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Nunes memo, Russia, Gowdy, and more: Chaotic month ends with fitting cliffhangers
A chaotic month in American politics has come to a close. "What A Year This Month Has Been," a HuffPost headline proclaimed on Wednesday, the last day of January 2018. Among the events that took place in the last month: President Trump tweeted about his "Nuclear Button" and being a "very stable genius," Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury" was released, Steve Bannon was excised from Trumpworld, numerous congressional Republicans retired, Hawaii had a ballistic missile panic, the "Fake News Awards" were given out, and the government shut down. "The month of January felt like a year and the pilot episode for the 12-part series to come," the Washington Post declared.
If the month was a pilot episode, it ended with a set of fitting cliffhangers, as a number of storylines came to a head on Wednesday to produce another unpredictable day in politics. Here's a summary of what happened with each storyline, and where we are now:
Nunes memo: The White House continues to review the memorandum drafted by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA), which is said to allege that the FBI abused its authority in surveilling former Trump campaign aide Carter Page as part of its Russia investigation. The panel voted Monday night, along party lines, to release the four-page document to the public; the memo was then couriered to the President, who had five days to either greenlight or block its release. That five-day period is set to expire on Friday; according to Reuters, the memo is "likely to be released" today.
However, another twist in the plot came on Wednesday night, when House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff publicized a letter he sent to Nunes. In the letter, Schiff writes that the "Committee Minority discovered that the classified memorandum shared by the Committee Majority with the White House is not, in fact, the same document" that members of the House reviewed and voted to make public. According to Schiff, Republicans on the panel "made material changes to the version it sent to the White House," meaning that the document that was sent to Trump's desk (and could be seen by the public as soon as today) was never approved by the Committee.
Schiff called on Nunes to "immediately withdraw the document that it sent to the White House" and hold a new vote on publicly releasing the modified document. A spokesperson for Nunes responded that the changes amounted to "grammatical fixes" and other "minor edits" to the text. "The vote to release the memo was absolutely procedurally sound, and in accordance with House and Committee rules," the spokesperson said. "To suggest otherwise is a bizarre distraction from the abuses detailed in the memo, which the public will hopefully soon be able to read for themselves."
A Democratic official on the committee disputed that characterization, telling multiple news outlets that "the changes are not cosmetic" and "try to water down some of the Majority's assertions."
The memo's release was already a controversial topic, with the FBI publishing a rare public statement on Wednesday to express the bureau's "grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy." The Justice Department has also publicly urged against the memo's release; in a letter to Nunes, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd said that it "would be extraordinarily reckless" for the panel to release the classified memo "without giving the Department and the FBI the opportunity to review the memorandum."
According to the Washington Post, FBI Director Chris Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein met with White House chief of staff John Kelly to lobby against releasing the document on Monday, a case Wray also made to Kelly over the phone.
Yet, as he walked down the aisle after his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Trump was caught on a hot mic assuring Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) that he would "100 percent" release the memo. Kelly told reporters on Wednesday that the document would be made public "pretty quick" so "the whole world will see it."
Russia probe: Wednesday also saw more bombshell reports about the Russia investigation. The New York Times reported that special counsel Robert Mueller is "zeroing in" on the statement written by President Trump and his advisers aboard Air Force One last July in response to revelations about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Russians and officials on his campaign. According to the Times, the statement "has become a focus" of Mueller's inquiry; it is one of about a dozen topics that prosecutors hope to press Trump on in a face-to-face interview, after having pressed numerous White House officials about the process of crafting it.
Former Trump legal spokesperson Mark Corallo is reportedly expected to be interviewed by Mueller's team soon; according to the Times, he will tell the special counsel about a conference call he held with the President and White House communications director Hope Hicks in which Hicks said that emails written by Donald Trump Jr. ahead of the meeting -- in which he responds to the Russians' offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton -- "will never get out." The report said that Corallo was concerned after the call that Hicks "could be contemplating obstructing justice"; a lawyer for the White House aide denied Corallo's account of the call.
Corallo resigned in July; the book "Fire and Fury," which includes a number of unverified claims, alleged that Corallo left Trump's legal team over fears that the meeting aboard Air Force when the statement was drafted "represented a likely obstruction of justice."
In addition, CNN reported on Wednesday about a December meeting between President Trump and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein. According to the report, Trump "wanted to know where the special counsel Russia investigation was heading" and asked the Justice Department official if he was "on my team." The report was the latest in a string of descriptions of interactions between Trump and government officials in which he has questioned their loyalty and support or asked for help in influencing the Russia probe.
According to CNN, Rosenstein -- who oversees Mueller's investigation due to Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recusing himself -- "responded awkwardly," telling Trump: "Of course, we're all on your team, Mr. President."
Gowdy retiring: House Oversight Committee chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) announced plans to retire on Wednesday. "I will not be filing for re-election to Congress nor seeking any other political or elected office; instead I will be returning to the justice system," he said in a statement. "Whatever skills I may have are better utilized in a courtroom than in Congress, and I enjoy our justice system more than our political system."
Gowdy has served in Congress since 2011, a former federal prosecutor elected in the Tea Party wave. He reached national prominence as chairman of the House Benghazi Committee, which investigated Hillary Clinton and was partly responsible for the revelations about her private email server.
The South Carolina Republican is the 41st House Republican who has announced that they will not be seeking re-election in 2018, compared to 16 House Democrats. Gowdy is also the 9th House Republican committee chair to retire this election cycle, a stunning show of turnover leading up to what some expect will be a Democratic wave this November.
Clinton email probe: The Justice Department's Inspector General is currently investigating the FBI's actions in the Hillary Clinton email probe; the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday on "one focus" of that internal investigation. According to the report, then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe first learned about the thousands of Clinton emails found on Anthony Weiner's laptop in September 2016, at least a month before then-Director James Comey informed Congress. Comey's letter to Congress was then sent in late October, 11 days before the presidential election.
The lag in disclosing the developments gives fire to Republican claims that the FBI is biased against President Trump and attempted to sit on the emails to avoid hurting Clinton at the ballot box. McCabe resigned earlier this week after heightened criticism from Trump and other high-level Republicans; Director Chirs Wray pointed to the Inspector General probe as a leading cause of his No. 2's exit.
Also on Wednesday, CNN reported on new emails showing that FBI agent Peter Strzok -- a leading figure in GOP claims of biases in the bureau, due to the release of text messages that have shown him slamming Trump -- helped draft Comey's letter announcing the late-October revelation.
CDC director resigns: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Brenda Fitzgerald resigned on Wednesday, one day after Politico reported on conflicts of interest in her financial holdings. According to the report, Fitzgerald bought shares in a tobacco company shortly after her tenure at CDC began, despite the agency's role in discouraging tobacco use.
Fitzgerald, who was appointed to her post last July, is the second health official to step down in the Trump Administration, following former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price's resignation last year over his use of private jets.
Menendez trial: The Justice Department dropped its corruption case against Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) on Wednesday, a reversal from the prosecutors' announcement two weeks ago that they would retry the senator and his co-defendant, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen.
Following the Justice Department's decision, a federal judge dismissed the charges against Menendez. A two-and-a-half month trial of Menendez and Melgen ended in a mistrial last November. The two faced 18 corruption accounts based on the accusation that Menendez did official favors for Melgen in exchange for campaign donations and other perks.
“From the very beginning, I never wavered in my innocence and my belief that justice would prevail," Menendez said in a statement. "I am grateful that the Department of Justice has taken the time to reevaluate its case and come to the appropriate conclusion.” The dismissal of the charges removes a looming distraction for Menendez as he faces a re-election campaign and for national Democrats at large.
Train accident involving GOP lawmakers: A train taking Republican lawmakers and their aides to a GOP retreat in West Virginia collided with a garbage truck on Wednesday; the driver of the truck was killed and six others were injured. No members of Congress or any members of their families or staffs were seriously injured; Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and other lawmakers assisted in carrying the injured passengers to an ambulance.
Analysis: Remember the State of the Union address that President Trump delivered on Tuesday night? No one else does. Trump's message of bipartisanship and unity was quickly wiped away on Wednesday amid new developments and reporting on a range of topics. Such is the nature of the Trump era: any time the President stays on script and events play out normally, they will surely be followed by chaos and unpredictability.
Trump himself seemed to contradict his newfound bipartisan tenor this morning, in a series of -- what else? -- tweets attacking Democrats. Trump previewed the Republican retreat he is heading to, announcing that the group "will be planning Infrastructure and discussing Immigration and DACA, not easy when we have no support from the Democrats." He added: "NOT ONE DEM VOTED FOR OUR TAX CUT BILL! Need more Republicans in '18." Trump went on to attack Democrats for their role in the continuing immigration negotiations, urging supporters to "start pushing Nancy Pelosi and the Dems to work out a DACA fix, NOW" and saying of Democrats: "They Resist, Blame, Complain and Obstruct - and do nothing."
Finally, Trump referenced his State of the Union address, pointing to Nielsen ratings showing that 45.6 million viewers tuned in to the speech, which he said was "the highest number in history." In fact, State of the Union addresses by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama received millions of more viewers.
The President's Schedule
President Trump will deliver remarks at two separate gatherings of Republicans today:
At 12:30pm, he addresses the 2018 House and Senate Republican Member Conference at The Greenbrier result in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia. According to Politico, the retreat will focus on the upcoming midterm elections, as well as a range of issues including immigration and infrastructure. Trump will headline a two-hour lunch with the attending lawmakers. Other speakers at the retreat include Secretary of State Rex Tilllerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. Vice President Mike Pence spoke at a two-hour dinner on Wednesday; according to NBC News, he "launched himself into the fray of this year’s mid-term elections" with attacks on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
At8:10pm, the President speaks at the Republican National Committee winter meeting at the Trump International Hotel in Washington. The meeting is also expected to focus on the midterms, as well as planning for the next presidential cycle. On Wednesday, the committee also met to name GOP donor Todd Ricketts its new finance chairman after the resignation of Steve Wynn amid sexual harassment allegations. The RNC announced on Wednesday that it raised $132.5 million in 2017, a fundraising record for a non-election year and more than double the DNC's $65.9 million haul.
Today in Congress
Neither chamber of Congress is in session today, as House and Senate Republicans gather for their annual retreat in West Virginia.