|Visuals and ego motivate Trump to take a harder line on Putin|
The United States this week ordered the largest expulsion of Russian spies in U.S. history, which prompted the Kremlin to retaliate on Thursday with the expulsion of 60 American officials. Two weeks ago, Trump agreed to impose sanctions on 19 Russians for alleged interference in the 2016 election. In December, he authorized the export of lethal weapons to help Ukraine fend off Russian-backed separatists – going further than Barack Obama ever would.
But just 10 days ago, the president called Putin and congratulated him for securing another term even after his national security team gave him briefing material that said, “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.” Trump caught aides off guard by inviting Putin to meet soon, and he did not broach the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter on British soil – the brazen attack that has prompted the Western powers to kick out so many Russian officers.
Two fresh stories offer a revealing window into Trump’s psychology and how he’s been persuaded to take a harder line toward the Kremlin despite his personal reticence to do so:
-- John Hudson, Shane Harris and Josh Dawsey have inside-the-room reporting from the session at which Trump made his decision about how to respond to the poisoning of Skripal: “The three options presented to the president were described as ‘light, medium and heavy’ by one administration official … The ‘light’ option called for expelling roughly 30 spies while leaving the Seattle consulate intact … The ‘medium’ option, which the president ultimately chose, expelled 48 officials at the embassy in Washington and 12 at the U.N. mission in New York and shuttered the Seattle consulate. … U.S. officials declined to spell out the ‘heavy’ option, to avoid previewing steps the president could take in response to Moscow’s retaliation, but one official noted that U.S. counterintelligence is aware of well over 40 Russian spies operating in the United States who were not included in the initial purge.”
The administration official described the internal debate using boxing metaphors: “If you go heavy now and the Russians really retaliate, we would be more limited in what we can do later,” this person said. “With the medium option, you’re throwing a solid punch but withholding a fist. The president was persuaded by that option.”
A pivotal moment came at the start of this month when Putin, in the Russian equivalent of our State of the Union address, boasted about new nuclear-capable weapons that can bypass any missile defense system. To make his point, he showed an animated video simulating an attack on the United States -- including missiles raining down on the part of Florida where Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club is located. That “really got under the president's skin,” a White House official told NBC, prompting him to call up the leaders of France, Germany and the U.K. to say Putin sounded dangerous and the four of them must stick together.
During the same call he congratulated Putin, Trump also told him that he hoped his announcement about the missiles was just rhetoric designed to get reelected. The president noted that he just got $700 billion for defense in the new omnibus spending bill.
“If you want to have an arms race, we can do that,” Trump told Putin, according to NBC. “But I'll win.”
-- Some good news: Poisoning victim Yulia Skripal has just come out of critical condition. Her father, Sergei, remains in stable but critical condition. (New York Times)
-- “Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday rebuffed — at least for now — a call from Republican leaders to appoint a second special counsel to look into the FBI’s handling of its most high-profile probes and announced that he has asked the U.S. attorney in Utah to spearhead a broad review,” Matt Zapotosky reports. “He revealed he had named U.S. Attorney John W. Huber to lead a review of the topics that the legislators had requested he explore. Those topics include aspects of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and several matters related to Hillary Clinton and her family’s foundation. … Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz already has been probing aspects of the Clinton email case, and he announced Wednesday that he would review the surveillance of [Carter] Page.”
-- Ted Malloch, who last year claimed he was the president’s pick for E.U. ambassador, was detained for FBI questioning upon arrival to the United States and issued a subpoena to testify before Mueller’s probe. The Guardian’s Stephanie Kirchgaessner reports: “[Malloch] said he was interrogated by the FBI at Boston’s Logan airport on Wednesday following a flight from London and questioned about his involvement in the Trump campaign. In a statement sent to the Guardian, Malloch, who described himself as a policy wonk and defender of Trump, said the FBI also asked him about his relationship with Roger Stone, the Republican strategist, and whether he had ever visited the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has resided for nearly six years.”
-- Robert Mueller’s prosecutors told Rick Gates last year they didn't need his cooperation against Paul Manafort, his former business partner. Instead, they wanted his help with investigating contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. From CNN’s Katelyn Polantz and Evan Perez: "[Gates] never grew close to Trump, but he had ties with other members of Trump's inner circle, including Manafort and Tom Barrack, a fundraiser and close friend of Trump's. He also developed a reputation for keeping tabs on what others were up to … So while he may not have participated in the Trump Tower meeting with the Russians, he may still have knowledge of the meeting or whether those Russians were ever introduced to Trump himself.”
-- The FBI looked into Trump’s efforts to do business deals in the former Soviet Union years earlier than was previously known, according to the Guardian’s Jon Swaine: “In 2010, a small group of businessmen including a wealthy Russian supporter of Vladimir Putin began working on plans to build a glitzy hotel and entertainment complex with Donald Trump in Riga, the capital of Latvia. … [T]alks with Trump’s company were abandoned after [the Russian] and another of the businessmen were questioned by Latvian authorities as part of a major criminal inquiry there … [T]he FBI later looked into Trump’s interactions with them at Latvia’s request.”
-- Mueller is exploring events at the 2016 Republican National Convention, including how the party's platform was changed to become more pro-Russia, per Reuters. The special counsel’s team is looking into a convention-related event attended by both Sessions and then-Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak.
-- The Senate Judiciary Committee requested communications from two Trump campaign advisers who went on to work in the White House. From Karoun Demirjian: “In a letter to Trump campaign lawyer Ben Ginsberg, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) requested the ‘responsive emails’ of John Mashburn and Rick Dearborn. Mashburn, who served as policy director for the Trump campaign, now works as deputy Cabinet secretary in the Trump administration, while Dearborn, who joined the campaign after several years as an aide to [Sessions], worked as the president’s deputy chief of staff until announcing his resignation in December.”
-- A GoFundMe page set up to help fired FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe’s legal defense fund raised nearly $300,000 in seven hours. (Reuters)