Trump’s links to Rus­sia in spot­light

Democrats vow to in­ves­ti­gate after news re­ports about Putin meet­ings, FBI in­quiry.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Laura King

WASH­ING­TON — Con­gres­sional Democrats on Sun­day pledged height­ened scru­tiny of Pres­i­dent Trump’s deal­ings with Rus­sia, spurred on by news re­ports of ex­tra­or­di­nary se­crecy sur­round­ing his con­ver­sa­tions with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin and the open­ing in 2017 of an FBI coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­quiry into whether Trump worked on be­half of the Krem­lin.

Trump’s Repub­li­can al­lies in Con­gress and his ad­min­is­tra­tion de­fended him, im­pugn­ing the mo­tives of fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors, in­sist­ing the White House had

been tough on Rus­sia and de­nounc­ing as “lu­di­crous” any sug­ges­tion that Trump had been com­pro­mised by Moscow.

The in­ten­si­fy­ing Rus­siare­lated furor co­in­cides with a par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down that pushed over the week­end into a record-shat­ter­ing fourth week. More than three-quar­ters of a mil­lion fed­eral work­ers have been fur­loughed or are work­ing with­out their salaries, miss­ing their first pay­checks of 2019 last week.

There was lit­tle sign of any im­mi­nent break­through in end­ing the shut­down, whose ef­fects are be­ing more broadly felt with each pass­ing week.

Trump spent Sun­day morn­ing de­mand­ing on Twit­ter that Con­gress al­lo­cate funds for build­ing a wall on the bor­der with Mex­ico, a project Democrats ve­he­mently op­pose.

In snowy Wash­ing­ton, the pres­i­dent called into a con­ser­va­tive talk show on Satur­day night to de­nounce a re­port in the New York Times that in 2017, after Trump fired FBI Di­rec­tor James B. Comey, the FBI opened a coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether the pres­i­dent was act­ing as an agent for Rus­sia.

Asked by Fox News per­son­al­ity Jea­nine Pirro whether he had ever “worked for Rus­sia,” Trump fumed but did not take the op­por­tu­nity to di­rectly re­spond to the query.

“I think it’s the most in­sult­ing thing I’ve ever been asked — I think it’s the most in­sult­ing ar­ti­cle I’ve ever had writ­ten,” he replied.

On Sun­day news shows, sev­eral lead­ing con­gres­sional Democrats ex­pressed deep­en­ing con­cerns over Trump and Rus­sia after the New York Times re­port and a Wash­ing­ton Post story about Trump’s stren­u­ous ef­forts to con­ceal what was said in face-to-face talks with Putin over the last two years.

Delaware Demo­cratic Sen. Chris Coons, in­ter­viewed on “Fox News Sun­day,” called word of a coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tion “alarm­ing,” and said it un­der­scored the need for the wide-rang­ing Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion by spe­cial coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III to pro­ceed unim­peded.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that in or­der to open a coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tion of a sit­ting pres­i­dent, the FBI must have had a “very deep level of con­cern.”

With a new Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity in the House, freshly anointed com­mit­tee chair­men are pledg­ing to use their ex­panded pow­ers to look into Trump and Rus­sia, in­clud­ing the abil­ity to sub­poena wit­nesses and sen­si­tive doc­u­ments.

Rep. Eliot L. En­gel (DN.Y.), who now heads the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, said his panel would hold hear­ings about what he called Trump’s “bizarre re­la­tion­ship with Putin and his cronies.”

In a state­ment is­sued Satur­day night and tweeted out again on Sun­day, En­gel sug­gested that se­crecy about what was said when Trump met with the Rus­sian leader — to the ex­tent of keep­ing his own na­tional se­cu­rity team in the dark — was of para­mount con­cern.

“Ev­ery time Trump meets with Putin, the coun­try is told noth­ing,” En­gel said. “Amer­ica de­serves the truth, and the For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee will seek to get to the bot­tom of it.”

Repub­li­can al­lies of the pres­i­dent said the acts of con­ceal­ment de­scribed by the Post, in­clud­ing Trump’s de­mand that an in­ter­preter hand over the U.S. side’s only notes of a pri­vate meet­ing with Putin in Ham­burg, Ger­many, were well within his au­thor­ity.

Speak­ing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sen. Ron John­son (R-Wis.), noted that “this is not a tra­di­tional pres­i­dent.”

“He has un­ortho­dox means,” John­son said. “But he is pres­i­dent of the United States. It’s pretty much up to him in terms of who he wants to read in to his con­ver­sa­tions with world lead­ers.”

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (DBur­bank), chair­man of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, said Democrats had been stymied in ear­lier ef­forts to learn what was said be­tween Trump and Putin dur­ing a sum­mit last year in Helsinki, Fin­land — but sig­naled that was about to change.

“Last year, we sought to ob­tain the in­ter­preter’s notes or tes­ti­mony, from the pri­vate meet­ing be­tween Trump and Putin,” he said in an an­nounce­ment. “The Repub­li­cans on our com­mit­tee voted us down. Will they join us now?”

Schiff, a for­mer fed­eral prose­cu­tor, added: “Shouldn’t we find out whether our pres­i­dent is re­ally putting ‘Amer­ica first’?”

Sec­re­tary of State Michael R. Pom­peo, who is trav­el­ing in the Mid­dle East, dis­missed the pos­si­bil­ity that Trump acted on Rus­sia’s be­half, call­ing it an “ab­so­lutely lu­di­crous” no­tion.

“The idea that’s con­tained in the New York Times story, that Pres­i­dent Trump was a threat to Amer­i­can na­tional se­cu­rity, is silly on its face and not wor­thy of a re­sponse,” he told CBS’ “Face the Na­tion.”

The rank­ing Demo­crat on the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, Sen. Mark R. Warner of Vir­ginia, said it was “cu­ri­ous” that as in­ves­ti­ga­tions were get­ting un­der­way in 2017, “you had Vladimir Putin poli­cies al­most be­ing par­roted by Don­ald Trump.”

Asked on “State of the Union” whether he thought Trump ever worked on be­half of the Rus­sians and against Amer­i­can in­ter­ests, Warner said: “That’s the defin­ing ques­tion of our in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

He added: “You had Trump say only nice things about Putin. He never spoke ill about Rus­sia.”

Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s staunch­est de­fend­ers, sug­gested that the FBI’s re­ported coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tion pointed to malfea­sance on the part of se­nior bureau of­fi­cials.

“It tells me a lot about peo­ple run­ning the FBI,” Gra­ham, a one­time Rus­sia hawk, said on “Fox News Sun­day” when asked about the Times re­port. He blamed news leaks by peo­ple “with an agenda.”

Al­though Trump’s pur­ported tough­ness on Rus­sia has been a ma­jor talk­ing point among his de­fend­ers, Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) said Sun­day that he would force a vote on a res­o­lu­tion to dis­ap­prove of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ci­sion to ease sanc­tions on com­pa­nies con­nected to Rus­sian oli­garch Oleg Deri­paska. Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steven T. Mnuchin an­nounced plans to re­lax the sanc­tions last week.

Call­ing the Trea­sury Depart­ment’s pro­posal “flawed,” Schumer is­sued a state­ment Sun­day urg­ing the Se­nate to “block this mis­guided ef­fort” by the ad­min­is­tra­tion. A sim­ple ma­jor­ity would be needed to pro­ceed.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), mean­while, played down the lat­est Rus­sia rev­e­la­tions as of lit­tle in­ter­est to any­one out­side the na­tion’s cap­i­tal.

“Wash­ing­ton is ob­sessed with this,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Be­yond the Belt­way, the in­ter­state high­way ring­ing Wash­ing­ton, he said, “I don’t find any­body con­cerned with this at all.”

Juan Mabromata AFP/Getty Images

RUS­SIA’S Vladimir Putin and Pres­i­dent Trump in Novem­ber at the Group of 20 sum­mit in Buenos Aires. Their se­cre­tive meet­ings are draw­ing scru­tiny.

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