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At the White House

SPY GAMES: President Trump is "not concerned at all" by the security breach at the winter White House, his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. In fact, the president praised the receptionist who initially called attention to the suspicious behavior of Yujing Zhang, the woman who managed to enter club grounds carrying a thumb drive loaded with malware

  • “I think it's just a fluke situation and I think the person sitting at the front desk did a very good job,” Trump said, adding the receptionist "was able to see things that other people were not, but no, I think it's just a fluke."

The Secret Service released a statement soon thereafter, eschewing responsibility for the breach, much to the alarm of lawmakers who are now seeking to have the FBI determine "whether the facilities and equipment President Trump uses to access classified information while at his Florida resort are vulnerable to foreign exploitation, after reports that a Chinese national managed to clear security at the Mar-a-Lago Club with a thumb drive containing malicious software," my colleagues Karoun Demirjian and Rachael Bade reported on Wednesday.

  • “The Mar-a-Lago Club’s management determines which members and guests are granted access to the property,” the agency said in a statement.
  • The Miami Herald's Nicholas Nehamas, Sarah Blaskey and Caitlin Ostroff report the FBI is “is investigating whether Zhang — who told U.S. Secret Service agents she had traveled to Mar-a-Lago from Shanghai to attend a social event — was working as a Chinese intelligence operative, sources familiar with the inquiry told the Miami Herald.”
  • “Bernd Lembcke, Mar-a-Lago’s longtime managing director, did not respond to questions about the club’s security procedures, including whether members are checked to see whether they might be foreign agents. Neither did Trump Organization executives in New York,” according to my colleagues David A. Fahrenthold, Devlin Barrett, Josh Dawsey and Ellen Nakashima.

Like many aspects of the Trump White House, the line between business and the presidency is a fine one. But there's perhaps no place akin to Mar-a-Lago, where the president frequently travels on weekends to relax and play golf, while also meeting with world leaders (remember the Syrian missile strike, which Trump shared with Chinese President Xi Jinping over a "beautiful piece of chocolate cake?")

Born out of this unique situation is the unusual task of being the Mar-a-Lago front-desk receptionist. That job goes to a civilian hired by the club, meaning the employee who attends to a guest's reservations is also essentially tasked with what amounts to counter-espionage duties. The Secret Service defers to Mar-a-Lago staffers on allowing people onto the property when they are not on pre-approved and screened lists. 

  • “I don't think a receptionist can be expected to do the work a case officer or counterintelligence agent does,” said Chris Costa, executive director of the International Spy Museum, who spent decades in the intelligence field, ending his career as special assistant to the the president and senior director for counter-terrorism on the National Security Council under Trump.
  • At most, Costa said, a receptionist can be trained to recognize obvious red flags, similar to what TSA agents do, and then to reach out to someone with more experience and training. 
  • “It's kind of a freaky situation in that Mar-a-Lago is still a business — Trump wants people coming and spending money,” Jeff Ringel, a 21-year FBI veteran and director at The Soufan Group, told us. 

  • “So Secret Service probably gave the staff some instructions on how to vet people coming in. They may have been trained with information on what would constitute as suspicious activity. Like delivery trucks showing up at the wrong time or people showing up with bad cover stories of why you’re there,” Ringel added. 

  • Pro tip: One way to discover someone who may be suspicious is to press them on their cover story for coming to the resort until they might no longer have any answers, according to multiple people who work in the intelligence field. 

  • “If you want to get a Chinese spy in Mar-a-Lago bring one along when the Chinese president meets with Trump,” Eric O'Neill, a former FBI counterterrorism and counterintelligence operative who helped catch Robert Hanssen, one of the most notorious moles in U.S. history, told Power Up. 

  • Sloppy work: “If this was the Chinese, if this was a counter-intelligence operation by the Chinese, it was very, very sloppy. It seems like the woman didn’t even have a good cover story," Ringel told us. 

Risky business: There are doubts as to whether Zhang, who is currently in jail on charges of making a false statement to a federal officer and entering a restricted area, is a foreign agent. Regardless, the breach has exposed significant security concerns.

  • “The president should be absolutely outraged,” Bob Anderson, a former FBI cybersecurity expert and CEO of Cyber Defense labs, said of Trump’s comments downplaying the incident. 

  • Troubling: “The president has no idea who most of the people around him at the club are,” a White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, told David, Devlin, Josh and Ellen. “You pay and you get in.”

  • In regards to the malware, Anderson points out the Justice Department alleged that Russians targeted the World Anti-Doping Agency by staying at hotels where officials were booked, and targeted the hotel’s WiFi.

  • ProPublica looked into cybersecurity at Mar-a-Lago and some of Trump's other clubs in 2017. They “found weak and open WiFi networks, wireless printers without passwords, servers with outdated and vulnerable software, and unencrypted login pages to back-end databases containing sensitive information.”

 

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The Investigations

PRESSURE FOR BARR TO RELEASE THE MUELLER REPORT INTENSIFIES: House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) released a letter calling on Attorney General Bill Barr to immediately make public any summaries contained in the report that may have been prepared by the special counsel.

  • “Nadler also asked Barr to turn over to the committee 'all communications' between the Justice Department and Mueller’s office related to the report," per my colleagues Ashley Parker, Ellen Nakashima, Devlin Barrett, and Carol D. Leonnig
  • The catalyst?: “Troubling press reports” from The Post and the New York Times. Leaks from Mueller's team highlighted frusturation with Barr for not releasing their prepared summaries for different sections of the report. 
  • Why?: “There was immediate displeasure from the team when they saw how the attorney general had characterized their work instead,” according to one U.S. official briefed on the matter. Trump's conduct was “much more acute than Barr suggested,” a source told Ashley, Ellen, Devlin and Carol. 

TAX SEASON: Back to the topic of Trump's tax returns, the New York Times's Maggie Haberman and Nicholas Fandos scooped that Trump asked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to “prioritize a confirmation vote for his nominee to be the chief counsel of the Internal Revenue Service, indicating that it was a higher priority than voting on the nomination of [Barr] as attorney general, a person familiar with the conversation said.”

  • Important context: Michael Desmond, Trump's IRS nominee and a tax lawyer from California, "briefly advised the future president’s real estate company on a tax question several years ago," Bloomberg's Zachary Mider and Lynnley Browning reported last year. 
  • Key: " . . . the request by Mr. Trump, made to Mr. McConnell on Feb. 5, raised questions about whether the president had other motivations. For months, the president has seethed over vows by congressional Democrats that they would move to obtain his tax returns from the I.R. S,” reported the Times.

On The Hill

TRUMP'S SECOND VETO: The House voted to end U.S. involvement in Yemen's war on Thursday, setting up Trump's second potential veto. 

  • In a largely party-line vote, the House voted to “end U.S. participation in Yemen’s civil war, denouncing the Saudi-led bombing campaign there as worsening an already dire humanitarian crisis and sending the measure to President Trump for his expected veto,” my colleague Karoun Demirjian reports. "The resolution passed the Senate last month with the support of seven Republicans."
  • Next steps: The legislation now goes to Trump's desk, where he is expected to veto the the denunciation of U.S. foreign policy.
  • Like Congress's disapproval resolution of the national emergency on the southern border, lawmakers are not expected to have the numbers to override the president's veto.

HOUSE DEMS DEFY THE NRA: Speaking of House Democrats, in another largely party-line vote yesterday, they approved a long-term reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act with the largest expansion of the landmark law in over six years. 

  • “Drawing the NRA’s opposition were Democratic changes to the measure,” my colleague Mike DeBonis reports. “The legislation closes what gun-control advocates call the 'boyfriend loophole' — barring gun sales to convicted abusers of current or former dating partners. The bill would also, for the first time, prohibit gun sales to people found guilty of stalking misdemeanors and those under one-party restraining orders."
  • Mike points out the VAWA approval came just a week after Democrats passed a bill aimed at reducing gender pay disparity: "Democrats, who captured the majority with a record-wide gender gap in last year’s midterms, have sought to press their advantage with women — and put the GOP on the defensive ."

OVERLOOKED NEWS OF THE WEEK: FBI Director Christopher Wray said Thursday that “white supremacy presents a 'persistent' and 'pervasive' threat to the United States, breaking from [Trump], who has sidestepped questions of whether white nationalists present a growing problem," reports CNN's Marshall Cohen

  • “The danger, I think, of white supremacists, violent extremism or another kind of extremism is of course significant,” Wray said at a House hearing. “We assess that it is a persistent, pervasive threat. We tackle it both through our joint terrorism task forces on the domestic terrorism side as well as through our civil rights program on the civil side through hate crime enforcement.”
  • As Marshall points out, Wray's comments fly in the face of Trump's public statements that white nationalism isn't a rising global threat but only “a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess.” The president made these comments after the massacre of 50 worshipers at a mosque in New Zealand allegedly by a white nationalist. 

The People

CAIN BACK IN THE GAME: Trump’s Twitter taunts of the Federal Reserve and its chairman have already sparked anxiety among those who prize the central bank’s independence. Now, the possibility that he may nominate Herman Cain to the Fed board is causing economists, including conservative experts and even some lawmakers, to speak out.

  • “It seems that President Trump has no respect for expertise. He is more interested in filling the Fed jobs with political allies than people well suited for the positions,” Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, a top adviser to Mitt Romney and former president George W. Bush, told my colleagues Damian Paletta, Heather Long and Tracy Jan.
  • Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who Cain ran against and briefly surpassed in polling in 2012, told Politico: “If Herman Cain were on the Fed, you’d know the interest rate would soon be 9-9-9,” a reference to Cain’s quippy tax plan.

Cain, whose background check for the Fed job is reportedly incomplete, also faced a string of sexual harassment allegations that led him to end his 2012 run.

  • "During Herman Cain’s tenure as the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, at least two female employees complained to colleagues and senior association officials about inappropriate behavior by Cain, ultimately leaving their jobs at the trade group," Politico reported in October of 2011. 
  • “Cain did not admit wrongdoing as part of the settlement, the association said in 2011, and he has repeatedly denied the accusations,” my colleagues report.

When asked what he thought about the situation, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the ranking member on the panel that has jurisdiction over Fed nominees, said: “I thought it was a joke at first when I heard that, but I guess it's at least as serious as Stephen Moore. I'll just leave it at that for now."

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In the Media

FOR THE WEEKEND: