Manafort sought for questioning – in D.C. and Kiev

American and Ukrainian officials are pushing to question President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort in separate investigations related to his work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine once headed by that country’s disgraced former president Viktor Yanukovych.

Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) told POLITICO that Manafort “would certainly be at the top of my list to testify” before the House Intelligence Committee’s ongoing investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 presidential election.

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The panel held its first public hearing Monday, featuring hours of testimony from FBI director James Comey, who publicly acknowledged for the first time that his agency is investigating the possibility of Russian coordination with members of President Donald Trump’s campaign team. “Of all of the characters in and around the Trump campaign and administration, Paul Manafort’s relationships with Russians are by far the longest-standing and the deepest,” said Himes, who is a member of the committee. “And he has some pretty unsavory contacts.”

At the same time, an investigative department within a top Ukrainian law enforcement agency intends to ask the U.S. Department of Justice for help questioning Manafort about his possible relationship to Yanukovych during the 2014 riots that drove Yanukovych from power, according to Serhiy Gorbatyuk, the head of the department for special investigations within the General Prosecutor’s Office of Ukraine.

Gorbatyuk’s section of the office had previously sought the Justice Department’s assistance with an ongoing investigation into allegations of illegal government spending during Yanukovych’s time in office, including payments to a Washington law firm that assisted Yanukovych in a legal battle with an imprisoned political foe.

But Gorbatyuk said the Justice Department did not respond to seven previous requests for assistance from the prosecutor’s office — two formal requests followed by five “reminders.”

One missive was sent directly to Comey, whose agency is an arm of the Justice Department, CNN reported on Sunday.

Gorbatyuk acknowledged that the office was at least somewhat confused by the lack of cooperation from the FBI, which has an evidence-sharing agreement with the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office. “I would call it a lack of understanding why it’s taking so long to fulfill our requests,” he said.

The Ukrainian inquiries would be hampered without the Justice Department’s cooperation, Gorbatyuk added. “For our investigations, it is important to receive the materials that fulfill our requests and these include interviews with [the Washington law firm] and Paul Manafort,” he said.

Manafort said he had not been contacted by the FBI or anyone in the Ukrainian general prosecutor’s office, and he cast the scrutiny of him as “a blatant attempt to discredit me and the legitimacy of the election of President Trump.”

In a statement, Manafort declared that he had “no role or involvement” in the theft and public dissemination of embarrassing emails from the Democratic National Committee and the personal email account of John Podesta, the campaign chairman for Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

The U.S. intelligence community has attributed the hacks to Russia.

Manafort said “I have never spoken with any Russian government officials or anyone who claimed to have been involved in the attack.”

He added that “despite the constant scrutiny and innuendo, there are no facts or evidence supporting these allegations, nor will there be.”

As the focus on Manafort intensified Monday, the White House sought to distance Trump from the veteran GOP operative. Manafort took control of Trump’s campaign during a pivotal stretch last spring, when the candidate was working to clinch the GOP nomination and unite the party, remaining at the helm until mid-August, when he was forced to resign amid scrutiny over his work in Ukraine.

Press secretary Sean Spicer declared from the White House briefing room podium that Manafort “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.”

At Monday’s intelligence committee hearing, Comey said that his agency is investigating Russia’s interference in the U.S. election to benefit Trump, as well as “the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”

But the handling of the inquiries as they relate to Manafort could fuel questions about whether investigators are putting their full weight into investigations related to ties between Trump, his team and Russia.

Democrats on the intelligence committee have accused Comey of being less than forthcoming with information about the investigation. And some Democrats are grumbling that the FBI has assigned fewer agents to the Trump Russia case than it had working on a case involving the mishandling of classified information by Clinton when she was Secretary of State.

It’s not clear whether the committee’s Republicans, whose control over the panel gives them more sway over witness lists, will allow Manafor or other witnesses connected to the president to be called.

During Monday’s proceedings, Himes drew attention to questions about the FBI’s participation in the Ukraine investigation, asking Comey why his agency hadn’t responded to earlier requests for assistance from the Ukrainian prosecutor general.

“That’s not something I can comment on,” Comey said. “I can say generally we have a very strong relationship and cooperation in the criminal and national security areas with our Ukrainian partners. But I can’t talk about the particular matter.”

An FBI spokeswoman would not comment on the requests or even confirm that they had been received.

A different federal law enforcement official urged caution in reading into a delayed response from the Justice Department to the requests from Gorbatyuk, the Ukrainian prosecutor.

Requests under such so-called mutual legal assistance treaties often precipitate prolonged negotiations, and usually involve government-to-government assistance as opposed to help in interviewing a private citizen. “This stuff just takes time,” the official said.

Gorbatyuk’s office can only investigate foreigners who are charged with committing crimes on Ukrainian soil, and it can’t approach foreigners outside the country for questioning without assistance from their country of citizenship.

Manafort is not a suspect in the investigation by Gorbatyuk’s office, he stressed.

“This is part of an investigation into the former president, Viktor Yanukovych, on suspicion of creating a ‘criminal organization,’” said Gorbatyuk.

The office’s most recent line of inquiry — into Manafort’s possible relationship with Yanukovych during the months-long Euromaidan protests that began in late 2013 — stems from texts apparently hacked from the cell phone of Manafort’s daughter Andrea Manafort.

In one March 2015 exchange of text messages that appears to be between Andrea Manafort and her sister, Andrea Manafort seems to suggest that their father bore some responsibility for the deaths of protesters at the hands of police loyal to Yanukovych during the protests.

“Don’t fool yourself,” Andrea Manafort wrote. “That money we have is blood money.”

Manafort has acknowledged that Andrea Manafort was hacked, and he corroborated the authenticity of at least some of the text messages, which were posted in a data file on a so-called darknet website affiliated with a hacktivist collective.

He has said that he wasn’t in Ukraine during Euromaiden, and he asserted that his work in Ukraine was “open, transparent and focused on doing all that I could to promote policies that were pro-Western” and focused on “moving Ukraine into the [European Union].”

Another revelation about Manafort’s work in Ukraine surfaced Monday night, when The New York Times reported on documents that it said appeared to show that the Party of Regions tried to hide a $750,000 payment to Manafort by funneling through an offshore account and disguising it as a payment for 501 computers.

A Ukrainian parliamentarian named Serhiy Leshchenko, who has alleged that Manafort was paid millions of dollars illegally by the Party of Regions, released the documents to the Times, and announced a Tuesday news conference in Kiev ostensibly to highlight them. Before the Times story posted, Leshchenko wrote on Twitter that the documents would reveal “how Manafort legalized money paid by ousted President Yanukovych.”

A spokesman for Manafort told POLITICO that Leshchenko’s claims were “baseless.”

http://www.politico.com

Freedom Caucus won’t formally oppose repeal bill

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“I’m not that bold to suggest that no one’s going will change their mind between now and Thursday,” Mark Meadows said. | AP Photo

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said Monday night that Republican leaders are successfully picking off its members on Obamacare repeal — a sign that the repeal bill may get enough support on the House floor Thursday.

The hard-line conservative coalition won’t take an official position against the bill even though they didn’t get what it wanted in negotiations, he said. That could make it easier for members to break away.

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He backed off earlier claims that there would be 40 “no” votes against the repeal effort.

“They’re already whipping with a whip that’s 10 feet long and 5 feet wide,” Meadows told reporters. The negotiations for now are over, he said.

“I’m not that bold to suggest that no one’s going will change their mind between now and Thursday,” he said. “In fact, I already know of people who have changed their mind.”

The group was meeting Monday night to discuss whether it will propose amendments in the Rules Committee. Meadows doesn’t expect amendments on the floor on Thursday.

http://www.politico.com

Boris Johnson reportedly to meet Bannon on U.S. trip

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson during a conference in Rome | Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images

Visit comes after the White House accused British intelligence of wiretapping Donald Trump.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is slated to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump’s closest advisers, including Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, at the White House during his trip to the U.S. this week, the Guardian reported Monday.

Johnson’s visit to the U.S. comes shortly after accusations by the White House that GCHQ, the U.K.’s intelligence agency, helped former president Barack Obama spy on Trump during last year’s presidential campaign. GCHQ said the accusations were “utterly ridiculous” and “should be ignored.”

According to British media reports, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster have apologized to British officials over the accusations, although Spicer has denied this.

A U.K. Foreign Office official told the Guardian that Johnson’s meetings would be “foreign policy heavy,” focusing on Russia, the Middle East, NATO and the fight against Islamic State, but would also include “wide-ranging [talks] on domestic policy.”

Johnson is scheduled to chair a United Nations Security Council meeting in New York on the famines in Somalia and South Sudan after his visit in Washington.

http://www.politico.com

Trump says Obamacare will ‘go back and forth’ but ultimately pass

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President Donald Trump seemed to acknowledge that Thursday’s scheduled vote, which will fall on the 7th anniversary of Obamacare’s final approval. | AP Photo

A defiant President Donald Trump rallied support for the House’s Obamacare repeal and replacement bill, predicting that the bill will “go back and forth” in Congress but that the end result will be “great.”

Trump pressed his case with a friendly crowd at a campaign-style rally in Louisville. The audience roared as Trump touted the GOP’s health care bill as an opportunity to end the “Obamacare catastrophe.”

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“This is our long awaited chance,” he said. “We’re gonna do it. What’s the alternative?”

While Trump did tackle healthcare legislation, he did not comment on another major story in Washington: FBI Director James Comey’s Monday testimony in Washington. Comey said the FBI is investigating ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Comey also said there was no evidence to support Trump’s recent claims that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower.

Instead, Trump delivered red meat to a friendly audience. His focus was Obamacare — though it took him about 30 minutes of speaking time to hone in on the subject.

Trump said that many of his other priorities and campaign promises, including tax cuts and tougher trade deals, hinged on getting approval for healthcare:

“We want a very big tax cut but we can’t do that until we keep our promise to repeal and replace the disaster known as Obamacare,” he said.

Trump also seemed to acknowledge that Thursday’s scheduled vote, which will fall on the 7th anniversary of Obamacare’s final approval, will signal the beginning of the process, not the end.

“Remember. We’re going to negotiate. It’s going to go back and forth,” before ultimately passing, Trump said.

He also said that other elements — including efforts to bring down drug prices — will be passed later if they can’t fit into the initial bill.

Drug prices will be “way, way, way down,” he said, even if Congress has to work on separate legislation later.

Trump also used his perch to buck up Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky senator spoke before Trump — to a smattering of boos — but Trump called for McConnell to get a “nice hand, ‘cause he’s on our side.”

“We gotta take care of our people right? And he’s got a lot of power for the people of Kentucky!”

Trump then paused and asked McConnell from the stage, “We gonna be okay? Everything okay? We looking good?”

http://www.politico.com

Fox News pulls Napolitano after his Trump wiretap claims

Fox News has reportedly pulled Andrew Napolitano from the air indefinitely after he claimed that a British intelligence agency wiretapped Trump Tower.

Napolitano, a Fox News analyst, is not scheduled to appear on the network in the near future, the Los Angeles Times reported, according to people familiar with the situation.

Last week, Napolitano made the claim that the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was spying on Trump at former President Obama’s behest.

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White House press secretary Sean Spicer then quoted Napolitano’s remarks while defending the president’s claim earlier this month that the former president had Trump Tower under surveillance before the presidential election.

“Judge Andrew Napolitano made the following statement, quote, ‘Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command,’ ” Spicer said during a daily press briefing last week.

“‘He didn’t use the [National Security Agency]; he didn’t use the CIA. … He used GCHQ.’ “

GCHQ rejected Napolitano’s claim that it helped surveil Trump for Obama in 2016.

“Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wire tapping’ against the then President Elect are nonsense,” said a spokesman for the agency, which rarely comments publicly on its operations.

The president last Friday praised Napolitano during a press conference as a “very talented legal mind.”

“We said nothing,” Trump said when asked about the former judge’s claim. “I didn’t make an opinion on it.”

“All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television,” Trump said.

“That was a statement made by a very talented lawyer on Fox [News]. And so you shouldn’t be talking to me, you should be talking to Fox.”

Fox News host Shepard Smith also denied Friday that his network has information validating Napolitano’s remark, saying the network knows of “no evidence of any kind that the now-President of the United States was surveilled at any time in any way.” 

http://thehill.com