With Breanne Deppisch
THE BIG IDEA: This time it did not even take 24 hours for Donald Trump to throw his staffers under the bus and contradict their denials.
The president revealed highly classified (code word) information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador during an Oval Office meeting last week, potentially endangering a coveted intelligence asset, compromising a crucial alliance and undermining the war effort against the Islamic State.
After The Post broke the story, senior White House aides quickly denied it. “I was in the room. It didn’t happen,” said national security adviser H.R. McMaster. “This story is false,” added Dina Powell, his deputy.
Then, on Twitter this morning, Trump essentially acknowledged that The Post’s reporting is accurate, defended his decision to share the information and complained about the leak that allowed what he’d done to get out:
As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
...to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
This feels like a replay of last week, when the president acknowledged that the FBI’s Russia probe was on his mind as he decided to fire James Comey and confessed that he had made up his mind before receiving a recommendation from the deputy attorney general. That undercut every White House talking point. Making matters worse, Trump said last Friday that his aides should not be expected to be accurate all the time and declined to express confidence in his press secretary.
-- The already dysfunctional West Wing has plunged deeper into a state of crisis. Here are some vignettes from last night that show just how messy everything has become:
From the Times’s Matthew Rosenberg and Eric Schmitt: “Before The Post’s article was published, its impending publication set off a mild panic among White House staff members, with the press secretary, Sean Spicer; the deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders; and the communications director, Mike Dubke, summoned to the Oval Office in the middle of the afternoon. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and one of his advisers, was not in the meeting. But internally, Mr. Kushner criticized Mr. Spicer, who has been the target of his ire over bad publicity for the president since Mr. Trump fired the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, last week.”
From the Associated Press’s Jill Colvin and Catherine Lucey: “Reporters started gathering in the hallway outside Spicer’s office right after the Post story broke. As the group grew to more than 20 people, press aides walked silently by as journalists asked for more information. Soon, three of the four TV channels being played in the press area were reporting the Post story. … McMaster, who would later deliver a televised denial, stumbled into the crowd of journalists as he walked through the West Wing. ‘This is the last place in the world I wanted to be,’ he said, nervously, as he was pushed for information. ‘I’m leaving. I’m leaving.’”
From BuzzFeed’s White House correspondent:
Per @TreyYingst, Bannon, Mike Dubke, Sarah Sanders and Spicer walked into cabinet room just now. They did not look happy.— Adrian Carrasquillo (@Carrasquillo) May 15, 2017
Can now hear yelling coming from room where officials are. https://t.co/xh8LQ0paPM— Adrian Carrasquillo (@Carrasquillo) May 15, 2017
WH comms staffers just put the TVs on super loud after we could hear yelling coming from room w/ Bannon, Spicer, Sanders— Adrian Carrasquillo (@Carrasquillo) May 15, 2017
From NBC News’s Hallie Jackson: “A smaller group of reporters began trickling back toward Spicer's office about 7:30 p.m. … An aide who was walking by deflected an inquiry about the Post piece, saying: ‘I'm dealing with other dumpster fires.’ … [Sarah Huckabee] Sanders then emerged from the West Wing, saying: ‘We're not answering any other questions right now, so you guys can clear this hallway.’ Asked whether McMaster or anyone else would clarify matters, she repeated: ‘Tonight, we are not doing any other questions. At this moment.’ What about Tuesday, the reporters asked — would McMaster still brief the media about the president's foreign trip, as previously planned? Raising her voice to be heard over the din, Sanders replied: ‘Guys. I've said all we're going to say!’”
-- “Obviously, they are in a downward spiral right now and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening,” Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters at the Capitol. “The chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating … a worrisome environment.”
-- In an interview with Bloomberg TV this morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said: "We could do with a little less drama from the White House." With characteristic understatement, he added: "I think it would be helpful if the president spent more time on things we’re trying to accomplish and less time on other things.”
-- GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, a Marine veteran, called for the White House to turn over transcripts of Trump’s meeting with the Russians to Congress.
For the purpose of transparency, the White House should share a transcript of the meeting with the House and Senate intelligence committees.— Rep. Mike Gallagher (@RepGallagher) May 16, 2017
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) joined him:
The administration should promptly share with Congress, in a classified setting, the precise details of the president's meeting. https://t.co/KDthfYbXvK— Justin Amash (@justinamash) May 16, 2017
Democrats are certain to amplify this. The big question driving today is: How many more Republicans will follow?
-- If you missed their scoop, Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe explain why what Trump did is so problematic: “The information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government. The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said Trump’s decision to do so endangers cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State. ... Exposure of an intelligence stream that has provided critical insight into the Islamic State, officials said, could hinder the United States’ and its allies’ ability to detect future threats. … The identification of the location [where the intelligence was gathered] was seen as particularly problematic … because Russia could use that detail to help identify the U.S. ally or intelligence capability involved. Officials said the capability could be useful for other purposes, possibly providing intelligence on Russia’s presence in Syria. Moscow would be keenly interested in identifying that source and perhaps disrupting it.… The officials declined to identify the ally but said it has previously voiced frustration with Washington’s inability to safeguard sensitive information related to Iraq and Syria.”
“It is all kind of shocking,” said a former senior U.S. official who is close to current administration officials. “Trump seems to be very reckless and doesn’t grasp the gravity of the things he’s dealing with, especially when it comes to intelligence and national security. And it’s all clouded because of this problem he has with Russia.”
-- Other outlets confirmed The Post’s reporting last night, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN and Reuters. One U.S. official told BuzzFeed, “It’s far worse than what has already been reported.”
-- Bigger picture, Trump’s disclosure to the Russians is part of a pattern of poor judgment.
Let’s step back for a second and ponder why Trump thought it was a good idea to give an audience to two leaders from an adversary of the United States, who the intelligence agencies believe meddled in last year’s presidential election. The FBI continues to probe possible connections between Trump associates and the Russian government. So are multiple congressional committees. Adding insult to injury, Trump scheduled this meeting for the morning after he axed Comey.
Not only that, Trump welcomed Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — a key figure in the earlier Russia controversies — to the meeting. Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had to resign because of fallout from his contacts with Kislyak and misleading statements about what he’d said. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from matters related to the FBI’s Russia investigation after it emerged he met and spoke with Kislyak, despite denying any contact with Russian officials while under oath during his confirmation hearing. Any conventional president would avoid Kislyak like the plague. Trump welcomed him with open arms.
Why was a photographer for a Russian state-owned news agency allowed into the Oval Office for such a sensitive meeting, a level of access that former U.S. intelligence officials say allowed for a potential security breach? No U.S. news organizations were allowed for any part of the meeting.
Once he welcomed the Russia delegation into his inner sanctum, why wouldn’t Trump watch his words more carefully? Russia is propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and meddling in Europe.
-- The president does not have a very good record of handling sensitive information since taking office. You might recall that in February, before Flynn was fired, Trump turned the terrace at his Mar-a-Lago club into an open-air situation room. It was Saturday night, and the Palm Beach club was packed. At one table, the president sat with the leader of Japan discussing how to respond to a North Korea missile test in view of random patrons. “While waiters came and went — and while one club member snapped photos — the two leaders reviewed documents by the light of an aide’s cellphone,” David Fahrenthold and Karen DeYoung reported at the time.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s private phone number was just publicly exposed because Trump’s longtime bodyguard didn’t follow basic operational security protocols. A photograph of him walking with the president showed him holding a stack of papers. On the outside was a yellow sticky note that said “Jim, Mad Dog, Mattis” and had his cell written out underneath.
-- Some of these amateur mistakes are the result of Trump’s lack of experience. He is the first president in U.S. history with no prior political or military experience.
Another part of the problem is that he is unwilling to prepare. From The Post’s Russia scoop last night: “U.S. officials said that the National Security Council continues to prepare multi-page briefings for Trump to guide him through conversations with foreign leaders, but that he has insisted that the guidance be distilled to a single page of bullet points — and often ignores those.”
But the biggest issue stems from the president’s compulsive need to impress people by showing off what he knows. In his meeting with Lavrov, Trump went off script and began to boast about his inside knowledge of a looming threat. “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” the president said, an official with knowledge of the exchange told The Post.
“He doesn't really know any boundaries. He doesn't think in those terms," one adviser who often speaks to the president told Politico. “He doesn't sometimes realize the implications of what he's saying. I don't think it was his intention in any way to share any classified information.”
Maggie Haberman draws an interesting point of comparison:
Trump likes to show off his office toys.This is the intel equivalent of Trump showing ppl Shaq's shoe at Trump Tower https://t.co/kLIlZrKtVj— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) May 15, 2017
What was in Trump’s head matters. As the editors of Lawfare put it, “If the President made a strategic judgment to release certain information in exchange for some anticipated gain, even if that judgment is wildly wrong, that is potentially less bad that if this is merely an example of loose lips sinking other countries’ ships — and our own country’s intelligence relationships. In other words, what Trump thought he was doing might well inflect whether we should see this as an act of carelessness, an act of carelessness bordering on treachery, or an act of judgment (even if misjudgment) of the sort we elect presidents to make.”
-- Hypocrisy watch: Trump slipping secrets to Russia is ironic because a major reason that he became president was Hillary Clinton’s private email server. As a candidate, the president constantly said her mishandling of sensitive information was disqualifying. “This is really, if we bring it up, this is like Watergate, only it’s worse, because here our foreign enemies were in a position to hack our most sensitive national security secrets,” Trump said at a rally last September. “We can’t have someone in the Oval Office who doesn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘confidential.’” (Philip Bump rounds up a bunch more examples like this.)
The president tweeted dozens of times last year about Clinton’s mishandling of classified information:
Hillary Clinton should not be given national security briefings in that she is a lose cannon with extraordinarily bad judgement & insticts.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 30, 2016
The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by "intelligence" like candy. Very un-American!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2017
He even quoted Comey in this one from last July:
Crooked Hillary Clinton and her team "were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information." Not fit!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 6, 2016
FBI director said Crooked Hillary compromised our national security. No charges. Wow! #RiggedSystem— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 5, 2016
-- Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community will also become even more tenuous after this incident. The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee called last night’s news a “slap in the face to the intel community”:
If true, this is a slap in the face to the intel community. Risking sources & methods is inexcusable, particularly with the Russians. https://t.co/CRiSC024F7— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) May 15, 2017
Trump has publicly questioned the quality of the intelligence the agencies produce, compared them to Nazi Germany, said he’s too smart for their briefings and talked about the inauguration crowd size in front of the CIA’s sacred wall of honor. “Since getting elected, the president has had a track record of questioning, worrying, and even directly upsetting, the thousands of men and women who collect and analyze the nation's top secrets,” Amber Phillips notes.
-- Some conservative thought leaders are expressing serious concerns:
“The idea that Trump — with his irrepressible need to boast to the point of narcissistic incontinence combined with his lackadaisical approach to the nuts-and-bolts demands of the job — somehow just let something slip is utterly and completely believable," writes National Review’s Jonah Goldberg.
“The Russian leak story reveals one other thing, the dangerousness of a hollow man,” the New York Times’s David Brooks writes. “We’ve got this perverse situation in which the vast analytic powers of the entire world are being spent trying to understand a guy whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar. ‘We badly want to understand Trump, to grasp him,’ David Roberts writes in Vox. ‘It might give us some sense of control, or at least an ability to predict what he will do next. But what if there’s nothing to understand? What if there is no there there?’ And out of that void comes a carelessness that quite possibly betrayed an intelligence source, and endangered a country.”
A former speechwriter for George W. Bush:
The president should resign.— David Frum (@davidfrum) May 16, 2017
Another Bush 43 veteran:
At what point do Republicans conclude Donald Trump is so inept/overwhelmed by the job that he simply can't be defended? What will it take?— Peter Wehner (@Peter_Wehner) May 15, 2017
Ross Douthat's response:
They're waiting for him to do something really bonkers, like accusing Ted Cruz's dad of being on the grassy knoll:https://t.co/GhklRbuKmi— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) May 15, 2017
From the Weekly Standard editor:
Fmr senior intel official to TWS: "sharing of another country's intel w/o permission is one of the brightest red lines in the intel world."— Stephen Hayes (@stephenfhayes) May 15, 2017
Conservative talk radio host:
This is very bad: https://t.co/FoK6HBCGp0 Very, very bad.— Hugh Hewitt (@hughhewitt) May 15, 2017
A former State Department adviser to Condi Rice:
This is appalling. If accidental, it would be a firing offense for anyone else. If deliberate, it would be treason. https://t.co/iWevZMIFt6— Eliot A Cohen (@EliotACohen) May 15, 2017
-- Good morning from NEW YORK. Breanne and I accepted our Webby Award for Best Email Newsletter at a ceremony last night in Manhattan. Thank you for being a loyal reader.
-- Happening tomorrow: The 202 Live with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). I'll sit down with the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Oversight Subcommittee at The Post's headquarters at 6:15 p.m. to talk about Russia, the White House, the Senate agenda and his new book — out today — “The Vanishing American Adult." Click here to RSVP to join the live audience.
-- We’re also continuing to grow! With so much happening around energy and environmental policy under Trump, we’re going to launch THE ENERGY 202 next Tuesday. Dino Grandoni has just joined The Post to anchor this new product. For his daily insights, sign up here.
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WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:
-- Security researchers have found digital clues in the malware used in last weekend’s global ransomware attack that indicate North Korea is involved, although they caution the evidence is not conclusive. Ellen Nakashima, Craig Timberg and Paul Schemm report: “An early version of the ‘WannaCry’ ransomware that affected more than 150 countries and major businesses and organizations shares a portion of its code with a tool from a hacker group known as Lazarus, which researchers think is linked to the North Korean government. ‘This implies there is a common source for that code, which could mean that North Korean actors wrote Wannacry or they both used the same third-party code,’ said John Bambenek, threat research manager at Fidelis Cybersecurity. Several security researchers studying ‘WannaCry’ on Monday found evidence of possible connections to, for instance, the crippling hack on Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2014 attributed by the U.S. government to North Korea … [occurring weeks before] Sony released a satiric movie about a plot to kill [Kim Jong Un].”
-- The Washington Wizards’ season ended last night with a 115-105 loss in Game 7 to the Boston Celtics. From Candace Buckner: “When the 2016-17 Wizards season gets annotated in a bright red pen, the chapters on defense and team depth will receive the harshest marks. Unsurprisingly, in the team’s biggest game of the season, these flaws would reveal themselves again. In the second half, the Wizards succumbed to a rain of threes … and gave up 62 points. … Days after his season-saving three in Game 6, [John] Wall carried that momentum early — making 6 of 10 from the field and scoring 13 points in the first half — but then faded to the background, making only two more shots and closing with 18 points and 11 assists.”
GET SMART FAST:
- Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger said hackers appear to have access to one of the company's upcoming movies and are threatening to release it early unless the studio pays a ransom. The threat comes just weeks after a hacker released 10 episodes of the upcoming season of Orange Is the New Black, after Netflix refused to pay an undisclosed amount. (The Hollywood Reporter)
- Veteran journalist Javier Valdez, who specialized in covering drug trafficking and organized crime, was slain in Sinaloa – the latest in a wave of killings that has made Mexico one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist. He is the fifth journalist to be murdered in Mexico in just two months. (AP)
- The city of Philadelphia sued Wells Fargo for discriminating against minority home buyers – saying the bank “steered” minority borrowers into more expensive, riskier mortgages than those offered to white borrowers. The complaint says during a 10-year period from 2004 to 2014, African American borrowers were twice as likely to receive high-cost loans when compared to white borrowers with similar credit backgrounds, and Latino borrowers were 1.7 times as likely to receive costly loans. (Jonelle Marte)
- A school district employee in Tucson, Ariz., was arrested for threatening to assault and murder GOP Rep. Martha McSally – telling her in three separate voicemail messages that her “days are numbered” because of her congressional votes in support of Trump. (Katie Mettler)
- A Memphis man died after dousing himself in kerosene on Facebook Live – then sprinting, in flames, into the bar where his ex-girlfriend was working. Witnesses said he tried to grab her. The incident comes as Facebook’s live-streaming feature has come under increased scrutiny, with critics saying the site must do more to crack down on violent footage. (Kristine Phillips and Peter Holley)
- A 10-year-old girl in India who was raped repeatedly by her stepfather will probably be forced to give birth because of the country’s highly-restrictive abortion laws. (New York Times)
- The words “Pay Trump Bribes Here” were projected last night directly above the door to Trump’s D.C. hotel, along with an arrow pointing down towards the entrance. Authorities said it is unclear where the projections came from or who was responsible. (Martin Weil and Victoria St. Martin)
- A West Virginia police officer is suing his department after he refused to fire at an armed man who was pleading with authorities to “just shoot" him, a decision which he claims cost him his job. (Kristine Phillips)
CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY IN SYRIA:
-- The U.S. accused Syria of constructing a crematory at its notorious Sednaya military prison to clandestinely dispose of thousands of bodies of people believed to be have been executed at the complex. Karen DeYoung reports: “‘What we’re assessing is that if you have that level of production of mass murder, then using the crematorium would … allow the regime to manage that number of corpses … without evidence,’ acting assistant secretary of state Stuart Jones told reporters. The State Department distributed satellite photographs it said documented the gradual construction of the facility outside the main prison complex. ... Jones said that ‘newly declassified’ information on this and other atrocities by the [Assad regime] came from ‘intelligence community assessments,’ as well as from nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International and the media.” Jones cited “multiple sources” in saying that “the regime is responsible for killing as many as 50 detainees per day at Sednaya,” where he said up to 70 people were packed in cells designed for five. Former prisoners have described mass hangings.
-- The Post’s Syria reporter, Louisa Loveluck, has spoken with dozens of former prisoners and guards from the Sednaya complex — famously described as a “human slaughterhouse.” In a piece that posted this morning, she shares some of their stories:
- Mazen Hamada, an oil engineer who was arrested in Damascus after attempting to smuggle baby formula to a rebel-held neighborhood: “I was still holding out when they hung me from the ceiling by my wrists for an hour, feeling like my body weight was going to break my wrists. When they brought me down, they pulled out a chair and asked me to sit. That was when they pulled down my trousers and held up a sharpened metal pole.… When they started to turn the screw, I confessed everything they asked.”
- Mohamed Abdullah, who served in the Syrian army until he was arrested on charges of “planning” to defect: “As Syrians, you grow up hearing a lot about torture. You hear things you cannot imagine even a psychopath doing. They did all those things to us and more … It was sadism. Our cell was meant for seven men but it held almost 60. They made us beat people, too.… By the end, I didn't even question it. We'd get beaten for not attacking the inmates hard enough. I saw one man kicked to death because our guards didn’t think he had done a good job.”
-- Some opposition supporters questioned the timing of the release — asking why, if the U.S. had satellite pictures suggesting the existence of the crematory, they were being publicized only now. The New York Times reports: “At least a half-dozen Syrians have told [the Times] over the past four years that they either witnessed the burning of bodies or smelled odors that made them wonder if bodies were being burned. Several mentioned an unpleasant smell like burning hair near prison or military facilities, or in areas recently taken by pro-government forces. Several former detainees on the Mezze air base, a government facility on the edge of Damascus, said they had seen bodies being burned. People living nearby said they had smelled something like burning hair but were unsure whether it was from animals, like chicken feathers or sheep’s wool."
-- Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein will brief senators Thursday afternoon. Sean Sullivan reports: “The briefing, which will be open to all senators, will take place at 2:30 p.m. Thursday. Senate aides said last week that it is expected to be a wide-ranging discussion in which lawmakers will have the chance to ask questions. Plans for the briefing come as Democrats and some Republicans have been raising questions and concerns about President Trump’s decision to fire Comey. Trump and his aides have provided shifting explanations for Comey’s dismissal. [Chuck Schumer] said he hoped senators in both parties would “use this opportunity to seek the full truth” about Comey’s firing and to press for a special prosecutor to probe potential ties between Trump associates and Russia and any meddling in the election."
-- Rosenstein told a Baltimore business group yesterday that his top concern in D.C. is “defending the Constitution.” The Baltimore Sun’s Yvonne Wenger reports: “Rosenstein — who stepped down from his longtime job as U.S. attorney for Maryland after he was tapped by [Trump] for his new job — said some have urged him to take steps to protect his reputation, but that's not what concerns him. ‘Many people have offered me unsolicited advice over the past few days about what I should do to promote my personal reputation,’ Rosenstein [said]. ‘I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. There is nothing in that oath about my reputation. If you ask me, one of the main problems in Washington, D.C., is everybody is so busy running around trying to protect their reputation instead of protecting the republic, which is what they're supposed to be doing.’ After his speech, Rosenstein said he had no comment on reports published late Monday that Trump revealed classified intelligence to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador during a meeting last week in the White House.”
-- As Trump moves to quickly appoint the next head of the FBI, contender John Cornyn is facing significant opposition – from his own Republican colleagues. Karoun Demirjian, Sean Sullivan and Ed O'Keefe report: “Led by Mitch McConnell … a chorus of GOP senators has signaled that they would prefer [Trump] to nominate somebody other than the second-ranking Republican senator, despite his status as a well-liked and influential figure on Capitol Hill. Their message: It’s nothing personal. But if Trump were to nominate Cornyn, who has shown interest in the job, it would trigger a raft of consequences that could be detrimental to McConnell and the broader GOP agenda.” Their concerns echo those of Rep. Trey Gowdy, another floated contender who removed himself from the running. “Our country and the women and men of the FBI deserve a Director with not only impeccable credentials but also one who can unite the country as we strive for justice and truth,” he said in a statement. “Among other concerns, some fear that nominating a top political leader would roil a confirmation process in which Democrats are already emboldened to cry foul over former director [Comey’s] abrupt firing,” our colleagues write. “Since Trump’s inauguration, Cornyn has been a loyal defender of the president — including on the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees, which have been looking at the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.”
- “I told him I thought he’d be a good FBI director under normal circumstances,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said. “But I think the politics of this is just — he gets it. He’d be an outstanding FBI director. But I just, quite frankly, think that last week made it tough.”
- Sen. Tim Scott said there is a need now for “someone who can lead us in the direction we need to go, and that doesn’t eliminate partisan folks, but there’s no question that the country seems to … find more confidence and credibility in someone who’s probably not involved in partisan politics.”
- Cornyn himself offered no clues about the process. “I’m not really talking about that today,” he said when asked whether he wanted the job. He wouldn’t opine on his chance of getting it, either.
“For McConnell, there are several reasons losing his top deputy would be a blow. The biggest is the messy political firestorm that would likely ensue over his nomination. But McConnell would also have to worry about keeping Cornyn’s seat in Republican hands in a special election. While Texas is solidly Republican, Trump’s unpopularity could be a drag there, potentially forcing Republicans to spend millions playing defense. … Texas political observers said that Cornyn’s departure would create a wide-open contest, likely featuring many Republicans and a handful of Democrats.”
-- The 9th Circuit heard oral arguments about Trump’s revised travel ban, with judges lobbing skeptical inquiries at lawyers on both sides of the issue as they attempted to ascertain to what extent they should hold Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric against him – including his campaign-trail promises for a “total and complete shutdown” on Muslims entering the U.S. Matt Zapotosky reports: “The hearing was important in its own right to the future of the travel ban but was made even more interesting because Trump has repeatedly criticized the 9th Circuit for ruling against him. Judge Michael Daly Hawkins asked a Justice Department lawyer whether Trump had ‘ever disavowed his campaign statements,’ and Judge Ronald M. Gould inquired about how the court should determine if the executive order was ‘a Muslim ban in the guise of a national security justification.’ Judge Richard A. Paez noted that many of Trump’s statements on the matter were made ‘in the midst of a highly contentious campaign’ … [though] he did, however, deem the campaign trail comments ‘profound.’"
-- Trump’s expansion of an abortion “gag rule,” which blocks U.S. aid to foreign groups that counsel or provide abortion referrals, took effect on Monday – and will restrict some $9 million in foreign health assistance. Ariana Eunjung Cha and Carol Morello report: “The rule, which has reproductive-rights advocates reeling, is significantly broader than similar bans in place intermittently since 1984. Senior administration officials confirmed Monday that Trump’s version will impact $8.8 billion for programs, including those related to AIDS, malaria and child health. About $6 billion of that supports programs for HIV/AIDS services, primarily in Africa, as part of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief established in 2003. Another program that could be hit hard is the President’s Malaria Initiative, started under George W. Bush and expanded under [Obama]. Defense Department grants related to global health security will also be impacted. Women’s rights and family planning groups that oppose the ban have said the result could be catastrophic, resulting in the closure of critical health-care centers around the world.”
-- The Trump administration announced it will dismantle part of the Affordable Care Act that created online insurance marketplaces for small businesses in an attempt to foster greater choice of health plans for their workers. Amy Goldstein reports: “Moving to end the ACA’s small-business enrollment system by 2018 represents the first public step by the Health and Human Services Department to implement an executive order [Trump] signed his first night in office, directing agencies to ease regulatory burdens of the health-care law. In starting with the Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP, the administration is targeting an aspect of the ACA that has been troubled from the outset and never lived up to its proponents’ expectations. As of early this year, federal figures show, nearly 230,000 people were covered through SHOP health plans — a fraction of the 4 million that congressional budget analysts had predicted as the small-business marketplaces began in 2014. Although that means relatively few Americans will be directly affected by the decision, its symbolic impact is large.”
-- Trump is planning to submit a personal financial disclosure covering the 2016 calendar year "in a short period of time," a White House official said, taking an action followed by previous presidents, including Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Matea Gold reports: “Trump's last financial disclosure -- which was filed in May 2016 and covered the previous 10 1/2 months -- showed that his company's revenues boomed as he launched his presidential bid. At the time, he touted the size of the report, saying that the 104-page disclosure was 'the largest' in history."
-- Trump accused fellow politicians of “failing to support police” and declared that officers are subject to “unfair defamation and vilification” that has made their jobs more dangerous. David Nakamura reports: “Trump said in a speech at an annual memorial service for officers slain in the line of duty that his administration would make it a priority to provide more federal resources for local law enforcement departments. “You are the thin blue line between civilization and chaos,” Trump said. ‘We must end the reckless words of incitement that give rise to danger and violence, and take the time to work with cops, not against them, not obstruct them — which is what we're doing,’ Trump said. Though he did not mention it by name, Trump's remarks appeared to allude to Black Lives Matter and other civil rights movements that arose out of high-profile shootings by police of African American men in cities across the country in recent years."
-- Trump is slated to offer his “vision” for a new infrastructure package in the “next several weeks,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said, detailing plans for a package that relies heavily on state, local and private money to make good on a promised $1 trillion in new investments over the coming decade. John Wagner reports: “A key feature of the infrastructure plan will be unleashing the billions of dollars in private capital available for investment in infrastructure,” Chao said ... Chao said the administration would also identify and fund directly 'a few special projects' that are not likely to draw private investment. “Candidates for the special category may include projects that have the potential to significantly increase GDP growth or to lift the American spirit,” Chao said."
-- AP, “Chinese spent $24B on US, other ‘golden visas,’” by Nomaan Merchant: “When the sister of … Jared Kushner promoted investment in her family's new skyscraper from a Beijing hotel ballroom stage earlier this month, she was pitching a controversial American visa program that's proven irresistible to tens of thousands of Chinese. More than 100,000 Chinese have poured at least $24 billion in the last decade into ‘golden visa’ programs across the world that offer residence in exchange for investment, [and] nowhere is Chinese demand greater than in the U.S., which has taken in at least $7.7 billion and issued more than 40,000 visas to Chinese investors and their families in the past decade … But the industry is murky, loosely regulated and sometimes fraud-ridden — in the U.S., federal regulators have linked the EB-5 visa program to fraud cases involving more than $1 billion in investment in the last four years.”
THE FIRST FOREIGN TRIP:
-- “In the days leading up to Trump’s high-risk debut on the world stage — a nine-day, five-stop, four-nation tour — the Oval Office has morphed into a graduate seminar room, with a rotating roster of policy experts briefing the president,” Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker report. “In recent days, Trump has received a series of briefers who present information as he likes to consume it — in free-flowing conversations, in video presentations and in photographs, maps and charts, as opposed to voluminous reading materials. Trump is soliciting counsel from some outsiders such as [Henry] Kissinger but has largely kept his circle confined to real-world practitioners and administration insiders — a reflection of the White House’s view that input from academic experts, authors and other thought leaders is less valuable because they have not achieved practical success.
“On foreign soil, Trump will have to navigate diplomatic land mines — from negotiating peace between the Israelis and Palestinians to reassuring jittery European allies to following protocol in greeting Pope Francis. Anything could mar the trip, however, whether a verbal gaffe, breach of protocol or even wayward body language. Extensive preparation, said foreign policy experts, may be especially valuable for a leader such as Trump, whose temperament favors the cocoon of familiarity. He also can be visibly uncomfortable when ceding the spotlight to others, or when sitting through lengthy meetings in which other speakers have the floor — hallmarks of foreign summits. ‘This might be the first foreign trip where the president will tweet from abroad,’ said [former Mitt Romney adviser] Lanhee Chen … ‘How do we deal with that? There are certain conventions and precedents we adhere to when on foreign soil. Is this a dictum the president will maintain?’”
“Advisers said Trump intends to draw a deliberate contrast with [Obama], whose speeches overseas championing human rights and democracy sometimes rankled his hosts. Senior officials said the president did not plan to ‘lecture’ or ‘chastise.’ [But] one challenge for Trump will be to adapt the language he uses domestically — epitomized by the “America First” theme of his inaugural address — into more inviting and inclusive rhetoric for U.S. allies and potential allies."
-- Foreign Policy, “NATO Frantically Tries to Trump-Proof President's First Visit,” by Robbie Gramer: “NATO is scrambling to tailor its upcoming meeting to avoid taxing [Trump’s] notoriously short attention span. The alliance is telling heads of state to limit talks to 2 to 4 minutes at a time during the discussion, [per] several sources ... And the alliance scrapped plans to publish the traditional full post-meeting statement meant to crystallize NATO's latest strategic stance. ‘It’s kind of ridiculous how they are preparing to deal with Trump,’ said one source briefed extensively … ‘It’s like they’re preparing to deal with a child — someone with a short attention span and mood who has no knowledge of NATO, no interest in in-depth policy issues, nothing … ‘They’re freaking out.’”
-- Arab Gulf states have offered to take “concrete steps” to establish better relations with Israel, if Prime Minister Netanyahu agrees to make a significant overture in effort to restart the Middle East peace process. The Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon, Gordon Lubold, and Rory Jones report: “The offer to the U.S. and Israel comes ahead of [Trump’s] trip to the Middle East. The potential steps include establishing direct telecommunications links with Israel, allowing overflight rights to Israeli aircraft, and lifting restrictions on some trade, said these people. The Gulf countries, in turn, would require Mr. Netanyahu to make what they would consider to be a peace overture to the Palestinians. Such steps could include stopping construction of settlements in certain areas of the West Bank and allowing freer trade into the Gaza Strip … The Arab states’ position, outlined in an unreleased discussion paper shared among several Gulf countries, is aimed in part at aligning them with Mr. Trump, who has stressed his desire to work with the Arab states to forge a Middle East peace agreement.”
DEMOCRATS IN THE WILDERNESS:
-- Hillary Clinton launched a new political organization designed to push back against Trump. The AP’s Steve Peoples reports: The group, she announced in a tweet, will be called “Onward Together” – a play on her 2016 campaign motto – and will “encourage people to get involved, organize, and even run for office.” “This year hasn’t been what I envisioned, but I know what I’m still fighting for: a kinder, big-hearted, inclusive America. Onward!” Clinton said.
-- Many top Democrats are furious that Bernie Sanders appears to be running for president again – or least dragging out his decision long enough to freeze the field. Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere and Gabriel Debenedetti report: “He’s frustrating alumni of his 2016 campaign, some of whom would like him to run again, by showing no interest in raising early money or locking down lower level staff — moves they say would indicate he recognizes the need for a different kind of campaign operation in 2020. Sanders hasn’t made any decision, and he tends to dismiss the discussion about 2020 as dumb. He hasn't even fully committed to running for re-election to the Senate next year. But the senator, who’ll be 79 the next time the New Hampshire primary rolls around, is continuing to put himself at the center of the conversation.” "He's a constant reminder. He allows the healing that needs to take place to not take place,” said one longtime senior party official.
-- Possible 2020 hopefuls are gathering this week for a progressive “ideas” conference. David Weigel reports: “Don’t call it a ‘cattle call.’ Don’t call it the ‘CPAC of the left.’ On Tuesday morning, the Center for American Progress will host a daylong ‘Ideas Conference’ — its third, as CAP President Neera Tanden points out. It’s just different from the last two in that at least 140 reporters have signed up to cover it, and they’re not shy about calling it a 2020 scouting session. … For much of its existence, CAP was designed to feed a future Hillary Clinton administration with staffers and ideas. But Clinton is not on this year’s agenda. Neither is [Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden]. ‘We were trying to emphasize a new generation,’ Tanden said. The conference, which as in the past will take over the St. Regis hotel, will kick off with a speech from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and end with a speech from Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), both in their 40s and elected to their high-profile jobs in 2013.” About half of the rest of Tuesday’s speakers are considered potential 2020 presidential candidates: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Gov. Terry MacAuliffe.
-- “As Democrats grow more bullish on winning coming special elections and midterms, a number of scrappy organizations are trying to encourage and crowdfund primary challenges to move the party to the left," Weigel reports: “The launch of Justice Democrats and We Will Replace you, which got copious attention at the start of the year, have finally led to some actual campaigns, with cues from the [Sanders’ 2016 bid]. ‘One of the problems in 2016 was the sense that a small group of insiders were trying to influence who could run,’ said [Rep. Ro Khanna D-Calif.] ... ‘I ran against an incumbent in my own party, and I said if I ever got to Congress, I can’t be hypocritical. I can’t say, if someone ever runs against me, I’ll close the door on them.’ On the surface, the progressive primary-challenge groups resemble the tea party organizations that mobilized in 2009 and 2010 to push Republicans to the right. Like the tea party, Justice Democrats et al. argue that the party doesn’t just have policy reasons to abandon the ‘center’ — they argue that the means-testing politics of ‘neoliberalism’ has been a disaster, alienating the party from voters who were so desperate for help in 2016 that they took a chance on [Trump]."
-- “Germany’s far right preaches traditional values. Can a lesbian mother be its new voice?” by Anthony Faiola: “The far right’s drubbing in the French election exposed the biggest challenge for European nationalists: convincing voters that they are no longer a bunch of intolerant haters. To argue that point, welcome to the political stage Alice Weidel, the improbable new voice of Germany’s far right. In person, the cardigan-wearing former investment banker eschews fiery rhetoric in favor of almost academic answers. But there’s something else that distinguishes her from the populist pack. After days spent campaigning for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, the 38-year-old lesbian goes home to her partner and two sons. Weidel’s rise is the latest expression of a growing, if seemingly ironic, trend. In their policies, nationalist movements in the West often oppose full gay rights, including same-sex marriage. But many such parties are increasingly trying to portray themselves as more tolerant than their images suggest, in part by making space for gay men and lesbians. This, observers say, amounts to an attempt to broaden their appeal — not only to gays but also to voters who view such movements as overtly bigoted and exclusionary.”
-- “For vulnerable high school girls in Japan, a culture of ‘dates’ with older men,” by Anna Fifield: “High school dating? No big deal in many parts of the world — but in Japan, it means something quite different. Here, ‘high school dating’ matches girls in uniforms with men in their 40s and 50s and beyond. And it means money changing hands. Sometimes this involves a walk around the block or a drink in a bar. More often, it involves sex — child prostitution by another name. ‘It’s easy to talk to these girls,’ said one man in his 30s who was sitting at a wooden school desk … [as a 17-year-old brought over beers for the man and his colleague]. ‘We actually find regular bars uninteresting these days,’ he said. ‘I got tired of regular bars with old women.’ They admitted that the uniforms are a big part of the attraction. ‘They look so cute,’ said his friend, in his 40s. ‘The uniforms make them look one and a half times cuter than they actually are.’”
-- “How Melissa McCarthy came to play Sean Spicer on SNL,” by Elahe Izadi: “By the time Melissa McCarthy hosted this weekend’s [‘SNL,’] she had already become a highly anticipated presence on the show for one reason: ‘Spicey.’ Her take on White House press secretary Sean Spicer, which debuted in February, has become a standout moment for this season of the NBC show, helping to draw record viewers and even reportedly unsettling the president himself so much that Spicer’s longevity in the job became questioned. Considerable buzz built ahead of this week’s episode when cellphone videos and photos emerged Friday of McCarthy in character as Spicer traveling along busy Manhattan street on a portable podium. So how did this year’s big political comedy moment come to be? It all started with an airplane pitch about a monologue to Kristen Stewart, McCarthy explained."
SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:
The main topic of discussion online was The Post's Russia story:
Note what we left out of story. Details that were disclosed in the meeting and that point to sources and methods. https://t.co/1LWl7oI08B— Scott Wilson (@PostScottWilson) May 15, 2017
Obama alums seized on the news:
What will it take for Republican members of Congress to perform their most basic oversight duties?— Ben Rhodes (@brhodes) May 15, 2017
The election of a Democratic President https://t.co/GPwo2D2dBC— Dan Pfeiffer (@danpfeiffer) May 15, 2017
Some reaction from members of Congress:
If true, deeply disturbing... https://t.co/gHc10i1pWv— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) May 15, 2017
Hillary emails have harmless "classified" info; Republicans chant "lock her up." Trump reveals real secrets to Russians; Rs say what??— Sheldon Whitehouse (@SenWhitehouse) May 15, 2017
The impeachment drum is beating louder from the left:
Surreal times. If we had two patriotic parties in this country, impeachment proceedings would begin tomorrow.— Paul Krugman (@paulkrugman) May 15, 2017
What we're all thinking at this point:
This quote from Senator Susan Collins tonight to reporters: “"Can we have a crisis-free day? That’s all I'm asking."— Carol Costello (@CarolCNN) May 15, 2017
A crisis a day keeps approval away. https://t.co/DO4CKzUp7h— Rick Wilson (@TheRickWilson) May 16, 2017
The Rock continues to express interest in running for president:
Bill Gates posted 14 tweets of advice to graduating college seniors. Here are some interesting ones:
2/ AI, energy, and biosciences are promising fields where you can make a huge impact. It's what I would do if starting out today.— Bill Gates (@BillGates) May 15, 2017
3/ Looking back on when I left college, there are some things I wish I had known.— Bill Gates (@BillGates) May 15, 2017
4/ E.g. Intelligence takes many different forms. It is not one-dimensional. And not as important as I used to think.— Bill Gates (@BillGates) May 15, 2017
5/ I also have one big regret: When I left school, I knew little about the world’s worst inequities. Took me decades to learn.— Bill Gates (@BillGates) May 15, 2017
He then recommended "The Better Angels Of Our Nature," by Steven Pinker:
GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:
-- WNYC, “Frelinghuysen Targets Activist in Letter to Her Employer,” by Nancy Solomon: “The most powerful congressman in New Jersey, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, wrote a fundraising letter in March to a board member of a local bank, warning him that a member of an activist group opposing the Republican worked at his bank. The employee was questioned and criticized for her involvement in NJ 11th for Change, a group that formed after the election of [Trump] and has been pressuring Frelinghuysen to meet with constituents in his district and oppose the Trump agenda … The form letter, … asks Frelinghuysen’s supporters to donate two years ahead of his next election because he is under attack. “But let’s be clear that there are organized forces — both national and local — who are already hard at work to put a stop to an agenda …” the letter says. Above the word local, there’s a hand-written asterisk in the same blue ink as Frelinghuysen’s signature. At the bottom of the letter, scrawled with a pen, is the corresponding footnote: ‘P.S. One of the ringleaders works in your bank!’”
HOT ON THE LEFT:
“A congressman said making a man get maternity insurance was ‘crazy.’ A woman’s reply went viral,” from Avi Selk: “Between rounds of jeering that interrupted his every sentence, Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa) took a little more than two minutes to explain what else he'd like to change about the Obama-era health-care law …’Get rid of some of these crazy regulations that Obamacare puts in,’ Blum suggested at an Iowa town hall meeting Monday, ‘such as a 62-year-old male having to have pregnancy insurance.’ The crowd yelled all the louder. Barbara Rank, a retired special education teacher, did not get up from her seat like many of her neighbors did. ‘I did not have a question to ask,’ [she said] … But the next day, on her morning walk past a boulevard of government-maintained flowers, Rank realized she had a response to Blum. She wrote it down in 96 words and sent it to her local newspaper — and since then, more than 100,000 people have offered a fair critique.”
HOT ON THE RIGHT:
“Feminist Icon Gloria Steinem: More Abortions Would Stop Global Warming,” from The Federalist: “In a recent interview with Refinery 29, Gloria Steinem said climate change could have been prevented if more women had aborted their children. She explained ‘climate deprivation’ is caused by population and that more abortions would’ve prevented the earth’s temperature from ticking upwards. ‘If we had not been systematically forcing women to have children they don’t want or can’t care for over the 500 years of patriarchy, we wouldn’t have the climate problems that we have,’ [she said]. In other words, if we just killed more babies then there wouldn’t be as many humans alive on earth contributing to climate change. She also added that masculinity is problematic for men. When asked how one can raise a little boy to be a better feminist, she said: ‘Tell them the masculine realm is killing them. It’s [in their] self-interest. Men would live quite a few years longer without the masculine realm.’”
At the White House: Trump will speak to King Abdullah II of Jordan by telephone before welcoming Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to the White House. The two will meet for a working luncheon and give joint statements afterwards. Then Trump will meet with Tom Price and Mick Mulvaney. Pence will participate in the lunch with Erdoğan. Later, he will host an Indiana Fraternal Order of Police Reception in his Ceremonial Office.
The Senate and the House are both in today.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
Mika Brzezinski said that Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, complained privately last fall about having to defend Trump when she was his campaign manager. “This is a woman, by the way, who came on our show during the campaign and would shill for Trump in extensive fashion, and then she would get off the air, the camera would be turned off, the microphone would be taken off, and she would say, ‘Blech. I need to take a shower,’” Brzezinski said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “Because she disliked her candidate so much.” (Callum Borchers)
NEWS YOU CAN USE IF YOU LIVE IN D.C.:
-- The Capital Weather Gang gives today an official “Nice Day” rating – so go out and enjoy it! Today’s forecast: “Perfecto! Sunny skies dominate and temperatures move toward the 80-degree mark this afternoon. Very light breezes should be mostly from the southwest by afternoon. Humidity is low today, which we should appreciate in contrast to the days ahead.”
-- A new Washington Post-Schar School poll finds that Republican Ed Gillespie has a commanding lead ahead of Virginia’s gubernatorial primary next month, with support for the former RNC chairman more than doubling that of either of his rivals. Overall, 38 percent of likely Republican voters said they favor Gillespie, compared to just 18 percent for Prince William County supervisor Corey Stewart and 15 percent for state Sen. Frank Wagner. One-quarter of respondents have not yet formed an opinion.
- Six in 10 likely voters see Gillespie as the “most electable” in November’s general election.
- He also is considered the “best Trump supporter” by 37 percent, while Wagner and Stewart – who served last year as the Trump campaign’s Virginia chairman – are locked in a tie with 12 percent each.
- Meanwhile, registered voters who “strongly approve” of Trump’s performance pick Gillespie over Stewart by a wide 20-point margin (35 to 15 percent).
-- Sean Spicer is being promoted as the main draw at a Republican Party fundraiser on Thursday, slated to be held at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va. John Wagner reports: Tickets for the event begin at $125 per person and range to $6,000 for six tickets to both the general reception and a separate VIP reception. Former Obama White House ethics lawyer Norman Eisen said he found the event “unsavory,” particularly given that it is being held on a Trump property. “I never would have allowed this constellation of events,” Eisen said. “It sends a message of special influence and access in exchange for cash."
-- Former Georgetown dentist Bilah Ahmed pleaded guilty Monday to sexually assaulting five male patients at his practice while they were under anesthesia. He also pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting two former employees. Officials say the 44-year-old, slated to be sentenced in August, faces “decades” in prison for his crimes. (Keith L. Alexander)
-- The security assistant at a Montgomery County middle school was arrested for reportedly having inappropriate sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl – marking the latest in a series of school-related sex allegations in the Maryland school system. (Donna St. George and Dan Morse)
VIDEOS OF THE DAY:
Stephen Colbert says Trump found the leaker:
The Daily Show on the Russia news:
Tonight at 11/10c, Russian officials visit the White House and leave with highly classified intelligence. pic.twitter.com/fJ8gm9D73W— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) May 16, 2017
Seth Meyers talks to Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.):
Jimmy Kimmel auditions Sean Spicer replacements:
Watch Spicer refuse to answer questions about whether Trump is taping people in the White House:
Colbert pleads with Trump not to take Spicer from us: