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Matt Shuham is a news writer for TPM. He was previously associate editor of The National Memo and managing editor of the Harvard Political Review. He is available by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @mattshuham.
The FBI told members of Congress in a recent letter that the White House counsel, Don McGahn (above left), was given a partial report with “derogatory” information about former Staff Secretary Rob Porter (above right) 11 months before Porter resigned over domestic violence allegations.
“On March 3, 2017, the FBI provided a partial report of investigation addressed to the Counsel to the President, Donald F. McGahn, which contained derogatory information” about Porter, Gerald Roberts Jr., assistant director of the FBI’s security division, wrote to House Oversight Committee Chair Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD). Cummings published the letter, which was dated April 13, on Thursday.
The New York Times, citing an unnamed former federal law enforcement official, reported Thursday that the allegations of violence made against Porter were included in the March report.
That timeline clashes with the White House’s claims.
While FBI Director Christopher Wray had previously told Congress that the bureau had provided the White House with a “partial report” on Porter in March 2017, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed the FBI’s information went to “career officials” in the White House Personnel Security Office.
“I think you need to be very clear that there’s multiple groups here,” she told reporters in February. “The White House Personnel Security Office, which is staffed by career officials, would have — may have received information, but they had not completed their process and made a recommendation to the White House for adjudication.”
The Washington Post reported in February that McGahn had learned of the allegations against Porter as early as January 2017.
The Times on Thursday quoted an unnamed White House official who said McGahn never saw the March FBI report, as he was busy with other things. The official said that aides believed the report was reviewed by an “underling,” in the Times’ words, who passed it along to the Personnel Security Office.
“Don never saw it,” the source said. “The right people never saw it.”
The Times noted that the White House has previously claimed the March report contained only basic information about Porter, not abuse allegations.
Cummings responded to the letter by saying in a statement: “The FBI has now confirmed that it repeatedly provided derogatory information to the White House about Rob Porter as far back as March of 2017. But White House officials ignored this information and continued granting Porter access to our nation’s most highly classified secrets—just as they did with Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner.”
He called on Gowdy to subpoena the White House after what he said was the Trump administration’s repeated stonewalling on document production.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt faced two very different crowds Thursday during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment.
On one side of the aisle, Democrats pressed him on his lavish security and office furnishing costs, rollbacks of Obama-era environmental protections and reports of retaliation against whistleblowers.
Many Republicans, on the other hand, thanked Pruitt for his work and apologized for their colleagues. Here are some highlights:
Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX): “Mr. Administrator, you’re not the first person to be the victim of, for lack of a better term, Washington politics […] If you can’t debate the policies in Washington you attack the personality, and that’s what’s happening to you.”
Rep. David McKinley (R-WV): “To the public, I think this has been a classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism that we’re seeing too often here in Washington that, unfortunately, I think, works against civility and respect for people in public office. I was hoping we would be able to stay on policy today as much as we could but I can see some just can’t resist the limelight, the opportunity to grandstand.”
Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH): “I do believe that public officials have a standard of conduct that should be beyond reproach, but so should members of Congress. And I think it’s shameful today that this hearing has turned into a personal attack hearing and a shameful attempt to denigrate the work that’s being done at the EPA and with this administration, and make this a personal attack rather than focus on what we’re here to talk about, which is the budget and the functioning and the policy work being done at the EPA.”
Rep. Greg Harper (R-MS): “It appears that it’s become a political bloodsport to try to destroy anybody associated with the Trump administration, and I want to say thank you for what your agency’s done.”
Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC): “I apologize for the abrasiveness of some of my colleagues who would rather tarnish your character than really try to delve into the issues facing this great nation.”
Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) had a simple question toward the end of a congressional hearing with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on Thursday: Why did he need two biometric locks, which together cost nearly $6,000, for his office?
“Let me ask you this,” Welch began. “Did you have installed, or were there installed, biometric locks on your office?”
“There were problems with locks on two of the three doors, and changes were made to those locks,” Pruitt responded. “No instruction was given for biometric locks, but that was a decision made by those individuals.”
“So these things just happen?” Welch asked. Earlier he’d wondered if Pruitt had a plaque on his desk that read “The Buck Stops Nowhere.”
“There was a process at the agency in that regard,” Pruitt said. “And there was an evaluation.”
“Well, what’s a biometric lock?” a frustrated Welch asked.
“I’m not entirely sure,” Pruitt said, chuckling slightly.
“Is it the case you don’t know how to open your door?” Welch asked, as Pruitt started to answer. “No, seriously, what is a biometric lock?”
“I don’t know, I just put a code in,” Pruitt said.
Welch tried to answer for him.
“A biometric lock, it responds, as I understand it, to fingerprints or some other — your eyes, some physical characteristic,” he said.
“That’s my understanding as well,” Pruitt said.
“Alright, so you have them, right?” Welch asked.
“Those have been added to the office, yes,” Pruitt said, finally answering the question after a minute of Welch pressing him on it.
“Why?” Welch asked.
But it was too late.
“Gentleman’s time is expired,” Chairman John Shimkus (R-IL) of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on the Environment said, five minutes having passed.
But at several points during a hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Environment, Pruitt alternately shifted blame for the huge expense to underlings and argued that it was necessary for its convenience and purported security.
“Well, Mr. Pruitt, there happens to be two places in this building, right close to your office, where you can do that,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) told Pruitt at one point.
“They’re not right close to my office,” Pruitt responded.
“Well, how often do you have to use your secret phone booth?” Welch asked.
“It’s for confidential communications and it’s rare,” Pruitt responded.
The EPA administrator had said earlier the booth was “actually not a SCIF” — that is, a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility — despite the EPA’s previous claim to the GAO that the booth “enables him to use this area to make and receive classified telephone calls (up to the top secret level) for the purpose of conducting agency business.”
“Federal agencies need to have one of these so that secured communications, not subject to hacking from the outside, can be held,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman told the Washington Post in a statement for a story on the booth. “It’s called a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF). This is something which a number, if not all, Cabinet offices have and EPA needs to have updated.”
Pressed by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), all Pruitt committed to is that the matter was under investigation.
Responding later to a question from Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-CA), Pruitt said the booth “has not been certified as a SCIF, and it does provide protection on confidential communications.”
“I gave direction to my staff to address that,” Pruitt added, referring to what he called his lack of access to secure communications — even though the EPA already had areas to conduct secure communications. “And out of that came a $43,000 expenditure that I did not approve.”
“Career individuals at the agency took that process through and signed off on it all the way through,” he added later, responding to another question. “I was not involved in the approval of the $43,000, and if I had known about it, congressman, I would not have approved it.”
“That seems a bit odd,” Cárdenas responded. “If something happens in my office, especially to the degree of $43,000, I know about it before, during and after.”
“I was not aware it was $13,000, $8,000 or $43,000,” Pruitt added later in response to Rep. Ryan Costello’s (R-PA) questions. “I gave a simple instruction to my leadership team to address secure communications in the office, and then a process began.”
Watch Rep. DeGette’s questions below: This post has been updated.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on Thursday again claimed ignorance, at the time, of five-figure raises given to several senior advisers of his at the EPA.
But his denial differed slightly since he last spoke about the raises.
“I was not aware of the amount, nor was I aware of the bypassing or the [Presidential Personnel Office] process not being respected,” he told Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), who asked about his aide Sarah Greenwalt’s reported claim in an internal email that Pruitt had approved of her five-figure raises, which utilized an administrative loophole to escape White House scrutiny.
The comment came during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment.
Pruitt told Tonko that his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson — who signed his own name and “for Scott Pruitt” next to the approvals for Greenwalt’s and others’ raises — utilized “delegations giving him that authority.”
Still, in an interview earlier this month with Fox News, Pruitt said that he’s just “found out about” the raises “yesterday,” when they first made headlines. He didn’t specify that he was unaware specifically of the amount of the raises, and the process by which they were authorized.
President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen said in a court filing Wednesday that he would plead the Fifth Amendment in adult film star Stephanie Clifford’s lawsuit over a nondisclosure agreement she signed in 2016.
Clifford, known professionally as Stormy Daniels, claims in the suit that the NDA is invalid because Trump never signed it. The NDA covers an alleged affair Clifford had with Trump years ago. She’s also sued Cohen for defamation because of Cohen’s implication, she says, that she was lying about the alleged affair.
In a court filing Wednesday, Cohen tied the criminal probe directly to his assertion of Fifth Amendment rights in the civil suit.
“I will assert my 5th amendment rights in connection with all proceedings in this case due to the ongoing criminal investigation by the FBI and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York,” he said in part. Cohen last week asked U.S. District Judge James Otero to delay the civil suit due to its overlap with the criminal probe.
Giuliani reopened negotiations with Mueller over a potential interview between Mueller’s team and the President, the Post reported, but cautioned the special counsel that Trump and his advisers had voiced “ongoing resistance” to an interview, in the Post’s words.
The Post cited three unnamed people familiar with the talks and noted that Giuliani had “pressed Mueller for clarity” on when the probe would end.
Trump’s lawyers have long insisted, incorrectly, that they expected the part of Mueller’s probe involving Trump would be over “expeditious[ly].”
Before FBI agents raided Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen’s home, office and hotel earlier this month as part of a months-long criminal probe, Trump’s team had been in talks with Mueller about a potential interview. The raids, which Trump called “an attack on our country,” reportedly put the fate of that interview in question.
The Post reported Wednesday that Mueller “reiterated” his desire for an interview with Trump as part of his probe of potential obstruction of justice.
Suspected Russian spies casing Russian defectors were among the 60 diplomats the Trump administration expelled from the United States last month, CNN reported Wednesday.
CNN reported that among the expelled diplomats were Russian spies who, unnamed law enforcement and intelligence officials believe, “were tracking Russian defectors and their families who had resettled in the US.”
Trump expelled the diplomats in response to Russia’s alleged poisoning of an ex-Russian spy and his daughter in Britain earlier in March. At the time of the expulsion, unnamed senior Trump administration officials told the Associated Press that all of the expelled diplomats were in reality spies using diplomatic titles as cover.
The Trump administration also ordered the closure of Russia’s consulate in Seattle in response to the poisonings. On Wednesday, State Department personnel drilled through the locks on that compound and entered it — despite Russian protests that it was still the country’s property, and though its Russian occupants had left the grounds the previous day.
According to CNN’s Wednesday report, the alleged Russian spies were “believed to be casing someone who was part of a CIA program that provided new identities to protect resettled Russians,” according to CNN’s unnamed sources.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday defended the Trump administration’s treatment of the press in light of the United States falling two places on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, from 43 to 45 out of 180, in 2018.
Still, she didn’t address a reporter’s question about what affect President Donald Trump’s attacks on the press may have had on that ranking.
“According to Reporters Without Borders, much of the blame for that goes to the President for his attacks on the media,” a reporter asked Sanders during the press briefing Wednesday. “What’s the reaction of the White House, and does it accept that the President’s comments has [sic] denigrated freedom of the press in the United States?”
“Certainly would reject the idea that the President or this administration has halted freedom of the press,” Sanders replied. “I think we’re one of the most accessible administrations that we’ve seen in decades. I think by my mere presence of standing up here and taking your questions unvetted is a pretty good example of freedom of the press. And I think it’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise.”
She added later, responding to a different question: “I certainly think that, as I stated a moment ago, we support a free press, but we also support a fair press. And I think that those things should go hand-in-hand, and there’s a certain responsibility by the press to report accurate information.”
In 2017, following Trump’s election, the same organization dropped the U.S. from 41 to 43 in its ranking.
Michael Anton, the recentlydeparted spokesperson for President Donald Trump’s National Security Council, defended Trump’s Tuesday reference to North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un as “honorable.”
“What he specifically said was that Kim Jong Un had been honorable in the negotiation over the summit, so he limited it to that one very narrow topic,” Anton told CNN’s Kate Bolduan in an interview Wednesday, though Trump did not specify that he was referring to the negotiations.
Trump said of the North Korea’s ruler: “We’re having very good discussions. Kim Jong Un, he really has been very open and, I think, very honorable from everything we’re seeing. Now a lot of promises have been made by North Korea over the years, but they’ve never been in this position.”
Asked about the comment at a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron later, Trump spoke generally about the negotiations with North Korea.
Anton told Bolduan: “I think you’re making much too much of this. The President said that in a very narrow context about the setting up of the talks.”
“Trying to extend it beyond that to a macro comment about the North Korean regime, which he clearly didn’t mean, I just don’t think that’s accurate,” he added.
Anton is best known for anonymously writing “The Flight 93 Election,” a pre-election argument for conservatives to line up behind Trump’s campaign. In it, he compared the Washington status quo — including “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty” — to the terrorists who hijacked United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001.
“Trump, alone among candidates for high office in this or in the last seven (at least) cycles, has stood up to say: I want to live. I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live. I want to end the insanity,” he wrote separately in the essay, referring to “mass migration.”