The Daily 202: Trump’s warning to Comey deepens doubts about his respect for the rule of law – Washington Post

With Breanne Deppisch

THE BIG IDEA: The biggest news out of Donald Trump’s Thursday interview with NBC was his confession that the Russia investigation was on his mind when he fired FBI Director James Comey. Undercutting 48 hours of denials by his aides, the president said: “In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story; it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’”

But what may ultimately get Trump into bigger trouble is his story about Comey assuring him he was not under investigation during a one-on-one dinner at the White House. Lester Holt asked the president to elaborate on his claim, made in the letter firing Comey, that he’d been told three times he was not under federal investigation. “He wanted to stay at the FBI, and I said I’ll, you know, consider and see what happens,” Trump said. “But we had a very nice dinner, and at that time he told me, ‘You are not under investigation.’”

(Watch a 13-minute video of Holt’s sit-down here.)

It would be a big dang deal if the FBI director was discussing an ongoing investigation with the president — generally prohibited by Justice Department policy — at the same time he was also asking to keep his job.

But on the front page of today’s New York Times, Michael Schmidt paints a very different picture of the Jan. 27 dinner: “The conversation that night, Mr. Comey now believes, was a harbinger of his downfall … according to two people who have heard his account of the dinner.… As they ate, the president and Mr. Comey made small talk about the election and the crowd sizes at Mr. Trump’s rallies. The president then turned the conversation to whether Mr. Comey would pledge his loyalty to him. Mr. Comey declined to make that pledge. Instead, Mr. Comey has recounted to others, he told Mr. Trump that he would always be honest with him, but that he was not ‘reliable’ in the conventional political sense.… By Mr. Comey’s account, his answer to Mr. Trump’s initial question apparently did not satisfy the president.… Later in the dinner, Mr. Trump again said to Mr. Comey that he needed his loyalty. Mr. Comey again replied that he would give him ‘honesty’ and did not pledge his loyalty.… But Mr. Trump pressed him on whether it would be ‘honest loyalty.’ ‘You will have that,’ Mr. Comey told his associates he responded.”

— Apparently reacting to that account, Trump went on a tweetstorm this morning: 

— Irate about the wall-to-wall coverage of the contradictions and inconsistencies in his and his staff’s evolving statements, the president also threatened this morning to cancel the daily press briefings: 

— Bigger picture: This saga, which the president just escalated in a big way, should be viewed through the prism of Trump’s entire career. Threatening to release a secret tape of the FBI director, in addition to asking him if he is under investigation during what was essentially a job interview, would both fit with a pattern dating back to when the president countersued the Justice Department over alleged racial discrimination at his family’s apartment buildings.

Connect these dots, and you see a tapestry that suggests this president views the rule of law with disdain:

  • Remember when he attacked U.S. federal judge Gonzalo Curiel’s ability to adjudicate a fraud lawsuit against Trump University last summer because his parents were from Mexico?
  • Or when he attacked a federal judge in Seattle and later the Ninth Circuit in February for blocking his travel ban? The president personally called out James L. Robart for putting “our country in such peril” and warned: “If something happens blame him and the court system.”
  • He fired acting attorney general Sally Yates after she warned the White House counsel that the national security adviser was compromised and vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians. Ostensibly Trump dismissed Yates because she refused to defend what she saw as an unconstitutional travel ban. We learned this week that the career prosecutor had been kept in the dark before it was unveiled.
  • At a debate last October, Trump said he would “instruct the attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look” into Hillary Clinton if he got elected. “It’s awfully good someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” Clinton said. To which Trump replied, “Because you’d be in jail!”

— Legal experts and DOJ veterans, meanwhile, express doubts about Trump’s account of his conversation with Comey, Devlin Barrett and Philip Rucker report on the front page of The Post. “I just can’t even begin to think about that comment being true,” said Michael Greenberger, a law professor at the University of Maryland who previously worked in the Justice Department. “It defies belief in general because of the practices of not commenting on investigations, and it would especially defy belief in the case of Comey, who prides himself on strict observance of propriety.” Greenberger noted the implication of Trump’s statement is severe. “I just have a very hard time imagining that,” he said, though he added he also didn’t think Trump simply asking that question came close to a criminal act of trying to obstruct the investigation.

— Another dispute: Trump claimed during the NBC interview that Comey requested the dinner. Comey’s allies are adamant that Trump asked for it. One current and one former senior FBI official close to Comey told NBC that the White House asked for the dinner. “The president is not correct,” the former official said. “The White House called him out of the blue. Comey didn’t want to do it. He didn’t even want the rank and file at the FBI to know about it.” But in the end: “He’s still the commander in chief. He’s your boss. How do you say no?”

The same former senior FBI official also said Comey would never have told the president he was not under investigation. “He tried to stay away from it [the Russian-ties investigation],” the official, who worked closely with Comey and keeps in touch with him, per Ken Dilanian and Pete Williams. “He would say, ‘Look sir, I really can’t get into it, and you don’t want me to.'”

— “Comey thought he had a year,” Chris Smith reports in Vanity Fair, quoting people familiar with his thinking. “That’s the amount of time it was likely going to take the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General to probe Comey’s actions in handling the investigation of Clinton’s e-mails. If Trump was looking for a pretext to fire [him], a critical inspector general’s report could presumably provide it. Next year.”

— Trump’s tweets this morning will dramatically ratchet up the pressure on Comey to testify before Congress so that he can sort all this out, as well as clear his name. If he does not rebut the president’s version of events, Comey’s legacy will suffer. Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) have invited Comey to address the Senate Intelligence Committee next Tuesday, but he still has not responded.

— Even if Comey said what Trump claims, Eugene Robinson notes that typical investigative procedure is to start at the bottom of an organization and work your way up: “‘You are not under investigation’ does not mean ‘you will never be under investigation.’”

— There’s another question also worth considering: If the focus of an investigation asks an FBI agent whether he or she is under investigation, does the agent have to tell the truth? “I was a criminal investigator for years, and if someone had asked me if they were under investigation and they were under investigation, I would have said no,” Dana Ridenour, who spent 21 years with the FBI as a special agent, told Philip Bump. The reason was simple: She wouldn’t want to tip off the target of the investigation. “As a criminal investigator,” she said, “I don’t know of any reason I would have to disclose to somebody that they were under investigation.”

— The White House nixed tentative plans for Trump to visit FBI headquarters today after the president was warned that he would “not be greeted warmly” at the agency, per NBC. FBI officials made it clear the presidential visit would “not draw many smiles or cheers” after Trump unceremoniously fired a very popular director.

THE CREDIBILITY GAP:

— This White House has lost the presumption of truthfulness:

Another very important takeaway from the NBC interview is that Trump admitted the memo by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was basically a formality that he had ordered up to create a justification for firing the director. “I was going to fire Comey,” Trump told Holt. “I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.”

Compare that quote to some of the previous denials by the president’s spokesmen. On Tuesday night, press secretary Sean Spicer claimed that Trump was not even aware the Justice Department was thinking about firing Comey until he received the memo from Rosenstein. Then, in Spicer’s telling, he acted swiftly that same day. “It was all him,” Spicer said of Rosenstein. “No one from the White House. That was a DOJ decision.” Sarah Huckabee Sanders reiterated the same talking point on Wednesday: “When you receive a report that is so clear and a recommendation by someone like the deputy attorney general, you have no choice but to act.”

— Sources have told The Post that Rosenstein threatened to resign after the narrative emerging from the White House cast him as a prime mover of the decision.

Today’s Wall Street Journal adds that Rosenstein pressed White House counsel Don McGahn to correct what he felt was an inaccurate White House depiction of the events. “Mr. Rosenstein left the impression that he couldn’t work in an environment where facts weren’t accurately reported,” per Del Quentin Wilber, Aruna Viswanatha and Rebecca Ballhaus.

Trying to clean up the mess yesterday, Huckabee Sanders claimed falsely that the White House had never made any attempt to pin the decision on Rosenstein. She also suggested during the daily press briefing that Trump was trying to accelerate the conclusion of the investigation by axing Comey: “Look, again, the point is, we want this to come to its conclusion. We want it to come to its conclusion with integrity. And we think that we’ve actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.”

— What’s more, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday, acting FBI director Andrew McCabe directly rejected the White House’s characterization of the Russian probe as a low priority and delivered a passionate defense of Comey. From Matt Zapotosky and Karoun Demirjian: “McCabe, who had been the No. 2 official in the FBI until President Trump fired Comey this week, said that the bureau considered the probe of possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump team during the 2016 election campaign a ‘highly significant investigation’ and that it would not be derailed because of a change in leadership. McCabe’s assertion directly contradicted [Huckabee Sanders’s] description of the Russian case as ‘probably one of the smallest things that they’ve got going on their plate.’”

McCabe promised that if the White House tries to interfere in the bureau’s work, he will alert the committee, and he promised he would not offer any status updates about the matter to the president or those who work for him. (Read the full transcript of McCabe’s testimony here.)

— This story is likely to dominate the news at least through next week.

Rosenstein may testify next week or possibly brief the full Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) jointly extended an invitation for such an all-hands meeting. Aides expect  he’ll accept.

The deputy attorney general made a surprise appearance at the Capitol yesterday to meet in a secure facility with the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee to discuss “deconfliction” — keeping the FBI’s and committee’s investigations of alleged ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government from stepping on each other’s toes. Afterward, Mark Warner said he “still has concerns” about Rosenstein, while Richard Burr refused to say whether he has confidence in Rosenstein to oversee the Justice Department’s Russia-related investigations. (Karoun, Ed O’Keefe and Paul Kane have more about the scene on the Hill.)

— Trump’s admission that the Russia investigation weighed heavily on his deliberations about firing Comey will also create new headaches for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions, who admittedly consulted with the president as he made the decision, recused himself from the Russia probe and all matters relating to the 2016 campaign, including the investigation into Clinton’s server.

“Refusing to recuse oneself from a conflict or breaking the promise to recuse from a conflict is a serious breach of legal ethics,” conservative Post blogger Jennifer Rubin writes. “He needs to testify immediately under oath; if there is no satisfactory explanation, he must resign.”

“Someone could file a bar complaint, and/or one with DOJ’s office of professional responsibility, if Sessions had a conflict of interest when it came to the firing decision, and if he did not follow the ethics rules, including those of DOJ by acting when he had a conflict of interest,” Norman Eisen, who worked as an ethics lawyer in the Obama administration,  told Rubin. “The fact that he broke his recusal commitment, if he did, would be relevant context, and violating an agreement can sometimes in itself be an ethics violation.”

— Michael Gerson, a former top speechwriter for George W. Bush, writes in his column that “all of this is consistent with — even mandated by — Trump’s contempt for institutions”: “This was always the main question: Would President Trump go beyond mere Twitter abuse and move against institutions that limit his power? By any reasonable standard, we now have an answer. … He has called the FBI investigation process ‘rigged.’ If the system is dirty, only a fool would not play by the same rules. This is the logic of conspiratorial disdain for government. An independent, nonpolitical FBI? What a joke. It is all political. And politics is power. And power is making people do what you want, or destroying those who get in your way. The gospel according to Nixon…

“It is dangerous to have a leader with disdain for the law. It is also dangerous to have a leader who believes that anything legal is permissible,” Gerson adds. “Trump’s firing of Comey was legal. It also violated a democratic norm — a proper presidential deference for an ongoing investigation and the independence of law enforcement. There is no evidence that such considerations even occur to Trump. In their place: What kind of sucker would not press all his advantages? Republicans often talk of judicial restraint; less, recently, of presidential restraint. Presidential limits are often found in norms, not laws — what Lord Moulton called ‘obedience to the unenforceable.’”

— Charles Krauthammer thinks Comey probably needed to go, but the conservative columnist believes Trump could easily have arranged for him to gracefully step aside: “Instead we got this — a political ax murder, brutal even by Washington standards. (Or even Roman standards. Where was the vein-opening knife and the warm bath?) No final meeting, no letter of resignation, no presidential thanks, no cordial parting. Instead, a blindsided Comey ends up in a live-streamed O.J. Bronco ride, bolting from Los Angeles to be flown, defrocked, back to Washington. … If Trump thought this would kill the (Russia) inquiry and the story, or perhaps even just derail it somewhat, he’s made the blunder of the decade. Whacking Comey has brought more critical attention to the Russia story than anything imaginable. … So why did he do it? Now we know: The king asked whether no one would rid him of this troublesome priest, and got so impatient he did it himself.”

— A few hours after Trump fired Comey, a prominent Republican politician gave David Ignatius this blunt assessment of the Trump White House: “These guys scare me.” “Normally, it’s wise not to overstate the importance of particular events,” Ignatius writes in his column today. “They’re rarely as earthshaking as they initially seem. But this may be one of those moments when the worst-case situation is actually happening: The president really did just fire the person who was running an investigation in which he is a possible target. How should conscientious citizens respond to that? … The Trump presidency is a test. We’ll find out how strong our institutions are and, even more, whether this generation of leaders is worthy of our Founding Fathers. So far, the evidence is mixed.”

— “It’s impossible not to compare today to Watergate. And our officials are falling short,” writes Philip Allen Lacovara, a former U.S. deputy solicitor general in the Justice Department who served as counsel to Watergate special prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski: “One comparison — the behavior of senior Justice Department officials in the face of presidential pressure — is disappointing. Another — the insistent focus of the president and his allies on stopping damaging leaks rather than getting to the bottom of the underlying conduct — is chilling.”

— Even longtime Trump supporter Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman from Illinois who now has a syndicated talk-radio show, thinks firing Comey, and using a bogus cover story, represents “an abuse of power”: “That’s tin-pot dictator territory.” “Whenever I criticize Trump, I lose listeners and Twitter followers,” Walsh writes. “And I don’t take that lightly — I don’t want to lose the folks who are good enough to tune in daily to hear what I have to say. But if I start pulling my punches just because I’m a Trump backer, then I’m not really doing my job. … These days, for a conservative radio or TV talker, the easiest way to go is to be pro-Trump 100 percent of the time. Exhibit A is Sean Hannity.… [But] I believe a true Trump supporter should call him out when he’s wrong. It’s the only way to help him make good on the promises he made. … Every time he does wrong, Trump makes it harder to get [good] things done.”

— Additional Republican lawmakers are joining the call for an independent investigation:

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who represents a suburban Denver district carried by Clinton, just endorsed a special counsel. “There’s so much distrust and politicizing that it would be better for everybody that it had a special counsel,” he told the Denver Post. “Do I think there’s anything there? No. But I think until this politicizing issue comes off the table, it will be hard for Congress to get anything done. … I don’t think the FBI is best to handle this. They were compromised under Comey and it will take time under a new leader. Comey was a horrible director who should have been fired on day one, but he wasn’t, and it does look odd that he’s fired now, in the middle of the investigation.”

Other House Republicans calling for an independent investigation include: Justin Amash (Mich.), Barbara Comstock (Va.), Carlos Curbelo (Fla.), Darrell Issa (Calif.), Walter Jones (N.C.), Tom McClintock (Calif.) and Erik Paulsen (Minn.).

Three GOP senators are calling for or expressing openness to setting up an independent investigation: John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Lisa Murkowski. Another 17 have said they don’t see why Trump had to fire Comey, but they haven’t expressed support for another outside investigation. (Amber Phillips whip count is here.)

— Who Trump picks as Comey’s replacement is becoming more and more significant:

The Post’s Editorial Board calls on senators of both parties to not accept any nominee for FBI director unless they are completely independent: “It is essential that this White House not be allowed to export its credibility-destroying dysfunction to the Justice Department and the FBI.”

“Some of the names being floated — such as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and former GOP senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire — would be disastrous choices,” adds conservative columnist Marc Thiessen. “Trump cannot pick a partisan ally or elected official. He needs to pick someone above politics — a longtime FBI or Justice Department veteran, or a respected federal judge — who will command instant respect on Capitol Hill and inside the bureau. … If the president loses just three Republican votes for his FBI candidate, he would suffer a devastating congressional defeat. Moreover, a bad choice could prompt enough Republicans to break away and support Democrats in the creation of an independent counsel … A strong nomination erases a host of perceived sins. So Trump had better pick wisely. Things could get much better — or much worse — depending on his next move.”

WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

— Jeff Sessions issued a sweeping new criminal charging policy, overturning a memo from the Obama administration and directing his federal prosecutors to charge defendants with the most serious, provable crimes carrying the most severe penalties possible. Sari Horwitz and Matt Zapotosky report: “The Eric Holder memo (had) instructed prosecutors to avoid charging certain defendants with drug offenses that would trigger long mandatory minimum sentences. Defendants who met a set of criteria such as not belonging to a large-scale drug trafficking organization, gang or cartel, qualified for lesser charges — and in turn less prison time — under Holder’s policy. But Sessions’s new charging policy, sent to more than 5,000 assistant U.S. attorneys across the country and all assistant attorneys general in Washington, orders prosecutors to ‘charge and purse the most serious, readily provable offense’ and rescinds Holder’s policy immediately. The Sessions memo marks the first significant criminal justice effort by the Trump administration to bring back the toughest practices of the drug war, which had fallen out of favor in recent years with a bipartisan movement to undo the damaging effects of mass incarceration.”

— Congressional leaders reached a bipartisan deal to make it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire employees, overhauling long-guaranteed civil service protections to bring accountability to the troubled agency. The agreement, announced Thursday by key senators and led by Marco Rubio, clears a path for passage of a dramatic change that has stalled in Congress for three years following a scandal over waiting times at VA hospitals. Lisa Rein reports: “Few managers or their staffs were let go for falsifying appointment records to look like they were meeting goals set by the agency, and the real delays resulted in the deaths of dozens of sick veterans as they waited to see a doctor. The episode embarrassed the Obama administration and cost the former president’s VA secretary his job. While House Republicans, after the scandal, sought to let VA officials quickly terminate poor performers or employees involved in misconduct, federal employee unions and their Democratic allies in Congress resisted what they view as a move to undercut due-process rights. … The bill could be an early test of how far Congress is willing to go to erode job protections for 2 million civil servants across the government.”

— Another rollback of the Obama legacy: Trump’s EPA just reached a settlement with a Canadian company hoping to build a massive gold, copper and molybdenum mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed — clearing the way for the firm to apply for federal permits. Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report: “The settlement between the EPA and the Pebble Limited Partnership … could revive a controversial project that was effectively scuttled under the Obama administration. And it underscores how [Trump’s] commitment to support mining extends far beyond coal, to gold, copper and other minerals. … While the move does not grant immediate approval to the Pebble Mine project … it reverses the agency’s 2014 determination that a large-scale mine in the area be barred because it would imperil the region’s valuable sockeye salmon fishery.”

— MARK YOUR CALENDARS: Our next “Daily 202 Live” is next Wednesday evening with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). We’ll talk from 6:15 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Post headquarters about the news of the day and his new book: “The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis – and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.” I’ll include a link to RSVP in Monday’s 202. You can follow @PostLive on Twitter for more information.

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. Ex-Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) was convicted of taking for herself thousands of dollars for a bogus charity – shelling out the funds instead for lavish parties, trips and shopping excursions. She was found guilty on 18 out of 22 charges — including lying on her taxes and on her congressional financial disclosure forms – and could spend the rest of her life in prison. No sentencing date has been set. (Miami Herald)
  2. ICE said it has arrested 1,378 people in a six-week initiative targeting violent gangs in the U.S., marking what officials called the largest gang crackdown in the agency’s history. Officials said more than two-thirds of those arrested were U.S. citizens, and the largest groups targeted were the Bloods, Crips, and MS-13. (Maria Sacchetti)
  3. Authorities removed a statue of Jefferson Davis in New Orleans, capping days of tension and protests over the fate of the city’s 116-year-old monument. As crews hoisted the statue of the Confederate leader from his longtime perch, a group of protesters gathered at the base, chanting “President Davis.” (J. Freedom du Lac, Janell Ross and Avi Selk)
  4. The Mormon Church, which automatically enrolls every male child in the congregation as a Boy Scout, said it will stop participating in the group’s teen programs. Scouting has taken an increasingly liberal stance on gay and transgender men. For now, church officials said they will continue participation in a separate program for students ages 8-13. (Julie Zauzmer)
  5. 2020 watch: Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) spoke to the Greater Des Moines Partnership yesterday. About 200 representatives from eight Iowa counties are in D.C. for their annual fly-in. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), another potential presidential candidate (in 2024), spoke to the same group on Wednesday. (Des Moines Register)
  6. A Republican lawmaker in Oklahoma is under fire after suggesting a new proposal to save the state money: rounding up the state’s 82,000 non-English-speaking students and handing them over to ICE authorities. State Rep. Mike Ritze, a physician by trade, disagrees with the idea that the state should educate non-citizens and claims his proposal would save the state $60 million. It is unclear whether he accounted for the fact that many ESL students are, in fact, U.S. citizens. (Peter Holley)
  7. An Australian senator became the first-ever woman to breast-feed her infant in the country’s parliament, earning praise – and criticism – from around the world. (New York Times)
  8. Cincinnati authorities have reopened an investigation into the death of Gabriel Taye, an enthusiastic, well-dressed eight-year-old who loved neckties, and – horrifyingly – would go on to hang himself using one of them. Police say peers had bullied him to the point of unconsciousness in the school bathroom just two days before – video footage that the school district obtained but declined to make public. (Samantha Schmidt)
  9. An sheriff’s helicopter crew in Orange County, California, warned a group of paddle-boarders to get out of the water, yelling down by loudspeaker that they were “within feet” of fifteen great white sharks and should “exit the water in a calm manner.” A woman was recently critically injured by a 10-foot shark on the same Dana Point beach. (AP)

TWO PROFILES OF TRUMP INSIDERS:

— “The bodyguard chosen by Trump to deliver the ‘terminated’ letter to the FBI director,” by Jenna Johnson and Rosalind S. Helderman: “Former police detective Keith Schiller was at the Manhattan prosecutor’s office more than 18 years ago when he spotted a local celebrity: Marla Maples, there to discuss an alleged theft and flanked by a man described as her bodyguard. ‘I looked at him, totally not impressed by his stature,’ [Schiller recalled], ‘A light goes off. I said: ‘Bodyguard, I can do this’ …  I’m no stranger to putting my hands on people.’ Now with Trump in the White House, Schiller sits at a desk just steps from the president as director of Oval Office Operations. He serves as one of Trump’s most trusted aides … That a person with Schiller’s profile is now a senior White House aide with near-round-the-clock access to the president is just one more way in which the Trump White House has broken with norms set by previous administrations …

“Schiller has long been critical of Comey, telling those around him that the FBI was not aggressive enough in its investigation of [Clinton’s] use of a private email server, and his views helped shape those of his boss. â€¦ He has also repeatedly gotten physical on Trump’s behalf, punching a protester outside of Trump Tower, forcibly removing a reporter from a news conference and confronting many who interrupted Trump’s campaign rallies.”

— “Sarah Huckabee Sanders is suddenly the star of the feel-bad story of the day,” by Paul Farhi: “In two days of briefings, Sanders has kept her answers short and crisp, her voice steady and calm and inflected with her Arkansas upbringing. She has rarely interrupted her questioners with Spicer-ian interjections of ‘Hold on!’ — lending a somewhat less combative and adversarial quality to the briefings. … Her relative poise in the face of a skeptical news media immediately gave rise to speculation among journalists that Sanders was in line to replace Spicer as Trump’s chief spokesperson. There’s nothing to support that notion, but that didn’t stop CNN from mulling over the possibility.”

— Buzzing online: Will Cecily Strong, who resembles Sarah, play her on “Saturday Night Live” tomorrow?

— Inside the West Wing, the mood right now is dour. From Politico: “Several White House officials said aides who didn’t need to see the president stayed away from the Oval Office — and kept their doors closed. … Trump did the lengthy interview with Holt even though some on his staff believed it was a bad idea and gave his answers off-the-cuff. One person who spoke to him said he’d been ‘fixated’ on his news coverage and believed his press team was failing him and that he needed ‘to take the situation into his own hands.’ …

“The episode highlights two fundamental issues of the Trump presidency: It is often impossible to work for Trump in the White House — and it is often impossible for Trump to be happy with those who work for him. ‘They’re hostages,’ said longtime political consultant Mark Corallo, who served as Attorney General John Ashcroft’s spokesman under President George W. Bush. …

“Another White House official said there is a ‘widespread recognition this was handled terribly but not a real sense that we can do much here.’ …

“Sanders gave staff members a stern lecture on leaking to the media during a staff meeting Thursday morning, according to several people familiar with the incident, saying it was damaging the White House. The lecture seemed to take staffers by surprise, said one person present. ‘The rules aren’t normal,’ said one White House official. ‘If you can’t work in that universe, then don’t work here.’”

CONFLICT OF INTEREST WATCH:

— “Changes to a controversial visa program under consideration by the Trump administration could hurt a real-estate project partially owned by the family of [Jared Kushner].” Shawn Boburg reports: “The decision, which rests with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, stands as an early test of how the Trump administration will handle matters that could carry significant consequences for the financial interests of the president’s extended family. At the center of an ongoing controversy is the Kushner Cos.’ use of a federal visa program to raise $150 million from Chinese investors for two luxury towers in New Jersey. Under the EB-5 program, wealthy foreigners can get a fast-track visa if they invest at least $500,000 in an eligible project. Program critics have nicknamed it ‘visas for cash.’ The changes Kelly is considering … would make it much more difficult to attract foreign money to projects in relatively prosperous areas, such as the one in Jersey City, experts said.” Kushner’s sister Nicole Kushner Meyer generated criticism last weekend when she pitched her company’s project to investors in China, mentioning Jared Kushner’s name and featuring a photo of Trump.

 Sen. Charles Grassley, a longtime critic of the EB-5 program, said Thursday that Meyer “may have left investors with the false impression” that they would get special treatment because of her brother’s position in the White House, and sent a letter to Kelly demanding that he quickly implement the proposed program changes.

— A part-owner of several New York City hotels and restaurants has joined a lawsuit accusing Trump of has violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bars federal officials from taking payments from foreign governments. David A. Fahrenthold reports: “Eric Goode is a part-owner of four boutique hotels and three restaurants in Manhattan. On Wednesday, he officially joined a lawsuit that was filed just days after Trump’s inauguration by a watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The lawsuit alleges that Trump is in violation of the Constitution because his business continues to accept payment for hotel rooms, banquet halls and food from foreign states and state-owned businesses. Although Trump has said that he no longer has day-to-day control of the Trump Organization — having passed it to his sons Donald Jr. and Eric — documents show that Trump remains the beneficiary of his businesses, and he can legally withdraw money from them at any time.”

TRUMP AGENDA:

— A federal judge in D.C. signaled readiness to become the third judge nationwide, if needed, to halt Trump’s revised “travel ban” executive order. Spencer S. Hsu reports: “U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan postponed ruling on two combined challenges to the White House action by Iranian-American organizations and a Shi’a Muslim group, saying she would wait for decisions expected after federal appeals courts arguments this month on halts imposed March 15 by judges from Hawaii and Maryland. But Chutkan said she was persuaded by arguments that the groups’ missions and the lives of more than a dozen individual plaintiffs would be unconstitutionally harmed by the travel ban. ‘Upon consideration of the parties’ submissions, the court is inclined to agree with Plaintiffs that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their claims. However … The existence of two other nationwide injunctions temporarily casts uncertainty on the issue of whether the harms Plaintiffs allege are actually imminent or certain,’ Chutkan wrote in a two-page order. She notes that the 13-member U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond is expected to issue a ruling Monday, and arguments before the 9th Circuit in San Francisco are set for May 15. She concluded: ‘In the event that both existing injunctions are overturned, this court is prepared to issue a ruling without delay.'”

— The Navy said it is developing a response to Trump’s comments in Time Magazine, in which the president criticized their state-of-the-art electromagnetic aircraft catapults as “no good” and said they need to go back to “goddamned steam,” the method used for decades. Dan Lamothe reports: “The new catapult to which Trump referred …. takes up significantly less space on a ship than steam systems and works by tapping into a redesigned turbine system that generates more power than those on old carriers. The new electromagnetic system also is expected to be able to launch unmanned aircraft and require less maintenance. … A Pentagon official … said that Trump’s comments caught defense officials off-guard and are inaccurate. ‘You can see elements of reality in what he said, but I think he may have spoken without having all of the information in front of him,’ the official said. ‘I think he either has time-late information, or the information he has is not correct.’”

— Emerging signs that Trump may deploy thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan have been met with a variety of reactions in Kabul, but many are concerned that it may not be enough to turn around the long, expensive war that the Taliban has fought to a draw. Pamela Constable reports from the ground: “[Many] Afghan observers agree on one thing: Without a complementary political policy aimed at bolstering the weak Kabul government, pressing fractious leaders to get along and fending off the country’s meddlesome neighbors, no U.S. military surge alone can solve the broader problems that have made peace and stability so elusive. ‘There is more fighting and more ground held by Taliban now than ever before, and increasing the troops can help reverse that,’ said [one member] of the government’s High Peace Council. ‘But people have lost their trust in the government. No matter how many troops you bring now, it will have no lasting impact unless there is real reform and good governance.’”

— “When asked Thursday if the White House had injected uncertainty into the Senate health-care negotiations — which, before Comey’s firing, was the Senate GOP’s main focus — Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) simply grinned, stepped into an elevator and smiled broadly again as the door shut, leaving the question unanswered,” Kelsey Snell and Sean Sullivan report. “Even if Republicans stick together and are ultimately able to confirm a new FBI director, time spent on that is time not spent on health care. Senate Republicans are trying to write their own health-care bill after the House narrowly passed its own version last week, an ambitious and complicated endeavor. ‘It is going to be difficult at best. Anything like that adds to it,’ said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), speaking of the Comey firing’s impact. … ‘We should be able to walk, chew gum and confirm an FBI director at the same time,’ said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).” 

— Bloomberg, “The Economist Who Helped Write Trump’s Tax Plan in Five Days,” by Lynnley Browning: “On April 21, [Trump] surprised his top advisers when he told the Associated Press that a tax plan would be coming in five days. Among [the staffers] responsible for quickly putting together the one-page, bullet-point outline released on April 26 was Shahira Knight, special assistant to Trump for tax and retirement policy. An economist, Knight, 46, works at the National Economic Council, where she’s one of the few senior people with a tax background. A former House Ways and Means Committee staffer, she also knows her way around Congress. That experience could come in handy as the administration tries to push through an ambitious tax overhaul. If the House and Senate can’t agree on how to pay for lower corporate and individual rates, they may pass a temporary measure similar to the Bush-era tax cuts Knight worked on while at Ways and Means.”

— Mike Pence said Trump will “prioritize” protecting Christians abroad, seeking to reassure Christian leaders looking for the White House to focus more on the plight of persecuted Christians abroad. Julie Zauzmer reports: “Protecting and promoting religious freedom is a foreign policy priority of the Trump administration,” Pence said, speaking at the D.C.-based World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians. “[Trump and Pence] have both spoken frequently about the importance of religious freedom. But after more than 100 days of the administration, some Christian advocates have started looking for more results. Some are asking when Trump will appoint someone to the position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, whether the State Department will implement training on religious freedom promised last year and how the administration is advocating on behalf of people persecuted for their Christian faith in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.”

— For your radar: An ally of Vladimir Putin and top cleric of the Russian Orthodox Church met privately with Mike Pence yesterday morning. Time Magazine’s Elizabeth Dias reports: “Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Moscow, who chairs the Russian Orthodox Church’s external relations department, spoke with Pence backstage at evangelist Franklin Graham’s Washington summit on religious violence against Christians. ‘It is only one united, international anti-terrorist coalition which can combat terrorism and win,’ Hilarion told Time during an interview in a suite at the Trump International Hotel in D.C. … ‘The two countries should put these political differences aside.’ A White House spokesman confirmed Pence’s meeting with Hilarion and said the cleric’s comments also reflected President Trump’s views. Hilarion says that after talking with Pence, he feels ‘very positive’ about the future of the relationship between the U.S. and Russia.”

— The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is irate that Trump has appointed an immigration hard-liner to run a federal office that is supposed to help immigrants solve problems with applications for visas, green cards and U.S. citizenship. Maria Sacchetti reports: “In a letter to [DHS secretary John Kelly], lawmakers called Julie Kirchner’s appointment as ombudsman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services ‘offensive, insensitive and malicious.’ Kirchner previously led the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a conservative advocacy group that favors deportations, the construction of a border wall with Mexico, and a sharp reduction in legal immigration from 1 million people a year to 300,000. ‘We do not believe that a person who has spent over a decade attacking immigrant communities will now work effectively and thoughtfully to advance the rights of immigrants and fulfill the important duties that are required of this role,’” members wrote. 

— Trump signed an executive order on cybersecurity that makes clear that agency heads will be held accountable for protecting their networks, and calls on government and industry to reduce the threat from automated attacks on the Internet. Ellen Nakashima reports: “Picking up on themes advanced by the Obama administration, Trump’s order also requires agency heads to use Commerce Department guidelines to manage risk to their systems. It commissions reports to assess the country’s ability to withstand an attack on the electric grid and to spell out the strategic options for deterring adversaries in cyberspace. (Officials) said the order was not, however, prompted by Russia’s targeting of electoral systems last year. In fact, the order is silent on addressing the security of electoral systems or cyber-enabled operations to influence elections, which became a significant area of concern during last year’s presidential campaign.”

TRADE UPDATES:

— The “TRUMP EFFECT” was on full display in the Senate Thursday with a majority of Democrats embracing an opponent of trade deals to become U.S. trade representative. Paul Kane explains: “Fully 37 Democrats voted to confirm the new USTR, abandoning their partisan posture and instead embracing [Trump’s] pledge to renegotiate existing trade deals and to scuttle those in the works. Those Democrats were joined by 45 Republicans who voted for [Robert Lighthizer], a rare bipartisan moment coming a day after Democrats demanded an independent criminal investigation of Trump’s 2016 campaign … â€˜In our party, I think there’s an intensity about this issue that maybe wasn’t there a few years ago,’ said Sen. Bob Casey. Casey said that the 2016 campaign brought the trade issue to the fore unlike any presidential race in recent memory, and Trump’s sweep of the industrial Midwest sent a shock through the party that altered its view on how global deals should be considered.”

— New York Times, “Steel Industry, Seeing a New Dawn, Is Cheering for Trump,” by Patricia Cohen: â€œAcross the steel industry, stock prices — and spirits — have been on the rise, lifted by [Trump’s] vow to protect American manufacturers against cheaper imports and invest as much as $1 trillion in infrastructure over the next decade. Mr. Trump’s attention to trade and manufacturing — which helped him gain the White House — means more here than any of the stumbles and missteps that feed late-night television comics. At this Berkeley County mill, neither the administration’s backtracking on a promise to use American-made steel in the Keystone XL Pipeline or its messy battles with congressional Republicans and low approval ratings have damped optimism about the president or his agenda. ‘If you could design a perfect administration from the perspective of the steel industry, this would be it,’ said Thomas Gibson, president of the American Iron and Steel Institute.”

— The administration reached a preliminary deal with China to ease market access for a variety of industries — including beef and financial services — as the part of a White House effort to soften economic barriers between the two countries. Damian Paletta reports: “The 10-part agreement, announced by [Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross], comes as part of an ongoing negotiation between the two countries following a meeting between [Trump and President Xi Jinping] …. ‘U.S.-China relationships are now hitting a new high, especially in trade,’ Ross told reporters Thursday. … Washington has agreed to advance a new rule that would allow China to export cooked poultry to the United States. … And there were numerous other parts of the preliminary agreement. This included language that appears to pave the way for U.S. firms to export liquid natural gas to China, the expediting of Chinese safety reviews for U.S. biotechnology applications, and cooperation between Chinese and U.S. regulators over financial transactions.”

FRONTIERS OF CAMPAIGN FINANCE:

— Federal authorities on Thursday searched the offices of a political consulting firm in Annapolis that has worked with Republican candidates locally and nationwide and was sued in 2014 on allegations of fraudulent fundraising practices. From Fenit Nirappil, Josh Hicks and Matea Gold: “Strategic Campaign Group says it supports Republican candidates on a range of services including mail, fundraising and telephone town halls. Its leaders include GOP strategists Kelley Rogers, Chip O’Neil and Dennis Whitfield. The firm has close ties to Republican consultant Scott B. Mackenzie, a treasurer for multiple political action committees that have drawn scrutiny for spending little money on candidates and instead steering donations to consultants, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Rogers said in an interview that he helped lead one of those groups, the Conservative Strike Force.

“On Thursday, six FBI agents showed up at the third-floor office of Strategic Campaign Group to gather computer files and documents related to the firm’s direct mail and fundraising practices, Rogers said. Rogers said agents appeared interested in work the firm did during Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s 2013 gubernatorial race. Cuccinelli (R) sued the Strategic Campaign Group and the Conservative Strike Force in 2014, alleging they raised almost $2.2 million to support his campaign but steered little of that money to him. The Conservative Strike Force agreed to pay Cuccinelli $85,000 to settle the lawsuit, and Strategic Campaign Group said it would turn over donor information…

“The Federal Election Commission has been struggling for some time with the issue of political action committees that are formed solely to enrich those running them. Unlike nonprofits, which are governed by boards of directors, PACs can be run by a single consultant. And although candidates are prohibited under federal election law from using campaign donations for personal use, traditional political action committees and their super PAC brethren face few limitations on how they spend their funds. Critics say ‘scam PACs’ have proliferated in … the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.”

WAPO HIGHLIGHTS:

— “N.C. said it still needs $929 million in aid for Hurricane Matthew. It got $6.1 million,” by Angela Fritz: “The rain is done, and the flood is long over … but North Carolina is still feeling the effects of Hurricane Matthew. Its unmet need is enormous, the governor says, and they aren’t getting the money. In a soon-to-be-announced disaster relief allocation from the federal government, Gov. Roy Cooper expects to get just 0.7 percent of what he and North Carolina lawmakers in Congress say the state still needs to get back on its feet. More than 2,000 people were rescued from high water in North Carolina alone. Half of the state’s 100 counties were in a state of emergency, and 52 shelters housed more than 4,300 displaced people. In the days after the storm, Congress gave North Carolina around $332 million for immediate disaster relief … [But] Cooper says it wasn’t enough to cover the full extent of the damage, [and] requested an additional $929 million. But in the omnibus spending bill passed earlier this month, Congress only gave HUD $400 million. In other words, the department that allocates long-term disaster relief has a budget that’s less than half of what Cooper says North Carolina needs to recover from Hurricane Matthew alone.”

THE NEW WORLD ORDER:

— French President-elect Emmanuel Macron’s party announced a list of legislative candidates that is heavy on political novices, a sign of France’s reshaped and unsettled landscape ahead of crucial June parliamentary elections. Michael Birnbaum reports: “The 429 announced candidates, of whom more than half are new to politics and half are women, were a first indication of the direction of Macron’s still-fluid party, which the president-elect — himself a relative political neophyte — formed just a year ago and which has no representatives in Parliament. In a measure of the challenge of building a movement from scratch, candidates were still being vetted hours before the announcement. What’s at stake: “If Macron does not win a governing majority in the 577-seat National Assembly, he could be forced into a power-sharing arrangement with an opposing party that could severely curtail his agenda. And another five years of stagnation could lead to a roaring comeback for Le Pen in the next election, in 2022.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

The new New Yorker cover:

The White House remains obsessed with the results of last year’s election:

The president reopened his longtime feud with Rosie O’Donnell by retweeting this post from last December:

Trump added this:

Rosie pushed back:

Then POTUS tweeted this:

That is not how Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the Senate Intelligence panel’s ranking member, sees it:

Under fire for meeting with the Russians, Trump noted that he also met with a leader of rival Ukraine the same day:

There was an outcry online that the White House omitted Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s presence at the meeting in an official readout — and none of the pictures released by the White House showed him. We only found out he was there because a Putin-controlled news agency published their own pictures:

The Russian Embassy continues to troll the U.S. on Twitter:

CNN’s senior White House correspondent:

Good point from Jeb Bush’s former communications director:

The former strategist for John McCain and John Kasich continues to decry Trump:

One way of looking at things:

More fact checking:

The Boston Globe’s Annie Linskey had some fun with Trump’s use of the word “showboat” to describe Comey:

The DCCC is raising money off Comey’s ouster:

A lot of attention was paid to a random detail in a magazine profile that Trump got two scoops of ice cream for dessert while all of his guests got one.

Wily Republicans, looking to tip the balance of power on the powerful D.C. Circuit, called for Trump to put Merrick Garland in charge of the FBI. Recall that Lee was an outspoken supporter of the GOP strategy to not even give Judge Garland a hearing last year:

GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:

— Politico Magazine, “The Secret Weapon Democrats Don’t Know How to Use,” by Michael Kruse: “No Democrat in the House of Representatives did what Cheri Bustos did last November. She wasn’t the sole member of her party to win in a congressional district Donald Trump also took—there were 11 others—but she was the only one to post a 20-point landslide, and she did it in agricultural, industrial, blue-collar northwestern Illinois. A former newspaper reporter, the wife of a county sheriff and the mother of three grown sons, the 55-year-old third-term representative has won by wider margins every time she’s run. If Democrats are going to wrest control of the House from Republicans, argue many party strategists, it’s going to happen in large part by doing more of whatever it is Bustos is doing …

“The Bustos blueprint, she told me … is rooted in unslick, face-to-face politicking. She shows up. She shakes hands. She asks questions—a lot of questions. When she does talk, she talks as much as she can about jobs and wages and the economy and as little as she can about guns and abortion and other socially divisive issues—which, for her, are ‘no-win conversations,’ she explained. And at a time when members of both parties are being tugged toward their respective ideological poles, the more center-left Bustos has picked her spots to buck such partisanship …”

— The New Yorker, “The Return of Tony Blair,” by Sam Knight: “For the first time in a decade, [Tony Blair] has resumed speaking directly to the British public … to encourage the forty-eight per cent of voters who opposed Brexit to ‘rise up’ and overturn the outcome. ‘I don’t know if we can succeed,’ Blair said. ‘But I do know we will suffer a rancorous verdict from future generations if we do not try.’ He eschews traditional political labels such as left or right, liberal or conservative, preferring the dichotomy ‘open versus closed’ to describe what is happening in the world today. ‘This is what interests me,” Blair said. ‘Is it possible to define a politics that is what I would call post-ideological?’ … Brexit was many other things, but it was also the final repudiation of Blairism. The center no longer held, and the country had to choose. It could be open or closed. How the decision plays out will be the central preoccupation of British politics for the next ten years, possibly more … For many British people, especially those who voted to stay in the E.U. and who fear for the future of their country, the return of Blair ought to be the most plausible and exciting thing in the world. He is the best politician in the country by a mile. He has the answers. But he is also Tony Blair.”

— “A first-person account of a surreal day in DC”: CNN’s Hunter Schwarz breaks down what it’s like to be a reporter in Trump’s Washington.  

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“Police Investigating Teacher For Reportedly Tearing Hijab Off 8-Year-Old Student,” from HuffPost: “New York City education officials have fired a substitute teacher after he reportedly pulled the hijab off an 8-year-old student in the Bronx. Oghenetega Edah, 31, was working as a substitute teacher in a classroom at The Bennington School in the Bronx at the time of the incident on May 2. Edah was reportedly trying to discipline an 8-year-old student when he ripped off her head covering, hurting her eye in the process, according to [an NYPD spokesperson]. The student was taken to Jacobi Medical Center for examination and was found to be uninjured. ‘I didn’t expect a teacher to do that to a child,’ the student’s father, Mohamed Alzockary, said. ‘She’s OK right now … but kids, they’re nervous.’ This is the latest in a spate of incidents targeting Muslim Americans in recent months … [including] a spike in classroom bullying and harassment of Muslim students, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.”

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT:

“Assistant principal resigns after argument with teen abortion protesters,” from Justin Wm. Moyer: “An assistant principal in Pennsylvania resigned Thursday after a heated argument last month with two teenage abortion protesters that was caught on video. Zachary Ruff, of STEM Academy in Downingtown, Pa., was filmed confronting two abortion protesters April 21 in front of the school. One protester carried a sign with a graphic image of an aborted fetus. ‘There is no holocaust happening in America,” said Ruff, who has been with the Downingtown district for 13 years. ‘If you want to talk about a holocaust happening in America, go into an inner city, and talk to the poor and underprivileged.’ As the argument stretched for almost 20 minutes, Ruff said: ‘You and Trump can go to hell’ and ‘Listen here, son: I’m as gay as the day is long and twice as sunny. I don’t give a f — what you think Jesus tells me.’ At one point, he sang, ‘I Love a Parade’ to silence the protesters.”

 

DAYBOOK:

At the White House: Trump will meet with H. R. McMaster and Gary Cohn. In the afternoon, Trump will meet with Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly.

Pence will travel to Billings, Montana, to participate in listening sessions with Montana business leaders in the energy producing and coal mining industry as well as Crow Nation tribal leaders. He will then join Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to tour Westmoreland Coal Company’s Absaloka Mine on the Crow Indian Reservation, and participate in a business listening session at Westmoreland Resources, Inc. Finally, he’ll campaign for Greg Gianforte in the special election to replace Zinke.

 

NEWS YOU CAN USE IF YOU LIVE IN D.C.:

— TGIF! (Unfortunately, it’s going to be rainy and cold until Sunday.) The Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “Clouds and sprinkles dominate our morning, with steadier rain arriving either during the late afternoon or into the evening. Plan on adding extra time for your evening commute just in case. We should briefly be able to pop into the mid-50s to near 60 before the steadier rain arrives. Yep, that’s well below our average high temperature of 74 for the city.”

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Stephen Colbert responds to Trump calling him a “no-talent guy:”

And Colbert’s full monologue:

Watch this adorable kid try to get an apolohgy from Mike Pence:

Seth Meyers takes a closer look at the Comey firing:

See New Orleans react to the removal of Confederate statues:

Happy Mother’s Day:

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