Politico

Putin preens while Trump settles old scores

HELSINKI — Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin found one point of complete agreement: They both wanted Trump to win the 2016 U.S. election.

Beyond that, however, the former reality TV star and the former KGB spy mostly talked past each other at their high-stakes meeting in Finland, with Putin preening on the world stage and Trump still obsessed with settling scores on the home front.

From an optical standpoint, Putin scored huge PR victories at the joint news conference, portraying Russia again and again as a restored superpower with major influence around the globe. In other words, to use a Trumpian phrase, Putin proved he has made Russia great again.

But the Russian president seemingly won nothing in the form of concrete concessions: No recognition of the annexation of Crimea; no rescinding of economic sanctions; no readmission into the G8; no recommitment by the U.S. to the Iran nuclear deal; no reversal of Trump’s opposition to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline; not even a firm commitment on new cooperation in Syria, which Putin had made a priority.

Yes, he shared the stage with the friendliest American president in his nearly 20 years as Russia’s pre-eminent leader. And yes, he was able to run through a repertoire of favored talking points unchallenged, including that Crimea was taken legally — by “a referendum in strict compliance with the U.N. charter.”

But despite all the hyperventilating on cable news shows about how soft Trump was on his Russian counterpart, Putin went back to Moscow with nothing more than vague plans to create a “high level working group to bring together captains of Russian and American business” and to create “an expert council that would include political scientists, prominent diplomats and former military experts” in hopes of improving ties.


“Notice not a single major deal was announced before or after,” said Matthew Rojansky, the director of the Kennan Institute, a Russia-focused think tank in Washington. “Just a list of issues discussed: Syria, Iran, nukes, energy, Ukraine.”

Rojansky called it “a meeting-focused meeting.”

“The point was to signal that the two governments can talk,” he said. “And now if there’s any substantive work to be done, in theory the two bureaucracies can get started on it, but I am doubtful there’s much room for progress.”

For some, the lack of substantive achievements is a relief: Trump didn’t make any of the concessions some allies had feared.

Even on the U.S. election they were not quite in sync. Putin expressed no doubt about Trump’s victory, and insisted with total certainty that Russia did not interfere. Asked if he wanted Trump to win, Putin replied bluntly: “Yes I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.”

Trump, however, seemed less sure on both counts.

“So far, that I know, virtually none of it related to the campaign,” Trump said of the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking into Hillary Clinton’s campaign computers. “They will have to try really hard to find something that did relate to the campaign. That was a clean campaign. I beat Hillary Clinton easily … We won that race. It’s a shame there could even be a little bit of a cloud over it.”

When it came to the intelligence community, Trump appeared to throw some people, including his director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, under the bus. “Dan Coats came to me and some others and said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”


But if Trump’s siding with Putin over the U.S. is remarkable, it was for the setting — standing alongside the Russian president — not for the content. Trump has said many of the same things before.

“I think it’s a disgrace that we can’t get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 emails,” Trump whined, returning to his obsession — denying collusion. “So I have great confidence in my intelligence people,” Trump said. “But I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”

Trump embraced Putin’s suggestion that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, should submit a formal request for cooperation from Russian law enforcement authorities — calling it an “incredible offer.”

Indeed, it is incredible — as in defying credulity: Russia continues to offer safe harbor to fugitives from the U.S., notably Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who was given Russian asylum after stealing a trove of government secrets and releasing them for publication.

Trump, in the end, seemed to do what he always does: He sowed chaos and disruption while achieving little substantive change. A clear pattern can now be discerned: from his upending of the G7 summit in Quebec, to his mostly unproductive summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, to his threats and bluster at NATO headquarters followed by a reaffirmation of his commitment to the alliance, to his insulting interview in Britain, where he backtracked, hemmed and hawed and finally muddled through his visit.

As with his hyperbolic claims in Singapore and at NATO, Trump declared a huge victory after his two-hour one-on-one meeting with Putin, followed by a slightly shorter working lunch with aides, at the Presidential Palace in the Finnish capital.

“Our relationship has never been worse than it is now,” Trump said in his opening remarks at the news conference. “However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that.”

At times, the far more experienced Putin seemed to be toying with Trump, who has little diplomatic experience and seemed ill-prepared for his encounter with the extremely disciplined Russian.

Putin used his offer of law enforcement cooperation with Mueller’s investigation to pivot to a smearing of Bill Browder, a British investment banker who has led an international campaign to punish Russia for its human rights abuses. Trump said nothing as Putin accused Browder of criminal charges that Western experts have long dismissed as politically motivated.


Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, died in a Russian prison and a U.S. law to punish Russia for human rights abuse is named the Magnitsky Act.

The Kremlin and the White House had agreed to allow two questions each from Russian and U.S. journalists, and even there the Russians found a way to take a jab at the U.S. that Trump seemed to miss.

Russia’s first question went to the Interfax news agency, but its second was reserved for Russia Today (RT) — the Kremlin-owned and controlled international television outlet widely derided in the West as carrying government propaganda.

Trump, who repeatedly bashes U.S. journalists for “fake news,” made no comment about RT, and simply replied to the question about Syria. Putin also pivoted off questions about election meddling by Russia to criticize George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire and supporter of liberal causes. As with Putin’s other jabs, Trump offered no comment or response.

Putin used a question about Trump’s opposition to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to suggest the U.S. and Russia could cooperate on setting international energy policy. Putin flattered Trump, praising him for his outreach to North Korea, which so far has yielded no concrete concessions.

And Putin denied that Russia had any incriminating video of Trump during a visit to Russia for the Miss Universe pageant in 2013. Putin called the assertion “nonsense.”

Trump was most animated in denouncing the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s emails as “a disgrace” and hammering the special counsel investigation as a “total witch hunt.”

While many American officials, including Republicans, slammed Trump’s performance, the president departed Helsinki seeming content for the main message of the meeting to be that, as far as he was concerned, relations with Russia had been reset.

On that point, Putin was more than happy to play along. “The tense atmosphere essentially has no solid reason behind it,” Putin said. “The Cold War is a thing of past.”

Putin, who appeared relaxed throughout the news conference, gave Trump a football from the recently concluded World Cup and with a sly smile told the American: “The ball is in your court.”


Bid to strip citizenship from N.Y. terror plotter hits snag

The Trump administration has hit a setback in its effort to strip U.S. citizenship from a Pakistani-born truck driver who admitted 15 years ago to involvement in an Al Qaeda plot to cut the cables on New York City's iconic Brooklyn Bridge.

A federal judge in Illinois issued an order last week turning down a Justice Department motion for a ruling denaturalizing Iyman Faris, 49, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2003 on a charge of providing material support for terrorism.

The order from U.S. District Court Judge Staci Yandle did not definitively resolve the denaturalization lawsuit filed in March 2017 as part of a broader Trump administration drive to step up efforts to rescind the citizenship of those deemed to have received it under false pretenses, but the judge's decision denied the Justice Department its bid for a victory in the relatively early stages of the litigation.

Government lawyers said Faris was naturalized in 1999 based in part on acts of fraud or misrepresentation, including using someone else's passport to enter the country and lying by claiming that he crossed into the U.S. over the Canadian border to Buffalo when, in fact, he flew into New York City.

However, Yandle said the government had not established — yet — that those acts had any impact on the approval of his U.S. citizenship.


"American citizenship is precious, and the government carries a heavy burden of proof when attempting to divest a naturalized citizen of his or her citizenship," wrote Yandle, an appointee of President Barack Obama. "The Government must produce evidence justifying revocation that is 'clear, unequivocal, and convincing and not leave the issue in doubt. ...' However, there is nothing in the record currently before the Court that establishes as a matter of law what effect, if any, Faris' alleged misrepresentations had on the decision to grant him citizenship."

'The Government's arguments fall short of meeting its burden of clear, unequivocal, and convincing evidence," the judge added in her five-page order, issued last Wednesday.

The case is now expected to proceed to a fact-finding stage and, possibly, a trial.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the ruling, noting that the case is ongoing. However, a Justice official said the administration plans to press on with an initiative that has significantly boosted the number of denaturalization cases. In a budget document last year, the administration said it was planning for "exponential growth" in citizenship-stripping cases.

"The law is clear that the United States can pursue denaturalizations at any time if evidence indicates that an individual unlawfully secured the ultimate immigration benefit of naturalization," the official said.


A lawyer for Faris, Thomas Durkin, welcomed Yandle's decision.

"We’re very pleased with the judge’s ruling," he said. "We believe she was correct that this is a remedy that is rarely ever granted. Anyone is entitled to their day in court and we look very forward to challenging the government’s evidence. ... We think the discovery will get very interesting."

Durkin said the effort to denaturalize Faris is a breach of promises made to him at the time of his guilty plea in 2003 — a plea he unsuccessfully sought to withdraw at the last minute.

"We think it's a mean-spirited attempt at further punishment and violates his original plea agreement with the government," the attorney said.

Faris is due for release in December 2020, according to information on the Bureau of Prisons' website.


Veterans spending dispute raises specter of stopgap

Inviting more stopgap spending, the White House has fired off an official warning against congressional efforts to blow through budget limits.

Top Trump administration officials sent a letter Monday cautioning lawmakers against raising spending caps to accommodate shifts in funding for a popular veterans health program, though they stopped short of threatening a veto.

Many Democrats — and some powerful Senate Republicans — are insisting billions of dollars be spent beyond the limit agreed upon in this year’s grand budget deal.

The White House’s public stand draws battle lines in the first major showdown ahead of this fall’s funding deadline, endangering congressional efforts to clear updated spending levels before fiscal 2018 cash runs out Sept. 30.

The likely result: Another continuing resolution that extends funding at current levels as lawmakers and the administration struggle to find consensus.

Although funding for veterans programs is riding within a package that houses just three of the 12 annual funding bills, the breakdown does not bode well for broader spending negotiations leading up to the fiscal 2019 deadline.


Issuing partisan jabs two months before September's end, White House officials are accusing Democrats of being deceitful and using veterans funding as a ploy to raise government spending.

“Congressional Democrats want to use this opportunity as another way to yet again increase the caps,” one administration source said.

But the issue is complicated.

Just last month President Donald Trump signed into law a bill that switched up some veterans health programs and shifted funding sources, requiring Congress to allocate money that used to be guaranteed. Because that shift came after the budget deal was struck, top spending leaders in the Senate contend that it doesn’t make sense to be constrained to the old top line established before the change to the veterans program.

The Trump administration and House Republicans are dogged in their resistance to that approach, however. And House leaders called off the first negotiating meeting last week on fiscal 2019 spending after it became clear that the Senate Appropriations Committee’s top Democrat, Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), was planning to offer an amendment that would fund the veterans health efforts with money above the budget caps.

In their letter Monday, Trump administration officials said Congress’ current allocation is “more than sufficient” to make up for the shortfall in money for the veterans health program.

“This funding can and should be provided within the existing non-Defense discretionary spending cap, and the Administration opposes efforts to increase or adjust the cap,” the letter says.

The Trump administration has for weeks been pushing its stance behind the scenes, with help from House GOP leaders, who say they, too, are unwilling to reconsider the budget limits.


Ryan scraps 'abolish ICE' vote

Speaker Paul Ryan quashed a rank-and-file effort to force Democrats to take a politically toxic vote to abolish the federal government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, sources familiar with the matter told POLITICO.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) last week floated the idea of forcing Democrats to vote on a bill that would eliminate ICE, a proposal backed by the far-left but is unpopular with most voters. Republicans, the thinking went, would win either way: Democrats would either back the bill and watch Republicans use it against them in the midterms. Or a portion of Democrats would oppose it, depressing the liberal base.

But Ryan (R-Wis.) was concerned about a third option: that Democrats wouldn't vote at all, or uniformly oppose it, making Republicans look silly. Last Friday, he told House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) he didn’t want to put the measure, sponsored by Progressive Caucus co-Chairman Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), on the floor — even though McCarthy told reporters just hours before that House Republicans would do just that.

But McCarthy, according to one leadership source, came to agree with Ryan. Since Democrats said they would vote against their own measure, he figured they already had a victory of sorts.

“It became obvious it would backfire and take away rather than advance the issue,” said one GOP source allied with Ryan on this matter.


Instead, GOP leaders will hold a vote on a bill sponsored by Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) expressing support for ICE, a move McCarthy announced publicly Monday.

“We will vote on Wednesday … talking about all the things ICE has done saving the children, the human trafficking, the more than 980,000 pounds of narcotics” seized, McCarthy told reporters. “I gave Pocan an opportunity to vote on the bill … They don’t want to vote for their own bill.”

POLITICO reported on Thursday that Pocan would not back the bill, even after he and other liberal Democrats introduced it and have been rallying the base with the proposal for days.

"After being called on their bluff, Democrats ran scared from their own bill," said Ryan's spokeswoman, Ashlee Strong. "Democrats will now have the chance to stand with the majority of Americans who support ICE and vote for this resolution, or follow the extreme voices on the far left calling for [abolition] of an agency that protects us."

GOP leaders now argue that allowing lawmakers to support ICE rather than rebuke it will put Democrats on record in the same manner. The Higgins bill includes language condemning the idea of abolishing ICE.

But that might not be enough for some conservatives who want to press Democrats on the issue. Multiple conservative members were balking on the floor late Monday at the sudden change of plans.

The matter will almost certainly come up during a House Republican Conference meeting on Tuesday.


Putin’s Attack on the U.S. Is Our Pearl Harbor

On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise conventional attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet moored at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese operation was part of a larger strategy: cripple the United States — in capability, naval manpower and mentality — so that we would be prevented from interfering as Japan continued military operations throughout Southeast Asia. Almost 3,500 Americans were killed or wounded; eight U.S. battleships were damaged and four were sunk; and more than 300 aircraft were damaged or destroyed. To this day, the wreckage of the USS Arizona is a monument to loss of life and totality of destruction. The attack happened without a declaration of war and without explicit warning, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded the next day.

On September 11, 2001, the Islamist terrorist group Al Qaeda conducted four coordinated unconventional attacks against our nation. Its leader, Osama bin Laden, chose targets linked to the U.S. government and American economic power as part of his larger strategy: bring “holy war” to the American homeland for what bin Laden alleged were aggressions against Muslims in the Middle East. Nearly 3,000 people were killed and more than 6,000 injured in attacks that caused at least $10 billion in damages. The memorials in Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, remind us of the loss and of the hollowness we felt watching the Twin Towers fall. The attack happened without a declaration of war and without explicit warning, and President George W. Bush responded the next day.

Many think of Pearl Harbor and September 11th in terms of the overwhelming devastation the attacks caused rather than the critical transformation they sparked. Yet both attacks were earth-shaking events that forced a forward leap in our strategic thinking about the defense of the American homeland and the projection of American power. As the smoke still rose over the wreckage of our fleet, and as the dust settled over Manhattan and the Pentagon, we went to war. We acted because Japan and Al Qaeda had underestimated us. We went to war knowing we must fight back, but uncertain how we would win. We acted because we had renewed political will, a newfound clarity toward an enemy and its objectives, and because we understood the cost of failing to rise to the challenge. We were tested in ways we never expected, and the cost was unthinkably high, but we acted because we had to.

In 2016, our country was targeted by an attack that had different operational objectives and a different overarching strategy, but its aim was every bit as much to devastate the American homeland as Pearl Harbor or 9/11. The destruction may not send pillars of smoke into the sky or come with an 11-digit price tag, and there’s no body count or casualty statistics—but the damage done has ravaged our institutions and shaken our belief in our immovability. But two years on, we still haven’t put any boats or men in the proverbial water. We still have not yet acted—just today, President Donald Trump, a beneficiary of this attack, exonerated the man who ordered it: Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.

Piece by piece, name by name, one operational detail after the next, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has documented that the Russian attack on the American homeland and the American people was every inch as organized, expansive, penetrating and daring as that Japanese run on our fleet or bin Laden’s plan to use civilian airliners as weapons. The Kremlin targeted no remote outpost or iconic landmark, but rather aimed at the very heart of what we are as a nation. The attacks target our processes of government, our democratic institutions and our trust in our values. The further this assault on our independence recedes into the past, the additional suggestions by anyone that it didn’t happen, the more deeply entrenched the adversary becomes in our terrain.

***

Russia’s cyber warfare capabilities are just one element of an arsenal of hybrid, asymmetric means the Kremlin has focused on expanding since its cyberattacks against Estonia in 2007 and its invasion of Georgia in 2008. In 2013, the Russian chief of the general staff General Valery Gerasimov outlined this concept of warfare, emphasizing that “the role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.” Putin polished what they had learned in earlier operations and put these on full display a year later, as Russia seized and then annexed Crimea, and then launched an invasion of eastern Ukraine fronted by local proxies backed by the Russian military.

While it has become quite popular to debate whether or not what is referred to as “the Gerasimov Doctrine” was intended to be military or security doctrine or not, the way of war Gerasimov discussed is, in fact, how the Russians now fight. Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee in March 2018, General Mike Scaparrotti, head of U.S. European Command, was asked about Gerasimov, and he responded succinctly and with candor: “Russia has a doctrine that … sees these activities below the level of conflict as part of the full spectrum, with the intent that if they can undermine a target country using these means ... never having to use military force, that’s their objective.”

Gerasimov has since updated his thinking on the uses of hybrid warfare to erode the will of the enemy, saying that “spiritual resources—the nation’s cohesion and desire to confront the aggressor at all cost,” were one of the most important determiners of victory or defeat in these new shadow wars. Confusing the enemy has always been a doctrinal tenet of Russian war-fighting, so this new approach just replaces the old “Maskirovka” (deception) as a primary objective. The more you read about how Russia has tested and adapted these tactics in its near-abroad, the harder it is to deny that the Kremlin’s attack on America is no outlier but rather one more entry in an ongoing, evolving playbook that is yielding more success than anyone wants to admit.

So where are the air-raid sirens and the calls to arms from those who vow to protect and defend our Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic? Last week, as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein released Mueller’s latest indictment of the 12 Russian intelligence officers, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was also testifying on Capitol Hill. “The warning lights are blinking red,” he said. The risk of a “crippling cyberattack on our critical infrastructure” by a foreign adversary was increasing, he added. Coats named Russia as the most aggressive threat, saying: “The digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”

Not in 2016. Now. It’s happening all over again.

***

The Mueller indictments have pulled back the curtain on enough of the details that we should see how much we still don’t know—but need to. They show the extent to which Russia has learned to “hack” our systems using these hybrid/asymmetric means with an emerging and polished cyber capability at its core. They are, in short, working us. Using our social media and free press to manipulate opinion; using willing collaborators to act on their behalf; using a degraded trust in government institutions and the free press to sow further confusion and distrust. They are winning using covert, deceptive means, and it’s all completely out in the open, while remaining totally invisible.

The earlier indictment of the Internet Research Agency (IRA) explained the extent to which these government proxies had gone to set up false identities—using forged and stolen IDs, fraudulent bank accounts, and other fake identify documents—in order to create networks of interlinked accounts pretending to be Americans. These accounts were meant to embed within and learn to emulate the discourse of target communities, expand their following and influence, and then amplify certain tendencies. This included setting up completely fictitious local news portals, group pages and other content purveyors. They chose identities as veterans and their wives, wholesome grannies, devout evangelicals and, above all, patriots. All of this was a process begun years in advance of the 2016 elections, based on the exact same tactics of psychological control the Kremlin had tested and refined against its own population.

The IRA was a close proxy for these Kremlin activities—more than anything, a way to recruit civilians to act as hostile agents. But the actions described in the new indictment, for the Democratic National Committee hacks, were conducted by real units from within the Russian military architecture. They aren’t civilians, and they aren’t deniable proxies—though Putin did try just that in his news conference with Trump, calling them “alleged” intelligence officers. Even identifying them by name and rank demonstrates our potential for fighting back.

A dozen seasoned Russian military intelligence officers conducted hacking and infiltration operations against U.S. political parties and state elections infrastructure, including voter rolls and registration systems. They established false identifies, covered their trail and used cryptocurrency to hide the origin of their operations. These units created false personas that successfully masqueraded as journalists, other hackers, and other influencers, and they built out the infrastructure of a fictitious “hacktivist” group to release materials stolen from the DNC. The indictment also explains that these GRU cells were generating their own revenue to conduct these operations, both by mining bitcoin and by diverting donations from the Democratic Party via a spoofed webpage. That is true evil genius.

Proxy or official, the Russian operatives were able to create “American” personas that interacted freely with American voters, journalists, activists—and campaign officials. They also seemed to have considerable knowledge of how to target and parse American audiences. All of this was subversive and deceptive—but done right out in the open. It was targeting American society and individuals in a way that bypassed the existing system of protections, including those inherent in our own decision-making.

Why fight this way, using intelligence operations, proxies, information operations, compatriots? This asymmetric way of war exposes Russia’s comparable weakness. Their preferred use of proxies has the unique benefit of lowering the accountability for their actions while raising the appetite for risk-taking. There’s a lot of testing, and a lot of failure—but no one cares as long as the testing continues to generate new lines of attack. Their tactics are asymmetric and guerrilla in nature—which through history has always been how a less powerful adversary fights a more powerful force. This way of war is flexible, adaptive, cheap, decentralized, and—most important—deniable.

But we must stop denying how the Kremlin acts and what it says. As Coats testified, the U.S. intelligence community continues to see “aggressive attempts [by Russia] … intended to exacerbate social political divisions” in the U.S., including by the establishment of new accounts “masquerading as Americans.”

***

Mueller’s indictments have given incredible visibility into an ongoing Russian intelligence operation against the United States—the full scale of which, when exposed fully, will likely make it the most successful, and perhaps the most important, in history.

But it’s been years—years!—and despite all this detail held by our intelligence community and known by many in our military and national security apparatus who study these things, nothing has changed. Members of the House and Senate have been briefed, but remain deadlocked in partisan bickering. Some in the House have spent more time investigating the investigators than they have in trying to hold Russia accountable. Trump’s suggestion to accept Russian investigators into this process adds a new layer to the sideshow. When right of the boom feels like left of the boom, it’s easy to miss the fact that what the Kremlin did—is doing—was, and is, an act of war.

Why would Putin take such a dangerous risk? Because it is his only potential means of survival. Everyday this invisible, seemingly impossible attack becomes a little more known and a little more visible—but this exposure absent any sense of clarity, leadership, public communication, or plan to counter it instills fear and panic as much as it elicits outrage. And it destroys trust in the institutions of government, a critical element of any democracy.

What Clausewitz called the center of gravity is no longer the physical environment of the opponent’s capital city, but it could be the elements of the nation’s institutions. And we won’t be able to count our daily dead or counter the enemy’s advances by “fielding” new battlefield equipment. But in the information age, the intelligence and leadership of our fighters—those in uniform and those in civilian clothes—becomes paramount. The old formula of resistance to an enemy is accomplished by either affecting his will to fight or his means of fighting. So far, we have neither deterred Russian behavior nor its means of attack. Today, we may even have given them additional license to believe they can continue.

As Gerasimov himself noted: Fighting hybrid attacks requires an informed, prepared, mobilized population with the will to fight and to understand. Our friends closer to the Russian border understand this, as well. Gaining clarity is required. Facts, not narratives, are essential. We’re now so deep in the churn, all of this will be quite challenging—for military and civilians alike. The president of the United States stood next to the foreign adversary responsible for ordering an attack on the American homeland and American people, and he dismissed the whole thing and said nothing happened. This is disarming the American public in what should be the most important fight in our history.

When Japan attacked, and when Al Qaeda attacked, they wanted to be known as the enemy of America, and they wanted it to be known that they had brought the fight to us. Revanchist Russia has a new formula: giving their domestic audience a clear enemy, but denying one to us by muddling our thinking, our judgment and our leadership.

So far, this attack has been met by relative silence at the top, by at least two consecutive presidents who have failed to find the right formula for dealing with a calculating foe like Putin. This silence propagates fear, division, unrest and diminishing trust—and it is every bit as crippling as Putin could have hoped.

Trump may think of the European Union as America’s primary foe, but the Kremlin identifies the United States as its primary adversary. It is using asymmetric means to attack our society and our alliances, and to attack the citizens of the West. More details of this are being exposed daily, and our intelligence, military and national security communities are getting louder and louder in signaling their alarm. For now, our civilian leadership is shrugging this off, even acquiescing, which leaves every individual to defend themselves against the assault of information levied by a foreign attacker. This should not be the way we defend our people and our homeland.

This is our Pearl Harbor, our 9/11. In the past, we have risen to the defense of our values, our ideologies and our institutions. It’s time for another fight. The ball — as Putin said — is in our court.


Rand finds lots to like in Trump's presser with Putin

As the GOP’s long-dominant hawkish wing hammers President Donald Trump over his chummy appearance Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a minority of Republicans aren't ready to clip their president's diplomatic wings.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), whose non-interventionist streak has long put him at odds with GOP foreign policy orthodoxy, plans to travel to Russia in early August to play shuttle diplomacy for Trump. In an interview on Monday, Paul said he hopes to meet with Trump before he heads overseas to “to see if there’s anything he wants us to follow up on.”

“It’s gotten so ridiculous that someone has to stand up and say we should try to engage even our adversaries and open up our lines of communication,” Paul said. "We’re going to talk to the president about some small steps in order to try to thaw the relations between our countries."

It’s hard to imagine any other GOP president empowering a legislator like Paul to pursue his goals of diplomacy with a longtime adversary like Russia. Paul's focus, for now, is on cultural exchange and fostering cross-Atlantic visits by U.S. and Russian ambassadors.

To be sure, Paul has few Republican companions who share in his embrace of Trump's approach to Russia. But some of his colleagues are also prepared to give Trump a wider runway in his dealings with Putin.


Two weeks before Trump met with Putin in Helsinki, a group of seven GOP senators and one House member visited Russia over the July 4 holiday week — a trip that would have been unthinkable when President Barack Obama was in office.

Those senators said they talked tough with top officials like Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, despite the Russian media’s portrayal of them as weak on Moscow. And though they certainly don’t cite Russia as a friend, they believe Trump’s engagement with Putin is the right call.

Asked whether Trump made a mistake by going to Helsinki, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) replied: “No, no, no.”

Johnson, who indicated openness to relaxing some sanctions on Russia after joining the visit there, suggested that Trump’s news conference with Putin may be “trying to improve relations, with the public face you put on it.”

"The president's got a delicate task in one sense, because engagement even with someone as evil as Putin is necessary," added Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. "They way I interpret it is the president is trying to maintain some rapport with him."

GOP voices more critical of Paul and Trump's stance toward Russia took center stage on Monday. Mitt Romney called Trump’s performance alongside Putin “disgraceful” and Sen. John McCain called the meeting with Putin a “tragic mistake.”

But Paul chalks that up to “Trump derangement syndrome.” He believes his trip, planned in concert with the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, will allow the United States to eventually make inroads with Russia in the ongoing civil war in Syria, denuclearizing North Korea and getting Russian troops out of Ukraine.

“Republicans that are making the criticism are either the pro-war Republicans like McCain and Graham or the anti-Trump ones like Sasse,” Paul said. “They are motivated by their persistent and consistent dislike of the president.”

Indeed, Trump has gradually but significantly shifted the GOP’s views of Russia, in part because as leader of the party, he has made it impossible for its lawmakers to criticize him and win primaries. Though Trump declined on Monday to endorse the U.S. intelligence committee's assessment of Russian meddling in the election and suggested the bad relationship between the United States and Russia was both countries' fault, many Republicans praised him as forceful with Russia in deed -- if not necessarily always in word.


“It was a good idea for the president to meet with Putin and discuss the issues. Take a look at how tough the president has been on Putin: It’s been incredibly tougher than previous administrations,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), mentioning sanctions and providing weapons to Ukraine. “It’s important.”

Montana Sen. Steve Daines, another Republican who traveled to Russia during this month’s delegation, said that “the intelligence community has been very clear that they interfered in our elections" despite Trump's attempt to assign equal blame.

“It’s appropriate — very appropriate — to confront President Putin with the behavior of Russia, which is unacceptable,” Daines said. Asked whether Trump had offered that sort of confrontation, Daines said he had yet to see the president’s news conference.

Trump’s most vocal foreign policy critics were more outraged than ever. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), for instance, said the president made the United States look like a “pushover.”

But most Republicans tried to thread a needle that may not really exist: thrashing Putin while praising Trump — or laying off of him altogether.

"President Trump won. Hillary lost. It's time for Democrats and the media to move on, and the president should keep on being forceful with Russia,” a spokeswoman for GOP Senate candidate Josh Hawley of Missouri told the Springfield News-Leader.

No Republican was more bullish on Trump's performance than Paul, who voted against last year's overwhelmingly popular bill slapping sanctions on Russia. Paul is also a longtime skeptic of the hawkish Republican advisers whom Trump has surrounded himself with, from national security adviser John Bolton to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Yet when it comes to the fraught relationship with Russia, it turned out that Trump is much closer to the junior senator from Kentucky than any of the GOP establishment hawks around the president himself.


“We have a lot of areas ... we should be talking about,” Paul said of Russia. “We won’t get anywhere on it if we just say we want ... to put more sanctions on them and tomorrow they’ll surrender and do what we want.”

Paul expects to get a chance to try out his brand of diplomacy himself next month when he meets with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, staff in the opposition media, and other Russian officials.


How Sinclair lost Trump's FCC

Sinclair Broadcast Group had everything going for it when it announced its $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media in May 2017: close ties to the Trump administration, and a friendly Federal Communications Commission chairman who cleared a path for regulators to approve the mega-deal.

Sinclair, known for its “must-run” pro-Trump programming, was already the country’s biggest television broadcaster. The deal would make it even bigger, allowing it to reach nearly three-quarters of U.S. households — further positioning it to take on Fox in the battle for conservative eyeballs.

But 14 months later, Sinclair's deal is headed toward an almost-certain defeat, with that same FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, sending the merger on Monday into an administrative proceeding that is tantamount to a death sentence.

The story of how Sinclair's deal ran into trouble, despite its considerable sway in Republican-led Washington, is a tale of stunning hubris, according to officials inside and outside the FCC who watched the drama unfold. The broadcaster needed to sell stations to stay under federal media ownership limits, but instead it aggressively pushed proposals that would have left it in effective control of some of those spun-off outlets — raising alarms at an FCC that had already relaxed some ownership rules to the company's benefit.

Pai made clear Monday that the company had pushed the envelope too far, saying the proposed divestitures would "allow Sinclair to control those stations in practice, even if not in name, in violation of the law."

People watching the Tribune purchase called it a striking turnabout.


“Sinclair’s style in Washington is exhibit A of how to squander the most favorable regulatory environment in decades,” said one broadcast industry official who has monitored the deal's progress.

Pai's trajectory on the Sinclair deal speaks volumes.

Shortly after assuming the FCC's top job, the chairman last year revived a decades-old regulatory loophole — widely viewed as technologically obsolete — that lets broadcasters count only half the reach of some of their TV stations when calculating their compliance with national media ownership rules. The change allowed Sinclair to avoid vastly exceeding the cap, sparking criticism that Pai had delivered a gift to the conservative-leaning broadcaster.

Even with the loophole, though, the Sinclair-Tribune merger still would leave the company with stations reaching more households than the federal limits allow. That meant Sinclair needed to restructure its deal — but it waited months to put forward a plan for doing that. And when it did agree to make concessions, proposing to sell off nearly two dozen stations in some markets, some of the deals left stations in the hands of Sinclair allies or let Sinclair retain a stake in their operations.

In the end, even Pai — a chairman with a pro-industry, anti-regulation reputation — was troubled by Sinclair's deal-making.

“Let’s be honest, if you’re Sinclair and you lose Chairman Pai, you’ve done something wrong,” said a person in the media industry who opposed to the transaction.

Within hours of Pai's announcement Monday, FCC Commissioners Brendan Carr, a fellow Republican, and Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, indicated they would support the chairman's plan to send the matter to an administrative law judge, a lengthy process that in past transactions has proven to be a deal killer. That represents a majority on the commission needed to advance the measure.


Another misstep by Sinclair: It allowed the government's review process to drag on, giving Sinclair's many critics time to savage the transaction. The result was more time for controversies such as a viral video in April that showed a series of Sinclair anchors reading from the same script on the threat of “fake news" — widely seen as a Trump-style broadside aimed at mainstream press outlets.

The company also didn’t bother building support for its deal with outside organizations, like nonprofits and trade groups, that are typically deployed to make the case for mergers. Sinclair’s in-house lobbyist, Rebecca Hanson, left the company earlier this month.

And in December, when the FCC announced a $13 million fine against Sinclair over an unrelated issue — an allegation that the company violated sponsorship identification rules — Sinclair took the aggressive step of saying it would fight the penalty rather than attempt to settle.

That decision certainly didn’t build goodwill with the agency, but officials said it was Sinclair’s refusal to listen to FCC staff raising concerns about station spin-offs that inflicted what appears to be the mortal wound.

FCC officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to freely discuss the agency's deliberations, said one especially problematic deal was a plan to sell Chicago station WGN to Steven Fader, a Maryland business associate of Sinclair Executive Chairman David Smith who oversees car dealerships. The $60 million deal would see Sinclair handle advertising sales and deliver programming to WGN, with an option for Sinclair to buy back the station.

Others considered troublesome were the deals to sell stations in Dallas and Houston to Cunningham Broadcasting, a company with ties to the Smith family. Cunningham's voting stock was owned until January by the estate of Carolyn Smith, David Smith's mother. The nonvoting stock of the company is owned by trusts that benefit Carolyn Smith's grandchildren.

“If the company had really paid attention to FCC precedent and listened to the FCC, they could’ve got this deal done easily,” another media industry official said. “But they refused."


Trump-Putin meeting rekindles ridiculed cyber plan

It could go down as one of the most ridiculed ideas in cybersecurity that won’t go away: A joint Russian-American task force to protect future elections from hackers.

When President Donald Trump first surfaced the idea in a pair of tweets on July 9, 2017, he said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had discussed forming “an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking & many other negative things, will be guarded … and safe.”

The notion prompted bipartisan disbelief, and Trump backed away from it within hours. But it surfaced again Monday after the two leaders met in Helsinki, Finland, when Putin suggested both countries work together to examine the evidence that Russia had meddled in the U.S. presidential election.

“We can analyze [evidence] through the joint working group on cybersecurity, the establishment of which we discussed during our previous contacts,” Putin suggested, confirming that he and Trump had talked about the idea before.

His remarks resurfaced much of the scorn that Trump’s original tweets had received from lawmakers and cybersecurity experts. It also renewed some people’s worries that Trump might appease the Russian leader by finally taking action on his suggestion — perhaps giving Russia an inside look at the U.S. investigation of the attacks.


“The last time the president brought it up, everyone was against it,” said Jim Lewis, a cyber expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Now as before, he said, “the reaction from departments and agencies is going to be, ‘Why do we want to talk to these people? What are we going to get out of it?’”

Others said sharing information with Russia will only make it easier for Moscow to detect and deflect U.S. intelligence agencies’ digital espionage and cyberattack techniques.

“I'm sure there are some in Russia scratching their heads wondering how it is that last week's indictment came together,” Megan Stifel, a former director for international cyber policy at the National Security Council, said in an email. One benefit for the Russians in forming a cyber working group, she said, was possibly learning about “our investigative playbook.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) urged caution in responding to Putin’s repeated overtures about a working group. “I'm not really sure what it produces,” Rubio said Monday at a panel discussion on Russian election meddling at the Washington think tank the Atlantic Council. “This is really just a calculated play on his front.”


Still, Lewis said, Russia has several reasons for pushing the idea.

“They are, in some ways, a little desperate to be recognized as a peer,” he told POLITICO. “‘We’re still a superpower. Look! We and the U.S. have this dialogue.’” Lewis said “it probably irritates the Russians a little bit” that the U.S. already has such an arrangement with China.

Offering to work together on cybersecurity also lets Putin argue that, far from pursuing rampant aggression online, Russia is behaving like a responsible international partner. “He can say, ‘How can you say we’re irresponsible?’” Lewis said.

Robert Anderson, who led the FBI’s cyber and criminal investigations branch from 2014 to 2016, said the U.S. should place a priority on “making sure that Russia is not utilizing the intelligence gains from this joint interaction to further acts of aggression against the United States."


After cybersecurity experts savaged the working group plan last year, Trump walked back the proposal with uncharacteristic haste just 13 hours after he first raised it. “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn't mean I think it can happen,” he tweeted at the time. “It can't.”

Yet a year later in Helsinki, Putin publicly raised it again.

The initial suggestion of a working group caught the government’s cyber diplomats completely off-guard last year, according to Christopher Painter, who led the State Department’s cyber office from 2011 until August 2017. Painter, now a commissioner at the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace, described State Department staffers as incredulous when they learned that Trump had considered the idea.

During Monday’s news conference, Painter tweeted, “Whatever benefit there may be from working level discussions, it's hard to see how [a working group] can resolve these issues.”


Cyber cooperation between the U.S. and Russia has always been limited. The two countries established a hotline for resolving serious incidents in 2013, but the U.S. abandoned it after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea.

Russia has repeatedly refused to extradite its citizens to the U.S. when the Justice Department charges them with cyber crimes. When the U.S. tries to get another country to extradite a Russian hacker caught vacationing there, Russia employs clever techniques to try to block the transfer.

“Russia needs to show good faith in forming an official extradition treaty and prosecuting Russians for hacking against the U.S. in the short term,” said Anderson, the former top FBI cyber official.

Lewis said that when it came to controversial proposals like the cyber working group, Putin won either way.

“Putin is looking to increase the disruption between the U.S. and NATO [and] in the U.S. itself,” he said. “So if he gets it, great, he’s a peer with the U.S. If he doesn’t get it, he’s created a little more turmoil."

Martin Matishak contributed to this report.


Mega-donor boosts Ward in Arizona Senate race

Conservative mega-donor Robert Mercer has cut a $500,000 check to a super PAC backing Arizona Senate hopeful Kelli Ward, a major cash infusion that comes ahead of the Aug. 28 primary.

Polls have shown Ward, a conservative former state senator, trailing GOP Rep. Martha McSally. Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an immigration hard-liner, is also running in the primary for the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Jeff Flake.

Mercer, a reclusive billionaire and a former hedge fund executive, has emerged as a major Ward benefactor. With his latest contribution, he has given KelliPAC a total of $800,000 in support of Ward this election cycle.

Mercer also funded Ward during the 2016 election season, when she waged an unsuccessful primary challenge against Sen. John McCain.

A KelliPAC official said the organization would be using the contribution to bankroll a new TV ad casting McSally, the establishment favorite, as insufficiently conservative and attacking her for refusing to endorse then-candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.


Mercer and his daughter, Bekah, have been major funders of conservative, anti-establishment causes, including Trump’s 2016 campaign and Breitbart News.

Earlier this year, however, the Mercers had a public falling out with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon after Bannon criticized the president and his family in “Fire and Fury,” a book about the Trump White House.


Some Dare Call It Treason

Since Donald Trump cannonballed into national politics three years ago, the chattering classes have resorted to dozens of shorthand descriptors to define him and his place in American culture. The early slams included bully, sexist, misogynist, sociopath, racist, sham populist, a pathological liar and narcissist, fascist, sexual harasser, demagogue, and even madman. Seeking deeper historical context for his outlier ways, writers consulted history’s back pages in efforts to find his antecedents, comparing him to the “bad-tempered, distractible doofus” Kaiser Wilhelm II, red-baiter Joseph McCarthy, race-baiter George Wallace, Chicago Mayor Big Bill Thompson, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, legal thug Roy Cohn, radio rabble-rouser Father Coughlin, Biff Tannen from Back to the Future, and P.T. Barnum, the barking 19th century showman who also happened to invent the beauty pageant.

The many epithets and comparisons have stuck to Trump like hair spray, occasionally slowing his headway. But all this talk has done him little lasting political damage. Acting on the wisdom of the proverb, “The dogs bark but the caravan moves on,” he has repeatedly outrun criticism and critiques by changing the conversation about him with new outrages. Ask any hunter: It’s hard to hit a moving target.

But Trump’s genuflection to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the joint press conference Monday at the Helsinki summit may change all that. Trump attacked the Mueller investigation of Russian election meddling, calling it a “disaster for our country” and said he held “both countries responsible” for the Russian cyber-attacks. Trump said he believed Putin’s denial on the topic of Russian interference in the U.S. election over his own intelligence agencies. “He just said it is not Russia,” said Trump. “Do not see any reason why it would be.”

Trump’s coddling of Putin prompted Trump criticism to reach a fresh threshold, as the press and politicians started flinging a new, shocking descriptor that burns like acid when it lands: In their new stinging formulation, Trump isn’t just a lout or a loon, a firebrand or an opportunist, he’s a traitor.

New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow was among the first to apply the “T” word to the president in a prescient Monday piece titled “Trump, Treasonous Traitor,” which appeared just hours before the presser. “It was nothing short of treasonous,” former CIA Director John Brennan tweeted of Trump’s press conference performance. “I’m so sorry the Commander-in-chief is a traitor,” tweeted Michael Moore, agreeing with Brennan for the first time ever. Tea Party stalwart Joe Walsh said the same. “Trump the Traitor,” read the headline on Boston Globe columnist Michael A. Cohen’s Monday afternoon piece. He concluded, “Trump is a clear and present danger to US national security.”

Other voices from both parties concurred without actually using the T-word. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) called Trump’s kowtowing to Putin “shameful.” In a statement, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Trump had “abased himself ... abjectly before a tyrant.” “Disgraceful,” wrote Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “Shameful,” wrote Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). “Indefensible,” wrote former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power. “Useful idiot,” wrote journalist David Corn. “Disgraceful,” reiterated CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. “Dangerous and reckless,” wrote Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). “Donald Trump is either an asset of Russian intelligence or really enjoys playing one on TV,” wrote New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman. American academic and diplomat Eliot A. Cohen added this on Twitter, “The word treason is so strong that we must use it carefully. But that press conference has brought the President of the United States right up to that dark, dark shore.”

Trump's obeisance to Putin at Helsinki was easy to predict given his earlier refusals to call the Russians out and punish them. But were we ready to see him come this close to violating his oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution? Watching him grovel and defer to Putin revealed Trump as a coward and weakling, an excuse-maker and an apologizer, and as someone unfit to hold the office of president. “If this is what President Trump says publicly, what did he tell Putin privately?” asked Sen. Mark Warner.

For months now, Trump has denounced the press as an “enemy of the people.” He said it again in a tweet on the day before his Putin meeting, expanding his enemy list to include “all the Dems.” Having deceitfully placed the phrase “enemy of the people” into currency, it’s only right that it has boomeranged on him.

******

Calling somebody a traitor burns hotter than soaking them in the sap of the giant hogweed. Send horticulture tips to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts are immune to giant hogweed sap. My Twitter feed gargles the stuff. My RSS feed makes a nice brandy with the vine.


How the Supreme Court Popularity Contest Got Out of Control

When Judge Brett Kavanaugh stood in the East Room last week to accept President Donald Trump’s nomination to the Supreme Court, he took care to mention that that for the last seven years he has coached his two daughters’ Catholic Youth Organization basketball teams. One of the teams, he pointed out, had recently won the league championship.

But that wasn’t all. He also said that he serves meals to the homeless—and has done so alongside the parish priest for whom he had been an altar boy decades earlier.

Kavanaugh shouldn’t be faulted for any special immodesty. In offering those remarks, he was simply performing an obligatory ritual of the modern judicial confirmation process: the retailing of some kind of warm and noble personal history—with extra points for a dash of hard-scrabble upbringing thrown in. Modern candidates for the Supreme Court have had to demonstrate not only erudition in the law, but some affecting personal journey that, one is supposed to believe, has endowed them with exceptional empathy and character.

There has always been some interest in the personalities who might sit on the court, but this new expectation began in earnest after Robert H. Bork, President Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee, was rejected by the Senate in 1987—the end result of a bruising political battle that set off the current and never-ending confirmation wars.

One of the new realities of the post-Bork landscape came from surveys that showed many Americans disliked Bork’s manner and appearance. Brimming with confidence, he had refused offers of advice from the White House on how to present himself at his public hearings.

He would be the last nominee to be allowed to do so.

In addition to studying up on the law, nominees from presidents of both parties have since been groomed assiduously by political handlers assigned by the White House to try to make them more appealing and to teach them how to avoid pitfalls. Personal stories, which provide safe diversion from contentious ideological stakes, can be used to achieve both goals.

Take the case of David H. Souter. When questioned at his 1990 confirmation hearing about abortion, he tried to assert what was known as “The Judicial Fifth,” a way to decline to comment on a hot issue by asserting the topic could come before the court. But after being pressed on the issue, Souter suddenly recalled that when he had been a dormitory adviser at Harvard a young undergraduate had come to him seeking advice on whether to help his pregnant girlfriend obtain an abortion. Souter told the Senate he had been greatly touched by how deeply anguishing the issue was for the student. His response amounted to a clean hit through the infield in the empathy-demonstration game, and it quieted questioning senators. Souter offered no further elucidation as to the underlying issue of abortion.

When President George H.W. Bush nominated Judge Clarence Thomas in 1991, the effort to win confirmation based on personal history became a total campaign theme. The White House and its allies emphasizing Thomas’s boyhood living in crushing poverty with a single mother in Pin Point, Georgie, before being rescued by a stern grandfather in Savannah who was said to have instilled in Thomas wonderful values and character. White House aides called this “the Pin Point Strategy.”

Alas, that was all washed away after Anita Hill, a law professor who had worked for Thomas years earlier in the federal government, was persuaded to go public with allegations that he had regularly importuned her with crude sexual remarks. The hearings, already simmering nicely, boiled over into a raw spectacle involving issues of race and gender with lurid accusations by both sides.

The emphasis on the selling of character has produced some entertaining nonsense over the years. One risible example occurred during the nomination process of Stephen Breyer, who felt the need in his opening remarks at his 1994 Supreme Court confirmation hearing to say that he had once been a ditch-digger.

He might have seemed to many to be an ascetic, bookish sort who grew up the son of a prosperous San Francisco lawyer, went to Harvard Law School and later taught there, was enormously wealthy and had married the daughter of a British viscount who came with a family seat and crest. But his remark suggested that he also had had some formative experience in the noble and venerable practice of moving around dirt.

Breyer apparently wielded a shovel at times during a summer job with a California utility while he was a student at Stanford—making it a preposterous, if amusing, effort to give himself some working-class cred. (Whenever I later saw him at court events, I always wanted to ask if I might look at his calluses.)

Breyer’s selection was notable in that it also included a direct pitch about his personality that was directed at a single person. President Bill Clinton had passed over Breyer for his first free Supreme Court slot, offering it instead to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It became known that Clinton had thought Breyer a cold fish when they had met at the White House. Breyer’s supporters attributed this to his great physical discomfort during the visit because of a recent bicycle accident in Boston. So his friends, realizing their product needed a re-imaging, produced a video showing what a genial fellow he was. They sent it privately to Clinton, who nominated him for the next vacancy on the court.

In fact, “friends” are often called on to play a role in disseminating flattering information. In two decades of covering confirmation battles I was on occasion offered some as-yet-undisclosed biographical information from judicial candidates’ supporters. It was usually about some fine personal activity the nominee was said to be too modest to ever have discussed (but perhaps the moment had finally arrived to let it be disclosed by others). A surrogate for one lawyer, for example, told me that his candidate sometimes took small groups of disadvantaged public school students to court arguments and discussed what had occurred with them.

Admirable behavior as everyone might agree. Less admirable, perhaps, is to issue a press release about doing it.

The emphasis on the selling of character has produced some tense moments, too. During Samuel Alito’s confirmation hearing in 2005, the discussion about his character grew so heated that his wife got up in the middle of the hearing and in front of everyone fled the room in tears.


In 2009, Judge Sonia Sotomayor won confirmation after much celebration of her success as a woman of Puerto Rican-heritage growing up with a single mother in the Bronx. It was an urban, Hispanic version of Thomas’s story, though one rendered more joyfully.

It helps that the candidate be seen as someone who had to strive sometime in his or her life. In making his Supreme Court selection, Trump had also been considering Raymond Kethledge, whose supporters touted the fact that he had helped pay for his non-Ivy League law school education by driving a taxi at night. Kavanaugh, a son of privilege and product of an elite D.C. area private school, was no match for that. Perhaps that’s why he reached back a generation to add such aspirational notes to his story; he noted that his mother once taught at mostly African-American high schools before becoming a lawyer and judge and that his father went to law school at night. (He didn’t point out, though, that his father went on to do special interest lobbying. Ed Kavanaugh was the longtime head of the Cosmetics, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, on whose behalf he fought regulations seeking greater transparency or protection for consumers.)

Still, the ritual of emphasizing a nominee’s personal biography might be of vanishing significance. As confirmation battles become more openly ideological, personal histories could come to matter less and less. The fact that the girls Kavanaugh coaches call him “Coach K,” as he said, may be endearing, and it might charge up constituencies like Catholics and family values types. Presumably, it would also help if there is anyone in the Senate who doesn’t care anything about a nominee’s judicial approach but just wants the next person to sit on the court to be a really good dad.

But with the stakes so clear to all in terms of ideological balance on the court, his personal story will hardly influence a single vote.


Democrats fret as Scott's cash haul comes into full view

TALLAHASSEE — Democrats up and down the midterm ticket in Florida are starting to worry as they look at the green wave of cash that Florida Gov. Rick Scott is taking in for his U.S. Senate campaign.

"He’s putting up the type of numbers that can tilt the whole playing field,” said state Rep. Evan Jenne, a Democrat from deep blue Broward County.

The nationally watched Senate race is pitting two-term governor Scott, a Republican, against incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). Scott, a close ally of President Donald Trump, has a deluge of cash support from his official campaign and from outside groups that are helping fund it.

The surge to Scott’s campaign, as documented in new campaign finance reports, puts stress on national Democrats eager to knock him off. Groups like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee are fighting Senate battles in swing states across the country, but will need to keep serious resources in Florida to help counter Scott’s spending.

Scott, a Republican worth $232 million, and two committees supporting his bid raised just over $20 million last quarter, according to new campaign finance reports. That number does not include the personal money Scott has likely put into his campaign, a number that has not yet been reported.

Scott’s official campaign alone raised $10.7 million, a massive quarterly haul, according to campaign finance reports filed this week.

New Republican, a super PAC backing Scott that can’t coordinate directly with the campaign, raised $7 million last quarter, while the Rick Scott Victory Committee, a committee that has joint fundraising agreements with both his official campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, raised more than $3 million. Of that, $800,000 was transferred to Scott’s official campaign, and $2.2 million was transferred to the NRSC, which will likely use the money to boost Scott’s race.

It’s a massive fundraising network that has helped Scott dwarf Nelson’s fundraising efforts, which have been the highest since he came to the Senate in 2000. Nelson raised $4.4 million over the last three months, his best quarterly haul.

Leading the way for Scott was Ken Griffin, who heads Chicago-based global equity firm Citadel and is worth an estimated $8 billion. He leads the national finance team for New Republican, but also kicked in $5 million in personal money to the super PAC, its largest contribution.

Much of the other five- and six-figure contributions came from a somewhat familiar list of GOP donors, many of whom are not new to Scott’s political orbit. That includes $203,600 total from private prison giant The Geo Group, its top executive George Zoley, and his wife, Donna; August Busch, the great-grandson of Anheuser-Busch founder Adolphus Busch, gave the super PAC $200,000; Lawrence DeGeorge, a Palm Beach County businessman, gave nearly $190,000 total to both committees; and $100,000 last quarter came from The Villages, a sprawling, politically connected retirement community in central Florida.

The cash is being used to fund political operations, including polling and efforts to dig up dirt on Nelson. During the last quarter, New Republican, the super PAC backing Scott, spent $35,000 with America Rising, a Washington-based group that drums up research on Democratic candidates.

“Funny, no matter how many times you saw the guy will have unlimited money, it doesn't inure you from the shock when said money start showing up,” said a veteran Democratic consultant working on active Florida races. Many Democrats did not want to speak on the record to avoid the appearance they were bashing their party’s only statewide elected official.

New Republican has also spent $4.9 million on TV ads. Those ads, which hammer Nelson, serve to amplify the message being crafted by the official campaign. In this case, it’s painting Nelson, who has been in elected office for nearly 40 years, as a “career politician."

“There should be,” Jenne said when asked is his party should be concerned about Scott’s money.

During the 2018 midterms, Jenne’s focus is on helping Democrats get elected to the Florida House, but with so much money flowing to a high-profile general election fight at the top of the ticket, there is some concern that Scott could affect down ticket races as state Democrats hope a “blue wave” can help them chip into the GOP’s dominance in the state Legislature.

Others, though, say Scott’s money was expected. The new campaign finance reports should not enhance anxiety, they argue, because Scott was always expected to have unlimited funds, and Nelson remains close in most public polling even though his campaign has spent a fraction of what Scott’s side has.

“It’s another rich guy at the top of the ticket,” said one Democrat working to elect down ticket candidates. “Scott and Republicans will put all that money on TV, and that’s just fine with me.”


Trump second-guessed DNI Coats on cybersecurity before sit-down with Putin

Even before his one-on-one with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Donald Trump expressed skepticism of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats' warnings about the cybersecurity threat from Russia.

Coats, speaking at the Hudson Institute last week, cautioned that U.S. digital infrastructure is "under attack." Russia, the intelligence director asserted, is the "worst offender" among foreign entities.

"I don't know if I agree with that," Trump said of the remarks in an interview with "CBS Evening News" anchor Jeff Glor that was taped Saturday in Scotland and released Monday. "I'd have to look."

The president hedged his doubts by asserting that he has "a lot of respect for Dan." Intelligence is "what he does," Trump said.

"Again, we're working on it very hard," the president continued in the interview, parts of which had already aired. "We're upgrading things at a very rapid pace."


In a joint press conference Monday, Trump sided with Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies on whether the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 election to boost his presidential campaign. He doesn't "see any reason" why Russia would hack Democratic Party servers, he said during the appearance with the Russian leader.

In response, Coats said in a statement that U.S. intelligence has been "clear in our assessments of Russian meddling." He asserted that agencies "will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security."

Trump sought to underscore his faith in U.S. intelligence while en route to Washington on Monday.

"As I said today and many times before, 'I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people,'" Trump tweeted. "However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past – as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along! #HELSINKI2018"


Trump’s step toward Putin seals a new world order

President Donald Trump cast his meeting Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin as a step “towards a brighter future.”

But the global community had a different assessment: The summit in Helsinki signaled the manifestation of a new world order.

As Trump decamped from his weeklong trip to Europe, he was holding up America’s friends as its “foes” and presenting Russia, the former superpower scorned by his predecessor as a fading regional player, as significant enough to be in competition with the U.S.

Trump, during a surreal joint news conference following the meeting, showed deference to Putin by repeatedly refusing to criticize the Russian president, noting that his description of him as a “competitor” was meant purely as a compliment.

At another point, Trump stepped in to answer a pointed question directed at Putin, only days after special counsel Robert Mueller indicted a dozen Russian intelligence agents for allegedly hacking the Democratic National Committee and his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton’s campaign to help Trump win the contest. Trump told reporters that while he has “great confidence” in U.S. intelligence officials, “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”

Mueller’s spokesman declined comment.


The president’s regard for Putin — who on Monday affirmed his preference for Trump in the 2016 election — contrasted sharply with his increasingly tough talk toward Europe, language that chips away at international order, to still unclear effect. A similar dynamic played out last month in Singapore, when Trump left flustered allies, including Canada, behind after departing the G-7 summit to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom he called “tough” and “very smart.”

“It’s just really striking,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “I think it shows he’s much more comfortable with strong-man adversaries than he is with democratic allies.”

For Trump, who often expresses his views on trade and economics as a zero-sum game, his friendliness toward a country or region can be measured by the degree to which they are seen as an economic threat to the U.S., experts noted. By that measure, Europe and Canada are far scarier than Russia — despite it being at the center of years of Republican attacks on Democrats over security issues.

Though Trump has long expressed affection for authoritarian rulers, it’s the degree to which Trump is eroding U.S. relationships with other countries around the world that is leading some to call for the resignation of his top officials and commanding the focus of spurned foreign leaders.

Trump over the past week lashed out at European leaders, suggesting that NATO nations double the amount of their gross domestic product that they spend on defense; ripped German officials for approving a natural gas pipeline link from Russia; falsely denied criticizing British Prime Minister Theresa May behind her back; and answered a CBS interviewer’s question about who he considers to be his biggest foe by naming the European Union. Trump specifically cited “what they do to us on trade.”

“Now you wouldn’t think of the European Union, but they’re a foe,” he added. “Russia is a foe in certain respects. China is a foe economically, certainly a foe.”


In Germany, Trump’s rebuke left such a lashing that the country’s foreign minister said he has no choice but to believe that Europe can no longer count on the president and must begin further turning inward for support.

“We can no longer completely rely on the White House,” Heiko Maas told the Funke newspaper group. “To maintain our partnership with the USA we must readjust it. The first clear consequence can only be that we need to align ourselves even more closely in Europe.”

Added Maas: “Europe must not let itself be divided however sharp the verbal attacks and absurd the tweets may be.”

The backlash in Britain was already setting in when Trump slammed May in The Sun tabloid and spoke glowingly about her political rival.

Thousands protested in the streets under a giant balloon depicting Trump as an orange baby and headlines blasted his break with protocol by walking in front of Queen Elizabeth.

Trump opened Monday blaming historically strained relations with Russia on American “foolishness and stupidity” and the investigation into Russian election meddling, which he dismisses as a “rigged witch hunt.” Despite earlier putting Russia on his list of adversaries, Trump’s Europe trip seemed to give Putin few reasons to be displeased overall.

Putin, for his part, seemed to shape-shift from international outlaw into veteran statesman, calm, cool and collected. Only once did he seem to directly confront the Trump agenda, when he credited the Iran nuclear deal that Trump tore up for allowing the Middle East country to “become the most controlled in the world.”


But experts who lauded the relationship-building goals of the meeting suggest the larger context surrounding it were not conducive to long-term success, including the Russian hacking indictments handed down Friday, last week’s NATO summit and last month’s G-7. The former is a particularly sensitive subject for Trump because it threatens to undercut his own role in the 2016 victory.

“The whole concept of that came up perhaps a little bit before, but it came out as a reason why the Democrats lost an election which, frankly, they should have been able to win, because the Electoral College is much more advantageous for Democrats, as you know, than it is to Republicans,” Trump said in response to a question meant for Putin about why he should be believed that Russia didn’t interfere.

Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, and a proponent of the meeting, said Trump’s answers won’t soon settle the charged subject.

“It amounts to the president of the United States appearing to give more credence to the claims of Vladimir Putin than to the claims of his own intelligence, law enforcement and national security agencies.”

But Preble, noting the awkward timing of the meeting, urged skeptics not to discount possible long-term benefits for the U.S. relationship with Russia, not Europe.

He concluded: “I didn’t expect Donald Trump to say or do anything dramatically different than what he said and did.”

David Herszenhorn contributed to this report.


Booker: ‘Shameful’ Trump acting like he’s ‘guilty of something’

NEWARK — Sen. Cory Booker said Monday that President Donald Trump is acting like a person who “is guilty of something,” after Trump sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence agencies which concluded Russians interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

“Not only is his behavior shameful, but his behavior is also indicative of somebody who has something to hide, or is guilty of something,” Booker (D-N.J.) said at an unrelated event in Newark.

During a press conference earlier in the day in Helsinki, Finland, Trump made a series of remarkable statements as he stood alongside Putin, including one stating that he does not “see any reason” why Russia would have hacked Democratic computer servers.

Trump and Putin met for a one-on-one meeting just days after special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russians over allegations of involvement in a state-ordered election-interference operation.

Trump, during the press conference, repeatedly attacked the FBI, praised Putin as a “good competitor,” refused to say Russia was accountable for any aspects of fraying U.S.-Russia relations, and attacked Mueller’s investigation as "a disaster for our country."

Booker, along with Gov. Phil Murphy, had harsh words for the president after the event in Newark to promote a new federal tax incentive program that gives tax breaks for investments in low-income neighborhoods.

Booker, who has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2020, said it was disgraceful that Trump “paled around” with Putin, a leader who has “attacked our nation."

“This is not a person who should be validated, this is someone who should not be given equal footing with the president of the United States,” Booker said of Putin. “What this president has done is shameful, for him to deny this investigation, to me, seems self-serving."

Murphy, a former U.S. Ambassador to Germany during the Obama administration, said Trump’s behavior over the last week has been “jaw dropping.”

“The attack on institutions which historically have been nonpartisan or bipartisan in terms of the support, is beyond reproach,” Murphy said. “We will pay a price for that, our country will pay a price for that, it just doesn’t need to be that way.”

In the past week, Trump castigated NATO allies in Belgium and called the European Union a “foe.”

The president's remarks toward Putin and Russia, as well as his overall friendly tone, drew a swift rebuke not only from Democrats, but also from some Republicans who have otherwise defended the president.

In a statement issued Monday, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that "the president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally" and that "there is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals."


U.S. officials charge NRA-linked Russian with acting as Kremlin agent

Federal authorities on Monday charged a Russian citizen living in Washington, D.C. with conspiracy to act as an illegal agent of the Russian government, including attempting to establish "back-channel" relationships with U.S. officials on behalf of the Kremlin, the Justice Department said.

Mariia Butina, 29, was arrested Sunday in connection with what an FBI agent described in court documents as a "Russian influence operation." She made her initial appearance Monday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson in Washington and was ordered to be held pending a hearing set for Wednesday.

U.S. officials allege that Butina, while attending a university in Washington, worked from 2015 until at least February 2017 as a Kremlin agent under the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government and Russian central bank, according to an FBI affidavit in support of the complaint. Although the complaint does not name him, it appears to refer to Alexander Torshin, an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin and longtime supporter of the National Rifle Association who reportedly also has ties to Russian security services and organized crime figures.

Authorities have been investigating whether Butina and Torshin, both gun enthusiasts who attended NRA events together, were part of a plot to funnel Russian money through the NRA to the Trump campaign, perhaps through NRA entities that were not required to disclose their funding sources.

Butina’s lawyer denied that on Monday, and Torshin also has denied any wrongdoing. The NRA did not respond to requests for comment.

Butina’s arrest and the details disclosed in the complaint suggest that the investigation into ties between NRA officials and Russian operatives isn’t over and could figure into the broader probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, some former federal prosecutors said. The court documents appear to make reference to the NRA at times.

“The Maria Butina criminal charge strongly suggests that the Justice Department is far from done with the Russian Rubik’s Cube,” said Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor. “In fact, one could argue that the investigation has actually expanded from election fake-news posts to a spy in devious cahoots with the NRA.”

The court filings unsealed Monday detail efforts by both Torshin and Butina to enable her to “act as an agent of Russia inside the United States by developing relationships with U.S. persons and infiltrating organizations having influence in American politics, for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian Federation.”


The filings say Butina furthered the conspiracy by making multiple trips from Russia to the United States and then by obtaining a student visa and living in the nation’s capital. The Justice Department said one of Butina’s missions was to establish “unofficial lines of communications with U.S. politicians and political organizations" and to communicate with Torshin “and others” by meetings, email and other channels “to send reports, seek direction, and receive orders in furtherance of the conspiracy.”

Butina undertook those alleged activities as an agent of the Russian government without officially notifying federal authorities, as required by law, the Justice Department said. The charges provide for a maximum penalty on the conspiracy charge of five years if Butina is convicted.

Robert Driscoll, a lawyer for Butina, said in a statement Monday that a dozen FBI agents executed a search warrant on her Washington apartment in April. Since then, Butina has offered repeatedly to meet with officials in federal law enforcement, including the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, but they’ve rebuffed her, Driscoll said, and she was arrested Sunday "without prior notice to counsel."

She voluntarily testified several months ago before the Senate Intelligence Committee and handed over thousands of documents, he said.

“The substance of the charge in the complaint is overblown,” Driscoll said. “While styled as some sort of conspiracy to violate the Foreign Agent Registration Act, in actuality it describes a conspiracy to have a ‘friendship dinner’ at Bistro Bis with a group of Americans and Russians to discuss foreign relations between the two countries — hardly a shocking development for Russian International Relations student living in Washington.”


“There is simply no indication of Butina seeking to influence or undermine any specific policy or law of the United States — only at most to promote a better relationship between the two nations,” Driscoll added, saying she is not an agent of Russia but a Russian national who recently graduated from American University and who has a work permit in pursuit of a business career.

Mueller reportedly has been investigating whether Russian officials tried to fund and influence President Donald Trump's campaign in 2016 through associations with the NRA. Monday’s announcement, however, wasn’t made by Mueller’s team but by Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers and other officials.

In May 2016, Torshin attempted through intermediaries to arrange a meeting between Putin and Trump, claiming he was acting at the behest of the Russian president, the New York Times reported. The subject line of one related email, which was later turned over to Senate investigators, read, “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite,” the Times reported, citing one person who had seen it. It said Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior campaign aide, rejected the request.

That same month, Torshin shared a table at an NRA dinner with Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., according to an account Torshin later gave Bloomberg. Torshin also met with Trump Jr. on the sidelines of the annual NRA conference.

The Trump administration imposed stiff sanctions in April against Torshin, who has denied wrongdoing, and six other Russian oligarchs and 17 Russian government officials in response to Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In the court filings on Monday, the Justice Department also identified two U.S. people and a U.S. congressman as working with Butina. It did not identify those people or suggest that they were witting accomplices to any illegal acts.

One of them, identified only as “U.S. Person 1,” allegedly corresponded frequently with Butina and offered her guidance, advice on strategy and lists of influential Americans who could help her in the United States. That person appears also to have been under federal investigation; the FBI affidavit discloses that U.S. authorities had access to his or her email and that Person 1 told an acquaintance that, “I’ve been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key POLITICAL PARTY 1 leaders through, of all conduits" a U.S. gun rights organization.

Based on other information in the court documents, those references appear to be to the Republican Party and the NRA.

Butina, under Torshin’s direction, also worked other avenues, according to the documents, including getting many influential Russians invited to National Prayer Breakfasts in the United States, hosting dinners between Russians and influential Americans in Washington and New York, and attending political events.

In July 2015, Butina posed a question to Trump about his relations with Moscow during a libertarian convention in Las Vegas, just a month after the Republican announced his campaign for president.

“I am visiting from Russia,” she said in an exchange that was captured by a group called LetsTalkNevada. “If you’d be elected as president, what will be your foreign politics, especially in relationships with my country, and do you want to continue politics of sanctions that damage both economies or you have any other ideas?”

“I know Putin...I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin,” Trump said. “I don’t think you’d need the sanctions.”

On election night, Butina and Torshin followed along in real time and corresponded via Twitter messages, according to the FBI official's affidavit. After Trump’s surprise victory, Butina wrote Torshin to say, “I’m going to sleep. It’s 3 a.m. here. I am ready for further orders.”


Pro-Hugin super PAC has ties to Christie

A super PAC with ties to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie plans to spend big to unseat Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez in November.

Integrity NJ, a super PAC that formed in February, had been quiet about its intentions until Monday, when it announced it had raised $2 million to boost the election effort of Republican Senate nominee Bob Hugin, who’s already put $15.5 million of his own money into his campaign against Menendez.

Integrity NJ’s entire fundraising haul came from just eight donors, according to campaign filing reports with the Federal Election Commission.

The PAC‘s existence was first reported in New Jersey Playbook in March. Its ties to Hugin were revealed in April.

“New Jerseyans deserve a Senator who will fight for their interests in Washington, DC, not jet-setting on private planes all over the globe or fighting corruption charges in federal courtrooms,” said the PAC’s executive director, Pete Sheridan, in a press release. “Integrity NJ plans to shine a bright light on shamelessly corrupt Bob Menendez. New Jersey deserves better."

Sheridan was referring to Menendez’s six-week corruption trial that ended in a hung jury last year. The federal government alleged Menendez did political favors for his friend and co-defendant, Salomon Melgen, a wealthy eye doctor since convicted for Medicare fraud, in exchange for private jet flights, lavish vacations and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.

A jury in November deadlocked on a verdict, though one member of the panel told reporters that 10 of the 12 jurors favored acquittal on most counts.

Sheridan until recently was Christie’s last state-paid aide. He continued to work for the governor after he left office in January; New Jersey allows governors $250,000 in expenses for six months after they’ve left office.

During Christie’s tenure, Sheridan worked as a director in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and served as executive director of the Republican State Committee, which at the time was under the de facto control of Christie.

Integrity NJ‘s chairman and senior adviser is Phil Cox, who was executive director of the Republican Governors Association from 2011-2014, which included period when Christie led it. Cox later established the super PAC America Leads, which was formed in 2015 to help Christie’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

Sheridan did not respond to a question about whether Christie had any role in setting up the super PAC. The former governor is not among its donors.

Nearly half of Integrity NJ’s money came from one donor: William P. Scully, a Florida resident who gave $1 million. Scully is a major shareholder in Celgene — the New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company Hugin led until just before he launched his Senate campaign.

Another $500,000 came from a woman named Mary Moriarty, who is listed under a Chatham address. A $100,000 donation was made by Nicholas F. Brady, who briefly served as a Republican senator from New Jersey after being appointed by former Gov. Tom Kean to replace Harrison WIlliams, who was convicted in the Abscam corruption case.

Menendez was the first New Jersey senator since Williams to face corruption charges.

Menendez, New Jersey’s senior senator, is getting his own help from a super PAC called Patients for Affordable Drugs Action, which plans to spend $1.5 million to highlight Hugin’s role leading Celgene, during which time it increased the price of a cancer drug.

The Democrat on Friday announced he had $6.4 million in his campaign account as of the beginning of the month. Normally a prolific fundraiser, Menendez’s campaign fundraising had slowed over the last couple of years as he focused on raising money for his legal defense fund.


Fox News hosts take Trump to task after Putin summit

President Donald Trump usually turns to Fox News and the Fox Business Network when he wants to hear pundits defend his policies and behavior, but he probably would not have liked what he saw on Monday following his joint press conference with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Directly after the press conference, Fox Business host Neil Cavuto, who also hosts a daily show on Fox News, called Trump’s performance “disgusting.” Referring to Trump’s refusal to side with US intelligence agencies and his own Department of Justice over allegations that Putin ordered a Russian interference scheme in the 2016 elections, Cavuto said Trump “is essentially letting the guy get away with this and not even offering a mild criticism. That sets us back a lot.”

“Putin won," said Cavuto’s guest, Mark Weinberg, a former Reagan administration official. "Trump missed the opportunity to call [Russia] out in no uncertain terms. He dodged every opportunity to do it, and he missed a chance he won't get again."

Lawmakers and pundits were left reeling by the joint appearance Monday, in which Trump also indicated that the U.S. was to blame for tensions between the two nations and suggested the countries work together on cybersecurity, even after special counsel Robert Mueller's team indicted 12 Russians last week for their roles in hacking Democratic computer systems in 2016.

On CNN, the reactions to Trump’s remarks were stark. "You have been watching perhaps one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president at a summit in front of a Russian leader, that I have ever seen," anchor Anderson Cooper said immediately after the press conference ended. Co-host John King referred to the meeting as a "surrender summit."


But while the tone was more muted on Fox News — some hosts and analysts seemed to be striving for a balance between outright slamming the Republican president and offering any sort of fulsome defense — the dearth of pundits defending Trump's performance was notable.

Coming directly out of the press conference, anchor Bill Hemmer, sounding perplexed, called the event “a fascinating 40 minutes,” before kicking it to equally baffled anchor Bret Baier, who said, “That was quite something. Almost surreal as the president was litigating the election of 2016.”

There was plenty of criticism, too. Abby Huntsman, who hosts the weekend edition of Fox & Friends — a show that Trump frequently watches, tweeting out preferred bits — and is the daughter of Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, tweeted, “No negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus."

Wall Street Journal editorial board member Mary Kissell was asked on Fox's air a few minutes after the press conference for her take on the headline out of the event.

“I think, unfortunately, it is that President Putin scored a great propaganda victory by standing up with President Trump on that stage,” she replied.


Opening his 3 p.m. newscast, anchor Shepard Smith, known as the Fox News host most likely to push back against Trump, did not mince words. “Shameful, disgraceful, treasonous: Three of the descriptions of what President Donald Trump did today in Helsinki,” Smith said. “Asked whether he believes American intelligence or the Russian thug standing next to him, President Trump declined to stand up for his own people and instead embraced Vladimir Putin. “

The real test, though, of how Trump’s performance plays with the Fox News audience could be the interviews he taped following the press conference with primetime opinion hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. While Fox News hosts like Smith do sometimes criticize Trump, the channel's evening opinion personalities rarely offer any dissent. When ardent Trump supporter Laura Ingraham recently dinged the president for taking too long to fire EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, it made news simply because she so rarely criticizes him.

Meanwhile, Putin sat down with Chris Wallace, the host of Fox News Sunday and likely a much tougher interviewer, for an interview set to air at 6 p.m. Monday. Hannity’s interview with Trump airs Monday at 9 p.m. during his show, while Carlson’s is scheduled for Tuesday.


Intelligence chief Coats defends finding that Russia meddled in the election

The U.S. director of national intelligence is defending American spies’ assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election — a push back against President Donald Trump, who appeared to indicate Monday that he believes Russian leader Vladimir Putin's denials on the matter.

In a statement issued not long after Trump held an extraordinary news conference with Putin in Helsinki, Dan Coats said the U.S. intelligence community has "been clear" about its findings.

"The role of the Intelligence Community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the president and policymakers," said Coats, who took over as U.S. director of national intelligence in March 2017. "We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security."


U.S. intelligence agencies have long concluded that Russia, using cyberattacks and other means, interfered in the 2016 presidential election in favor of Trump. Special counsel Robert Mueller last week indicted 12 Russian intelligence officials over alleged interference.

The intelligence agencies have not taken a position on whether that interference was what helped Trump win. But just a few days ago, Coats publicly warned that Russia is still trying to mess with U.S. election systems, a stark alert ahead of November's midterms.

Trump has long downplayed the intelligence assessments, even as he's repeatedly sought to gain favor with Putin. During the news conference on Monday, Trump was pressed on who believed — U.S. intelligence or Putin — on the subject of election meddling. And he seemed to suggest that Putin's denials were more reliable.

“I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be,” Trump said. At one point, Trump dodged the question by switching the topic to alleged misconduct by Democrats during the campaign.


The comments were interpreted as a slap at Coats, as well as the rest of the U.S. intelligence community. Some observers called on Coats to resign, but he did not indicate he had any such plans in his statement.

During the press conference, Putin dismissed the idea that his country had interfered in the 2016 race, but he acknowledged that he wanted Trump to win, saying he liked the notion that Trump wanted to improve the relationship between the U.S. and Russia.


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