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Trump: Open to interview with Mueller, pathway to citizenship for "Dreamers"
A group of reporters were meeting with White House chief of staff John Kelly in his office on Wednesday when a surprise guest walked in: President Donald Trump. In unexpected remarks to the reporters assembled, Trump made comments on two issues that sent White House aides scrambling:
Mueller probe: Trump told reporters that he is "looking forward to" meeting with Robert Mueller as part of the special counsel's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. The said that he expects the interview to take place in the next "two or three weeks," adding that he "would do it under oath, absolutely."
Trump pushed back on both focuses of Mueller's probe: insisting that there was "no collusion whatsoever" between his campaign and Russia, and that he initiated "no obstruction whatsoever" of the Russia probe. "You fight back, and 'Oh, it's obstruction,'" said.
CNN reported Wednesday that Mueller has provided Trump's legal team "with a range of topics he wants to ask" the President about in an interview, including Trump's conversations with then-FBI director James Comey and other intelligence leaders about the Russia investigation as well as his firings of Comey and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
"People who have appeared before Mueller’s team say prosecutors have detailed accounts of events, sometimes to the minute, and have surprised witnesses by showing them emails or documents they were unaware that the team had or that their colleagues had written," the Washington Post reported on Wednesday. "One person said Mueller’s team has asked about Trump’s private comments around key events and how he explained decisions."
The Post's report also said that "among Trump's friends, there is a prevailing view that he could damage himself by testifying under oath because he often misrepresents events and that he is listening to lawyers who are not giving him good advice."
In his remarks to reporters, Trump denied the Washington Post report, also confirmed by other outlets, that he asked FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe (then the bureau's acting director) who he voted for in the 2016 election during a "get-to-know-you" meeting in the Oval Office. "I don't remember asking him that question," Trump said, although he also noted that he didn't think it would problematic if he had. "I don't know what's the big deal with that...I think it's also a very unimportant question," he said. According to The Post, McCabe found the conversation "disturbing" and it is now of interest to Mueller.
Presidential lawyer Ty Cobb, who is leading the White House's response to Mueller's investigation, said in a statement that Trump "was speaking hurriedly" and sought to downplay the President's offer to testify before the special counsel under oath. "He's ready to meet with them, but he'll be guided by the advice of his personal counsel," Cobb told the New York Times.
Dreamers: In the same off-to-cuff Q&A, Trump again undermined his Administration's message, on a different issue: immigration. The President endorsed a pathway to citizenship for "Dreamers," individuals who arrived in the U.S. illegally as minors. Trump said if "somebody does a good job, they've worked hard," they should be able to "become a citizen" after "a period of 10-12 years."
The President appeared optimistic that he would be able to strike an immigration deal with congressional Democrats, saying that "we're going to get the wall, we're going to get great border security" as part of the agreement. Trump set a price tag for his requests, saying that he is seeking $25 billion for the wall and an additional $5 billion for other border security measures.
Trump also signaled openness to extending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which offers protections to nearly 800,000 "Dreamers." Trump rescinded the program last September, giving it an expiration date of March 5, but said he "might" extend the deadline.
Trump's comments represented another shift in his immigration stance, which seems to alternate between a hardline anti-DACA position to one sympathetic to "Dreamers." The 10-12 year pathway to citizenship is a centerpiece of the bipartisan Graham-Durbin immigration proposal, which White House press secretary Sarah Sanders called "dead on arrival" on Tuesday. According to the Times, "his remarks sent the White House staff scrambling in what one official called a 'fire drill.'"
The Latest: Immigration talks
The White House plans to release a legislative framework of a "compromise" on immigration on Monday "that members of both parties can support." The framework will address "securing the border and closing legal loopholes, ending extended-family chain migration, cancelling the visa lottery, and providing a permanent solution on DACA," all issues that Trump emphasized in his comments to reporters on Wednesday.
The planned release comes as immigration talks in Congress have reportedly come to a standstill. "We're starting over," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told CNN on Wednesday, referring to his offer last week to fund Trump's border wall in exchange for a legislative version of DACA. Schumer has since said the offer is "no "off the table."
A bipartisan group of more than 40 lawmakers met on immigration on Wednesday evening. The meeting was a continuation of the bipartisan effort that resulted in an end to the three-day government shutdown earlier this week; it was organized by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who were key to putting together that deal. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) and Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) were also in attendance.
The White House also remains involved in the negotiations; chief of staff John Kelly was slated to join President Donald Trump on his trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, but the White House said this morning that he will remain in Washington to "work on immigration reform."
Lawmakers are now staring down a new funding deadline, just two weeks away (February 8), although the next spending package will likely be disconnected from immigration talks. According to Politico, "Senate Democrats are willing to drop their demand that relief for Dreamers be tied to any long-term budget agreement," allowing spending talks to continue without the distraction of immigration. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has promised that if another spending bill is passed before February 8, he will bring a DACA bill to the floor.
GOP lawmakers cite memo, texts in effort to combat Mueller probe
Republican lawmakers have continued their attempts to paint special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe as a partisan investigation, most recently pointing to a memo penned by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA). The memo reportedly alleges that the FBI abuses its Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) powers to spy on Carter Page and other officials in the Trump campaign.
The House Intelligence Committee is planning to vote soon on releasing the memo, but Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd warned Nunes in a letter on Wednesday that it "would be extraordinarily reckless" to show the classified memo to the public without a Justice Department review. "We do not understand why the Committee would possibly seek to disclose classified and law enforcement sensitive information without first consulting with the relevant members of the Intelligence Community," Boyd wrote. He also underlined the DOJ's stance that no such surveillance abuses took place, writing that "we are currently unaware of any wrongdoing relating to the FISA process."
Meanwhile, House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff (D-CA) said in a statement on Wednesday that Democrats on the panel have drafted their own memo "exposing the misleading character of the Republicans' document," which they will also seek to make available to other lawmakers.
In portraying Mueller's probe as an anti-Trump exercise, Republicans in Congress have also cited a series of text messages between two FBI officials who briefly worked on Mueller's team in which they frequently criticize Trump. The Justice Department handed over a new cache of texts to Congress last week, leading Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) and other GOP lawmakers to claim that the new messages reveal a "secret society" inside the FBI plotting to take down the President.
The texts have not been released to the public, but ABC News obtained the message in question on Wednesday, which raised questions as to whether the reference to a "secret society" was made in jest. In the message, FBI lawyer Lisa Page wrote to senior agent Peter Strzok, "Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society."
"That text stands alone in the series of messages obtained by ABC News – with no apparent tie to other messages sent before or after it," according to the outlet.
The Justice Department admitted this week that five months of messages between Strzok and Page are missing, leading to renewed questions from Republicans. "That's disturbing," President Trump said of the missing messages in comments to reporters on Wednesday, comparing the situation to the infamous 18-minute gap in the Nixon tapes.
- North Korea: The Trump Administration has released new sanctions targeting North Korea, an increase in pressure against Kim Jong Un. (New York Times)
- Menendez trial: Seven of the 18 charges against Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and his friend Salomon Melgen were tossed out by a judge on Wednesday, ahead of a likely retrial in the Justice Department's bribery case against the senator. (Politico)
- Macron to DC: French President Emmanuel Macron has been invited to Washington, D.C. for the first state visit of the Trump Administration, the White House announced. The April visit will include a state dinner and a speech to Congress. (CBS News)
- New HHS secretary: Alex Azar, a former drug industry executive and George W. Bush official, was confirmed as Secretary of Health and Human Services by the Senate in a 55-43 vote on Wednesday. HHS' top spot has been vacant since September, when Tom Price resigned amid reporting on his use of private and military jets. (Wall Street Journal)
- Tie-breaking vote: Vice President Mike Pence had to break two tie votes on Wednesday to advance and then confirm the nomination of Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS) to be Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. Pence has now cast eight tie-breaking votes in just over a year in office; since the 1870's, no Vice President has cast more than 10 tie-breaking votes in their entire tenure. (CNN)
The President's Schedule: Davos summit
President Donald Trump touched down in Davos, Switzerland early this morning, where he will attend the World Economic Forum (WEF), an annual gathering of global leaders in politics and business. At the summit, which has long served as a symbol for the elite he has resented for excluding him, Trump is expected to focus on promoting America's economic success and his "America First" vision.
Trump will hold meetings today with the Prime Ministers Theresa May of the United Kingdom and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, as well as with WEF founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab.
According to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Trump's meeting with May will focus on "the conflict in Syria, Iran’s destabilizing behavior, ways to address shortcomings in that Iran nuclear deal, and our shared goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula." In his sit-down with Netanyahu, Trump will "reiterate America’s strong commitment to Israel and efforts to reduce Iran’s influence in the Middle East, and ways to achieve lasting peace."
While has had a friendly relationship with Netanyahu, he has butted heads with May in recent months, especially after retweeting anti-Muslim videos posted by a British activist.
Later in the day, Trump will attend a reception with world leaders in his honor hosted by Schwab and then have dinner with European business leaders. National Economic Council director Gary Cohn said on Tuesday that the dinner will include leaders of "companies that have sizable footprints in the United States," and that Trump will "share our economic success story and...encourage them to continue to invest in America."
Also today, per Politico Playbook: Trump will sit down with "British TV host Piers Morgan for an interview that will air Sunday night on ITV in England" and with "CNBC's Joe Kernen for an interview that will air on "Squawk Box" on Friday morning."
Today in the Senate: Confirmations
The Senate will vote today on confirmation of R.D. James to be Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works. James, a Missouri farmer and cotton ginner, is a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Mississippi River Commission. If confirmed, James would oversee the Army's civil functions, including the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. National Cemetery System.
Today in the House: Pro forma
The House is on recess all week. The chamber will be gaveled in for a brief pro forma session today; no business will be conducted.
*All times Eastern.