Even without giving definitive answers, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is drawing plenty of scrutiny.
While attending the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday, Nielsen was forced to immediately backtrack on her claim that Russia didn't favor President Trump when interfering in the 2016 election. On other matters, however, she opted to double down rather than 'fess up.
Vice reports that Nielsen was asked about Trump's comments about the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, where white nationalist demonstrators were confronted by counterprotesters. When violence broke out, a counterprotester was killed, and multiple people have since been charged with malicious wounding of a black man who was protesting the rally.
Trump was widely criticized for saying that there were "very fine people on both sides" of the incident, a comment that Nielsen was asked about Thursday. She reportedly said that "it's not that one side was right and one side was wrong," and added that "anybody that is advocating violence, we need to work to mitigate."
Nielsen additionally dodged a question about the Trump administration's focus on countering white supremacist violence overall. GQ correspondent Julia Ioffe reports that Nielsen instead addressed "Islamic radicalism," again noting that she takes all violence seriously. Summer Meza
While it's impossible to know exactly what President Trump discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin in their one-on-one meeting Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said there was "some conversation" about allowing Russia to question U.S. citizens.
Reporter Maggie Haberman of The New York Times asked Sanders on Wednesday whether Trump supported the idea of allowing Russia to question people like Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia. Sanders said Trump would "meet with his team" about the matter and make an announcement later if necessary.
McFaul is reportedly of interest to Putin regarding the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions against Russia. Putin has accused officials like McFaul, British-American financier Bill Browder, and Steele dossier author Christopher Steele of financial crimes, some of which he alleged during Monday's summit. McFaul and Browder have denied the allegations, but Putin said he was interested in interrogating them to be sure.
The former ambassador himself was wondering whether Trump had pushed back on the suggestion, writing on Twitter to call the allegations against him "whacko." Rather than "push back," apparently, Sanders said that Trump had discussed it with Putin, suggesting that the president was considering allowing Russia to question the U.S. citizens. "There wasn't a commitment made on behalf of the United States," said Sanders, without offering any other details about the conversation.
McFaul wrote that he hopes the White House will "correct the record" and denounce the "ridiculous request." Russian state media, meanwhile, published an article titled "Nervous, are we?" taunting McFaul's "defensive" tweets. Summer Meza
Here's another line you can draw on your conspiracy board: Retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy has a connection to Germany's Deutsche Bank, which has been suspected of allowing Russian money laundering and is President Trump's biggest known lender, The New York Times reports. While the Trump administration has waged a long campaign to encourage Kennedy to retire — a not uncommon practice among presidents, as all are eager to fill Supreme Court vacancies — the Trumps and the Kennedys already had a long history of working together:
— Philip Gourevitch (@PGourevitch) June 29, 2018
President Trump's glowing reference to Justice Kennedy's son at his address to Congress was apparently an attempt to remind the judge of their connection. As the Times suggests, Trump's months of praise of the senior Kennedy was all part of a campaign to assure him "that his judicial legacy would be in good hands should he step down at the end of the court's term that ended this week." Jeva Lange
Of all the revelations in the Justice Department inspector general's report on the FBI's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, perhaps the most surprising is the news that former FBI Director James Comey used a private Gmail account for official business. "We identified numerous instances in which Comey used a personal email account (a Gmail account) to conduct FBI business," writes Inspector General Michael Horowitz in the report, going on to cite five examples.
Asked about the use of his personal email, Comey told the investigators, "I did not have an unclass[ified] FBI connection at home that worked. And I didn't bother to fix it, whole 'nother story, but I would either use my Blackberry, must have been, or Samsung … Or if I needed to write something longer, I would type it on my personal laptop and then sent it to [James] Rybicki, usually I copied my own address." Comey said he only used his personal account and laptop "when I needed to word process an unclassified [document] that was going to be disseminated broadly, [such as a] public speech or public email to the whole organization."
When asked if using his personal email in such a way was in line with department protocol, Comey said: "I don't know. I think so, but I don't know." The inspector general confirmed "Comey's use of a personal email account on multiple occasions for unclassified FBI business to be inconsistent with the DOJ policy statement."
The news is an especially bitter pill for Hillary Clinton's supporters to swallow, as many blame Comey for her election loss. In July 2016, Comey famously summarized Clinton's use of a private email server as being "extremely careless," even as he said she was not guilty of any crime. Jeva Lange
Several Democrats are raising concerns about connections between NRA officials and Russians with ties to the Kremlin, with Rep. Ted Lieu (Calif.) telling McClatchy DC that it seems like "something very bad happened in 2016." The questions arise as federal investigators are looking into whether the NRA received illegal donations from Russians to support the Trump campaign.
"Now U.S. investigators want to know if relationships between the Russian leaders and the nation's largest gun rights group went beyond vodka toasts and gun factory tours, evolving into another facet of the Kremlin's broad election-interference operation," McClatchy DC writes. Among the Russians who were in contact with NRA officials was Alexander Torshin, who allegedly helped launder money for the Russian mob in Spain, and Dmitry Rogozin, a far-right nationalist. "I can't understand the NRA meeting with Rogozin since he was sanctioned in 2014," said Russia expert Anders Aslund. "It's so embarrassing."
NRA officials also were in touch with Sergei Rudov, the head of the religious charity St. Basil's the Great Charitable Foundation, which has allegedly been used to finance causes like the separatist movement in Crimea.
Lieu claims it is fishy that the NRA was meeting with the Russians in the first place because "they don't actually have a similar interest in making sure that people bear arms" — Russia has much stricter gun laws than the United States. Read more about the ties between the NRA and Russian agents at McClatchy DC. Jeva Lange
Trump apparently hinted at details of a classified attack in Syria at a closed-door meeting with donors
President Trump reportedly touched on details of a classified attack in Syria that left dozens, if not hundreds, of Russians dead in February while he was meeting with donors in Manhattan last Wednesday, Politico reports. The White House declined to comment to Politico about Trump's statements, though, "because information about the Syria strikes remains classified."
Russia previously said that "several dozen" Russians were killed in the skirmish in Syria, where their troops are backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who served as the CIA director in February, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the U.S.-led coalition killed "a couple hundred Russians" in comments made last month. Aside from Pompeo's remarks, the administration has so far remained tight-lipped about what actually happened in the battle.
At the closed-door fundraiser, which apparently brought in some $5 million, Trump allegedly bragged about American F-18 pilots who participated in the battle, and alluded to the strikes taking just "10 minutes," which had not been reported. In a separate report, The New York Times reviewed Pentagon accounts of the battle and said the entire assault took nearly four hours in total. Jeva Lange
Wealthy Chinese businesspeople are apparently gaining access to President Trump by paying middlemen to get them into political fundraisers, as a way of dodging U.S. election law, The Washington Post reports. It is illegal for anyone but U.S. citizens to contribute to a political campaign, such as an upcoming official Trump fundraiser in Dallas on May 31, although at least three Chinese companies are offering VIP trips to the events that cost thousands of dollars and promise a handshake and photo with the president.
"[T]he solicitations, if offering a legitimate service, raise questions about whether attendees are indirectly paying for their tickets through a U.S. donor, which would be illegal," writes the Post, which adds that foreigners may attend fundraisers only if "they do not pay their own entry."
One Republican Party official confirmed that a group of Chinese citizens attended a similar Trump fundraiser last December through one such company in the capacity "as guests of a U.S. citizen donor." Sun Changchun, the "the head of a Chinese cultural exchange company" who allegedly arranged that New York trip and is apparently working on the Dallas one, said he gives the ticket proceeds to the RNC, and that the RNC would donate them to charity.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation includes tracking if any foreign money flowed into the presidential campaigns. "What a regulator or prosecutor would be interested in is whether this is essentially the foreign national making a donation through a U.S. person," explained Matthew Sanderson, who served as a campaign finance lawyer for the McCain-Palin 2008 campaign. Read more about the sketchy scheme at The Washington Post. Jeva Lange
Michael Cohen met with a Kremlin-linked oligarch at Trump Tower about strengthening U.S.-Russia relations
Less than two weeks before the inauguration, President Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, met with a Russian oligarch to discuss strengthening relations between Washington and Moscow, The New York Times reports. Viktor Vekselberg, who has ties to the Kremlin, met with Cohen three separate times, including on the day of the inauguration.
Just days afterwards, the private equity firm of Andrew Intrater, who is Vekselberg's cousin and client, awarded Cohen a $1 million contract. Intrater spoke to the Times, saying he did nothing wrong and made the decision independently.
Earlier this week, it was reported that Cohen was separately paid at least $400,000 to arrange a talk between Trump and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Cohen also received hundreds of thousands of dollars from businesses like AT&T and Novartis to provide access and insight into the Trump administration.
The Times writes that the Vekselberg meeting "sheds additional light on the intersection between Mr. Trump's inner-circle and Russians with ties to the Kremlin." Read more about the meetings at The New York Times. Jeva Lange