I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It's Thursday, May 18, 2017. 537 days until Election Day 2018. 1,265 days until Election Day 2020. Have comments, questions, suggestions, or tips? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell your friends to sign up to receive the newsletter in their inbox at wakeuptopolitics.com/subscribe!
Rosenstein Appoints Special Counsel to Lead Russia Investigation After weeks of resisting calls to name an independent investigator, the Justice Department on Wednesday appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller III as special counsel to lead the probe into ties between the Trump orbit and Russia.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, empowered to make the decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recusal from the investigation, said in a statement that "it is in the public interest" for a Special Counsel to be appointed to oversee the investigation. Rosenstein added: "Special Counsel Mueller will have all appropriate resources to conduct a thorough and complete investigation, and I am confident that he will follow the facts, apply the law and reach a just result."
"My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. I have made no such determination," Rosenstein continued. "What I have determined is that based upon the unique circumstances, the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command.”
Mueller comes to the task with decades of experience in law enforcement, most recently serving as Director of the FBI from 2001 to 2013. He was first appointed to the post by President George W. Bush, and was appointed for two additional years by President Barack Obama, receiving unanimous Senate confirmation both times. "I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability," Mueller, known for avoiding press attention, said in a brief statement.
The appointment comes after months of Democratic calls for an outside individual to be appointed to oversee the investigation, which has seen a number of new development in recent days, since the firing of Mueller's FBI successor, James Comey. The Comey ouster brought new questions as to the independence of the Trump Justice Department, after the White House repeatedly cited a memo blasting Comey written by Rosenstein. Democrats and Republican in Washington called Mueller's appointment reassuring, dialing back concerns over the Russia investigation's lack of independence.
A Special Counsel is traditionally appointed to lead investigations where Justice Department officials may have a conflict of interest. Mueller can still be removed by the Attorney General, but has wide latitude to issue subpoenas and pursue his case. Mueller is famously independent; during the Bush Administration, he was allied with James Comey, then Acting Attorney General, in a high-profile standoff with the White House over the legality of U.S. surveillance programs.
According to Rosenstein's order, Mueller will investigate "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump," as well as "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation." In addition, Mueller is "authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters."
The White House was informed of the appointment only after Rosenstein's order was signed, and just 30 minutes before the news was announced to the public. Just two days ago, White House press secretary Sean Spicer smacked down calls for an outside investigator to be appointed: "There's frankly no need for a special prosecutor," he said.
In a statement responding to the appointment, President Donald Trump neglected to mention the words "special counsel" or Mueller's name. "As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity," Trump reiterated. "I look forward to this matter concluding quickly. In the meantime, I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country."
However, his tone changed on Thursday morning, tweeting: "With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special councel [sic] appointed!" In addition, he declared, "This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!"
Trump-Russia Revelations Continue Developments continue to arise in the Russia investigation, with a raft of new reports coming once again on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning:
- New York Times: "Trump Team Knew Flynn Was Under Investigation Before He Came to White House" According to the report, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (who had to resign weeks into the Trump Administration over his contacts with Russian officials) informed the Trump transition team on January 4 that he was under federal investigation for his work as a lobbyist in Turkey. Flynn was appointed to the post regardless.
- McClatchy: "Flynn stopped military plan Turkey opposed – after being paid as its agent" Flynn's work in Turkey also may have influenced decisions during his short White House tenure: according to McClatchy, Flynn sought to reverse an Obama Administration decision to partner with Kurdish forces against ISIS. The Turkish government, his former client, was fiercely opposed to the Pentagon's plan, which was eventually approved after Flynn's exit. According to the report, "some members of Congress, in private conversations, have even used the word “treason” to describe Flynn’s intervention."
- NBC: "Flynn, Manafort Are Key Figures in Russia Probe Mueller Will Lead" Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort have been identified as key figures in the Russia investigation, the report said. According to NBC, "multiple grand jury subpoenas and records requests have been issued in connection with the two men during the past six months." In addition, the report said that both Flynn and Manafort are formal "suspects" of the investigation, meaning they are suspected of a crime.
- Reuters: "Trump campaign had at least 18 undisclosed contacts with Russians" The report detailed previously undisclosed 18 calls and emails between Trump advisers, including Michael Flynn, and Russian officials during the 2016 election. Both congressional investigators and the FBI are reviewing these interactions as part of their probes into the Trump campaign's ties with Russia.
- ALSO... Washington Post: "House majority leader to colleagues in 2016: ‘I think Putin pays’ Trump" Another interesting report on Wednesday (with a Kiev, Ukraine dateline!) included the transcript of a June phone conversation with House GOP leaders in which House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said, "There’s two people I think Putin pays: [Rep. Dana] Rohrabacher [who is known for his ties to Russia] and Trump." A spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), who interjected to ensure no one would leak what McCarthy said, denied to the Post that the statement was made. After the Post informed him that they had tapes of the conversation, the spokesman called it "an attempt at humor."
Trump Interviews Four Candidates for FBI Director White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Wednesday that President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions spent the day at the White House interviewing four candidates to take over the FBI: former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, former Gov. Frank Keating (R-OK), and Richard McFeely, executive assistant director of the bureau's Criminal, Cyber, Response Services Branch.
Only McCabe was on the list of eight candidates Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein interviewed at the Justice Department on Saturday. Since then, three of those candidates have withdrawn: Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), Rep. Trey Gowdy, and former Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher. The addition of Lieberman is particularly interesting: he is a former Democrat, as the party's 2000 vice presidential nominee. However, Lieberman served his final Senate term, from 2007 to 2013, as an Independent after losing the 2006 Democratic primary for his seat. He endorsed Republican presidential nominee John McCain in 2008, but supported Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.
"I think he would get 100 votes," Cornyn told reporters about Lieberman. "Everybody loves Joe Lieberman. People know he's going to shoot straight no matter what happens, and I think it's a pretty brilliant selection if that's what he wants."
Trump is under intense pressure to appoint a director above partisanship, leading to the withdrawals of Cornyn and Gowdy. According to CNN, Cornyn had been the President's top choice. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) urged Trump to appoint a Democrat to the post: "Nominate a FBI Director who is above politics — ideally a Democrat," he said on Thursday.
--- Meanwhile, the man Trump is seeking to replace remains a hot commodity in Washington. The Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees have both requested testimony from former FBI director James Comey; both panels, as well as the House Oversight Committee, have also requested his memoranda on interactions with Trump.
The President's Schedule At 12:30pm, President Trump will meet with National Economic Council director Gary Cohn in the Oval Office.
At 2:55pm, Trump will meet with President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia in the Oval. At 3:10pm, Trump and Santos will participate in an expanded bilateral meeting in the Cabinet Room. Finally, at 3:45pm, the two Presidents will hold a joint press conference in the East Room, the media's first opportunity to question Trump since the flurry of revelations related to the Russia investigation this week.
According to the White House, Trump and Santos will "discuss ways to reinforce the strong ties that the United States and Colombia enjoy" and will "exchange views on a range of bilateral and regional issues, including peace accord implementation, engagement on shared security objectives, such as counternarcotics and transnational organized crime, and countering democratic backsliding in Venezuela."
Also today: according to Politico, President Trump will hold an off-the-record lunch with network news anchors ahead of his upcoming foreign trip.
Today in the Senate The upper chamber will convene at 10am. The Senate will jump into the final day of debate on the nomination of Rachel Brand to be Associate Attorney General. At 12pm, the Senate will hold a confirmation vote on Brand, a former official in the George W. Bush-era Justice Department. Brand's nomination was advanced in a 51-47 vote; if confirmed today, she will be the 31st appointee to formally join the Trump Administration, according to a Washington Post tracker.
Following the Brand vote, the Senate will hold a cloture vote on the nomination of Gov. Terry Branstad (R-IA) to be U.S. Ambassador to China. Branstad, who has close ties with Chinese leaders, is the longest-serving governor in U.S. history.
Also today: at 2:30pm, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will lead a classified briefing of the full Senate "regarding the removal of former FBI Director James Comey."
Today in the House The lower chamber will also meet at 10am. To honor Police Week, the House is scheduled to vote today on two bills on law enforcement: the Thin Blue Line Act, which would require courts to consider the murder of a first responder when determining if the death sentence was needed; and the Honoring Hometown Heroes Act, which would allow the U.S. flag to be flown at half-staff following the death of first responders. The latter vote has been postponed a few days in my inbox