The Daily 202: Echoes of Watergate as Trump flies to Middle East amid new Comey revelations – Washington Post

With Breanne Deppisch

THE BIG IDEA: Donald Trump goes wheels up at 2:10 p.m. for Riyadh. His nine-day tour will then take him to Jerusalem, the West Bank, Rome, Brussels, and Sicily.

Walter Pincus, who has one of the longest memories in Washington, sees parallels between the president’s first foreign trip and a journey Richard Nixon took to the Middle East as Watergate consumed his presidency in June 1974. It came at the very time the Watergate special prosecutor was in court seeking the actual White House tapes of presidential conversations (do such tapes exist now?) and congressional committees were beginning to look into impeachment. “Back then, ironically, Nixon visited leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Israel in an unsuccessful attempt to strengthen the ceasefire agreement that halted fighting in the Yom Kippur, Arab-Israeli war,” Walter writes for the Cipher Brief.Nixon returned home to challenge and lose his Supreme Court argument over the tapes that set him down the path to resigning the presidency.”

Trying to look at the bright side, David Ignatius notes in his column that “domestic scandals can have the odd effect of encouraging diplomacy abroad”: “Nixon made major peace deals in the Middle East after the Watergate debacle began. But even so, that story didn’t end happily for Nixon or the United States.”

— While many presidents have tried to use statesmanship abroad to distract from their problems at home, the Trump brand of diplomacy has some analysts worried that the tour might only make his troubles worse, Post diplomatic correspondents Anne Gearan and Carol Morello write in a preview of what to expect.

James Carafano, a foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation who has close ties to the White House,told them that an overseas trip presents a real opportunity, given all the turmoil in Washington. “Just being out of town for two weeks is probably great,” he said. “The great thing about a trip, they control the environment, you control the interaction, you control the agenda and you control the press access. If you fumble on one of these trips, it’s nobody’s fault but your own.

Trump listens during a news conference yesterday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Despite Trump’s brooding and desperation to turn the page, the truth is that he doesn’t really want to go abroad. “In recent days, Mr. Trump has groused to several friends that he is not looking forward to leaving his new White House cocoon,” Maggie Haberman and Mike Shear report in the New York Times. “At one point, he barked at an aide that he thought his first tour abroad should be only about half as long. He will have to abandon his well-known preference for sleeping in his own bed (or in one at the hotels or golf resorts he owns) as he hops between … places without a Trump-branded property. … In private, Mr. Trump’s advisers acknowledge that they are concerned about his off-script eruptions, his tendency to be swayed by flattery and the possibility that foreign leaders may present him with situations he does not know how to handle. They worry he will accidentally commit the United States to something unexpected, and they have tried to caution him about various scenarios.”

— The cloud hanging over Trump will follow him and his entourage past the water’s edge. Michael Birnbaum reports from Brussels: “Washington’s closest allies in Europe are increasingly worried that rising political chaos in the United States is undermining the strength of the most powerful nation in the world. In conversations with more than two dozen current and former European ministers, lawmakers, diplomats, intelligence officials and military officers in recent days, there was a common theme: …. Many fear that mounting domestic scandals could sap Washington’s ability to respond to challenges ranging from Russia to terrorism to North Korea.” The quotes in the story paint a portrait of a continent on edge:

  • “It’s disturbing,” said Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who works on U.S. affairs. “The vacuum may encourage people all over the world to seize the moment of an absent United States.”
  • “One senior European intelligence officer said if his agency ever came into possession of information that was incriminating to Trump or his circle, it would hold back from sharing with the United States for fear the U.S. president would seek revenge.”

— Israel was supposed to be one of the easiest stops on Trump’s tour, but it has become the most awkward for a host of reasons. It offers another case study, if you needed one, of the challenges such an inexperienced president faces as he tries to tackle complex problems.

This is how the visit is playing in today’s Jerusalem Post: “As the [city] is poised to line its streets with festive American flags, a trip that was expected to be one long, smiling photo-op has suddenly gone way off script, as the spring love affair comes closer to hitting the reality of the summer heat in the Middle East.”

The top-secret information Trump slipped to the Russians during their Oval Office meeting last week came from an Israeli source, according to severalnews reports. Multiple U.S. officials have said that this was the single most valuable source of information on external plotting by the Islamic State. Iran is one of Israel’s biggest enemies and Russia’s closest allies. Trump’s disclosure possibly puts the source and lives at risk, as well as undermines the war effort against ISIS, experts say. This intelligence was so sensitive that the U.S. was not even permitted to share it with our closest allies who we share other super-sensitive information with as part of standard practice.

White Houseofficials then let it be known this week that Trump will not move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, at least for now. There had been some internal conversations about using this trip to do so as a way to follow through on one of the president’s signature campaign promises, but he was persuaded by career diplomats and Arab leaders that doing so would complicate efforts to negotiate peace.

Bibi and The Donald participate in a joint news conference in the East Room on Feb. 15. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Adding insult to injury has been a donnybrook over the Western Wall. “Israel’s Channel 2 reported that during a planning meeting between U.S. and Israeli officials, the Israelis were told that Trump’s visit to the Western Wall was private, Israel did not have jurisdiction in the area and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not welcome to accompany Trump there,” according to Reuters. “The statement that the Western Wall is in an area in the West Bank was received with shock,” said an official in Netanyahu’s office.

During a briefing about the trip, national security adviser H.R. McMaster twice refused to answer reporters’ questions about whether Trump believes the Western Wall is part of Israel. Press secretary Sean Spicer also declined to answer, saying only that it is “in Jerusalem.”

Meanwhile, pro-Israel hard-liners inside the Trump administration are sending the opposite messages. “The Western Wall is part of Israel, and I think that is how we have always seen it,” U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said on the Christian Broadcasting Network on Tuesday. And the new U.S. ambassador to Israel, former Trump attorney David Friedman, went straight to the wall after landing at the airport.

Another story souring the mood of Israelis is Trump’s cancellation of a planned visit to and speech at Masada. After authorities told him that he could not land his helicopter on top of the ancient mountain fortress (a UNESCO-listed site), he said he’d rather not go at all. Newsweek’s Jack Moore notes that both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were perfectly happy to take the cable car up. (I hiked to the top when I went in 2013.)

A visit to Jerusalem’s impressive Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, was also cut short at Trump’s request. Local press reports say he’s scheduled to drop by for just 15 minutes, despite requests that he spend much longer. That is barely enough time to sign a guest book.

Palestinian youth stand next to a poster depicting Abdel Hamid Abu Sorur at the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. The 19-year-old died last month after an explosive device blew up on a bus in Jerusalem. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

The cover story in next week’s Economist, aptly enough, is about the legacy of the Six-Day War: “Unexpectedly, there may be a new opportunity to make peace: Trump wants to secure ‘the ultimate deal’.… Netanyahu appears as nervous as the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, seems upbeat [about Trump]. … The outlines of peace are well known. … The fact that such a deal is familiar does not make it likely. Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas will probably string out the process—and try to ensure the other gets blamed for failure. Distracted by scandals, Mr Trump may lose interest; Mr Netanyahu may lose power (he faces several police investigations); and Mr Abbas may die (he is 82 and a smoker). The limbo of semi-war and semi-peace is, sadly, a tolerable option for both.”

The settlements remain a big hurdle. Trump has backed away from the decades-old U.S. commitment to a Palestinian state, though he had a cordial meeting recently at the White House with Abbas. William Booth, in a great story from Bethlehem that just posted, explains how Palestinian payments to prisoners and the families of “martyrs” will be a very big challenge for the two sides in any serious peace talks. (Read it here.)

If you looked at Trump’s itinerary four months ago, all these problems with Israel would have been surprising. Trump exempted the Jewish state from his tough-talking, isolationist rhetoric during the campaign. He repeatedly said no one loves the country more than he does, and Netanyahu said Israel has “no greater friend” than Trump when he took office.

WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

Then-New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner and his wife Huma attend a news conference in 2013. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

— Anthony Weiner plans to plead guilty to “sexting” with a minor in federal court today. The New York Times’ Benjamin Weiser and William K. Rashbaum report: “Mr. Weiner will plead guilty to a single charge of transferring obscene material to a minor, pursuant to a plea agreement with the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan … Mr. Weiner surrendered to the F.B.I. early Friday morning. The federal authorities have been investigating reports that, beginning in January 2016, Mr. Weiner, then 51, exchanged sexually explicit messages with a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina.” The charge carries a potential sentence of between zero and 10 years in prison, meaning that the disgraced congressman and estranged husband of Clinton confidante Huma Abedin could avoid prison. A likely result of the plea is that he will end up as a registered sex offender.

— Swedish prosecutors dropped their investigation into a rape allegation against Julian Assange, closing the seven-year legal saga that led the WikiLeaks founder to seek sanctuary in Ecuador’s embassy in London. “But British police said that Assange still faced arrest on charges of jumping bail if he walked out of diplomatic protection,” Karla Adam reports, “which Assange claims is needed to keep him from being extradited to the United States on charges of disclosing confidential military and diplomatic documents. … He took refuge in Ecuador’s embassy in 2012.”

— The driver who rammed into a Times Square crowd, killing a woman and injuring 22 others, has been charged with 20 counts of attempted murder and five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide. Samantha Schmidt reports: “Richard Rojas, the 26-year-old suspect, was taken into custody after he allegedly mounted the sidewalk on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, plowing through pedestrians at high speeds, creating a chaotic and terrifying scene amid the afternoon lunch rush at one of the busiest intersections in the world. Preliminary tests show Rojas, a U.S. citizen and resident of the Bronx, was under the influence of the mood-altering drug PCP. He had previously been arrested for drunk driving, and remained in custody Thursday night. … Alyssa Elsman, an 18-year-old tourist from Portage, Mich., was the sole person killed in the crash.”

— Want the smartest and most engaging energy and environment newsletter in Washington? Sign up for Dino Grandoni’s The Energy 202, which will launch next Tuesday.

An Adelie penguin is seen at the New Harbor research station in Antarctica. (Mark Ralston/Getty) 

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. Researchers in Antarctica say they have discovered rapidly-growing banks of moss popping up around the icy continent, a striking example of how climate change has affected the coldest, most remote area on the planet. (Chris Mooney)
  2. U.S. aircraft struck a convoy of troops aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, launching a rare and intentional assault on pro-regime forces after they advanced into a de-confliction zone and posed a threat to coalition-backed forces. The Pentagon says that, before the attack, the American aircraft fired warning shots but the Syrian fighters “did not choose to turn away.” (Missy Ryan)
  3. The Treasury Department sanctioned eight judges on Venezuela’s Supreme Court, freezing their assets and prohibiting transactions with U.S. citizens in response to a ruling that stripped power from the country’s opposition-controlled Congress. (Carol Morello)
  4. The Republican-led Federal Communications Commission voted to begin rolling back “net neutrality” rules, drawing fresh battle lines between Democrats and consumer advocates on the future of the Obama-era policy. (Brian Fung)
  5. Planned Parenthood announced it will close four clinics in Iowa, following newly passed state legislation that blocks public family planning funds to abortion providers. The impact will be greatest on women who already face barriers to health care: minorities, the poor and those in rural areas. (Des Moines Register)
  6. John McCain called for the Turkish ambassador to be thrown out of the United States. His remarks come amid growing anger over the violent beating of protesters outside the Turkish embassy in D.C. earlier this week, as President Erdogan watched. (CNN)
  7. Brazilian President Michel Temer defied calls for his resignation overnight, just hours after a bombshell report alleged that he was secretly recorded discussing bribes during in a sprawling corruption investigation. (Marina Lopes and Nick Miroff)
  8. Iranians are voting for a new president today, casting their ballots in an election that could either boost the country’s reform efforts and engagement with the world – or plunge it back into greater isolation. (Erin Cunningham)
  9. The Islamic State’s last stand in Mosul will test the best of Iraqi forces. The Old City, with its labyrinth of streets and alleys, will force Iraqi counter-terror forces to change how they approach the now seven-month-old battle. (Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Mustafa Salim)
  10. Facebook will pay $122 million in fines to the European Union for giving regulators misleading information about its 2014 deal to acquire WhatsApp. It is one of the largest fines the company has paid to a government entity. (Hayley Tsukayama)
  11. The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website that heavily promoted Trump last year, may have helped post fake documents in the 11th hour effort to damage now-French President Emmanuel Macron. The Wall Street Journal reports on digital fingerprints left behind by somebody affiliated with the site. (Craig Timberg and Derek Hawkins)
  12. A Seattle obituary writer is “horrified” after learning one of the subjects she covered was not simply a local woman who lived a “life of devotion to family,” as relatives told her, but she was instead a modern-day slave brought to the U.S. and forced into decades of service. “Lola’s story” is on the cover of The Atlantic this month. (Samantha Schmidt)

IF YOU COME AT THE KING, YOU BEST NOT MISS:

— James Comey prepared extensively for his discussions with Trump because he was so concerned the president was unlikely to respect legal and ethical boundaries between the White House and the FBI. That’s also why Comey took detailed notes of their encounters afterwards.Devlin Barrett, Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous have another scoop: “[FBI] associates recounted how worried Comey was about meeting with Trump and recalled conversations in which they brainstormed how to handle moments in which the president asked for details of an investigation. One associate referred to Comey’s preparation as a kind of ‘murder board’ — a phrase used to describe a committee of questioners that hurls tough questions at someone as practice for a difficult oral examination. ‘He was pretty insistent that he would have to find a way to politically not answer it,’ one associate recalled. ‘He was confident that he was not going to sacrifice the independence of the investigation, or his own moral compass, but at the same time, he would not try to purposely inflame his commander in chief.’ Before going to the dinner, Comey practiced Trump’s likely questions and his answers … in part to ensure he did not give Trump any ammunition to use against him later.” One associate recalled there were times when, after meeting with Trump, Comey started writing notes as soon as he got into a car, “to make sure he could accurately record what was said.”

— Another significant development: Comey told Trump that, if he wanted to know details about the ongoing FBI investigations, he should not contact him directly but instead follow the proper procedures and have the White House counsel send his inquiries to the Justice Department, the New York Times’ Michael Schmidt reports on this morning’s front page: “After explaining to Mr. Trump how communications with the F.B.I. should work, Mr. Comey believed he had effectively drawn the line after a series of encounters he had with the president and other White House officials that he felt jeopardized the F.B.I.’s independence. The day after the Michael Flynn conversation, [however], Reince Priebus … asked Mr. Comey to help push back on reports in the news media that Mr. Trump’s associates had been in contact with Russian intelligence officials during the campaign.”

— Lawfare editor-in-chief Benjamin Wittes,  a close Comey friend, says that the ousted FBI director was deeply unsettled by what he believed were personal efforts by the president to compromise or implicate him. Ben describes two instances below:

  • Comey was “disgusted” when Trump, two days after his inauguration, tried to hug him. The FBI director told Wittes he “really did not want to attend” and went so far as to try camouflage his dark blue suit with the blue drapes in the back of the room before Trump spotted him. When Trump finally did single him out – “He’s become more famous than me!” – Comey told Wittes that he emphatically did not want any show of warmth. He regarded the episode as a physical attempt to show closeness and warmth in a fashion calculated to compromise him before Democrats who already mistrusted him.
  • “On March 27, he described one incident in particular that had bothered him. Comey was about to get on a helicopter when his phone rang. It was the White House saying that the President wanted to speak with him. Figuring there must be something urgent going on, he delayed his flight to take the call. To his surprise, the President just wanted to chitchat. He was trying to be social, Comey related [and] indeed, he regarded the call as weird for how substanceless it was. What bothered Comey was twofold—the fact that the conversation happened at all (why was Trump calling him to exchange pleasantries?) and the fact that there was an undercurrent of Trump’s trying to get him to kiss the ring.”
  • As a general observation, Wittes notes thatComey was “preoccupied” throughout this period with the need to protect the FBI from inquiries on investigative matters from the White House: “While I do not know how many incidents we’re talking about, how severe they were, or their particular character, I do know this: Comey understood Trump’s people as having neither knowledge of nor respect for the independence of the law enforcement function. And he 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. This was a general preoccupation of Comey’s in the months he and Trump overlapped.”

— Don’t forget as these shoes continue to drop: Comey is a Republican.

— Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein indicated to Senate lawmakers during a classified briefing that, contrary to the White House’s version of events, he knew Comey would be fired before he wrote the memo that was used as justification for the dismissal. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said his takeaway from Rosenstein’s briefing is that the focus of the FBI’s investigation has shifted: “It was a counterintelligence investigation until now. It seems to me now to be considered a criminal investigation.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said Rosenstein refused to answer “completely appropriate” questions asked by his colleagues, our colleagues report. But several Republicans asked Rosenstein if the Intelligence Committee could continue its work now that Mueller is conducting his investigation, and Rosenstein was “unequivocal” that the panel can and should continue its investigation, according to one attendee.

— During the session, Rosenstein faced especially aggressive questions from two Democrats about the scope of the investigation, why Jeff Sessions was involved in Comey’s firing when he had recused himself and what his role is in selecting a new FBI director. Ed O’Keefe has some buzzy inside details: “Kirsten Gillibrand and Al Franken especially grilled Rosenstein on Sessions’s role and the scope of Mueller’s new investigation … Another aide familiar with the exchange described Franken as ‘heated.’ But one of the senators asked to recount the meeting said that Franken and Gillibrand were ‘passionate’ – not rude. Rosenstein confirmed that Mueller’s investigation will have a broad scope — encouraging news to Democrats especially eager for an investigation to cover all potential angles. Because of the wide berth, Rosenstein referred several of the senators’ questions to Mueller, which caused much of the frustration in the room.”

Comey testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month. (Jim Watson/Getty)

— On Capitol Hill, the race is on to see who can land Comey’s first public appearance. Paul Kane reports: “Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, operating the highest-profile investigation of Russian interference, are trying to reschedule a hearing with Comey after he declined their request to appear in private Tuesday. On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a formal request for Comey to come before the panel … And not to be outdone, [House Oversight Chairman] Jason Chaffetz … announced on Twitter that he had scheduled a hearing for Comey next week — before he had made contact with the former FBI director.” Every panel believes Comey should still testify even with Muller in place: “Lawmakers can barely hide their ambition at landing what would be a grand media spectacle. It’s a lot like Barbara Walters and other TV personalities fighting over the first interview with a Hollywood starlet beset by scandal.”

Michael Flynn speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

IS TRUMP TALKING WITH FLYNN?

— Trump has expressed hope that Michael Flynn could rejoin the administration in some capacity after the FBI investigation concludes, The Daily Beast reports: “The president’s continued loyalty to his ousted former aide is so strong, in fact, that the two have remained in touch despite the potential that their communication could be portrayed as White House interference in a federal investigation. ‘He did not want to be national security adviser,’ Michael Ledeen, a friend of the retired Army general. ‘He didn’t want to be in the government. He wanted to go back to private life. But Trump insisted on it.’ Flynn was ‘reluctant but honored’ when offered the post, according to a senior Trump administration official, and only accepted it at the president’s urging. … Several sources [said] Trump has expressed his hopes that a resolution of the FBI’s investigation in Flynn’s favor might allow Flynn to rejoin the White House … a scenario some of Trump’s closest advisers in and outside the West Wing have assured him absolutely should not happen. ‘Trump feels really, really, really bad about firing him, and he genuinely thinks if the investigation is over Flynn can come back,’ said one White House official. One former FBI official and a second government official said Trump thought he owed Flynn for how things ended up and was determined to clear Flynn’s name and bring him back to the White House.”

— “As investigators circled Flynn, he got a message from Trump: ‘STAY STRONG,’” by Yahoo News’ Michael Isikoff: “Saddled with steep legal bills, Flynn wanted to reconnect with old friends and talk about potential future business opportunities. … ‘I just got a message from the president to stay strong,’ Flynn said after the dinner was over, according to two sources who are close to Flynn and are familiar with the conversation, which took place on April 25.”

— Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr said Flynn has not responded to a subpoena from his panel in its ongoing Russia investigation, which was issued last week after he refused to cooperate with an April 28 request for documents. The AP reports: “Legal experts say it’s unlikely Flynn would agree to turn over the personal documents because he would be waiving his constitutional protection against self-incrimination by doing so. Flynn, though his lawyer, had earlier asked for immunity from ‘unfair prosecution’ in exchange for agreeing to cooperate with the committee.”

TRUMP LAWYERING UP FOR WHAT COULD BE A MULTI-YEAR INVESTIGATION:

— Trump convened his legal team yesterday for a strategy session. Politico’s Alex Isenstadt and Josh Dawsey report: “One White House official said the discussion … centered around the nuts and bolts of how the investigation would work – and how the administration will need to handle the inquiry. Among those in attendance was longtime Trump Organization attorney Michael Cohen, who came down from New York to attend. White House Counsel Don McGahn and his team are urging the White House – and Trump – to be cautious in its comments with a special prosecutor involved. McGahn has begun explaining to aides in detail about records retention and potential requests, two people familiar with the conversations say. One objective: to keep Trump from hurting himself any further. Two senior administration officials said they believed Trump’s letter firing Comey was a mistake. Some aides have begun reaching out to lawyers to see if they need (their own) counsel.”

— A longtime private attorney who represented Trump for more than a decade said he has advised the White House that the president really needs to hire a “tough Washington lawyer” to help navigate the special counsel investigation. “He needs a good lawyer, someone who is strong, not that he would go against the lawyer’s advice, but everybody should have a lawyer who sees things through and comes up with good advice,” Jay Goldberg told The Post’s Michael Kranish, who adds: “Trump’s need for a private attorney is viewed as a high priority because he so far has been relying on government lawyers, including his White House counsel, who could eventually be called to testify about their private conversations with him. … Trump’s constant tweeting about subjects under investigation … could undermine efforts to cite executive privilege, analysts said.”

— Trump has signaled that he is likely to hire a new lawyer to join his defense team, but he has not yet made a final decision. From the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush: “The president is said to recognize that he needs help beyond the White House counsel. But he is deeply cautious in selecting people he trusts, and he adds new people to his orbit slowly. … Some of Mr. Trump’s advisers and allies … are pushing him to move at an accelerated pace.”

A DEFIANT PRESIDENT — WHO STILL CAN’T GET HIS STORY STRAIGHT:

— Trump again denied asking Comey to obstruct any FBI investigation.Ashley Parker and David Nakamura report: Asked at a new conference whether he urged Comey to ease up, the president said: “No. No.” Then he ordered the media to move on to the “next question.” Trump also repeated his claim that the decision to appoint a special counsel to look into possible collusion with Russia was “a witch hunt.” “I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt, and there is no collusion between — certainly myself and my campaign, but I can only speak for myself and the Russians. Zero,” Trump said. Believe me, there’s no collusion.”

“In addition to contradicting Comey’s account of their encounter, Trump’s comments also put him into stark opposition with Rosenstein, who appointed the special counsel and whose memo criticizing Comey was initially used as justification by the White House to explain the president’s decision to fire his FBI director. The president himself later said he had long disliked Comey and made up his mind to fire him before Rosenstein presented him with his memo … But during the news conference, Trump contradicted both his own account and that of Rosenstein.” “Director Comey was very unpopular with most people,” Trump said. “I also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know [from] Rosenstein.”

Even though a Trump appointee decided to name the special counsel, Trump claimed that it was actually “a pure excuse for the Democrats having lost an election” and “hurts our country terribly”: “It shows we’re a divided, mixed-up, not-unified country,” he said during a lunch with television anchors at the White House. “I think it shows division, and it shows that we’re not together as a country. And I think it’s a very, very negative thing.”

Mike Pence prepares to enter the Indian Treaty Room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House last week. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

WHAT DID THE VICE PRESIDENT KNOW AND WHEN DID HE KNOW IT?

— Pence has begun tiptoeing much more gingerly in recent days as scandal has engulfed the White House. From the Associated Press’s Ken Thomas and Catherine Lucey: “It hasn’t been easy, and it’s getting harder by the day. … And there are fresh questions about how much Pence knew as head of Trump’s transition team. The vice president was under new scrutiny Thursday after reports that Flynn in January alerted the transition team about a Justice Department inquiry into whether he was secretly working as a foreign lobbyist for Turkish interests. An administration official said Thursday that Pence knew nothing about Flynn’s activities at the time and referred to the vice president’s comments in a Fox News interview in March in which Pence said, ‘Hearing that story today was the first I heard of it.’”

— Pence’s people inside the White House are apparently beginning to leak in an effort to protect the vice president. This could foreshadow a significant rupture. It appears that the ambitious Pence’s emerging strategy to save his own political future is to insist that he was out of the loop, but this is a risky play because it makes him look less powerful and it will backfire badly if a smoking gun emerges to show that he knew more than he’s let on.

An unnamed source close to Pence told NBC News last night that the Veep was kept totally in the dark about Flynn’s alleged wrongdoings. This person complained that it is part of a “pattern.” “That’s an egregious error — and it has to be intentional,” the source close to Pence told NBC. “It’s either malpractice or intentional, and either are unacceptable.” Vaughn Hillyard, who was NBC’s Pence embed during the fall campaign, reports on the fuller context: “This would be the second time that Pence claims he was kept in the dark about possible Flynn wrongdoings, despite the White House’s alleged knowledge of them. Earlier this year, Pence said he was not made aware of Flynn’s discussions with Russian officials until 15 days after Trump and the White House were notified. The source … is now saying that Pence and his team were not made aware of any investigation relating to Flynn’s work as a foreign agent for Turkey.” This Pence loyalist tried to place the blame on White House counsel McGahn for not alerting the V.P., who was head of the transition.

The last few days have taken a physical toll on Pence and he’s kept a very low public profile, per CNN’s Elizabeth Landers. He even skipped the weekly Senate GOP lunch: “Though Pence will continue to be a ‘loyal soldier’ because he is a ‘relentlessly positive guy,’ he ‘looks tired,’ a senior administration adviser observed … ‘We certainly knew we needed to be prepared for the unconventional,’ but, the source adds, ‘not to this extent.’”

— Are Pence’s loyalists telling the truth? Or are they just trying to save their boss? “There are two possible defenses for Pence here,” The Post’s Aaron Blake writes: “The first is that maybe McGahn didn’t pass this information along to Pence. This doesn’t make much sense, though, given that Pence was leading the transition effort. That would be gross negligence on McGahn’s behalf. The second is that, even if Pence knew about it, perhaps he was referring strictly to the reports about Flynn having just filed as a foreign agent when he said it was the first he’d heard of it. But that would be highly, highly misleading — at best.”

Dana Rohrabacher, actor Steven Seagal and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) speak to the media at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 2013. Rohrabacher led a a congressional delegation to Russia. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

THE FBI WARNED ROHRABACHER:

— F.B.I. agents warned a Republican congressman in 2012 that Russian spies were trying to recruit him, the New York Times’ Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman and Mark Mazzetti report: “The congressman, Dana Rohrabacher of California, has been known for years as one of Moscow’s biggest defenders in Washington and as a vocal opponent of American economic sanctions against Russia. He claims to have lost a drunken arm-wrestling match with [Putin] … in the 1990s. … The warning to Mr. Rohrabacher shows that the F.B.I. has for years viewed Russian spies, sometimes posing as diplomats, as having a hand in Washington.” This story comes a day after a story revealed that House Majority Kevin McCarthy said during a private meeting with GOP leaders last summer that Trump and Rohrabacher are being paid by the Russians. (He now claims he was joking.)

THE SPECIAL COUNSEL GETS HIS OWN DUCKS IN A ROW:

— Bob Mueller will undergo a Justice Department ethics review that will examine possible conflicts of interest regarding his former law firm, which represents several figures who could be caught up in his probe. Matea Gold and Rosalind S. Helderman report: “DOJ spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said the agency will conduct a background investigation and detailed review of conflict-of-interest issues, a process outlined in the regulation governing special counsels under which he was appointed. For the past three years, Mueller has been a partner in the Washington office of WilmerHale, whose attorneys represent [Paul Manafort, as well as Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner]. Federal regulations prohibit officials from participating in matters involving their former employers for two years after joining the government unless they receive a waiver to do so. Ethics experts said they anticipate that the Justice Department will grant a waiver, noting that [Rosenstein] would have taken Mueller’s past employer into consideration when selecting him.” The firm insists there Mueller has no potential conflicts and didn’t work for the others.

Joe Lieberman walks out of the West Wing after a job interview with Trump on Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

LIEBERMAN IS TRUMP’S FAVORITE FOR FBI DIRECTOR, BUT DEMOCRATS BALK:

— Trump said Joe Lieberman is his top choice to replace Comey as FBI director, telling a group of television anchors during a private lunch at the White House that he is nearing a final decision. “We’re very close,” Trump repeated later … Still, some senators on Capitol Hill Thursday continued to express skepticism about choosing a politician to lead the independent investigations bureau. (Ashley Parker)

— The president once again is misreading Democrats. Here are the three most significant problems:

1. There is deep antipathy toward the 2000 vice-presidential nominee, who endorsed John McCain and vouched for Sarah Palin in 2008, inside the Senate Democratic caucus. He was also a huge pain in 2009 and 2010 for Democratic leadership after he became an independent. 

2. Democrats have made very clear that they don’t want a politician running the FBI but someone who has law-enforcement experience.

3. There are additional suspicions about Lieberman because he works for a law firm that represents Trump. “The law firm he has worked for since 2013, Kasowitz, Benson, Torres, has represented Trump since at least Nov. of 2001, often on cases that had to do with his reputation,” Quartz reports. “The firm represented Trump in his lawsuit against journalist Tim O’Brien, for example, who claimed in his book ‘Trump Nation’ that the real estate developer’s net worth was at most $250 million, not the billions he claimed. Trump sued for $5 billion, but lost.”

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