New cast, still 'Friends'
Among Donald Trump's more fanciful complaints about the Russia investigation has been his description of special counsel Robert Mueller and his despised former FBI director, James Comey, as "Best friends, just one of many Mueller Conflicts of Interest."
So who knew that William Barr, Trump's nominee to become attorney general and overseer of the investigation, is genuinely a close friend of Mueller? “I didn’t know that they were that close personally,” said Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the incoming Senate Judiciary chairman. Did Trump?
Graham, who met privately with Barr on Wednesday, said, "They’ve been personal friends for over 20 years.” The relationship went beyond working together at the Justice Department during the George H.W. Bush administration. Graham said Barr’s and Mueller’s wives attend Bible study together and Mueller has attended the weddings of two of Barr’s daughters.
Graham's comments were aimed in part at damping down concern that Barr could interfere with Mueller or in the release of results of the investigation. “I asked Mr. Barr directly, ‘Do you think Bob, Mr. Mueller’s, on a witch hunt?’ He said no," the senator said. Barr also pledged that when Mueller submits his report, he would err “on the side of transparency” in deciding what to share with Congress and the public, Graham said.
Democrats are alarmed by an unsolicited memo Barr sent to the Justice Department last year doubting that a president could be accused of obstruction of justice for firing a political appointee, like when Trump sacked Comey. The ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, Mark Warner of Virginia, told CNN he is "absolutely not" reassured and Barr should recuse himself. House intelligence chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) agreed.
Such a recusal by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017, which infuriated Trump, put the probe in the hands of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. After Trump fired Comey, Rosenstein put Mueller in charge of the Russia probe. Rosenstein made it known Wednesday that he plans to leave the Justice Department soon after Barr is confirmed — but not before Mueller finishes his investigation, NBC News reported.
That's being seen as a sign that Mueller is close to wrapping up.
Talks hit the wall again
Trump stormed out of a White House meeting with congressional leaders when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she won't agree to funding a border wall or barrier.
"Nancy said, NO. I said bye-bye, nothing else works!" Trump tweeted minutes later, calling the session "a total waste of time." Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the president "threw another temper tantrum, slammed the table and walked out.” Vice President Mike Pence's account differed over some details: “I don’t recall him ever raising his voice or slamming his hand.” He said Trump would "stand firm to achieve his priorities."
Earlier, Trump went to Capitol Hill to buck up Republicans, some getting antsier on the 19th day of the partial government shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stuck with Trump to oppose bringing to a vote any spending bill to end the shutdown that doesn't meet the Republicans' border security demands.
With 800,000 federal workers about to miss their paychecks on Friday, Pelosi sniped at Trump's silver-spoon past. "He thinks maybe they could just ask their father for more money. But they can’t,” she said. For more, see Newsday's story by Laura Figueroa Hernandez and Tom Brune.
Masters of our romaine?
The shutdown has forced the furloughs of hundreds of Food and Drug Administration inspectors who watch over the nation's food supply, raising the risks to consumers, The Washington Post reports.
"Regular inspections, which help stop foodborne illness before people get sick, are vital,” said Sarah Sorscher of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said he is working on a plan to bring inspectors back as early as next week for facilities considered high risk because they handle sensitive items such as seafood, soft cheese and vegetables, or have a history of problems.
One bright spot amid the shutdown: While many federal attractions in Washington are closed, the National Park Service has kept open a historic clock tower at the Trump International Hotel.
Trump acknowledged his vision of the southern border's future is rooted in the Middle Ages, and why not, he asks.
“They say it’s a medieval solution, a wall. That’s true. It’s medieval because it worked then and it works even better now," Trump said during a morning session with reporters.
There was also a puzzling new claim that migrant smugglers "have stronger, bigger and faster vehicles than our police have and that ICE have and that Border Patrol have."
The Junior border patrol
Donald Trump Jr. has a knack for the inflammatory analogy dating back to 2016, when he compared Syrian refugees to a bowl of poisoned Skittles. On Tuesday, he posted an item on Instagram that sounded like he was comparing migrants to animals.
"You know why you can enjoy a day at the zoo? Because walls work," the president's eldest son wrote.
A spokesman for Trump Jr. said, "Don's post was strictly about illustrating the danger and violence that comes with unsecured border."
What else is happening:
- A reinforced White House legal team is gearing up to press executive-privilege claims as they seek to prevent Trump’s confidential discussions with top advisers from being disclosed to House Democratic investigators and revealed in Mueller's report, according to The Washington Post.
- House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-Manhattan) warned he will subpoena acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker if he doesn't agree to appear before the panel by Jan. 29 to answer questions about protecting the Mueller investigation. Whitaker protests that the shutdown has hampered his ability to prepare for a hearing.
- House Democrats summoned Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to deliver a classified briefing about the Trump administration’s plans to end sanctions on companies linked to the Russian oligarch Oleg V. Deripaska, a friend of Vladimir Putin.
- Trump threatened to cut off FEMA funds for survivors of California's deadly wildfires, charging the state isn't fixing its forest management policies.
- Trump has formally nominated Andrew Wheeler, a former energy lobbyist, to serve as EPA administrator. Wheeler has led the agency in an acting capacity since Scott Pruitt resigned in July amid ethics scandals.
- California billionaire and Democratic donor Tom Steyer, who has been funding pro-impeachment ads, said he has decided not to run for president in 2020. He said he'll devote all of his time to working for impeachment.