The Hill’s Morning Report: Inside the Comey memos
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.
The Justice Department delivered to Congress former FBI Director James Comey’s personal memos, in which he documented seven conversations he had with President Trump 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 notes “had 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.”
The bottom line: Trump claims vindication.
James Comey Memos just out and show clearly that there was NO COLLUSION and NO OBSTRUCTION. Also, he leaked classified information. WOW! Will the Witch Hunt continue?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 20, 2018
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 Cummings (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 Trump. 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.
Comey’s book tour started triumphantly but hit a rough patch even before his private memos were released.
- Comey acknowledged on Thursday that he could be a witness in a potential criminal case against one of his top deputies, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
- 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.
James Comey just threw Andrew McCabe “under the bus.” Inspector General’s Report on McCabe is a disaster for both of them! Getting a little (lot) of their own medicine?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 19, 2018
Meanwhile, it was a good day for Trump on the investigations front.
- Bloomberg News reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe, told the president at the White House last week that he is not the target of the investigation.
- And an old friend is back in the fold. After struggling to build out his legal team, Trump has added former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as counsel.
Miami Herald: Miami husband-and-wife legal duo to join Trump defense in Russia investigation.
But it wasn’t all good news.
- Bloomberg: Mueller’s interest in former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is driven in part by the suspicion that he acted as a backchannel between the campaign and Moscow.
- The Wall Street Journal: Feds subpoena Jared Kushner’s real estate company over an AP report about falsified documents.
- 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 McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) are the frontrunners to succeed Speaker Paul Ryan (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 Jordan (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.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo 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 Heitkamp, 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 Pruitt, 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)
- The president threatened on Thursday to withdraw federal funding for California Guardsmen, just as the Pentagon approved the governor’s terms.
Sanctuary Cities released at least 142 Gang Members across the United States, making it easy for them to commit all forms of violent crimes where none would have existed. We are doing a great job of law enforcement, but things such as this make safety in America difficult!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 19, 2018
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 McConnell (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 Kelly, CNN reported. Kelly is effectively demoted to another direct-report — the messy condition he tried to eradicate when he succeeded Reince Priebus.
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):
- Arizona, U.S. Senate seat: GOP-led state senate moves to change rules for replacing Sen. John McCain (who is undergoing treatment for brain cancer). (Associated Press)
- 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).
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 Walker (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.
> “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).
TIME’s 100 most influential people for 2018 (a year still young) includes: “Leaders” President Trump; Chinese President Xi Jinping; Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; French President Emmanuel Macron; North Korea’s Kim Jong Un; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; Attorney General Jeff Sessions; 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.
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