Clapper: U.S. government ‘under assault’ by Trump after Comey firing

By HOPE YEN

WASHINGTON  — Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on Sunday described a U.S. government “under assault” after President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to fire FBI director James Comey, as lawmakers urged the president to select a new FBI director free of any political stigma.

“I think, in many ways, our institutions are under assault, both externally — and that’s the big news here, is the Russian interference in our election system,” Clapper said. “I think as well our institutions are under assault internally.”

When he was asked, “Internally, from the president?” Clapper said, “Exactly.”

Clapper spoke following Trump’s sudden firing of Comey last week, which drew sharp criticism because it came amid the FBI’s probe into Russia meddling in the 2016 presidential election and possible ties between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign.

Clapper said America’s founding fathers had created three co-equal branches of government with checks and balances, but with Trump as president, that was now “under assault and is eroding.”

Lawmakers from both parties also criticized Trump’s actions last week, which included changing explanations from the White House for the firing and an ominous tweet by Trump that warned Comey against leaks to the press because he may have “tapes” of their conversations. The lawmakers urged the president to select a new FBI director without any political background.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said promoting an FBI agent to lead the agency would allow the nation to “reset.” He dismissed as less desirable at least two of the 14 candidates under consideration by Trump, former Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, explaining that “these are not normal circumstances.”

Rogers, an ex-FBI agent and former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has drawn the backing of the FBI Agents Association. Cornyn is the No. 2 Republican in the Senate.

“It’s now time to pick somebody who comes from within the ranks, or is of such a reputation who has no political background at all who can go into the job from Day 1,” the South Carolina Republican said. Asked whether Rogers or Cornyn would be good choices, Graham flatly said, “no.”

“The president has a chance to clean up the mess he mostly created,” Graham said, adding, “I have no evidence the president colluded with the Russians at all, but we don’t know all the evidence yet.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said the new FBI director should certainly be someone “not of partisan background” with “great experience” and “courage.” He left open the possibility that Democrats might try and withdraw support for a new FBI director unless the Justice Department names a special prosecutor. Under rules of the Senate, Republicans could still confirm an FBI director with 51 votes. Republicans hold 52 seats in the chamber to Democrats’ 48.

Less than a week after Trump fired Comey, the administration has interviewed at least eight candidates to be FBI director, and Trump has said a decision could come before he leaves Friday on his first overseas trip as president.

“I think the process is going to go quickly. Almost all of them are very well-known,” Trump said of the candidates before Air Force One took off for Lynchburg, Virginia, where he gave the commencement address at Liberty University. “They’ve been vetted over their lifetime essentially, but very well-known, highly respected, really talented people. And that’s what we want for the FBI.”

Trump abruptly fired Comey on Tuesday and later said Comey was a “showboat” and “grandstander” who was not doing a good job. The firing drew a wave of criticism in large part because the FBI has been investigating whether election meddling by Russia involved people in Trump’s presidential campaign, and Trump said in an interview with NBC that the investigation factored into his decision to fire Comey. The changing rationales the White House offered added an element of chaos to the president’s action.

The FBI director serves a 10-year term but can be replaced by the president.

So far 14 people — lawmakers, attorneys and law enforcement officials among them — have emerged as candidates. Eight met at the Justice Department on Saturday with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein.

The first candidate to arrive for interviews was Alice Fisher, a high-ranking Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration.

Also interviewed were:

—Adam Lee, special agent in charge of the FBI’s office in Richmond, Virginia.

— Andrew McCabe, the acting FBI director.

—Michael J. Garcia, a former prosecutor and associate judge on New York’s highest court.

—Cornyn, a former Texas attorney general.

—U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson, a Bush appointee who struck down the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s health care law in 2010.

—Frances Townsend, a former Bush homeland security and counterterrorism adviser.

—Rogers. The FBI Agents Association says it believes his diverse background makes him the best choice.

Fisher and Townsend were the only women on the list of candidates. The FBI has never had a female director.

Sessions has faced questions over whether his involvement in Comey’s firing violates his pledge to recuse himself from investigations into Russian interference in the election. Some lawmakers have alleged the firing was an effort to stifle that FBI probe.

Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said Sessions and Rosenstein were involved in the interviews because the FBI director reports to them as attorney general and deputy attorney general.

Clapper and Schumer made their comments on CNN’s “State of the Union”; Graham spoke on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

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Associated Press writers Sadie Gurman and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.

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Acting FBI director vows to inform committee if White House tries to upend Russia probe

By Matt Zapotosky and Karoun Demirjian

WASHINGTON – Acting FBI director Andrew McCabe vowed Thursday that he would tell the Senate Intelligence Committee if the White House tried to interfere with the bureau’s probe of possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election – though he asserted that there had “been no effort to impede our investigation to date.”

McCabe made the assertions at a public hearing with top U.S. intelligence officials before the Senate Intelligence Committee – a hearing that has taken on new significance since Trump suddenly removed James Comey from the FBI’s top post. He also said he would not provide updates to President Trump or anyone else in the White House about the status of the probe, nor had anyone yet asked.

As the hearing continued, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the top committee officials from each party, suddenly stepped out. Around the same time, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was spotted on Capitol Hill.

Rosenstein drafted the memo that Trump used as a rationale to fire Comey.

McCabe appeared in place of Comey, and Warner, the committee vice chair, asked him at the outset if he would commit to informing the committee if the White House tried to meddle in the Russia investigation.

“I absolutely do,” McCabe responded.

McCabe would go on to make several assertions that might irk Trump. He forcefully defended his former boss – who Trump had said was not doing a good job – declaring that working with Comey was “the greatest privilege and honor of my professional life.” He said that his view was widely shared in the agency.

“The vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey,” McCabe said.

McCabe also rebutted White House officials’ attempts to minimize the Russia probe – declaring it a “highly significant investigation” that had not and would not be deterred.

“Simply put, sir, you cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing, protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution,” he said in response to a question from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

McCabe declined to comment on Trump’s assertion that Comey, while FBI director, had told him three times that he was not under investigation.

Trump had made the claim in his letter firing Comey as a sort of bizarre aside – as the rationale for removing the FBI director was purportedly not in relation to any probe that might touch the president but instead because of Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau,” Trump wrote.

Burr, the committee’s chair, asked McCabe: “Did you ever hear Director Comey tell the president that he was not the subject of an investigation?”

“Sir, I can’t comment on any conversations the director may have had with the president,” McCabe responded.

McCabe’s testimony comes as Justice Department officials are considering candidates to possibly replace him. They interviewed four people Wednesday and are expected to make a decision soon.

McCabe, who had been the No. 2 man in the bureau before his boss’s ouster, was joined by virtually every other top official whose job it is to detect and prevent Russian spy operations. The others on the witness list are CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Vincent Stewart.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, like the FBI, is probing Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and its chairs announced Wednesday that they had issued a subpoena to former national security adviser Michael Flynn for documents related to that probe.

Flynn resigned from the Trump White House after public reporting on potentially illegal contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States, which acting attorney general Sally Yates warned might make him susceptible to blackmail. He also has faced scrutiny for payments he received from Russian-backed entities, including the RT television network.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Pompeo sparred over a series of questions about whether Pompeo was aware of Yates’s concerns. Pompeo first challenged Wyden to define how his question was relevant to the published subject of the hearing – worldwide threats – before arguing that he had “no firsthand information with respect to the warning” that Yates delivered to White House counsel Don McGahn, as “she didn’t make that warning to me.”

The bureau’s probe, the only one that could produce criminal charges, is separate from the committee’s, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle feared that it might be upended now that Comey is gone. McCabe said he did not believe that would happen, and that the bureau was the right agency to continue the investigation.

“Do you need somebody to take this away from you and somebody else to do it?” Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., asked.

“No, sir,” McCabe responded.

McCabe did not definitively resolve a dispute over whether Comey asked Rosenstein for more resources for the Russia investigation last week, though he asserted that the bureau had “resourced that investigation adequately.” Democrats have said that Comey informed lawmakers of such a request, but the Justice Department has denied that one was made.

For his part, McCabe said he was “not aware of that request, and it’s not consistent with my understanding of how we request additional resources.”

On Thursday, senior Appropriations committee Democrats Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire sent a letter to Rosenstein asking for specifics.

“We stand ready to assist should the FBI require additional funding to comprehensively conduct this crucial investigation or to meet any of its core missions,” they wrote in the letter. But Leahy and Shaheen said they were “surprised” to learn from media reports about Comey’s request.

“The American people have a right to know, for the sake of our national security and sovereignty, whether and to what extent Russia interfered in the 2016 Presidential election,” they wrote. “The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) should dedicate the needed personnel and resources to the investigation without hesitation.”

As the deputy director of the FBI, McCabe would have been intimately involved in the Russia investigation even before Comey’s firing. He was notably at the center of a February incident in which the White House reportedly enlisted senior members of the intelligence community and Congress in efforts to counter news stories about Trump associates’ ties to Russia.

CNN reported at the time that the FBI had refused administration requests to knock down media reports on the subject, and the administration fired back that McCabe had pulled aside Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to tell him a New York Times story was “B.S.”

McCabe was also at the center of a controversy in the Clinton email investigation – the case that administration officials have pointed to as Trump’s basis for firing Comey. The Justice Department inspector general is investigating whether McCabe should have been recused from the case because his wife ran for a Virginia Senate seat and took money from the political action committee of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat and Clinton ally.

The FBI asserted at the time that McCabe had checked with ethics officials and followed agency protocols. He also was not yet deputy director when his wife was first recruited to run.

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Far-right to rally in Berkeley after Coulter talk canceled

By JOCELYN GECKER

BERKELEY, Calif.  — Far-right supporters planned rallies Thursday to denounce what they called an attempt to silence their conservative views after Ann Coulter said she was forced to cancel a speaking event at the University of California, Berkeley amid concerns violence could break out.

The conservative social and political commentator and writer said she still might “swing by to say hello” to her supporters as police and university officials braced for possible trouble whether she shows up or not, citing intelligence and online chatter by groups threatening to instigate violence.

The tension illustrated how Berkeley has emerged as a flashpoint for extreme left and right forces amid the debate over free speech in a place where the 1960s U.S. free speech movement began before it spread to college campuses across the nation.

As far-right groups and a leftist group prepared for their protests, university police set up barricades as a precaution for possible use in crowd control on the university campus and city officers patrolled a park where two far-right groups said they would hold their protests.

KCBS reported (http://cbsloc.al/2qiK5yi ) that Gavin McInnes, founder of the pro-Trump “Proud Boys,” said he will speak in the afternoon at Civic Center Park and encouraged other groups to help make a large showing at the gathering.

The group describes itself on its Facebook page calls itself a fraternal organization aimed at “reinstating a spirit of Western chauvinism during an age of globalism and multiculturalism.” It said it support minimal government and is also “anti-political correctness, anti-racial guilt, pro-gun rights, anti-Drug War, closed borders.” Another group called the Orange County Alt Right Group planned a rally in the same place.

The International Socialist Organization said it planned an “Alt Right Delete” rally about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the right-wing protests and just outside the university campus to show support for free speech and to condemn the views of Coulter and her supporters.

In emails to The Associated Press on Wednesday, Coulter confirmed that her planned speech on illegal immigration, followed by a question-answer session, was canceled. But she remained coy about what she might do instead.

“I’m not speaking. But I’m going to be near there, so I might swing by to say hello to my supporters who have flown in from all around the country,” Coulter said in an email. “I thought I might stroll around the graveyard of the First Amendment.”

Officials at UC Berkeley said last week they feared renewed violence on campus if Coulter followed through with plans to speak.

They cited “very specific intelligence” of threats that could endanger Coulter and students, as Berkeley becomes a platform for extremist protesters on both sides of the political spectrum.

Efforts by the university to cancel or delay the Coulter event dealt a blow to Berkeley’s image as a bastion of tolerance and free speech.

Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks sent a letter to the campus Wednesday saying the university is committed to defending free speech but also to protecting its students.

“This is a university, not a battlefield,” Dirks said in the letter. “The university has two non-negotiable commitments, one to Free Speech the other to the safety of our campus community.”

Berkeley’s reputation as one of the country’s most liberal universities, in one of America’s most liberal cities, has made it a flashpoint for the nation’s political divisions in the era of Donald Trump.

Earlier this month, a bloody brawl broke out in downtown Berkeley at a pro-Trump protest that featured speeches by members of the white nationalist right. They clashed with a group of Trump critics who called themselves anti-fascists.

Similar violent clashes also erupted at the same site, a public park, on March 4.

In February, violent protesters forced the cancellation of a speech by right-wing writer Milo Yiannopoulos, who like Coulter was invited by campus Republicans.

The Berkeley College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation, a conservative group that had helped book Coulter’s campus speaking events, both pulled their support Tuesday citing fears of violence. They blamed the university for failing to ensure protection of conservative speakers.

“Berkeley College Republicans do not want to endanger people’s lives so because of the university’s unwillingness to do their job we are forced to cancel the event,” Troy Worden, president of the campus Republicans, said Wednesday.

Coulter echoed the blame on Twitter: “I’m very sad about Berkeley’s cancellation, but my sadness is greater than that. It’s a dark day for free speech in America.”

Capt. Alex Yao of the Berkley campus police force said police presence will be strong Thursday.

“You will see a high number of highly visible law enforcement. We’re going to have a very, very low tolerance for any violence,” he told a news conference. He said Berkeley police had reached out to local and state police forces “to let them know we might be calling for assistance.”

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Associated Press writer Kristin J. Bender contributed to this report from San Francisco.

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