With Flynn plea, Mueller getting closer to Trump and Kushner

Former U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn departs after a plea hearing at U.S. District Court, in Washington, U.S., December 1, 2017.

– Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s guilty plea Friday signals that he already has provided federal prosecutors with incriminating information about President Donald Trump or senior members of his inner circle, marking an explosive turn in the investigation into whether Trump’s 2016 campaign collaborated in Russia’s election meddling, legal experts said.

The former national security adviser’s plea to a single count of lying to FBI agents, and the disclosure that he is cooperating with investigators, means Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller has secured the inside witness he has sought for months in his sprawling inquiry.

Flynn, a former three-star Army general, admitted that he lied about multiple contacts he had with Russia’s U.S. ambassador in the weeks before Trump was sworn in as president. The disclosure provided concrete evidence that Trump’s transition team twice sought secretly to undermine U.S. foreign policy decisions of President Barack Obama, even influencing Russia’s decision not to immediately strike back after Obama imposed sanctions in retaliation for the Kremlin’s attempt to tilt the election to Trump.

Flynn’s misrepresentations about his phone conversations with Kislyak to Vice President Mike Pence, the White House has said, led to Flynn’s firing after just 24 days in office.

A frequent companion of Trump on his campaign plane and a fiery speaker at his rallies, Flynn could now be a key witness against the president if Mueller concludes he has legal grounds to prosecute him. A key aspect of the investigation focuses on whether Trump sought to obstruct justice when he fired FBI Director James Comey, who led the Russia investigation until he was ousted May 9 after several awkward conversations with the president. Comey testified to Congress last June that Trump had demanded his loyalty and urged him to drop the bureau’s investigation of Flynn, saying that Flynn is “a good guy.”

Legal experts said Flynn’s fall from grace to a new role as a government witness also could heighten the legal jeopardy of a number of current and former Trump aides, including Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a key adviser during the campaign.

FILE PHOTO:  White House Senior adviser Jared Kushner sits behind U.S. President Donald Trump during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 1, 2017.Jared Kushner sits behind U.S. President Donald Trump during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 1, 2017.

“The special counsel’s probe has found illegal behavior stretching into the senior most levels of the White House,” said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting one of three parallel congressional investigations.

California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which also is investigating Russia’s cyber offensive, said Flynn’s cooperation “raises the stakes for anyone else who might be less than candid with federal authorities.”

“We know more than any other person, the president was concerned about the investigation of Mike Flynn,” he said in a phone interview.

During a packed hearing Friday morning in U.S. District Court in Washington, prosecutors made clear that at least two senior participants in Trump’s transition were aware of Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak.

Flynn’s guilty plea indicated that Mueller is successfully – so far – employing one of the most effective tools available to a prosecutor: flipping witnesses by charging them with relatively light offenses in exchange for their cooperation against the most important individuals in the investigation.

Michael Zeldin, a former senior U.S. Justice Department official, said that Flynn has been caught in numerous lies and that four false statements were documented in the charges to which he pled.

“This is all he gets charged with?” Zeldin asked. “For a prosecutor to give someone this big a break, assuming there’s no other indictment that’s been sealed – then he’s got something important to say.”

It’s standard practice, in negotiating a plea deal in exchange for cooperation, for prosecutors to interview the defendant “in a one-day, queen-for-a-day where what he says will not be used against him,” Zeldin said.

Former U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn departs after a plea hearing at U.S. District Court, in Washington, U.S., December 1, 2017.Flynn departs after a plea hearing at U.S. District Court, in Washington, U.S., December 1, 2017.

Zeldin said Flynn’s attempt to dissuade Russia from supporting a United Nations resolution condemning Israel’s approval of settlements on occupied Palestinian lands “at a minimum implicates Kushner,” whom Trump has assigned to try to broker a Middle East peace agreement.

It was Kushner who directed Flynn to contact Kislyak about the U.N. resolution, a source familiar with the inquiry, who was not authorized to speak for the record, told McClatchy. The New York Times reported that Mueller’s investigators also have learned that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked the Trump transition team to lobby other countries on Israel’s behalf; the investigators have evidence that Flynn and Kushner led that effort.

Kushner also was a key advocate urging Trump to fire Comey, according to sources close to the White House.

Responding to Friday’s developments and ongoing controversies about Kushner’s roles during the transition and in the administration, one former Trump aide said it’s time for Kushner to go.

“Jared should put the country and the White House over himself for once and resign now,” said Sam Nunberg, a top aide during early stages of Trump’s campaign. “Just get it over with. It’s going to happen one way or the other regardless.”

Jaimie Nawaday, a former federal prosecutor in New York, also said Flynn’s plea “indicates that he has provided substantial assistance to the Mueller investigation. Most likely this means that Flynn has already given valuable information on one or more individuals higher up in the campaign or the administration.”

But Ty Cobb, a lawyer for Trump, minimized the development and referred to Flynn as a “former Obama administration official.” Flynn headed the Defense Intelligence Agency in the Obama administration; he was fired from that post, however, and Obama urged Trump not to include Flynn in his national security team.

“The false statements involved mirror the false statements to White House officials which resulted in his resignation in February of this year,” Cobb said in a statement. “Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn. The conclusion of this phase of the special counsel’s work demonstrates again that the special counsel is moving with all deliberate speed and clears the way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion.”

Flynn, expressionless and ramrod straight, brushed past a crowd of reporters without uttering a word after entering his plea.

But in a statement, he said “it has been extraordinarily painful to endure the many months of false accusations of ‘treason’ and other outrageous acts. Such false accusations are contrary to everything I have ever done and stood for.”

“But I recognize that the actions I acknowledged in court today were wrong, and through my faith in God, I am working to set things right.” He said he agreed to plead guilty “in the best interests of my family and of our country.”

Flynn not only drew scrutiny over his contacts with Russia’s top U.S. diplomat, but also because his consulting business last year accepted more than $70,000 from three Russian companies, including RT TV, the Kremlin’s leading global propaganda arm. RT flew Flynn and his son, Michael Flynn Jr., to Moscow in December 2015 where they stayed in a hotel off Red Square and attended a gala at which Flynn sat an arm’s length from Russia President Vladimir Putin.

Last December, Flynn and Kushner held a brief meeting with Kislyak at Trump Tower in New York shortly before Obama imposed his sanctions on Moscow. Days after the meeting with Kislyak, Kushner met privately with a Russian banker with intelligence ties; the banker and the White House gave conflicting reasons for the meeting.

Flynn’s son, who worked closely with his father at his consulting business, the Flynn Intel Group, has also drawn scrutiny from Mueller; it is not unusual for prosecutors to agree to go easy on a suspect’s family members in exchange for the suspect’s cooperation, though it’s unclear whether Mueller has offered leniency in this case. In the weeks before the election, Flynn Jr. famously drew attention to a false conspiracy theory alleging that Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent, had run a pedophile ring in the basement of a Washington pizza parlor.

Sputnik, another Kremlin-backed news agency, on Friday published a story accusing the “liberal resistance” in the United States of magnifying Flynn’s plea into a “Russian collusion smoking gun.” The story emphasized that Flynn was prosecuted for lying about a conversation aimed at preventing tensions between Russia and the United States and asked, “What’s the crime?”

Flynn – who once chanted “lock her up” from the podium at the Republican National Convention, in reference to Clinton _is the fourth former Trump aide to face criminal charges in recent weeks as a result of Mueller’s investigation. On Oct. 30, the special counsel announced the indictment of former Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates, and that an ex-foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, had pleaded guilty to false statement charges and was cooperating with investigators.

With his plea, Flynn admitted to lying to an FBI agent on Jan. 24, when he was national security adviser, about two exchanges with Kislyak.

In a court filing laying out Flynn’s offenses, prosecutors said:

Flynn contacted Kislyak on Dec. 21 and Dec. 23 at the request of an unidentified “very senior member of the presidential transition team” to ask Russia to oppose or delay a United Nations Security Council resolution introduced by Egypt opposing Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. Flynn had been directed by the senior transition member to contact numerous countries about the resolution. In the second conversation between them Kislyak told Flynn that Russia would not oppose the resolution.

The second exchange occurred after Obama imposed sanctions against Russia on Dec. 28, expelling 35 Russian diplomats from the United States because of its cyber meddling in the U.S. presidential election, which included hacks of top Democrats’ emails. After being contacted by Kislyak, Flynn phoned an unnamed “senior official of the presidential transition team” who was at the Trump-owned Mar-a-Lago resort with other high-level transition officials.

Flynn conveyed to Kislyak the senior transition officials’ wish that Russia not escalate the situation. Flynn spoke again with the same senior transition member after speaking with Kislyak. Putin issued a statement on Dec. 30 saying he wouldn’t retaliate against the United States for the sanctions, and Kisylak told Flynn the next day that it was in response to Flynn’s request.

Alluding to the larger scope of Flynn’s legal exposure, prosecutors said he also made “false statements and omissions” with regard to foreign lobbying forms he filed on March 7 by understating the extent to which he was working on behalf of Turkey, although his consulting business was hired by a Dutch company.

Many establishment Republicans have privately expressed a strong distaste for Trump’s unorthodox conduct.

One prominent business lobbyist remarked after Friday’s plea: “The walls are closing in on the Trump team.”

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Biden hits Trump on race: ‘There is no place in America for hate groups’

Biden hits Trump on race: ‘There is no place in America for hate groups’

Former Vice President Joe Biden went after President Trump during a speech late Saturday while emphasizing the U.S. has no place for hate groups.

Biden said at a centennial fundraising dinner for the Charleston, S.C., branch of the NAACP that Trump has “publicly proclaimed the moral equivalency of Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and those who oppose their hate,” according to Politico.”

This is a moment for this nation to declare what this president can’t with any clarity, consistency, or vision: there is no place in America for hate groups,” Biden added.

Biden also said that heads of state during a recent trip to Europe wanted to talk with him about what happened at a white nationalist rally earlier this year in Charlottesville, Va.

“The whole world saw the crazed, angry faces illuminated by torches,” he said, the news outlet reported.

Trump faced backlash when he blamed both sides for the deadly violence earlier this year in Charlottesville.

During his address, Biden also went after Trump for his decision to pardon former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.

“We saw the truth of this president when he pardoned Joe Arpaio of Arizona,” Biden said, according to Politico.

“It’s moments like these that each of us has to stand up and declare with conviction and moral clarity that the Klan, white supremacists, neo-Nazis will never be allowed to march in the main street of American life. That we will not watch this behavior and go numb when it happens,” he continued.

“We will not allow what’s happening along this landscape of America to be normalized, because we all know it represents the minority.”

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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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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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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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7 things the Trump team denied, and then later confirmed

President Trump.

The White House directly contradicted President Trump’s own attorney on Tuesday. It confirmed that the president was involved in that misleading Donald Trump Jr. statement about his meeting with a Russian lawyer after Trump’s attorney, Jay Sekulow, had issued two unmistakable comments asserting Trump wasn’t.

But this was hardly the first time that the Trump team has appeared to confirm something it previously denied. Below are seven examples.

1. That Trump was involved in Donald Trump Jr.’s Russia statement

The denials

“I do want to be clear that the president was not involved in the drafting of the statement and did not issue the statement.” — Sekulow on NBC News on July 16

“The president didn’t sign off on anything. … The president wasn’t involved in that.” — Sekulow on ABC News on July 12

The confirmation

“The president weighed in as any father would, based on the limited information that he had.” — White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, after The Washington Post reported that Trump had changed the statement at the last minute to be more misleading.

2. That Trump is thinking about pardons

The denial

“Pardons are not being discussed and are not on the table.” — Sekulow on July 21

The confirmation

President Trump.

3. That Trump decided unilaterally to fire FBI Director James B. Comey

The denials

“No one from the White House. That was a DOJ decision.” — Sean Spicer on May 9

Asked whether Trump had already decided to fire Comey and asked Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and the Justice Department to craft a justification for it: “No.” — Huckabee Sanders on May 10

“He took the recommendation of his deputy attorney general, who oversees the FBI director. … He has lost confidence in the FBI director, and he took the recommendation of Rod J. Rosenstein.” — Kellyanne Conway on May 10

The confirmations

“I was going to fire Comey … Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.” — Trump on NBC News on May 11

“On May 8, I learned that President Trump intended to remove Director Comey and sought my advice and input.” — Rosenstein on May 19

4. That Comey was fired because of the Russia investigation

The denials

“That’s not what — let me be clear with you — that was not what this is about. That’s not what this is about.” — Vice President Pence on May 10

Rosenstein’s memo contained no mention of the Russia investigation and instead focused on Comey’s unusual announcements about the Hillary Clinton investigation during the 2016 campaign: “I cannot defend the Director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken.” — Rosenstein on May 9

“Based on my evaluation, and for the reasons expressed by the Deputy Attorney General in the attached memorandum, I have concluded that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI.” — Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a letter May 9

The confirmation

“And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself — I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.” — Trump to NBC on May 11

5. That Michael Flynn discussed sanctions with Russia’s ambassador

The denial

“They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia. … What I can confirm, having spoken to him about it, is that those conversations that happened to occur around the time that the United States took action to expel diplomats had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions.” — Pence on Jan. 15

The confirmations

Asked whether Flynn discussed sanctions related to Russia’s alleged 2016 election interference: “Right.” — Spicer on Feb. 14

“So just to be clear, the acting attorney general informed the White House counsel that they wanted to give, quote, ‘a heads-up’ to us on some comments that may have seemed in conflict with what he had said to the vice president in particular. … The issue, pure and simple, came down to a matter of trust, and the president concluded that he no longer had the trust of his national security adviser.” — Spicer on Feb. 14

“What I would tell you is that the vice president became aware of incomplete information that he’d received on February 9, last Thursday night, based on media accounts.” — Pence spokesman Marc Lotter

6. That Trump’s navy secretary nominee was going to withdraw

The denial

After CBS’s Major Garrett reported that Navy secretary nominee Philip Bilden was likely to withdraw, Spicer tweeted on Feb. 18:

The confirmation

“Mr. Philip Bilden has informed me that he has come to the difficult decision to withdraw from consideration to be secretary of the Navy.” — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Feb. 26

7. That Trump shared classified information with Russian leaders in the Oval Office

The denial

“The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false.” — national security adviser H.R. McMaster on May 15

The confirmations

“It is wholly appropriate for the president to share whatever information he thinks is necessary to advance the security of the American people. That’s what he did.” — McMaster on May 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devlin Barrett and  Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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