Trump campaign fires multiple pollsters after unflattering numbers leak

President Donald Trump‘s campaign fired several pollsters after internal polling numbers that showed the President lagging behind Democratic presidential candidates in key states were made public, according to multiple sources.

CNN and other outlets first reported the numbers — which showed Trump trailing Joe Biden in states like Michigan and Wisconsin — weeks ago, but a purge of the polling team was proposed after Trump grew angry about coverage of the numbers in recent days. Campaign officials were frustrated after the detailed numbers of four of the 17 states polled leaked to outlets like ABC last week.

Michael Baselice, the president and CEO of Baselice & Associates Inc., is one of the pollsters the Trump campaign has let go, a Republican familiar with the matter told CNN. Baselice, who is based in Austin, Texas, joined the Trump campaign near the end of the 2016 election cycle and had been close to Trump’s 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale, the person said. Adam Geller, who was also a pollster for the Trump campaign in 2016, was another who was let go, according to another Republican familiar with the situation.

The campaign also cut ties with Brett Lloyd, president and CEO of The Polling Company, the former firm of White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway, a source familiar with the matter said.

Baselice and Geller are expected to begin working instead with America First, the pro-Trump super PAC, the source said. Lloyd is not expected to continue working with any Trump-affiliated entities.

A person familiar with the purge said the firings were less about the accuracy of the polling and more about meeting the President’s demands. Another person with knowledge of the discussions refuted this, saying it was about the leaks.

“Leaks from the campaign are unacceptable,” the second person said.

Two officials familiar with the discussions said the top two pollsters, Tony Fabrizio and John McLaughlin, are expected to stay on.

NBC News first reported on the campaign’s decision to oust some pollsters.

The existence of the 17-state survey, which contained bad news for Trump in battleground states, was reported by CNN and others weeks ago, as aides weighed plans for his reelection launch.

A more detailed accounting of the unflattering polls later appeared in The New York Times while the President was heading to Iowa to travel the state on the same day as Biden.

But days before the kickoff date, specific numbers related to head-to-head matchups between Trump and Biden in four states leaked to ABC on Friday, prompting a more forceful response from the campaign. Previously, the campaign had downplayed the leaked aspects of the internal polls, but did not deny the numbers.

Internal polling became a sensitive subject last week after Trump blew up at several campaign officials, telling them the numbers they had were incorrect and not an accurate reflection of how he’s polling throughout the country, one person familiar with his reaction told CNN. He has become fixated on the numbers in recent days, asking for regular updates or newer polls.

“It’s incorrect polling,” Trump told Fox News in an interview Friday. “Yes, it’s incorrect.”

In turn, campaign officials have spent the last several days rebutting the numbers, claiming they were old or incomplete. One person lamented that the campaign has become more focused on containing the leak than the President’s dismal numbers in key battleground states.

The fallout from the numbers comes as Trump is preparing to launch his reelection bid inside a 20,000-person arena in Orlando on Tuesday night, where he will be joined by first lady Melania Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and second lady Karen Pence.

The President has held several rallies already this year throughout the Rust Belt and in Florida, but his campaign is hoping to draw some attention away from the expansive Democratic presidential field by staging a monster-sized rally in a state that will be a must-win.

Those close to the President say Biden has occupied his head space more than any other candidate in the Democratic field, because Trump fears Biden poses a more serious threat to the blue-collar appeal that helped him win the 2016 election. Trump has continued to regularly phone aides and allies in the early morning hours to quiz them about Biden — and ask whether he poses a threat to his staying power in the White House.

While some aides have advised the President to refrain from attacking Biden by name, suggesting he “sit back and enjoy the show,” others say Trump enjoys having a foil, no matter how far away the general election is. He has attacked Biden from the South Lawn of the White House, while standing next to the Japanese Prime Minister during a news conference in Tokyo and often from his favorite platform, Twitter.

[CNN]

Trump blames Obama for not warning him about Michael Flynn. Which Obama did.

President Donald Trump wants you to believe that he had no way of knowing about former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s shady dealings with Russia before he made him his first national security adviser. In reality, the president is trying to rewrite history.

On Friday, Trump tweeted his lament that nobody warned him about Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who was dismissed from his job as director of national intelligence by then-President Barack Obama in 2014. After his dismissal, Flynn wasted little time cozying up to the Kremlin, and then spent 2016 as one of Trump’s key campaign surrogates.

“It now seems the General Flynn was under investigation long before was common knowledge,” Trump tweeted. “It would have been impossible for me to know this but, if that was the case, and with me being one of two people who would become president, why was I not told so that I could make a change?”

But news reports indicate otherwise. CNN, citing former Obama administration officials, reported on May 17, 2017, that during a White House meeting days after Trump’s election, Obama told him that “given the importance of the [national security adviser] job, the president through there were better people for it, and that Flynn wasn’t up for the job.” But Trump proceeded with hiring Flynn anyway. Former New Jersey governor and longtime Trump confidant Chris Christie has also said he directly advised Trump against hiring Flynn.

“If I were president-elect of the United States, I wouldn’t let General Flynn into the White House, let alone give him a job,” Christie said in 2017.

Flynn soon illustrated why Obama and Christie had concerns about him. During the presidential transition period, he had phone calls with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in which he advised Kislyak not to respond to new sanctions the Obama administration placed on Russia for interfering (on Trump’s behalf) in the just-completed presidential election. Not only did Flynn undercut Obama’s foreign policy, but he then lied about it, telling FBI investigators during an interview conducted days after Trump’s inauguration that he and Kislyak did not in fact discuss sanctions.

Flynn’s lies to the FBI prompted officials to warn Trump once again about Flynn. On January 26, 2017, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates personally informed the White House that Flynn lied to the FBI about his calls with Kislyak, and therefore was at risk of being blackmailed by Russia. But instead of immediately taking action against Flynn, the Trump administration fired Yates three days later, after she refused to implement Trump’s executive order barring people from a number of Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the United States.

Flynn was finally fired on February 13, after it emerged that he had also misled Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of his phone calls with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition period. He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in December 2017, agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller, and is still awaiting sentencing.

Trump, however, has repeatedly tried to blame the whole Flynn debacle on Obama.

Beyond the explicit warnings from Obama and Christie, a number of red flags were raised about Flynn, beginning with his unusual paid trip to Moscow for an RT gala in December 2015 — an event in which he infamously sat directly next to Russian President Vladimir Putin — and continuing throughout 2016.

As the Guardian detailed in March 2017, both US and British intelligence officers were troubled about Flynn’s role in the Trump administration, given his dealings with Russia:

US intelligence officials had serious concerns about Michael Flynn’s appointment as the White House national security adviser because of his history of contacts with Moscow and his encounter with a woman who had trusted access to Russian spy agency records, the Guardian has learned.

US and British intelligence officers discussed Flynn’s “worrisome” behaviour well before his appointment last year by Donald Trump, multiple sources have said.

They raised concerns about Flynn’s ties to Russia and his perceived obsession with Iran. They were also anxious about his capacity for “linear thought” and some actions that were regarded as highly unusual for a three-star general.

Trump, who promised during his campaign to thoroughly vet his appointees, ignored all the red flags and decided to make Flynn his national security adviser anyway. But instead of being accountable for that, he’s now again trying to shift blame.

Trump’s tweet comes amid new revelations that his lawyer tried to dissuade Flynn from cooperating with Mueller

Trump’s tweet comes the day after a federal judge unsealed records suggesting that months after Flynn’s firing, the White House took steps to discourage him from fully cooperating with investigators.

In the filing, members of Mueller’s team write that “[t]he defendant informed the government of multiple instances, both before and after his guilty plea, where either he or his attorneys received communications from persons connected to the Administration or Congress that could’ve affected both his willingness to cooperate and the completeness of that cooperation.”

The filing doesn’t contain additional information about which members of Congress were involved, but according to the Mueller report, Trump’s then-personal attorney — the Washington Post reports the attorney is John Dowd — left a voicemail for Flynn’s attorney in November 2017 and said, “[I]t wouldn’t surprise me if you’ve gone on to make a deal with … the government.”

Dowd went on to ask Flynn’s attorney for any information they might have had implicating the president, and also seemingly alluded to the possibility of a pardon.

“[I]f… there’s information that implicates the President, then we’ve got a national security issue [so] … we need some kind of heads-up. Just for the sake of protecting all our interests if we can …. [R]emember what we’ve always said about the President and his feelings toward Flynn and, that still remains,” the voicemail said.

The public should learn more about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak and the voicemail Dowd left for Flynn’s lawyer soon. According to the Post, the judge ordered prosecutors to make public a transcript of both, and they will be posted on a court website by May 31.

While Mueller concluded that Dowd’s voicemail didn’t rise to the level of prosecutable obstruction of justice — he cited the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) guidance that a sitting president cannot be indicted — the new revelations suggest the White House was worried about Flynn might tell investigators, and was taking steps to dissuade him from spilling.

So now, ahead of what could end up being more damaging revelations about his relationship with Flynn, Trump is again trying to distance himself from his former national security adviser, and throwing Obama under the bus in the process.

[Vox]

Trump Overrules Own Experts on Sanctions, in Favor to North Korea

President Trump undercut his own Treasury Department on Friday with a sudden announcement that he had rolled back newly imposed North Korea sanctions, appearing to overrule national security experts as a favor to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader.

The move, announced on Twitter, was a remarkable display of dissension within the Trump administration. It created confusion at the highest levels of the federal government, just as the president’s aides were seeking to pressure North Korea into returning to negotiations over dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

“It was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!”

The Treasury Department announced new sanctions on Friday against Iran and Venezuela, but not North Korea.

However, economic penalties were imposed on Thursday on two Chinese shipping companies suspected of helping North Korea evade international sanctions. Those penalties, announced with news releases and a White House briefing, were the first imposed against North Korea since late last year and came less than a month after a summit meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim collapsed in Hanoi, Vietnam, without a deal.

It was initially believed that Mr. Trump had confused the day that the North Korea sanctions were announced, and officials said they were caught off guard by the president’s tweet. Asked for clarification, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, declined to give specifics.

“President Trump likes Chairman Kim, and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary,” she said.

Hours later, two officials familiar with Mr. Trump’s thinking said the president was actually referring to additional North Korea sanctions that are under consideration but not yet formally issued.

That statement sought to soften the blow that Mr. Trump’s tweet had dealt to his most loyal aides. Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, personally signed off on the sanctions that were issued on Thursday and hailed the decision in an accompanying statement.

“The United States and our like-minded partners remain committed to achieving the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” Mr. Mnuchin said in the statement. He described the sanctions as part of an international campaign against North Korea that “is crucial to a successful outcome.”

Sanctions are one of America’s most powerful tools for pressuring rogue nations. Mr. Mnuchin has taken great pride in bolstering Treasury’s sanctions capacity and often says that he spends half of his time working on sanctions matters.

Tony Sayegh, a Treasury Department spokesman, referred questions about Friday’s sanctions confusion to the White House.

John R. Bolton, the president’s national security adviser, had also hailed the earlier action against North Korea in a tweet on Thursday: “Everyone should take notice and review their own activities to ensure they are not involved in North Korea’s sanctions evasion.”

Mr. Trump has been eager to strike a deal for North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons arsenal and, in turn, hand him a signature foreign policy achievement that has eluded his predecessors. Hawks in the administration, such as Mr. Bolton, have been wary of trusting Mr. Kim despite Mr. Trump’s professed strong personal connection to the North Korean leader.

Last month, Mr. Trump was criticized for defending Mr. Kim over the death of Otto F. Warmbier, an American college student who died in 2017 after being imprisoned in North Korea. Mr. Trump said he believed Mr. Kim’s claim that he was not aware of Mr. Warmbier’s medical condition.

But in recent weeks there have been increasing signs that the thawing relations between the two countries could again turn frosty.

This month, a vice foreign minister of North Korea, Choe Son-hui, accused Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mr. Bolton of creating an “atmosphere of hostility and mistrust” despite the chemistry between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim.

In another sign of hardening on Friday, North Korea withdrew its stafffrom the joint liaison office it has operated with South Korea since September. The office was viewed as a potential first step toward the Koreas establishing diplomatic missions in each other’s capitals. But North Korea has expressed frustration with how South Korea has been handling its role as a mediator with the United States.

The talks between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim broke down because North Korea wanted the United States to roll back some of its most economically painful sanctions without the North immediately dismantling its nuclear program.

As the linchpin of the global financial system, the United States relies on sanctions as one of its most powerful tools for international diplomacy. Officials at the Treasury and State Departments, including career staff members and political appointees, spend months carefully drafting sanctions based on intensive intelligence gathering and legal research.

The North Korea sanctions were no different, and the White House held a formal briefing on Thursday afternoon to explain the rationale behind the actions.

During the briefing, senior administration officials pushed back on the idea that the sanctions sought to increase pressure on North Korea. Instead, they said, the new measures were meant to maintain the strength of existing sanctions.

But one of the senior administration officials strongly rebutted any suggestion that the administration would ease some sanctions as confidence building, or in return for smaller steps by North Korea.

“It would be a mistake to interpret the policy as being one of a step by step approach, where we release some sanctions in return for piecemeal steps toward denuclearization” said the administration official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity. “That is not a winning formula and it is not the president’s strategy.”

While it is not unusual for the White House to have comment and even final approval of major sanctions, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have expressed doubts about Mr. Trump’s ability to execute sanctions policy responsibly.

In 2017, Congress passed legislation imposing sanctions on Russia and limiting the president’s authority to lift them. Under pressure from his own party, Mr. Trump reluctantly signed the bill.

The reversal on the North Korea sanctions drew swift condemnation on Friday from Democrats, who accused the president of being reckless with national security.

“Career experts at the Treasury Department undertake a painstaking process before imposing sanctions,” said Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee. “For Donald Trump to overturn their decision via tweet because he has an inexplicable fondness for one of the world’s most brutal dictators is appalling.”

He added, “Without a well-conceived diplomatic strategy, Trump is simply undermining our national security by making clear that the United States is not a trusted foreign policy partner.”

Some Republicans also pushed back against the president, with Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado saying that North Korea sanctions should be imposed. “Strategic Patience failed,” he tweeted. “Don’t repeat it.”

Mr. Trump’s decision stunned current and former Treasury Department officials, some of whom wondered if the move was planned in advance as a gesture to Mr. Kim. Others feared that America’s vaunted sanctions regime had been compromised.

“For an administration that continues to surprise, this is another first — the president of the United States undercutting his own sanctions agency for imposing sanctions on Chinese actors supporting North Korea,” said John E. Smith, the former director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, who left the department last year. “It’s a win for North Korea and China and a loss for U.S. credibility.”

Sarah Bloom Raskin, who was deputy Treasury secretary under President Barack Obama, said the sudden backtracking on a decision that would normally be made with comment from intelligence agencies and the National Security Council was perplexing.

“Reversing sanctions decisions within hours of making the announcement that you would impose them in the first place is a head-spinner,” she said. “This reversal signals the injection of some peripheral consideration or factor that only the president seems to know about and that may have nothing to do with national security.”

The Trump administration did issue some new sanctions on Friday. The Treasury Department announced sanctions against Iran, targeting a research and development unit that it believes could be used to restart the country’s nuclear weapons program. It also imposed sanctions on Bandes, Venezuela’s national development bank, and its subsidiaries, as part of its effort to topple the government of President Nicolás Maduro.

[The New York Times]

Trump Ordered Officials to Give Jared Kushner a Security Clearance

President Trump ordered his chief of staff to grant his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, a top-secret security clearance last year, overruling concerns flagged by intelligence officials and the White House’s top lawyer, four people briefed on the matter said.

Mr. Trump’s decision in May so troubled senior administration officials that at least one, the White House chief of staff at the time, John F. Kelly, wrote a contemporaneous internal memo about how he had been “ordered” to give Mr. Kushner the top-secret clearance.

The White House counsel at the time, Donald F. McGahn II, also wrote an internal memo outlining the concerns that had been raised about Mr. Kushner — including by the C.I.A. — and how Mr. McGahn had recommended that he not be given a top-secret clearance.

The disclosure of the memos contradicts statements made by the president, who told The New York Times in January in an Oval Office interview that he had no role in his son-in-law receiving his clearance.

Mr. Kushner’s lawyer, Abbe D. Lowell, also said that at the time the clearance was granted last year that his client went through a standard process. Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter and Mr. Kushner’s wife, said the same thing three weeks ago.

Asked on Thursday about the memos contradicting the president’s account, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said, “We don’t comment on security clearances.”

Peter Mirijanian, a spokesman for Mr. Lowell, said on Thursday: “In 2018, White House and security clearance officials affirmed that Mr. Kushner’s security clearance was handled in the regular process with no pressure from anyone. That was conveyed to the media at the time, and new stories, if accurate, do not change what was affirmed at the time.”

The decision last year to grant Mr. Kushner a top-secret clearance upgraded him from earlier temporary and interim status. He never received a higher-level designation that would have given him access to need-to-know intelligence known as sensitive compartmented information.

It is not known precisely what factors led to the problems with Mr. Kushner’s security clearance. Officials had raised questions about his own and his family’s real estate business’s ties to foreign governments and investors, and about initially unreported contacts he had with foreigners. The issue also generated criticism of Mr. Trump for having two family members serve in official capacities in the West Wing.

Mr. Kushner has spent this week abroad working on a Middle East peace plan. Among his meetings was one with Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

While the president has the legal authority to grant a clearance, in most cases, the White House’s personnel security office makes a determination about whether to grant one after the F.B.I. has conducted a background check. If there is a dispute in the personnel security office about how to move forward — a rare occurrence — the White House counsel makes the decision. In highly unusual cases, the president weighs in and grants one himself.

In Mr. Kushner’s case, personnel division officials were divided about whether to grant him a top-secret clearance.

In May 2018, the White House Counsel’s Office, which at the time was led by Mr. McGahn, recommended to Mr. Trump that Mr. Kushner not be given a clearance at that level. But the next day, Mr. Trump ordered Mr. Kelly to grant it to Mr. Kushner anyway, the people familiar with the events said.

The question of Mr. Kushner’s access to intelligence was a flash point almost from the beginning of the administration. The initial background check into Mr. Kushner dragged on for more than a year, creating a distraction for the White House, which struggled to explain why one of the people closest to the president had yet to be given the proper approval to be trusted with the country’s most sensitive information.

The full scope of intelligence officials’ concerns about Mr. Kushner is not known. But the clearance had been held up in part over questions from the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. about his foreign and business contacts, including those related to Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, according to multiple people familiar with the events.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Kushner was part of a group that met with a Russian lawyer who went to Trump Tower claiming to have political “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. And during the presidential transition, Mr. Kushner had a meeting with the Russian ambassador at the time, Sergey I. Kislyak, and the head of a Russian state-owned bank. When he applied for a security clearance, he did not reveal those meetings.

He later made several amendments to that section of his application, known as an SF86. His aides at the time insisted he had omitted those meetings inadvertently.

Mr. Kushner initially operated with a provisional clearance as his background check proceeded.

In an entry to Mr. Kushner’s personnel file on Sept. 15, 2017, the head of the personnel security division, Carl Kline, wrote, “Per conversation with WH Counsel the clearance was changed to interim Top Secret until we can confirm that the DOJ or someone else actually granted a final clearance. This action is out of an abundance of caution because the background investigation has not been completed.”

In a statement to The Times when Mr. Kushner received the clearance last year, Mr. Lowell said that “his application was properly submitted, reviewed by numerous career officials and underwent the normal process.”

During a review of security clearances in February 2018 that was prompted by the controversy surrounding Rob Porter, then the White House staff secretary, who had been accused of domestic abuse, Mr. Kushner’s clearance was downgraded from interim top secret to secret, limiting his access to classified information. At the time, Mr. Kelly wrote a five-page memo, revoking temporary clearances that had been in place since June 1, 2017.

That affected both Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump, who told friends and advisers that they believed that Mr. Kelly and Mr. McGahn were targeting them for petty reasons instead of legitimate concerns flagged by officials.

Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump both complained to the president about the situation, current and former administration officials said. In Mr. Kushner’s case, Mr. Trump would often turn to other aides and say in frustration, “Why isn’t this getting done?” according to a former administration official. On at least one occasion, the president asked another senior official if the person could sort out the issue. That official said no, according to this account.

Mr. Kelly did not believe it was appropriate to overrule the security clearance process and had brushed aside or avoided dealing with Mr. Kushner’s requests, a former administration official said. Mr. Kelly did not respond to a request for comment.

House Democrats are in the early stages of an investigation into how several Trump administration officials obtained clearances, including Mr. Kushner.

Mr. Trump’s precise language to Mr. Kelly about Mr. Kushner’s clearance in their direct conversation remains unclear. Two of the people familiar with Mr. Trump’s discussions with Mr. Kelly said that there might be different interpretations of what the president said. But Mr. Kelly believed it was an order, according to two people familiar with his thinking.

And Mr. Trump was definitive in his statements to The Times in the January interview.

“I was never involved with the security” clearances for Mr. Kushner, the president said. “I know that there was issues back and forth about security for numerous people, actually. But I don’t want to get involved in that stuff.”

A recent report by NBC revealed that Mr. Kline had overruled two career security specialists who had rejected Mr. Kushner’s application based on the F.B.I.’s concerns. A senior administration official confirmed the details laid out in the NBC report.

Mr. Kline was acting on the directive sent down by the president, one of the people familiar with the matter said.

The day that Mr. Lowell described Mr. Kushner’s process as having gone through normal routes, aides to Mr. Kushner had asked White House officials to deliver a statement from Mr. Kelly supporting what Mr. Lowell had said. But Mr. Kelly refused to do so, according to a person with knowledge of the events.

[The New York Times]

Trump Cabinet Member Literally Bans a Word Because He Can’t Explain it to Trump

Trump U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer — a cabinet-level official — tried repeatedly to explain what a “Memorandum of Understanding” is to Trump before finally giving up and promising never to use the term again, all during a nationally-televised photo op.

During remarks in the Oval Office prior to a meeting with Vice Premier Liu He of China Friday, Trump was asked about Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) between China and the United States, and Trump told reporters “I don’t like MOUs because they don’t mean anything. To me, they don’t mean anything. I think you’re better off just going into a document. I was never a fan of an MOU.”

“An MOU is a contract,” Lighthizer explained, adding that “It’s the way trade agreements are generally used,” that “It’s an actual contract between the two parties,” that “A memorandum of understanding is a binding agreement between two people,” and that “It’s detailed; it covers everything in great detail.”

“It’s just called a memorandum of understanding,” Lighthizer explained again, for a fifth and sixth time. “That’s a legal term. It’s a contract.”

Moments later, Trump said “I disagree. I think that a memorandum of understanding is not a contract to the extent that we want. We’re going to have — we’re doing a memorandum of understanding that will be put into a final contract, I assume. But, to me, the final contract is really the thing, Bob — and I think you mean that, too — is really the thing that means something.”

Trump again told Lighthizer that an MOU “doesn’t mean very much,” and asked, “how long will it take to put that into a final, binding contract?”

“From now on, we’re not using the word ‘memorandum of understanding’ anymore,” Lighthizer said, to laughter from the room. “We’re going to the term ‘trade agreement.’ All right? No more. We’ll never use the term again.”

“Good,” Trump said.

“We’ll have the same document,” Lighthizer added. “It’s going to be called a ‘trade agreement.’ We’re never going to use ‘MOU’ again.”

And so the MOU goes out, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Here’s hoping nobody ever tries to explain “Bill of Rights” to Trump.

Watch the video above, from The White House.

[Mediaite]

When Trump Phones Friends, the Chinese Listen and Learn

When President Trump calls old friends on one of his iPhones to gossip, gripe or solicit their latest take on how he is doing, American intelligence reports indicate that Chinese spies are often listening — and putting to use invaluable insights into how to best work the president and affect administration policy, current and former American officials said.

Mr. Trump’s aides have repeatedly warned him that his cellphone calls are not secure, and they have told him that Russian spies are routinely eavesdropping on the calls, as well. But aides say the voluble president, who has been pressured into using his secure White House landline more often these days, has still refused to give up his iPhones. White House officials say they can only hope he refrains from discussing classified information when he is on them.

Mr. Trump’s use of his iPhones was detailed by several current and former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could discuss classified intelligence and sensitive security arrangements. The officials said they were doing so not to undermine Mr. Trump, but out of frustration with what they considered the president’s casual approach to electronic security.

American spy agencies, the officials said, had learned that China and Russia were eavesdropping on the president’s cellphone calls from human sources inside foreign governments and intercepting communications between foreign officials.

The officials said they have also determined that China is seeking to use what it is learning from the calls — how Mr. Trump thinks, what arguments tend to sway him and to whom he is inclined to listen — to keep a trade war with the United States from escalating further. In what amounts to a marriage of lobbying and espionage, the Chinese have pieced together a list of the people with whom Mr. Trump regularly speaks in hopes of using them to influence the president, the officials said.

Among those on the list are Stephen A. Schwarzman, the Blackstone Group chief executive who has endowed a master’s program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and Steve Wynn, the former Las Vegas casino magnate who used to own a lucrative property in Macau.

The Chinese have identified friends of both men and others among the president’s regulars, and are now relying on Chinese businessmen and others with ties to Beijing to feed arguments to the friends of the Trump friends. The strategy is that those people will pass on what they are hearing, and that Beijing’s views will eventually be delivered to the president by trusted voices, the officials said. They added that the Trump friends were most likely unaware of any Chinese effort.

L. Lin Wood, a lawyer for Mr. Wynn, said his client was retired and had no comment. A spokeswoman for Blackstone, Christine Anderson, declined to comment on Chinese efforts to influence Mr. Schwarzman but said that he “has been happy to serve as an intermediary on certain critical matters between the two countries at the request of both heads of state.”

Russia is not believed to be running as sophisticated an influence effort as China because of Mr. Trump’s apparent affinity for President Vladimir V. Putin, a former official said.

China’s effort is a 21st-century version of what officials there have been doing for many decades, which is trying to influence American leaders by cultivating an informal network of prominent businesspeople and academics who can be sold on ideas and policy prescriptions and then carry them to the White House. The difference now is that China, through its eavesdropping on Mr. Trump’s calls, has a far clearer idea of who carries the most influence with the president, and what arguments tend to work.

The Chinese and the Russians “would look for any little thing — how easily was he talked out of something, what was the argument that was used,” said John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency who served in Moscow in the 1990s and later ran the agency’s Russia program.

Trump friends like Mr. Schwarzman, who figured prominently in the first meeting between President Xi Jinping of China and Mr. Trump at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s Florida resort, already hold pro-China and pro-trade views, and thus are ideal targets in the eyes of the Chinese, the officials said. Targeting the friends of Mr. Schwarzman and Mr. Wynn can reinforce the views of the two, the officials said. The friends are also most likely to be more accessible.

One official said the Chinese were pushing for the friends to persuade Mr. Trump to sit down with Mr. Xi as often as possible. The Chinese, the official said, correctly perceive that Mr. Trump places tremendous value on personal relationships, and that one-on-one meetings yield breakthroughs far more often than regular contacts between Chinese and American officials.

Whether the friends can stop Mr. Trump from pursuing a trade war with China is another question.

Officials said the president has two official iPhones that have been altered by the National Security Agency to limit their capabilities — and vulnerabilities — and a third personal phone that is no different from hundreds of millions of iPhones in use around the world. Mr. Trump keeps the personal phone, White House officials said, because unlike his other two phones, he can store his contacts in it.

Apple declined to comment on the president’s iPhones. None of them are completely secure and are vulnerable to hackers who could remotely break into the phones themselves.

But the calls made from the phones are intercepted as they travel through the cell towers, cables and switches that make up national and international cellphone networks. Calls made from any cellphone — iPhone, Android, an old-school Samsung flip phone — are vulnerable.

The issue of secure communications is fraught for Mr. Trump. As a presidential candidate, he regularly attacked his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, during the 2016 campaign for her use of an unsecured email server while she was secretary state, and he basked in chants of “lock her up” at his rallies.

Intercepting calls is a relatively easy skill for governments. American intelligence agencies consider it an essential tool of spycraft, and they routinely try to tap the phones of important foreign leaders. In a diplomatic blowup during the Obama administration, documents leaked by Edward J. Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, showed that the American government had tapped the phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

Foreign governments are well aware of the risk, and so leaders like Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin avoid using cellphones when possible.

President Barack Obama was careful with cellphones, too. He used an iPhone in his second term, but it could not make calls and could receive email only from a special address that was given to a select group of staff members and intimates. It had no camera or microphone and could not be used to download apps at will. Texting was forbidden because there was no way to collect and store the messages, as required by the Presidential Records Act.

“It is a great phone, state of the art, but it doesn’t take pictures, you can’t text. The phone doesn’t work, you know, you can’t play your music on it,” Mr. Obama said on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” in June 2016. “So basically, it’s like — does your 3-year-old have one of those play phones?”

When Mr. Obama needed a cellphone, the officials said, he used one of those of his aides.
Mr. Trump has insisted on more capable devices, although he did agree during the transition to give up his Android phone (the Google operating system is considered more vulnerable than Apple’s). And since becoming president, Mr. Trump has agreed to a slightly cumbersome arrangement of having two official phones: one for Twitter and other apps, and one for calls.

Mr. Trump typically relies on his mobile phones when he does not want a call going through the White House switchboard and logged for senior aides to see, his aides said. Many of those Mr. Trump speaks with most often on one of his cellphones, such as hosts at Fox News, share the president’s political views, or simply enable his sense of grievance about any number of subjects.

Administration officials said Mr. Trump’s longtime paranoia about surveillance — well before coming to the White House he believed his phone conversations were often being recorded — gave them some comfort that he was not disclosing classified information on the calls.

They said they had further confidence he was not spilling secrets because he rarely digs into the details of the intelligence he is shown and is not well versed in the operational specifics of military or covert activities.

In an interview this week with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Trump quipped about his phones being insecure. When asked what American officials in Turkey had learned about the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he replied, “I actually said don’t give it to me on the phone. I don’t want it on the phone. As good as these phones are supposed to be.”

But Mr. Trump is also famously indiscreet. In a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office with Russian officials, he shared highly sensitive intelligence passed to the United States by Israel. He also told the Russians that James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, was “a real nut job” and that firing him had relieved “great pressure.”

Still, Mr. Trump’s lack of tech savvy has alleviated some other security concerns. He does not use email, so the risk of a phishing attack like those used by Russian intelligence to gain access to Democratic Party emails is close to nil. The same goes for texts, which are disabled on his official phones.

His Twitter phone can connect to the internet only over a Wi-Fi connection, and he rarely, if ever, has access to unsecured wireless networks, officials said. But the security of the device ultimately depends on the user, and protecting the president’s phones has sometimes proved difficult.

Last year, Mr. Trump’s cellphone was left behind in a golf cart at his club in Bedminster, N.J., causing a scramble to locate it, according to two people familiar with what took place.

Mr. Trump is supposed to swap out his two official phones every 30 days for new ones but rarely does, bristling at the inconvenience. White House staff members are supposed to set up the new phones exactly like the old ones, but the new iPhones cannot be restored from backups of his old phones, because doing so would transfer over any malware.

New phone or old, though, the Chinese and the Russians are listening, and learning.

[The New York Times]

Trump Insists Russian Hackers ‘Probably Liked Hillary Clinton Better than Me’

During a press opportunity in Scottsdale, AZ on Friday, President Donald Trump was asked about the indictment of a Russian national accused of influencing the election.

Trump promptly suggested that it had nothing do with his campaign, and if anything, the hackers probably liked Hillary Clinton more.

“Nothing to do with my campaign,” Trump said.  “All the hackers, and all of the everybody that you see, nothing to do with my campaign. If they are hackers, a lot of them probably liked Hillary Clinton better than me. Now they do. Now they do. But you know, they go after some hacker in Russia, oh, had nothing to do with my campaign.”

Trump’s comments come on the same day as the Justice Department indicted a woman for interference in the midterm elections.

Elena Khusyaynova was charged with sowing discord in the United States by pushing misinformation on divisive political issues. It is the first case of a foreign national being indicted for interfering in the upcoming midterms.

[Mediaite]

Aides tried to persuade Donald Trump to let them fact-check his tweets

Top White House aides tried in vain to persuade President Donald Trump that he should let them check his tweets for accuracy, spelling and tone before he posted them for the world to see, journalist Bob Woodward wrote in his book that was released Tuesday.

Woodward said the aides – led by former communications director Hope Hicks – were alarmed by the outrage over Trump’s June 2017 tweet attacking the appearance and intelligence of Mika Brzezinski, a co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” political talk show.

The president blasted Brzezinski as “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” and said she had been “bleeding badly from a face-lift” during a New Year’s party at his Florida resort.

The tweet reignited controversy over Trump’s treatment of women, prompting Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine to tell Trump to “stop.”

“It’s not politically helpful,” Hicks told Trump, according to Woodward’s book “Fear” about the Trump White House. “You can’t just be a loose cannon on Twitter. You’re getting killed by a lot of this stuff. You’re shooting yourself in the foot. You’re making big mistakes.”

Hicks, along with three other aides – former staff secretary Rob Porter, former chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, and social media director Dan Scavino – told Trump they wanted to create a committee to vet his tweets, Woodward wrote.

“They would draft some tweets that they believed Trump would like,” Woodward wrote. “If the president had an idea for a tweet, he would write it down or get one of them in and they would vet it. Was it factually accurate? Was it spelled correctly? Did it make sense? Did it serve his needs?”

Trump reportedly responded “I guess you’re right” several times. But the president ended up ignoring his aides’ proposed edits and “did what he wanted,” Woodward wrote.

Trump has already tweeted his low opinion of the book.

“The Woodward book is a Joke – just another assault against me, in a barrage of assaults, using now dis-proven unnamed and anonymous sources,” he tweeted Monday. “Many have already come forward to say the quotes by them, like the book, are fiction.”

[USA Today]

Trump reportedly caught the Japanese prime minister off guard during a meeting at the White House by saying ‘I remember Pearl Harbor’

President Donald Trump reportedly caught Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe off guard with a comment about Pearl Harbor during a meeting at the White House in June, according to the Washington Post.

Trump reportedly said “I remember Pearl Harbor” to Abe in what was described as a “tense” meeting, referring to the attack by Japan on the United States that led to the US entering World War II.

Multiple diplomats spoke to the Post anonymously to describe the president’s increasingly fraught relationship with Abe, as Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum hit Japan’s economy and his policies on North Korea differ from Abe’s desired approach.

Trump reportedly ignored advice from Abe on negotiating with North Korea before meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore this past June, according to the report.

A diplomat could not explain the meaning of Trump’s comment about Pearl Harbor, but told the Post Trump appreciates historical references and mentions Japan’s “samurai past”.

Trump and Abe have had a largely positive relationship, often bonding on the golf course. Abe has even stayed at Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida during one of their many meetings.

The two have met eight times since Trump took office, which is more than any other world leader. And they’ve spoken on the phone 26 times, according to the Post.

Calling him his “good friend”, Trump sees Abe as a respected counterpart and a good negotiator, according to the report.

Meanwhile, Abe has lauded Trump’s leadership as “outstanding” and “remarkable”, and has not retaliated against Trump’s tariffs. Abe even gave Trump a gold-plated golf club worth $3,800, according to the Post.

https://www.businessinsider.com/i-remember-pearl-harbor-trump-told-japan-pm-shinzo-abe-report-2018-8

Trump got into a bizarre fight with Vietnam vets over the movie ‘Apocalypse Now’

A new report from the Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng claims that President Donald Trump got into a bizarre argument last year during a meeting with Vietnam veterans over the classic war movie “Apocalypse Now.”

According to Suebsaeng’s sources, the meeting between Trump and several Vietnam veterans was arranged by estranged former aide Omarosa Manigault-Newman, who at the time served as a liaison between the president and veterans’ organizations.

During the meeting, a dispute broke out over whether Robert Duvall’s character in “Apocalypse Now” used napalm or Agent Orange against Vietcong forces. Apparently, Trump falsely believed that it was Agent Orange that U.S. forces used against the enemy, despite the fact that the movie’s single most famous line is Duvall’s character saying, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

“Multiple people — including Vietnam War veterans — chimed in to inform the president that the Apocalypse Now set piece he was talking about showcased the U.S. military using napalm, not Agent Orange,” Suebsaeng reports. “Trump refused to accept that he was mistaken and proceeded to say things like, ‘no, I think it’s that stuff from that movie.’”

One veteran who was present at the meeting described it to Suebsaeng as “really f*cking weird.”

[Raw Story]

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