10:43 AM 5/20/2017
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During the official visit, President Donald Trump received Saudi Arabia’s highest civilian honor from Saudi King Salman. The king placed the Collar of Abdulaziz Al-Saud, previously bestowed upon Russian President
and Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, around Trump’s neck at a ceremony at the Royal Court in Riyadh.
The host explained that the US president received the Honor for “his quest to enhance security and stability in the region and around the world.”
Trump tweeted several photographs from the welcoming ceremony.
Trump was joined by first lady Melania Trump, his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
The trip will last nine days and will also include Israel, Italy, Vatican City and Belgium.
9:16 AM 5/20/2017
Officials cautioned, however, that the Russians might have exaggerated their sway with Trump’s team during those conversations.
Flynn’s lawyer declined to comment.
“We are confident that when these inquiries are complete there will be no evidence to support any collusion between the campaign and Russia,” a White House official said in a statement. “… This matter is not going to distract the President or this administration from its work to bring back jobs and keep America safe.”
Flynn has emerged as a central figure — and Trump’s biggest liability — in the intensifying investigations into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. His financial ties to Turkish government interests, which paid him $530,000 in a lobbying deal that he failed to disclose during the campaign, are also under scrutiny by federal investigators.
One major concern for Obama administration officials was the subject of conversations between Flynn and Kislyak that took place shortly after President Barack Obama slapped new sanctions on Russia for meddling in the election. Sources tell CNN that Flynn told Kislyak that the Trump administration would look favorably on a decision by Russia to hold off on retaliating with its own sanctions. The next day, Putin said he wouldn’t retaliate.
Sources say Flynn also told Kislyak that the incoming Trump administration would revisit US sanctions on Russia once in office. The US has applied sanctions on Russia since 2014 for its actions in Ukraine.
Flynn’s calls with Kislyak in December have received the most attention, but his relationship with the Russian ambassador goes back four years.
He first met Kislyak in June 2013 during an official trip to Russia, according to The Washington Post. He led the Defense Intelligence Agency at the time and met his counterparts at the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU.
In December 2015, Flynn attended a gala honoring the Kremlin-run TV network RT. Documents released last month revealed that Flynn was paid $45,000 to attend the event, where he sat at the same table as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Officials noticed an uptick in communication between Flynn and Kislyak shortly after Flynn’s trip to Moscow in December 2015.
Trump angrily denied any collusion with Russia this week and denounced the newest investigation — now in the hands of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — as “a witch hunt.”
And he has remained steadfast in his loyalty to Flynn, even as the scrutiny surrounding his fired aide continues to weigh down his presidency. Trump urged then-FBI Director James Comey in February to drop the bureau’s investigation into Flynn and “let this go,” according to a memo Comey wrote at the time. The conversation, first reported by The New York Times earlier this week, has opened the President up to charges from critics of obstruction of justice.
Trump’s obvious bond with Flynn, like his relationship with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other top advisers, appears rooted in the fact that they supported his then-longshot presidential campaign last year at a time when most Republicans were ostracizing him.
Investigation into Russian ties to White House now focuses on current official
Investigation into Russian ties to White House now focuses on current senior official The law enforcement investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign has identified a current White House official as a significant person of interest. (Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
(The Washington Post)
The law enforcement investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign has identified a current White House official as a significant person of interest, showing that the probe is reaching into the highest levels of government, according to people familiar with the matter.
The senior White House adviser under scrutiny by investigators is someone close to the president, according to these people, who would not further identify the official.
The revelation comes as the investigation appears to be entering a more overtly active phase, with investigators shifting from work that has remained largely hidden from the public to conducting interviews and using a grand jury to issue subpoenas. The intensity of the probe is expected to accelerate in the coming weeks, the people said.
The sources emphasized that investigators remain keenly interested in people who previously wielded influence in the Trump campaign and administration but are no longer part of it, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Flynn resigned in February after disclosures that he had lied to administration officials about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Current administration officials who have acknowledged contacts with Russian officials include President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as well as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Justice Department appoints special counsel to investigate Trump and Russia
The Justice Department appointed special counsel to investigate Trump and Russia on May 17. The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett explains the Justice Department’s decision to appoint Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. (Peter Stevenson,Jason Aldag,Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)
(Peter Stevenson,Jason Aldag,Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)
People familiar with the investigation said the intensifying effort does not mean criminal charges are near, or that any such charges will result. Earlier this week, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III to serve as special counsel and lead the investigation into Russian meddling.
It is unclear exactly how Mueller’s leadership will affect the direction of the probe, and he is already bringing in new people to work on the team. Those familiar with the case said its significance had increased before Mueller’s appointment.
Although the case began quietly last July as an effort to determine whether any Trump associates coordinated with Russian operatives to meddle in the presidential election campaign, the investigative work now being done by the FBI also includes determining whether any financial crimes were committed by people close to the president. The people familiar with the matter said the probe has sharpened into something more fraught for the White House, the FBI and the Justice Department — particularly because of the public steps investigators know they now need to take, the people said.
When subpoenas are issued or interviews are requested, it is possible the people being asked to talk or provide documents will reveal publicly what they were asked about.
A small group of lawmakers known as the Gang of Eight was notified of the change in tempo and focus in the investigation at a classified briefing Wednesday evening, the people familiar with the matter said. Then-FBI Director James B. Comey publicly confirmed the existence of the investigation in March.
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said, “I can’t confirm or deny the existence or nonexistence of investigations or targets of investigations.” An FBI spokesman declined to comment.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said, “As the president has stated before, a thorough investigation will confirm that there was no collusion between the campaign and any foreign entity.’’
While there has been a loud public debate in recent days over the question of whether the president might have attempted to obstruct justice in his private dealings with Comey, whom Trump fired last week, people familiar with the matter said investigators on the case are more focused on Russian influence operations and possible financial crimes.
The FBI’s investigation seeks to determine whether and to what extent Trump associates were in contact with Kremlin operatives, what business dealings they might have had in Russia, and whether they in any way facilitated the hacking and publishing of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, during the presidential campaign. Several congressional committees are also investigating, though their probes could not produce criminal charges.
A grand jury in Alexandria, Va., recently issued a subpoena for records related to Flynn’s business, the Flynn Intel Group, which was paid more than $500,000 by a company owned by a Turkish American businessman close to top Turkish officials, according to people familiar with the matter.
The Flynn Intel Group was paid for research on Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who Turkey’s current president believes was responsible for a coup attempt last summer. Flynn retroactively registered with the Justice Department in March as a paid foreign agent for Turkish interests.
Separately from the probe now run by Mueller, Flynn is being investigated by the Pentagon’s top watchdog for his foreign payments. Flynn also received $45,000 to appear in 2015 with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a dinner for RT, a Kremlin-controlled media organization.
Flynn discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with Russia’s ambassador to the United States during the month before Trump took office, and he withheld that fact from the vice president. That prompted then-acting attorney general Sally Yates to warn the White House’s top lawyer that Flynn might be susceptible to blackmail. Flynn stepped down after The Washington Post reported on the contents of the call.
The president has nonetheless seemed to defend his former adviser. A memo by Comey alleged that Trump asked that the probe into Flynn be shut down.
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The White House also has acknowledged that Kushner met with Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, in late November. Kushner also has acknowledged that he met with the head of a Russian development bank, Vnesheconombank, which has been under U.S. sanctions since July 2014. The president’s son-in-law initially omitted contacts with foreign leaders from a national security questionnaire, though his lawyer has said publicly he submitted the form prematurely and informed the FBI soon after that he would provide an update.
Vnesheconombank handles development for the state, and in early 2015, a man purporting to be one of its New York-based employees was arrested and accused of being an unregistered spy.
That man — Evgeny Buryakov — ultimately pleaded guilty and was eventually deported. He had been in contact with former Trump adviser Carter Page, though Page has said he shared only “basic immaterial information and publicly available research documents” with the Russian. Page was the subject of a secret warrant last year issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, based on suspicions he might have been acting as an agent of the Russian government, according to people familiar with the matter. Page has denied any wrongdoing, and accused the government of violating his civil rights.
Ellen Nakashima and Ashley Parker contributed to this report.
The past week and a half has been dizzy with developments:
Believe it or not, Congress can help contextualize this. Its main function is to oversee the federal government, which means lawmakers are in a position to get clarity from the executive branch that can help the rest of us better understand what’s really happening to the Trump administration right now.
Here are five questions Congress can — and should — answer about Trump and Russia:
1) Did Trump do anything illegal in his conversations with Comey?
This is not a question Congress can answer right away. But after news broke this week that Comey had put to paper that the president asked him to drop an FBI investigation of Michael Flynn, it’s a question Congress is trying to answer.
Making the matter more urgent: On Friday, the New York Times reported Trump told Russian diplomats that firing Comey took “great pressure” off the president. “I just fired the head of the FBI,” Trump said, according to notes of the meeting read to the Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
Several committees in Congress have already requested documentation of Comey’s notes about his conversations with Trump. Many of those committees have asked Comey to testify, and late Friday, leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Comey will appear before the panel publicly sometime after Memorial Day. Depending on what Comey says, it could be his word against Trump’s.
And Congress will have to decide whom to believe. Stay tuned on this.
2) Can Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein’s judgment be trusted?
Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein arrives to brief the Senate on May 18 (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Rosenstein is at the center of Washington’s most independent investigation into Russia and Trump ties.
He appointed former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III to a job giving him wide latitude to investigate whatever and whomever he wants under the umbrella of Russia and Trump. But ultimately, Mueller is answerable to the Justice Department. And since Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from all Russia investigations, Mueller is answerable to Rosenstein.
Except Rosenstein’s reputation may have taken a hit in all this.
At least two Democratic senators said Rosenstein told them this week that he knew Trump was going to fire Comey when he wrote a hasty memo outlining what he sees as Comey’s faults.
But Rosenstein also threatened to resign if Trump’s White House kept using his memo — which never explicitly advocated for firing Comey — as the linchpin for doing Comey in.
So, if Rosenstein didn’t want to be the torpedo that sunk a widely respected FBI director, why did he assemble one knowing Trump was going to fire Comey? And what does writing the memo anyway say about Rosenstein’s allegiances?
Capitol Hill hasn’t come to any consensus about whether to give Rosenstein the benefit of the doubt.
“I don’t believe anyone in any way directed him,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), “but in fact he wrote the memo.”
3) Is the special counsel a “witch hunt”?
The president thinks so:
Republicans in Congress aren’t so sure.
Republicans are in the awkward position of welcoming an investigation they never wanted while trying to stay on good terms with a president who really, really doesn’t want it.
“We’re a nation of laws,” was all Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) would say when asked by reporters Thursday to weigh in on Trump’s “witch hunt” characterization. “I have full confidence he will conduct an independent, thorough and fair investigation.”
Now that we know the FBI is targeting a senior White House adviser, Republicans will have to decide whether to keep balancing this tightrope or whether to fully support the independent investigations going on into ties between Russia and the president.
4) How will Congress’s Russia investigations change?
Reporters surround the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), in May. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Congress has two committees — the House and Senate intelligence committees — that are taking the lead on investigating Trump-Russia connections in Congress.
But the special counsel’s investigation arguably takes priority over all that.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he got the indication from Rosenstein that the special counsel will essentially put Congress’s investigations “on the back burner,” because Mueller will have priority over key documents and witnesses.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said maybe Congress’s role will have to change from finding out what happened to finding a way to make sure Russian meddling does not happen again.
“I am convinced that the Congress has a very significant role,” Cummings told reporters Friday.
Congress just has yet to define it.
5) Who will be the new FBI director?
A very important question just got even more massively important now that the FBI’s investigation has found its way into the White House. Trump gets to nominate his replacement for Comey, but the Senate has to approve it. Former senator Joe Lieberman, who served as both a Democrat and independent, is apparently the top contender.
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Democrats say any politician is a hard no because the FBI needs someone aggressively nonpartisan at this moment in time.
“I think it’s a mistake to nominate anyone who’s running for office,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). If Trump does appoint someone with a political past, Senate Democrats are considering what leverage they have to stop it.
(A president’s nominees now require only a majority vote in the Senate, and Republicans have a slim one. But Democrats could filibuster other legislation.)
Also worth asking: Does news of the escalated FBI investigation change the standards of what makes a “good” FBI director for Republicans?
Russian conversations intercepted by US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign indicated that Moscow saw Donald Trump associate Michael Flynn as an ally who could help influence the Republican nominee, CNN reported Saturday.
Sources told the news network that Russian officials were heard boasting of the close relationship they had developed with Flynn, who would eventually be chosen by Trump to serve as his national security adviser — but who was fired from the post only weeks into the new administration’s term.
An Obama administration official told CNN “This was a five-alarm fire from early on, the way the Russians were talking about him.”
It was recently reported that Barack Obama personally warned Trump against naming Flynn as national security adviser, just two days after the November 8 election.
On May 8 former acting attorney general Sally Yates testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the White House was warned in January that Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
Yates confirmed reports that she had told the White House, six days into Trump’s administration, that Flynn, a former military intelligence chief, had not been honest with Vice President Mike Pence about his discussions with the Russian ambassador to Washington, leaving him vulnerable to leverage from Moscow.
President Donald Trump, with Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, White House press secretary Sean Spicer and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, speaks on the phone with with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
It nevertheless took 18 days before the president, pressed by Pence and others, dismissed the retired army lieutenant general, who had advised him on security issues throughout the 2016 presidential campaign.
“We believed that General Flynn was compromised with respect to the Russians,” Yates told the hearing in her first public comments on the scandal which has dogged the opening months of Trump’s presidency. “This was a problem because not only did we believe that the Russians knew this but that they likely had proof of this information. And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.”
Reports Friday said Trump told Russian diplomats last week his firing of “nut job” James Comey had eased the pressure on him, even as the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation had moved into the White House.
White House hopes that Trump could leave scandalous allegations at home were crushed in a one-two punch of revelations that landed shortly after his departure. A Washington Post report, citing anonymous sources familiar with the matter, said a senior Trump adviser is now considered a “person of interest” in the law enforcement investigation into whether Trump’s campaign associates coordinated with Russia in an effort to sway the 2016 election.
And The New York Times reported that the president had told Russian officials he felt the dismissal of his FBI director had relieved “great pressure” on him. The White House has said the firing was unrelated to the FBI’s Russia investigation.
Late Friday, the Senate intelligence committee announced that Comey had agreed to testify at an open hearing at an undetermined date after Memorial Day.
Comey will certainly be asked about encounters that precipitated his firing, including a January dinner in which, Comey has told associates, Trump asked for his loyalty. In the Oval Office weeks later, Comey told associates, the president asked him to shut down an investigation into Flynn.
Comey is known to produce memos documenting especially sensitive or unsettling encounters, such as after the February meeting.
Comey turned down an invitation to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The new headlines were a fresh indication that Trump would not be able to change the subject from what appears to be an intensifying investigation reaching toward the president and his inner circle.
The White House repeated its assertion that a “thorough investigation will confirm that there was no collusion between the campaign and any foreign entity.” It did not deny the Times report that Trump was critical of Comey to the Russians the day after he fired him.
The Times reported Trump noted the Russia investigation as he told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak of his decision to fire Comey.
“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” the Times reported that Trump said during the May 10 meeting. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer called the president’s rhetoric part of his deal-making.
“By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia,” Spicer said. “The investigation would have always continued, and obviously the termination of Comey would not have ended it. Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations.”
As for the separate report of a “person of interest” under investigation, the Post said the senior White House adviser “under scrutiny” is someone close to the president but did not name the person.
Among Trump’s senior White House advisers are several former campaign officials, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway. In March, Kushner volunteered to answer lawmakers’ questions about meetings he had with Russian officials during the transition.
Earlier this week, the Justice Department appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to take over the federal investigation in an effort to re-establish independence from the White House.
The appointment of Mueller as special counsel has drawn generally favorable comments from Democrats and from some Republicans as well.
Trump has reacted furiously to the appointment of a special counsel, a prosecutor with wide authority to investigate Russia’s interference and other potential crimes uncovered. However, at a combative news conference Thursday, he fell short in trying to resolve questions about investigations into his campaign and his first four months in office.
Asked point-blank if he’d done anything that might merit prosecution or even impeachment, Trump said no — and then added of the lingering allegations and questions: “I think it’s totally ridiculous. Everybody thinks so.”
President Trump met with Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, in the White House last week. American journalists were barred, but Russia released photographs.
NPR News: 05-19-2017 10PM ET
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