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Image: President Trump attends Republican policy luncheon at the US Capitol

McConnell's response to Russian attack is back in the spotlight

02/19/18 11:20AM

Donald Trump insisted again yesterday that Barack Obama "did nothing" about the threat posed by Russia's attack on U.S. elections in 2016. This is an odd thing for the Republican president to say.

After all, Trump -- the direct beneficiary of Moscow's intelligence operation -- has spent the better part of two years pretending Russia wasn't responsible for the attack; he's done nothing to punish Russia for its intervention in our elections; and he hasn't taken steps to protect us from further attacks.

But of particular interest is the idea that Trump's predecessor sat on his hands and let the intervention happen. There's certainly room for debate about whether Obama could have gone further, but it's factually wrong to say he "did nothing." What the Democratic president did was try to generate bipartisan support for an American response to a foreign attack -- which did not happen in large part because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn't want it to.

Republican strategist John Weaver, who helped run John McCain's and John Kasich's presidential campaigns, said over the weekend that it's time to "revisit why [McConnell] refused to join [Obama] in warning America the Russians had attacked us." Former Vice President Joe Biden recently raised related concerns.

Former Vice President Joe Biden says he and President Barack Obama decided not to speak out publicly on Russian interference during the 2016 campaign after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to sign a bipartisan statement condemning the Kremlin's role.

Speaking on Tuesday at the Council on Foreign Relations, Biden said the Obama administration sought a united front to dispel concerns that going public with such accusations would be seen as an effort to undermine the legitimacy of the election.

However, McConnell "wanted no part of having a bipartisan commitment saying, essentially, 'Russia's doing this. Stop,' " he said.

I'm glad this comes up from time to time, because it's an under-appreciated part of the larger controversy.

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Image: Donald Trump

Trump's dubious pitch: Russian interference was inconsequential

02/19/18 10:42AM

The day after the Justice Department announced criminal indictments against 13 Russian operatives accused of attacking American elections, White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster spoke at a security conference in Munich, and freely acknowledged reality.

The evidence against Russia, the three-star general said, "is now really incontrovertible and available in the public domain."

Alas, McMaster's boss wasn't pleased. The White House national security advisor, Donald Trump declared on Saturday night, "forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians."

Of course, McMaster didn't "forget" this point. He simply had no reason to repeat a claim with no basis in fact.

It's occasionally worth pausing to find the goalposts. When reports first surfaced of Russian intervention in the American elections, Trump and his team said there was no Russian meddling. Trump World then shifted and said they didn't communicate with Russians during the attack. When that was shown to be a lie, they changed their line again, saying there was no cooperation between Russia and the campaign.

Now that we know Russia did attack the elections, and took steps to help put Trump in power, and Team Trump was in communication with Russia during the attack, and top members of Trump's inner circle welcomed Moscow's intervention, the emphasis has shifted anew: the attack was ultimately inconsequential, the argument goes, because Russia's intervention didn't affect the outcome of the race.

In other words, the president and his team desperately want you to forget all those other, discredited talking points, and believe the foreign adversary's intelligence operation simply didn't matter in practical terms.

Trump is pushing the line. So is Vice President Mike Pence. So is White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Some members of Trump World have gone so far as to insist U.S. intelligence agencies have endorsed the talking point -- which isn't even close to being true.

But that's not the only reason you should be skeptical of the president's latest pitch.

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Image: Students are evacuated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during a shooting incident in Parkland

Exploiting tragedy, Trump connects Parkland shooting, Russia probe

02/19/18 10:00AM

Occasionally, those who watch Donald Trump's presidency reach a familiar conclusion. "He's reached rock bottom," observers say. "Trump has abandoned basic human decency to such a brazen degree, he can't stoop lower." I'm personally inclined to point to his post-Charlottesville comments as a unique low point for the modern American presidency.

But just when it seems Trump couldn't possibly go any lower, over the weekend he hit the bottom of the barrel, drilled a hole, and found a way to reach new depths.

Over the weekend, for example, the president thought it'd be a good idea to connect the mass murders at a Parkland, Fla., high school to the federal investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal.

"Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable," Trump said in a Tweet shortly after 11 p.m.

"They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign -- there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud!" the president said on Twitter.

To the extent that reality still has any meaning, it's worth pausing to note that the complaint is substantively absurd. The current Federal Bureau of Investigation employs approximately 35,000 people. The idea that the FBI lacks the personnel to conduct a counter-intelligence investigation and investigate possible mass murders is outrageously foolish, even for this president. The bureau doesn't have to choose one priority or the other.

For that matter, Trump's incessant insistence that there was "no collusion" is still very much at odds with all the evidence pointing to collusion.

But relevant factual details aside, what stands out as especially noteworthy about Trump's missive is its utter moral depravity.

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Trump's whopper: 'I never said Russia did not meddle in the election'

02/19/18 09:22AM

We're pretty accustomed to Donald Trump throwing occasional Twitter tantrums, but his avalanche of nonsense over the weekend was startling, even for him. You've heard the phrase, "Never let 'em see you sweat"? Following Friday's indictments against the president's Russian benefactors, Trump ignored the adage in rather profound ways.

But of particular interest was a curious denial. "I never said Russia did not meddle in the election," he tweeted. "I said 'it may be Russia, or China or another country or group, or it may be a 400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer.'"

At face value, the president is trying to suggest he sliced the truth thin: he didn't explicitly say Russia was innocent, the argument goes, so much as he raised the possibility that Russia may not be guilty. As such, Trump -- who likes to pretend he's incapable of saying something that's incorrect -- wasn't technically wrong.

That's a nice try, I suppose, but reality is stubborn.

Mr. Trump is referring to comments he made during the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, 2016. But as The New York Times reported in a fact-check in June, Mr. Trump has also explicitly disagreed with the assessment of various intelligence agencies or cast doubt on Russia's role in the vote.

The Times' article documents eight examples of Trump telling the public that he did not believe Russia intervened in the 2016 election, including the unambiguous assertion, "I don't believe they interfered."

The list isn't intended to be comprehensive, and it omitted plenty of related examples, many of which CNBC flagged. One of my personal favorites came during the presidential transition period, when the Republican, confronted with a U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia intervened on Trump's behalf, called the findings "ridiculous," adding, "I don't believe it."

It was one of several instances in which Trump rejected the findings of U.S. intelligence professionals, whom he's routinely mocked and publicly criticized for daring to, we now know, tell the truth about a foreign adversary's intelligence operation.

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White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds the daily briefing at the White House, September 12, 2017.

White House caught fibbing about Russian operatives' indictments

02/19/18 08:40AM

When Donald Trump makes ridiculously untrue comments, few are surprised. The president has a reputation for breathtaking dishonesty, which is well deserved. Making matters much worse, however, is the degree to which his White House makes no real effort to be more trustworthy.

For example, the White House issued a formal written statement late Friday responding to the federal indictment of 13 Russian operatives who are accused of attacking our elections to help put Trump in power. A Washington Post analysis described the statement as "extremely dishonest," and documented several demonstrable falsehoods -- none of which has been corrected.

But West Wing officials weren't content to stop there. On Twitter, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "Unlike Obama, [Trump] isn't going to be pushed around by Russia or anybody else." That might be slightly less laughable if Obama hadn't imposed sanctions on Russia, which is the opposite of what Trump did.

But it was one of Sanders' colleagues who took the offensive to another level. The HuffPost noted:

Just a day after the special counsel leading the investigation indicted 13 Russians and three Russian organizations, the White House deputy press secretary said it's the media and Democrats who have "created chaos more than the Russians" for their coverage of the probe into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election.

"There are two groups that have created chaos more than the Russians, and that's the Democrats and the mainstream media," said Hogan Gidley in a Saturday "Fox & Friends" interview.

So, on Friday, the Justice Department brought criminal charges against Russian operatives who attacked our democracy. And on Saturday, Trump's deputy press secretary effectively defended the Russians, saying it's Democrats and American journalists who are actually responsible for creating "chaos."

What happened after Gidley's absurdity is every bit as important as absurdity itself.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump hosts former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

After indictments, Trump lashes out wildly (but not at Russia)

02/19/18 08:00AM

Friday's federal indictments against Russian operatives responsible for attacking American elections in 2016 weren't just important; they were historic. There's no meaningful precedent for the U.S. government detailing an illegal foreign intelligence operation intended to put an adversary's preferred candidate in power.

The indictments are therefore more than just a legal document: they're an instrument through which the United States is pushing back against those who attacked us.

That significance is amplified by our president's reluctance to take any actions of his own.

Throughout Donald Trump's brief career in politics, we've been told repeatedly that when he's attacked, Trump punches back 10 times harder. It's precisely why, Trump World explains, he so often gets hysterical in response to minor slights.

But we're occasionally reminded of the limits of the principle. Trump lashes out at those who attack him personally, but those who attack the United States should apparently expect far less.

A Washington Post  analysis noted over the weekend that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's indictments have "laid down a challenge to the president that no longer can be ignored." To which Trump effectively replied, "Oh yeah? Watch me."

President Donald Trump railed against the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election Saturday night into Sunday, sending off a stream of tweets attacking the FBI, CNN, the Democratic Party, his own national security adviser, former President Barack Obama and the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

He did not criticize Russia, or voice concern over Vladimir Putin's attempts to undermine U.S. elections.

By last night, Trump's target list expanded to include Oprah Winfrey -- whom the president described as "very insecure," irony be damned -- after he saw a television segment he didn't like.

The avalanche of bizarre tweets included all kinds of easily discredited falsehoods. What they did not include was (1) any acknowledgement of the fact that Russian operatives took steps to elect him; (2) any concern about the foreign attack on the United States; (3) any evidence that Russia should expect consequences for its crimes; or (4) any assurances that Trump intends to prevent similar attacks in the future.

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Friday's Mini-Report, 2.16.18

02/16/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Parkland: "Less than six weeks before Nikolas Cruz committed one of the deadliest school shootings in American history, someone who knew him called an FBI tip line to complain about him, the agency revealed on Friday. But no one followed up."

* White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has "approved an overhaul of how the White House manages security-clearance investigations, acknowledging missteps but putting the onus on the FBI and the Justice Department to now hand-deliver updates and provide more information."

* Keep an eye on Shulkin: "The secretary of veterans affairs, David J. Shulkin, for a year enjoyed rare bipartisan support in Washington as he reformed his department, but now officials in the Trump administration are trying to replace him."

* Again? "Jared Kushner quietly filed an addendum to his personal financial disclosure adding even more previously undisclosed business interests in recent weeks -- and may have even more to disclose, according to real estate documents shared with TPM."

* Really? "9 out of 10 public schools now hold mass shooting drills for students."

* I meant to mention this 4th Circuit ruling yesterday: "A second federal appeals court ruled on Thursday against President Trump's latest effort to limit travel from countries said to pose a threat to the nation's security."

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Image: President Trump attends Republican policy luncheon at the US Capitol

Trump comes up short in response to new Mueller indictment

02/16/18 04:50PM

Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team announced the indictment today of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities who allegedly interfered in the 2016 presidential election, trying to boost Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. The news further discredits the president's longtime claim that that Russian assistance for his campaign is a "hoax."

And so, Trump, who was reportedly briefed on the indictment this morning by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, thought it'd be a good idea to tweet about the news with a slightly different posture.

"Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!"

OK, let's take those one at a time.

1. "Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President." That's a little dubious -- there were plenty of headlines before 2015 about Trump's possible candidacy -- but I'm not sure why Trump thinks that's important. What today's indictment documents are the efforts Russian operatives took on his behalf in 2016. The fact that the network's operations were in place beforehand is interesting, but not exculpatory.

For that matter, the fact that the president is now referencing Russia's "campaign" is a rather dramatic departure. For the better part of two years, Trump has questioned whether the Russia meddling happened at all -- and the more U.S. intelligence agencies said otherwise, the more Trump publicly belittled American intelligence professionals.

Indeed, as recently as November, Trump told reporters he asked Russian President Vladimir Putin -- twice -- and Putin "said he didn't meddle." Trump added, "I just asked him again, and he said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they're saying he did.... Putin said he did not do what they said he did. And, you know, there are those that say, if he did do it, he wouldn't have gotten caught, all right? Which is a very interesting statement."

That posture was ridiculous at the time. Now even Trump is grudgingly acknowledging Russia's "campaign."

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A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)

Indictment crushes Trump's 'hoax' claims about Russian interference

02/16/18 02:32PM

For the better part of two years, Donald Trump balked at the very idea of Russian operatives trying to help elect him. The Republican president insisted the whole argument was a "hoax," facts and intelligence community assessments, be damned.

I know Trump isn't much of a reader, but someone really ought to show him today's indictment from the Justice Department.

Thirteen Russian nationals and three Russian entities have been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of interfering in the 2016 presidential election -- including supporting the Trump campaign and "disparaging" Hillary Clinton, special counsel Robert Mueller announced Friday.

The indictments -- part of Mueller's ongoing investigation -- are the first criminal indictments tied directly to Russian interference in the 2016 election. [...]

According to the indictment, some defendants traveled to U.S. under false pretenses to collect intelligence and to "reach significant number of Americans for purposes of interfering with the U.S. political system, including the presidential election of 2016."

The full, detailed, 37-page indictment is online here (pdf) and it's worth your time. It paints a rather extraordinary picture of an extensive Russian interference operation.

And while I'm not an attorney, and I'll defer to those with more authority to delve into the indictment in more detail, several things have jumped out at me:

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Bacardi Presents Playboy's Super Saturday Night Party

Trump faces questions about another adult entertainer affair

02/16/18 12:54PM

When talking about Donald Trump's alleged affairs with women from the adult-entertainment industry, it's probably best to ask, "Which one?"

The $130,000 pre-election payment to Stormy Daniels is already the subject of an ongoing controversy, but a few days before the 2016 election, the Wall Street Journal published a separate article about a Playboy centerfold named Karen McDougal. As the story goes, the company that owns the National Enquirer paid McDougal $150,000 for her story about her affair with Trump, received the exclusive rights, and then didn't publish it.

There was, naturally, ample speculation about whether the tabloid's parent company, American Media Inc., did this as a "catch and kill" favor to help the Republican candidate -- buying the story so no one would see it. The company's CEO, David Pecker, is a Trump friend and supporter.

Now, however, the controversy is back in the news, with new details about how Trump and his allies concealed the alleged affair through secret meetings, payoffs, and legal arrangements.

Karen McDougal, a former Playboy Playmate of the Year, documented her alleged nine-month affair with Trump in an eight-page handwritten note shared with The New Yorker.

McDougal, 46, claims Trump once offered to pay her after they had sex in a private bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where many of their purported liaisons took place. She alleges Trump tried to avoid creating a record that might expose their relationship by having her pay for her own flights and then reimbursing her.

According to McDougal's account, she had a consensual sexual relationship with Trump in 2006, roughly two years after he married Melania Trump, his third and current wife. McDougal said the relationship ended in April 2007, about a year after Trump's youngest son was born.

Asked about the story, a White House spokesperson said, "This is an old story that is just more fake news. The president says he never had a relationship with McDougal."

That's an interesting choice of words.

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