February 2018 (Total Super Full Moon Eclipse in Leo, Jan 31; Partial Solar Eclipse in Aquarius, Feb 15,2018)
Another bitter week that took Washington to the brink of exhaustion landed Donald Trump at the epicenter of more tragedy, scandal and rancor than a conventional president would hope to face in a full year.
The White House was sent reeling by the Florida school massacre, new indictments in the Russia probe, its own mishandling of domestic abuse claims against a top staffer, allegations that Trump covered up extra-marital affairs and another huge immigration fail.
All of this unfolded when the administration hoped to focus on infrastructure — when the big headlines would involve the President pushing his next big agenda item.
Instead, Trump offered a fresh example of his propensity to draw the capital, and the rest of the nation into his cone of chaos. Each of the week’s staggering and occasionally horrific events will have profound political reverberations. They are already further poisoning trust in Washington and stretching bonds of national unity in a way that will make the already all-but-impossible task of governing more difficult.
Feb 16: Mueller’s probe (day after Partial Solar Eclipse Feb 15 2018)
The sting in the tail of the week came when special counsel Robert Mueller unloaded 13 indictments on Russian nationals accused of running the Kremlin’s attempt to influence the 2016 election, eventually settling on a plan to damage Hillary Clinton and to help Trump win.
Mueller’s surprise strike was not just the most comprehensive account of the meddling effort so far and the first time he has laid charges relating to the core thrust of his investigation — Russia’s election meddling operation. It was also another sign of how little outsiders know about the sweep of his investigation, a factor that must worry White House lawyers.
The President quickly seized on a detail of the indictment that noted Trump campaign staffers were unwittingly approached by the Russians to trumpet his claims that his assaults on the probe were vindicated.
“The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!” he tweeted.
His crowing might be premature, however, since the indictment did not make any reference to known liaisons between Trump staffers and Russia or the activities of senior campaign and administration officials under investigation.
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut told CNN’s “The Situation Room” on Friday that Trump was “engaged in some magical thinking here that somehow, this indictment exonerates him. Nothing of the kind.”
It is still possible that Mueller exonerates Trump and his campaign. But in time to come, the indictment could also be seen as the latest jigsaw piece put in place by Mueller that could eventually serve as the legal backdrop for any eventual determination that collusion or obstruction of justice did take place.
That’s because Mueller established that Russian election interference was a criminal matter — significantly increasing the consequences for anyone in Trump’s orbit who has the potential of being implicated in the affair.
It will also now be far harder for Trump to claim that the Russia meddling story is a huge “hoax.” Furthermore, the evidence of a genuine threat to American democratic institutions that Mueller laid out may make it much harder for Republicans to shield Trump politically if he fires the special counsel.
Pressure is also mounting on the administration to finally impose sanctions against Moscow over the election scandal. And ties between Washington and the Kremlin are sure to sour. But the picture Mueller painted of a sophisticated Russian operation is sure to enhance President Vladimir Putin’s reputation as a master of the dark arts of espionage, despite Russian denials.
CNN has reported that former Trump deputy campaign manager Rick Gates is nearing a plea deal with Mueller, which will also meanwhile mean a nervy weekend for the White House.
As Friday’s Russia story broke, Trump was on his way to honor the victims of Wednesday’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, by visiting Broward Health North hospital, where many of the victims were treated.
In the immediate aftermath of the rampage on Wednesday, Trump was absent, apart from offering condolences on Twitter, and then seemed to blame local people for not spotting the apparent mental turmoil of the suspected shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz. When he finally appeared on camera 20 hours after the attack he promised to keep America’s kids safe. But one word was missing from his remarks — guns — as Democrats demanded reforms to deal with high-powered, military style weapons the killer used, and Republicans immediately accused them of politicizing the tragedy to snatch the guns of law abiding Americans.
The depressing familiarity of the ritual underscored how sharp political divides are likely to mean nothing meaningful happens after the tragedy.
Republicans on Friday were quick to seize on reports that the FBI had missed a tip-off about the shooter to alleviate political pressure, after students at the school appeared on television to demand changes to gun laws.
But the debate will flare back to life after the next, inevitable, massacre.
Porter abuse scandal
The Florida killings overshadowed what had until then been the dominant story of the week, the White House’s pushback against claims of abuse against departed senior staffer Rob Porter by two ex-wives.
Trump’s response, as it often does, made the storm much worse as he came across as more concerned with Porter’s lost career than for the plight of the woman who told the FBI about their plight.
The political impact of the scandal was magnified because the claims caused the FBI to block Porter’s security clearance, leaving him operating on an interim version, despite the fact his job required him to handle classified intelligence.
CNN then reported that at least 100 officials served with the similar interim clearances until November, in a highly unusual move that raised questions about the backgrounds and credentials of many administration staffers.
At times, the White House’s shifting explanations had it digging ever deeper in to the mire. On Friday chief of staff John Kelly, whose credibility was badly damaged by the episode, issued new guidelines on the clearance process, calling on the FBI to quickly share derogatory information about staffers with the White House counsel’s office and suspending background checks of officials who have been waiting for a sign-off since last June.
Kelly has also been a key player in the White House’s hardline immigration policy which has left hundreds of thousands of people brought to the US illegally as children in limbo after Congress again failed to act on a compromise to shield them in return for funding for Trump’s border wall.
Fierce White House assaults helped to blow up a compromise plan in the Senate, but Trump’s own four-pillared proposal, which also reforms legal immigration, perished in the chamber by an even bigger margin.
The debacle meant that people affected by the expiration of the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program still do not know their fate.
But the furor may have protected Trump’s right flank and defused a campaign by far right media against him that has seen him labeled “Amnesty Don.”
Trump began the week embarrassed by revelations that his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, had paid $130,000 (C$163,260) to former porn star Stormy Daniels days before the 2016 election. The news provoked questions on whether Cohen — who insisted he was acting on his own initiative and with his own funds — had infringed campaign finance laws by trying buying the silence of Daniels, who claimed she had an affair with Trump.
The President’s week ended with a stunning new report in The New Yorker that detailed an alleged affair with former Playboy model Karen McDougal in 2006 and 2007 and an alleged scheme involving the National Enquirer to cover it up.
The report sparked fresh speculation about the state of Trump’s marriage to first lady Melania Trump and questions about the activities of the President’s entourage, as well as his potential exposure to more compromising situations.
Trump was also preoccupied with other peoples’ scandals, specifically those of two members of his administration, Environmental Protection Agency Chief Scott Pruitt and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, who are both under scrutiny over extravagant travel arrangements.
Normally, either episode would be a huge headache for Trump, but such was the turmoil in Washington this week, neither became dominant stories, though they added to the churn of sleaze and scandal around has administration.
July 21, 2017 (Washington post, via msn.com)
Trump team seeks to control, block Mueller’s Russia investigation
Some of President Trump’s lawyers are exploring ways to limit or undercut special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation, building a case against what they allege are his conflicts of interest and discussing the president’s authority to grant pardons, according to people familiar with the effort.
Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe, according to one of those people. A second person said Trump’s lawyers have been discussing the president’s pardoning powers among themselves.
Trump’s legal team declined to comment on the issue. But one adviser said the president has simply expressed a curiosity in understanding the reach of his pardoning authority, as well as the limits of Mueller’s investigation.
“This is not in the context of, ‘I can’t wait to pardon myself,’?” a close adviser said.
With the Russia investigation continuing to widen, Trump’s lawyers are working to corral the probe and question the propriety of the special counsel’s work. They are actively compiling a list of Mueller’s alleged potential conflicts of interest, which they say could serve as a way to stymie his work, according to several of Trump’s legal advisers.
A conflict of interest is one of the possible grounds that can be cited by an attorney general to remove a special counsel from office under Justice Department regulations that set rules for the job.
The president is also irritated by the notion that Mueller’s probe could reach into his and his family’s finances, advisers said.
Trump has been fuming about the probe in recent weeks as he has been informed about the legal questions that he and his family could face. His primary frustration centers on why allegations that his campaign coordinated with Russia should spread into scrutinizing many years of Trump dealmaking. He has told aides he was especially disturbed after learning Mueller would be able to access several years of his tax returns.
Trump has repeatedly refused to make his tax returns public after first claiming he could not do so because he was under audit or after promising to release them after an IRS audit was completed. All presidents since Jimmy Carter have released their tax returns.
Further adding to the challenges facing Trump’s outside lawyers, the team’s spokesman, Mark Corallo, resigned on Thursday, according to two people familiar with his departure. Corallo did not respond to immediate requests for comment.
“If you’re looking at Russian collusion, the president’s tax returns would be outside that investigation,” said a close adviser to the president.
Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s private lawyers, said in an interview Thursday that the president and his legal team are intent on making sure Mueller stays within the boundaries of his assignment as special counsel. He said they will complain directly to Mueller if necessary.
“The fact is that the president is concerned about conflicts that exist within the special counsel’s office and any changes in the scope of the investigation,” Sekulow said. “The scope is going to have to stay within his mandate. If there’s drifting, we’re going to object.”
Sekulow cited Bloomberg News reports that Mueller is scrutinizing some of Trump’s business dealings, including with a Russian oligarch who purchased a Palm Beach mansion from Trump for $95 million in 2008.
“They’re talking about real estate transactions in Palm Beach several years ago,” Sekulow said. “In our view, this is far outside the scope of a legitimate investigation.”
The president has long called the FBI investigation into his campaign’s possible coordination with the Russians a “witch hunt.” But now, Trump is coming face-to-face with a powerful investigative team that is able to study evidence of any crime it encounters in the probe — including tax fraud, lying to federal agents and interference in the investigation.
“This is Ken Starr times 1,000,” said one lawyer involved in the case, referring to the independent counsel who oversaw an investigation that eventually led to House impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. “Of course, it’s going to go into his finances.”
Following Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey — in part because of his displeasure with the FBI’s Russia investigation — Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel in a written order. That order gave Mueller broad authority to investigate links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation” and any crimes committed in response to the investigation, such as perjury or obstruction of justice.
Mueller’s probe has already expanded to include an examination of whether Trump obstructed justice in his dealings with Comey, as well as the business activities of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.
Trump’s team could potentially challenge whether a broad probe of Trump’s finances prior to his candidacy could be considered a matter that arose “directly” from an inquiry into possible collusion with a foreign government.
The president’s legal representatives have also identified what they allege are several conflicts of interest facing Mueller, such as donations to Democrats by some of his prosecutors.
Another potential conflict claim is an allegation that Mueller and Trump National Golf Club in Northern Virginia had a dispute over membership fees when Mueller resigned as a member in 2011, two White House advisers said. A spokesman for Mueller said there was no dispute when Mueller, who was FBI director at the time, left the club.
Trump also took public aim on Wednesday at Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein, whose actions led to Mueller’s appointment. In an interview with the New York Times Wednesday, the president said he never would have nominated Sessions if he knew he was going to recuse himself from the case.
Some Republicans in frequent touch with the White House said they viewed the president’s decision to publicly air his disappointment with Sessions as a warning sign that the attorney general’s days were numbered. Several senior aides were described as “stunned” when Sessions announced Thursday morning he would stay on at the Justice Department.
Another Republican in touch with the administration described the public steps as part of a broader effort aimed at “laying the groundwork to fire” Mueller.
“Who attacks their entire Justice Department?” this person said. “It’s insane.”
Law enforcement officials described Sessions as increasingly distant from the White House and the FBI because of the strains of the Russia investigation.
Traditionally, Justice Department leaders have sought to maintain a certain degree of autonomy from the White House as a means of ensuring prosecutorial independence.
But Sessions’s situation is more unusual, law enforcement officials said, because he hasangered the president for apparently being too independent while also angering many at the FBI for his role in the president’s firing of Comey.
As a result, there is far less communication among those three key parts of the government than in years past, several officials said.
Currently, the discussions of pardoning authority by Trump’s legal team are purely theoretical, according to two people familiar with the ongoing conversations. But if Trump pardoned himself in the face of the ongoing Mueller investigation, it would set off a legal and political firestorm, first around the question of whether a president can use the constitutional pardon power in that way.
“This is a fiercely debated but unresolved legal question,” said Brian C. Kalt, a constitutional law expert at Michigan State University who has written extensively on the question.
The power to pardon is granted to the president in Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, which gives the commander in chief the power to “grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” That means pardon authority extends to federal criminal prosecution but not to state level or impeachment inquiries.
No president has sought to pardon himself, so no courts have reviewed it. Although Kalt says the weight of the law argues against a president pardoning himself, he says the question is open and predicts such an action would move through the courts all the way to the Supreme Court.
“There is no predicting what would happen,” said Kalt, author of the book, “Constitutional Cliffhangers: A Legal Guide for Presidents and Their Enemies.” It includes chapters on the ongoing debate over whether presidents can be prosecuted while in office and on whether a president can issue a pardon to himself.
Other White House advisers have tried to temper Trump, urging him to simply cooperate with the probe and stay silent on his feelings about the investigation.
On Monday, lawyer Ty Cobb, newly brought into the White House to handle responses to the Russian probe, convened a meeting with the president and his team of lawyers, according to two people briefed on the meeting. Cobb, who is not yet on the White House payroll, was described as attempting to instill some discipline in how the White House handles queries about the case. But Trump surprised many of his aides by speaking at length about the probe to the New York Times two days later. Cobb, who officially joins the White House team at the end of the month, declined to comment for this article.
Some note that the Constitution does not explicitly prohibit a president from pardoning himself. On the other side, experts say that by definition a pardon is something you can only give to someone else. There is also a common-law canon that prohibits individuals from serving as a judge in their own case. “For example, we would not allow a judge to preside over his or her own trial,” Kalt said.
A president can pardon an individual at any point, including before the person is charged with a crime, and the scope of a presidential pardon can be very broad. President Gerald Ford pardoned former president Richard M. Nixon preemptively for offenses he “committed or may have committed” while in office.
Devlin Barrett and Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.
July 21, 2017 Sean Spicer resigns:
WASHINGTON — Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, resigned on Friday morning, telling President Trump he vehemently disagreed with the appointment of the New York financier Anthony Scaramucci as communications director.
Mr. Trump offered Mr. Scaramucci the job at 10 a.m. The president requested that Mr. Spicer stay on, but Mr. Spicer told Mr. Trump that he believed the appointment was a major mistake, according to a person with direct knowledge of the exchange.
Mr. Scaramucci, who founded the global investment firm SkyBridge Capital and is a Fox News Channel contributor, is known for his spirited on-air defense of Mr. Trump, but he also enjoys good relationships with journalists from an array of outlets, including those the president has labeled “fake news.”
Mr. Spicer’s turbulent tenure as the president’s top spokesman was marked by a combative style with the news media that spawned a caricature of him on “Saturday Night Live.”
His rumored departure has been one of the longest-running internal sagas in an administration brimming with dissension and intrigue. A former Republican National Committee spokesman and strategist, Mr. Spicer was a frequent target of the president’s ire — and correctives — during the first few months of the administration.
His resignation is a blow to the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, the former Republican Party chairman who brought Mr. Spicer into the West Wing despite skepticism from Mr. Trump, who initially questioned his loyalty.
July 31 2017: Japan & USA pledge to step it up re North Korea:
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday he and President Donald Trump agreed to take further action against North Korea following its latest missile launch.
Abe told reporters after the call that Trump pledged to “take all necessary measures to protect” Japan and that Abe praised his commitment to do so.
He also called on China and Russia to do more to stop Pyongyang.
“We have made consistent efforts to resolve the North Korean problem in a peaceful manner, but North Korea has ignored that entirely and escalated the situation in a one-sided way,” Abe said, according to Bloomberg. “The international community, starting with China and Russia, must take this obvious fact seriously and increase pressure.”
Abe said Japan would pursue concrete steps to bolster defense system and capabilities under the firm solidarity with the U.S. and do utmost to protect the safety of the Japanese people.
The White House said in a statement after the phone call that the two leaders “agreed that North Korea poses a grave and growing direct threat to the United States, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and other countries near and far,” Reuters reported.
The call between the two world leaders comes hours after the U.S., Japanese and South Korea militaries spent 10 hours conducting bomber-jet drills over the Korean peninsula.
The training mission was a response to North Korea’s recent ballistic missile launches and nuclear program, and part of the U.S. regular commitment to defending its allies in the Asia-Pacific region, the general’s statement said.
“The time for talk is over. The danger the North Korean regime poses to international peace is now clear to all,” said United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley in a statement.
North Korea conducted test launches of ICBMs on July 3 and July 28, and has claimed that its weapons can now reach the U.S. mainland.
On Saturday, two U.S. Air Force B-1B bombers, under the command of U.S. Pacific Air Forces, joined counterparts from the South Korean and Japanese air forces in sequenced bilateral missions.
July 31 2017 WASHINGTON Priebus gone; Scaramucci gone:
— President Trump has decided to remove Anthony Scaramucci from his position as communications director, three people close to the decision said Monday, relieving him just days after Mr. Scaramucci unloaded a crude verbal tirade against other senior members of the president’s senior staff.
Mr. Scaramucci’s abrupt removal came just 10 days after the wealthy New York financier was brought on to the West Wing staff, a move that convulsed an already chaotic White House and led to the departures of Sean Spicer, the former press secretary, and Reince Priebus, the president’s first chief of staff.
The decision to remove Mr. Scaramucci, who had boasted about reporting directly to the president not the chief of staff, John F. Kelly, came at Mr. Kelly’s request, the people said. Mr. Kelly made clear to members of the White House staff at a meeting Monday morning that he is in charge.
It was not clear whether Mr. Scaramucci will remain employed at the White House in another position or will leave altogether.
Aug 12, 2017: Mercury in Virgo turns retrograde; Mars in Leo transits the degree of the Lunar Eclipse of Aug 7:
On Saturday hundreds of white nationalists, alt-righters, and neo-Nazis traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia, to participate in the “Unite the Right” rally. By Saturday evening three people were dead – one protester and two police officers – and many more injured. Trump refuses to denounce far right, laying blame on both sides.