- And: “Japan’s Trade Ministry says the two oil tankers reportedly attacked near the Strait of Hormuz carried 'Japan-related' cargo.”
At the White House
IS IT 2016 AGAIN?: It was almost as if Robert Mueller, the now-former special counsel, hadn't spent the past two years investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
In a bewildering interview that put him at odds with his FBI director and the intelligence community (yet again), President Trump told ABC News that he would consider accepting information on political opponents from a foreign government and wouldn't necessarily notify the FBI if his campaign was approached with “oppo research” about his Democratic opponent.
“I think you might want to listen; there isn’t anything wrong with listening,” Trump told George Stephanopoulos in an interview that aired last night. “If somebody called from a country, Norway, ‘We have information on your opponent,’ oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”
“It’s not an interference, they have information — I think I’d take it,” Trump said, pushing back on the characterization of such an exchange as “interference” in American politics. “If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI, if I thought there was something wrong.”
“The FBI director is wrong,” Trump said after Stephanopoulos reminded the president that FBI chief Christopher Wray said at a recent congressional hearing that “if any public official or member of any campaign is contacted by any nation state or anybody acting on behalf of a nation-state about influencing or interfering with our election, then that's something the FBI would want to know about.”
It's not just Trump: Jared Kushner told Axios's Jonathan Swan in an interview last week that he wasn't sure if he'd contact the FBI if the Russians reached out to the Trump campaign again.
- “I don't know. It's hard to do hypotheticals, but the reality is that we were not given anything that was salacious,” Kushner said.
- Rudy Giuliani told CNN in April that “there's nothing wrong with taking information from Russians... It depends on where it came from.”
Murky legal questions: “Although Mueller did not find enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy involving the Trump campaign in his probe of Russia’s role in the 2016 election, his report said that the Russian government interfered in the election in a 'sweeping and systemic fashion' and that Trump’s campaign was open to assistance from Russian sources,” my colleagues Colby Itkowitz and Tom Hamburger write.
- The key point: “It is illegal to accept foreign campaign contributions, although an exchange of information is a more murky matter. Mueller found that it was not clear whether courts would accept that opposition research provided free by a foreign government constituted a ‘thing of value’ and thus an illegal foreign campaign contribution.”
- “Ultimately, Mueller also found that he could not sustain a criminal case around the meeting” that Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. held in 2016 with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton “in part because it would be difficult to prove that Trump Jr. knew it could violate the law,” Colby and Tom write.
THE BACKLASH BEGINS: Trump's potential 2020 opponents, who have vowed not to weaponize hacked materials against their opponents, seized on the comments. By the numbers: At least 15 Democratic presidental candidates had spoken out against Trump's comments by early Thursday, per my colleague Allyson Chiu's count.
Some renewed calls to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump.
- "In the interview’s aftermath, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Democratic Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke were among those arguing that Trump’s words were more reason to begin impeachment proceedings," per Chiu.
- “We have president that neither understands the constitution of the United States or respects the constitution,” Sanders said during an interview on CNN, describing Trump as “somebody who does not believe in the separation of powers and somebody who thinks he’s above the law.”
Others blasted the president for undermining national security by extending an open invitation to foreign adversaries to interfere in our elections once again. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) called Trump a national security threat:
So did former vice president Joe Biden:
PAGING MITCH MCCONNELL: Some candidates, such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) also called on Congress pass legislation to tighten election security and enact a law to deter accepting help from a foreign entity.
The current hold up to election security legislation? Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the New York Times's Nick Fandos reported last week.
"Mr. McConnell, long the Senate’s leading ideological opponent to federal regulation of elections, has told colleagues in recent months that he has no plans to consider stand-alone legislation on the matter this term, despite clamoring from members of his own conference and the growing pressure from Democrats who also sense a political advantage in trying to make the Republican response to Russia’s election attack look anemic," per Fandos.
"Critics charge that he may have another reason to stay on the sidelines: not wanting to enrage President Trump, who views almost any talk of Russia’s success as questioning the legitimacy of his 2016 victory," Fandos reports.
MEANWHILE...: Trump's comments come as his Justice Department wants to interview senior CIA officers as they review the Russia investigation, per the New York Times.
- This indicates they are "focused partly on the intelligence agencies’ most explosive conclusion about the 2016 election: that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia intervened to benefit [Trump]," Julian Barnes, Katie Benner, Adam Goldman, and Michael Schmidt scoop.
- "The interview plans are the latest sign the Justice Department will take a critical look at the C.I.A.’s work on Russia’s election interference. Investigators want to talk with at least one senior counterintelligence official and a senior C.I.A. analyst, the people said. Both officials were involved in the agency’s work on understanding the Russian campaign to sabotage the election in 2016."
- Inside the room: "While the Justice Department review is not a criminal inquiry, it has provoked anxiety in the ranks of the C.I.A., according to former officials. Senior agency officials have questioned why the C.I.A.’s analytical work should be subjected to a federal prosecutor’s scrutiny."
- Remember: "Mr. Barr, who was sworn in four months ago, has said he wanted to review why the F.B.I. opened a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign to determine whether law enforcement officials abused their power."
HOPE HICKS WILL TESTIFY: “Hope Hicks, a top aide to President Trump during his 2016 campaign and his first year in the White House, has agreed to testify before the House Judiciary Committee next Wednesday, according to people familiar with the matter,” our colleagues Josh Dawsey and Rosalind S. Helderman scooped.
- The first Trump ally: “Hicks will be the first former Trump aide to go before the committee investigating whether Trump tried to obstruct a probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election,” Josh and Rosalind write. “But Hicks might not answer many of the panel’s questions, citing the president’s assertion of executive privilege on events that occurred inside the White House. Earlier this month, the White House instructed Hicks not to cooperate with a congressional subpoena for documents related to her White House service.”
- There won't be a public spectacle: “The testimony will occur behind closed doors, said the individuals, but a transcript will be released to the public,” Josh and Rosalind write. “A member of the White House Counsel’s Office will be present for the testimony as part of the deal between Hicks and the committee, according to an individual familiar with the planning who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely describe the arrangements.”
- A dose of reality from our colleague Devlin Barrett:
TRUMP SAYS DEMOCRATS 'OUT OF CONTROL': “Trump lashed out Wednesday against a widening web of congressional probes that demonstrated the limits of his strategy to declare victory and try to move past the 22-month special counsel investigation into Russian interference that has consumed much of his presidency,” our colleagues David Nakamura, Josh Dawsey and John Wagner report.
- Barr held in contempt, again: “Yet Trump’s latest efforts to defend himself ran into new obstacles as a House panel moved to hold two Cabinet officials — Attorney General William P. Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — in contempt of Congress over the administration’s efforts to shield documents related to its decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census,” David, Josh and John report. “The committee vote came several hours after Trump asserted executive privilege over the material related to the 2020 Census.”
- In the Oval Office: “Trump was unable to mask his anger with the congressional investigations during a photo op ahead of a bilateral meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda in the Oval Office, 'I don’t know if you have this, Mr. President, but we have people that are totally out of control,' Trump told Duda, referring to Democrats.”
- Pelosi defends the probes: "'It’s not about Democrats or Republicans, partisanship or anything like that. It’s about patriotism,' Pelosi said in a closed-door meeting with fellow House Democrats, according to the aide,” David, Josh and John write. 'We have to uphold the Constitution of the United States. And in order to do that we have to be ready. As ready as we can be.'”
- Amash strikes again: “The 23 Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, along with Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who has accused Trump of impeachable acts, voted to hold Barr and Ross in contempt in a nearly party-line vote. The 15 other Republicans on the committee objected.” The president is reportedly looking to oust Amash.
SANDERS DEFENDS DEMOCRATIC SOCIALISM: “Sanders presented an expansive defense of democratic socialism on Wednesday, amplifying divisions among Democrats that some worry will hinder their push to defeat [Trump] and keep control of the House in 2020,” our colleague Sean Sullivan reports. “In an impassioned speech explaining his long-standing political philosophy, [Sanders said], ‘Democratic socialism means to me requiring and achieving political and economic freedom in every community in this country.’”
- The independent: “No other presidential candidate has embraced a socialist platform. [Warren] has advocated taking on the economic system with every regulatory hammer she can seize, but she describes herself as a capitalist,” Sean writes. “Biden and others have called for tinkering with the capitalist system to benefit more Americans.”
- The fight for the Democratic Party: “The rise of Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), also a democratic socialist, has caused friction with more traditional Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Many Democratic candidates for president and Congress favor a less dramatic upheaval than what Sanders is advocating, but Republicans have nonetheless sought to tar all Democrats with the socialist label, including in a closely watched do-over election in North Carolina.”
In the Media
RESEARCHERS SAY THEY'RE NOT READY FOR 'DEEPFAKES': “Researchers say they remain vastly overwhelmed by a technology they fear could herald a damaging new wave of disinformation campaigns, much in the same way fake news stories and deceptive Facebook groups were deployed to influence public opinion during the 2016 election," our colleague Drew Harwell reports about the rise in computer generated fake videos, better known as “deepfakes.”
- AI isn't helping matters: “Powerful new AI software has effectively democratized the creation of convincing 'deepfake' videos, making it easier than ever to fabricate someone appearing to say or do something they didn’t really do, from harmless satires and film tweaks to targeted harassment and deepfake porn,” Drew writes.
- "100 to 1": "'We are outgunned,' said Hany Farid, a computer-science professor and digital-forensics expert at the University of California at Berkeley. 'The number of people working on the video-synthesis side, as opposed to the detector side, is 100 to 1.'”
- Lawmakers themselves are worried: “The threat of deepfakes, named for the 'deep learning' AI techniques used to create them, has become a personal one on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers believe the videos could threaten national security, the voting process — and, potentially, their reputations,” Drew writes. The House Intelligence Committee will hold a hearing Thursday in which AI experts are expected to discuss how deepfakes could evade detection and leave an “enduring psychological impact. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who chairs the committee: “I don’t think we’re well prepared at all. And I don’t think the public is aware of what’s coming.”
Looks like Pam Beesly got the last laugh though: