Republicans are in full control of government — but losing control of their party

President Donald Trump, flanked by Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), right, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), talked about health care at a lunch with GOP senators at the White House on Wednesday.

Six months after seizing complete control of the federal government, the Republican Party stands divided as ever — plunged into a messy war among its factions that has escalated in recent weeks to crisis levels.

Frustrated lawmakers are increasingly sounding off at a White House awash in turmoil and struggling to accomplish its legislative agenda. President Trump is scolding Republican senators over health care and even threatening electoral retribution. Congressional leaders are losing the confidence of their rank-and-file. And some major GOP donors are considering using their wealth to try to force out recalcitrant incumbents.

“It’s a lot of tribes within one party, with many agendas, trying to do what they want to do,” Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.) said in an interview.

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The intensifying fights threaten to derail efforts to overhaul the nation’s tax laws and other major initiatives that GOP leaders hope will put them back on track. The party is still bogged down by a months-long health-care endeavor that lacks the support to become law, even as Senate GOP leaders plan to vote on it this week.

With his agenda stalled and Trump consumed by staff changes and investigations into Russian interference to help win election, Republicans are adding fuel to a political fire that is showing no signs of burning out. The conflict also heralds a potentially messy 2018 midterm campaign with fierce intra-party clashes that could draw resources away from fending off Democrats.

“It’s very sad that Republicans, even some that were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their President,” Trump wrote on Twitter Sunday afternoon, marking the latest sign of the president’s uneasy relationship with his own party.

Winning control of both chambers and the White House has done little to fill in the deep and politically damaging ideological fault lines that plagued the GOP during Barack Obama’s presidency and ripped the party apart during the 2016 presidential primary. Now, Republicans have even more to lose.

“In the 50 years I’ve been involved, Republicans have yet to figure out how to support each other,” said R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., the founder of the American Spectator, a conservative magazine.

On Capitol Hill, many Republicans are increasingly concerned that Trump has shown no signs of being able to calm the party. What Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) called the “daily drama” at the White House flared again last week when Trump shook up his communications staff and told the New York Times that he regretted picking Jeff Sessions to be his attorney general.

“This week was supposed to be ‘Made in America Week’ and we were talking about Attorney General Jeff Sessions,” Dent grumbled in a telephone interview Thursday, citing White House messaging efforts that were overshadowed by the controversies.

As Trump dealt with continued conflicts among his staff — which culminated Friday in press secretary Sean Spicer resigning in protest after wealthy financier Anthony Scaramucci was named communications director — he set out to try to resolve the Senate Republican impasse over health care.

President Trump claps with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and other House members after passage of a health-care bill in May. The legislation is now stalled in the Senate.

The president had a small group of Republican senators over for dinner last Monday night to talk about the issue. But the discussion veered to other subjects, including Trump’s trip to Paris and the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for most legislation, which Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he will not end. That didn’t stop Trump from wondering aloud about its usefulness.

“He asked the question, ‘why should we keep it’?” recalled Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who attended the dinner.

Trump team seeks to control, block Mueller’s Russia investigation

Two days later, some Republican senators left a White House lunch confused about what Trump was asking them to do on health care. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said the next day that while the president “made very clear” that “he wants to see a bill pass, I’m unclear, having heard the president and read his tweets, exactly which bill he wants to pass.”

The White House says the president prefers to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. McConnell has also raised the prospect of moving to only repeal the law. Neither option has enough votes. Nevertheless, McConnell plans to hold a vote early this week and bring the push to fulfill a seven-year campaign promise to its conclusion, one way or the other.

“One of the things that united our party has been the pledge to repeal Obamacare since the 2010 election cycle,” said White House legislative affairs director Marc Short. “So when we complete that, I think that will help to unite” the party.

Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill have described the dynamic between the White House and GOP lawmakers as a “disconnect” between Republicans who are still finding it difficult to accept that he is the leader of the party that they have long controlled.

“The disconnect is between a president who was elected from outside the Washington bubble and people in Congress who are of the Washington bubble,” Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who works closely with the White House. “I don’t think some people in the Senate understand the mandate that Donald Trump’s election represented.”

Trump issued a threat at the Wednesday lunch against Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who has not embraced McConnell’s health-care bill. “Look, he wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?” Trump said in front of a pack of reporters as Heller, sitting directly to his right, grinned through the uncomfortable moment.

Heller is up for reelection in a state that Trump lost to Hillary Clinton and where Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) was the first Republican to expanded Medicaid under the ACA. He later brushed the moment off as “President Trump being President Trump.”

But some donors say they are weighing whether to financially back primary challengers against Republican lawmakers unwilling to support Trump’s agenda.

“Absolutely we should be thinking about that,” said Frank VanderSloot, a billionaire chief executive of an Idaho nutritional-supplement company. He bemoaned the “lack of courage” some lawmakers have shown and wished representatives would “have the guts” to vote the way they said they would on the campaign trail.

It’s not just the gulf between Trump and Republican senators that has strained relations during the health-care debate. The way McConnell and his top deputies have handled the effort has drawn sharp criticism from some GOP senators.

“No,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), when asked last week whether he was happy with the way leadership has navigated the talks.

As he stepped into a Senate office building elevator the same day, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) would not respond to reporter questions about how good a job McConnell has done managing the health-care push. He flashed a smile as the door closed.

McConnell has defended his strategy, saying the process has been open to Republican senators, who have discussed it in many lunches and smaller meetings. Still, when it came time to write the bill, it was only McConnell and a small group of aides who did it. There was no outreach at all to Democrats, who have been united in their opposition.

In the House, the prospect of passing a 2018 budget this summer and a spending bill with funding for the Mexican border wall that Trump has called for remain uncertain, even though Republicans have a sizeable majority in the chamber. GOP disagreements have continued to flare during Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s (R-Wis.) tenure. There are also challenges in both chambers to achieving tax reform, which is expected to be among the next major GOP legislative undertakings.

Trump critics said the ongoing controversies over Russian interference in the 2016 election and probes into potential coordination with the president’s associates would make any improvement in relations all but impossible in the coming months, with many Republicans unsure whether Trump’s presidency will survive.

“The Russia stories never stop coming,” said Rick Wilson, a vocal anti-Trump consultant and GOP operative. “For Republicans, the stories never get better, either. There is no moment of clarity or admission.”

Wilson said Republicans are also starting to doubt whether “the bargain they made — that they can endure Trump in order to pass X or Y” can hold. “After a while, nothing really works and it becomes a train wreck.”

Roger Stone, a longtime Trump associate, said Trump’s battles with Republicans are unlikely to end and are entirely predictable, based on what Trump’s victory signified.

“His nomination and election were a hostile takeover of the vehicle of the Republican Party,” Stone said. He added, “When you talk to some Republicans who oppose Trump, they say they will keep opposing him but can’t openly say it.”

Many Republican lawmakers have struggled to talk about the president publicly, fearful of aggressively challenging their party leader but also wary of aligning too closely with some of his controversial statements or policy positions. Instead, they often attempt to focus on areas where they agree.

“On foreign policy, I think he very much is involved in a direction that’s far more in alignment since he’s been elected with a bulk of the United States Senate than during the campaign,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

Amid the discord, there are some signs of collaboration. The Republican National Committee has worked to build ties to Trump and his family. In recent weeks, Trump’s son Eric, his wife Lara, and RNC chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, among other RNC officials, met at the Trump International Hotel in Washington to discuss upcoming races and strategy.

That meeting followed a similar gathering weeks earlier at the RNC where Trump family members were welcomed to share their suggestions, according two people familiar with the sessions who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Nevertheless, the friction is building. Even among Trump’s defenders, like VanderSloot, who said the president is “trying to move the ball forward,” there are concerns he is picking too many fights with too many people. “I think he’s trying to swat too many flies,” VanderSloot said.

The broader challenge, some Republicans say, is to overcome a dynamic of disunity in the party that predates Trump and the current Congress. During the Obama years, it took the form of tea party-versus-establishment struggles, which in some cases cost Republicans seats or led them to wage risky political fights.

“There was a separation between Republicanism and conservatism long before he won the White House,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. “The glue has been coming apart since Reagan.”

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Trump team seeks to control, block Mueller’s Russia investigation

FILE - In this Friday, March 31, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with the National Association of Manufacturers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington.

Some of President Trump’s lawyers are exploring ways to limit or undercut special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation, building a case against what they allege are his conflicts of interest and discussing the president’s authority to grant pardons, according to people familiar with the effort.

Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe, according to one of those people. A second person said Trump’s lawyers have been discussing the president’s pardoning powers among themselves.

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Trump’s legal team declined to comment on the issue. But one adviser said the president has simply expressed a curiosity in understanding the reach of his pardoning authority, as well as the limits of Mueller’s investigation.

“This is not in the context of, ‘I can’t wait to pardon myself,’ ” a close adviser said.

With the Russia investigation continuing to widen, Trump’s lawyers are working to corral the probe and question the propriety of the special counsel’s work. They are actively compiling a list of Mueller’s alleged potential conflicts of interest, which they say could serve as a way to stymie his work, according to several of Trump’s legal advisers.

A conflict of interest is one of the possible grounds that can be cited by an attorney general to remove a special counsel from office under Justice Department regulations that set rules for the job.

The president is also irritated by the notion that Mueller’s probe could reach into his and his family’s finances, advisers said.

Trump has been fuming about the probe in recent weeks as he has been informed about the legal questions that he and his family could face. His primary frustration centers on why allegations that his campaign coordinated with Russia should spread into scrutinizing many years of Trump dealmaking. He has told aides he was especially disturbed after learning Mueller would be able to access several years of his tax returns.

Trump has repeatedly refused to make his tax returns public after first claiming he could not do so because he was under audit or after promising to release them after an IRS audit was completed. All presidents since Jimmy Carter have released their tax returns.

Further adding to the challenges facing Trump’s outside lawyers, the team’s spokesman, Mark Corallo, resigned on Thursday, according to two people familiar with his departure. Corallo did not respond to immediate requests for comment.

“If you’re looking at Russian collusion, the president’s tax returns would be outside that investigation,” said a close adviser to the president.

Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s private lawyers, said in an interview Thursday that the president and his legal team are intent on making sure Mueller stays within the boundaries of his assignment as special counsel. He said they will complain directly to Mueller if necessary.

“The fact is that the president is concerned about conflicts that exist within the special counsel’s office and any changes in the scope of the investigation,” Sekulow said. “The scope is going to have to stay within his mandate. If there’s drifting, we’re going to object.”

Sekulow cited Bloomberg News reports that Mueller is scrutinizing some of Trump’s business dealings, including with a Russian oligarch who purchased a Palm Beach mansion from Trump for $95 million in 2008.

“They’re talking about real estate transactions in Palm Beach several years ago,” Sekulow said. “In our view, this is far outside the scope of a legitimate investigation.”

The president has long called the FBI investigation into his campaign’s possible coordination with the Russians a “witch hunt.” But now, Trump is coming face-to-face with a powerful investigative team that is able to study evidence of any crime it encounters in the probe — including tax fraud, lying to federal agents and interference in the investigation.

“This is Ken Starr times 1,000,” said one lawyer involved in the case, referring to the independent counsel who oversaw an investigation that eventually led to House impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. “Of course, it’s going to go into his finances.”

Following Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey — in part because of his displeasure with the FBI’s Russia investigation — Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel in a written order. That order gave Mueller broad authority to investigate links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation” and any crimes committed in response to the investigation, such as perjury or obstruction of justice.

Mueller’s probe has already expanded to include an examination of whether Trump obstructed justice in his dealings with Comey, as well as the business activities of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.

Trump’s team could potentially challenge whether a broad probe of Trump’s finances prior to his candidacy could be considered a matter that arose “directly” from an inquiry into possible collusion with a foreign government.

The president’s legal representatives have also identified what they allege are several conflicts of interest facing Mueller, such as donations to Democrats by some of his prosecutors.

Another potential conflict claim is an allegation that Mueller and Trump National Golf Club in Northern Virginia had a dispute over membership fees when Mueller resigned as a member in 2011, two White House advisers said. A spokesman for Mueller said there was no dispute when Mueller, who was FBI director at the time, left the club.

Trump also took public aim on Wednesday at Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein, whose actions led to Mueller’s appointment. In an interview with the New York Times Wednesday, the president said he never would have nominated Sessions if he knew he was going to recuse himself from the case.

Some Republicans in frequent touch with the White House said they viewed the president’s decision to publicly air his disappointment with Sessions as a warning sign that the attorney general’s days were numbered. Several senior aides were described as “stunned” when Sessions announced Thursday morning he would stay on at the Justice Department.

Another Republican in touch with the administration described the public steps as part of a broader effort aimed at “laying the groundwork to fire” Mueller.

“Who attacks their entire Justice Department?” this person said. “It’s insane.”

Law enforcement officials described Sessions as increasingly distant from the White House and the FBI because of the strains of the Russia investigation.

Traditionally, Justice Department leaders have sought to maintain a certain degree of autonomy from the White House as a means of ensuring prosecutorial independence.

But Sessions’s situation is more unusual, law enforcement officials said, because he has angered the president for apparently being too independent while also angering many at the FBI for his role in the president’s firing of Comey.

As a result, there is far less communication among those three key parts of the government than in years past, several officials said.

Currently, the discussions of pardoning authority by Trump’s legal team are purely theoretical, according to two people familiar with the ongoing conversations. But if Trump pardoned himself in the face of the ongoing Mueller investigation, it would set off a legal and political firestorm, first around the question of whether a president can use the constitutional pardon power in that way.

“This is a fiercely debated but unresolved legal question,” said Brian C. Kalt, a constitutional law expert at Michigan State University who has written extensively on the question.

The power to pardon is granted to the president in Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, which gives the commander in chief the power to “grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” That means pardon authority extends to federal criminal prosecution but not to state level or impeachment inquiries.

No president has sought to pardon himself, so no courts have reviewed it. Although Kalt says the weight of the law argues against a president pardoning himself, he says the question is open and predicts such an action would move through the courts all the way to the Supreme Court.

“There is no predicting what would happen,” said Kalt, author of the book, “Constitutional Cliffhangers: A Legal Guide for Presidents and Their Enemies.” It includes chapters on the ongoing debate over whether presidents can be prosecuted while in office and on whether a president can issue a pardon to himself.

Other White House advisers have tried to temper Trump, urging him to simply cooperate with the probe and stay silent on his feelings about the investigation.

On Monday, lawyer Ty Cobb, newly brought into the White House to handle responses to the Russian probe, convened a meeting with the president and his team of lawyers, according to two people briefed on the meeting. Cobb, who is not yet on the White House payroll, was described as attempting to instill some discipline in how the White House handles queries about the case. But Trump surprised many of his aides by speaking at length about the probe to the New York Times two days later. Cobb, who officially joins the White House team at the end of the month, declined to comment for this article.

Some note that the Constitution does not explicitly prohibit a president from pardoning himself. On the other side, experts say that by definition a pardon is something you can only give to someone else. There is also a common-law canon that prohibits individuals from serving as a judge in their own case. “For example, we would not allow a judge to preside over his or her own trial,” Kalt said.

A president can pardon an individual at any point, including before the person is charged with a crime, and the scope of a presidential pardon can be very broad. President Gerald Ford pardoned former president Richard M. Nixon preemptively for offenses he “committed or may have committed” while in office.

Devlin Barrett and  Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.

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Trump Finds That Demolishing Obama’s Legacy Is Not So Simple

President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence inspected a front loader at a “Made in America” showcase at the White House on Monday.

Determined to dismantle his predecessor’s legacy, Mr. Trump in the space of a couple of hours on Monday night reluctantly agreed to preserve President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and failed in his effort to repeal Mr. Obama’s health care program.

The back-to-back events underscored the challenge for a career developer whose main goal since taking office six months ago has been to raze what he sees as the poorly constructed edifices he inherited. Mr. Trump has gone a long way toward that objective through executive action, but as Tuesday dawned, he faced the reality that Mr. Obama’s most prominent domestic and international accomplishments both remained intact.

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In neither case has Mr. Trump given up. He instructed his national security team to keep rethinking the approach to Iran with a view toward either revising or scrapping the nuclear agreement. And he publicly called on Congress to simply repeal Mr. Obama’s health care program without trying to immediately pass a replacement.

“We will return!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on Tuesday morning about the collapse of his health care effort.

Yet there is little appetite among America’s partners to revisit the Iran deal, nor much eagerness among lawmakers to cancel the existing health care program without a new system to install in its stead.

Indeed, the latter notion seemed to die almost immediately on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, leaving the president to throw up his hands and say he would simply let Mr. Obama’s program die of its own weight. “I’m not going to own it,” he told reporters. “I can tell you the Republicans are not going to own it. We’ll let Obamacare fail and then the Democrats are going to come to us.”

Nearly every president arrives in office promising a new direction, especially those succeeding someone from the other party. But few if any have spent as much of their early months focused on undoing what the last president did rather than promoting their own proactive ideas, as Mr. Trump has.

Where the president has succeeded so far, it has largely been in cases where he could act on his own authority. He approved the Keystone XL pipeline that Mr. Obama had rejected. He pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and the Paris climate change accord that his predecessor had negotiated. And he began repealing environmental and business regulations that were imposed during the last administration.

But reversing the Iran and health care initiatives both require building support among other political players at home and abroad, a task for which Mr. Trump has yet to show much proclivity. At home in the worlds of real estate and entertainment, Mr. Trump is accustomed to giving orders and proclaiming, “You’re fired!” But the art-of-the-deal negotiating skills he boasted about on the campaign trail last year have not closed the deal with fellow world leaders or with fellow Republicans.

“The problem in Washington, besides every piece of legislation having its own special interest group, is that bills are purposely written to be complicated,” said Michael Dubke, who served as White House communications director under Mr. Trump. “And complicated is hard to unwind.”

Mr. Trump could, of course, simply abandon the Iran deal as he did with the trade and climate agreements, and he may yet. But while that may be satisfying, he has been told by advisers that the United States would find it harder to pressure the clerical regime in Tehran without allies, and so he has not risked alienating them with a unilateral move.

John R. Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations and strong critic of the nuclear deal, said time is on Iran’s side and Mr. Trump should find a way to convince the allies. “We need to explain this to the Europeans,” he said. “They may find it hard to accept, but plain speaking is still an American virtue, occasionally even in diplomacy.”

As for health care, Mr. Trump chastised Democrats on Tuesday for not going along — “Dems totally obstruct,” he wrote on Twitter — but he made no serious effort to reach out to them, nor might it be realistic to expect them to join a drive to repeal what they consider to be one of their proudest achievements. While he did lobby Republicans, some said he did not make a serious enough effort to do so. The White House devoted its public message this week to buy-America themes rather than health care.

Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday that lawmakers should either repeal Mr. Obama’s program outright or return to the legislation that has now failed. “Either way, inaction is not an option,” he said in a speech to members of the National Retail Federation in Washington. “Congress needs to step up. Congress needs to do their job and Congress needs to do their job now.”

Republicans on Capitol Hill expressed weariness of the health care debate and seemed ready to turn to other priorities, like cutting taxes. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, vowed to hold a vote to repeal Mr. Obama’s health care program without a replacement, but it was quickly clear there were not the votes for that. In the House, Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin on Tuesday focused on tax cuts, energy production and budget balancing.

At the White House, that Rose Garden rally when Mr. Trump prematurely celebrated the passage of a health care bill in the House before it had gone to the Senate now seems long ago.

Mr. Trump has been left to contemplate his next move. He could try to find another way to get the bulldozer to work. Or he could move on to another property.

President Trump’s demolition project just got shut down, at least for now.

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Senator wants more information on Trump’s ‘digital’ activities during campaign

US Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. gestures during his debate with Republican challenger, Ed Gillespie, in Richmond, Va., Monday, Oct. 13, 2014.  Steve Helber/AP The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee called for more investigation into the digital activities of Donald Trump’s campaign, amid concerns about Russian-directed misinformation efforts to influence the election, even as the president’s lawyer vigorously defended his client.

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said he wants to look into the activities of Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that advised Trump’s campaign, as well as Trump’s digital efforts during the election because of the way false election stories about Hillary Clinton were circulated and targeted online.

Top Senate Intel Dem fears Trump will pardon those convicted in Russia probe

“The ability to manipulate these search engines and some of these social media platforms is real, it’s out there,” Warner said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “We need information from the companies, as well as we need to look into the activities of some of the Trump digital campaign activities.’’

Separately, on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Warner said there was a series of “trolls” or paid individuals who worked for Russian services that tried to interfere in the election and disseminate fake news.

The comments came as FBI and congressional committees continue to investigate Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, and whether members of Trump’s campaign cooperated. Questions intensified after revelations last week that the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., met in June 2016 with a Russian lawyer whom Trump Jr. believed to have information damaging to Clinton. Also at the meeting was Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort.

No Violation

Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s personal attorneys, appeared on multiple Sunday talk shows to say the meeting didn’t violate the law and that the president wasn’t aware of the meeting and didn’t participate.

“I wonder why the Secret Service, if this was nefarious, why the Secret Service allowed these people in,” Sekulow said on ABC’s “This Week.” “The president had Secret Service protection at that point, and that raised a question with me.”

On CNN, Warner pointed to what he called a “convenient pattern” of Kushner, now a senior White House adviser, and other members associated with the Trump administration having to amend disclosure forms to add meetings with Russians that they had neglected to report earlier.

“I’m not sure why we take anybody in the senior level of the Trump administration at their word,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important that we’re going to get a chance to question these individuals and try to actually nail down the truth.’’

Warner has said Trump Jr. is likely to be called to testify, and he said on CNN that he would also like to hear from Kushner and others.

Ty Cobb

After the younger Trump published emails related to the meeting on Twitter, preempting their release by The New York Times, a former Russian counterintelligence officer also said he was present at the meeting. The emails contradicted months of White House contentions that investigations of possible campaign collusion with Russia were nothing more than a “witch hunt.”

As Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller deepens his probe into campaign activities, the White House on Saturday confirmed it had hired Ty Cobb, a veteran Washington lawyer, as a special counsel. Cobb is expected to oversee the White House’s legal and media response to investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign.

Attention to the unfolding scandal has diverted attention from other issues, including health care. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said late Saturday that he’s delaying plans to begin debating a controversial health-care bill after Republican Senator John McCain said he’ll be home in Arizona recovering from unexpected surgery.

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Top Senate Intel Dem fears Trump will pardon those convicted in Russia probe

Top Senate Intel Dem fears Trump will pardon those convicted in Russia probeThe top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner (Va.), said one of his big fears in the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is that President Trump would issue pardons should anyone be convicted.

“I asked Attorney General Sessions what I thought would be the ultimate softball when he testified. I said – I may not have said it this way – at least you got to tell us that there has been no discussion of pardons at this point. And he did not answer,” Warner told Vox in an interview.

“The possibility of presidential pardons in this process concerns me and also would be, I think, a really, really bad move,” he added.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has an ongoing investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow during the election.

Warner’s interview comes after Donald Trump Jr. released a stunning chain of emails this week detailing his conversations about setting up a campaign meeting with a Russian lawyer.

The information “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father,” reads one of the emails from Rob Goldstone, who acted as an intermediary to set up the meeting.

The New York Times first reported the meeting on Saturday.

Warner said earlier this week that emails published by Trump Jr. showed “black and white” that the Trump campaign was involved in Russian efforts to influence the presidential election.

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Trump Jr meeting controversy: The key players

Emin Agalarov, Donald Trump and Aras Agalarov attend the red carpet at Miss Universe Pageant Competition 2013 on November 9, 2013 in Moscow
Emin (left) and Aras Agalarov with Mr Trump during a Miss Universe event in Moscow in 2013

It is the meeting everyone is talking about: Donald Trump Junior, his brother-in-law and the chairman of Donald Trump Senior’s election campaign talking to a Russian lawyer who had allegedly offered damaging material about Hillary Clinton.

It was an encounter proposed by a British music publicist and allegedly arranged by an Azerbaijani-Russian businessman, whose pop star son once featured Mr Trump Sr in a music video.

Feeling lost? Here are the key players explained.


Donald Trump Jr

Donald Trump Jr speaks at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on 19 July 2016

The center piece of it all is Donald Trump’s eldest son from his first marriage to Ivana, who is now executive vice-president of the Trump Organization.

Here is how it unfolded: he received an email from British music publicist Rob Goldstone promising documents from Russia that would incriminate Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

The meeting was allegedly arranged by Azerbaijani-Russian billionaire Aras Agalarov, whose son Emin is a pop star who was managed for a time by Mr Goldstone (more on all of them later).

One email from Mr Goldstone said the information they had been promised was “obviously very high-level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump”.

Mr Trump Jr’s response to it was: “If it’s what you say I love it”.

The meeting took place in June 2016 at Trump Tower in New York. When news of it emerged, he denied that the meeting had anything to do with the campaign (we explain what he said below).

He then told Fox News Ms Veselnitskaya had provided them with nothing of use and it had only lasted 20 minutes.


Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s father-in-law and White House adviser

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner during a meeting on 30 June 2016

The husband of Ivanka, the president’s eldest daughter, and a long-time adviser to Mr Trump, who played a key role in his campaign.

Despite having no diplomatic credentials, he has found power with Mr Trump at the White House, being tasked with resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also serves as the president’s lead adviser on relations with China, Mexico and Canada.

He has yet to comment on the case.

Who is who in the Trump clan


Paul Manafort, Trump ex-campaign chairman

Paul Manafort takes part in meeting on 17 August 2016

At the time of the meeting, he was a newcomer to the Trump team, brought in to professionalist the campaign. He quit in August, under fire for his ties to Russian interests and a former Ukrainian president.

He has also not commented on the case. But Politico website, citing an unidentified source close to him, said that Mr Manafort had not read the email exchanges to the end on his phone and that he had not even known who was going to be in the meeting.


Natalia Veselnitskaya, Russian lawyer

Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya speaks during an interview in Moscow on 8 November 2016

Known for her campaign against the Magnitsky Act, which enables the US to withhold visas and freeze financial assets of Russian officials thought to have been involved with human rights violations. In reaction to this controversial act, Russia barred Americans from adopting Russian orphans.

Mr Trump Jr had initially said the discussion of this ban was the subject of their meeting. That was before his email exchange with Mr Goldstone was revealed.

Ms Veselnitskaya was married to a former deputy transportation minister of the Moscow region, the New York Times says. Her clients included state-owned companies and a senior government official’s son, whose company was under investigation in the US when the meeting took place.

Her work and connections had drawn the FBI’s attention, an unnamed former senior law enforcement official was quoted by the Times as saying.

She told the paper: “Nothing at all was discussed about the presidential campaign… I have never acted on behalf of the Russian government and have never discussed any of these matters with any representative of the Russian government.”

Trump-Russia inquiry: How did we get here?

Russian cloud hangs over White House


Rob Goldstone, publicist

Publicist Goldstone attends the Miss Universe 2013 pageant in Moscow

The man who set up the meeting.

The publicist has worked closely with world-renowned stars such as Michael Jackson, BB King and Richard Branson. But, despite all of those big names, he was little known to the world until now.

Mr Goldstone’s posts on social media suggest he has spent several days in Russia and Azerbaijan on different trips in recent years, including in the months before last year’s US presidential election.

Media outlets report that shortly after Mr Trump’s win, he posted a picture on his Instagram account in which he wore a T-shirt with “Russia” in big letters on it. The account was made private after the reports emerged.

He is a former journalist – media reports say he used to work in tabloids. Most recently, he managed pop star Emin Agalarov.

He has not commented.

Why is this British guy emailing Trump Jr?


Aras Agalarov, billionaire

Often called the “Donald Trump of Russia”, with an estimated fortune of about $1.9bn (£1.4bn), according to Forbes.

Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, he is the owner of Crocus Group, a major Russian property development company, and was Mr Trump’s business partner in taking the Miss Universe competition to Moscow in 2013.

He was also working to partner with Mr Trump in bringing Trump Tower to Russia, a project that never materialised. Crocus, meanwhile, is currently building two stadiums in preparation for the 2018 World Cup hosted by Russia.

Reacting to the news, the billionaire denied any intention to damage Mrs Clinton.

“These are just fantasies! I do not know who invents them and what Hillary Clinton has to do with it. I do not know, I don’t even properly know Rob Goldstone. He worked with Emin, probably, as a manager for a certain period of time, or he may have promoted something in the USA, I don’t know.”


Emin Agalarov, singer

Singer Emin Agalarov, son-of-law of the president, performs during the Grand Final of the Eurovision Song Contest 2012 in Baku, Azerbaijan, 26 May 2012

The Baku-born singer is a music star in Russia and Azerbaijan. In 2013, Mr Trump featured in one of his music videos with that year’s Miss Universe contestants – the clip has been watched almost 2m times on YouTube.

In 2006, he married Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev’s daughter, Leyla. The couple had two boys and adopted a girl, but have since divorced.

Mr Goldstone said in the emails that the meeting was set up at the request of the singer. Emin Agalarov has not commented.

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Trump’s plan to work with Putin on cyber security makes no sense. Here’s why.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a press conference after the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 8, 2017.President Trump announced Sunday on Twitter that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin were talking about forming an “impenetrable Cyber Security unit” to prevent election hacking in the future.

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Other U.S. politicians, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), have reacted with consternation. Rubio suggests that partnering with Putin on cybersecurity would be like partnering with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on a “Chemical Weapons Unit” (Assad is widely believed to have carried out chemical weapons attacks on his own people). The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has defended Trump, saying that the United States doesn’t trust Russia but that “you keep those that you don’t trust closer, so that you can always keep an eye on them and keep them in check.” So why are Rubio and many others so critical of Trump, and does Haley’s defense make any sense?

Sometimes, it makes sense to cooperate with states that you don’t trust on cybersecurity

There is some precedent for working with states that you don’t trust on cyber security issues. During the Obama administration, the United States and China reached an agreement on how to deal with contentious issues in cyber security. Both the United States and China hack into each other’s systems on a regular basis. The agreement was not intended to stop this but to prevent it from getting out of control in ways that might damage bilateral arrangements. Thus, the agreement created a kind of hotline for communication and information sharing about potentially problematic behavior, as well as a continuing dialogue on cyber issues. It also ruled out efforts by state actors to steal intellectual property (the United States had persistently complained that Chinese state hackers stole U.S. companies’ secrets and passed them on to Chinese competitor firms). To the surprise of many in the United States, the agreement seems to have helped moderate Chinese efforts to steal commercial secrets, although there is disagreement over whether this was because China was shamed and wanted to preserve honor, or alternatively used the agreement to impose control over unruly hackers.

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Either way, this deal worked — to the extent it did work — because both states had roughly convergent interests over a very limited set of issues. It did not involve the exchange of truly sensitive information — China does not trust the United States with details of its defenses against cyberattacks, and the United States does not trust China. Instead, the two sides have looked to manage their disagreement, rather than engage in deep and extensive cooperation.

That doesn’t appear to be what Trump wants

As Trump has described his discussions with Putin, both want something much more far-reaching than the deal that Obama reached with China. Instead of setting up dialogue, Trump wants to engage in true cooperation. He wants to set up a joint “unit” that would handle election security issues so as to prevent hacking. This unit would, furthermore, be “impenetrable.”

Critics in the United States have unsurprisingly interpreted this proposal as a transparent ploy by Trump to sideline accusations that Russian hackers helped him win the presidential election. However, even if Trump’s proposal is taken at face value, it doesn’t make much sense.

U.S. officials don’t trust the Russians

If the proposed cybersecurity unit were to work effectively, the United States would need to share extensive information with Russia on how U.S. officials defend elections against foreign tampering. The problem is, however, that information that is valuable for defending U.S. systems is, almost by definition, information that is valuable for attacking them, too. This is one reason U.S. officials have not previously proposed any far-reaching arrangement with Russia on cybersecurity. Providing such information would almost certainly give the Russians a map of vulnerabilities and insecurities in the system that they could then exploit for their own purposes.

It would not only provide the fox with a map of the henhouse, but give him the security code, the backdoor key, and a wheelbarrow to make off with the carcasses. U.S. officials have determined that Russian hackers have probed U.S. election systems, presumably to discover vulnerabilities that they could exploit. Although there is no evidence that Russia actually manipulated machines to alter the vote in the 2016 election, there is excellent reason to believe that Russia has carefully considered the pros and cons of direct intervention, as well as the hacking and leaking that it did engage in.

Furthermore, when Trump says that this unit would be “impenetrable,” he implies that Russia and the United States would cooperate on making it secure against outside hacking by third parties. Again, such cooperation is wildly unlikely to work well. To make it work, the United States would have to share sensitive methods with Russia, as well as vice versa. Neither side is going to want to do this, because again it would provide potential adversaries with a deep understanding of protective measures, which might allow those adversaries to penetrate them.

In short, the kind of cooperation that Trump is proposing would be very hard to accomplish between close allies with deeply shared security interests (the United States shares a lot of secrets with select allies — but it does not share everything, for the same reasons that they do not share their deepest defensive secrets with the United States). It is more or less impossible to carry off with a state that not only is often an adversary but has recently demonstrated its desire to hack U.S. elections, if only it could get away with it.

Any arrangement would be a win for Putin

If Trump’s tweet reflects a change in U.S. policy, it is potentially a big win for Russia’s government. One of the reasons that U.S.-Russia relations deteriorated during the Obama presidency was Putin’s belief that the U.S. was interfering in other countries’ elections and that he was going to be the next target. Russia today is a ‘managed democracy,’ which allows some electoral competition, as long as it does not threaten the power of the government. This means that the Russian government saw the various pro-democracy movements supported by the U.S. during the “Arab Spring” and in Ukraine as an existential threat. The U.S. was not only encroaching in countries that Russia thought of as part of its sphere of influence. It was perhaps threatening to support a ‘pro-democracy’ movement in Russia itself, which would topple Putin and his allies from power. Hence, Russia has insisted in various international debates that cybersecurity be defined so as to prevent foreign interference in Russia’s electoral process.

Trump’s willingness to play ball with Russia on elections may or may not stem from his domestic problems. From Putin’s perspective, however, it is an unmitigated win. If the United States is willing to cooperate with Russia on election security, it suggests that the United States is willing to treat Russian elections as legitimate and is perhaps beginning to accept Russia’s understanding of democracy promotion as an unacceptable form of interference in other countries’ domestic politics.

Any deal will see massive pushback from U.S. intelligence services

As is often the case with Trump’s tweets, it is unclear whether they reflect any real policy process. Trump is not noted for his fine grasp of the niceties of policy, and he deliberately excluded other senior officials from his discussions with Putin.

However, if he is contemplating a deal that even slightly resembles the one described in his tweet, it will probably lead to enormous resistance from U.S. intelligence and security officials, and from Congress. Such a deal would represent an extraordinary departure from existing U.S. practices and the U.S. understanding of its national security. Haley’s defense of Trump’s actions is a version of the old dictum that you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer. However, this doesn’t really describe what Trump has suggested, which is less about keeping an eye on Russia and more about providing Russia with a detailed map of America’s core vulnerabilities.

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Pressure builds on Trump at home over pledge for closer Moscow ties

In this June 23, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

During his presidential campaign, Republican Donald Trump praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “strong leader” with whom he would like to reset tense U.S.-Russian relations.

But as Trump heads to his first face-to-face meeting as president with Putin on Friday at the G20 summit in Germany, he is under pressure at home to take a tough line with the Kremlin.

Allegations of Russian meddling in last year’s U.S. election have alarmed both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, who are pushing to extend tough sanctions placed on Russia following its 2014 annexation of Crimea, a peninsula belonging to Ukraine.

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Lawmakers including Republican Senator Cory Gardner are also concerned Russia has prolonged the civil war in Syria by backing its President Bashar al-Assad, a strongman whose forces have used chemical weapons against insurgents and civilians. The chaos has fueled instability in the region and a flood of migrants to Europe.

“President (Trump) needs to make it clear that the continued aggression by Russia around the globe … is unacceptable, and that they will be held accountable,” said Gardner, who was among six lawmakers invited by the White House last month to discuss foreign policy with Trump over dinner.

Meanwhile, the appointment of a special counsel who is investigating potential links between the Russian government and members of the Trump campaign has weakened the president’s ability to maneuver with Russia, foreign policy experts say.

The U.S. intelligence community has concluded Russia sponsored hacking of Democratic Party groups last year to benefit Trump over his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton. Russia has denied those allegations while Trump has repeatedly dismissed the idea of any coordination between his campaign and Russia as a “witch hunt.”

Still, just the optics of Trump meeting with Putin, a former KGB agent, are fraught with risk, foreign policy experts say.

“If (Trump) smiles, if he wraps his arm around Putin, if he says, ‘I’m honored to meet you, we’re going to find a way forward,’ … I think Congress is going to react extremely negatively to that,” said Julie Smith, a former national security aide in the Obama administration.

EVOLVING U.S. POLICY

Trump has signaled an interest in cooperating with Russia to defeat Islamic State in Syria and to reduce nuclear stockpiles.

The White House has been mum on what Trump would be willing to give Russia in exchange for that help. But there has been speculation he could ratchet down sanctions, or even return two Russian diplomatic compounds in Maryland and Long Island. President Barack Obama seized those facilities and expelled 35 Russian diplomats just before he left office as punishment for the election hacks.

While some administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, also support engagement, others, such as Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, have taken a hawkish line on Russia.

The lack of a unified strategy has left U.S. allies anxious. And it has lowered expectations for American leadership to help resolve crises in Syria and Ukraine, where Russian cooperation would be critical.

“Trump is like a horse with his front legs tied,” said a German diplomat, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity. “He can’t make any big leaps forward on Russia. If he tried people would immediately suspect it was all part of some big conspiracy.”

Trump’s administration is still reviewing its Russia policy, a process that may not be wrapped up for a couple of months, a U.S. official said.

Speaking with reporters last week about Trump’s upcoming meeting with Putin, White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said his boss would like “the United States and the entire West to develop a more constructive relationship with Russia. But he’s also made clear that we will do what is necessary to confront Russia’s destabilizing behavior.”

THIRD TRY AT A RESET

Trump is just the latest president to grapple with the complicated U.S.-Russia dynamic.

George W. Bush and Obama sought to improve the U.S. relationship with Russia early in their administrations only to see relations deteriorate later.

Among the concerns for this president is Trump’s apparent lack of interest in policy details and his tendency to wing it with foreign leaders.

McMaster told reporters that Trump has “no specific agenda” for his meeting with Putin and that topics would consist of “whatever the president wants to talk about.”

Michael McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia under Obama, said he feared Trump might be headed to the meeting without clear objectives.

“I hope that he would think about first: what is our objective in Ukraine? What is our objective in Syria? And secondarily, how do I go about achieving that in my meeting with Putin?” McFaul said.

Other Washington veterans say Trump won’t be able to make meaningful progress with Russia on anything until he confronts Putin about the suspected election meddling.

“(Trump) really has to raise the Russian election hacking last year, and has to say something like, ‘Vladimir, don’t do this again. There will be consequences,'” said Steve Pifer, a long-time State Department official focused on U.S.-Russia relations.

So far Trump has shown little inclination to do so, a situation that has heightened speculation about the potential impact from his coming encounter with the Russian leader.

“The shadow of all these investigations hangs over this,” said Angela Stent, a professor at Georgetown University and former National Intelligence Officer for Russia.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Arshad Mohammed, Warren Strobel, Richard Cowan, Jonathan Landay, John Walcott in Washington; John Irish in Paris; Noah Barkin in Berlin; Christian Lowe in Moscow; Editing by Caren Bohan and Marla Dickerson)

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With 40 months to go, Trump holds re-election fundraiser

Protesters yell at patrons at the outdoor seating area at the Trump International Hotel, Wednesday, June 28, 2017, in Washington. President Donald Trump is attending a fundraiser at the hotel. President Donald Trump is attending a fundraiser at the hotel. President Donald Trump was whisked a few blocks from the White House to his hotel on Wednesday night for his first re-election fundraiser. But reporters were barred from hearing his remarks

Security was tight at the Trump International Hotel, where guests in long gowns and sharp suits started arriving around five.

The president’s motorcade was greeted by do

zens of protesters outside hoisting signs with slogans like “Health care not tax cuts” and chanting “Shame! Shame!”

First-time candidate Donald Trump got a late start on fundraising in 2016, holding his first big-ticket donor event only five months before Election Day. That won’t be the case this time.

Some 40 months ahead of his next election, the president holds court at a $35,000-per-plate donor event Wednesday night at his hotel in Washington. About 300 people are expected to attend an event that will pull in about $10 million, said Lindsay Jancek, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.

Breaking the tradition of his predecessor, Trump isn’t allowing reporters to hear his remarks to the group of donors — despite an announcement earlier in the day that a pool of reporters would be allowed in to hear the president’s remarks.

“It’s a political event and they’ve chosen to keep that separate,” White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said when asked why the event is closed to the media.

After reporters complained, Sanders announced that the president’s remarks would be opened to the press — only to reverse herself hours later.

“Unfortunately there was some confusion with the RNC, and due to the logistical challenges bringing in the press at this late moment is not going to be possible,” she said in an email. Sanders also said there was nothing unusual about raising political cash so early.

“He’s raising money for the party,” she said. “I don’t think that’s abnormal for any president.”

Sanders’ statement that Trump is raising cash for the GOP tells only part of the story, though.

The first cut of the money raised goes to Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign. The rest gets spread among the RNC and other various Republican entities. Having multiple beneficiaries is what allows Trump to ask for well above the usual $5,400 per-donor maximum for each election cycle.

Those contribution limits are likely to change because this fundraiser is so early that new donation limits for 2020 have not been set by the Federal Election Commission.

Trump’s historically early campaigning comes with benefits and challenges.

In the first three months of this year, the Trump campaign raised more than $7 million, through small donations and the sale of Trump-themed merchandise such as the ubiquitous, red “Make America Great Again” ball caps.

The RNC also is benefiting from the new president’s active campaigning, having raised about $62 million through the end of last month. The party has raised more online this year than it did in all of 2016 — a testament to Trump’s success in reaching small donors.

Trump’s re-election money helps pay for his political rallies. He’s held five so far, and campaign director Michael Glassner says those events help keep him connected to his base of voters.

The constant politicking, however, means it is challenging for government employees to avoid inappropriately crossing ethical lines. Some watchdog groups have flagged White House employee tweets that veer into campaign territory. White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters says the employees work closely with lawyers to avoid pitfalls.

Walters also says the White House takes care to make sure that Trump’s political events and travel — including the Wednesday fundraiser — are paid for by the campaign and other political entities.

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Trump and Democrats blame Obama over Russia meddling

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the United Nations General Assembly, New York, September 28, 2015.: Then-President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are shown at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in 2015.

President Donald Trump and senior Democrats joined in blaming Barack Obama for not doing more to stop Russia interfering with the 2016 presidential election.

In an early morning tweet, Trump appeared to acknowledge that Russia had meddled in the election. He has previously decried multiple investigations into alleged collusion between his officials and Russia as a “witch hunt.”

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Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as well as House and Senate committees, are investigating Russia’s interference in the election and the alleged complicity of Trump officials. The president encouraged greater scrutiny of the Obama administration, tweeting Thursday: “By the way, if Russia was working so hard on the 2016 Election, it all took place during the Obama Admin. Why didn’t they stop them?”

Trump’s Democrat rivals also criticized the former president on Friday, after the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence briefed Obama in August that Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally ordered a campaign of interference to help elect Trump.

Democrat Eric Swalwell, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, criticized Obama for being excessively cautious.

“(The response) was inadequate. I think (the administration) could have done a better job informing the American people of the extent of the attack,” he said.

Others accused Obama for failing to sufficiently sanction Russia once the election was over and the Trump administration was preparing to take power.

In October, the Obama administration accused Russia of hacking emails from Democratic Party servers in an attempt to discredit Hillary Clinton and sway the election. Two months later, Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S. in retaliation for the hacking, but, according to the Post report, the administration ruled out releasing information potentially embarrassing to Putin or enacting harsher sanctions. Democrat Jim Himes, another House Intelligence member, called the penalties “barely a slap on the wrist.”

In a previously undisclosed measure, the Post reported that Obama also authorized cyber attacks against Russian infrastructure when he left office in January.

In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, former director of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said evidence of Russian hacking had been uncovered by the FBI last August, but said the Obama administration was reluctant to respond for fear of being accused of partisan attempts to influence the course of the 2016 election.

According to the PostObama and key advisers were concerned that Russia could launch a potentially crippling attack on U.S. voting systems before Election Day.

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