Mueller Has Early Draft of Trump Letter Giving Reasons for Firing Comey

James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May, less than a week before he was fired by President Trump.

The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has obtained a letter drafted by President Trump and a top political aide that offered an unvarnished view of Mr. Trump’s thinking in the days before the president fired the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey.

The circumstances and reasons for the firing are believed to be a significant element of Mr. Mueller’s investigation, which includes whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice by firing Mr. Comey.

The letter, drafted in May, was met with opposition from Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, who believed that its angry, meandering tone was problematic, according to interviews with a dozen administration officials and others briefed on the matter. Among Mr. McGahn’s concerns were references to private conversations the president had with Mr. Comey, including times when the F.B.I. director told Mr. Trump he was not under investigation in the F.B.I.’s continuing Russia inquiry.

Mr. McGahn successfully blocked the president from sending the letter — which Mr. Trump had composed with Stephen Miller, one of the president’s top political advisers — to Mr. Comey. But a copy was given to the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, who then drafted his own letter. Mr. Rosenstein’s letter was ultimately used as the Trump administration’s public rationale for Mr. Comey’s firing, which was that Mr. Comey had mishandled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server.

Mr. Rosenstein is overseeing Mr. Mueller’s investigation into Russian efforts to disrupt last year’s presidential election, as well as whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice.

Mr. McGahn’s concerns about Mr. Trump’s letter show how much he realized that the president’s rationale for firing Mr. Comey might not hold up to scrutiny, and how he and other administration officials sought to build a more defensible public case for his ouster.

Ty Cobb, a White House lawyer, declined on Friday to discuss the letter or its contents. “To the extent the special prosecutor is interested in these matters, we will be fully transparent with him,” he said.

Mr. Trump and his aides gave multiple justifications for Mr. Comey’s dismissal in the days after he was fired. The first rationale was that the F.B.I. director had mishandled the Clinton email case. Another was that Mr. Comey had lost the confidence of the F.B.I. During an Oval Office meeting with Russian officials, Mr. Trump went so far as to call Mr. Comey a “nut job” and said that firing him lifted pressure off the White House.

The New York Times has not seen a copy of Mr. Trump’s letter — which was drafted at the urging of Mr. Trump during a pivotal weekend in May at the president’s private golf club in Bedminster, N. J. — and it is unclear how much of the letter’s rationale focuses on the Russia investigation. The Justice Department turned over a copy of the letter to Mr. Mueller in recent weeks.

Stephen Miller, one of Mr. Trump’s top advisors, helped the president draft a letter explaining the rationale for firing Mr. Comey.The long Bedminster weekend began late Thursday, May 4, when Mr. Trump arrived by helicopter, joined by a trio of advisers — his daughter Ivanka; his son-in-law Jared Kushner; and Mr. Miller. It rained during part of the weekend, forcing Mr. Trump to cancel golf with Greg Norman, the Australian golfer. Instead, Mr. Trump stewed indoors, worrying about Mr. Comey and the Russia investigation.

The inquiry had already consumed the early months of his administration. Mr. Trump was angry that Mr. Comey had privately told him three times that he was not under investigation, yet would not clear his name publicly. Mr. Comey later confirmed in testimony to Congress in June that he had told the president that he was not under investigation, but said he did not make it public because the situation might change.

Mr. Miller and Mr. Kushner both told the president that weekend that they were in favor of firing Mr. Comey.

Mr. Trump ordered Mr. Miller to draft a letter, and dictated his unfettered thoughts. Several people who saw Mr. Miller’s multi-page draft described it as a “screed.”

Mr. Trump was back in Washington on Monday, May 8, when copies of the letter were handed out in the Oval Office to senior officials, including Mr. McGahn and Vice President Mike Pence. Mr. Trump announced that he had decided to fire Mr. Comey, and read aloud from Mr. Miller’s memo.

Some present at the meeting, including Mr. McGahn, were alarmed that the president had decided to fire the F.B.I. director after consulting only Ms. Trump, Mr. Kushner and Mr. Miller. Mr. McGahn began an effort to stop the letter or at least pare it back.

Later that day, Mr. McGahn gave Mr. Miller a marked-up copy of the letter, highlighting several sections that he believed needed to be removed.

Mr. McGahn met again that same day with Mr. Trump and told him that if he fired Mr. Comey, the Russia investigation would not go away. Mr. Trump told him, according to senior administration officials, that he understood that firing the F.B.I. director might extend the Russia investigation, but that he wanted to do it anyway.

Mr. McGahn arranged for the president to meet in the Oval Office that day with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Mr. Rosenstein, whom he knew had been pursuing separate efforts to fire Mr. Comey. The two men were particularly angry about testimony Mr. Comey had given to the Senate Judiciary Committee the previous week, when he said “it makes me mildly nauseous” to think his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation might have had an impact on the 2016 election.

Mr. Comey’s conduct during the hearing added to concerns of Mr. Sessions and Mr. Rosenstein that the F.B.I. director had botched the rollout of the Clinton investigation and had overstepped the boundaries of his job. Shortly after that hearing, Mr. Rosenstein expressed his concerns about Mr. Comey to a White House lawyer, who relayed details of the conversation to his bosses at the White House.

During the May 8 Oval Office meeting with Mr. Trump, Mr. Rosenstein was given a copy of the original letter and agreed to write a separate memo for Mr. Trump about why Mr. Comey should be fired.

Mr. Rosenstein’s memo arrived at the White House the next day. The lengthy diatribe Mr. Miller had written had been replaced by a simpler rationale — that Mr. Comey should be dismissed because of his handling of the Clinton email investigation. Unlike Mr. Trump’s letter, it made no mention of the times Mr. Comey had told the president he was not under investigation.

Mr. Rosenstein’s memo became the foundation for the terse termination letter that Mr. Trump had an aide attempt to deliver late on the afternoon of May 9 to F.B.I. headquarters in Washington. The White House made one significant revision, adding a point that was personally important to Mr. Trump: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau,” the letter said.

Mr. Comey, however, was not in Washington to receive it. He was speaking to F.B.I. employees in Los Angeles when he looked up at a television screen in the back of the room and saw a breaking news alert that he had been fired.

An aide pulled Mr. Comey aside to tell him that he needed to call headquarters in Washington. Mr. Comey entered a small room, picked up the phone and learned that he had lost his job.

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Paul Ryan, John McCain break with Trump on Arpaio pardon

 

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan opposes President Trump’s pardoning of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an aide said Saturday, joining Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain in criticizing the decision.

“The speaker does not agree with this decision,” said Doug Andres, a spokesman for Ryan. “Law enforcement officials have a special responsibility to respect the rights of everyone in the United States. We should not allow anyone to believe that responsibility is diminished by this pardon.”

Trump on Friday spared Arpaio, from the Phoenix area, the prospect of serving jail time in granting the first presidential pardon of his turbulent tenure, wiping away the lawman’s recent federal conviction stemming from his immigration patrols that focused on Latinos.

“The president has the authority to make this pardon, but doing so at this time undermines his claim for the respect of rule of law as Mr. Arpaio has shown no remorse for his actions,” McCain said after the Friday pardon announcement.

The pardon has received support from other Arizona Republicans, including Rep. Trent Franks, who said the ex-lawman is a “patriot.”

“In his last days, (President) Obama commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning — a treasonous intelligence analyst who shared a trove of intelligence with the infamous Wikileaks,” Franks, R-Ariz., said Saturday in a statement to Fox News.

“While no one can dispute Manning acted to undermine our country’s national security, Joe Arpaio has spent a lifetime trying to maintain it. … It is easy to discern that Arpaio is a patriot, while Manning is a traitor.”

Beyond McCain and Ryan, top congressional Republicans — including frequent Trump target Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky — have yet to issue public statements on the pardoning.

However, top congressional Democrats seized on the pardoning in their continuing efforts to throttle Trump’s presidency and lay ground work for the 2018 congressional races and the 2020 White House contest.

“We’re sick to our stomach. Donald Trump just pardoned Joe Arpaio,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a fundraising letter Saturday.

Anne Kirkpatrick, a former prosecutor trying to unseat Arizona GOP Rep. Martha McSally, late Friday night said Arpaio instituted “racist” police policies and attacked Republicans for not opposing the pardon.

“Those who remain silent are complicit,” the Arizona Democrat said in a fundraising letter.

The White House said Friday that the 85-year-old Arpaio was a “worthy candidate” for the pardon, citing his “life’s work of protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration.”

Trump granted the pardon less than a month after a judge found Arpaio — the sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County until losing re-election last year — guilty of a misdemeanor contempt-of-court charge in a trial that was prosecuted by the president’s own Justice Department.

“Pardoning Joe Arpaio is a slap in the face to the people of Maricopa County, especially the Latino community and those he victimized as he systematically and illegally violated their civil rights,” said Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, a Democrat.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey said Arpaio should be given credit for his crime-fighting efforts and allowed to “move on” and enjoy his retirement.

Arpaio earned a national reputation by taking aggressive action to arrest immigrants in the country illegally. But years of legal issues and related costs took a toll on his political power at home, and he was handily defeated by a Democrat in the 2016 election.

Arpaio defied court orders that he stop the patrols.

Trump issued the pardon seven months after taking office, though it is not unprecedented for a president to issue a pardon in their first year in office.

George H. W. Bush granted clemency after seven months in office, said Jeffrey Crouch, a professor of politics at American University who wrote a book on presidential pardons.

President Bill Clinton ignited a major controversy on his final day in office with a last-minute pardon for fugitive financier Marc Rich, the ex-husband of a major Democratic fundraiser.

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Al Gore Has One Word for President Trump: ‘Resign’

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore is shown at the premiere of his new climate-change film, "An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power," in London on Aug. 10.

Former vice president and climate change warrior Al Gore has a single word for Donald Trump in the wake of the president’s bungled attempt to unite Americans after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville turned violent last weekend.

When asked by Britain’s Lad Bible to give Trump one piece of advice on Thursday, Gore said: “Resign.”

He did not elaborate on why he thought the president should step down, but a number of bipartisan political figures — including members of the Republican leadership — have strongly criticized Trump’s response to the neo-Nazi rally.

Gore has been promoting his new film — An Inconvenient Sequel, a companion to his 2006 climate change awareness film “An Inconvenient Truth” — in the United Kingdom. He spoke with Newsweek last week in an interview before the Charlottesville rally.

Gore is the most prominent political figure to call for Trump’s resignation. After losing the 2000 election to George W. Bush, the former vice president has devoted his life to activism on climate change.

On Wednesday, Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Trump’s 1987 book, The Art of the Dealsaid thathe believes that Trump will resign soon in an effort to save face before the completion of the Russia investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.

The president has also faced scathing criticisms this week from corporate America, civil rights groups, and a bipartisan band of politicians for his attitude toward neo-Nazis and white supremacists, whom he equated with being on par with counterprotesters in Charlottesville who opposed them.

“Trump’s presidency is effectively over. Would be amazed if he survives till end of the year. More likely resigns by fall, if not sooner,” the author tweeted.

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Trump makes false claims about US nuclear arsenal

KOREAN PENINSULA, SOUTH KOREA - JULY 08: In this handout photo released by the South Korean Defense Ministry, A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber (top) fly with South Korean jets over the Korean Peninsula during a South Korea-U.S. joint live fire drill on July 8, 2017 in Korean Peninsula, South Korea.

Hours after warning North Korea that it will meet “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if its leader, Kim Jong Un, continued to provoke the United States, President Donald Trump said the U.S. nuclear arsenal is “stronger than ever before.”

“My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning.

 

He did not order the modernization of the nuclear arsenal. President Barack Obama did that in 2014, despite calling for a “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons” just five years earlier.

The plan, expected to cost $400 billion through 2024, would upgrade nuclear weapon production facilities, refurbish warheads and build new submarines, bombers and ground-based missiles. It will likely cost more than $1 trillion over the next 30 years, according to outside estimates.

Because the sprawling nuclear enterprise will take so long to rebuild, the arsenal is more or less at the same level of strength than when Trump took office seven months ago.

Trump did launch a top-to-bottom Nuclear Posture Review to determine what the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy should be, just like each of his recent predecessors did when they took office.

The review has not yet been completed, and it wasn’t Trump’s first order. The directive was issued a week after Trump took office, and was preceded by more than a dozen orders on other topics.

The U.S. nuclear weapons strategy rests on a triad of delivery systems — bombers, submarines and land-based missiles — developed early in the Cold War. The three legs of the triad were designed to ensure that even in a massive surprise attack, at least one leg would survive to deliver a retaliatory strike.

In addition to the review of the nuclear force, the White House has also proposed a $1.4 billion budget increase for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nuclear weapons enterprise. That money has yet to be allocated.

It’s unclear what Trump meant when he said that the nuclear arsenal is stronger than before. The Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington Bureau has written at length on the deteriorating state of various aspects of the nuclear enterprise.

In addition, the U.S. military is limited in how many weapons can be deployed under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed in 2010. That agreement requires Russia and the U.S. to reduce deployed intercontinental missiles to 700 and the overall number of warheads to 1,550, each by 2018.

Russia and the U.S. currently meet those limits, according to the latest data released by the State Department.

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Mueller Is Said to Be in Talks With White House About Interviewing Officials

Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in last year’s election, visited Capitol Hill in June.

In a sign that the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election will remain a continuing distraction for the White House, the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, is in talks with the West Wing about interviewing current and former senior administration officials, including the recently ousted White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, according to three people briefed on the discussions.

Mr. Mueller has asked the White House about specific meetings, who attended them and whether there are any notes, transcripts or documents about them, two of the people said. Among the matters Mr. Mueller wants to ask the officials about is President Trump’s decision in May to fire the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, the two people said.

That line of questioning will be important as Mr. Mueller continues to investigate whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice in the dismissal of Mr. Comey.

Legal Expert Says Trump’s Texts to Mueller Could Be Construed as Intimidation

No interviews have been scheduled, but in recent weeks Mr. Mueller’s investigation has appeared to intensify. Late last month, he took the aggressive step of executing a search warrant at the home of Paul J. Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, in Alexandria, Va. Legal experts say Mr. Mueller may be trying to put pressure on Mr. Manafort to cooperate with the investigation.

Although it has been clear for months that Mr. Mueller would interview Mr. Trump’s closest advisers, Mr. Mueller’s recent inquiries come as Mr. Trump is heading into the fall pushing his priorities in Congress, including a tax overhaul, with the constant distraction of a federal investigation.

Ty Cobb, a special counsel to the president, declined to comment, saying only that the White House would “continue to fully cooperate” with Mr. Mueller’s inquiry. He has frequently said that the White House will cooperate with Mr. Mueller’s investigation and that he hopes it will be completed quickly. Mr. Priebus did not return messages seeking comment.

Mr. Mueller has expressed interest in speaking with other administration officials, including members of the communications team. But Mr. Trump’s allies are particularly concerned about Mr. Mueller’s interest in talking to Mr. Priebus, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who worked closely with Mr. Trump during the presidential campaign. Mr. Trump’s confidants at the White House say Mr. Trump was never fully convinced that Mr. Priebus would be loyal to him.

Shortly after the November election, Mr. Priebus was made chief of staff, and he was involved in the major decisions the president made during the transition and in the first six months of the administration. Mr. Priebus made a point of being in most meetings and tried to be aware of what the president was doing. Mr. Trump fired him last month.

Mr. Priebus can potentially answer many questions Mr. Mueller has about what occurred during the campaign and in the White House. Mr. Priebus appears on the calendar of Mr. Manafort on the same day in June 2016 that Mr. Manafort and other campaign officials — including Mr. Trump’s eldest son and son-in-law — attended a meeting with Russians who claimed to have damaging information about Hillary Clinton, according to two people briefed on the matter. It is not clear whether Mr. Priebus and Mr. Manafort did meet that day.

According to a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation, Mr. Comey met with Mr. Priebus at the White House on Feb. 8 — a week before Mr. Comey said Mr. Trump cornered him in the Oval Office and asked him to end an investigation into Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn. In Mr. Comey’s meeting with Mr. Priebus, Mr. Comey told Mr. Priebus about a Justice Department policy that largely bars discussions between White House officials and the F.B.I. about continuing investigations in order to prevent political meddling — or at least the appearance of it — in the bureau’s work, according to the law enforcement official.

It is not clear whether Mr. Priebus ever relayed that message to the president. Mr. Trump’s Republican allies — including the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan — have said Mr. Trump may have asked Mr. Comey to end the investigation because he was a new president who did not understand the subtleties of how the commander in chief should interact with the F.B.I.

Mr. Priebus may also be able to help prosecutors verify crucial details about Mr. Trump’s interactions with Mr. Comey. According to testimony Mr. Comey provided to Congress, Mr. Priebus knows that Mr. Comey had the one-on-one encounter with Mr. Trump on Feb. 14, when Mr. Comey has said Mr. Trump asked him to end the Flynn investigation. Mr. Trump has said that the meeting did not occur and that he did not ask Mr. Comey to end the inquiry.

Mr. Comey said in his testimony to Congress that on Feb. 14, Mr. Trump had Mr. Priebus, the attorney general, the vice president and other senior administration officials removed from the Oval Office after a counterterrorism briefing.

“The president began by saying Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong in speaking with the Russians, but he had to let him go because he had misled the vice president,” Mr. Comey said.

“The president then made a long series of comments about the problem with leaks of classified information — a concern I shared and still share. After he had spoken for a few minutes about leaks, Reince Priebus leaned in through the door by the grandfather clock and I could see a group of people waiting behind him. The president waved at him to close the door, saying he would be done shortly. The door closed.”

Right after the door closed, Mr. Comey said, Mr. Trump asked him to end the Flynn investigation.

Mr. Trump and his lawyers have tried to cast the search warrant on Mr. Manafort as an unusual measure and an abuse of power. The president said he was surprised to learn about the search, saying it was something federal authorities “very seldom” do. John Dowd, a lawyer for Mr. Trump, said the search was similar to tactics used in Russia.

“The search warrant here was obtained by a gross abuse of the judicial process by the special counsel’s office,” Mr. Dowd told The Wall Street Journal in an email. “In addition, given the obvious unlawful deficiencies, this extraordinary invasive tool was employed for its shock value to try to intimidate Mr. Manafort.”

He added, “These methods are normally found and employed in Russia not America.”

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Judge orders State Dept. to search state.gov accounts for Clinton aides’ Benghazi emails

A federal judge has ordered the State Department to search the “state.gov” email accounts of Hillary Clinton aides Huma Abedin, Cheryl Mills and Jacob Sullivan for records related to Benghazi, as part of a watchdog’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

 

U.S. District Judge for the District of Columbi

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

a Amit Mehta made the call Tuesday, describing the FOIA lawsuit filed by Judicial Watch in March 2015 as “a far cry from a typical FOIA case.”

He noted that “Secretary Clinton used a private e-mail server located in her home, to transmit and receive work-related communications during her tenure as Secretary of State.”

“The sole remaining dispute in this case is the adequacy of State’s search for responsive records,” Mehta wrote in his opinion and order, noting the State Department has argued the search through Clinton aides’ emails “is likely to be unfruitful.”

But Mehta wrote that the State Department “has not, however, searched the one records system over which it has always had control and that is almost certain to contain some responsive records: the state.gov email server.”

FAVOR FACTORY? HUMA EMAILS REVEAL CLINTON ALLIES SEEKING JOBS, MEETINGS

“If Secretary Clinton sent an email about Benghazi to Abedin, Mills, or Sullivan at his or her state.gov email address, or if one of them sent an e-mail to Secretary Clinton using his or her state.gov account, then State’s server presumably would have captured and stored such an email,” Mehta wrote. “State has an obligation to search its own server for responsive records.”

The conservative watchdog group is engaged in numerous FOIA lawsuits seeking records pertaining to the actions of the last administration — including, in this case, records regarding the response to the 2012 terror attack in Libya.

The court ordered that the State Department conduct a “supplemental search” of Abedin, Mills and Sullivan state.gov email accounts, and set a deadline of Sept. 22 for the department to update the court on the status.

“This major court ruling may finally result in more answers about the Benghazi scandal—and Hillary Clinton’s involvement in it –as we approach the attack’s fifth anniversary,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said. “It is remarkable that we had to battle both Obama and Trump administrations to break through the State Department’s Benghazi stonewall.”

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Legal Expert Says Trump’s Texts to Mueller Could Be Construed as Intimidation

 

<span style="font-size:13px;">[Screengrab via ABC]</span>Donald Trump‘s texts to Robert Mueller are not only unusual, but could be the basis of an obstruction of justice accusation. Jimmy Gurulé, a law professor at Notre Dame University and a former U.S. Assistant Attorney General under the first president Bush, told LawNewz.com that the texts leave the president vulnerable, legally speaking, because these could be construed as intimidation.

Grand jury subpoenas issued in relation to Russian lawyer, Trump Jr. meeting

Trump chief counsel John Dowd told USA TODAY on Tuesday that POTUS “appreciates what Bob Mueller is doing. He asked me to share that with him and that’s what I’ve done.” Dowd described the messages as showing “appreciation and greetings,” and that texts were sent “back and forth.”

Bad idea.

Gurulé said that anything Trump tells him could be used against him in the Russia collusion investigation. Also, the texts themselves could be construed as an attempt to influence the probe.

“‘I’m watching you.’ How else could it be interpreted?” Gurulé said. ‘ Thank you for conducting an investigation into my campaign. Thank you for conducting an investigation into my son and my son-in-law.’”

If nothing else, this sort of thing leaves the president vulnerable.

“I can’t imagine he would do it again, and if so, he does it at his legal peril,” Gurulé said.

Joe Conason, the editor-in-chief at The National Memo, has also suggested this could play into an obstruction case against the president.

“You know and I do that the obstruction case is being built,” he told MSNBC Chief Legal Correspondent Ari Melber in a panel Tuesday evening. “This is all part of the context of that case.”

George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley has a different take on this.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” he told LawNewz.com. “It is not common for a potential target to convey such words of appreciation, however, nothing about this commonplace. There appears to be an concerted effort to dampen down the rumors that Trump was considering a termination of Mueller.”

Nonetheless, he wasn’t convinced about a hypothetical obstruction allegation: “If sending ‘appreciation and greetings’ is potential criminal intimidation, Hallmark executives are virtual serial killers.”

Mueller is investigating the Trump campaign for alleged collusion with the Russian government during the 2016 election. The president has repeatedly, publicly called the Special Counsel’s probe a “witch hunt” pushed by Democrats.

LawNewz.com has predicted that Trump will soon terminate Mueller.

The president has draw criticism before for allegedly speaking with investigators. FBI Director James Comey claims the president asked him in February to drop a federal investigation into National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. In March, Comey revealed that the feds were investigating Russia collusion efforts. Trump fired Comey in May, ostensibly for doing a bad job.

Critics have accused Trump of obstruction of justice for allegedly telling Comey to drop the Flynn investigation, and for firing him during the Kremlin probe.

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Grand jury subpoenas issued in relation to Russian lawyer, Trump Jr. meeting

Grand jury subpoenas have been issued in connection with a June 2016 meeting that included President Donald Trump’s son, his son-in-law and a Russian lawyer, two sources told Reuters on Thursday, in a sign that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is gathering pace.

The sources added that Mueller had convened a grand jury in Washington to help investigate allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

Russia has loomed large over the first six months of the Trump presidency. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia worked to tilt the presidential election in Trump’s favor. Mueller, who was appointed special counsel in May, is leading the probe, which also examines potential collusion by the Trump campaign with Russia.

Moscow denies any meddling and Trump denies any collusion by his campaign, while regularly denouncing the investigations as political witch hunts.

Mueller’s use of a grand jury could give him expansive tools to pursue evidence, including issuing subpoenas and compelling witnesses to testify. The impaneling of the grand jury was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

A spokesman for Mueller declined comment.

A grand jury is a group of ordinary citizens who, working behind closed doors, considers evidence of potential criminal wrongdoing that a prosecutor is investigating and decides whether charges should be brought.

“This is a serious development in the Mueller investigation,” said Paul Callan, a former prosecutor.

FILE PHOTO: Robert Mueller reacts to applause from the audience during his farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013.© REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst FILE PHOTO: Robert Mueller reacts to applause from the audience during his farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013.Given that Mueller inherited an investigation that began months ago, it would suggest that he has uncovered information pointing in the direction of criminal charges. But against whom is the real question.”

U.S. stocks and the dollar weakened following the news, while U.S. Treasury securities gained.

DAMAGING INFORMATION

News last month of the meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer who he was told had damaging information about his father’s presidential rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, fueled questions about the campaign’s dealings with Moscow.

The Republican president has defended his son’s behavior, saying many people would have taken that meeting.

Trump’s son-in-law and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort also attended the meeting.

Ty Cobb, special counsel to the president, said he was not aware that Mueller had started using a new grand jury.

“Grand jury matters are typically secret,” Cobb said. “The White House favors anything that accelerates the conclusion of his work fairly. … The White House is committed to fully cooperating with Mr. Mueller.”

John Dowd, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, said: “With respect to the news of the grand jury, I can tell you President Trump is not under investigation.”

A spokesman for Manafort declined to comment.

Lawyers for Trump Jr. and Kushner did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

One source briefed on the matter said Mueller was investigating whether, either at the meeting or afterward, anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign encouraged the Russians to start releasing material they had been collecting on the Clinton campaign since March 2016.

Another source familiar with the inquiry said that while the president himself was not now under investigation, Mueller’s investigation was seeking to determine whether he knew of the June 9 meeting in advance or was briefed on it afterward.

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The standoff between Trump and Sessions escalates

In this March 6, 2017 file photo, Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks in Washington. Christopher Anders, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a complaint against Sessions with the Alabama State Bar over his testimony during his Senate confirmation process regarding contact he had with Russia. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

The public standoff between the White House and the nation’s senior law enforcement official took another strange turn Tuesday as President Trump escalated his verbal attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was urged by fellow conservatives to stand his ground.

Trump was asked at a Rose Garden news conference if he would fire the attorney general, who angered the president by recusing himself from the criminal probe into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“We’ll see what happens,’’ said Trump — a potentially ominous choice of phrase, considering the president used the same expression when talking to FBI Director James B. Comey before he was fired.

“I’m disappointed in the attorney general,’’ Trump said. “If he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me prior to taking office, and I would have picked somebody else. It’s a bad thing not just for the president, but also for the presidency. I think it’s unfair to the presidency.”

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He said he wanted Sessions “to be much tougher on leaks in the intelligence agencies that are leaking like they never have before. . . . You can’t let that happen.’’

It is unheard of for a Cabinet-level official to be subjected to such visceral and public criticism, which has now gone on for a week. But Sessions showed no sign of buckling Tuesday, and in fact his position was bolstered by support from prominent conservatives taking his side in the fight with Trump.

In a recent conversation, Sessions’s chief of staff, Jody Hunt, told White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus that the attorney general had no intention of stepping down. Hunt, according to people familiar with the conversation, made it clear to Priebus that Sessions “plans to move forward with his agenda in the department and he has no plans for resigning,’’ according to one person familiar with the exchange. Priebus, for his part, did not say Trump planned to fire Sessions if he did not leave, these people said.

Trump’s reluctance to act on his anger and fire Sessions may be based in part on the lack of an immediate plan for a successor at the Justice Department. While Trump has discussed potential candidates to replace Sessions, senior White House officials have not settled on anyone, and may not anytime soon, administration officials said. If Sessions were to be fired without even a temporary replacement lined up, the deputy attorney general who oversees the Russia probe, Rod J. Rosenstein, would assume authority over the entire Justice Department.

One Republican close to the White House said a number of senior aides, including newly hired communications director Anthony Scaramucci, have urged Trump to sit down with Sessions and work through their differences. So far, there has been little enthusiasm for that suggestion, the Republican said.

One informal adviser to the Trump White House said there is another reason Trump has yet to fire Sessions: “The president doesn’t want to be seen as firing another law enforcement official.’’

After Trump fired Comey, one unintended consequence was the appointment of Robert S. Mueller III as special counsel overseeing the Russia probe.

Earlier Tuesday, Trump had tweeted that Sessions was “very weak’’ on investigating Hillary Clinton’s “crimes’’ and had not aggressively hunted those who have leaked intelligence secrets since he has been in office.

The president’s insistence that Clinton be investigated runs contrary to his own past statements, and the decision by the Justice Department and the FBI last year to close the investigation into her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. Sessions has recused himself from Clinton-related matters, citing his involvement with the presidential campaign as one of Trump’s major advisers.

The public humiliation of Sessions at the hands of the president he helped get elected was galling to many conservatives, who see Sessions as the Cabinet official who has most assiduously pursued Trump’s policy goals, from cracking down on illegal immigration to targeting street gangs.

Officials said Sessions is due to announce in coming days a number of criminal leak investigations based on news accounts of sensitive intelligence information. And within hours of Trump’s public broadside, the Justice Department announced it would change a police funding program to add new requirements that cities help federal agents find undocumented immigrants to receive grants.

On Tuesday, Republicans publicly rallied to Sessions’s defense. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said Sessions “is among the most honorable men in government today … I have full confidence in Jeff’s ability to perform the duties of his office and, above all, uphold the rule of law.’’

And Breitbart, the conservative website, posted an article saying the president’s public attack on Sessions “only serves to highlight Trump’s own hypocrisy” and it warned that the president’s stance could “fuel concerns from his base [which sees] Sessions as the best hope to fulfill Trump’s immigration policies.’’

Even among Democrats, Trump’s treatment of Sessions raised concerns. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, “What’s happening is just terrible. The attorney general did the right thing. The attorney general was nothing but loyal to Donald Trump. He took an oath of office to represent the Constitution, the law and the people.’’

Current and former Justice Department officials said they hope Sessions holds out, refusing to resign as a means of defending the department’s independence.

One former Justice Department official said the president’s anger seems to stem from a misunderstanding about how the department actually works. The White House, he said, should not be interfering with criminal investigations.

“For those of us that want this administration to succeed, this is incredibly self-destructive behavior,’’ the official said.

Justice Department employees said the president’s comments are damaging the reputation and morale of the department.

“It’s just insanity,’’ said one employee who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly. Another official said there was still hope in the building that Sessions could survive, and that Trump’s fury might abate. “This might be the one instance where everyone else just kind of rolls their eyes and moves on,’’ the official said.

The surge of support for Sessions is remarkable, considering how isolated he has been within the government. Sessions is viewed warily by many at the FBI for his role in Comey’s firing, and he is increasingly distant from the White House, despite the fact that some of his former Senate staffers serve there.

Administration officials said the president and his staff are also upset that Sessions held a news conference last Friday, in which he said he planned to remain on the job. Some in the White House saw that statement as unnecessarily antagonizing the president.

“Can you imagine any other president having to go this far to tell someone you need to go?’’ said a person informally advising the White House. “When Sessions said he wouldn’t resign, it’s like poking fire. You know who you’re dealing with.”

Yet within the Justice Department, that reaction was viewed as another indication of how little White House officials appear to understand what the Justice Department does. The news conference had been scheduled a week earlier based on an arrest overseas, and a senior European law enforcement official had flown in to participate.

Canceling the news conference, Justice Department officials reasoned at the time, would be a bigger problem than going forward. Sessions tried to keep his answers low-key, they added.

Officials at Justice said the standoff is beginning to affect the department’s work. One official said the pace of meetings with senior leaders has slowed, and the dust-up has distracted from some policy goals.

At a confirmation hearing Tuesday, Brian Benczkowski, a former Sessions aide and a nominee for assistant attorney general, said he had “every confidence” that his ex-boss made the right decision to recuse himself on the Russia investigation, and forcefully asserted that Mueller — whose work he said he did not consider a “witch hunt” — would do the right thing.

“He is someone who is widely understood to be a man of integrity, a man of independence, and someone who I believe will conduct his investigation with those characteristics right at the forefront, and I also believe he’ll insist on those same things from the people who work for him,” Benczkowski said.

Matt Zapotosky, Robert Costa and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

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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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