March 20, 2017

President Trump on Monday dismissed widespread reports of Russia's meddling in the presidential election as "FAKE NEWS." In a series of tweets, Trump alleged Democrats "made up and pushed the Russian story," seemingly referring to the FBI- and CIA-backed reports that Russia interfered in the election to dash Hillary Clinton's chances, thus helping Trump.

Trump claimed Democrats fabricated the story "as an excuse for running a terrible campaign":

Trump then noted former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper's remark earlier this month that a paper compiled by the DNI, NSA, FBI, and CIA included "no evidence" of Trump associates' collusion with Russia. Clapper said neither he nor the agencies had uncovered any "evidence of such collusion."

Top House Intelligence Committee Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) later said he was "surprised" by Clapper's comment because he did not think that claim could be made "categorically." "I would characterize it this way: At the outset of the investigation, there was circumstantial evidence of collusion," Schiff said. "There was direct evidence, I think, of deception."

Later Monday, FBI Director James Comey and NSA chief Mike Rogers will testify before Congress about possible connections between Trump's campaign and Russia. Becca Stanek

9:22 a.m. ET
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The State Department has abruptly stopped holding on-camera press briefings, The Wall Street Journal reports. It took the department an entire six weeks to get the briefings up and running after Trump's inauguration, and the briefings only lasted for three weeks. Officials said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will resume the briefings when he hires a permanent spokesperson. As a result, briefings aren't expected to resume for at least another two weeks.

Tillerson has faced criticism for his inaccessibility; earlier this month, he traveled to Asia with just one reporter from a conservative-friendly outlet in tow. Daily press briefings have long been a fixture for U.S. secretaries of state, dating back to when John Foster Dulles held the role in the 1950s. But when Tillerson's State Department briefly resumed the briefings, they occurred just twice a week with alternating phone briefings.

In the period before the spokesperson is put in place, the State Department will "hold background briefings, in which unnamed officials will brief intermittently on specific topics," The Wall Street Journal writes. Fox News' Heather Nauert is expected to fill the role as the permanent spokesperson, but she has not yet been officially named and her security clearance has not yet been approved. Jeva Lange

8:37 a.m. ET
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With the Trump administration still smarting from the failure of the GOP health-care bill, Republicans are now considering yanking money from the border wall in order to avoid a government shutdown at the end of April. "The Trump administration can't have another disaster on its hands," a senior House Republican official told Politico. "I think right now they have to show some level of competence and that they can govern."

The White House requested $1.4 billion for the border wall as part of a defense spending package; the total price of the wall is ultimately expected to be more than $20 billion. But Republicans are concerned about how they might look if they force a government shutdown on the heels of the health-care defeat.

If Congress truly were to refuse to fund the border wall, it would be its own unique defeat for the administration as the infrastructure was a central promise of President Trump's campaign. But for the budget to pass, the House cannot lose more than 22 Republican votes, assuming Democrats vote along party lines. And even then, at least eight Senate Democrats would be needed to break a filibuster.

Already, many moderate Republicans are voicing concerns about the wall. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called it "probably not a smart investment." Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has also hinted at putting the wall off until the future, perhaps late 2019. And as the House Freedom Caucus proved with health care, they are ever a wild card.

But as one senior Republican pointed out to Politico: "This is [Trump's] signature issue. I cannot imagine a scenario where the Trump administration loses on the border wall funding. If I were them, I'd dare the Democrats to shut down the government over this." Jeva Lange

8:02 a.m. ET
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As the White House pointedly moves on from its failed health-care bill, it is looking ahead to fulfill another of President Trump's ambitious promises: tax reform. But top officials warn that such an enormous project isn't going to be a walk in the park either and "they don't see how they can change the House Republican math that killed health reform," Axios reports.

As one Republican put it, the GOP is at risk of "looking like a clown car." Another official described making the same miscalculation with tax reform efforts that was made with health care would be "the definition of insanity."

The first hurdle will be the April 28 deadline for the budget. If it is not passed — and one top Republican close to the White House told Axios it is "more likely than not" to fail — the government will shut down on April 29, President Trump's 100th day in office.

Read more about Trump's budget, which Jeff Spross describes as "a demented vision of what priorities the federal government should invest its resources in," here at The Week. Jeva Lange

7:37 a.m. ET
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The Secret Service does not have "the time or money" to keep a record of who attends the president's Mar-a-Lago club, Politico reports being told by former officials. Additionally, when first lady Melania Trump and Trump's son, Barron, are staying at Mar-a-Lago, there are no weapons or background checks, allowing unscreened visitors to get within view of the presidential family for the price of a $300 ticket.

This is not the first time concerns about Mar-a-Lago's security have been raised; the president was also criticized for discussing a response to a North Korean missile test with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in full view of gawking guests. Now Democrats are taking aim at what they call a "national security concern" with the Making Access Records Available to Lead American Government Openness Act, or "Mar-a-Lago Act," which would require the president to collect information for public release on who comes and goes from his private properties. (For the record: The page for the public White House visitor logs is also currently blank.)

A recent GOP gathering at Mar-a-Lago highlights some of the concerns:

[Attendees] didn't have to submit to the kinds of rigorous background checks required if they'd been entering the White House in Washington. And there were no weapon screenings or bomb-sniffing dogs checking vehicles of the sort that have long been routine at public restaurants or other places where the president or first lady is present.

Mar-a-Lago also doesn't keep tabs on the identity of guests who come and go on a routine basis, even while the president is in residence. Club members call the front desk to give the names of their guests, including for parties held in the ballroom. But they don’t have to submit details, like a middle initial or birthdate or Social Security number, that are standard for visitor logs or background checks — which neither the club nor the Secret Service do at the resort. [Politico]

Trump's legislative affairs director Marc Short insists: "Proper security protocols are adhered to at all times at Mar-a-Lago." Read more about the ongoing security concerns at Politico. Jeva Lange

6:54 a.m. ET

On Tuesday, human rights group Amnesty International said a recent sharp uptick in civilian deaths in Mosul, Iraq, suggests that the U.S.-led coalition isn't taking adequate care to avoid civilian casualties, a potential "flagrant violation of international humanitarian law." The U.S. military says it is investigating a March 17 airstrike in Mosul's Old City, called in by Iraqi forces trying to take the Western part of the city from the Islamic State; Iraqi officials say the death toll from that strike could hit 200 or more, making it one of the deadliest civilian attacks by the U.S. in Iraq.

The U.S. has confirmed the strike but not the casualties. "It is very possible that Daesh [ISIS] blew up that building to blame it on the collation," U.S. Army chief of staff Gen. Mark Milley told reporters in Baghdad on Monday. "And it is possible the collation airstrike did it." Amnesty International said another U.S.-led airstrike on Saturday killed "up to 150 people." British monitoring group Airwars says that for the first time, alleged U.S.-led strikes in Syria are affecting more civilians than Russian strikes, with the reported increase in U.S.-linked civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria starting under former President Barack Obama and picking up sharply when President Trump took office in January.

Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Monday that unlike America's adversaries, "we go out of our way to always do everything humanly possible to reduce the loss of life or injury among innocent people." That hasn't changed since Trump signed an order on Jan. 28 telling the military to explore relaxing Obama's restrictions aimed at protecting civilians, says Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command. "Our processes are good and we want to make sure we live by those processes."

On the ground in Mosul, New York Times reporters say the civilians whose homes and families were flattened clearly blame the U.S. airstrikes, noting that U.S. and Iraqi forces dropped leaflets on numerous occasions urging them to stay in the homes and not to flee. They say Iraqi forces called in strikes on entire residential units because of one ISIS sniper on a roof. Iraqi commanders told the Times they appreciate the new responsiveness from the Americans. "There used to be a delay, or no response sometimes, on the excuse of checking the location or looking for civilians," said Gen. Ali Jamil, an Iraqi intelligence officer. You can watch the BBC News dispatch from Mosul below. Peter Weber

5:02 a.m. ET

"Washington is a mess right now, but that's going to end soon," Stephen Colbert joked on Monday's Late Show. "Because the White House just announced that Trump's son-in-law and leader of the preppie camp across the lake, Jared Kushner, will oversee a broad effort to overhaul the federal government. And the government desperately needs overhaul; I mean, somebody keeps putting totally unqualified people in charge of really important stuff." He didn't name any names, exactly. "Kushner will become the head of something called the Office of American Innovation," Colbert said. "Vague, but still better than the original title, the Bureau of Obvious Nepotism."

Kushner's new office will aim to remake the government drawing from business ideas. "And you know he's got great business ideas, like being born into a wealthy real estate family, or marrying into a wealthy real estate family — why hasn't the government tried that?" Colbert asked. He was especially put off by Kushner's "bold vision for the office," that the government should be run as a "great American business," with the citizenry its customers: "Hold it a second. We're not customers, we're citizens, which means we own the store. You work for us, buddy."

Kushner already had a pretty full docket of responsibilities, "like managing the dispute with Mexico over Trump's border wall and brokering Middle East peace," Colbert said, but "Jared will still have time for his hobbies, like testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on the Trump campaign's ties to Russia. Well, not if he overhauls the government first — Business idea No. 1: No Senate." That brought Colbert to the other big story from last week: the FBI confirming that it's investigating the Trump campaign for possibly colluding with Russia during the election. "And you know it was a busy news week when I'm only getting to the treason at 11:58," he said.

Colbert played the footage of FBI Director James Comey publicly announcing that the Trump campaign is under active investigation, one that has been ongoing since at least last July, and he unloaded. "Wow, the FBI is investigating the president of the United States for colluding with a foreign power — that is historic," he said. "The only way it could possibly be more historic is if you told us before the f—ing election!" Watch below. Peter Weber

4:17 a.m. ET

Stephen Colbert was somewhere drinking rum last week, despite his cleverly pretaped shows, he admitted on Monday's Late Show. "What a great time to have been away from the show — nothing happened while I was gone, right?" he deadpanned. He showed some cartoonishly disturbing "footage" of the GOP effort to repeal and replace ObamaCare, then got down to the business of political comedy. "So, on Friday, lacking the votes they needed, they folded the ObamaCare repeal and placed it in the cabinet of broken Republican dreams," Colbert said, "next to trickle-down economics and a Jesus-shaped fighter jet that drops gay people on ISIS."

This was an embarrassing failure for President Trump, so who did he blame? The Democrats — "not enough votes to get a majority," Colbert mused, "well, that didn't stop you from becoming president" — plus conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans... basically, everyone but one person: Donald Trump. "After all his campaign promises, nothing," Colbert said. "It's almost like you can't trust a fast-talking city slicker who rolls into town promising a magic solution for all our medical needs. I'm starting to doubt the effectiveness of Dr. Bannon's Anti-Muslim Toad Oil."

Oh, Trump also seemed to blame Paul Ryan, indirectly, farming out the dirty work to Jeanine Pirro on Fox News. Colbert noted Trump's tweeted-out alert to watch Pirro's show Saturday night, showed some highlights of the show, and seemed to suggest that perhaps Pirro had been tippling before her passionate defense of Trump and call for Ryan to step down. Then he made it specific. "Well, I've got to say, if he likes Judge Jeanine, Trump is going to love tonight's episode of The Late Show's pro-Trump news team, Real News Tonight," Colbert said. And this very special edition of the fake-news broadcast features a vaguely familiar anti-Ryan rant from "Judge Sally Blazerface." Watch below. Peter Weber

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