Top intel official leaving National Security Council: report

A top intelligence official at the National Security Council is reportedly leaving the White House.

Michael Barry, senior National Security Council director for intelligence programs, is leaving the council as part of national security adviser John Bolton’s major staffing overhaul, two government officials told The Daily Beast.

One source quoted in the report Tuesday said that Barry is leaving on “very good terms,” but that his departure will be a “tough loss.” Barry is reportedly returning to the CIA, where he served before joining the NSC.

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpShocking summit with Putin caps off Trump’s turbulent Europe trip GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Trump stuns the world at Putin summit MORE‘s former national security adviser H.R. McMaster hired Barry to replace Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who reportedly butted heads with other officials before being fired in August, according to The Daily Beast.

Several officials have left the NSC since Bolton was appointed in April. He has said that he wants to reshape the council, but it is unclear what his desired structure is. Most recently, a senior director in the NSC was reportedly pushed out of the council for clashing with White House aide Stephen Miller.

The report of Barry’s departure comes after a high-profile meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A spokesperson for the NSC declined to comment on personnel matters to The Daily Beast. The Hill has reached out to the White House for comment.

//thehill.com

Why Trump’s GOP critics never go nuclear

Hours after Donald Trump sidled up to Vladimir Putin at their now-infamous press conference, Republican Sen. Bob Corker received a call from a prominent politician who pleaded with him to repudiate Trump — and to make it hurt this time.

The politician, who is weighing a run against the president, urged the Foreign Relations chairman to use his procedural leverage in the Senate to halt Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court as payback for Trump’s refusal to acknowledge Russia’s election meddling. Nothing doing, the retiring senator responded.

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“Why would I cut off my nose to spite my face?” Corker recounted responding to the pol, whom he declined to name publicly. “I like the Supreme Court nominee. So what the heck?”

Corker is a standing member of a core group of Trump critics on Capitol Hill from his own party, who’ve knocked the president on everything from his warmth toward Russia to his refusal to condemn white nationalist groups to his tariffs against U.S. allies. But Democrats and some conservatives say the repeated chiding of Trump has had virtually no effect — the president routinely blows right past the criticism — and that it’s time for the wary Republican lawmakers to do something, not just say something.

Any one senator, if he or she was willing to buck Trump and party leadership, could grind the chamber to a halt, vote down nominees or even threaten to switch caucuses. With Republicans currently holding a 51-49 advantage, it would take just two like-minded GOP senators to put Democrats in the majority.

The lawmakers seen by Democrats as most likely to resort to more drastic measures are Corker, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Jeff Flake of Arizona. Those critics are sometimes referred to as the “usual suspects” by their colleagues.

GOP senators “should use their leverage to stop the administration’s priorities” until the Senate passes a bill to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller and bolster election security, said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), adding that he’s “very angry” that Republicans won’t back up their criticism with action.

“For a United States senator to act powerless in a split Senate when the country is literally at stake, I’m aghast,” Schatz said. “In a 51-49 Senate, all we need is one person who wants to be on the right side of history.”

Yet the so-called “usual suspects” appear to have no appetite for the kind of ultra-principled stand Democrats pine for. Many Republicans like Trump’s domestic agenda, if not the way he talks about it, and still don’t believe direct confrontation with the president is the answer.

Flake vowed to hold up a host of judges in order to get a non-binding vote showing the Senate opposes Trump’s tariffs. But he said that was different than confronting Trump directly over Russia: Flake was trying to convince Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to move on something specific.

“Some people think if you’re opposed to the president then you’re all of a sudden into Democratic philosophy. … I’m a conservative,” Flake said. “I wrote a book about it. And I understand the frustration people have.”

Steve Schmidt, a longtime adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), tweetedat Flake on Monday to cut a deal with Democrats to “relieve the complicit Mitch McConnell” of the majority leader job. Asked if he would ever switch caucuses, Flake laughed heartily: “I’m a conservative.”

Murkowski responded similarly and said she’s never even been seriously approached by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.): “That’s not even a discussion that I think is something to bring up or to entertain.”

Sasse spokesman James Wegmann called the idea of torpedoing Kavanaugh “idiotically stupid.”

Republicans seeking to rein in Trump have other less drastic options than outright defection from the GOP conference or opposing Kavanaugh.

Those who hold committee gavels could exert their power to conduct harsher oversight of the administration or issue subpoenas, which likely would require an alliance with Democrats. Any senator can follow Flake’s lead in holding up nominees in order to exact more firm concessions, as Colorado Republican Cory Gardner did this year in a bid to spare his state’s legal marijuana industry from punitive Trump administration measures.

And Corker argued that limiting Trump’s tariffs with legislation will keep Trump from “pushing away our allies, [which] strengthens Putin.”

Senate Democrats occasionally took steps to rein in former President Barack Obama’s agenda when they held the majority, such as then-Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) stiff-arm of Obama free trade deals in 2014.

But most Republicans argue that simply doing their job with a semblance of normalcy is the best response to whatever Trump happens to be up to on any given day.

“When the president says something that I disagree with, I will state my disagreement, sometimes very directly,” Murkowski said in an interview. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed — I’m not really a bomb thrower. I don’t really lay my body in front of the train … I’m trying to facilitate a level of governance that is constructive.”

Collins similarly brushed aside hopes that she would be willing to stage a protest on the Senate floor to get the president to change his approach to foreign policy. The Maine moderate explained that she and her GOP colleagues have been “some of the strongest” critics of Trump after his appearance with Putin.

“I’ve been very outspoken in my views when I disagree with the president, as I vehemently do in this case. And that that is far more effective, [along with] working for these legislative changes … than doing a splashy, meaningless gesture,” Collins said, citing her work on beefing up election security and investigating Russia.

Not so, say outraged Democrats as well as some Republicans. Trump’s behavior is so outlandish, they argue, that an evenhanded, everyday response from his party simply doesn’t cut it.

“If one of them votes against Kavanaugh, two or three of them, that would be seismic,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said.

Schumer and some Senate Democrats have urged the GOP gadflies to take more moderate steps, such as pushing for the strongest possible sanctions against Russia. But some believe Flake and others should hit the panic button now.

GOP strategist Rick Wilson, one of a handful of outspoken “never Trump” critics in the party, urged the Senate Republicans willing to lob critical tweets at the president to think of their own places in the history books.

“In 100 years, it’s unlikely anyone will remember their names,” Wilson said in an interview. “They will be people who were in the Senate, passed a few bills, and left the Senate.”

“Or they could find themselves in a position where the threat of Trump … is so urgent, that they could stand up and do something that breaks or makes history.”

//www.politico.com

Hannity wins as Trump’s lone defender

Republican lawmakers denounced him. Newt Gingrich demanded a do-over. And the hosts of “Fox & Friends,“ President Donald Trump’s favorite morning television show, gave him a verbal slap on the wrist for his performance in a press conference with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The mass desertion by some of the president’s stalwart allies made his remaining defenders – Sean Hannity and a handful of right-wing media personalities – all the more conspicuous in the wake of Trump’s Helsinki appearance by virtue of being virtually alone.

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Leading them all was Hannity, who has shadowed Trump across the globe for high-stakes international summits to provide him with a friendly interview platform moments after their conclusion. He was in Singapore last month to interview the president after his meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and he was in Helsinki on Monday to shield him from bipartisan attacks that he had disgraced the U.S. by refusing stand up to Putin.

“You were very strong at the end of that press conference,” Hannity told Trump, as he conducted the first interview following the afternoon press conference. Moments earlier, the president had told reporters he accepted Putin’s denials about meddling in the 2016 election even though his Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, said otherwise.

Though some right-wing radio hosts offered their own defenses of the president, the Hannity-Trump interview stood out as a singular safe space for the president on cable news, underscoring the significance of Hannity’s platform for the maintenance of the Trump brand. The relationship is mutually beneficial: Monday night’s interview drew in approximately four million viewers, squashing the cable news competition and, in turn, providing the president with a megaphone that broadcasts directly to his political base.

Friends of Hannity say he is no longer driven primarily by money — Forbes estimated that he makes $36 million annually — but by his belief, shared with associates, that the country is at a tipping point. He and the president have forged a friendship that some have likened to a wacky version of the relationship between the late New York Times reporter Scotty Reston and President John F. Kennedy, who pressed Reston publicly to make the case for the policies he wanted to enact.

Like Trump and Hannity, who have been spotted together numerous times at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort, Reston and Kennedy spent time together at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. Reston recounts on his memoir, Deadline, Kennedy asking him make a case in the Times for the U.S. to respond militarily if the Soviets tried to block American access to Berlin. The president himself ultimately cleared the language used a Reston piece that made the argument.

Hannity’s coziness with the president, as well as that of other Fox News hosts, has at times discomfited the executives trying to steer the network in the post-Roger Ailes era. The channel, now led by CEO Suzanne Scott, Fox News executives have at times pushed its hosts to distance themselves from the president, according to people familiar with their deliberations. On at least one occasion, executives asked a group of Fox personalities who had been invited to dine at the White House to decline the invitation, hoping to fend off the appearance that the network has inched too close to the White House.

“All it is is fear and nervousness about the whole situation,” said a former network producer of the proximity of so many of the network’s stars to the White House, including a romantic relationship between Fox host Kimberly Guilfoyle and the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr. A spokeswoman for Fox News declined to comment on the record for this article.

A person close to Hannity said that executives have not asked him to declined the president’s invitations, and that he has “a strong working relationship with Rupert [Murdoch], Lachlan [Murdoch] and Suzanne Scott. Rupert in particular loves news and a strong dynamic editorial division.” Unnamed sources, the sources continued, “obviously work in the much lower rated news division at Fox, and are just jealous of the attention and ratings of the opinion hosts on the network.”

Hannity has criss-crossed the globe conducting the ratings-busting interviews in part at the encouragement of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, according to a person familiar with the situation. In exile, Bannon has huddled with Trump defenders like Hannity who still enjoy a direct line to the president, strategizing with them about how to amplify the president’s message. He rallied European populists in London ahead of the president’s visit to the U.K. last week and emerged on Tuesday to defend Trump’s press conference performance. Bannon told POLITICO on Tuesday that Trump was playing three-dimensional chess, pitting Russia against China in “brilliant” strategy.

Talk radio hosts Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh also defended the president, arguing that it was President Barack Obama on whose watch Putin’s mischief occurred but Trump who was being held to account for it. But it was Hannity who offered unmitigated support, praising the president for traveling widely across the globe at “the speed of Trump.”

Hannity’s defense of Trump in the wake of the Helsinki episode stood in stark contrast with the critical remarks made by other Republicans typically loyal to the president. “President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin. It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected—immediately,” said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who served as a surrogate for Trump on the campaign trail.

Even Trump’s allies on Fox & Friends, whose hosts and guests have garnered praise from the president on numerous occasions, were discomfited by the interview. “I will say this to the president, when Newt Gingrich, when General Jack Keane, when Matt Schlapp say, ‘The president fell short and made our intelligence apparatus look bad,’ I think it’s time to pay attention and it’s easily correctible from the president’s perspective,” Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade said.

Trump appears to have been listening. A senior administration official said the president was far more impacted by external critics, including those on Fox, than by any of his advisers, who were roundly disappointed by his performance. On Tuesday afternoon, he had done an about-face, telling reporters ahead of a meeting with Republican lawmakers that he accepted the findings of the intelligence community that Russia had, in fact, meddled in the 2016 election.

//www.politico.com

Poll: Corruption message gaining traction against GOP

Mike Pence is pictured. | AP Photo

Last week, Vice President Mike Pence pointed to a humming economy and the Republican tax plan as marquee selling points as he toured a series of competitive Midwestern House districts to boost candidates. | Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo

Trump’s administration scandals threaten to take a toll on Republicans in battleground districts this fall, according to new polling suggesting “culture of corruption” messaging is gaining traction.

Fifty-four percent of voters across 48 Republican-held congressional districts said Republicans were “more corrupt” than Democrats, compared to 46 percent who said Democrats are “more corrupt.”

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According to the online survey of 1,200 registered voters, conducted July 2-5, an even higher number of independents hold Republicans responsible for corruption: 60 percent.

Those are welcome numbers to Democrats who have struggled to find their messaging in the run-up to the midterms. In May, the party signaled an effort to tap the “culture of corruption” theme that proved an effective mantra in 2006, when GOP Capitol Hill scandals helped Democrats regain control of the House and Senate.

“The fact that you have these recurring cabinet scandals, the fact that it keeps happening over and over again, it registers,” said Jesse Lee, spokesman for the Center for American Progress, a progressive policy group that was behind the poll. “People understand it’s been taken to a new level. There’s no check on it anymore. Trump isn’t pushing back on Congress to keep it under control. Congress isn’t pushing back on Trump.”

The corruption framing today takes a different shape than in 2006, when it largely revolved around the behavior of Republican members of Congress. Now, the focus is on Trump cabinet members who resigned under an ethics cloud, including former Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt and former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

The current messaging also looks to portray the GOP tax plan as riddled with loopholes and benefiting only the wealthy. That’s the same plan Republicans are holding up in their reelection campaigns as a major achievement.

Lee pointed to the poll’s four-point Democratic lead on the generic ballot as a notable shift from the last two cycles, where he said Republicans led in the same districts by an average of 14 points.

The Internet-based study showed voters had a high-level of familiarity with Trump’s cabinet and showed particular frustration when asked about pols spending “taxpayer money on perks for themselves” or when they “make policies that help their big campaign donors.”

A majority of voters (56 percent) said that congressional Republicans are not doing enough oversight of the Trump administration — a number that’s even higher among independents (57 percent).

The polling suggested that the Republican tax cuts — and loopholes tapped by some of the same members who voted for the plan — as an area ripe for exploitation.

Of those surveyed, 75 percent responded that it was “serious” or “very serious” that 53 Republicans in Congress would “get an average tax cut of over $200 thousand each from a single loophole they added to the tax bill at the last minute.”

Republicans have a decidedly different take on their tax bill — betting that a tax cuts message is winning and, despite resignations of top cabinet officials under the president, they’re plowing forward with Trump’s “drain the swamp” messaging.

Last week, Vice President Mike Pence pointed to a humming economy and the Republican tax plan as marquee selling points as he toured a series of competitive Midwestern House districts to boost candidates.

Pence paired many of his visits with the pro-Trump group America First Policies, which held panels touting the benefits of Trump’s tax overhaul.

America First Policies Senior Policy Adviser Curtis Ellis had his own framing of the effects of the tax overhaul: “Are we tired of winning yet?” he asked, to a chorus of “nos.” He earned another round of cheers when he declared: “We still have to drain the swamp!”

Not only are Republicans betting they’ll stay free from the corruption taint, they’re throwing it right back at Democrats.

“Some study by liberal swamp creatures won’t be enough for Democrats to avoid defending their embrace of the socialist left — it’s not going to wash with voters who are seeing the results of Trump’s policies,” said Dennis Lennox, a Michigan-based Republican operative. “Right now, people have made their mind up. Either you like the president or you don’t like the president. There’s no in-between. Either you like your congressman or you don’t like your congressman. The battle lines are pretty well drawn.“

//www.politico.com

Judge turns down Manafort’s bid to move Virginia trial

Paul Manafort is pictured.

Paul Manafort’s defense argued that media coverage of his predicament was particularly intense in the Washington area and likely poisoned the jury pool. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

A federal judge has rejected former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s bid to have his looming trial on tax and bank-fraud charges moved from Alexandria, Virginia to Roanoke, about 200 miles outside the Beltway.

U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III ruled that media attention to Manafort’s prosecution and to special counsel Robert Mueller’s high-profile investigation has not been so intense that it threatens the veteran lobbyist’s ability to get a fair trial.

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Ellis said the “substantial media attention” was understandable but had not produced the “carnival or circus atmosphere” deemed to warrant a change of venue in other cases.

“Although there has been extensive press coverage of defendant’s pretrial proceedings, that coverage has not disrupted the ‘judicial serenity and calm’ to which the defendant is entitled,” the judge wrote in his eight-page order Tuesday afternoon.

Manafort’s defense argued that media coverage of his predicament was particularly intense in the Washington area and likely poisoned the jury pool. The defense attorneys also made a more unusual argument: that Manafort’s fair-trial rights were undermined by the fact that the metro area’s voters leaned decisively in favor of Hillary Clinton and against Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

However, Ellis did not buy into the idea that the political leanings of the region are a valid reason to change venue in a criminal case.

“It would be inappropriate for courts to move trials around the country in cases of this sort until a district could be found where a defendant’s political views were shared by at least as many persons in the district as those with contrary views. The Constitution does not require a search for this type of district; instead, the Constitution requires only that a defendant be tried by fair and impartial jurors,” Ellis wrote. “And on the basis of the record presented thus far, there is no reason to believe that fair and impartial jurors cannot be found in the Eastern District of Virginia.”

Ellis also took issue with some of the Manafort lawyers’ presumptions about the jurors likely to be called in the case.

“The Eastern District of Virginia jury pool is selected from cities and counties throughout Northern Virginia, a large geographic area that has a population of approximately 3,000,000 people,” the judge added. “Defendant cites several polls that suggest Alexandria voters are more closely aligned with the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. Importantly, however, these polls do not account for potential juror residing in areas within this Division that include higher concentrations of conservative or Republican voters. Moreover, jurors’ political leanings are not, by themselves, evidence that those jurors cannot fairly and impartially consider the evidence presented and apply the law as instructed by the Court.”

The judge said it appeared that any concerns about juror bias could be addressed through the questioning of potential jurors during the trial process known as voir dire.

Potential jurors for the Manafort trial are expected to arrive at the Alexandria courthouse next Tuesday, with jury selection set to begin on Wednesday. However, the start date for the trial is still uncertain since a defense motion to delay the trial by several months remains unresolved.

The defense has asked Ellis to postpone the Alexandria trial until after another one Manafort faces in Washington on charges of money laundering and failing to register as a foreign agent in connection with his Ukraine-related lobbying work. That trial, also being prosecuted by Mueller’s office, is currently scheduled to begin Sept. 17.

//www.politico.com