Special prosecutor to meet Senate committee leaders

In an Aug. 21, 2013 file photo, outgoing FBI director Robert Mueller speaks during an interview at FBI headquarters, in Washington.Special prosecutor Robert Mueller will hold talks this week with senior Senate Judiciary Committee members to ensure that there is no conflict between his investigation of potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign and the panel’s probe, two congressional aides said on Monday.Mueller, a former FBI director, will meet on Wednesday with the committee’s Republican chairman, Charles Grassley, and its top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Former U.S. attorney: ‘Absolutely evidence’ to begin obstruction of justice case

They will be joined by Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Sheldon White house, the chairman and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, they added. The subcommittee is examining what U.S. intelligence agencies say was a Russian campaign of influence was intended to boost Donald Trump’s chances of winning the 2016 presidential election.

The discussions will focus on ensuring that the subcommittee’s investigation is not interfering with Mueller’s probe, one source said.

Spokesmen for the committee and for Mueller declined to comment.

Mueller also was expected to meet sometime during the week with top members of the House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee for a similar discussion.

A spokesman and a spokeswoman for the panel also declined to discuss the matter.

The special prosecutor met last week with the Republican chairman and the top Democrat overseeing the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of what U.S. intelligence agencies say

Russia denies that it conducted such a campaign, and Trump denies there was any collusion between his campaign and Moscow. (Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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Trump acknowledges for first time he’s under investigation

President Donald Trump walks with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster from the Oval Office to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Friday, June 16, 2017, for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., then onto Miami. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)President Donald Trump acknowledges for the first time Friday that he is under federal investigation as part of the expanding probe into Russia’s election meddling. He lashed out at a top Justice Department official overseeing the inquiry, reflecting his mounting frustration with the unrelenting controversy that has consumed his early presidency.

“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt,” the president wrote on Twitter.

His morning missive apparently referred to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general whose role leading the federal investigation has become increasingly complicated. The White House has used a memo he wrote to justify Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, but that Trump action may now be part of the probe. Thursday night, Rosenstein issued an unusual statement complaining about leaks in the case.

Former U.S. attorney: ‘Absolutely evidence’ to begin obstruction of justice case

Trump advisers and confidants describe the president as increasingly angry over the investigation, yelling at television sets in the White House carrying coverage and insisting he is the target of a conspiracy to discredit — and potentially end — his presidency. Some of his ire is aimed at Rosenstein and investigative special counsel Robert Mueller, both of whom the president believes are biased against him, associates say.

Dianne Feinstein, top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she was “increasingly concerned” that Trump will fire both Mueller and Rosenstein.

“The message the president is sending through his tweets is that he believes the rule of law doesn’t apply to him and that anyone who thinks otherwise will be fired,” Feinstein said. “That’s undemocratic on its face and a blatant violation of the president’s oath of office.”

Aides have counseled the president to stay off Twitter and focus on other aspects of his job. They have tried to highlight the positive reviews he received Wednesday when he made a statesman-like appearance in the White House to address the nation after Rep. Steve Scalise was shot during a congressional baseball practice.

Yet Trump’s angry tweets on Friday underscored the near-impossible challenge his advisers and legal team have in trying to get him to avoid weighing in on an active probe.

The president has denied that he has any nefarious ties to Russia and has also disputed that he’s attempted to block the investigation into his campaign’s possible role in Russia’s election-related hacking. It was unclear whether his tweet about being under investigation was based on direct knowledge or new media reports that suggest Mueller is examining whether the president obstructed justice by firing Comey.

The tweets came shortly after Rosenstein issued his unusual statement that appeared to be warning about the accuracy of such reports.

“Americans should be skeptical about anonymous allegations,” Rosenstein said. “The Department of Justice has a long-established policy to neither confirm nor deny such allegations.”

The department would not comment on the record on whether Trump, who has repeatedly complained about leaks on the case, requested the statement. But a department official said no one asked for the statement and Rosenstein acted on his own. The official demanded anonymity because the official was not authorized to be named discussing the deliberations.

Trump has told associates he has the legal authority to fire Mueller, a move that might first require firing Rosenstein and would certainly intensify the uproar over the investigation. Though some in the White House have preached caution, fearing a repeat of the firestorm over Comey’s firing, many in Trump’s orbit — including his son Donald Trump Jr. and adviser Newt Gingrich — have deemed Mueller biased and worthy of dismissal.

Several White House officials and Trump associates insisted on anonymity in order to discuss the president’s views of the unfolding investigation.

Rosenstein has been overseeing the Russia probe since shortly after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself. But Rosenstein, too, may ultimately have to hand off oversight given his role in Trump’s decision to fire Comey.

Earlier this month, Rosenstein told The Associated Press that “if anything that I did winds up being relevant to his investigation then, as Director Mueller and I discussed, if there’s a need from me to recuse, I will.”

Trump’s tweets came after the top lawyer for his transition team warned the organization’s officials to preserve all records and other materials related to the Russia probe. An official of Trump’s transition confirmed the lawyer’s internal order, which was sent Thursday.

The order from the general counsel for the transition team casts a wide net on documents that could shed light on ties between Trump’s presidential campaign and representatives of Russia’s government. The order also covers separate inquiries into several key Trump associates including former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, campaign adviser Paul Manafort, foreign policy aide Carter Page and outside adviser Roger Stone.

The White House has directed questions for details to outside legal counsel, which has not responded.

Vice President Mike Pence has also hired a private lawyer to represent his interests in the expanding probe. Pence headed the Trump transition until Inauguration Day.

 

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Here are 3 things we want to know from Sessions’ testimony

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is set to testify publicly on Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Former U.S. attorney: ‘Absolutely evidence’ to begin obstruction of justice case

Here’s what we hope to learn:

1. Tell us about Sergey Kislyak

Back in March, Sessions recused himself from the Justice Department’s investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign after stories surfaced that he had met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice, even though during his confirmation hearing with the Judiciary Committee, he denied having met with any Russians.

Additionally, Comey told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee during a closed session Thursday that Sessions may have had a third, previously unreported, meeting with the Russian ambassador, according to a Senate aide who was not authorized to disclose the information.

Expect senators — especially Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who sits on both Intelligence and Judiciary — to ask why he didn’t disclose the first two meetings and whether a third meeting happened.

2. What happened with Comey?

Senators will likely ask about the firing of Comey. The former FBI chief last week told senators that he was fired over the Russia investigation. Given that Sessions had recused himself from the investigation, but still recommended that Comey be fired, expect it to come up why Sessions would participate in Comey’s dismissal.

“The Senate and the American people deserve to know exactly what involvement with the Russia investigation he had before his recusal, what safeguards are in place to prevent his meddling, and why he felt it was appropriate to recommend the firing of Director Comey when he was leading that investigation,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer of New York said.

Our guess: Sessions will say he was Comey’s boss for everything, not just Russia, so he had a duty to be involved in firing Comey and finding his replacement.

3. Is there bad blood between him and the president?

Last week, during the buildup to Comey’s testimony, reports broke that there has been tension between the attorney general and President Trump. Per a New York Times report, things had “grown sour” between the two. ABC News reported Sessions offered to resign at one point.

Trump has criticized Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation, which he believes led to the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the probe.

Senators will likely ask about whether Sessions offered to resign and whether he offered to step down.

Here’s why we might not learn everything that we hope to learn

Two words: Executive privilege. Last week, there was chatter that Trump may invoke executive privilege, the legal doctrine that allows the president and other members of the executive branch to withhold information from other branches of government, to keep Comey from testifying. In the end, Trump did not.

The question over whether Sessions will invoke executive privilege during his testimony is still up in the air, however.

Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said Monday that it was “premature” to discuss this hypothetical. Still, he did not exclusively rule it out: “I think it depends on the scope of the questions.”

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Senators Propose Stronger U.S. Sanctions Against Russia

Two Russian Federation flags fly on a road leading to the Lenin mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. Russia is realistic about limits on the prospects for an immediate improvement in relations with the U.S. after President-elect Donald Trump takes office, according to President Vladimir Putins spokesman.: 1482925852_Russia-flag

(Bloomberg) — Bipartisan leaders of the Senate Banking Committee announced a plan Wednesday to strengthen sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine and Syria, as well as internet intrusions in the U.S.

The proposal is a signal that some in Congress intend to push back on the Trump administration’s moves to explore an improvement in relations with Moscow.

Panel Chairman Mike Crapo of Idaho and top Democrat Sherrod Brown of Ohio said their bill would authorize “broad” new sanctions targeting sectors of Russia’s economy including mining, metals and railways.

It would codify and strengthen existing sanctions included in executive orders affecting Russian energy projects and debt financing in key economic sectors, the senators said in a press release.

“Despite existing sanctions, Russia remains a hostile, recalcitrant power, deploying its military, cyber-enabled information espionage activities, and economic tactics to harm the United States and drive a wedge between it and its allies,” the committee statement said. “There is significant congressional interest in ensuring sanctions on Russia are effective and proportionally enhanced, particularly in light of continuing Russian intransigence in these areas.”

The text will be released later, according to the statement.

The question of Russian sanctions has been raised by a number of senators in both parties after the intelligence community announced in January its conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of President Donald Trump.

Former FBI Director James Comey will testify before a Senate committee next Thursday as part of a probe into alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election and possible collusion with President Donald Trump’s campaign.

The Senate Intelligence Committee said on Thursday it would hear from Comey, who was fired by Trump on May 9, first in an open session and then behind closed doors, which would afford senators a chance to discuss classified information.

The former FBI chief is expected to testify on conversations he had with Trump in which the president reportedly pressured him to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, one of several Trump associates who are drawing scrutiny in a series of probes about Russia and last year’s U.S. election.

Russia has repeatedly denied any effort to interfere in the U.S. election, and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said some Russians might have acted on their own without their government’s involvement.

 

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In Words, and Actions, Tough Posturing From Trump to Allies

President Trump and the United States delegation met with European Union leaders in Brussels on Thursday.BRUSSELS — President Trump on Thursday punctured any illusions that he was on a fence-mending tour of Europe, declining to explicitly endorse NATO’s mutual defense pledge and lashing out at fellow members for what he called their “chronic underpayments” to the alliance.On a tense day when Mr. Trump brought the “America first” themes of his presidential campaign to the very heart of Europe, he left European leaders visibly unsettled, with some openly lamenting divisions with the United States on trade, climate and the best way to confront Russia.

The discord was palpable even in the body language. When Mr. Trump greeted Emmanuel Macron, France’s new president, the two leaders, jaws clenched, grabbed each other’s hands in an extended grip that turned Mr. Trump’s knuckles white. When the leaders lined up to pose for the traditional photograph of leaders at NATO headquarters, Mr. Trump appeared to push aside the Montenegrin prime minister, Dusko Markovic, to get to his assigned place in the front.

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The split was starkest at NATO headquarters, where Mr. Trump used the dedication of a soaring new building to lecture allies on their financial contributions. Far from robustly reaffirming NATO’s mutual defense commitment in the way that many members hoped he would, Mr. Trump repeated his complaint that the United States was shouldering an unfair burden.

“Twenty-three of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they’re supposed to be paying for their defense,” Mr. Trump declared, as the leaders shifted uncomfortably behind him, shooting one another sidelong glances.

“This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States,” he added. “And many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and not paying in those past years.”

Standing before a large piece of twisted wreckage from the World Trade Center that will serve as a memorial at the headquarters, Mr. Trump promised to “never forsake the friends that stood by our side” in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks — a pledge that White House officials later said amounted to an affirmation of mutual defense.

But to European allies, Mr. Trump’s words fell far short of an explicit affirmation of NATO’s Article 5 clause, the “one-for-all, all-for-one” principle that has been the foundation of NATO since its establishment 68 years ago, after World War II.

“I think he was stingy with the U.S. commitment and very generous with his criticisms,” said Fabrice Pothier, a former head of policy planning at NATO and a senior associate at Rasmussen Global, a political consulting firm.

President Trump and President Emmanuel Macron of France at the United States Embassy in Brussels.Emmanuel Macron of France at the United States Embassy in Brussels.White House officials said Mr. Trump’s message on financial contributions had galvanized NATO to confront the issue of financial contributions. At a closed meeting after his speech, they said, the leaders unanimously approved a resolution on burden-sharing and on fighting terrorism.

“To see unanimous support for the two main priorities of the president is a great way to start it off,” said Sean Spicer, the press secretary. “When you have an entire meeting that is focused on the president’s agenda, that shows the power of his message.”

Publicly, though, the other leaders appeared less gratified than bewildered. During a photo-taking session, none of them spoke to Mr. Trump, except for the secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg. Afterward, several surrounded Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who has emerged as the strongest counterweight to the president.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Trump, a blunt critic of the European Union during his campaign, received a chilly reception from his European counterparts as they began meetings in Brussels.

His first meeting with the Continent’s leaders began with officials from the United States and Europe saying nothing to each other. After being welcomed to Brussels, Mr. Trump said, “Thank you very much,” but he was otherwise silent as he gazed at the cameras across the room.

Donald Tusk, who represents leaders of the bloc’s 28 member states as president of the European Council, made it clear after the morning meeting that there had been several areas of disagreement.

“Some issues remained open like climate and trade,” Mr. Tusk said after the meeting at the European Union’s lavish new headquarters. “And I am not 100 percent sure that we can say today — ‘we’ means Mr. President and myself — that we have a common position, common opinion, about Russia.”

In the talks, Mr. Trump and Mr. Tusk differed over the intentions and policies of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, according to a person with direct knowledge of the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private. That reflects growing anxiety in Europe over what appear to be Russia’s efforts to meddle in elections here and in the United States.

The subject of Russia did not come up in a broader meeting between American and European officials, said Michael Anton, a spokesman for the National Security Council. But Mr. Anton said he could not speak for a smaller meeting with Mr. Trump, Mr. Tusk and the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.

The White House put a more positive spin on the day, saying the leaders discussed ways to deepen cooperation in fighting the Islamic State and reaffirmed “the strong bond between the United States and Europe, anchored in shared values and longstanding friendship.”

Climate change is another bone of contention, however. European leaders are turning up the pressure on Mr. Trump not to withdraw from the Paris climate accord that was ratified last year.

The campaign began on Wednesday at the Vatican, when Pope Francis gave Mr. Trump a copy of his influential encyclical on protecting the environment, and the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, urged the president not to withdraw from the accord.

Mr. Trump told Vatican officials that he had not made a final decision about the issue and that he was not likely to do so until after a Group of 7 meeting this weekend in Taormina, Italy, according to Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson. The president’s senior advisers have been deadlocked for months over whether the United States should withdraw

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada was among those who said he planned to press Mr. Trump on climate change.

“One of the things that we understand in Canada is that investing in clean energy and investing in fighting against climate change is going to help us,” Mr. Trudeau said, citing efforts by governments and businesses to find ways to avoid polluting the planet.

Mr. Trump’s handling of Article 5 epitomizes the gulf between him and other leaders. His steadfast refusal to endorse it as a candidate, and later as president, has raised fears among NATO allies about whether the United States would come to their defense in the event of an attack.

Other American officials have offered reassurances. Mr. Tillerson told reporters traveling on Air Force One this week, “Of course we support Article 5.” But until Mr. Trump speaks those words, leaders of other NATO nations seem bound to remain concerned.

Instead, Mr. Trump criticized the other leaders for not contributing 2 percent of their countries’ gross domestic product to their defense, as they have agreed to do but have often fallen short. He even took a shot at the new headquarters, a vast glass-and-steel edifice that looks like a series of interconnected airplane hangars.

“I never asked once what the new NATO headquarters cost,” Mr. Trump said. “I refuse to do so. But it looks beautiful.”

In 2014, NATO members agreed to increase their defense spending gradually to meet the 2 percent of G.D.P. goal, with 20 percent of that spending on military equipment. Those commitments have not changed, and after flat defense spending in 2015, spending increased last year among non-American alliance members.

The alarm in Europe over Mr. Trump’s presidency has diminished since the days immediately after his election, in part because emissaries like Mr. Tillerson and Vice President Mike Pence have reaffirmed American support for NATO and the European Union.

But Mr. Trump — who once described Brussels as a “hellhole” overrun with radicals — remains an object of deep suspicion in the city. For some of the European leaders, testing Mr. Trump seemed to be as important as finding common ground with him.

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Lawmakers Declare Trump Budget ‘Dead on Arrival’

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers rejected President Donald Trump’s proposed budget blueprint even before it was formally released Tuesday, saying that the cuts are too steep and the accounting is too unrealistic. Lawmakers said the document, which reflects the president’s broad vision, will go nowhere in Congress.

Trump’s proposal, which is the more complete version to the “skinny budget” the White House released in March, seeks to dramatically cut programs for low-income Americans while exponentially increasing defense spending. It also makes drastic cuts to environmental protection programs, agriculture and a host of other programs that senators say go too far.

Sen. John Cornyn, the second ranking Republican in the Senate, called it “dead on arrival.”

“Almost every president’s budget proposal is basically dead on arrival, including President Obama’s,” Cornyn said, making the point that such proposals are more statements of priorities than legislation. He added that Trump’s budget “may find a similar fate.”

Image: Senator John Cornynbetween a series of votes at the U… Image: Senator John Cornyn

Democrats immediately criticized Trump and his budget, saying the president who ran as a populist has gone against his campaign promises to help the most in need.

“It’s not good for West Virginia,” Sen. Joe Manchin, R-W.V., said of the proposal. “All the cuts for all the services for some of the neediest people in this country — I have quite a large delegation in my state. They’re going to be hurt.” Trump won West Virginia by nearly 42 percent in November.

Related: Trump Budget Would Cut Safety Net Programs, Boost Defense Spending

The budget disproportionately impacts lower-income Americans. It proposes an additional $600 billion in cuts to Medicaid, beyond the proposed $800 billion worth of cuts to low-income health program proposed in the Republican American Health Care Act, which passed the House this month. Trump pledged not to cut Medicaid as a candidate last year.

Additionally, Trump’s proposal adds one-quarter of a trillion dollars of cuts over ten years to low-income assistance programs, such as food stamps; the food program for women, infants and children, WIC; health insurance for low-income children, known as S-CHIP; and welfare, or TANF. It also adds work requirements for all three programs, saying it will “replace dependency with dignity of work.”

Another rural state Democrat, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, said Trump’s budget is “not good” for rural residents. “It’s especially cruel, quite frankly, to people who are up against it and need a hand up.”

Tester acknowledged that Trump won the majority of votes among rural Americans last year, saying the proposed proposal creates “an interesting dichotomy.”

Republicans are also taking issue with some of the cuts. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that despite the proposed $54 billion increase in defense spending, the proposed 29 percent cut to the State Department budget is a major security concern.

“If we implemented this budget, we’d have to retreat from the world or put a lot of people at risk — a lot of Benghazi’s in the making if we actually implemented the State Dept cuts,” said Graham. “So this budget is not going to go anywhere.”

Sen. John Hoeven, D-N.D., criticized the proposed reductions to agriculture programs. He said Congress has already cut $100 billion to such programs for the next ten years and that further reductions will harmful.

“It has some good ideas but we’ll write our own budget,” Hoeven said. “I’ll call this a starting point.”

And Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, criticized cuts to a flood protection system that Louisiana relies on.

“I strongly oppose,” the proposed reductions, Cassidy said. “Our coast line — we just need to that to keep another Katrina from bashing our state.”

Despite Trump’s massive proposed cuts to Medicaid, he kept the two other major entitlement programs – Social Security and Medicaid – largely untouched. (He did proposed cuts to recipients who receive Social Security because of a disability, however.)

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said that the deep cuts are a good start and that Trump has started “a very important discussion,” but he believes Social Security and Medicare should also be looked at.

“I think that right now those all fall into a group of things that are unsustainable. We gotta figure out how we help people who need help,” Tillis said.

The proposal claims that it will save $1.2 trillion dollars in the next ten years with the help of three percent growth to achieve that, something lawmakers say is overly optimistic.

“It’s looking a little light on that right now,” Manchin said of the prospects of 3 percent growth.

House Speaker Paul Ryan refrained from criticism but said that he supports the president’s broader objective.

“Clearly Congress will take that budget and work on our own budget, which is the case every single year. But at least we now have common objectives — grow the economy, balance the budget. So now we are on common ground and we will have a great debate on the details of how to achieve that,” Ryan said.

The entire document wasn’t criticized, however. Republicans largely support a $54 billion in crease in military spending. And Senator James Inhofe, R-Okla., chair of the transportation subcommittee of the Environment and Public Works Committee, praised a proposed $200 billion in infrastructure spending.

“I am very interested in what he’s doing with the $200 billion in transportation,” In hofe said.

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Trump ally Roger Stone blasts president’s Saudi meeting

Trump ally Roger Stone blasts president's Saudi meeting

Roger Stone blasted President Trump’s meeting with Saudi leaders on Saturday, arguing part of the royal reception that included the presentation of a gold medallion to Trump made him “want to puke.”

“Instead of meeting with the Saudis @realDonaldTrump should be demanding they pay for the attack on America on 9/11 which they financed,” Stone tweeted.

He later shared a picture of Trump getting a royal welcome, tweeting, “Candidly this makes me want to puke.”

View image on Twitter

Saudi Arabia King Salman placed the gold medallion, the King Abdulaziz al Saud Collar, around Trump’s neck during a ceremony in the country’s capital of Riyadh. The medallion is considered the kingdom’s highest civilian honor.

Stone, a longtime informal adviser to Trump, has been one of the president’s closest allies and has frequently defended him from criticism.

Saudi Arabia was Trump’s first stop on a nine-day overseas trip, his first as president. He is also slated to visit Israel and the Vatican in what aides have said will include a message stressing religious unity, before attending a Group of Seven (G7) industrialized nations summit in Italy.

The president’s Saudi Arabia visit culminated with a joint pledge to “counter violent extremism, disrupt the financing of terrorism and advance defense cooperation” between Saudi Arabia and U.S. The two nations also agreed to a defense deal worth nearly $110 billion.

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It’s far from case closed on Trump, Russia

FILE - In this May 10, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump talks to reporters in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Trump, in an apparent warning to his fired FBI director, said Friday, May 12, 2017, that James Comey had better hope there are no "tapes" of their conversations. Trump's tweet came the morning after he asserted Comey had told him three times that he wasn't under FBI investigation. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File) President Donald Trump is decidedly premature in claiming everyone’s convinced his presidential campaign and Russia did not collude before the election.Investigations into contacts between Russians and people with the Trump campaign are still going on, so there’s no exoneration to be found.

Over the past week, Trump stretched a variety of facts on trade, taxes and economic theory. But his firing of FBI Director James Comey was far and away the source of the most tumult. Contradictions cascaded from the White House.

Here are some statements by the president and his spokespeople on the FBI, Russia, economics and more:

TRUMP, on whether people in his campaign and Russian officials were in any way in cahoots: “Clapper is convinced, other people are convinced … Everybody’s convinced. … They’re all saying, there’s no collusion. There is no collusion.” — Fox interview broadcast Friday

THE FACTS: That’s untrue both generally and with respect to James Clapper, the director of national intelligence until Trump took office Jan. 20. Clapper has not said he’s satisfied there was no wrongdoing. In a report published at the end of the Obama administration, Clapper said no coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia had been established from a review of evidence available to him by that point. But his report focused on what was known by then about Russia’s cyber actions and propaganda against Hillary Clinton, not about contacts between Trump associates and Russia.

Clapper expanded on that point Sunday, saying he did not know at the time that the FBI was digging deeply into “potential political collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians,” and he was unaware of what the bureau might have found.

“There was no evidence of any collusion included in that report,” he told ABC’s “This Week,” meaning his report. “That’s not to say there wasn’t evidence.”

More broadly, it’s obvious on its face that not everyone is convinced that Trump and his people are vindicated in the matter. Senate and House investigations continue, as does the FBI’s, which Comey wanted to intensify before his dismissal last week. Acting FBI chief Andrew McCabe said the probe remains a high priority for the agency.

Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is not convinced of anything in his panel’s inquiry, except that “boy, oh, boy, there’s an awful lot of smoke. I’m not saying there’s fire at this point, but we’re going to follow the facts wherever they lead.”

___

WHY FIRE COMEY?

KELLYANNE CONWAY, White House counselor, on the reason for firing Comey: “This has nothing to do with Russia.” — Tuesday on CNN

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, White House spokeswoman, on the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government: “We want this to come to its conclusion, we want it to come to its conclusion with integrity … and we think that we’ve actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.” — Thursday White House briefing

THE FACTS: The initial White House explanation for the firing, that Comey had bungled the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email practices, persuaded no one. Trump was delighted with Comey’s disclosures about the Clinton investigation during the campaign and praised him.

Sanders, though, acknowledged in general terms what was obvious — that by firing Comey, the White House hoped to hasten the conclusion of an aggressive FBI investigation.

___

WHO INITIATED THE DISMISSAL?

TRUMP, in letter firing the FBI chief Tuesday: “I … concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”

WHITE HOUSE statement Tuesday: “President Trump acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”

SEAN SPICER, White House spokesman, laying the impetus for the firing on Rosenstein and his memo building the case against Comey: “It was all him. No one from the White House. That was a DOJ decision.” — Tuesday

SANDERS, Wednesday: “People in the Justice Department made a very strong recommendation, the president followed it and he made a quick and decisive action to fire James Comey.” — MSNBC interview

TRUMP, Thursday: “Oh, I was going fire regardless of recommendation.” — NBC interview

THE FACTS: The early attempts to deflect responsibility on to others were a diversion; Rosenstein had been asked by the White House to put the memo together. Trump’s unvarnished assertion that he wanted Comey gone has the ring of truth, even without the whole story known.

He appeared to consider himself his own best spokesman in a tweet Friday that raised the prospect of discontinuing the long White House tradition of daily press briefings.

“As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!” Trump tweeted. “Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future ‘press briefings’ and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???”

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TRUMP UNDER FBI INVESTIGATION?

TRUMP: “First of all, when you’re under investigation you’re giving all sorts of documents and everything. I knew I wasn’t under and I heard it was stated at the committee, at some committee level, that I wasn’t.” — NBC interview

THE FACTS: An absence of document requests can’t be read as an indication that he isn’t under investigation, as Trump suggests. Investigations begin with interviews and document searches that are steps removed from the subject of the probe. Direct contact with the subject wouldn’t become known to that person until late in the process.

___

TRUMP’s letter to Comey: “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.” In an NBC interview Thursday the president elaborated, saying Comey had told him this at a dinner and in two separate phone calls. “I said, if it’s possible would you let me know, ‘Am I under investigation?’ He said, ‘You are not under investigation’.”

THE FACTS: Comey hasn’t responded publicly to Trump’s claims. But even if he did make such assurances, those answers months or weeks ago would be ephemeral because the investigation into Russia’s meddling in U.S. presidential election continues and hasn’t reached conclusions.

That’s why investigators make it a practice not to circumscribe a probe in that fashion. It would also breach protocol for an FBI chief and president to discuss an investigation bearing on the president. Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe told senators Thursday it’s not standard practice for the FBI to tell people they’re excluded from an investigation.

In congressional testimony March 20, Comey refused to say whether Trump himself was under investigation when asked directly. “I’m not gonna answer that,” he told the House Intelligence Committee. “I’m not gonna answer about anybody, in this forum.” He added that he had privately briefed the top Republican and Democrat on the committee “in great detail on the subjects of the investigation and what we’re doing.”

Publicly, he said, he would not identify those being investigated “so we don’t end up smearing people” who may end up not being prosecuted. But he described casting a wide net, “investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”

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COLLEGE DAZE

TRUMP: “The Electoral College is almost impossible for a Republican to win. Very hard.” — NBC interview

THE FACTS: History disagrees. Over the past century, the party victory split is dead even: 13 for Democrats, 13 for Republicans. If you add the total electoral votes amassed by the candidates of each party over that time, Republicans actually come out ahead — 7,159 to 6,607.

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TAX TALK

TRUMP: “We’re the highest-taxed nation in the world.” — interview with The Economist magazine

THE FACTS: Trump has repeatedly made variations on this false claim. The overall U.S. tax burden is actually one of the lowest among the 32 developed and large emerging-market economies tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Taxes made up 26.4 percent of the total U.S. economy in 2015, according to the OECD. That’s far below Denmark’s tax burden of 46.6 percent, Britain’s 32.5 percent or Germany’s 36.9 percent. Just four OECD countries had a lower tax bite than the U.S.: South Korea, Ireland, Chile and Mexico.

Trump qualified his claim later in the interview by saying the top marginal corporate tax rate, specifically, is higher than in similar industrialized countries. That’s more or less true, although the higher rate is moderated by tax breaks not available in some of those other countries.

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TRADING PLACES

TRUMP: “Right now the United States has … about a $15 billion trade deficit with Canada.” — Economist interiew

THE FACTS: His numbers are upside down. The United States actually ran an $8.1 billion trade surplus with Canada last year, according to the latest numbers available from the Census Bureau. A $24.6 billion U.S. surplus with Canada in the trade of services, including tourism and software, outweighed a $16.5 billion deficit in the trade of goods, including autos and oil.

Trump, who regularly decries the loss of American manufacturing jobs, tends to emphasize trade in goods and ignore trade in services. His comment about Canada came as his administration seeks a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.

The U.S. last year ran a deficit of $750 billion in goods with the rest of the world but recorded a $249 billion surplus in services.

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ECON LINGO

TRUMP: “You understand the expression ‘prime the pump’? … I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good. It’s what you have to do. We have to prime the pump.” — Economist interview

THE FACTS: He didn’t coin that phrase. It’s a well-worn metaphor for generating faster growth, first made popular as an economic analogy more than 80 years ago during the Great Depression.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary people quickly tweeted that the phrase “priming the pump” has been around since the early 1800s. Literally, it’s about pouring water into a pump to allow it to create suction. The phrase was commonly used by mining publications during the 1920s, but it took on new significance after the economy cratered during the Depression.

By 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had promoted the idea of flushing money into the economy to stimulate stronger growth with his New Deal policies. Such policies rankled Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover. “One of the ideas in these spendings is to prime the economic pump,” Hoover said in a 1935 post-presidential speech. “We might abandon this idea also, for it dries up the well of enterprise.”

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WEEKENDS AWAY

TRUMP tweets, concerning his May 5-7 weekend: “Rather than causing a big disruption in N.Y.C., I will be working out of my home in Bedminster, N.J. this weekend. Also saves country money!” ”The reason I am staying in Bedminster, N.J., a beautiful community, is that staying in NYC is much more expensive and disruptive. Meetings!”

THE FACTS: True, less disruption in the New Jersey countryside than in the metropolis and almost certainly less cost to taxpayers.

But his weekends away, whether at his Florida resort or in New Jersey, are much more expensive than weekends at the White House, where security is already in place.

The White House doesn’t make it easy for taxpayers to know anything about these costs. The administration is mum when asked for an accounting, and past attempts by government auditors to gauge the costs of presidential travel are sketchy, fragmentary or outdated.

A law Trump signed provides nearly $120 million to reimburse law enforcement agencies for their costs of protecting his homes outside Washington and to house Secret Service agents in New York and Florida through September.

Bedminster town officials estimate local costs of $12,000 a day for heightened security when Trump stays there. Palm Beach County, Florida, spends more than $60,000 a day when the president visits, mostly for law enforcement overtime. The New York City Police Department has said it spends up to $146,000 a day to protect first lady Melania Trump and son, Barron, living at Trump Tower until the school year ends. That cost at least doubles when the president is there.

Those comparisons are inexact but they suggest a Manhattan weekend would be pricier to taxpayers.

Local enforcement is only one segment of costs, though. It costs roughly $200,000 an hour to fly Air Force One, the president’s armored limousine is flown separately to his destinations, and the Secret Service faces multiple other expenses associated with his travel. Trump has spent about half his weekends away since becoming president.

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Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Paul Wiseman, Josh Boak, Jill Colvin and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.

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How damaging is ‘Comey memo’ for Trump?

Donald Trump

The White House has denied a report that President Donald Trump tried to persuade the FBI to end its investigation into former aide Michael Flynn.

It’s not the only Trump crisis of the last 24 hours, coming hard on the heels of the news that the president shared sensitive material with Russian diplomats.

The bombshell memo and the ‘I’ word

Donald Trump is discovering just how dangerous an adversary James Comey can be.

A person doesn’t rise as high as Mr Comey did in the federal government without learning how to cover his, er, posterior.

With this latest bombshell from the New York Times it’s clear that the former FBI director, who was unceremoniously sacked by the president, is poised to enjoy the last laugh. Thanks to his propensity for memo-writing, he may have constructed an arsenal capable of mortally wounding the Trump presidency.

At the moment the White House is denying Mr Comey’s reported characterisation of the conversation the two men had shortly after the president fired Michael Flynn. In a “he-said, he-said” situation, however, the man who wrote contemporaneous documents – memos plural – will have the upper hand.

Add that Mr Comey has a reputation for independence, and the face-off looks even more ominous for the president. As deputy attorney general, Mr Comey stood up to the Bush administration during a showdown over the legality of a government surveillance programme. He also withstood withering criticism from Democrats over his handling of the Hillary Clinton email server investigation last year.

If he swears to a congressional committee that the president put undue pressure on him to end an ongoing Flynn investigation, his word will pack a punch.

The “I” word – impeachment – has already been broached by politicians as moderate as independent Senator Angus King of Maine. If this were a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, articles of impeachment would likely be in the drafting process.

Protester in Washington
Calls for a probe outside of Congress are growing

Republicans still call the shots in Congress, however, and it’s a significant leap to get them to abandon the Trump presidency and any hope of advancing their agenda for the foreseeable future. But some, like Senator John McCain – who said this has become a scandal of “Watergate size and scale” – are clearly wavering.

The former Republican presidential nominee is a bit of a wild card, of course. For the rank-and-file to turn on the president will require them to admit their complicity in a failed presidency.

They rallied behind Trump at the Republican National Convention. They looked past his feud with a Gold Star family and his disparaging attacks on Alicia Machado, the former beauty queen. They bit their tongues after the Access Hollywood video. They may have supported other candidates during the Republican primary, but they carried Mr Trump’s water through the general election. Now the well is running dry.

Donald Trump may yet survive these revelations. Mr Comey’s memos could turn out to be paper tigers, with teeth not nearly as sharp as Tuesday’s sneak preview indicated. He could, under oath, soft-pedal his conclusions. Republicans might decide it’s better to stick with the president than run for the exits.

At the very least, however, it’s becoming clear that Teflon Don is no longer untouchable. His future is no longer clear. A storm is brewing, and it’s going to get worse for their party before it gets better.


Sharing secrets with Russia

The Trump White House has now settled on its defence of the president’s meeting with the Russian delegation, in which he reportedly revealed classified information to his guests.

In a series of tweets on Tuesday morning the president framed any disclosure of intelligence information as a calculated move to advance US national security priorities.

In a press conference hours later, National Security Adviser HR McMaster said Mr Trump’s revelations were “wholly appropriate”.

This was always going to be the most effective response, as the president has broad powers to declassify whatever he deems necessary. As the old Richard Nixon line goes: “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal”.

The president’s explanation is not absolution, however. A wave of the hand on Twitter isn’t going to make this story go away any time soon. Here are six reasons why.

1. High crimes and misdemeanours

The impeachment question has been mentioned in this case too. Shortly after the Washington Post story detailing the allegations broke, there were cries of “treason” from Mr Trump’s more vociferous critics and calls for immediate removal from office.

Chuck Schumer: “President Trump may have exposed our nation to greater risk”

The charge that Mr Trump, through ignorance or boastfulness, casually disclosed highly classified intelligence for no reason may not be a criminal offence, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t create a political controversy that could, in a worst-case scenario for the president, end in his impeachment.

The process for impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanours” as outlined in the US constitution is a political act. A simple majority of the House of Representatives can impeach, initiating a trial in the Senate and a two-thirds vote necessarily for removal.

As the writers of Lawfare Blog point out, Mr Trump’s opponents could accuse him of violations of his oath of office to “preserve, protect, and defend” the US constitution – a catch-all category cited in the three previous times a president has been seriously threatened with impeachment.

Just because it’s possible, however, doesn’t mean it’s likely. And again, it has nothing to do with the law and everything to do with politics – and how the story plays out from here.


2. The Russian factor

Like Indiana Jones looking at a chamber full of snakes, many in the Trump White House must be muttering to themselves: “Russians. Why did it have to be the Russians?”

Allegations of cosier-than-desired relations with the US geopolitical adversary have bedevilled Mr Trump since the early days of his presidential campaign.

Mc Master: ‘Trump not even briefed on intel source or method’

He’s been questioned about the praise he’s lavished on President Vladimir Putin, some of his aides are caught up in the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the US 2016 election, his attorney general was forced to recuse himself because of an undisclosed meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak and his first national security adviser was fired for obfuscating about his Russia ties (and is one of the people under FBI investigation to boot).

All of this was hanging in the air as Mr Trump met with Mr Kislyak and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov last week, just hours after he fired James Comey, the FBI director overseeing the Russia investigation. US press was barred from attending, and the only photos that were released came from the Russian state-run news service.

It was never going to be a good look. Now, in light of the Washington Post’s revelations, it’s a terrible one.

Mr Trump’s tweets explained that he was “sharing” information with the Russian officials in order to foster co-operation on important global issues like the fight against the so-called Islamic State. As Mr Trump points out, he has the “absolute right” to do so.

The fact that it’s the Russians involved, however, means the story will pack that much more powerful a punch.


3. Sceptical allies

Back in January Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Israeli intelligence officials were concerned about sharing sensitive information with the Trump administration because of “fears of a leakage” to Russia.

Yeah, about that…

When Trump slammed Clinton over classified material

According to the Washington Post report, Mr Trump may have disclosed information provided to the US by a “key ally” that has “access to the inner workings of the Islamic State”. According to multiple news reports that ally was none other than Israel.

That fits in with the Post’s original story, which did not identify the ally but said “it has previously voiced frustration with Washington’s inability to safeguard sensitive information related to Iraq and Syria”. One US official said it was potentially a “blow” to the US relationship with that ally.

Israel’s ambassador in Washington has since said it has “full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the US”, but the damage may be done. If key US allies become reluctant to share intelligence data with the US, that would be a significant blow to the nation’s national security – even if the details of this particular story are never fully established.

Off the record, one Israeli intelligence official told Buzzfeed News that the story is “our worst fears confirmed”.

Throw in last week’s Trump tweet implying that he – or someone – may have “tapes” of conversations made in the White House, and the result may be a chilling effect on US foreign relations across the board.


4. A leaky ship of state

Sinking ship

This sharing of classified information with the Russians should also be viewed in the context of what has become a simmering feud between the president and members of the intelligence community.

Shortly after he tweeted out that two-part explanation of his White House meeting with the Russians, Mr Trump sent another message on a familiar theme – leaks.

“I have been asking Director Comey and others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community…”

Why did Trump give information to the Russians? The reporter who broke the story explains.

Back in January then-President-elect Trump sent a tweet comparing leaky intelligence agencies to Nazi Germany.

The president is clearly angered by what he views as a litany of embarrassing disclosures -about phone calls with leaders of Australia and Mexico, conversations his national security adviser had with the Russian ambassador and salacious details from a Trump-Russia dossier circulated among intelligence officials.

The president has threatened massive re-organisation of the US intelligence bureaucracy and an aggressive investigation into the source of the leaks – and it appears members of that community are striking back.


5. The Republican conundrum

Monday evening, upon hearing of details about the Washington Post story, Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine echoed a familiar lament.

“Can we have a crisis-free day?” she said. “That’s all I’m asking.”

On Tuesday morning Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a similar take.

“We could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things,” he told Bloomberg Television, “so we can focus on our agenda, which is deregulation, tax reform and repealing and replacing Obamacare.”

A few of the Republican usual suspects who have been more outspoken in their criticism are continuing on that tack.

Congressman Justin Amash of Michigan tweeted that the White House should share “details of the president’s meeting” with Congress.

Once again Senator John McCain of Arizona found something the president did “deeply disturbing”.

Barring further revelations, however, the president has constructed a defence around which Republicans can rally. While members of Mr Trump’s party may grouse about the ongoing administration fiascos, previous complaints have been followed by inaction. Until there is evidence to the contrary, this time looks to be no different.


6. The trust gap

Last week reporters raged over the fact that White House officials, from Vice-President Mike Pence on down, put forward an explanation regarding why the president had fired FBI Director James Comey that was completely undercut within moments of Mr Trump opening his mouth in a sit-down interview on Thursday with NBC News.

The president would later tweet that because he is a “very active president” his press team can’t be relied upon to convey his positions with “perfect accuracy”.

How the White House’s story on Comey collapsed

“Why were so many people giving answers that just weren’t correct?” Jonathan Karl asked Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “Were you guys in the dark?”

Needless to say reporters this week took the early White House spin that Mr Trump only discussed “common threats” with the Russians, per Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell, with more than a grain of salt. It appears their scepticism was at least partially validated when, on Tuesday morning, Mr Trump said he had shared “facts pertaining to terrorism” with Russia.

Presidents and the media typically have an adversarial relationship, but this White House is rapidly burning through any residual goodwill it may have had.

Given that Mr Trump and his team often refer to the press as the “opposition party”, however, they may not lose much sleep over this development.

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Trump defends ‘absolute right’ to share ‘facts’ with Russia

US President Donald Trump (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (2-L) during a meeting at the White House in Washington DC on 10 May

US President Donald Trump has defended his “absolute right” to share information with Russia, following a row over classified material.

Mr Trump tweeted that he had shared “facts pertaining to terrorism and airline safety” and wanted Russia to do more against so-called Islamic State.

He met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Oval Office last week.

US media said Mr Trump had shared material that was passed on by a partner which had not given permission.

In his tweet early on Tuesday, Mr Trump said: “As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety.

“Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against [IS] & terrorism.”

A report in the Washington Post said Mr Trump had confided top secret information relating to an IS plot thought to centre on the use of laptop computers on aircraft.

Mr Trump’s move is not illegal, as the US president has the authority to declassify information.

The action drew strong criticism from Democrats and a call for an explanation from his own Republican party.

But the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher in Washington says this was a carefully constructed defence of the meeting, in which President Trump frames any revelation of intelligence information as a calculated move to advance US national security priorities.

After all, the controversy that swirled around the White House on Monday night was never legal, it was political, and this defence may be enough for Republicans to rally around, he adds.

What happened in the Oval Office?

In a conversation with the Russian foreign minister and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in the Oval Office, the president revealed details that could lead to the exposure of a source of information, officials told the Washington Post.

The intelligence disclosed came from a US ally and was considered too sensitive to share with other US allies, the paper reported.

Others at the meeting realised the mistake and scrambled to “contain the damage” by informing the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA), says the Post.

The meeting came a day after Mr Trump fired his FBI chief, James Comey, sparking criticism that he had done so because the FBI was investigating his election campaign’s alleged Russian ties.


How did the White House initially respond?

National Security Adviser HR McMaster told reporters the story, “as reported”, was “false”.

“At no time – at no time – were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.”

The statement was echoed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

But the Washington Post said this did not amount to a denial.

Speaking to the BBC, Post reporter Greg Jaffe said the story made it clear the president did not disclose sources or methods.

But he added: “Our story says that the nature of the information provided would have allowed the Russians to ‘reverse engineer’ to discover the sources and methods. He said so much that they could figure it out.”


Golden rule: Frank Gardner, BBC security correspondent

Despite the denials issued by the White House that any actual intelligence sources were revealed to the Russians, whatever was said in that Oval Office meeting was enough to alarm certain officials and, reportedly, to alert the CIA and NSA.

They in turn will have needed to warn the country that supplied the intelligence. There is a golden rule in the world of espionage that when one government supplies intelligence to another it must not be passed on to a third party without permission of the original supplier. The reason is simple: it could put the lives of their human informants at risk.

In this case it appears to relate to the discovery of plans by jihadists in Syria to devise a way of smuggling viable explosive devices on board a plane inside a laptop computer. Given the well-publicised ban on laptops in cabins on certain Middle Eastern routes, whoever revealed that information is unlikely to be still in place.


What has the reaction been?

The Senate’s second-highest ranked Democrat, Dick Durbin, said Mr Trump’s actions appeared to be “dangerous” and reckless”.

A spokesman for Paul Ryan, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, said: “We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation’s secrets is paramount.

“The Speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration.”

Donald Trump tweet from 2016
Image captionDonald Trump was highly critical of Hillary Clinton on the issue of handling classified information during the election campaign

One senior Nato diplomat quoted by Reuters said: “If true, this is not going to instil confidence in allies already wary of sharing the most sensitive information.”

In Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov played down the incident, saying: “We generally do not want to have anything to do with this nonsense.”

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova urged people not to read US newspapers.


Levels of US classification – from lowest to highest

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