Russia intrigue threatens to swamp Trump’s inner circle

Posted at 3:35 PM, Mar 28, 2017

WASHINGTON — The darkening storm over Russia is now looming over President Donald Trump’s innermost circle.

The intrigue now threatening to swamp Washington politics deepened on Monday when Trump’s son-in-law and trusted adviser, Jared Kushner, offered to testify to senators about meetings with senior Kremlin officials — including the head of a bank closely linked to President Vladimir Putin’s government.

And more revelations about a secret trip to the White House complex by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes spurred claims by Democrats that he was in league with the President’s aides to subvert his own panel’s investigation into Moscow’s alleged election meddling and ties to the Trump campaign.

It was all too much for the President. Perhaps prompted by rising speculation about Russia, Trump launched a Twitter barrage Monday night, possibly to distract attention from stories damaging to his White House by attacking a familiar target.

“Why isn’t the House Intelligence Committee looking into the Bill & Hillary deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia, Russian speech….money to Bill, the Hillary Russian ‘reset,’ praise of Russia by Hillary, or Podesta Russian Company. Trump Russia story is a hoax. #MAGA!” Trump wrote in a pair of tweets.

But the storm isn’t likely to break soon: There will be new Russia-related headlines on Thursday, when an intelligence committee hearing offers senators their first chance to go on the record addressing the widening controversy embroiling Trump and Russia.

The flurry of developments bore testimony to the White House’s inability to shake a controversy over Russia that repeatedly returns to besiege the new administration, compounding the political cost of its missteps elsewhere — most recently over House Republicans’ spectacular failure to repeal Obamacare Friday.

The fresh disclosures about Russia overshadowed an attempt by Trump aides to repair relations with House Speaker Paul Ryan that were strained in the health care push and also threatened to snuff out an attempt by the White House to belatedly reach out to Democrats in a bid to mitigate its precarious political position.

Monday’s developments came days after CNN reported that the FBI has information that associates of Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called on Nunes to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian efforts to influence the election and ties between the Trump campaign and Kremlin officials.

“We’ve reached the point, after the events of this week, where it would be very difficult to maintain the credibility of the investigation if the chairman did not recuse himself from matters involving either the Trump campaign or the Trump transition team of which he was a member,” Schiff told CNN.

“The questions are profound enough that I think we need to move past it, and ideally that would mean the chairman ought to recuse himself, not only from the investigation involving potential coordination or collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, but also any oversight of minimization issues affecting the Trump transition since he was a member of that Trump transition team,” Schiff said.

The deepening partisan rancor on the House Intelligence Committee — a panel typically seen as more above the political fray than other committees in the House — widened when two sources told CNN it had canceled all its meetings this week.

Political troubles

The deepening questions about Russia are combining with a thicket of more conventional political troubles bearing down on the White House.

They include Trump’s increasing unpopularity. One Gallup tracking poll Monday put his approval ratings as low as 36% — far lower than most presidents go across the span of the entire terms.

Even the “Trump bump,” the feel good spurt in stock prices on expectations of large tax cuts and an infrastructure bill hit the buffers, amid growing doubts following the Obamacare debacle about the administration’s capacity to enact its agenda. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell for its eighth straight day Monday, hitting its longest losing streak since 2011.

There could be more trouble when Trump’s already twice-blocked travel ban on citizens of predominantly Muslim nations faces another day in court this week — with a challenge in Hawaii.

All of this will overshadow one area where the White House strategy is unarguably performing well — the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.

Kushner to speak

The cascade of challenges is a lesson in how tough it can be to end a White House losing streak as Monday’s revelations further complicated the political picture.

Kushner volunteered to testify over his role in arranging meetings between top campaign aides and Russian envoy to the US Sergey Kislyak. He met Kislyak in December during the presidential transition and sent his deputy, Avrahm Berkowitz, to a second sit down. Kushner also met Sergey N. Gorkov, the head of Russia’s economic development bank, at the urging of the Russian ambassador, a senior administration official said.

Gorkov has deep ties to the Russian government and was appointed by Putin. The meeting between Kushner and Gorkov is attracting extra intrigue because VneshEconomBank, or VEB, has been under US sanctions for three years, and because Kushner has been trying to attract financing for a building project of his in Manhattan. Trump also said during the campaign that he could lift some sanctions on Russia.

Still, a meeting between Kushner and Gorkov does not violate the US sanctions, and it is not unusual for businesses under sanctions to meet with US officials, experts said.

The White House insisted there was nothing suspicious about the meetings. But they are just the latest revelations about contacts between Trump aides and Russian officials, that have emerged bit-by-bit at the same time that the FBI is investigating allegations that Russian intelligence agencies meddled in last year’s election to favor Trump. One Trump official, former national security adviser Michael Flynn has already resigned over his conversations with Kislyak.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer betrayed frustration Tuesday about how Russia intrigue was overshadowing the presidency.

“If the President puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that’s a Russia connection,” Spicer said, arguing that multiple officials who had been briefed had said there was no sign of “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

“At some point … you’re going to have to take no for an answer,” he said.

VEB confirmed the meeting with Kushner in a statement to CNN, though described Kushner in his role as head of Kushner Companies, not as a representative of Trump.

“During 2016 the bank’s management repeatedly met with representatives of the world’s leading financial institutions in Europe, Asia and America … including the head of Kushner Companies, Jared Kushner,” the VEB statement said.

Nunes visit

The Trump administration also had to respond Monday to questions about the Nunes visit to the White House complex.

The House Intelligence Committee chairman said Monday he went to the Eisenhower Old Executive Office building to view information from a whistle blower in a secure facility.

The visit came the day before he went back to the White House to brief Trump that he and his advisers may have been swept up in surveillance of other foreign nationals. Trump later said he felt partly vindicated by what Nunes told him.

The timing of Nunes’ visit sparked fresh Democratic warnings that the chairman and the White House were in league to obstruct the investigation.

“You cannot have the person in charge of an impartial investigation be partial to one side,” said Democratic Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer Monday. “If Speaker Ryan wants the House to have a credible investigation he needs to replace Chairman Nunes.”

Nunes insisted he did nothing wrong.

“I am sure people in the West Wing had no idea I was there,” Nunes told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Monday, but refused to say if a White House official had cleared him to enter the executive complex.

He said that his visit was to view documents from a source on an issue unrelated to Russia who was not authorized to bring documents to Capitol Hill.

The latest layer of Russia revelations obscured efforts by the administration to reset after the failure of the House Obamacare repeal bill on Friday dealt Trump a blow that will taint his First 100 Days in office.

Publicly at least, the White House was sending signals of a course correction in contrast to the blame game that filtered out of the White House as the health care bill headed for the rocks last week.

“We learned a lot through this process. I think we’re obviously looking at ways that we can improve not only how we handled health care, but other things — how we do everything,” said Spicer.

There were several signs of a tangible recovery strategy at work on Monday — beginning with an attempt to show no daylight between Trump and Ryan, who shared blame for the Obamacare failure.

Ryan was at the White House on Monday afternoon to meet Vice President Mike Pence and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus about the Republican legislative agenda. He also spoke to Trump, after chatting by phone with the President on both Saturday and Sunday.

The White House, possibly considering alternative political coalitions following the fracturing of the House Republican majority over health care, also sent out signals that it would consider working with Democrats on some issues.

“If Democrats want to join in, then that’s great and we’ll do that,” Spicer said.

One often mentioned area of possible coordination is over a planned infrastructure initiative that would be popular with the Democratic union base.

The change of tone was striking considering that until Friday the White House was trying to repeal the former Democratic President’s proudest legislative achievement. Not to mention the fact that Trump, without evidence, recently accused Obama of committing a crime with his claims that he was wiretapped.

There may be little political imperative for Democrats to reach out to Trump either.

A Quinnipiac University poll last week found that Americans see many of Trump’s budget plans as a bad idea. They line up 67-31% against cutting research on climate change, and 83% to 14% against cutting funding for after school programs for instance.

“It is just astonishing how little support there is for anything the President wants to do,” said a senior Democratic official. “No matter what the President tries to do next, the public is going to be opposed to it.”