This gun ain’t smoking, yet
The allegations were known to some reporters, political operatives and members of Congress for months. They remained unpublished before and after Election Day because they could not be substantiated. They still can’t.
But they were explosive enough that the nation’s intelligence chiefs shared them with President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump last week, according to a story broken on CNN late Tuesday and quickly followed up with reports by The New York Times, The Washington Post and others. Trump weighed in too, on Twitter: “FAKE NEWS — A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”
It goes like this: A former British intelligence agent — described in some of the stories as having a “credible” reputation — passed along allegations that Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information on Trump, including, supposedly, a salacious sex video of prostitutes cavorting with the billionaire at a Moscow hotel in 2013, surreptitiously recorded by Russian agents if ever needed as a future blackmail tool.
The U.S. agencies have not verified the allegations. But the Times said they were still being “actively investigated.” Also of note: The British ex-agent’s dossier was first commissioned by Republican anti-Trump forces and later by Democrats, CNN said.
Tuesday’s reports, attributed variously to senior U.S. officials and intelligence officials, come after Trump pushed back at findings that Russian hackers sought to tilt the election in his favor and repeatedly threw shade at the intelligence agencies. They should be a big topic at Trump’s scheduled news conference Wednesday.
New Trump Twitter tantrum
"One last shot at me," fumes Trump just hours before his first news conference since the summer. "Are we living in Nazi Germany?" But there's nothing to support the idea this shot is the last one.
Kremlin issues a 'nyet'
A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin derided as a "complete fabrication and utter nonsense" the notion that his government collected damaging information on Trump. Once again his talking points are totally in line with Trump's. So are Wikileaks' as described here by a Russian news agency.
Tillerson's un-Trumpy tilt
Rex Tillerson, Trump's nominee for secretary of state, testified at his confirmation hearing on Wednesday that he'd have called for a "proportional" response to Russia's movement into Crimea. During the campaign Trump said President Vladimir Putin is "not going into Ukraine" but the meaning was ambiguous. During the GOP convention, the Trump camp removed platform language calling for U.S. weapons support for the former Soviet republic.
Comey: GOP hacked, too
FBI Director James Comey told a Senate panel that there was “penetration” by Russian hackers “on the Republican side of the aisle and old Republican National Committee domains” no longer in use. Whatever they found, it wasn’t released.
Guardian of the law
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s choice for attorney general, drew lines at his confirmation hearing Tuesday between what the next president has at times said he wanted to do and what he can do.
“I am committed to the rule of law,” Sessions said.
Asked about Trump’s call early in his campaign to bar Muslims from entering the United States, Sessions said religion cannot be used to bar entry to the country. “I do not believe Muslims as a group should be barred from this country,” he said.
But Sessions also said people who ascribe to violent religious extremism should be prevented from entering the country — a view that appeared in sync with Trump’s revised call for “extreme vetting.”
Sessions also called waterboarding “absolutely improper and illegal.” Trump has hinted his enthusiasm for waterboarding has been tempered after hearing his pick for defense secretary, James Mattis, explain why it’s ineffective.
Democrats maintained misgivings over Sessions’ records on civil rights. See Tom Brune’s story for Newsday.
The take-away: Lock’er room talk
During the campaign, Sessions tacitly encouraged the “lock her up’ chants aimed at Hillary Clinton, saying “a fundamental violation of law” appeared to have occurred in the handling of her emails or the family foundation.
Trump’s pronounced passion for prosecution cooled quickly after the election, and Sessions did not restir that pot, notes Newsday’s Dan Janison. He said he’d recuse himself because of his past comments if the case came back from the dead.
Obama’s pitch for unity
Obama did not criticize Trump in his farewell speech Tuesday night, but he offered reflections on the political divisions that led to his election.
“Democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity — the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one,” Obama told the audience in Chicago. “We weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive ... when we see some as more American than others,” he said.
Earlier, as the crowd chanted, “Four more years,” Obama simply smiled and said, “I can’t do that.” See Michael Gormley’s story for Newsday.
A Quinnipiac poll Tuesday showed Obama is winding down his presidency with a 55% to 39% approval rating. Trump’s approval/disapproval is in negative territory at 37% to 51%, and his temperament is an ongoing worry for many Americans.
Giving anti-vaxxers a shot
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a leading foe of childhood vaccination policy, met with Trump and said he was asked to lead a presidential commission on “vaccine safety and scientific integrity.” Later, a statement from Trump Tower said they had discussed a commission on autism, but no decision had been made.
As with climate change, vaccination is an issue where Trump is a skeptic about predominant scientific opinion, which has debunked theories blaming immunizations for autism. Trump has urged smaller doses over longer periods of time.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other medical communities have denounced the autism link, saying it is disproved by research and dangerous to promote. See Emily Ngo’s story for Newsday.
Cue the mood music
President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration will be more “soft sensuality” than “circuslike celebration,” said Tom Barrack, the chairman of the committee planning the event.
“We have the greatest celebrity in the world, which is the president-elect, side by side is the current president. ... So what we’ve done instead of trying to surround him with what people consider A-listers is we are going to surround him with the soft sensuality of the place,” Barrack said.
Draining the Apple
The New York City Council heard the tally so far for securing Trump Tower: $37.4 million extra for NYPD officers assigned to the skyscraper and more than $40 million in lost revenue for nearby businesses, Newsday’s Matthew Chayes reports.
The task only gets more complicated after Trump is sworn in, said Councilman Dan Garodnick. “You’ve got ambulances and you’ve got SUVs and you’ve got nuclear codes and you’ve got everything traveling in an enormous fleet of vehicles,” he said.
What else is happening
- Where was Sasha Obama for her dad's farewell address? Her sister and mother appeared on stage after the speech but she did not.
- And yet another former employee of Goldman Sachs -- the investment-banking giant pilloried by candidate Trump as part of a global cabal -- appears ready to join the administration: Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge-funder, per WSJ.
- Trump wants Congress to act fast — as soon as next week — to repeal and replace Obamacare, but Republicans on Capitol Hill are nowhere near a successor plan, The New York Times reports.
- Secretary of State John Kerry said his designated successor, Rex Tillerson, has yet to meet with him, and more broadly, “there has not been a lot of high-level exchange at this point” on the transition.
- HarperCollins said it will no longer sell “What the (Bleep) Just Happened?” a 2012 book by Trump’s pick for deputy national security adviser, Monica Crowley. CNN reported that the book contained more than 50 instances of apparent plagiarism.
- Trump beat a libel suit by GOP political consultant Cheri Jacobus. A Manhattan judge ruled Trump’s tweets against her, while “rife with vague and simplistic insults such as ‘loser’ or ‘total loser’ or ‘totally biased loser,’ ” were presented as opinion, not measurable fact.
- With Republicans in control of both the White House and Congress, the evangelical, GOP-aligned Christians United for Israel is expected to gain influence as a pro-Israel lobby at the expense of the bipartisan-based American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Bloomberg News reports.
- The Trump team is telling America’s allies he plans to go forward with plans to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem despite warnings it could spark violence, set back peace efforts, damage the United States' standing in the Middle East and put Americans at risk, CNN says.