Saturday, July 29, 2017

{UAH} The Daily 202: Trump?s pick to run DOJ criminal division worked for Russia bank

The Daily 202: Trump's pick to run DOJ criminal division worked for Russia bank

 July 25 

Brian Benczkowski, Republican staff director of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sits behind Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) during a 2009 hearing. (Harry Hamburg/AP)

With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve

THE BIG IDEA: Almost every day, it feels like someone else in the administration's orbit gets sucked into the Russian vortex. Here's the latest development:

"President Trump's nominee to lead the Justice Department's criminal division, Brian A. Benczkowski, has disclosed to Congress that he previously represented Alfa Bank, one of Russia's largest financial institutions, whose owners have ties to President Vladimir V. Putin," the New York Times's Charlie Savage and Adam Goldman reported last night. "Alfa Bank was at the center of scrutiny last year over potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia after computer experts discovered data suggesting a stream of communications between a server linked to the Trump Organization and a server linked to the bank. Reports about the mysterious data transmissions fueled speculation about a back channel. The F.B.I. investigated the matter, however, and concluded that the servers' interactions were not surreptitious exchanges between the campaign and Russia, according to current and former law enforcement officials."

The decision to take on such a controversial Russian client raises questions about Benczkowski's judgment that could come up during his confirmation hearing today.

Benczkowski, who helped manage Trump's transition team for the Justice Department, has signaled that he plans to be evasive when questioned about the specifics of his work for the Putin-linked bank: "(E)thical considerations prohibit me from disclosing confidential legal advice or any other information protected by the attorney-client privilege under any circumstances," he wrote in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

These newly revealed links to Russia and the importance of the job he's up for put Senate Republicans in a tough spot. They want to give Trump his nominees, but they don't want to look like they are a party to the president's continuing appeasement of the Kremlin.

The timing is awkward for Benczkowski. His hearing comes amid new questions about the staying power of his longtime patron, Jeff Sessions, as attorney general.

Trump welcomes Jeff Sessions to his swearing-in ceremony in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

-- President Trump and his advisers are openly discussing the possibility of replacing Sessions, with some in his camp floating possible new prospects for the job should the attorney general resign or be fired. "Replacing Sessions is seen by some Trump associates as potentially being part of a strategy to fire [Robert Mueller] and end his investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin," Sari Horwitz, Matt Zapotosky and Robert Costa report. "One person close to Trump said the president asked him about how firing Sessions 'would play in the conservative media.' Trump also asked him whether it would help to replace Sessions 'with a major conservative,' the person said."

How could replacing Sessions let Trump ax Mueller? "Trump could order (deputy attorney general Rod) Rosenstein — and then Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand — to fire Mueller. If they quit instead of doing so, he could appoint an acting attorney general who would. Trump could also appoint an acting attorney general with them in place … and order that person to remove the special counsel. Another scenario is that Trump could make a recess appointment …  who would serve until the end of the next Senate session[.]"

Ted Cruz and Rudy Giuliani are among the names being floated as possible replacements of Sessions. "Giuliani dismissed a report floating his name … and told CNN that Sessions 'made the right decision …' to recuse himself. Cruz had said previously that he 'did not think it was necessary to appoint a special counsel,' but when Mueller was appointed, he praised him as 'an excellent choice.'" (It's doubtful Cruz would ever give up his Senate seat to work for Trump.)

-- With Trump publicly denouncing the special counsel's investigation as a "witch hunt," Paul Ryan defended Mueller's work on Monday. "Remember, Bob Mueller is a Republican who was appointed by a Republican, who served in the Republican administration," the House speaker said during a radio appearance. "I don't think many people are saying Bob Mueller is a person who is a biased partisan. He's really sort of anything but."

-- Trump continues to publicly berate his own pick to be the nation's chief law-enforcement officer. Yesterday the president, in a tweet, called him "our beleaguered A.G." and asked why Sessions was not "looking into Crooked Hillary's crimes & Russia relations?" Trump is back at it this morning:

-- Clearly the president is trying to send a message that he wants Sessions to go. Surely the AG hears it. The question now is: What will he do about it?

Ty Cobb is joining the White House as a lawyer next week. Here he poses for a portrait in his law office in 2004. (Jerry Cleveland/The Denver Post via AP)

-- Another big ego is coming to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. next week. In his first interview since joining Trump's growing legal team, Ty Cobb explained to the National Law Journal why he took on such a challenging assignment. 

"If the president asks you, you don't say no," he said. "I have rocks in my head and steel balls."

The White House initially reached out to Cobb in early June, he said, and he was most attracted to the job because it is "an impossible task with a deadline."

Cobb will officially become a government employee next Monday after he finishes unloading his 30 clients to other partners at the Hogan Lovells law firm. He will work with White House counsel Donald McGahn, but he will report directly to Trump.

"I'm going to manage the message, but I'm not going on camera all the time," Cobb said.

 Play Video 1:33
Kushner says he 'did not collude with Russia' during campaign
After meeting privately with Senate investigators on July 24, Jared Kushner, President Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law, said his "actions were proper" during the 2016 presidential campaign. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

"I DID NOT COLLUDE" IS THE NEW "I DID NOT INHALE":

-- Jared Kushner is heading back to the Capitol this morning.Trump's senior adviser/son-in-law spent two hours yesterday answering questions behind closed doors from staffers on the Senate Intelligence Committee about his contacts with Russian officials. Today he will meet, again behind closed doors, with the House Intelligence Committee, which is doing its own parallel investigation. Legal experts expect that all of Kushner's answers to both committees will be shared with Mueller, according to Devlin Barrett, Philip Rucker and Karoun Demirjian.

"Let me be very clear: I did not collude with Russia, nor do I know of anyone else in the campaign who did so," Kushner told reporters outside the White House after he returned from yesterday's interview.  (If you missed it, read his 11-page statement hereAaron Blake parsed the lawyerly language.)

 Play Video 2:54
Kushner asked to sign Russian flag
A man asked Jared Kushner to sign a Russian flag, after Kushner testified in a closed door meeting with the Senate Intelligence Committee on July 24 (The Washington Post)

Trump was pleased with Kushner's performance yesterday, he tweeted this morning, and suggested that investigators might question his 11-year-old son Barron next:

FIVE SMART TAKES ON KUSHNER'S ACCOUNT:

1. "Kushner's only excuse: He has no idea what he's doing," by Dana Milbank: "The president's 36-year-old son-in-law … explained his repeated lapses — he had to amend one disclosure form three times — by saying, essentially, that he was new to politics and so terribly busy that he couldn't keep up with everything. And he used the hoariest excuse of all: He blamed his assistant. … A 'miscommunication' led his assistant to file his form prematurely. He said he omitted not only meetings with Russians, but 'over one hundred contacts from more than twenty countries.' And this is supposed to help him? … He's essentially arguing that he isn't corrupt — he's just in over his head. … Coming from the man charged with handling everything from Middle East peace to opioids, this isn't reassuring. … Why is a man of such inexperience in charge of so much?"

2. "Kushner's damning account," by Jennifer Rubin:"Collectively, one certainly gets the impression that Russians were trying to pressure and influence the political neophyte, playing to his ego as a solo operator and on his unfamiliarity with how national security matters are normally discussed. … If not evidence of malicious deception, the story reveals a young man who is in over his head and out of his depth to such a degree that he does not know he is in over his head and out of his depth. The thought of summoning people who actually knew what was going on, checking with the administration as to the background of people with whom he was communicating or showing healthy skepticism about the people who were approaching him never occurred to him? Possible, but what a damning alibi."

3. "Here are five questions Jared Kushner still needs to answer," by Sarah Posner: "Kushner seemed to suggest his statements settle many complex questions. Instead, they raise more questions than they answer. … How did then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak end up at the Trump campaign speech at the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016? … What did Kushner really know about the June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting with the Russian lawyer? … What, precisely, did Kushner understand about 'secure lines' for communicating with Russian officials? … What does it mean that Kushner did not 'rely' on 'Russian funds' for his businesses? … Speaking of Russian funds, what about that meeting with a Russian banker?"

4. "Kushner just threw Donald Trump Jr. under the bus. Bigly," by Greg Sargent: "If Kushner is to be believed, he agreed to, and showed up at, (the June 9) meeting without having any idea why it was being held. … He claims he arrived just late enough to miss the incriminating part of the meeting. … Of course, what Trump Jr.'s email chain showed is that the campaign jumped at the chance to collude, even if it ended up not happening at that meeting. Recall that Trump Jr.'s original statement covered up the real reason for the meeting, and that President Trump himself reportedly signed off on that initial false statement, which means the president actively participated in an effort to mislead the country about his own campaign's eagerness to collude with Russia to help him win. Kushner's statement offers nothing to challenge these underlying facts. It just separates him from them."

5. "What Jared Kushner's Statement Reveals About Russian Methods," by The Atlantic's Julia Ioffe: "If the accounts are true — and, given that their accounts have changed in the past, these latest accounts could change too — then, taken together, the Trump Jr. emails and Kushner's statement show a Russian side that is experimenting with ways of getting the Trump team's attention. They show a side that really is, as one former Obama administration official told me, 'throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what would stick.' … The emails and public statement describe a search, a process of poking and testing, of trying to find a pressure point or an opening. This is consistent with the intelligence on the Russians' election-meddling effort, which has been described as a multi-pronged and opportunistic one. 'The Russians had a line of, say, 1,000 ways to attack,' an intelligence official told me recently. 'They don't need all of them to get through. Just a few are enough.'"

 Play Video 2:01
Will Trump sign a new Russia sanctions bill? White House, senators respond.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on July 23 said President Trump's administration "is supportive" of new legislation imposing sanctions on Russia. Senators from both parties said Trump ought to sign the bill after it passes. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

MORE COZYING UP TO PUTIN:

-- "Cooperation with Russia is becoming a central part of the Trump administration's counter-Islamic State strategy in Syria, with U.S. military planners counting on Moscow to try to prevent Syrian government forces and their allies on the ground from interfering in coalition-backed operations against the militants," Karen DeYoung reports. "Part of the plan essentially carves up Syria into no-go zones for each of the players — President Bashar al-Assad's fight, with Russian and Iranian help, against rebels seeking to overthrow him, and the U.S.-led coalition's war to destroy the Islamic State. Some lawmakers and White House officials have expressed concern that the strategy is shortsighted, gives the long-term advantage in Syria to Russia, Iran and Assad, and ultimately leaves the door open for a vanquished Islamic State to reestablish itself. Critics also say that neither Russia nor Iran can be trusted to adhere to any deal, and that the result will be a continuation of the civil war whose negotiated end the administration has also set as a goal."

-- "The House and Senate are expected to pass a bill as soon as this week that includes language giving Congress 30 days to review and vote to prevent any move by the president to ease sanctions against Russia," Karoun Demirjian reports. "The move comes despite considerable pressure from the administration to strip this provision from the bill, with the White House arguing that it would give the president less flexibility than his predecessors ... Lawmakers in both parties rejected this argument ... On Tuesday, the House will vote on a bill that would impose new financial sanctions on Russia and Iran ... The bill doesn't give Congress the same review powers over penalties directed at Iran as it does Russia, and the House plans to add to the bill a package of sanctions against North Korea that also lacks this oversight language. … It would be politically difficult for the president to veto the legislation, and the White House said Trump has yet to make up his mind about the bill."



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Gwokto La'Kitgum
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"Even a small dog can piss on a tall building" Jim Hightower

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