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Did Republican state and national leaders mail in Pulse appearances?

In one of the more biting moments in the 1997 film “Good Will Hunting,” mathematician Gerald Lambeau, played by Stellan Skarsgård, apologizes to his old friend, psychologist Sean Maguire, played by Robin Williams, for having missed the funeral of Sean’s wife.

“I got your card,” Sean snapped, not at all disguising his anger.

Did we just see state and national Republicans mail in [or tweet in] their condolences and best wishes for Orlando’s one-year observation of the Pulse mass-murder that killed 49 and tore out the heart of a community?

Orlando is increasingly becoming a Democratic stronghold, but plenty of Republicans still thrive in Central Florida, and plenty get elected, and the area is worth fighting for. The local GOP contingent was well represented, by Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, several county and city commissioners, several state lawmakers and others. But, except for Democrats U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, and U.S. Reps. Stephanie Murphy, Val Demings and Darren Soto, who all spoke at one event or another event, none of the state and national political leaders made much of an appearance at Orlando’s Pulse activities.

There’s a real chance state and national Republican leaders weren’t asked to come, discouraged to come, or just knew that their appearances would be, at best, awkward. There has been widespread criticism that too many of them just never fully acknowledged the pain in Orlando was both about a terrorist attack and about the biggest hate crime against gays in American history.

And Monday’s commemorations all were intimate, mostly involving only those public figures who had been there with Orlando throughout.

Some Republicans tried to do something.

Gov. Rick Scott was the lone state or national leader who came to Orlando, but it was a stealth appearance, not announced in advance, and apparently without any remarks. He stopped for a private breakfast at the Orlando Police Department headquarters, and then for an unannounced brief visit to the Pulse nightclub Monday morning, essentially a photo-op. He did not attend any of the major events, and he did not let anyone know he was stopping by Pulse, not even Pulse owner Barbara Poma.

Marco Rubio took to the floor of the Senate Monday evening and made an emotional Pulse speech, full of very personal observations, and acknowledgment that, whatever else the tragedy was, it also was an attack on Orlando’s gay community.

“Obviously the attack was personal for the 49 families with stories of their own and of course the countless others who were injured. I know it was personal to the LGBT community in Central Florida,” Rubio said on the Senate floor. “As I said Pulse was a well-known cornerstone of the community, particularly for younger people. And as I said earlier This was deeply personal for Floridians and the people of central Florida, and I’ll get to that in a moment because I’m extraordinarily proud of that community.”

And he and Nelson introduced a resolution Monday in the Senate to commemorate Pulse.

Murphy, Demings, and Soto also introduced a Pulse remembrance resolution in the House of Representatives, and also spoke on the floor Monday. And all three found time to speak in Orlando, to Orlandoans, first.

Unlike Nelson, Murphy, Soto or Demings, Rubio was nowhere to be seen in Orlando during the observations that began at 1 a.m. and ended at midnight Monday.

Others in state and national GOP mailed or tweeted it in, and continued to miss the point that Orlando sees the tragedy both as a terrorist attack AND a hate crime against gays.

President Donald Trump did not come, nor did he send any White House or Cabinet delegates or surrogates to Orlando. He did not make any proclamations, though he did tweet, including a picture montage of the 49 murder victims.

“We will NEVER FORGET the victims who lost their lives one year ago today in the horrific #PulseNightClub shooting. #OrlandoUnitedDay.” Trump announced on Twitter Monday.

Rubio also sent his tweets — three of them.

“One year later, we honor 49 of our fellow Americans of @pulseorlando and continue to pray for their families.” Rubio tweeted, and “The #PulseNightClub tragedy was rooted in a hateful ideology that has no place in our world. #OrlandoStrong,” and The #PulseShooting was an attack on the LGBT community, Florida, America, and our very way of life. #OrlandoUnitedDay”

U.S. Reps. Ron DeSantis, Bill Posey and Daniel Webster, who each have districts that are not quite Orlando but close enough to include Orlando suburbs and many who were deeply affected by Pulse, did not make any Orlando appearances.

DeSantis put out a statement, and Webster mentioned Pulse in a Facebook post. Both focused on terrorism, a true angle to the tragedy, but one that continues to divide along partisan lines, as neither made any mention of the attack being on Orlando gays.

“The massacre at the Pulse nightclub represented the face of evil in the modern world. Fueled by a putrid ideology, the terrorist indiscriminately killed dozens of innocent people, forever devastating their families and loved ones. Orlando rallied in response to the attack in a remarkable fashion. It is incumbent on our society to root out radical Islamic terrorism from within our midst,” DeSantis wrote.

“Today, we remember the 49 innocent lives tragically lost due to a horrific act of terror in Orlando one year ago. Our prayers continue to be with the surviving victims, loved ones and all those affected,” Webster wrote on Facebook.

Scott also signed a proclamation on Friday, declaring Monday as Pulse Remembrance Day, surprising some in Orlando with his clear acknowledgment — lacking in some previous statements — that Orlando’s LGBTQ community had suffered mightily and needed acceptance.

Other Republicans followed the same pattern of DeSantis and Webster, ignoring the LGBTQ hate crime angle.

Attorney General Pam Bondi tweeted, but did not come to Orlando.

“Today we honor those lost in the #Pulse attack & the citizens & first responders who ran toward danger to save lives.” Bondi tweeted.

Agricultural Commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam both put out a statement, and tweeted, but did not come to Orlando.

“On the anniversary of the Pulse attack, we pause to remember the 49 victims who were suddenly and senselessly taken, their loved ones who continue to mourn and heal, and the first responders who put themselves in harm’s way for their fellow Floridians without hesitation,” Putnam wrote. “We also remember how Orlando, the Central Florida community and the entire state came together amidst such tragedy. People stood in lines for hours to donate blood, generously gave their time and money to total strangers and worked together to meet the needs of all those impacted. This anniversary is not just a solemn milestone to remember those we tragically lost, but it’s also a reminder of the strength, courage and compassion of the people of Florida.

“My prayers to all family, friends & loved ones of the 49 victims who were suddenly and senselessly taken one year ago today,” Putnam tweeted. And then, “And to the 1st responders in Orlando who put their own lives in danger to help others in need, TY for your strength, courage & compassion.”

Jeff Sessions to face sharp questions on Russia contacts

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is preparing for sharp questions from his former Senate colleagues about his role in the firing of James Comey, his Russian contacts during the campaign and his decision to recuse himself from an investigation into possible ties between Moscow and associates of President Donald Trump.

The public testimony Tuesday before the Senate intelligence committee should yield Sessions’ most extensive comments to date on questions that have dogged his entire tenure as attorney general and that led him three months ago to step aside from the Russia probe.

Lawmakers for weeks have demanded answers from Sessions, particularly about meetings he had last summer and fall with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

Those calls have escalated since fired FBI Director James Comey cryptically told lawmakers on Thursday that the bureau had expected Sessions to recuse himself weeks before he did from an investigation into contacts between Trump campaign associates and Russia during the 2016 presidential election.

Sessions, a close campaign adviser to Donald Trump and the first senator to endorse him, stepped aside from the investigation in early March after acknowledging he had spoken twice in the months before the election with the Russian ambassador. He said at his January confirmation hearing that he had not met with Russians during the campaign.

Since then, lawmakers have raised questions about a possible third meeting at a Washington hotel, though the Justice Department has said that did not happen.

Sessions on Saturday said he would appear before the intelligence committee, which has been doing its own investigation into Russian contacts with the Trump campaign.

There had been some question as to whether the hearing would be open to the public, but the Justice Department said Monday he requested it be so because he “believes it is important for the American people to hear the truth directly from him.” The committee shortly after said the hearing would be open.

The hearing will bring contentious questioning for Sessions and likely some uncomfortable moments for the Trump administration.

Sessions is likely to be asked about his conversations with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and whether there were more encounters that should have been made public. And he can expect questions about his involvement in Comey’s May 9 firing, the circumstances surrounding his decision to recuse himself from the FBI’s investigation, and whether any of his actions — such as interviewing candidates for the FBI director position or meeting with Trump about Comey — violated his recusal pledge.

Asked Monday if the White House thought Sessions should invoke executive privilege to avoid answering questions about his conversations with Trump, presidential spokesman Sean Spicer replied, “It depends on the scope of the questions. To get into a hypothetical at this point would be premature.”

He did not explicitly endorse Sessions’ appearance, saying in response to a question, “We’re aware of it, and we’ll go from there.”

Comey himself had a riveting appearance before the same Senate panel last week, with some key moments centered on Sessions.

Comey said Trump told Sessions and other administration officials to leave the room before Trump asked him in February to drop a probe into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

In addition, Comey has said Sessions did not respond when he complained that he did not want to be left alone with Trump again. The Justice Department has denied that, saying Sessions stressed to Comey the need to be careful about following appropriate policies.

The former FBI director also testified that he and the agency had believed Sessions was “inevitably going to recuse” for reasons he said he could not elaborate on.

“We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic,” Comey said.

Sessions’ appearance before the intelligence committee is an indication of just how much the Russia investigation has shaded his tenure. White House frustrations with the Justice Department spilled into public view last week, when Trump on Twitter criticized the legal strategy in defending his proposed travel ban.

Spicer, the spokesman, declined to say then that Sessions enjoyed Trump’s confidence, though spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said later in the week that the president had confidence “in all of his Cabinet.”

Though the Justice Department maintains that it has fully disclosed the extent of Sessions’ foreign contacts last year, lawmakers have continued to press him for answers about an April 2016 event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, where both Sessions and Kislyak attended a foreign policy speech by Trump.

Senate Democrats have raised the possibility that Sessions and Kislyak could have met there, though Justice Department officials say there were no private encounters or side meetings.

Lawmakers, including Al Franken of Minnesota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, have asked the FBI to investigate and to determine if Sessions committed perjury when he denied having had meetings with Russians.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Andrew Gillum takes a swipe at Rick Scott’s ‘victory tour’

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democratic candidate for governor in 2018, is slamming Gov. Rick Scott‘s and House Speaker Richard Corcoran‘s “victory tour.”

Saying he’s standing up for public schools, Gillum released a statement Tuesday in the wake of Scott’s announcement of a five-city “Fighting for Florida’s Future Victory” tour to “celebrate the major wins for Florida families and students during last week’s legislative Special Session.”

Corcoran plans to join him on some of the stops, set for Miami, West Palm Beach, Fort Myers, Tampa and Jacksonville Beach.

“This tour will highlight an all-time high of K-12 per-pupil spending, the establishment of the $85 million Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, full funding for VISIT FLORIDA, and $50 million to kick-start repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee,” the governor’s press release said.

Gillum isn’t buying it.

“The only person less deserving of a ‘victory tour’ than Gov. Scott and Speaker Corcoran is Donald Trump‘s lawyer,” he said.

Scott’s and Corcoran’s “backroom deals will destroy our public schools’ futures, and they ought to be ashamed of what they’ve done to our state over the past week,” he added.

Gillum and public schools advocates have been critical of Corcoran’s favored bill, HB 7069, a wide-ranging education policy bill they say slights traditional public schools in favor of charter schools run by private concerns.

“The end of the Special Session is not ‘mission accomplished’ on behalf of Florida’s students and teachers,” Gillum said, a likely reference to a 2003 speech by then-President George W. Bush, after which he was criticized for prematurely saying the U.S. had “prevailed” in Iraq.

“I’m running for governor because our children are not well when they can’t read at grade level, take anxiety medication for high stakes tests, and suffer while for-profit charter school executives and their allies fly around on a ‘victory tour,’ ” Gillum said.

Roger Stone to appear in Tampa later this month

Roger Stone, the longtime Donald Trump confidante and a GOP political adviser to Republicans going back to Richard Nixon, is appearing in Tampa later this month.

Stone will be signing copies of his latest book, “The Making of The President 2016: How Donald Trump Orchestrated a Revolution,” and taking questions from audience members Thursday, June 29, at 7 p.m. at the Centre Club in downtown Tampa.

Always a controversial character, Stone is now a central figure in the FBI investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russia, an investigation that he called “a witch hunt.”

The flashy right-wing provocateur is also the subject of a new Netflix documentary, “Get Me Roger Stone.”

Although he had counseled Trump on politics over several years, Stone left the campaign in August 2015, staying on the sidelines and continuing to offer informal guidance through the primaries and into the general election against Hillary Clinton.

Before Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May, Stone helped solidify the president’s decision.

As for Stone’s alleged connection to, or knowledge of, Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, he dismissed having any contact with the online hacker “Guccifer 2.0,” who claimed to be behind the attack on the Democratic National Committee last year.

Stone later volunteered to speak before the House Intelligence Committee investigating Trump and Russia about his role on the campaign.

“I acknowledge I am a hardball player. I have sharp elbows. I always play politics the way it is supposed to be played,” Stone told CNN last month. “But one thing isn’t in my bag of tricks — treason.”

The Centre Club is at 123 S Westshore Blvd, 8th Floor, in Tampa.

Information on obtaining tickets is available online.

What’s next for James Comey? Maybe law, corporate work, politics

So what’s next for James Comey?

The former FBI director boldly challenged the president who fired him, accused the Trump administration of lying and supplied material that could be used to build a case against President Donald Trump.

But after stepping away from the Capitol Hill spotlight, where he’s always seemed comfortable, the 56-year-old veteran lawman now confronts the same question long faced by Washington officials after their government service.

His dry quip at a riveting Senate hearing that he was “between opportunities” vastly understates the career prospects now available to him — not to mention potential benefits from the public’s fascination with a man who has commanded respect while drawing outrage from both political parties.

Comey was pilloried for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, yet is now seen as a critical cog in the inquiry into possible connections between Russia and the Trump campaign. He may be called upon to provide more detail about his interactions with Trump, which he documented in a series of memos, even as he turns attention to potential opportunities in law, corporate work or perhaps even politics.

“There’s some jobs where the controversy would not be a benefit, but that’s why I see him ending up in a place where he can be himself,” said Evan Barr, a former federal prosecutor in New York City who worked under Comey in the U.S. attorney’s office. “If he were the president of a college or an important think tank, he could pursue the issues that mean the most to him and not be worried about trying to make anyone happy.”

Comey is unlikely to play any sort of direct role in the investigation now led by special counsel Robert Mueller, his predecessor as FBI director. But he almost certainly would avail himself as a witness to Mueller in any obstruction of justice investigation centered on his firing, or to further discuss requests he received from Trump that he interpreted as directives.

Comey’s carefully crafted memos are laden with contemporaneously recorded details and verbatim quotes that could easily lay down a path for investigators, and already have been turned over to Mueller. In one note, Comey says Trump cleared the room before encouraging Comey to end an investigation into Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

Comey’s decision to share with reporters, through an intermediary, details from those conversations, and his insistence on testifying in public attest to his determination to confront the president head-on.

“I do think he is unquestionably, if this thing goes anywhere, one of the star witnesses,” said Robert Anderson, a retired FBI executive assistant director. “It really comes down to his testimony, in some avenues.”

Career options are generally plentiful for departing FBI leaders and attorneys general. Both Mueller and former Attorney General Eric Holder, for instance, took jobs with prestigious law firms after leaving public service.

But few if any have as public a profile as Comey or have generated such intense feelings.

Even Democrats who disagree with his firing remain stung by his revival of the Clinton email investigation days before the November election.

Pro-Trump Republicans who were pleased by Comey some seven months ago may now concur with the president’s assessment of Comey as a “showboat.”

And companies that do business with the government might find it risky to bring aboard someone who’s so publicly at odds with the current administration.

Comey’s name over the years has been floated in politics, though it’s not clear the former Republican — now an independent — has any interest.

Educated at the College of William & Mary, where he wrote a senior thesis on a 20th century theologian, Comey went on to law school at the University of Chicago. The bulk of his work has been in government, with the exception of private practice legal work in Virginia early in his career, lucrative general counsel stints at defense contractor Lockheed Martin and a Connecticut hedge fund, and a teaching job at Columbia University.

He was the U.S. attorney in Manhattan who in 2003 charged Martha Stewart with obstructing justice in a stock trade investigation. He then became deputy attorney general, the No. 2 spot at the Justice Department, where he famously faced down fellow Bush administration officials over a surveillance program authorization. In 2013, he was sworn in as FBI director, a job he’s called the honor of his life.

Friends and colleagues say the father of five reveled in his public service.

“Anyone who has ever worked with Jim as far as I know, certainly speaking for myself, holds him in incredibly high esteem,” said Sharon McCarthy, who worked for him at the U.S. attorney’s office. “You’d be working late, he’d have a Coke in his hand and he’d come in, sit down, put his feet on your desk and start talking,”

Though Comey joked at a Senate hearing one week before his May 9 firing that he perhaps regretted picking up the phone when he was recruited for the FBI job while living comfortably in Connecticut, he also was known to pepper speeches with cracks about the “soulless” private sector.

He’d urge young audiences to imagine asking themselves on their death beds who they would want to have been, saying he hoped everyone’s answer would be that they tried to help others.

His own law firm life, he’d say, was lacking despite the matching furniture, parking space and Colonial-style home that accompanied the job.

“You do not make much money working for the FBI. You will not get famous working for the FBI. But you will be rich beyond belief if you look at it from (the public service) vantage point,” he has said.

One other question for Comey regardless of his next job will be how much he chooses, either directly or through intermediaries, to respond to allegations from Trump or Republicans rallying to the president’s defense. On Friday, Trump strongly suggested Comey had lied about their encounters and accused him of being a “leaker.”

“In the days to come,” Comey friend Ben Wittes wrote on his Lawfare blog, “we’re going to see a full-court press against Comey; indeed it is already well underway.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump says James Comey’s ‘leaks’ are more prevalent

The Latest on President Donald Trump and the investigation into his campaign’s potential ties to Russia (all times local):

8:30 a.m.

President Donald Trump is predicting that former FBI Director James Comey‘s “leaks will be far more prevalent than anyone ever thought possible.” Trump says on Twitter, “Totally illegal? Very ‘cowardly!'”

Trump is again challenging Comey after the ousted FBI director’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week.

While many of Trump’s Republican allies have found Comey’s testimony credible, the president has called the man he fired a liar and a “leaker.”

Comey said during his testimony that he asked a friend to release contents of the memos he’d written about his conversations with the president to a reporter. He contended that information was not classified or otherwise protected.

2:45 a.m.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has agreed to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The former Alabama senator was an early supporter of Donald Trump, and Sessions’ contacts during the campaign with Russia’s ambassador to the United States have raised questions.

Back in March, Sessions stepped aside from overseeing a federal investigation into contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign after he acknowledged meeting twice last year with the Russian diplomat, Sergey Kislyak.

Sessions had told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing in January that he hadn’t met with Russians during the campaign.

Sessions has been dogged by questions about possible additional encounters with the ambassador.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Darryl Paulson: Will Donald Trump be dumped? — The 25th Amendment

Each day seems to bring more trouble for President Donald Trump. He fired his National Security Adviser Michael Flynn after just three weeks in his position. Then came the firing of FBI Director James Comey. Numerous other individuals in his administration are supposedly on the chopping block, ranging from Press Secretary Sean Spicer to Chief-of-Staff Reince Priebus to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The FBI investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 election discovered that at least five members of the Trump administration or campaign team had met with Russian officials. Many had failed to disclose these meetings as was required.

Before firing Comey, Trump asked the FBI Director on several occasions to pledge his loyalty to the president. Comey promised his “honesty,” but failed to pledge his loyalty. Trump also asked Comey to drop his investigation of Flynn because he is a “good guy.”

When Trump fired Comey, he called him a “nut job,” and threatened Comey that he better “hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversation.” Trump also stated that Comey was a bad administrator of the FBI and had lost the support of his colleagues. Finally, Trump said the firing of Comey was done to relieve pressure on the Russian investigation which Trump called “a made-up story.”

There is a growing national discussion of removing Trump as president either through the provisions of the 25th Amendment or through impeachment. Neither approach would be easy.

Both the 25th Amendment and impeachment raise the specter of a “constitutional coup.” After only six months in office, how will the American public react to what looks like an attempt to nullify the results of the recent presidential election?

The 25th Amendment was added to the Constitution in February 1967 and was the result of the assassination of President Kennedy. The Constitution did not provide a means to replace the vice president when he assumed office on the death of the president. There was also no mechanism to remove the president due to disability temporarily or permanently.

The vice president and a majority of the cabinet could remove the president if they found him “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” It could also occur if a congressionally appointed body of experts concluded the president was no longer capable of performing his duties.

If the president opposes his removal, Congress has three weeks to debate and decide the issue. It requires a two-thirds vote of both houses to remove the president and there is no appeal.

The 25th Amendment has been invoked six times since its ratification. On Oct. 12, 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned and was replaced by Gerald Ford. Ford was confirmed 92-3 by the Senate and 387-35 by the House.

The following year, President Richard Nixon resigned the office of president due to Watergate. Ford assumed the presidency on the same day that Nixon resigned, Aug. 9, 1974. Ford became the only person to be both vice president and president without being elected to the positions.

On Sept. 20, 1974, President Ford selected Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president. Rockefeller was confirmed 90-7 by the Senate and 287-128 by the House.

Three incidents involve the 25th Amendment and presidential disability. On July 12, 1985, President Reagan underwent a colonoscopy and transferred power to Vice President George H.W. Bush for several hours.

In 2002 and 2007, President George W. Bush transferred power to Vice President Dick Cheney during two colonoscopies.

The presidential disability provisions were considered twice during the Reagan administration but were rejected. On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot by a deranged assassin. Reagan was incapable of turning over powers to his vice president, and vice president Bush decided not to invoke the powers even though Reagan was not capable of governing for several days.

In 1987, outgoing Chief Donald Regan warned incoming Chief-of-Staff Howard Baker to be ready to invoke the 25th Amendment. Regan and other staff members were concerned that the president was disengaged from his duties and spent much of his time watching movies.

Baker summoned close aides to the president and they all agreed to carefully monitor the president at a luncheon meeting the following day. The president was alert and funny and Baker considered the debate over. “This president is fully capable of doing his job.”

One of the concerns over the 25th Amendment is its potential for misuse. In 1964, three years prior to the adoption of the 25th Amendment, 1,000 psychologists said Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was not psychologically fit to be president. Goldwater sued and won. In 1973, the American Psychological Association adopted the “Goldwater Rule,” barring members from making a diagnosis without doing an in-person exam.

The Goldwater Rule did not stop 50,000 mental health professionals from signing a petition stating that Trump is “too seriously mentally ill to perform the duties of president and should be removed under the 25th Amendment.” I suspect these “liberals” let their politics get in the way of science, much like Republicans do with climate change.

Responding to a letter to The New York Times from a retired Duke psychology professor that Trump was a “malignant narcissist,” an Emeritus professor at Duke Medical School responded that Trump “may be a world-class narcissist, but that doesn’t make him mentally ill. … The antidote is political, not psychological.”

Finally, Jeff Greenfield of CNN, commented that attempts to remove Trump under the 25th Amendment for mental health reasons are a “liberal fantasy.”

Part II:  Will Trump be dumped? Impeachment.

___

Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at USF St. Petersburg specializing in Florida politics and elections.

 

White House looks for ways to undermine James Comey’s credibility

With fired FBI Director James Comey’s highly anticipated congressional testimony just a day away, the White House and its allies are scrambling for ways to offset potential damage.

Asked Tuesday about the testimony, President Donald Trump was tight-lipped: “I wish him luck,” he told reporters.

Comey’s testimony Thursday before the Senate intelligence committee could expose new details regarding his discussions with Trump about the federal investigation into Russia’s election meddling.

The White House and its allies are scrambling to offset potential damage from fired FBI Director James Comey’s congressional testimony, an appearance that could expose new details about talks with Donald Trump about the investigation into Russia. (June 6)

Comey could also bring up other aspects of his dealings with the Trump administration. On Tuesday evening a person familiar with the situation said Comey had told Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he did not want to be left alone with Trump.

The person, who was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press the comment was made because of concerns Comey had about Trump.

It was not immediately clear when the conversation occurred. But The New York Times, which first reported the interaction with Sessions, said it came after Trump had asked Comey in February to end an FBI investigation into Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior declined to comment. He said Sessions “doesn’t believe it’s appropriate to respond to media inquiries on matters that may be related to ongoing investigations.”

Trump’s White House and its allies are crafting a strategy aimed at undermining Comey’s credibility. Both White House officials and an outside group that backs Trump plan to hammer Comey in the coming days for misstatements he made about Democrat Hillary Clinton’s emails during his last appearance on Capitol Hill.

An ad created by the pro-Trump Great America Alliance — a nonprofit “issues” group that isn’t required to disclose its donors — casts Comey as a “showboat” who was “consumed with election meddling” instead of focusing on combating terrorism. The 30-second spot is slated to run digitally on Wednesday and appear the next day on CNN and Fox News.

The Republican National Committee has been preparing talking points ahead of the hearing, which will be aired live on multiple TV outlets. An RNC research email Monday issued a challenge to the lawmakers who will question Comey. There’s bipartisan agreement, the email says, that Comey “needs to answer a simple question about his conversations with President Trump: If you were so concerned, why didn’t you act on it or notify Congress?”

Comey’s testimony marks his first public comments since he was abruptly ousted by Trump on May 9. Since then, Trump and Comey allies have traded competing narratives about their interactions. The president asserted that Comey told him three times that he was not personally under investigation, while the former director’s associates allege Trump asked Comey if he could back off an investigation into Michael Flynn, who was fired as national security adviser because he misled the White House about his ties to Russia.

Democrats have accused Trump of firing Comey to upend the FBI’s Russia probe, which focused in large part on whether campaign aides coordinated with Moscow to hack Democratic groups during the election. Days after Comey’s firing, the Justice Department appointed a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, to oversee the federal investigation.

The new revelation about Comey’s uneasiness with Trump brings to mind a posting last month by Comey friend Benjamin Wittes on his Lawfare blog, in which he said Comey “saw it as an ongoing task on his part to protect the rest of the Bureau from improper contacts and interferences from a group of people he did not regard as honorable.”

Despite the mounting legal questions now shadowing the White House, Trump has needled Comey publicly. In a tweet days after the firing, he appeared to warn Comey that he might have recordings of their private discussions, something the White House has neither confirmed nor denied.

White House officials appear eager to keep the president away from television and Twitter Thursday, though those efforts rarely succeed. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the president plans to attend an infrastructure summit in the morning, then address the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference at 12:30 p.m.

“The president’s got a full day on Thursday,” Spicer said.

The White House had hoped to set up a “war room” stocked with Trump allies and top-flight lawyers to combat questions about the FBI and congressional investigations into possible ties between the campaign and Russia. However, that effort has largely stalled, both because of a lack of decision-making in the West Wing and concerns among some potential recruits about joining a White House under the cloud of investigation.

“If there isn’t a strategy, a coherent, effective one, this is really going to put us all behind the eight ball. We need to start fighting back. And so far, I don’t see a lot of fight,” said Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign aide.

Still, Trump supporters say they are willing to step in to help the White House deflect any accusations from Comey.

“If we feel he crosses a line, we’ll fire back,” said Ed Rollins, chief strategist of Great America PAC, the political arm of the group airing the Comey ad.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Leaked NSA doc highlights deep flaws in U.S. election system

A leaked intelligence document outlining alleged attempts by Russian military intelligence to hack into U.S. election systems is the latest evidence suggesting a broad and sophisticated foreign attack on the integrity of the nation’s elections.

And it underscores the contention of security experts and computer scientists that the highly decentralized, often ramshackle U.S. election system remains profoundly vulnerable to trickery or sabotage.

The document, purportedly produced by the U.S. National Security Agency, does not indicate whether actual vote-tampering occurred. But it adds significant new detail to previous U.S. intelligence assessments that alleged Russia-backed hackers had compromised elements of America’s electoral machinery. It also suggests that attackers may also have been laying the groundwork for future subversive activity.

The operation described in the document could have given attackers “a foothold into the IT systems of elections offices around the country that they could use to infect machines and launch a vote-stealing attack,” said J. Alex Halderman, a University of Michigan computer scientist. “We don’t have evidence that that happened,” he said, “but that’s a very real possibility.”

Computer scientists have proven in the lab that once sophisticated attackers are inside an election network, they could manipulate pre-election programming of its systems and alter results without leaving a trace.

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said Tuesday that hacking into state voting systems ahead of the Nov. 8 vote was more widespread than has been disclosed.

Attempts by Russia to “break into a number of our state voting processes” was “broad-based,” he said, without offering details. In Moscow, a Kremlin spokesman categorically denied Tuesday that Moscow had tried to hack the U.S. elections.

Warner did not directly address the classified intelligence report published Monday by The Intercept, an online news outlet. The Associated Press has not independently verified the authenticity of the report, although its apparent leaker, an NSA contract worker, was arrested last weekend in Georgia.

The NSA document says Russian military intelligence first targeted employees of a Florida voting systems supplier in August. Apparently exploiting technical data obtained in that operation, the cyber spies later sent phishing emails to more than 100 local U.S. election officials just days ahead of the Nov. 8 vote, intent on stealing their login credentials and breaking into their systems, the document says.

The emails packed malware into Microsoft Word documents and were forged to give the appearance of being sent by the system vendor, VR Systems of Tallahassee, Florida.

The Department of Homeland Security knew in September that hackers believed to be Russian agents had targeted the voter registration systems of more than 20 states. To date, no evidence of tampering with vote tallies or registration rolls has emerged.

The U.S. elections system is a patchwork of more than 3,000 jurisdictions overseen by the states with almost no federal oversight or standards. The attack sketched out in the NSA document appears designed specifically to cope with that sprawl.

The NSA document did not name any of the states where local officials were targeted by the emails masquerading as being from VR Systems.

But in September, the FBI held a conference call with all 67 county elections supervisors in the battleground state of Florida to inform them of infiltration of VR Systems without naming the company. Ion Sancho, who retired as Leon County supervisor in December, said he later learned from industry contacts that it was VR Systems.

VR Systems officials did not respond directly to questions emailed by the AP. In a statement, the company said it only knows of a “handful” of customers who received the fraudulent email, adding that it had “no indication” that anyone had clicked on the malware. The NSA document says at least one account was likely compromised.

The company makes software for on-site voter registration at polling stations and back-end systems for voting management, according to its website, which says it has customers in California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.

VR Systems’ electronic poll books — electronic systems used to verify registered voters at polling places — experienced problems on Nov. 8 in Durham County, North Carolina. The issue forced officials to abandon the system, issue paper ballots and extend voting hours.

North Carolina’s state elections director said Tuesday that officials would investigate to see if officials in Durham County were targeted and possibly compromised.

Iowa University’s Douglas Jones is among computer scientists who say voter registration systems are particularly vulnerable to tampering, in part because they are on the internet.

Someone trying to cause chaos and discredit an election could delete names from registration rolls prior to voting — or request absentee ballots en masse. In the latter case, a voter showing up at the polls on Election Day would be recorded as having already cast their ballot. That could force voters to file provisional ballots, and provoke long lines.

There is no evidence any of that happened last Election Day.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Pro-Trump group labels James Comey political ‘showboat’ in new ad

A nonprofit issues group is labeling James Comey a political “showboat” in a television ad set to air Thursday, the day the former FBI director testifies on Capitol Hill.

Comey “put politics over protecting America,” a narrator says in the 30-second spot, titled “Showboat,” which was shared with The Associated Press. It accuses him of being “consumed with election meddling” even as “terror attacks were on the rise.”

Great America Alliance has paid for the ad, which is slated to run digitally Wednesday and appear the next day on CNN and Fox News. The group, formed after President Donald Trump’s election to advocate for his administration, is not required to disclose its donors.

The message of the ad reflects a strategy by Trump and his advocates to erode Comey’s credibility.

Comey will testify Thursday before the Senate intelligence committee and is expected to be grilled about his interactions with Trump ahead of his own firing. He will also be questioned about the agency’s underlying investigation into whether Trump’s campaign had anything to do with Russian meddling in the election the New York billionaire into office.

The ad highlights that Comey’s previous congressional testimony about Hillary Clinton’s emails was inaccurate and needed to be corrected. After Comey said Clinton’s campaign aide “forwarded hundreds and thousands” of emails to her husband, a potential security breach, the FBI sent a letter to Congress saying he’d misspoken.

“James Comey: just another DC insider only in it for himself,” the ad concludes.

Eric Beach, head of Great America Alliance, said no one from the White House asked his group to do the ad. Some of the commentary in it — including the title — echoes public statements by Trump and other administration officials.

Two days after firing Comey last month, Trump called him a “showboat” in an interview with NBC News.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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