THE BIG IDEA: The credibility gap – maybe chasm is a better word at this point – keeps widening for Donald Trump and his White House.
Two days after Trump’s victory, Russia’s deputy foreign minister told a reporter in Moscow that “there were contacts” between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. “Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage,” he said. That prompted a vigorous denial from Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks, who insisted there had been “no contact with Russian officials.”
- On Jan. 11, an NBC reporter asked Trump whether members of his staff were in contact with Russian officials during the campaign. “No,” he replied.
- On Jan. 15, Mike Pence was asked basically the same question on two Sunday shows. “Of course not,” he replied on Fox and CBS.
- Yesterday afternoon, Sean Spicer stood by Trump’s earlier denials during the daily briefing when questioned by ABC.
Fresh reporting continues to cast doubt on these and many other claims:
— From the lead story in today’s New York Times: “Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials. American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee … The officials said the intercepted communications were not limited to Trump campaign officials, and included other associates of Mr. Trump. On the Russian side, the contacts also included members of the government outside of the intelligence services, they said…
“The call logs and intercepted communications are part of a larger trove of information that the F.B.I. is sifting through as it investigates the links between Mr. Trump’s associates and the Russian government, as well as the hacking of the D.N.C. … As part of its inquiry, the F.B.I. has obtained banking and travel records and conducted interviews…
The Times reports that one of the advisers is Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign chairman for several months last year and previously worked as a consultant in Ukraine for a politician backed by the Kremlin. The paper’s sources declined to identify the other Trump associates on the calls.
Manafort, who has not been charged with any crimes, dismissed the accounts. “This is absurd,” he told The Times. “I have no idea what this is referring to. I have never knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers, and I have never been involved with anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration or any other issues under investigation today.” He added, “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’”
The Times story notes that these intercepted calls are different from the wiretapped conversations last year between Michael Flynn, who resigned as former national security adviser the night before last, and Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States: “The National Security Agency, which monitors the communications of foreign intelligence services, initially captured the calls between Mr. Trump’s associates and the Russians as part of routine foreign surveillance. After that, the F.B.I. asked the N.S.A. to collect as much information as possible about the Russian operatives on the phone calls, and to search through troves of previous intercepted communications that had not been analyzed. … The F.B.I. has closely examined at least three other people close to Mr. Trump, although it is unclear if their calls were intercepted. They are Carter Page, a businessman and former foreign policy adviser to the campaign; Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative; and Mr. Flynn.”
— CNN published additional details, as well: “High-level advisers close to … Trump were in constant communication during the campaign with Russians known to US intelligence, (according to) multiple current and former intelligence, law enforcement and administration officials … President-elect Trump and then-President Barack Obama were both briefed on details of the extensive communications between suspected Russian operatives and people associated with the Trump campaign and the Trump business, according to US officials familiar with the matter. Both the frequency of the communications during early summer and the proximity to Trump of those involved ‘raised a red flag’ with US intelligence and law enforcement, according to these officials. … Investigators have not reached a judgment on the intent of those conversations.”
- “Adding to US investigators’ concerns were intercepted communications between Russian officials before and after the election discussing their belief that they had special access to Trump, two law enforcement officials tell CNN.”
- “One concern was whether Trump associates were coordinating with Russian intelligence operatives over the release of damaging information about the Hillary Clinton campaign. ‘If that were the case, then that would escalate things,’ one official briefed on the investigation said.”
— ABC News confirmed portions of both stories: “U.S. authorities were concerned with and probing communications between associates of [Trump] and suspected Russian intelligence officials in the leadup to the … election, (according to) sources familiar with the matter…”
— The Post’s tick tock on Flynn’s fall has new information about just how deeply concerned Obama administration officials were about his Russia contacts. From Greg Miller, Adam Entous and Ellen Nakashima: “His unusual association with Russia — and the discovery of his secret communications with the Russian ambassador — fanned suspicion among senior Obama administration officials of a more sinister aspect to Russia’s interference in the election. Senior Obama administration officials said they felt so uncertain about the nature of the Flynn-Kislyak relationship that they took it upon themselves to scale back what they told Flynn and others on his incoming national security team, particularly on sensitive matters related to Russia. … ‘We did decide to not share with them certain things about Russia,’ a former senior Obama administration official said. ‘We just thought, who knew? Would that information be safe?’ … Susan E. Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, did not give Flynn advance notice of the sanctions that the White House planned to impose on Russia over its meddling in the election. Instead, Denis McDonough, who at the time was Obama’s chief of staff, waited until the sanctions were announced to inform his Trump counterpart…”
— Alumni of Hillary Clinton’s campaign seized on the New York Times article:
From her press secretary:
THE LARGER CONTEXT MATTERS:
— Flynn’s departure has lent new gravity and intensity to long-simmering questions about Trump and Russia. “There was already a cloud hanging over the administration when it comes to Russia, and this darkens the cloud,” said Eliot Cohen, who served as an adviser to the George W. Bush administration and has been a vocal Trump critic. “This is serious.”
That quote comes from a broader piece by Roz Helderman and Tom Hamburger on Trump’s long-term fixation on and admiration for Vladimir Putin, a brutal authoritarian strongman: “By the way, I really like Vladimir Putin,” Trump told the Russian-language magazine Chayka in 2008 as he debuted a new Trump-branded New York City condo project that was catering in part to Russian buyers. “I respect him. He does his job well. Much better than our Bush.”
“Trump has said he has done no deals there. But over 30 years, he has repeatedly visited Moscow and promised to one day build a tower bearing his name there,” Roz and Tom report. “He has also bragged about selling a mansion in Florida to a Russian oligarch for nearly $100 million, and Russian investors were key to the success of several Trump-branded buildings, particularly in Florida following the 2008 crash of the U.S. housing market. … ‘Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,’ Trump’s son, Donald Jr., told a real estate conference in 2008 … ‘We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.’”
A Ukrainian tank heads away from the embattled town of Avdiivka. The conflict with Russia-backed rebels has intensified dramatically since the start of the month, leaving the town without water or electricity. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
WIDENING THE APERTURE FURTHER – MOSCOW IS TESTING US:
— Russia’s escalation in Ukraine after Putin’s call with Trump is part of a broader effort to gauge how much Russia can get away with now that they have allies in the White House.
— In the Black Sea last week, multiple Russian aircraft buzzed a U.S. destroyer on patrol in an incident that the captain of the American ship called “unsafe.” (The Free Beacon broke the story, and our guys tracked down some additional details.)
— Even more alarming: Russia is secretly deploying a new cruise missile in violation of a treaty with the United States, watching to see if the White House pushes back. “The system substantially increases the military threat to NATO nations, depending on where the highly mobile system is based and how many more batteries are deployed in the future,” Michael Gordon reports in today’s New York Times. “The ground-launched cruise missile at the center of American concerns is one that the Obama administration said in 2014 had been tested in violation of a 1987 treaty that bans American and Russian intermediate-range missiles based on land. The Obama administration had sought to persuade the Russians to correct the violation while the missile was still in the test phase. Instead, the Russians have moved ahead with the system, deploying a fully operational unit. … The missile program has been a major concern for the Pentagon, which has developed options for how to respond, including deploying additional missile defenses in Europe or developing air-based or sea-based cruise missiles.”
— Will Trump’s Russian reset survive Flynn’s ouster? The Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe, a keen Russia observer, bets yes: “As soon as news reached Moscow that [he] had resigned … hawkish Russian lawmakers began to hyperventilate. … It was a rather extraordinary display: Russian officials defending an American national security adviser as if he were one of their own. With Flynn gone, it would appear that Moscow had lost an ‘in’ to the Trump administration. But that would overstate the case.‘They have other entrees,’ one senior State Department official told me. Flynn was just a messenger, in other words, and there are other people in the West Wing who are equally motivated to strike some kind of grand bargain with Putin … And if Trump and Putin both want the deal done, it won’t be too hard to find another go-between.”
Russian parliament member Alexey Pavlovsky tells Julia that the one real problem is timing: “If the Kremlin and the White House don’t move quickly, ‘America and Russia could lose the opportunity to lower the pressure on the relationship,’ he said. ‘If there’s no agreement in six months, then it will never be reached because then our presidential campaign begins’—Putin is up for reelection again in 2018—‘and Putin won’t be able to be soft.’”
— Secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who received The Order of Friendship from Putin in 2013, is planning to huddle with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of a G20 meeting in Germany.
TRUMP’S LARGER CREDIBILITY PROBLEM:
— This weekend brought yet another reminder that Trump’s claims can never be taken at face value. While flying to Palm Beach on Air Force One, the president told reporters he was “not familiar” with The Post’s report that Flynn had talked about sanctions with the ambassador. “I don’t know about that. I haven’t seen it. What report is that? I haven’t seen that. I’ll look into that,” he said.
We learned yesterday that, in fact, Trump had been told two weeks earlier that Flynn had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador, despite his denials. But he sat on the information. “Spicer said that Trump was responding only to a question about the Post report and was not speaking about the overall issue of Flynn’s contact with the Russian ambassador and his discussion of sanctions,” Karen DeYoung, Abby Phillip and Jenna Johnson report in a deeper dive on what has become “a full-blown crisis.”
A few hours after Trump played dumb on Air Force One, he privately expressed frustration during a dinner at Mar-A-Lago that Flynn was dining at a nearby table. Trump was “surprised” to learn that Flynn was dining at a nearby table, the Wall Street Journal reports. “What is he doing here?” the president reportedly said, describing the man who was once at the center of his political orbit as “very controversial.” Still, Trump kept Flynn close all weekend.
Richard Nixon downplays the “Saturday night massacre” in remarks at the White House. (Henry Burroughs/AP)
IT’S NOT THE CRIME. IT’S THE COVER UP:
— From Walter Pincus’s column for The Cipher Brief: “What did the President know, and when did he know it? For those of us who went through Watergate, that question, first posed by Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), is the one most relevant today as the current White House drama unfolds … At 6:28 a.m. yesterday morning, Trump wrote from the White House: ‘The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?’ That presidential tweet should make people uneasy, the way we felt nervous during Watergate about what military actions President Nixon might undertake as the truth began to threaten him personally. Trump was initiating what can only be described as a typical attempt to divert his roughly 25 million followers from paying attention to what he and his own White House has been caught doing.”
Walter, one of the wisest men in Washington, offers sage advice that the Trump high command might want to heed: “More than 50 years ago, on the very first day I showed up for work to run an investigation of foreign government lobbyists for Sen. J.W. Fulbright (D-Ark.), then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he told me, ‘Remember, it’s not what you did that counts, it’s what you did after you were caught.’ Washington, believe it or not, is a very forgiving town to government officials, including members of Congress, if they confess to misdeeds. But what has always brought people down is when they try to cover up what they have done.”
WILL REPUBLICANS CONTINUE TO STAND BY TRUMP AS HIS NUMBERS SINK?
— It has become politically more difficult for congressional Republicans to walk in lockstep with the president. From Sean Sullivan, Karoun Demirjian and Paul Kane:
- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that it was “highly likely” that the events leading to Flynn’s departure would be added to the broader probe into Russian meddling in the election.
- The top two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), stood side by side to announce that the committee’s ongoing probe must include an examination of any contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government.
- Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of Senate Republican leadership, told a Missouri radio station that the Senate Intelligence Committee should look into Trump’s Russia connections “exhaustively so that at the end of this process, nobody wonders whether there was a stone left unturned, and shouldn’t reach conclusions before you have the information that you need to have to make those conclusions.” “For all of us, finding out if there’s a problem or not, and sooner rather than later, is the right thing to do,” he said.
— A new Iowa poll from the Des Moines Register, which was in the field last week, pegs Trump’s approval rating at 42 percent, with 49 percent disapproving. While 82 percent of Republicans approve of the president’s job performance, only 39 percent of independents do. For context, Trump carried Iowa by nine points in November. The poll was conducted by Ann Selzer, who is considered the gold standard in the Hawkeye State.
The Register’s write-up quotes an independent voter who participated in the poll: “He scares me every time he tweets,” said Clarissa Gadient from Davenport. “I mean, really and truly, it’s about security, and I don’t feel it at all.” Gadient, 58, a caregiver who’s been unemployed since last fall, said Trump’s early actions in office have left her “fatigued” and deeply uncertain about his readiness for the presidency.
— A Fox News poll puts Trump’s approval rating at 48 percent nationally. Passions run especially high: 35 percent of registered voters “strongly” approve and 41 percent “strongly” disapprove. Overall, 49 percent lack confidence in Trump’s judgment and 45 percent say he is not a strong leader.
— From a speechwriter in Bush 43’s White House: