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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — Congress wanted to honor the ailing Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. President Donald Trump did not.

In extended remarks during a visit to Fort Drum in upstate New York to sign the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 — this year’s version of an annual bill that sets defense policy — Trump chose not to mention the former prisoner of war and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman who is battling brain cancer. He even omitted McCain’s name when citing the title of the bill.

The two men have long been fierce critics of each other, with McCain calling Trump’s supporters “crazies” in 2015 and Trump retaliating by questioning whether McCain, who was subjected to torture in a Vietnamese prison camp, is really a “war hero” because “he was captured.”

The snub at Fort Drum, home to the combat aviation brigade of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, did not escape the notice of McCain’s allies.

“For those asking did I expect Trump to be an a—— today. No more than I expected it to be Monday,” Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime aide, wrote on Twitter.

McCain’s condition — dire enough that a recent HBO documentary on him was titled “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls” — has not stopped Trump from deriding the Arizona senator at political rallies. Though Trump does not use his name, he tells crowds that he would have been able to repeal Obamacare if not for a thumbs-down sign from one senator — McCain.

The senator’s own statement included Trump’s name in the headline and in a preamble written by staff. But the words attributed to McCain did not.

“I’m very proud that the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 has been signed into law,” he said.

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The counterintelligence investigation of the Trump team and Russia hasn’t stopped

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By Ken Dilanian

WASHINGTON — Special counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation may be over, but the FBI’s efforts to assess and counter Russian efforts to influence the U.S. political system — including the Trump administration — is continuing, current and former U.S. officials say.

The FBI and other intelligence agencies are pursuing a counterintelligence effort to thwart Russian influence operations in the U.S. and stymie an anticipated Russian effort to interfere in the 2020 election, the officials tell NBC News.

As part of that mission, analysts will continue to drill down on exactly how the Russians interfered in the 2016 election, whether any Americans helped them unwittingly, and whether any American continues to be compromised by Russia, experts say.

These are different questions than whether crimes were committed, which is what Mueller explored in his 448-page report. Mueller’s report is silent on some of the key counterintelligence issues raised in his probe. It doesn’t mention, for example, the counterintelligence investigation the FBI opened into the president — an inquiry former acting director Andrew McCabe said was designed to examine whether he was compromised by Russia. Nor does the report cite the counterintelligence briefing the Trump campaign is said to have received from the FBI, warning that Russia and other adversaries would seek to infiltrate the campaign.

“The fact that it’s not present in the report tells me the ball is now and remains in the court of the FBI and the intelligence community,” said Frank Figliuzzi, an NBC News contributor and former head of counterintelligence at the FBI.

It’s unclear whether the counterintelligence investigation into Trump remains open. An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment.

Counterintelligence is also an issue the House Intelligence Committee will explore, said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., its chairman. The committee has requested an intelligence briefing on the Mueller investigation but has yet to receive a response, according to a congressional source.

“That’s very important for our committee as well as the Financial Services Committee to make sure there’s no financial leverage or other leverage that the Russians or the Gulf or anyone else have over the president of the United States,” Schiff told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Thursday.

In explaining his prosecution decisions, Mueller’s report explores how a Russian intelligence operation sought to help Donald Trump get elected and how the Russian government later tried to influence his transition team and nascent administration. Mueller found no provable criminal conspiracy in those interactions.

But the report conspicuously avoids making an assessment about whether any of that conduct harmed national security. It scarcely mentions counterintelligence, and it doesn’t say whether Mueller looked for financial ties between Trump and Russians or determined whether Russia has any leverage over the president or any member of his team.

In the one short section devoted to counterintelligence, the Mueller report makes clear that the issue of thwarting Russian influence went beyond the criminal probe.

For the last year, FBI counterintelligence analysts who were not working on the criminal investigation were embedded in Mueller’s office, sending written summaries of foreign intelligence and counterintelligence to FBI headquarters and relevant field offices, the report says.

“From its inception, the office recognized that its investigation could identify foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information relevant to the FBI’s broader national security mission,” the report says.

Much of that information is not contained in the report, which was designed to summarize prosecution decisions. Left unsaid is that much of that information is also classified.

The sort of information that might have been included in those summaries — and which does not appear in the redacted report — might include details about Vladimir Putin’s role in the election interference operation, or the relationship between Russian intelligence and the St. Petersburg troll farm that manipulated U.S. social media.

“In fairness to Mueller, they were operating under rules built for a traditional criminal investigation,” said Joshua Geltzer, a former senior attorney at the National Security Council under Presidents Obama and Trump.

“Those regulations had at least a somewhat different paradigm in mind. Counterintelligence investigations are by their nature sensitive and classified. It’s not clear that there is much more that could or should be said publicly. But I do think the question of whether there are folks acting in ways contrary to our national interest is at least as important as the question of who is charged with a crime.”

In a New York Times opinion piece Friday, Geltzer and Ryan Goodman, editor of the blog Just Security, call counterintelligence “the missing piece of the Mueller report.”

“President Trump may claim ‘exoneration’ on a narrowly defined criminal coordination charge. But a counterintelligence investigation can yield something even more important: an intelligence assessment of how likely it is that someone — in this case, the president — is acting, wittingly or unwittingly, under the influence of or in collaboration with a foreign power,” they write. “Was Donald Trump a knowing or unknowing Russian asset, used in some capacity to undermine our democracy and national security?”

A person on Trump’s legal team, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to talk to reporters, told NBC News that it was ridiculous to suggest that Trump is compromised by Russia after Mueller cleared him of conspiracy.

But the Mueller report seems to keep that question in play by explicitly stating that the Trump campaign and the Russian government had a shared interest.

“The investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” the report says.

After the election, the report says, “Russian government officials and prominent Russian businessmen began trying to make inroads into the new administration. The most senior levels of the Russian government encouraged these efforts.”

And members of the incoming Trump administration, including Mike Flynn and Jared Kushner, greeted the efforts with open arms, the report shows. Trump, for his part, continually expressed his desire to improve relations with Russia, and he said he would examine lifting certain sanctions.

Geltzer and other foreign policy experts have long said that Trump’s favorable view of Russian President Vladimir Putin is so out of step with his own party, and seems so contrary to American interests, that it raises counterintelligence questions. When Trump proclaimed during last year’s Helsinki summit he accepted Putin’s claim that the Russians didn’t meddle in the 2016 election, those questions deepened, Geltzer said.

These are not criminal questions that can be resolved in a court of law, experts say.

“Often in the worlds of intelligence it’s about shades of gray that don’t approach certainty,” Geltzer said.

As part of its counterintelligence mission, the FBI makes assessments, including assessments about whether a particular American is acting as an agent of a foreign power, wittingly or not.

The next step is mitigation, which usually happens secretly. A foreigner can be placed under surveillance, or deported. A U.S. government official can be deprived of her security clearance or fired.

“I have been involved in cases where the objective was to determine whether a government official was playing for the other side or unwittingly duped or co-opted,” Figliuzzi said. “The objective is to neutralize — detect, deter and defeat the threat.”

But, Figliuzzi said, “deterring it and defeating it becomes problematic if it’s the president of the U.S.”

Tom Winter contributed.



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On impeachment, Warren just stole the show from her dodging Democratic rivals

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By Jonathan Allen

Nevertheless, she insisted.

While most fellow 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls ducked and dived to find safe ground — and party elders solemnly warned against over-reach — Sen. Elizabeth Warren stepped boldly out into the open late Friday and called on the House to begin an impeachment process against President Donald Trump based on special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.

The Massachusetts senator and 2020 Democratic presidential contender slammed Trump for having “welcomed” the help of a “hostile” foreign government and having obstructed the probe into an attack on an American election.

“To ignore a President’s repeated efforts to obstruct an investigation into his own disloyal behavior would inflict great and lasting damage on this country,” Warren tweeted. “The severity of this misconduct demands that elected officials in both parties set aside political considerations and do their constitutional duty. That means the House should initiate impeachment proceedings against the President of the United States.”

It was a rare moment in a crowded and unsettled primary: A seized opportunity for a candidate to cut through the campaign trail cacophony and define the terms of a debate that will rage throughout the contest.

With her party torn between its impulses — to avoid the potential political death spiral of a failed impeachment even though it may be popular with the energized base and to hold Trump accountable for what Democrats see as gross abuses — Warren framed pursuing House hearings as a matter of conscience.

In other words, she sided with that base of core party supporters, defined its cause in moral terms and hollered the message from the mountaintop.

That’s classic Warren. And in a period when she’s focused her campaign on serious policy proposals, it is a timely reminder to progressives that they like her politics, too.

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“Not doubting her sincerity here but it’s also probably a very shrewd primary move to leap out front on this,” tweeted David Axelrod, who served as a top campaign and White House adviser to President Barack Obama.

A campaign official told NBC News Warren believed it was the right course of action after reading Mueller’s report during a flight home from the campaign trail Thursday. Nevertheless, she will remain focused on her policy platform, not impeachment, the official said.

And yet, calling for the removal of a president — especially when so many other Democrats are reluctant to do so (shortly before Warren issued her statement, fellow senator and 2020 hopeful Amy Klobuchar said, “I think you’ve seen all the senators are very cautious about talking about this because we would be the jury if there was any kind of an action brought over from the House”) — isn’t a particularly forgettable act.

Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Warren, said the political left is outraged over the handling of the Mueller report by Attorney General William Barr and the response by the White House.

Warren’s move could help her capitalize on that energy at a time when several of her rivals have been garnering more attention — as well as bigger fundraising hauls and higher poll numbers — in the early months of the primary campaign.

“If you think about the oxygen that is now in the room for the entire Russia-Mueller-impeachment swirl of stuff, for weeks or months, every time someone comes out publicly and agrees that we need to begin impeachment hearings, people will remember that Elizabeth Warren is the presidential candidate that got that started,” Green said.

While Green noted Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., introduced the House resolution that would be a likely vehicle for beginning impeachment hearings, Warren’s status as a significant player in the primary will likely make her announcement a major marker if the House moves forward against the president.

At nearly the same time as Warren spoke out, fellow progressive Bernie Sanders, the polling leader among candidates currently in the race, waved off press questions about the Mueller report in South Carolina.

On Thursday, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, who said during his Senate campaign last year against Ted Cruz that he would vote to impeach Trump, framed the question as one for Congress or the voters — rather than presidential candidates.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, said he was “pretty sure” Trump “deserves to be impeached” but deferred to Congress, while former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, speaking before Warren, said it would be “perfectly reasonable” for lawmakers to launch impeachment proceedings. “This president should be held accountable,” Castro said on MSNBC.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said on MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes” on Thursday that she wants to hear what Mueller has to say about his report before passing judgment on whether impeachment proceedings should begin — similar to the position of her fellow Californian, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, perhaps the most important player in any impeachment drama.

The reticence of some Warren’s rivals suggests her decision to walk point on the left flank of the impeachment front carries some risk, even if it’s a quick path to rally support from liberals.

It will not only put her squarely back in Trump’s field of vision, but it also will expose her to friendly political fire from Democrats who believe pursuing his ouster is the surest way to ensure his re-election.

Still, Warren, often cited as the heir to Edward M. Kennedy as the liberal lion of the Senate, has shown that her brand can be most compelling when a healthy dose of politics is mixed in with her substance.

That’s what happened when GOP senators cited the chamber’s rules to take away Warren’s speaking privileges during a 2017 debate over Trump’s nomination of Jeff Sessions to be attorney general. Warren had read from a letter criticizing Sessions that had been written by Coretta Scott King in 1986.

Since Sessions was a member of the Senate at the time of the nomination fight, Warren was told she couldn’t malign him under the rules. The Senate voted to prevent her from speaking again on Sessions’ nomination.

“She was warned. She was given an explanation,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said afterward. “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Progressives quickly adopted McConnell’s disparaging phrase as a symbol for strong women. It was even condensed to “She Persisted” for the title of a bestselling book by Chelsea Clinton.

It remains to be seen whether Warren’s impeachment call will give her a major boost. But there aren’t many opportunities to stand out from the crowd, and she took this one without hesitation.



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Americans had ‘right to know’ the contents of Democratic emails hacked by Russians

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By Ben Kamisar

WASHINGTON — Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer for President Donald Trump, suggested Sunday that the American people had a “right to know” about the private Democratic emails released during a state-sponsored hack by the Russian government aimed at bolstering Trump’s 2016 election.

During an interview on “Meet the Press” days after special counsel Robert Mueller’s partially redacted report was released, Giuliani said the American people were better off with an inside glimpse into Hillary Clinton’s campaign operation — regardless of the source of the leak.

He compared the hacked information to the Pentagon Papers, which shed light on controversy surrounding the Vietnam War.

“They shouldn’t have stolen it, but the American people were just given more information about how deceptive, how manipulative her campaign was,” Giuliani said. “I wonder if there isn’t an argument that the people had a right to know that about Hillary Clinton.”

The Mueller report, released on Thursday, details how the Russian government “interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion” with intrusions including the hack of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign chairman.

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