Russian pranksters promised Rep. Adam Schiff bogus 'kompromat' on Trump, recorded the call for mockery
Last March, a man purporting to be Andriy Parubiy, the speaker of Ukraine's parliament, reached Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, on the phone. The caller offered Schiff recordings of two minor Russian celebrities talking about compromising material they'd gathered about Donald Trump during a 2013 trip to Moscow, and Russian President Vladimir Putin's promise that this "kompromat" would never emerge if Trump canceled all Russian sanctions.
"And what's the nature of the kompromat?" Schiff asked soberly. "Well, there were pictures of naked Trump," the caller replied. Schiff said he'd "be in touch with the FBI about this," and "I think it probably would be best to provide these materials both to our committee and to the FBI." The caller was actually Vladimir Kuznetsov, a Russian prankster who, along with partner Alexey Stolyarov, are known as Vovan and Lexus, The Atlantic's Julia Ioffe reports. The two Russians' previous victims include Sen. John McCain, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Elton John.
"Before agreeing to take the call, and immediately following it, the committee informed appropriate law-enforcement and security personnel of the conversation, and of our belief that it was probably bogus," a Schiff spokesman told The Atlantic. "Obviously, it was bogus — which became even more evident during the call — but ... we have to chase any number of leads, many of which turn out to be duds," the spokesman told Britain's Daily Mail, which reported Tuesday that Schiff staffers followed up twice with Vovan and Lexus.
Whether Schiff was actually fooled wasn't the point, Ioffe notes. "Kuznetsov and Stolyarov immediately sent the recording to Kremlin-friendly media, which gleefully made hay of it: another dumb American, ready to believe the most-ludicrous stories about a Russia run by sneaky, evil spies." You can read more about Vovan and Lexus, and the many ways Putin is getting what he wants, at The Atlantic. Peter Weber
President Trump's attorneys are trying to prevent the president from sitting down for an interview with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, arguing that Mueller hasn't proved that there's information only Trump can provide, a threshold they claim is a necessary prerequisite, CNN reports, citing "sources familiar with the ongoing deliberations." Trump told reporters last week that he's "looking forward" to talking to Mueller "under oath," but lawyer John Dowd quickly walked that back, saying the president was speaking off the cuff. "I have not made any decision yet," Dowd told CNN.
Mueller has made it clear he wants an in-person interview with Trump, and soon, according to several reports, and he's even given Trump's lawyers a range of topics he wants to ask Trump about, CNN says. "The discussions about presidential testimony are ongoing and professional," CNN reports, but "it is now clear where the president's attorneys stand." This isn't their final stance, CNN reports, but if they decline to allow Trump's testimony, Mueller can seek to compel it with a grand jury subpoena. "There is no clear legal precedent for a president to avoid testifying," CNN says, but the subpoena would set off a long, fraught legal battle. You can read more about the negotiations at CNN. Peter Weber
The secret Nunes memo reportedly reveals that Rod Rosenstein re-upped surveillance of Trump adviser last year
The classified memo compiled by Republican staffers on the House Intelligence Committee reveals that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosentstein, sometime after the Senate confirmed him last spring, approved an application to extend federal surveillance of Carter Page, an adviser on President Trump's campaign until September 2016, The New York Times reports, citing "three people familiar with" the memo. The renewal application, presented to a FISA court, shows that even under Trump, the Justice Department saw reason to believe that Page "was acting as a Russian agent." It's not clear if the FISA court approved the request.
The House Intelligence Committee, led by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), will vote as early as Monday on whether to declassify the memo, compiled under Nunes and shared with some House members. Trump would then have five days to try to block its release. The Justice Department warned Nunes last week that it would be "extraordinarily reckless" to release the memo without vetting from the intelligence community, but Trump is open about wanting it released.
Trump "has long been mistrustful" of Rosenstein, whom he appointed to the No. 2 Justice Department position, especially after Rosenstein named Special Counsel Robert Mueller to lead the DOJ's investigation into Russian election meddling and the Trump campaign, The New York Times reports. Trump considered firing Rosenstein last summer before moving to fire Mueller instead, backing down when White House Counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit, the Times adds, but "Trump is now again telling associates that he is frustrated with Mr. Rosenstein."
The secret Nunes memo apparently purports to show political bias against Trump at the leadership level of the FBI and Justice Department, though Democrats who have seen it say it is a cherry-picked selection of intelligence that paints a dangerously misleading picture devoid of context. Committee Democrats are putting together their own memo, just in case. Peter Weber
Former Trump campaign CEO and White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon is expected to meet with the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors on Tuesday, ABC News reports. This will be Bannon's first interview with congressional investigators looking into Russian election interference, and the House committee reached out to Bannon before the Michael Wolff book Fire and Fury made Bannon persona non grata in President Trump's White House, leading to his forced resignation as head of Breitbart News. Bannon hired a lawyer last week in preparation for his testimony.
Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told ABC News that he has questions about what Bannon knows of any Trump-related money laundering, the meeting Donald Trump Jr. set up with Trump campaign officials and Kremlin-linked lawyers who promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton, and a meeting in the Seychelles between Erik Prince and the head of a Russian investment bank, apparently after Prince and Bannon met. Bannon joined the Trump campaign in August 2016, and one of his predecessors, Corey Lewandowski, is also expected to testify before the House panel this week. Peter Weber
President Trump's legal team has been preparing for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to press for a face-to-face interview with Trump since former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was indicted in October, NBC News reports, and they're discussing several proposals to avoid such a sit-down. Trump lawyers Ty Cobb, John Dowd, and Jay Sekulow are seeking guidance on whether Mueller himself would interview Trump as part of his investigation into Trump's campaign and Russian election meddling, where such an interview would take place, for how long, and which topics would be covered, but they would prefer "potential compromises that could avoid an interview altogether," two people familiar with the matter told NBC News.
One idea reportedly under consideration would be having Trump submit written answers to Mueller's questions, and "another possibility being contemplated was an affidavit signed by the president affirming he was innocent of any wrongdoing and denying any collusion," NBC News reports. "It was not clear what such an affidavit might state regarding the president's firing of former FBI Director James Comey in May 2017 at a time when Comey was leading the Russia probe." Former U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg told NBC that "the odds of prosecutors agreeing to written responses are somewhere between infinitesimally small and zero," while defense attorney Alan Dershowitz said he didn't blame Trump's lawyers for trying.
“With the Russia probe intensifying… preliminary discussions are underway between the President’s legal team and special counsel investigators about a possible interview with President Trump.”-@KWelkerNBC pic.twitter.com/RoeBulkZxE
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) January 8, 2018
Robert Dallek, a presidential historian, said while Bill Clinton testified under oath late in his presidency, a sitting president being interviewed in a criminal investigation during his first year in office "has never happened before" and must be "devastating" to the Trump administration. You can read more at NBC News. Peter Weber
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has been butting heads with Justice Department officials over subpoenas he issued last summer for highly classified FBI documents tied to the dossier on President Trump and Russia compiled last year by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. After Nunes threatened contempt of Congress citations against Justice Department leaders last month, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray requested a meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) Wednesday evening; after the meeting, Nunes said Rosenstein had agreed to give him "access to the documents over the coming days."
At the meeting with Ryan, "Rosenstein and Wray wanted to make one last effort to persuade him to support their position," CNN reports:
The documents in dispute were mostly FBI investigative documents that are considered law enforcement sensitive and are rarely released or shared outside the bureau. During the meeting, however, it became clear that Ryan wasn't moved and the officials wouldn't have his support if they proceeded to resist Nunes' remaining highly classified requests. ... The Justice Department and the FBI also had learned recently that the White House wasn't going to assert executive privilege or otherwise intervene to try to stop Nunes. [CNN]
House Intelligence Committee members will reportedly be allowed to view the documents in a secure facility at the Justice Department. The Justice Department also agreed to let Nunes' committee interview a host of DOJ and FBI officials in January, including FBI Special Agent Peter Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page, ex-members of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team whose released text messages were critical of Trump and other politicians.
Nunes, a member of Trump's transition team, appeared to have recused himself from the House Intelligence Committee's investigation of Russia last spring, but he has remained involved, issuing subpoenas and leading a GOP subset of the committee in an investigation of the Justice Department and FBI that, Politico says, has divided Republicans and infuriated Democrats. Peter Weber
In March, President Trump told White House Counsel Don McGahn to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Justice Department's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, The New York Times reports.
Two people with knowledge of the meeting told the Times that when McGahn spoke with Sessions, the attorney general told him he had made up his mind in February to recuse himself, after conferring with others in the Justice Department. When McGahn told Trump he had been unsuccessful in trying to sway Sessions, Trump was furious and said he needed an attorney general who would protect him, the Times reports. Sessions recused himself that month and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller in May.
The Times also learned that Mueller has received handwritten notes from former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, stating that Trump talked to him about how he called former FBI Director James Comey to urge him to announce publicly that he was not under investigation; that one of McGahn's deputies, concerned about what might happen if Trump fired Comey, at one point misled the president about his authority to fire the FBI director; and that just days before Comey was fired in May, one of Sessions' aides asked a congressional staffer if he had any information on Comey that could hurt him, as Sessions wanted to see negative stories about Comey in the news every day. Read the entire report at The New York Times. Catherine Garcia
At the same time the House Intelligence Committee has been looking into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, a subset of Republicans who believe there is corruption at the Department of Justice and FBI have been meeting in secret, Politico reports.
Led by committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), their goal is to prove that the DOJ and FBI have mishandled the contents of the dossier that reports ties between President Trump and Russia, four people familiar with the plan told Politico. Some of the allegations in the dossier have been verified and others have not; it has not been discredited, despite Republican claims. Democrats have not been notified of these get-togethers, and it's unclear how many people are participating.
The Republicans apparently suspect the FBI and Justice Department actively tried to hurt Trump and assist Hillary Clinton, Politico reports, and they are hoping to have a report compiled early next year spelling out their concerns. What really set them off, people told Politico, was that the Justice Department refused to detail ways the dossier was used to launch an FBI investigation into the Trump campaign. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein defended the FBI and Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team while on Capitol Hill last week, and Democrats say the closer his investigation gets to the White House, the more vocal Trump's allies become. Catherine Garcia