James Comey boards a private jet at Los Angeles International Airport last night after Donald Trump fired him as FBI director. He learned the news on television. (KABC-TV via AP)

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With Breanne Deppisch

THE BIG IDEA: After the president fired James Comey, the cloud hanging over the White House just got bigger and darker.

-- Donald Trump has surrounded himself with sycophants and amateurs who are either unwilling or unable to tell him no. He lacks a David Gergen-like figure who is wise to the ways of Washington and has the stature to speak up when the president says he wants to fire an FBI director who is overseeing the counterintelligence investigation into whether his associates coordinated with Moscow. Without such a person, Trump just walked headlong into a political buzz saw.

-- Senior officials at the White House were caught off guard by the intense and immediate blowback to the president’s stunning decision to fire James Comey. They reportedly expected Republicans to back him up and thought Democrats wouldn’t complain loudly because they have been critical of Comey for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Indeed, that was the dubious excuse given publicly for his ouster.

But as all three cable news channels showed live footage of Comey’s motorcade winding through Los Angeles traffic en route to the private plane that would bring him home to Washington, the West Wing shifted into damage-control mode.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks to reporters outside the West Wing last night. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

-- Post reporter Jenna Johnson, who was at the White House last night, filed a colorful dispatch that captures the chaotic and dysfunctional rollout: “Sean Spicer wrapped up his brief interview with Fox Business from the White House grounds late Tuesday night and then disappeared into the shadows, huddling with his staff behind a tall hedge. To get back to his office, Spicer would have to pass a swarm of reporters wanting to know why President Trump suddenly decided to fire the FBI director. For more than three hours, Spicer and his staff had been scrambling to answer that question. Spicer had wanted to drop the bombshell news in an emailed statement but it was not transmitting quickly enough, so he ended up standing in the doorway of the press office around 5:40 p.m. and shouting a statement to reporters who happened to be nearby. He then vanished, with his staff locking the door leading to his office. The press staff said that Spicer might do a briefing, then announced that he definitely wouldn't say anything more that night. But as Democrats and Republicans began to criticize and question the firing … Spicer and two prominent spokeswomen were suddenly speed-walking up the White House drive to defend the president on CNN, Fox News and Fox Business….

“After Spicer spent several minutes hidden in the bushes behind these sets, Janet Montesi, an executive assistant in the press office, emerged and told reporters that Spicer would answer some questions, as long as he was not filmed doing so. Spicer then emerged. ‘Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off,’ he ordered. … Spicer got his wish and was soon standing in near darkness between two tall hedges, with more than a dozen reporters closely gathered around him. For 10 minutes, he responded to a flurry of questions, vacillating between light-hearted asides and clear frustration with getting the same questions over and over again.

“As Spicer tells it, [Deputy Attorney General Rod] Rosenstein was confirmed about two weeks ago and independently took on this issue so the president was not aware of the probe until he received a memo from Rosenstein on Tuesday, along with a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions recommending that Comey be fired. The president then swiftly decided to follow the recommendation, notifying the FBI via email around 5 p.m. and in a letter delivered to the FBI by the president's longtime bodyguard. ‘It was all him,’ Spicer said of Rosenstein.” (No serious person believes this.)

Spicer then ducked a series of obvious follow-up questions: Was Sessions involved? "That's something you should ask the Department of Justice," Spicer said. Was Rosenstein's probe part of a larger review of the FBI? "That's, again, a question that you should ask the Department of Justice," he said. Did the president discuss Rosenstein's findings with Rosenstein? "No, I don't believe, I don't know how that sequence went — I don't know," he said. What was the president's role? "Again, I have to get back to you on the tick-tock," he said. When's the last time Trump and Comey spoke? "Uh, I don't know. I don't know. There's some — I don't know. I don't know," he said. What were the three occasions on which the president says Comey assured him that he was not under investigation? "I don't — we can follow — I can try, yeah," he said.

“As Spicer made his way toward the White House door, the swarm of reporters moved with him, shouting questions along the way,” Johnson concludes. “Spicer walked with his head down. … As he approached the door, aides warned reporters not to get too close.”

White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defends the president outside the West Wing last night. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

-- To put it mildly, the optics of firing Comey are terrible. Trump looks like he does not actually want to get to the bottom of Russia’s interference in the U.S. election and the potential wrongdoing of his own staffers.

In one of the hastily arranged damage-control interviews, deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made an especially revealing statement that underscored why so many people are worried. Asked by Tucker Carlson on Fox News how Comey’s termination will impact the Russia investigation, she replied: “I think the bigger point on that is, ‘My gosh, Tucker, when are they gonna let that go?’ It’s been going on for nearly a year. Frankly, it’s kinda getting absurd. There’s nothing there.”

“It’s time to move on,” she added. “Frankly, it’s time to focus on the things the American people care about.”

As Sanders pretended on Fox that the Russia probes have found nothing, CNN reported that federal prosecutors — as part of the ongoing Russia probe — have now issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. “The subpoenas represent the first sign of a significant escalation of activity in the FBI's broader investigation that began last July into possible ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia,” Evan Perez, Shimon Prokupecz and Pamela Brown reported. “The subpoenas issued in recent weeks by the US Attorney's Office in Alexandria, Virginia, were received by associates who worked with Flynn on contracts after he was forced out as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014.”

It emerged yesterday that Senate investigators have asked the Treasury Department’s criminal investigation division for any relevant financial information related to Trump, his top officials, or his campaign aides. "We've made a request, to FinCEN in the Treasury Department, to make sure, not just for example vis-a-vis the President, but just overall our effort to try to follow the intel no matter where it leads," said Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, per CNN. FinCEN is the federal agency that has been investigating allegations of foreign money-laundering through purchases of U.S. real estate. "You get materials that show if there have been, what level of financial ties between, I mean some of the stuff, some of the Trump-related officials, Trump campaign-related officials and other officials and where those dollars flow — not necessarily from Russia." Until the Treasury Department responds with documents, Warner said, he plans to withhold support for Trump’s nominees.

Trump has also hired a Washington law firm to send a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee denying that he has connections to Russia, Spicer told reporters a few hours before the Comey news broke. He was responding to an announcement by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that he planned to look into that issue.

Then-national security adviser Michael Flynn watches Spicer brief the press in February. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

-- Trump doesn’t grasp it yet, but firing Comey will only lead to more, and louder, questions about Russia, as well as what exactly Trump knew about Flynn and when he knew it. Sometimes it turns out that the simplest explanation is the correct one. Is it possible that the president kept his national security adviser in the White House for 18 days after he’d been warned by the acting attorney general that he had been “compromised” and was vulnerable to “blackmail” by Russia because he had authorized the conversations in question?

“The Comey putsch heightens the mystery at the center of the Flynn case,” David Ignatius, who first broke the news of Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador, writes in a must-read column. “Trump has been digging a hole for himself from the beginning on Russia-related issues. It’s an odd pattern of behavior. Trump may have done nothing improper involving Russia, but why does he act so defensive? In a book called ‘Spy the Lie,’ a group of former intelligence officers explain the behavioral and linguistic cues that indicate when someone is being deceptive. Interestingly, many of these are evident in Trump’s responses to questions about Russia’s covert involvement in U.S. politics. The authors’ list of tip-offs includes ‘going into attack mode,’ ‘inappropriate questions,’ ‘inconsistent statements,’ ‘selective memory’ and the use of ‘qualifiers,’ such as ‘frankly,’ ‘honestly’ and ‘truthfully.’ The authors’ point is that people who are innocent answer questions simply and directly.”

-- Our Justice Department beat reporters relay that Comey’s removal has also sparked fears inside the FBI that the Russia investigation might be upended. Trump, after all, will get to handpick the new supervisor of a probe into possible collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. “The investigation is still in its infancy, but the probe’s sensitive subject matter has already created a political quagmire for the Justice Department,” Ellen Nakashima and Matt Zapotosky report. “A number of current and former officials said that the FBI special agents and National Security Division attorneys who are conducting the Russia probe will continue the investigation. The probe, though, might slow down in the short term. Comey’s successor will undeniably play a major role. ‘No big-time decisions will be made until they appoint a new FBI director,’ said one former federal prosecutor. ‘It’s just a big thing. The FBI will make a recommendation to the Justice Department as to whether or not to go forward, and you’re going to want an FBI director to make that kind of decision, I would think.’ Inside the bureau, agents said that there was shock at the news of Comey’s dismissal and hope that it would not disrupt the Russia investigation.”

-- A handful of important Senate REPUBLICANS who have been defending the president went public last night with concerns. Here are five examples:

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee: “I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination. I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order, and his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee.”

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of the Intelligence and Homeland Security committees: “The issues that our law enforcement, intelligence community and congressional committees deal with each day are very sensitive and have life or death implications. Director Comey has been the public face representing thousands of committed law enforcement officers and civil servants within the intelligence community. In the days ahead, the American people need clarity and deserve an explanation for his immediate firing.”

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), chairman of the Judiciary Oversight Subcommittee: “Regardless of how you think Director Comey handled the unprecedented complexities of the 2016 election cycle, the timing of this firing is very troubling. Jim Comey is an honorable public servant, and in the midst of a crisis of public trust that goes well beyond who you voted for in the presidential election, the loss of an honorable public servant is a loss for the nation. … I have reached out to the Deputy Attorney General for clarity on his rationale for recommending this action."

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Comey’s firing will “raise questions”: “While the case for removal … was thorough, his removal at this particular time will raise questions. It is essential that ongoing investigations are fulsome and free of political interference until their completion, and it is imperative that President Trump nominate a well-respected and qualified individual to lead the bureau at this critical time.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he was “disappointed” in Trump’s decision and repeated his call for a special congressional committee to probe the matter.

-- Watch for Republicans who could be vulnerable in 2018 to become more inclined to distance themselves from Trump going forward. Arizona’s Jeff Flake is up for reelection next year:

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), another vulnerable incumbent in the D.C. suburbs, called for an independent investigation: “Both Democrats and Republicans attacked the FBI Director at various times for various reasons and called for his ouster. However, I can’t defend or explain tonight’s actions or timing…. The FBI investigation into the Russian impact on the 2016 election must continue. There must be an independent investigation that the American people can trust.” (Another reason this is a big deal: Comstock was in charge of public affairs at the Justice Department when John Ashcroft was attorney general.)

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who represents a Miami-area district that Clinton carried, is also one of the most endangered GOP lawmakers next year:

-- Intellectually honest conservative thought leaders are also alarmed:

Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a key policy adviser on the presidential campaigns of McCain, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio:

Columnist Charles Krauthammer: “To fire him summarily with no warning in the middle of May because of something that happened in July is almost inexplicable.” Watch:

Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum in The Atlantic: “This Is Not a Drill. The firing of Comey poses a question: Will the law answer to the president, or the president to the law?”

Right Turn’s Jen Rubin:

Morning Joe:

-- The timing is terrible for the White House in another way: A day after firing the FBI director overseeing the Russia probe, Trump has just one event on his public schedule today: An Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “The sit-down between Trump and Lavrov, the first face-to-face contact the president has had with a senior official of the Russian government, will take place at 10:30 a.m. in the White House,” Philip Rucker and Karen DeYoung report. “It will be closed to the press. … Trump and Lavrov are … picking up on the conversation Trump had with Russian President Vladimir Putin via telephone on May 2. … Trump is expected to hold his first meeting with Putin in July, when both travel to Germany to a summit of the Group of 20 leading and developing world economies.” Every one of these meetings will now look more suspect.

WHY DID COMEY REALLY GET FIRED?

-- The excuse given by the administration does not pass the smell test. The official line is that Comey was fired because senior Justice Department officials concluded that he had violated Justice Department principles and procedures last year by publicly discussing the investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server. Newly installed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote up a document to justify the move, which Sessions and Trump then signed off on.

“What's perhaps most notable about Rosenstein's letter is that it makes the case for Comey's ouster using a slew of newspaper quotes and op-eds from former law enforcement officials,” Aaron Blake  notes. “The letter doesn't actually add much to the public record or suggest extensive behind-the-scenes fact-gathering; it's basically a summary anyone could have written in an afternoon."

A former top Justice Department official who was quoted in the Rosenstein memo calls the justification a “sham.” Donald Ayer, who was deputy attorney general under George H.W. Bush, said in an emailed statement: “At the time, Mr. Trump was supportive of the most incorrect things that Comey did  editorializing about the facts of the then-ended investigation and later announcing that the investigation had been reopened. The Deputy should realize that his correct assessment of those mistakes is now being used to justify firing for a very different reason."

The editor of the conservative Weekly Standard made another important observation about the memo: 

-- The real story: “Several current and former officials said the relationship between the White House and the FBI had been strained for months, in part because administration officials were pressuring Comey to more aggressively pursue leak investigations over disclosures that embarrassed the White House and raised questions about ties with Russia,” Devlin Barrett, Adam Entous and Philip Rucker report. “Although the FBI is investigating disclosures of classified information, the bureau has resisted calls to prioritize leak investigations over the Russia matter, or probe matters that did not involve leaks of classified or otherwise sensitive information.… A current official said administration figures have been ‘very aggressive’ in pressuring the FBI.

“Trump was rankled by FBI director’s media attention” is the headline on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

“He had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia,” Politico adds. “He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.” 

-- Comey learned he had been fired while addressing FBI employees in Los Angeles. “While Mr. Comey spoke, television screens in the background began flashing the news,” the New York Times reports. “In response to the reports, Mr. Comey laughed, saying that he thought it was a fairly funny prank."

-- Keep in mind: The classless way Trump axed Comey might contribute to a desire among some allies and supporters of the ex-director to leak additional damaging information about the president.

-- Another significant repercussion: Every piece of Trump’s agenda just became harder to get through Congress. Democrats will be less inclined than ever to work with this president, and the liberal base will become even less tolerant of red state incumbents collaborating with him. It’s going to be really hard to get to 60 votes for anything Trump wants for a while. Whoever Trump nominates as Comey’s replacement will face a brutal confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. It will get saturation-level media coverage.

-- In the short-term, firing Comey will give fresh and significant momentum to Democratic calls for a special prosecutor. Chuck Schumer asked all 48 of his members to gather in the Senate chamber at 9:30 a.m. today to join him in calling for an independent prosecutor.

Unless Congress passed legislation, which seems unlikely, Rosenstein (who wrote the letter to justify Comey’s termination) would need to decide to appoint a special counsel. But the calls from the left are about to become deafening, and Rosenstein might bow to pressure to save the diminishing credibility of the Justice Department.

“Rosenstein has one chance to rehabilitate his reputation: He can name a special prosecutor to continue the probe. If he doesn’t, the wave of rebellion against Trump so far will become a tsunami, and it will swamp Trump’s protectors in the polls,” Dana Milbank writes in his column. “This president may think himself unassailable, but Americans are seeing him for what he is: a tin-pot tyrant.”

Here is  a taste of reaction

From Democratic senators: 

From House Democrats:

From the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who was the assistant attorney general in charge of the DOJ’s civil rights division under Barack Obama:

Richard Nixon speaks to the press on April 17, 1973. (Henry Burroughs/AP)

-- Is Trump the New Nixon? Will this be remembered as the Tuesday Night Massacre? This episode ensures more comparisons of Trump to Richard Nixon, a politician he deeply admires. From Marc Fisher and Karen DeYoung’s piece exploring the parallels:

John Dean, the White House counsel under Nixon, called Trump’s firing of Comey “a very Nixonian move”: “This could have been a quiet resignation, but instead it was an angry dismissal.”

John A. Farrell, author of “Richard Nixon: The Life,” a new biography, notes that the drip-drip-drip nature of Washington scandals is already a primary theme of the Trump presidency: “Trump is a unique individual who is not bound by the normal strictures of politics, so we don’t know if he’s doing this because he’s unpredictable or because he’s hiding something. But the actions he and his top staff have taken certainly mirror those of their counterparts four decades ago, who were clearly hiding something. … The question now is how many of these moves by Trump have to happen before we see the shift in public support for the president that happened toward the end of Watergate.”

-- The media coverage is brutal. Here are takes from five prominent voices:

 “It’s a grotesque abuse of power by the president of the United States,” longtime New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Toobin said on CNN. “This is the kind of thing that goes on in non-democracies, that when there is an investigation that reaches near the president of the United States or the leader of a non-democracy, they fire the people who are in charge of the investigation.” Toobin went on to say that “if anyone thinks that a new FBI director is going to come in and the agency will just take over and continue their investigation as if this had never happened, that’s not how it works. They will put in a stooge who will shut down this investigation.” He specifically mentioned Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani.

Ruth Marcus: “Comey’s firing should make all of us ‘mildly nauseous.’”

The New Yorker’s John Cassidy writes that Trump’s firing of Comey “AN ATTACK ON AMERICAN DEMOCRACY.

Lawfare: “The Nightmare Scenario: Trump Fires Comey, the One Man Who Would Stand Up to Him.

The Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian (and former editor-in-chief of Newsweek):

-- Recognizing that he’s losing control of the narrative, Trump lashed out on Twitter last night and again this morning: 

The president retweeted this:

Then he attacked another Senate Democrat who was speaking out against him on TV:

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WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

Tom Price arrives in the Rose Garden for last week's ceremony to celebrate the House passage of the health care bill. (Evan Vucci/AP)

-- A veteran reporter was arrested yesterday at the West Virginia state capitol after attempting to ask HHS Secretary Tom Price a question about the Republican health-care bill. Samantha Schmidt reports: “Dan Heyman, a journalist with Public News Service, repeatedly asked the secretary whether domestic violence would be considered a preexisting condition under the Republican bill to overhaul the nation’s health care system, he said. ‘He didn’t say anything,’ Heyman said later in a news conference. ‘So I persisted.’ Then, an officer in the Capitol pulled him aside, handcuffed him and arrested him. Heyman was jailed on the charge of ‘Willful Disruption of State Government Processes’ and was released later on $5,000 bail.” Authorities claim Heyman was “aggressively breaching” Secret Service agents who were protecting Price to the point where they were “forced to remove him a couple of times from the area.” But Heyman – who was wearing a press pass and identified himself as a reporter – says that prior to his arrest, no police officer told him he was in the wrong place. “This is my job, this is what I’m supposed to do,” Heyman said. “I think it’s a question that deserves to be answered. I think it’s my job to ask questions and I think it’s my job to try to get answers.” The ACLU of West Virginia calls Heyman’s arrest “a blatant attempt to chill an independent, free press” and demands the “outrageous” charges be dropped immediately. “Today was a dark day for democracy,” the group said in a statement.

-- The news comes just hours after Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Jason Chaffetz sharply rebuked Price for "muzzling" his employees’ ability to communicate directly with Congress, suggesting that the move violates federal law. Juliet Eilperin reports: The two Republicans charged with conducting government oversight said a new policy, outlined by Price’s chief of staff in a memo last week, “is potentially illegal and unconstitutional, and will likely chill protected disclosures of waste, fraud, and abuse.” A May 3 memo by Price chief of staff Lance Leggitt informed senior HHS staff members that “any communications with Members of Congress and staff should not occur without prior consultation with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Legislation.”

“Multiple federal departments have restricted their employees’ external communications to varying degrees since [Trump] took office," Juliet notes. "In some cases, political appointees limited the use of social media or news releases. But Grassley and Chaffetz, who sent their letter to Price on Thursday and made it public five days later, took specific issue with the HHS policy. Its limitations, they argued, could deter whistleblowers from raising legitimate concerns from a separate branch of government.”

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. Hundreds of workers at the Department of Energy’s Hanford nuclear site in Washington state had to take cover after a portion of the tunnel used to store highly contaminated radioactive materials caved in. Department officials are continuing to investigate the site – part of which was once used to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel – but said there is no indication of any airborne contamination. (Lindsey Bever and Steven Mufson)
  2. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray ended his reelection campaign after four men accused him of sexually abusing them in the 1980s. “It tears me to pieces to step away,” Murray said Tuesday, flanked by his husband and tearful supporters. “The allegations against me are not true ... But the scandal surrounding them and me is hurting this city.” He will finish his term. (AP)
  3. Rep. Raúl Labrador (R) is running for governor of Idaho. (CBS News)
  4. Jimmy Carter said he voted for Bernie Sanders over Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary. The 92-year-old revealed his vote while speaking alongside Sanders at a forum in Atlanta, turning to the audience and asking, at one point, “Can y’all see why I voted for him?” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
  5. South Koreans elected Moon Jae-in as president, delivering a strong victory to the liberal Democrat who wants to foster warmer ties with North Korea and whose leadership portends a new, potentially difficult chapter in relations with Washington. (Anna Fifield)
  6. Almost one-third of drugs approved by the FDA pose safety risks that emerge only after their approval, according to a new study. The report highlights the need for ongoing monitoring of new treatments even years after they are released. (Laurie McGinley)
  7. A federal court ordered Spirit Airlines pilots back to work, siding with the company in what it said was a “pervasive illegal work slowdown” from union workers. The strike has resulted in hundreds of flight cancelations and disrupted travel for more than 20,000 passengers. (Amy B. Wang and Luz Lazo)
  8. A new report from the Council on American-Islamic Relations claims that violent anti-Muslim incidents have spiked 600 percent in the U.S. since 2014. (HuffPost)
  9. Global temperatures could exceed 2.7 degrees above “preindustrial” levels within the next 15 years, according to a newly released study – shattering a major climate threshold listed under the Paris agreement. (Chelsea Harvey)
  10. Former President Obama made his first public appearance overseas since leaving office, telling attendees at a food and technology conference in Milan that he is “confident” the U.S. will continue to move in "the right direction" on climate change. (AP)
  11. Buzzfeed News has been banned from British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's campaign events after publishing an interview in which Corbyn said that he intends to remain on the job even if his party gets wiped out in a snap election. (Buzzfeed News)

MORE FALLOUT FROM SALLY YATES TESTIMONY:

-- Sean Spicer dismissed questions about why Trump waited 18 days to fire Flynn after learning he had misled Vice President Pence about contacts with the Russian ambassador, saying the White House considered the acting attorney general a “political opponent.” Karen DeYoung and Jenna Johnson report: Yates, who was named by Trump to fill the job while they awaited confirmation of Jeff Sessions, was “appointed by the Obama administration and … a strong supporter of Clinton,” Spicer told reporters. Asked how he knew that, Spicer said “it was widely rumored” that Yates would “play a role in the Justice Department” if Clinton had won. He also cited an Yates’s refusal to uphold Trump’s original immigration ban, suggesting the action proved she was “not exactly someone that was excited about President Trump taking office or his agenda.”

-- The nominee for deputy secretary of state, John Sullivan, called for a “robust” response to Russia’s election interference during his confirmation hearing yesterday, citing cyber attacks that targeted the U.S., France, and the Netherlands. “Interference with our political processes is simply unacceptable,” he said. “It’s a profound threat to our way of life, and we have to respond as robustly as possible with all of the means we have at our disposal.” When asked whether existing sanctions should be continued, Sullivan suggested they might even be increased: “I believe they should be reviewed to make sure they’re adequate. They should be kept in place and potentially ratcheted up as necessary.” (Carol Morello)

Jeff Sessions speaks at the federal courthouse in Central Islip, New York. (Peter Foley/EPA)

THE WAR ON DRUGS:

-- Jeff Sessions is considering whether to overturn an Obama administration policy that eliminated harsh “mandatory minimum sentences” for low-level drug offenders – and could direct federal prosecutors to again charge the defendants with crimes carrying the most severe penalties. Sari Horwitz reports: “If new charging instructions are implemented, it would mark the first significant move by the Trump administration to bring back the drug war’s toughest practices — methods that had fallen out of favor in recent years as critics pointed to damaging effects of mass incarceration. The attorney general is considering having his prosecutors bring the most severe charges against drug traffickers, whether they are low-level defendants or not, according to officials ... Sessions also may allow prosecutors to use more ‘enhancements’ to make sentences even longer. Under what’s referred to as ‘Section 851”’of the Controlled Substances Act, defendants charged with a federal drug, firearm or immigration crime may face enhancements if they have previously been convicted of a felony drug offense.” Former attorney general Eric Holder instructed prosecutors to stop using enhancements except in certain cases — such as when the defendant used threats or violence — in an effort, he said, to make punishments more fairly fit the crime.

-- The House Energy and Commerce committee began investigating the DEA this week for a slowdown of enforcement efforts in the face of the opioid epidemic. Scott Higham and Lenny Bernstein report: “The committee sent letters to the DEA and the nation’s three largest drug distribution companies, giving them until June 8 to answer questions about their responsibilities to combat the rising epidemic, which has claimed nearly 180,000 lives during the past decade. The distributors are McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen. Together, they distribute nearly 85 percent of the prescription drugs in the United States.” The investigation comes after a spate of reports that drug distributors shipped nearly 780 million tablets of oxycodone and hydrocodone to pharmacies and pain clinics in West Virginia over a six-year period. One pharmacy alone, in a town of just 392 residents, received nearly 9 million tablets of hydrocodone in two years.

Soldiers of the YPG Kurdish militia stand guard next to a US eight-wheeled armored fighting vehicles near the Syrian-Turkish border. (Youssef Rabie/EPA)

THE FIGHT AGAINST ISIS:

-- Pentagon officials said Trump has approved a plan to directly arm Kurdish forces fighting in Syria – delivering a blow to already-strained ties with Turkey in the hopes of retaking the ISIS-controlled stronghold of Raqqa. Missy Ryan, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Karen DeYoung report: “Pentagon spokeswoman Dana W. White said the president made the decision Monday, describing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a diverse group dominated by Kurdish fighters, as 'the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.’ ... The decision … is sure to enrage Turkey, which views the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which make up the largest share of the SDF, as an existential threat. The Turkish position has created a dilemma for U.S. military officials, who see no viable alternative force in Syria capable of and willing to mount an assault on Raqqa. Trump is expected to officially inform President Erdogan of his decision when the Turkish leader comes to Washington for a White House meeting next week."

-- “A secret global operation by the Pentagon late last year to sabotage the Islamic State’s online videos and propaganda sparked fierce debate inside the government over whether it was necessary to notify countries that are home to computer hosting services used by the extremist group, including U.S. allies in Europe,” Ellen Nakashima reports: “As part of the operation, Cyber Command obtained the passwords to a number of Islamic State administrator accounts and then used them to access the accounts, change the passwords and delete content such as battlefield video. It also shut the group’s propaganda specialists out of their accounts … Cybercom developed the campaign under pressure from then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who wanted the command to raise its game against the Islamic State. But when the CIA, State Department and FBI got wind of the plan to conduct operations inside the borders of other countries without telling them, officials at the agencies immediately became concerned that the campaign could undermine cooperation with those countries on law enforcement, intelligence and counterterrorism.” The issue took the Obama National Security Council weeks to address and still looms large for the Trump administration, which is conducting a broad review of what powers to give the military in countering ISIS, including in the cyber realm.

-- ISIS released a video showing the gruesome beheading of a Russian intelligence officer accused of spying on the group in Syria. In an interview apparently given under duress, the agent – accused of infiltrating groups in Kazakhstan and the North Caucasus region of Russia before his capture – said he had been “abandoned” by the Kremlin and called for his country to put an end to its military campaign in Syria. (Andrew Roth)

OBAMACARE LATEST:

-- The three biggest issues to be reconciled in the Senate right now are: 1) the scope of coverage for people with a preexisting injury or illness; 2) health-care tax credits; and 3) Medicaid.

-- Senate Republicans are now facing their own divisions in an ongoing push to replace the Affordable Care Act  – with internal rifts suggesting that the path to 51 votes will be daunting. Robert Costa and Sean Sullivan report: “Sen. Ted Cruz, a defiant loner whose feuds with Republican Party leaders have made him a conservative favorite, suddenly felt an itch to collaborate. It was late March, just after [Republicans failed to pass a health-care bill, and] Cruz sent notice to party colleagues that he wanted to convene a working group to keep alive the GOP’s pledge to undo the law known as Obamacare. Now, in the days since the House reversed itself and approved a health-care bill, that group, which presently numbers 13, is at the center of a fragile connection between hard-liners and leadership that may be the Senate’s best chance to pass its own version. The strategy … is to bring together lawmakers with starkly different views, let them talk — and keep them talking until consensus is reached, in a process that could drag on for months. There’s one big problem: Many of the key Republican senators who could stand in the way of a successful health-care vote are not in the group. And some of them are forming their own coalitions."

Many differences also remain among members of the working group itself: “Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski in particular could become thorns in negotiations, in part because of their desire to restore funding for Planned Parenthood, which the House proposal would gut. In an interview, Collins, a leading centrist, said she is pushing to make health-care negotiations bipartisan within the Senate. In addition to including Democrats, Collins said she has invited Sen. Bill Cassidy, another Republican who has expressed concerns about the House bill. Sen. Rand Paul, who is fresh off winning reelection … is also not in the working group … [and] many of his colleagues privately say they expect him to vote no. In addition, Republican senators from states that expanded Medicaid have held their own meetings in which GOP leadership has also participated."

-- The most powerful bloc in the Senate, based on the size and clout of its members, are the Republicans who come from states that took advantage of the 2010 law’s Medicaid expansion. Paul Kane explains: “These Republicans come from every type of state, from classic political swing states with Democratic governors … to conservative, largely rural states like Arkansas and Arizona. All told, there are 20 Senate Republicans who hail from states where their governors accepted federal Medicaid funding to provide increased coverage.” That list includes a former presidential nominee, staunch rising-star conservatives, and even Mitch McConnell. “I think we’ve got a good voice in the process, yes,” said West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, whose state has more than 180,000 beneficiaries of the Medicaid expansion. On Monday, she said she is working with other Republicans to come up with a way for these people to keep their coverage “permanently,” either under Medicaid, or “some other kind of way.” Two months ago, Capito joined Sens. Rob Portman, Lisa Murkowski, and Cory Gardner in a letter signaling their opposition to the House legislation because it “does not provide stability and certainty for individuals and families in Medicaid expansion programs.”

“I know this, in my state, it’s a Medicaid-expansion state,” John McCain said on Monday. “We have a problem with the bill. We have a problem with what came over from the House.” He declined to specify how the issue should be handled, but made clear that the House bill was a non-starter in Arizona, where some 418,000 residents are taking advantage of federal Medicaid funds.

-- Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said efforts to replace Obamacare are complicated because once the public "is on the dole," they'll "take every dime they can." CNN reports: "The comment by one of the key Senate architects of the ongoing rewrite of the massive health care law, suggests Republicans are skeptical Americans will be unwilling to give up benefits provided for under the Affordable Care Act … ‘Let's face it, once you get them on the dole, they'll take every dime they can,’ he said. ‘We've got to find some way of getting things under control or this country and your future is going to be gone.’ Democratic Sen. Patty Murray blasted Hatch's comments. ‘People who are getting access to health care are not on the dole,’ Murray said. "They are working families. They are, by circumstances most of us hope we don't get into, have a very seriously ill child or spouse.'"

-- Early proposed rates for ACA health plans suggest premiums could jump again in 2018 -- defying predictions that rates would begin to level off. Amy Goldstein notes that many states have pushed back the deadline for insurers to announce proposed rates for the coming year – but the first four states to have done so reveal that insurers are seeking double-digit increases — in some cases far exceeding the average 25 percent jump for the most popular group of ACA plans in 2017.

TRUMP LEAVES HIS MARK:

-- The director of the U.S. Census Bureau is resigning, leaving the agency leaderless as it faces a looming crisis over funding for the 2020 population count and beyond. Tara Bahrampour reports: “John H. Thompson, who has served as director since 2013 … will leave June 30 … The news, which surprised census experts, follows an April congressional budget allocation for the census that critics say is woefully inadequate. And it comes less than a week after a prickly hearing at which Thompson told lawmakers that cost estimates for a new electronic data collection system had ballooned by nearly 50 percent. The decennial count typically requires a massive ramp-up in spending in the years immediately preceding it, involving extensive testing, hiring and publicity. However, in late April Congress approved only $1.47 billion for the Census Bureau in the 2017 fiscal year, about 10 percent below what the Obama administration had requested. And experts say the White House’s proposed budget for 2018, $1.5 billion, falls far below what is needed.” No successor for Thompson was announced, and an agency spokeswoman said only that the position would be filled “in due course.”  

-- The White House curator who spent decades working with former first families is retiring, leaving open yet another senior position on the White House’s permanent staff after the dismissal of Chief White House Usher Angella Reid last week. (Krissah Thompson and Jura Koncius)

-- Trump will wait until after the G7 meeting in late May to announce whether the U.S. will stay in the Paris climate agreement. Spicer told reporters that Trump “wants to make sure that he has an opportunity to continue to meet with his team to create the best strategy for this country going forward.” (Chris Mooney)

-- Politico, “Who has Trump’s ear? Often rich, white, Republican men,” by Andrew Restuccia and Aidan Quigley: “The people who have met with Trump since he became president tend to have a lot in common, according to a database … compiled from public documents, media accounts and its own reporting: They’re mostly male, largely Republican and often rich.. … Of the more than 1,200 people who have had direct access to the president ... the majority — about 80 percent — are white. And almost 63 percent are white men. Trump has huddled with at least 270 business executives and nearly 350 politicians — mainly Republicans but also dozens of Democrats. And he’s met in person or spoken by phone with 47 world leaders, most often the leaders of Japan and Germany, plus a vast grab bag of other figures, from pro golfers to rocker Ted Nugent to Matt Drudge.”

THE WHITE HOUSE CANNOT STOP TALKING ABOUT THE ELECTION:

-- White House social media director Dan Scavino celebrated the six-month anniversary of Trump’s victory by tweeting a screenshot of Clinton’s concession call, which came from Huma Abedin to Kellyanne Conway. He also promised to share video from the conversation. (Yahoo)

Conway's response:

Ed Gillespie participates in a debate with Corey Stewart, left, and state Sen. Frank Wagner, center. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RACES TO WATCH:

-- “Is populism popular? These Virginia candidates are banking on it,” by Marc Fisher: “Corey Stewart wants to be the next governor of Virginia, and the way he has chosen to get there is by issuing polarizing provocations in support of the Confederate flag. Tom Perriello wants to be governor too, and his message also carries familiar echoes, [painting a bleak portrait of a country that’s losing millions of jobs]. …While the rest of the country gets another year to discern the meaning of last fall’s momentous election, people in two states — Virginia and New Jersey — will choose governors this year and decide if the past is prelude: Are voters looking for a booster shot or an antidote — another dose of Trumpism or a traditional focus on the nuts and bolts of governing? Virginia’s primaries both feature one candidate who preaches that the system is rigged while their opponents more or less are the system. But in both races, the president looms large in voters’ minds, especially in parts of the state that went heavily for Trump."

  • “In Pittsylvania County, hard by the North Carolina border, county supervisor Ron Scearce is still shopping for a Republican governor who will run the state ‘like a business, just like Trump.’”
  • In Northern Virginia – where Clinton beat Trump easily – last year’s populist surge seems to have less staying power. “In a place like Virginia, in a low turnout, off-year race, people are ready for a cheerful, roll-up-your-sleeves, hard-working traditional governor,” said Loudon County GOP chairman Will Estrada. “People aren’t looking for another Trump; Trump is an anomaly.”
  • In Campbell County, near the Blue Ridge mountains, Eric Zehr said he’s looking less for a Trump sound-alike than someone who “shares my top two values, the right to life and fiscal conservatism.” Still, he worries many Trump voters will go “back into hibernation this year”: “They’re just delighted that the president doesn’t have a close guard on his tongue; that comes across as honest and refreshing,” he said. “We’re hoping for more of the same from a governor — maybe not Trump’s coarseness, but his willingness to go upstream.”

-- Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello delivered some of their harshest rhetoric yet about Trump during a Democratic gubernatorial debate last night, competing to see who could condemn the president more harshly. Gregory S. Schneider reports: “The consensus marked a generally civil debate - perhaps surprisingly so, given how harshly staffers from the rival Democratic campaigns have been sniping at one another all week following a more acrimonious debate last week in Roanoke.There were only two clear moments of attack: Perriello, as he has before, jabbed Northam for having admitted that he voted twice for George W. Bush for president, before Northam became involved in politics. Northam had a response ready. ‘You know in 2009 Mr. Perriello made a statement that he was really a libertarian at heart and the only reason that he switched to being a Democrat was that he could run for Congress,’ [he said] … But otherwise, Northam and Perriello had seemed like they could be friends, if only they didn’t have to occasionally attack one another. Northam seemed jaunty, at one point joking that he thought a compliment from Perriello was actually an attack, then jumping back and slapping his hands like an uncle who just made a corny joke.”

A GLOBAL TREND TO WATCH:

-- “A new political opposition in France — people who don’t vote,” by Isaac Stanley-Becker: “The new opposition. That’s how Emilia Julie, a literature student in the populous French capital that helped hand Emmanuel Macron the presidency Sunday, christened the roughly 15.5 million renegades who abstained or voided their ballots. The number amounts to a third of registered voters — staggering by French standards — who wanted no part in choosing between Macron … and [far-right National Front leader] Marine Le Pen … More people abstained than voted for Le Pen, who won about 10.6 million votes, her party’s best performance in a presidential election. The number of blank and voided ballots was a record for France’s Fifth Republic, founded in 1958. ‘I choose not to enter the game,” said Julie, 18, who stayed home Sunday to signal her disagreement with both candidates and to deny Macron a mandate. The right to vote, she said, is important. “But it’s more important to vote for someone you actually want to be in office. [Experts] called the historic nonparticipation rate a testament to deepening polarization and a sign of the tough road ahead for Macron, as he prepares for parliamentary elections in June that will decide whether he can govern with a legislative majority.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

Here is some additional reaction to the Comey news--

From a Post reporter:

Notable:

New York Times reporters:

Politico:

Harvard Law Professor:

The decision created some strange bedfellows:

Nixon prepared to fire J. Edgar Hoover, but he chickened out at the last minute because he was afraid of what dirt the longtime FBI director might have on him:

From a New Yorker writer:

Lots of reaction from Clinton alumni (Abby Phillip has a fuller round-up):

Obama alumni:

Some Republicans called out Dems for slamming Comey, until he was gone:

Schumer's communications director fired back:

Here's the flip side. From Ted Cruz's former communications director:

A former Republican member of Congress from Illinois:

The conservative Weekly Standard editor:

Finally, a little bit of comic relief:

From InfoWars, the peddler of conspiracy theories:

How Obama dressed in Italy:

Flashback:

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“Wisconsin’s Voter-ID Law Suppressed 200,000 Votes in 2016 (Trump Won by 22,748),” from The Nation: “According to federal court records,  300,000 registered voters, 9 percent of the electorate, lacked strict forms of voter ID in Wisconsin. A new study by Priorities USA … shows that strict voter-ID laws, in Wisconsin and other states, led to a significant reduction in voter turnout in 2016, with a disproportionate impact on African-American and Democratic-leaning voters. Wisconsin’s voter-ID law reduced turnout by 200,000 votes, according to the new analysis. [Trump] won the state by only 22,748 votes. The study compared turnout in states that adopted strict voter-ID laws between 2012 and 2016, like Wisconsin, to states that did not. This reduction in turnout particularly hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign … In  Mississippi, Virginia, and Wisconsin, strict voter-ID laws had an especially pronounced negative impact on African-American voters. [The study] … is consistent with a 2014 study by the [GAO], which found that strict voter-ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee reduced turnout by 2 percent, enough to swing a close election, with the largest drop-off among newly registered voters, young voters, and voters of color.”

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT:

“Death of Bearing Arms editor and gun-rights advocate Bob Owens has been ruled a suicide,” from Kristine Phillips: “Bob Owens, editor of the popular pro-gun blog BearingArms.com, died Monday in what authorities have ruled a suicide. Officials say Owens shot himself in the head near his North Carolina home. A gun was located nearby, according to the Fuquay-Varina Police Department.” Posts about Owens, a shooting enthusiast and a well-known Second Amendment advocate, have flooded social media, with his co-editor describing him as a “a huge part of the 2A world,” but “first and foremost a son, brother, husband, father, and a friend.” “In 2013, Townhall, a conservative media site that owns Bearing Arms, hired Owens to be the blog’s editor. Owens was a certified firearms instructor with roughly 400 hours of professional training class, according to a brief biography on the site … In one of his last articles for the site, Owens wrote about what it was like to be a firearms instructor.”

 

DAYBOOK:

At the White House: Trump will meet with Lavrov. This afternoon, Mike Pence will participate in an economic lunch.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

“I’ve never really stood in front of a crowd and talked to them about ‘the gay.’ But I’ve got nothing to hide.” -- Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, usually tight-lipped about his personal life, discussed his experience of growing up gay in the conservative South with students at the University of Mississippi (his alma mater).

 

NEWS YOU CAN USE IF YOU LIVE IN D.C.:

-- The Capital Weather Gang gives today a “Nice Day” rating – and the warmest forecast we’ve seen all week: “Partly sunny skies and moderating temperatures make for another nice day today. Morning readings climb into and through the 50s, and afternoon highs reach the upper 60s to mid-70s, perfect for a post-lunch stroll.”

-- The Nationals lost to the Orioles 5-4.

-- Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan tapped Robert Moffit, a leading Obamacare critic, to chair the state’s health-care commission – prompting immediate criticism from Democrats. Moffit, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, has called for a full repeal of the federal health-care law, promoted Medicare vouchers and applauded the House’s narrowly-passed health-care proposal. (Josh Hicks)

-- The D.C. inspector general investigated how a top official in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration was able to bypass the District’s school lottery system and have her child placed in one of the city’s most sought-after public schools. Peter Jamison reports: “Courtney Snowden, Bowser’s deputy mayor for greater economic opportunity, was examined in a probe that delved into the circumstances in which Snowden’s son was enrolled at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan, a school with a waiting list of more than 1,000 families, the people said.” Investigators were reportedly informed during interviews that Snowden said she planned to “bypass normal channels” to ensure her child got a seat in a desirable school, and were told she boasted of her personal relationship with former D.C. Public Schools chancellor Kaya Henderson.

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Watch Trump fire Comey, via Jimmy Kimmel:

More Kimmel on Comey firing:

See this "exclusive conversation" between Trump and Putin, via Conan:

Stephen Colbert says even Comey's firing was about Trump:

See rowdy kids surround Mike Pence:

Meet Marlon, the White House bunny:

See the "Hurricane Hunter:"