The Hill's Morning Report — Russia furor grips Washington

 

 

 

Welcome to The Hill's Morning Report, and happy Thursday! Our daily email gets you up to speed on the most important developments in politics and policy, plus trends to watch, co-created by Jonathan Easley and Alexis Simendinger. (CLICK HERE to subscribe!)

Hill.TV’s “Rising” program, starting at 8 a.m., features interviews with guests Alice Marie Johnson, who was granted clemency by President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrat calls on White House to withdraw ambassador to Belarus nominee TikTok collected data from mobile devices to track Android users: report Peterson wins Minnesota House primary in crucial swing district MORE in June after serving 20 years in prison; Connecticut Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocrat calls on White House to withdraw ambassador to Belarus nominee Democrats try to force Trump to boost medical supplies production Overnight Defense: Air Force general officially becomes first African American service chief | Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure | State Department's special envoy for Iran is departing the Trump administration MORE (D); and New Mexico Democrat Deb Haaland, who won her primary last month and could become the first Native American woman in Congress after November. http://thehill.com/hilltv


***

This morning we bring readers the blowback, walk-back, retraction, confusion and drama from the fourth day of the Russia riptide that has engulfed the White House…

In an interview last night with CBS News’s Jeff Glor, President Trump offered his most unambiguous remarks to date about Russian interference in the 2016 election (CBS News).

After days of waffling and contradictions, Trump said he holds Russian President Vladimir Putin personally responsible for the election interference, which has produced dozens of indictments of senior Russian intelligence officials and satellite organizations.

“[Putin’s] in charge of the country. Just like I consider myself to be responsible for things that happen in this country. So certainly as the leader of a country you would have to hold him responsible.”

The president also said that he confronted Putin about the matter in their one-on-one meeting in Helsinki, although Trump notably declined to do so in the press conference that was broadcast around the world.

“I let him know we can't have this, we're not going to have it, and that's the way it's going to be."

The CBS interview took place after Trump spent three days digging new holes and creating headaches for himself and for his national security team. Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoEngel: IG report shows Pompeo's 'sham' use of emergency declaration in arms sales Overnight Defense: Trump pushed to restore full National Guard funding | Watchdog faults Pompeo on civilian risk of Saudi arms sales Pelosi on 'disturbing situation' in Hong Kong: 'The world is watching' MORE will testify about the Russia summit in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee next week.

The mess: Early on Wednesday, Trump responded “no” when a reporter asked him if he believes Putin is preparing to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections, putting him at odds with his own director of national intelligence, Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsTrump flails as audience dwindles and ratings plummet America's divide widens: Ignore it no longer Trump gives Grenell his Cabinet chair after he steps down MORE, as well as FBI Director Christopher Wray (The Hill). Wray on Wednesday restated the FBI’s belief that Russia interfered with the election and “continues” the meddling in 2018.

The cleanup: White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later said that Trump was responding “no” to a question about whether he would take questions from reporters. Reporters in the room dispute that explanation. Sanders went on to say that the administration believes Russia is preparing to interfere in the midterm elections and that the White House is taking the threat seriously.

The mess: Trump provoked outrage among Republicans on Capitol Hill for declining to confront Putin over election interference at a press conference in Helsinki on Monday. Trump also suggested that he believed Putin’s denial over the information provided to him by Coats.

The cleanup: Trump said that after reviewing the transcript of the press conference, he realized he misspoke. At the press conference with Putin, Trump said he didn’t think Russia “would” be involved in an election interference campaign. He later claimed that he meant to say that he “wouldn’t” have a reason to believe otherwise.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsProgressive Jewish group endorses Biden Poll: Gideon leads Collins by 8 points in Maine Senate race The Hill's 12:30 Report - Speculation over Biden's running mate announcement MORE (R-Maine) called the explanations “dizzying.”

 

 

The Hill: Trump’s damage control falters.

The New York Times: White House journos, including The Hill’s Jordan Fabian, try team approach.

The White House wants the news media to focus on the actions the administration has taken against Russia, and not on the president’s words.

The Hill: Trump’s policies, actions create divide on Russia.

The Trump administration has sanctioned Russian oligarchs and firms for interfering in the 2016 election and joined more than a dozen countries this year when the United States expelled 60 Russian officials as punishment for Russian poisonings in the United Kingdom.

The White House is accusing the media of hysteria around Russia and of ginning up a modern day Red Scare. Sanders pointed to errors from reporters who attempted to tie together threads she said do not exist.

“This has gotten totally out of control. You guys need to take a step back and slow down and quit going after the Trump administration on everything little thing that takes place.” Sanders

But Trump’s main problem right now is that Republicans on Capitol Hill were wholly unnerved by the Helsinki summit and what they view as a capitulation by the U.S. president to Russia. The president’s remarks over the past few days and the subsequent corrections have only exacerbated those fears.

There has been a rush by Republicans to rebuke the president for casting doubt on the assessments provided by his own intelligence officials. Late on Wednesday, the New York Times reported that the president, two weeks after his inauguration, read highly classified U.S. intelligence establishing that Putin himself “personally ordered” the plan of cyber attacks and disinformation to interfere with the election and to support Trump’s bid for the White House.

GOP lawmakers are proposing new measures to sanction Russia or beef up election security ahead of 2018.

A bipartisan bill called the DETER Act, backed by Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDavis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump Lincoln Project expands GOP target list, winning Trump ire China sanctioning Rubio, Cruz in retaliatory move over Hong Kong MORE (R-Fla.) and Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenDemocrats shy from leading court fight over Trump orders Exclusive: Democrats seek to increase racial diversity of pandemic relief oversight board Overnight Defense: Guardsman to testify Lafayette Square clearing was 'unprovoked escalation' | Dems push for controversial Pentagon nominee to withdraw | Watchdog says Pentagon not considering climate change risks to contractors MORE (D-Md.), is picking up steam. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell warns control of Senate 'could go either way' in November On The Money: McConnell says it's time to restart coronavirus talks | New report finds majority of Americans support merger moratorium | Corporate bankruptcies on pace for 10-year high McConnell: Time to restart coronavirus talks MORE (R-Ky.) might skip the committee process and bring it straight to the floor for a vote.

The Hill: GOP seeks separation from Trump on Russia.

Reuters: Senate eyes swift sanctions in case of more election meddling.

There is one other loose end the president will need to address shortly.

The White House on Wednesday left open the possibility it would allow Russian investigators to come to the United States to question U.S. citizens, including Michael McFaul, the American ambassador to Russia under former President Obama, and Bill Browder, an investment fund manager who spearheaded an effort to pass the Magnitsky Act, which is reviled by Putin.

“I can’t answer on behalf of the White House ... but what I can tell you is that the overall assertions that have come out of the Russian government are absolutely absurd – the fact that they want to question 11 American citizens and the assertions that the Russian government is making about those American citizens. We do not stand by those assertions.” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

McFaul and Browder, respectively, have strong support on Capitol Hill, and lawmakers would go into full revolt if Trump were to give the Kremlin access to either individual.

Browder: Why Putin hates me.

 

 

LEADING THE DAY

CONGRESS: Immigration issues crowd the political and policy battlefield with little more than 100 days left before the election...

> Senate – ICE: The Hill: A symbolic GOP Senate resolution supporting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — and opposing progressives' political campaign to "abolish" the agency — was blocked by Democrats on Wednesday shortly after a similar measure was approved by the House. Democrats’ push to eliminate ICE, created in 2003, entered the national spotlight after the president's “zero tolerance” immigration policy resulted in the separation of immigrant families detained along the border.

> DHS – wall funding: The Hill: Heeding Trump’s wish to make progress on his favored physical wall at the southern border, House lawmakers on Wednesday set aside $5 billion in a Homeland Security appropriations bill for 2019. The House proposal, which significantly outstrips the Senate’s $1.6 billion version, would include 200 miles of new physical barriers and border technology. In a statement, the president’s spokeswoman called the $5 billion “critical.”

> Immigration advocacy: This morning, Church World Services delivered letters to every member of Congress urging lawmakers to reject any administration expansion of migrant family incarcerations or separations. The 500 religious leaders and 111 faith-based organizations signing the appeal also support protections for asylum seekers and unaccompanied children.

House – leadership ambitions: The Hill: Two members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus are vying to ascend to leadership next year. They are Rep. Gary PalmerGary James PalmerComer tapped to serve as top Republican on House Oversight Top GOP post on Oversight draws stiff competition Trump takes pulse of GOP on Alabama Senate race MORE (R-Ala.), and Rep. David SchweikertDavid SchweikertDemocrat Hiral Tipirneni wins Ariz. primary to challenge Rep. David Schweikert Ethics watchdog finds 'substantial' evidence of improper spending by Rep. Sanford Bishop House votes to sanction Schweikert over ethics violations MORE (R-Ariz.), who is interested in leading the Republican Policy Committee, the No. 5 spot in leadership.

> Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanWorld's most trafficked mammal gives Trump new way to hit China on COVID-19 The 'pitcher of warm spit' — Veepstakes and the fate of Mike Pence Tucker Carlson calls Fauci a 'fraud' after tense hearing MORE (R-Ohio), a leading Freedom Caucus member who at one time coached wrestling at Ohio State University, was interviewed by a law firm investigating allegations that a now-dead team doctor sexually abused male athletes there decades ago, The Associated Press reported. Jordan spoke on Monday with investigators looking into allegations against Dr. Richard Strauss. Jordan has denied having knowledge at the time about sexual misconduct.

House – farm bill: The Hill: The House voted on Wednesday to go to conference with the Senate on the 2018 farm bill, a measure delayed this year by controversies tied to work requirements for food stamp provisions and unrelated skirmishes in Congress over immigration.

 

****

POLITICS & CAMPAIGNS: Obama on Wednesday again declined to directly address Trump during a speech at a summit in South Africa.

Instead, the former president took a swipe at liberal identity politics.

“Democracy demands that we’re also able to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their points of view. Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they’ll change ours. And you can’t do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start. And you can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you — because they’re white or because they’re male —  that somehow they can’t understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters."

This was a welcome development on the right, although conservatives were eager to remind readers that they believe Obama laid the groundwork for the current political environment.

Noah Rothman: Obama practiced the identity politics he now condemns.

Elsewhere, Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaCalifornia Dems back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden picks Harris as running mate Michelle Obama urges Americans to vote early, by mail MORE is wading into the midterms, according to Politico, launching a voter registration initiative that is being billed as nonpartisan.

Meanwhile, former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyRepublicans set sights on FBI chief as Russia probe investigations ramp up The Hill's 12:30 Report - Speculation over Biden's running mate announcement Trump slams former intelligence officials to explain 'reluctance to embrace' agencies MORE is having a tough time finding a political home. After clashing with Trump during his high-profile book tour earlier this year, Comey is urging voters to elect Democrats.

The problem for Comey is that Democrats harbor bitter feelings about him after his handling of the investigation into Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNAACP seeks to boost Black voter turnout in six states California Dems back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden picks Harris as running mate MORE’s email server. Many Clinton supporters believe Comey’s actions ultimately cost the former secretary of State the Electoral College result she needed, although she won the popular vote.

 

 

 

 

More from the campaign trail … Trump has waded into the Georgia governor’s race, backing Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R) over Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (The Associated Press) … House Democrats have a new campaign slogan (Politico) … Trump’s Russia remarks have created new problems for Republicans up for reelection in 2018 (The Hill) … House Republicans are facing new attacks from Democrats, who are making rising ObamaCare premiums an election issue (The Hill) … five Democratic senators, including two up for reelection in states Trump won in 2016, will announce a proposal today defending the constitutionality of protections for pre-existing conditions under ObamaCare.

IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES

INVESTIGATIONS: Some interesting developments in the case against Maria Butina, the 29-year-old American University graduate who is accused of acting as a covert operative for the Kremlin at least since 2014, as described in a detailed indictment from the Department of Justice

A judge has ordered that Butina stay in jail as she awaits trial after prosecutors argued that she’s a flight risk (Reuters).

The Associated Press details how Butina, a guns rights activist who became a fixture at conservative events around Washington, D.C., is alleged to have used “sex and deception to forge influential connections” here and then report back to Moscow.

Butina is charged with conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent. She was arrested on Sunday amid growing fears from law enforcement that she was preparing to flee the country.

The Washington Post: Alleged Russian operative denied bail.

ThinkProgress: Photos of Butina meeting with Republicans and conservative leaders.

 

ADMINISTRATION: Updates from around the agencies and departments…

U.S. Census - director: Trump on Wednesday nominated Steven Dillingham to be the director of the U.S. Census Bureau at the Department of Commerce for the remainder of a five-year term expiring in 2021, which would take him beyond the controversial 2020 census, if confirmed by the Senate. Dillingham currently works at the Peace Corps; the director post has been vacant for more than a year.

Veterans Affairs Department – staff shuffle: Ahead of Robert Wilkie’s likely confirmation to lead the VA, staff perceived to be disloyal to Trump are being reassigned or purged from the department, The Washington Post reports. The transfers include more than a dozen career civil servants who have been moved from the leadership suite at headquarters and reassigned to lower-visibility roles.

Commerce Department – uranium: The Hill: The department has launched an investigation into the impact of uranium imports on national security, a move that could result in tariffs and add another front to the Trump administration's trade fight.

HHS migrants: The Health and Human Services Department has unilaterally reprogrammed otherwise designated funding sources to respond to the family-separation crisis at the border triggered by Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, now halted (Politico). UPDATE 10:15 a.m.: HHS is disputing this report, saying it has not transferred funds for the child resettlement program for 2018 yet and hasn't sent a transfer notification to Congress. The administration says it is still discussing its funding options. The Morning Report will keep you posted on this as it develop...

Pentagon transgender ban: The Hill: The Trump administration failed on Wednesday in its efforts to persuade the courts to uphold its ban on transgender individuals in the military. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld a lower court’s ruling to block implementation of the Pentagon ban announced last year.

Interior Department investigation: Politico reports that the department’s inspector general decided to open an investigation into a real estate deal involving a foundation established by Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeTrump flails as audience dwindles and ratings plummet OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senior Interior official contacted former employer, violating ethics pledge: watchdog | Ag secretary orders environmental rollbacks for Forest Service | Senate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Senior Interior official contacted former employer, violating ethics pledge: watchdog MORE and developers, including Halliburton Chairman David Lesar, which was first reported by the news outlet last month.

The Morning Report is created by journalists Jonathan Easley jeasley@thehill.com & Alexis Simendinger asimendinger@thehill.com. Suggestions? Tips? We want to hear from you! Share The Hill’s reporting and newsletters, and encourage others to SUBSCRIBE!

OPINION

Markets have taken trade conflicts in stride for now, by economic expert Philip I. Levy, opinion contributor for The Hill. https://bit.ly/2LanWkU

The Trump effect on the GOP, by Democratic pollster Brad Bannon, opinion contributor for The Hill. https://bit.ly/2zMWpjY

WHERE AND WHEN

The House meets at 9 a.m. and last votes are expected no later than 3 p.m.

The Senate convenes at 10 a.m. and resumes consideration of Ryan W. Bounds to be United States Circuit Judge of the 9th Circuit. The Senate Finance Committee holds a confirmation hearing for Charles Rettig to be IRS commissioner.

The president meets with Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Most VA workers find racism 'moderate to serious problem' at facilities l Trump advisers were wary of talking military options over fears he'd accidentally start war Trump advisers were wary of talking military options over fears he'd accidentally start war: report Trump prizes loyalty over competence — we are seeing the results MORE and has lunch with Pompeo. Later, Trump speaks in the East Room about vocational training for U.S. workers.

Vice President Pence travels to St. Louis, Mo., to campaign for GOP Senate candidate Josh Hawley today, and later appears nearby in O’Fallon, Ill., to stump for Illinois Republican Rep. Mike BostMichael (Mike) J. BostMORE. The vice president will attend a separate, official event in Missouri about tax cuts.

Among those speaking today at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colo.: Director of National Intelligence Coats (this afternoon, interviewed by NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell); Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinFBI officials hid copies of Russia probe documents fearing Trump interference: book Sally Yates to testify as part of GOP probe into Russia investigation Graham releases newly declassified documents on Russia probe MORE (this evening); and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenTrump's acting ICE chief to leave post Trump's fight with city leaders escalates Neo-Nazi pleads guilty to 'swatting' Black church, Cabinet official, journalists MORE (this morning interviewed by NBC’s Peter Alexander). Event is live streamed by the Aspen Institute and at NBCNews.com.

ELSEWHERE

> European Union hammers Google with record $5 billion antitrust fine for allegedly using Android operating system to thwart online competition (The Hill).

 

> Texas is projected to pass Iraq and Iran as world's third largest oil powerhouse (CNN Money).  

 

> U.S. expecting war dead remains from North Korea within two weeks (The Washington Post).

 

> Fed Chairman Powell testified about the central bank’s aim to raise interest rates gradually and his worries about tariffs (The Wall Street Journal).

 

THE CLOSER

And finally … The Morning Report’s QUIZ CONTEST is back this week. Send your best guesses for all six questions to jeasley@thehill.com or asimendinger@thehill.com to achieve newsletter fame in Friday’s report. (Please put “Quiz” in your subject line.)

The White House announced Wednesday it has awarded a $3.9 billion contract to The Boeing Company for two new Air Force One planes by 2024. Let’s test your Air Force One knowledge…

  1. Who was the first president to ever fly on an airplane?
  2. Who was the first president to fly on a specialty aircraft designed specifically for the president?
  3. What was the nickname of the plane that was the precursor to Air Force One?
  4. What is the name of the actor who played the terrorist who hijacked the president’s plane in the 1997 thriller “Air Force One?” Hint: He won an Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in 2017.
  5. How old are the current Air Force One planes? Hint here.
  6. Which of these is not on Air Force One?
    1. A gym.
    2. An escape pod.
    3. Fax machines.
    4. An emergency medical operating room.