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The Hill's Morning Report: Inside the Comey memos

The Hill's Morning Report: Inside the Comey memos
© Greg Nash

We’re wrapping up the first week of The Hill's Morning Report, and three cheers for Friday! This comprehensive morning email, a successor to The Hill’s Tipsheet, is reported by Jonathan Easley and Alexis Simendinger to get you up to speed on the most important developments in politics and policy, and news on the horizon. Click here to subscribe.

 

*****BREAKING OVERNIGHT*****

 

The Justice Department delivered to Congress former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyMystery surrounds Justice's pledge on journalist records NYT publisher: DOJ phone records seizure a 'dangerous incursion' on press freedom Trump DOJ seized phone records of New York Times reporters MORE’s personal memos, in which he documented seven conversations he had with President TrumpDonald TrumpMaria Bartiromo defends reporting: 'Keep trashing me, I'll keep telling the truth' The Memo: The center strikes back Republicans eye Nashville crack-up to gain House seat MORE in early 2017.

The documents leaked almost immediately on Thursday night. The Hill obtained copies. Read them here.

As The Hill’s Katie Bo Williams writes, the 15 pages of noteshad become something of a Holy Grail in the controversy over whether the president sought to obstruct justice in the investigation into his campaign and Russia.”

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The bottom line: Trump claims vindication.

That sentiment was echoed by Trump’s allies. Talkers on Fox News Channel declared the president had been absolved of all wrongdoing – that there is nothing in the memos to suggest Comey thought Trump was colluding with Russians or obstructing justice. GOP leaders in the House said the memos show Trump was eager for Comey to investigate the allegations against him in order to clear his name.

Democrats have a different view.

Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsDemocrats plot next move after GOP sinks Jan. 6 probe Lawmakers press AbbVie CEO on increased US prices of two drugs Overnight Health Care: AstraZeneca may have included outdated data on vaccine trial, officials say | Pelosi says drug pricing measure under discussion for infrastructure package | Biden administration extends special ObamaCare enrollment until August MORE (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said the memos “provide strong corroborating evidence of everything [Comey] said about President Trump” and show a “blatant effort to deny justice.”

  

LEADING THE DAY

INSIDE THE MEMOS:

  • Trump wanted absolution. Writing contemporaneously last year, Comey recalled informing Trump and congressional leaders that the president was not under investigation by the FBI. The president repeatedly urged Comey to go public with that information but the former FBI director never did.

    Comey writes at length about the salacious allegations included in the “Steele dossier,” and Trump’s reaction. Comey says he warned Trump that media outlets were looking for a “news hook” so they could report on allegations that Trump had been with Russian prostitutes. Trump was animated during the conversations, asserting that the allegations were false but noting that Russian president Vladmir Putin had said to him:

    “We have some of the most beautiful hookers in the world.”

    Trump asked Comey to investigate the allegations, saying it would reassure First Lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpJill Biden, Kate Middleton visit school together in first meeting Jill Biden wears 'LOVE' jacket 'to bring unity' to meeting with Boris Johnson White House gets back to pre-COVID-19 normality MORE. The president also threatened to sue ex-British spy Christopher Steele, who compiled the dossier, and joked about not being the kind of person who would ever have to pay for sex.
  • Common ground against leakers. Trump complained to Comey that his administration was dealing with a torrent of damaging leaks.

    Comey agreed that leakers were harmful to any presidency. In his notes, he recalls telling Trump he wanted to “nail one to the door” or put a “head on a pike as a message.”

    Trump responded that in the good old days, they’d teach journalists a lesson.

    “They spend a couple days in jail. Make a new friend. And they are ready to talk.”

    There was some irony in this conversation.

    “I don’t do sneaky things, I don’t leak, I don’t do weasel moves,” Comey writes in one memo.

    Within months, Comey leaked one of his own memos through an intermediary to The New York Times, hoping to trigger the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Trump and his sphere of influencers. It worked.
  • Trump had “serious reservations” about Michael Flynn. Trump said his former National Security adviser, whom the president said he fired for lying to Vice President Pence about his discussions with Russians about sanctions, had “serious judgment issues” before allegedly asking Comey to drop any FBI investigations into Flynn’s contacts. Trump’s critics say the exchange - which the president denies - is evidence of an attempt to obstruct justice.
  • Fuzziness on Trump’s request for “honest loyalty.” The notes detail Comey’s claim that Trump asked him for personal loyalty, but Comey introduced a degree of nuance here, admitting in his 15 pages of memorializing that the president might have just been asking him to be upfront and honest.

    “It is possible we understood that phrase differently,” Comey wrote.

AP: In Comey’s memos, Trump fixates on “hookers” and frets over Flynn.

 

ROLE REVERSAL: 

Comey’s book tour started triumphantly but hit a rough patch even before his private memos were released.

  • Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz issued a criminal referral to the U.S. attorney's office in D.C. following an internal investigation that found McCabe lied to Comey and to internal investigators about his contacts with the media.

The bottom line: Referrals don’t guarantee that charges will be brought, but lying to federal investigators is a crime.

 

Meanwhile, it was a good day for Trump on the investigations front. 

Miami Herald: Miami husband-and-wife legal duo to join Trump defense in Russia investigation.

 

But it wasn’t all good news.

  • CNN: Attorney Alan Dershowitz says Trump must assume his close friend and personal lawyer Michael Cohen will flip on him.

 

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THE BIG TWIST IN THE CAPITOL: 

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyGOP divided over bills targeting tech giants GOP increasingly balks at calling Jan. 6 an insurrection House Democrats' campaign arm raises almost million in May MORE (R-Calif.) and Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseHillicon Valley: Senate unanimously confirms Chris Inglis as first White House cyber czar | Scrutiny mounts on Microsoft's surveillance technology | Senators unveil bill to crack down on cyber criminals Five takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision FCC votes to advance proposed ban on Chinese telecom equipment MORE (R-La.) are the frontrunners to succeed Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanNow we know why Biden was afraid of a joint presser with Putin Zaid Jilani: Paul Ryan worried about culture war distracting from issues 'that really concern him' The Memo: Marjorie Taylor Greene exposes GOP establishment's lack of power MORE (R-Wis.) as the next GOP leader.

But House conservatives tell The Hill that it’s possible the entire current leadership team could be overthrown, particularly if Republicans suffer heavy losses in the midterm elections and return next year in the minority.

The person to watch: Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanGOP divided over bills targeting tech giants Hillicon Valley: Biden, Putin agree to begin work on addressing cybersecurity concerns | Senate panel unanimously advances key Biden cyber nominees | Rick Scott threatens to delay national security nominees until Biden visits border Trump, allies pressured DOJ to back election claims, documents show MORE (R-Ohio).

The conservative group FreedomWorks launched a “Draft Jim Jordan” effort on Thursday and is agitating for the vote to take place before the November elections, arguing that “selecting a truly conservative Speaker would change the entire momentum of the 2018 midterm election cycle.”

The Hill: Young GOP lawmakers want more power.

The Hill: GOP in retreat on ObamaCare.

 

CABINET WATCH:

State Department

CIA Director Mike PompeoMike PompeoWhite House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine The Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare here to stay The Hill's Morning Report - After high-stakes Biden-Putin summit, what now? MORE appears all but certain to win Senate confirmation to be secretary of State, following the first public vow of support from a Democrat, Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampEffective and profitable climate solutions are within the nation's farms and forests Bill Maher blasts removal of journalist at Teen Vogue Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives MORE, who is running for re-election this year in North Dakota, The Hill’s Jordain Carney reports. Will other red-state Democrats - there are 10 total running for reelection in states Trump won in 2016 - follow her lead?

The Hill: Democrats mull audacious plan to block Pompeo.

The Hill (op-ed): Democrats have good reason to confirm Mike Pompeo.

 

Central Intelligence Agency

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s confirmation hearing May 9 for Gina Haspel, nominated to succeed Pompeo, will be tense. Democratic senators are expected to press the 30-year CIA career officer about torture during the post-9/11 Bush years. More than 40 advocacy groups are urging the Senate to defeat Haspel’s nomination.

 

Veterans Affairs Department

Trump’s nominee to lead the VA, Dr. Ronny Jackson, is prepping for a confirmation grilling April 25 before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

 

Environmental Protection Agency

Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOklahoma AG resigns following news of divorce, alleged affair Court sets in motion EPA ban on pesticide linked to developmental issues Scientific integrity, or more hot air? MORE, embattled administrator of the EPA, remains on the ropes and a subject of multiple investigations. But Trump shows no signs of impatience with the Oklahoman.

Pruitt’s expenses, ethics, insistence on extensive personal security measures, decisions to misuse EPA programs to hike salaries for top EPA employees, and agency policies are under investigation. Internal emails show the EPA worked to limit the agency’s use of science, The Hill’s Miranda Green and Timothy Cama reported.

Reuters: EPA inspector general opens new probe into Pruitt’s travels.

 

TRUMP TUSSLES WITH CALIFORNIA (AND ITS GOVERNOR):

The president on Thursday said blue-state Californians are moving closer to his thinking about the security risks of defying Washington with policies that offer safe-harbors to undocumented immigrants in cities. And he may be right.

“If you look at what’s happening in California with sanctuary cities — people are really going the opposite way. They don’t want sanctuary cities,” Trump told reporters while traveling in Florida. “There’s a little bit of a revolution going on in California.”

A large academic study of California public opinion (2,440 respondents), conducted in December and reported this week, found that 59 percent of adults in the state believe it’s important to increase deportations of undocumented people

  • Trump and the Justice Department continue to battle Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and other California politicians over the administration’s tough immigration enforcement policies, Trump’s wall, and the president’s recent call-up of National Guard to beef up border security.
  • DOJ lost a major sanctuary city case Thursday. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling, preventing the Trump administration from denying grant funds to sanctuary cities nationwide. (BuzzFeed)

  

IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES

Mueller protection: Proposed GOP Senate legislation to protect the special counsel investigation in the event the president attempts to halt it was punted to next week, reports The Hill’s Jordain Carney. Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) backs it; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPortman: Republicans are 'absolutely' committed to bipartisan infrastructure bill Graham calls voting rights bill 'biggest power grab' in history The wild card that might save Democrats in the midterms MORE (R-Ky.) says it will not see a vote. Grassley cut loose, saying McConnell’s views “do not govern what happens here in the Judiciary Committee.”

White House organization: Trump has upended his West Wing org chart by allowing national security adviser John Bolton and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, two newcomers, to report directly to him, instead of through chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, CNN reported. Kelly is effectively demoted to another direct-report -- the messy condition he tried to eradicate when he succeeded Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusDemocrats claim vindication, GOP cries witch hunt as McGahn finally testifies Biden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet Governor races to test COVID-19 response, Trump influence MORE.

Guaranteed ahead: Friction and more personnel departures (Trump is recasting his White House using a model known as “spokes of the wheel,” described by savvy former White House chiefs of staff as bad news for effective presidential management.) 

The Hill: Staff changes upend White House cyber team.

➔  News round-up from State Watch this week (some curation by The Hill’s Reid Wilson):

  • Maine, Marijuana bill advances: The state legislature this week sent an adult-use recreational marijuana measure to Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who may be overridden if he decides on a veto. (Portland Press Herald)
  • California, Taxes owed, no thanks to Washington: One million Californians will owe $12 billion more next year due to the tax law signed by Trump (Sacramento Bee).

 

OPINION

Europe’s plea to Congress: Keep the Iran pact, by Delphine O (France), Omid Nouripour (Germany) and Richard Bacon (Great Britain), op-ed, The New York Times. https://nyti.ms/2J8iBoE

Sen. Sanders’ proposed opioid legislation is too focused on the past, by Dr. Lawrence Greenblatt, co-chairman of the Opioid Safety Commission at Duke Health in North Carolina, opinion contributor to The Hill. https://bit.ly/2HhOBGs

 

WHERE AND WHEN

Congress is out until next week.

President Trump this evening hosts a roundtable political event with Republican National Committee supporters.

Vice President Pence headlines a midday Greensboro, N.C., fundraiser for Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerThe Hill's Morning Report - Dems to go-it-alone on infrastructure as bipartisan plan falters Past criticism of Trump becomes potent weapon in GOP primaries Trump endorsement shakes up GOP Senate primary in NC MORE (R-N.C.), the head of the Republican Study Committee and a heavy favorite to win reelection; participates in a public roundtable event organized in Charlotte by America First Priorities to champion GOP tax cuts; and attends an evening RNC-Trump Victory event in Charlotte.

 

ELSEWHERE

> Close to Home”: The fifth and final article in this week’s series by The Hill’s Rachel Roubein about effects of the opioid epidemic. Presented by Partnership for Safe Medicine. (The Hill)

> Federal regulators are preparing to punish Wells Fargo with a massive $1 billion fine after the bank admitted to overcharging or taking advantage of thousands of customers. (The Washington Post)

> Your DNA can show up on things you’ve never touched. The Marshall Project, PBS’s Frontline and Wired collaborated on Framed for murder by his own DNA,” by Katie Worth, investigating how DNA transfer changed the life of a man charged with a brutal crime.

> Profile/obituary of the U.S. Capitol’s first switchboard operator, Harriott Daley, a single mother who arrived in 1898. By the time she retired in 1945, Daley supervised 50 loyal “hello girls,” as they were known, attending to 535 members of Congress with a telephone system 60 times the size of the one she first encountered (The New York Times).

 

THE CLOSER

TIME’s 100 most influential people for 2018 (a year still young) includes:LeadersPresident Trump; Chinese President Xi Jinping; Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; French President Emmanuel Macron; North Korea’s Kim Jong Un; House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMaria Bartiromo defends reporting: 'Keep trashing me, I'll keep telling the truth' Democratic clamor grows for select committee on Jan. 6 attack GOP increasingly balks at calling Jan. 6 an insurrection MORE; Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe Hill's Morning Report - After high-stakes Biden-Putin summit, what now? Border state governors rebel against Biden's immigration chaos Garland strikes down Trump-era asylum decisions MORE; special counsel Robert Mueller; EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt; Fox News host Sean Hannity.

And finally, we bring you nature newly nurtured: A beautiful bird species discovered in the forests of West Papua, Indonesia. Check out this video of a dazzlingly-feathered, blue-caped male bird of paradise, with suburban-junior-high-school dance moves. “It’s an exciting discovery that was hiding under our noses all along,” enthused a researcher.