake Fact Checker!" Here's a bonus fact check. With an approval rating stuck in the 40s, he's not a favorite president.
- Trump's "Space Force" dream has come part way back to earth. He directed the Pentagon Tuesday to create the service within the Air Force, not as a full separate branch of the military. Congress still has to weigh in.
- Trump said he wants North Korea to end its nuclear program, but “I’m in no rush. There’s no testing. As long as there is no testing, I’m in no rush."
- The Office of Government Ethics has kicked back Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross' financial disclosure report, concluding that it "was not accurate" and Ross was "not in compliance with his ethics agreement at the time of the report," according to CNN.