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.”

___

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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National Democrats to open campaign office in Irvine

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has plans to open a western regional office in Irvine, further emphasizing the national party’s hopes of picking up House seats in Orange County. Western regional staff has been headquartered in Washington D.C. since at least the 2004 election cycle.

“Moving out west is one of the improvements that we’re making at the DCCC in order to maximize gains in the midterms,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, chairman of the committee.

Of the 23 GOP districts that Hillary Clinton won nationwide last year, four are in Orange County. The national party is hoping to flip all 23 of those seats and, 18 months before the general election, two Orange County organizers – hired by the state party with earmarked DCCC funding – are already in place.

The local GOP incumbents being targeted are Darrell Issa, Ed Royce, Mimi Walters and Dana Rohrabacher. Orange County was a natural choice for the new office, according to DCCC spokesman Tyler Law.

“If you have to pick a place in the West, it makes the most sense because of the cluster,” Law said.

Plans call for at least eight staffers to work out of the office, including a political director, a fundraiser, a regional press secretary, a digital strategist and a data analyst, Law said. The staff will work directly with congressional candidates’ campaigns in eight western states.

Zarkades vs. Rohrabacher

American Airlines pilot Tony Zarkades hasn’t made the splashiest entry of the four Democrats challenging Rohrabacher.

Fellow candidates Harley Rouda and Laura Oatman both had consultants onboard – in Rouda’s case, three consultants and a fundraiser – who made sure I was up to speed on their clients before their bids became official.

 

Democrat Tony Zarkades is challenging Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa.
Democrat Tony Zarkades is challenging Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa. Courtesy of Tony Zarkades.

Zarkades, who doesn’t have a consultant or even a campaign account yet, has been toiling more quietly on his Facebook page and website, which articulately lays out his positions on nine key issues. But he’s been thinking of running longer than the others.

Rouda, Oatman and Boyd Roberts all say they were motivated to run by Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, Rohrabacher’s support of the president, and their desire to redirect the balance of power in Washington.

While Zarkades sounds similarly appalled by the policies and demeanor of Trump and Rohrabacher, he says he was considering a bid when polls and mainstream pundits were still pointing to a Hillary Clinton presidency.

“I was thinking I’d wait until the end of this year to start running, but the whole county is on fire to replace Rohrabacher” and other Republican members of Congress, said the 51-year-old. “There’s a lot of grassroots activity.”

Zarkades spent eight years as a Marine helicopter pilot and flight instructor, including a stint at the now-defunct Marine Corps Air Base Tustin. He’s lived in Huntington Beach with his wife and two kids since 1999.

Rouda and Oatman appear to be the early Democrats to watch in terms of fundraising in the race, with Rouda saying he’d raised $200,000 by the end of March and Oatman saying she expected to have $250,000 by the end of June.

Beside having done little or no fundraising, what Zarkades and Roberts have in common is that theirs are the only two whose websites explicitly express support for single-payer universal healthcare. The two also supported Bernie Sanders in last year’s Democrat primary, while Rouda and Oatman voted for Clinton.

 

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