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National Govt & Politics
Trump repeatedly stirs interest in Russia probe - through his own words and tweets
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Trump repeatedly stirs interest in Russia probe - through his own words and tweets

Trump repeatedly stirs interest in Russia probe - through his own words and tweets
Photo Credit: Jamie Dupree

Trump repeatedly stirs interest in Russia probe - through his own words and tweets

Four days after getting rave reviews for his first address to a Joint Session of Congress in late February, President Donald Trump was stewing at his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Palm Beach, Florida. Instead of talking about that speech and his legislative agenda, Mr. Trump found himself aggravated by developments that had led to the recusal of the Attorney General from any federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.

The Russia story had been bubbling a bit more that week, but was about to get a giant jolt - not from the Congress or any news story - but directly from the President of the United States via Twitter.

"Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory," Mr. Trump wrote. "This is McCarthyism!"

It was a major inflection point in the political fight over Russian election meddling, as the White House - and the President - then spent weeks refusing to back down from the charge, even after top intelligence officials repeatedly made clear the Trump claim was not true.

"We do not have any information that supports those tweets,” FBI Director James Comey said at a Congressional hearing later in March, a public assertion that evidently aggravated the President.

Many believe the desire to prove that Mr. Trump was correct about surveillance of his team then led to the involvement of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), who dramatically announced he had been provided with new intelligence that showed surveillance of Trump associates during the transition.

That led to even more attention and scrutiny in the news media - and ultimately more controversy for the White House and Republicans in Congress.

Upon further review, Nunes was forced to step aside as the leader of the House probe into the Russia matter, and now finds himself under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for possibly revealing classified information.

In a sense, those four tweets in March by the President about Obama surveillance, spurred hundreds of news stories, dozens of questions at Congressional hearings and White House press briefings, and provided more than enough oxygen to drive the Russia story into April.

This past week, there was a similar turning point, as one tweet and one interview ignited two different firestorms over the Russia probe - once again - all started by the President.

Two days after firing FBI Director James Comey, the President sat for an interview with NBC News - and upended his own team's argument that Comey had been fired for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email affair.

Instead, the President made it sound like his frustration with Comey over the Russia probe had played a major factor in his decision.

"In one short interview, the President made liars of every single person who mounted a credible defense of the decision," said talk show host Erick Erickson, who urged Mr. Trump to "Shut the Hell Up" in a Friday post.

"His undisciplined tweets give the public contradictory information, and a sense that he wants to run the country via social media instead of democratic debate," wrote John Moody at Foxnews.com.

In the NBC interview, Mr. Trump called Comey a "showboat" and said the FBI Director had been grandstanding during his Congressional testimony.

Those remarks quickly rumbled around the halls of Capitol Hill like an earthquake.

"I'm offended at the President's comments," said Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Democrats were incensed; they felt like the President has made it clear that he fired Comey for pressing the investigation into ties between Mr. Trump and Moscow - some even charged it amounted to obstruction of justice.

But the President wasn't done. Washington had been stunned by the firing of Comey on Tuesday, but now, there was one more million pound hammer coming down on Friday morning, as Mr. Trump raised the possibility that he had secretly tape recorded a dinner conversation from January with Comey.

“This is very disturbing,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI). “The President is now openly threatening the former FBI Director.”

"First obstruction of an investigation. Now witness intimidation from the highest office," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA). "A sad moment for even this White House."

Democrats wasted no time in demanding the tapes.

“Mr. President, if there are “tapes” relevant to the Comey firing, it’s because you made them and they should be provided to Congress,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA).

At the afternoon briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was directly asked if the President had taped Comey.

There was no answer.

"Did President Trump record his conversations with former FBI Director Comey?" one reporter asked.

"I've talked to the President," Spicer said, "and the President has nothing further to add on that."

Instead of a week focused on building momentum for a health care overhaul bill approved by the House, the President had used the power of his office to make this a week that was All About Russia.

Judging by Mr. Trump's tweets and his interviews - and how they drive the news - that Russia probe might keep going for a while.

 

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The Latest Headlines You Need To Know

  • Orlando Democratic Representative Anna Eskamani is co-sponsoring a bill to allow illegal immigrants living in Florida to legally obtain a state driver’s license. “We can talk about the need to reform immigration as a whole, but this is one solution to make sure that our roads are safer,” Eskamani said over the phone on Thursday. Illegal immigrants would still have to take a driving test to get a license, and they’d be able to buy car insurance, which Eskamani said would generate additional revenue for the state.  She also believes the bill will encourage people to report accidents and crimes they see on the road. Eskamani agreed with the assessment that the bill (HB 969) does not attempt to change immigration policy but rather change policy dealing with Florida’s current immigrant situation. “On our roads, you have people who are undocumented who are driving their kids to daycare, who are going to work,” Eskamani said.  “They’re doing their best to live life to its fullest potential.” Under current Florida law, residents must prove U.S. citizenship or show a resident alien green card to get a state driver’s license.  This bill would allow people to use documents such as foreign passports, international birth certificates, or tax ID number to get one.   With the 2019 legislative session well underway in Tallahassee, neither the bill nor its Senate companion has seen a committee vote. The bill has gotten notable attention from Fox News, to which Eskamani mused on her Facebook page, “Wow, my first ever mention in Fox News!  This has to come with some sort of award right?”
  • The Florida man accused of sending pipe bombs last year to several high-profile critics of President Donald Trump pleaded guilty Thursday in a Manhattan federal court. >> Read more trending news Cesar Sayoc appeared Thursday for a change of plea hearing before U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff.  Sayoc pleaded not guilty in November to a slew of charges after he was identified as the man suspected of mailing pipe bombs to targets including CNN, former President Barack Obama and actor Robert De Niro. >> Cesar Sayoc Jr.: What we know about the man arrested for sending package bombs Sayoc has been held without bail since his late-October arrest outside a South Florida auto parts store. He had been living in a van covered with stickers of Trump and showing images of some Trump opponents with crosshairs over their faces. Authorities launched an investigation in October after pipe bombs were mailed to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and philanthropist George Soros. In the subsequent days, similar devices were mailed to several other prominent Trump critics, including U.S. Rep Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Democratic donor Tom Steyer. >> 2nd mail bomb to Tom Steyer recovered; suspect agrees to remain jailed, face charges in New York Authorities said Sayoc was linked to the packages after investigators found his fingerprints and DNA on some of them. Without a plea deal, Sayoc faced charges carrying a potential penalty of mandatory life in prison. A court filing last Friday didn't indicate which charge or charges the plea would involve. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
  • Federal authorities and Butler Township police are investigating after an explosive device was placed inside a mailbox and detonated, according to police. >> Read more trending news  The explosive device, which police believe was a commercial-grade firework, was detonated and destroyed the mailbox sometime between 7 p.m. Tuesday and 9 a.m. Wednesday, Butler Township Police Chief John Porter said in a media release. Police did not say what road the incident occurred on but described the area as a rural part of the township.  “Since tampering with a mailbox is covered under federal law, federal authorities have been notified and are participating with us in a joint investigation,” Porter said. “Our initial investigation shows there is no indication of any type of hate or bias crime at this time.”  Authorities continue to investigate.
  • The sister of a Minnesota woman accused of killing a stranger to steal her identity in Florida last year is now facing criminal charges of her own after investigators say she grew angry at her intoxicated son and ran him over with her SUV.  Cynthia Lea Grund, 58, of Salem Township, was jailed on suspicion of second-degree assault and reckless driving. Olmstead County Jail records indicate she has since been released.  >> Read more trending news Olmstead County deputies were called Monday evening to Grund’s home, where they found her 37-year-old son, identified by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as Jason Finstad, suffering from significant lower body injuries, a Sheriff’s Office news release said. The man had been run over by a vehicle.  Investigators determined that Grund had run over her son with a 2004 Ford Explorer, the news release said.  According to detectives, Finstad was very intoxicated when he began walking down the rural driveway to go to a friend’s house. His mother and stepfather no longer wanted him staying at their home.  Grund drove down the driveway to pick Finstad up and drive him to the friend’s house, the news release said. Finstad refused to get in the SUV. “Why don’t you just run me over,” he allegedly said before lying in the driveway in front of Grund’s vehicle.  “Grund then backed the vehicle up and intentionally ran over the victim,” the news release said. “Grund admitted to her actions and at one point made a comment to the effect, ‘He didn't believe I would. He has been drinking all day. We gave him a chance.’” Grund was taken into custody at the scene. >> Related story: ‘Losing Streak Lois,’ killer grandma wanted in 2 slayings nabbed near U.S.-Mexico border Finstad underwent surgery at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester to repair damage to his pelvis. He also suffered head injuries in the incident, investigators said.  He was in fair condition as of Tuesday, the Star Tribune reported. According to the newspaper, Grund is the sister of Lois Ann Riess, 57, of Blooming Prairie, who is being held in Florida on a charge of first-degree murder in the April 5 slaying of Pamela Hutchinson, 59, of Bradenton.  Riess was arrested April 19 on Texas’ South Padre Island after a multistate string of crimes that investigators allege began with the shooting death of her husband, David Riess, 54, at their worm farm. Saturday will mark a year since David Riess’ decomposing body was found. Authorities said David Riess had been dead for several days by the time his body was discovered. The Star Tribune reported last month that a .22-caliber semi-automatic handgun found in Lois Riess’ Texas motel room matched shell casings found at the scene of her husband’s death. Dodge County investigators have turned their case over to the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office for review.  Lois Riess, who authorities nicknamed “Losing Streak Lois” for her penchant for gambling, fled south to Florida -- stopping at a casino on the way. Riess’ abandoned Cadillac Escalade, which Minnesota investigators alleged she left the state in after gunning down her husband, was found in a park in Fort Myers, Florida.  Surveillance footage from a restaurant two blocks from Hutchinson’s borrowed timeshare condo showed the victim chatting with Riess at the bar on April 5, the day authorities believe she was shot to death. Hutchinson’s body was found four days later in the bathroom of the condo.  See the footage of Lois Riess chatting with Pamela Hutchinson below, courtesy of the Fort Myers News-Press.  Investigators believe Hutchinson was killed so Riess could assume her identity. They also believe Hutchinson was shot with the same gun that killed David Riess. According to Riess’ Florida indictment, Lois Riess stole credit cards, money, jewelry, sunglasses and other property from Hutchinson after she was killed. Surveillance footage from Hutchinson’s condo complex showed Riess walking into the parking lot, getting into Hutchinson’s Acura TL and driving away.  The indictment also alleged that Riess went to a Fort Myers bank and used Hutchinson’s identification to withdraw $5,000 from the dead woman’s account before leaving town. Riess was next spotted the following day at an Ocala Hilton hotel, where she used Hutchinson’s identification to check into a room, Lee County officials said. She stayed there the nights of April 6 and 7, according to investigators.  Surveillance footage from inside and outside the hotel showed both Riess and the stolen Acura. According to the News-Press, a white straw hat Riess wore in the footage belonged to Hutchinson.  While in Ocala, Riess is accused of withdrawing another $500 from Hutchinson’s bank account.  From there, Riess is accused of making her way west across the southeastern U.S., making several stops in Louisiana -- including at another casino -- before being seen driving the Acura around Corpus Christi, Texas. She attempted to get $200 from Hutchinson’s account at a gas station, but the effort failed, the News-Press reported.  Riess used her own ID to claim a $1,500 jackpot at a Louisiana casino, the newspaper reported.  Riess remained at large until April 19, when she was arrested on South Padre Island in Texas. Dodge County Sheriff Scott Rose said a man recognized Riess when she walked into a restaurant on the island, located about 25 miles from the Mexican border, and looked at a menu. Riess did not stay to eat at the restaurant, identified as Dirty Al’s Seafood, but the man called police to report the sighting. A South Padre Island police officer and a federal marshal responded to the area and spotted the white Acura that had been stolen from Hutchinson at another nearby restaurant, the Sea Ranch.  Riess was taken into custody as she sat at the bar inside, eating a meal and chatting with fellow patrons. She was subsequently extradited back to Florida to face charges in Hutchinson’s homicide.   Riess was indicted June 6 in the case, according to court records. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in Hutchinson’s slaying. 

Washington Insider

  • Frustrated by opposition on some college campuses to conservative speakers, President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an executive order which threatens to take away federal research grant money from colleges and universities, if those schools don't guarantee First Amendment protections for those who want to speak on campus. 'We're dealing with billions and billions and billions of dollars,' President Trump said in a White House ceremony on Thursday. Flanked by conservative activists who have run afoul of protests at college and university campuses, Mr. Trump made clear that he wants new opportunities for their voices to be heard. 'Universities that want taxpayer dollars should promote free speech,' the President added. 'This order is part of the Trump Administration’s administrative and legislative efforts to support a focus on student outcomes and improve transparency, accountability, and affordability in postsecondary education,' the White House said in a statement. The President had raised this matter earlier in the month, during an appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference just outside Washington, D.C. It was not immediately clear how the Thursday signing would change the current landscape governing money being sent to schools by the feds, as there are already requirements to uphold the First Amendment. In a morning conference call with reporters, a senior administration official refused to give any hints about how the requirement would be enforced differently going forward. 'I won't get into implementation details,' the official said, repeatedly deflecting questions in a Thursday conference call with reporters about how the plan would work.  'But schools are already supposed to be following these rules,' as the official said 'the goal of the order is to promote free speech more broadly across college campuses.' The plan drew immediate fire from the President's critics. 'President Trump’s concept of free speech is speech that he agrees with, which is, in fact, the antithesis of what the First Amendment seeks to protect,' said Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers union.