What I Was Wrong About This Year – The New York Times

The Israeli intelligence service asked the great psychologist Daniel Kahneman for help in the 1970s, and Kahneman came back with a suggestion: Get rid of the classic intelligence report. It allows leaders to justify any conclusion they want, Kahneman said. In its place, he suggested giving the leaders estimated probabilities of events.

The intelligence service did so, and an early report concluded that one scenario would increase the chance of full-scale war with Syria by 10 percent. Seeing the number, a top official was relieved. “Ten percent increase?” he said. “That is a small difference.”

Kahneman was horrified (as Michael Lewis recounts in his book “The Undoing Project”). A 10 percent increase in the chance of catastrophic war was serious. Yet the official decided that 10 wasn’t so different from zero.

Looking back years later, Kahneman said: “No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.”

His change of heart is good way to introduce my ritual self-criticism. There is a burgeoning tradition in which columnists devote a year-end column to the errors of our ways. The journalist Dave Weigel calls it “pundit accountability.”


I’ll start with some back story: Like the pre-1970s Israeli Army, the news business of old didn’t have much use for probabilities, outside of the weather report. These days, though, probabilities pop up all over.

At 10 p.m. on Alabama’s recent election night, The Times said that Doug Jones had roughly a 70 percent chance of winning, based on counted votes. (That scoreboard drew 13 million views.) Likewise, the financial media reports recession odds, and sports websites publish real-time win probabilities.

I’m a probability advocate. In previous jobs, I have helped create election scoreboards. Probabilities are more meaningful than safe “anything can happen” platitudes, vague “it’s likely” analyses or artificially confident guarantees.

But I’ve come to realize that I was wrong about a major aspect of probabilities.

They are inherently hard to grasp. That’s especially true for an individual event, like a war or election. People understand that if they roll a die 100 times, they will get some 1’s. But when they see a probability for one event, they tend to think: Is this going to happen or not?

They then effectively round to 0 or to 100 percent. That’s what the Israeli official did. It’s also what many Americans did when they heard Hillary Clinton had a 72 percent or 85 percent chance of winning. It’s what football fans did in the Super Bowl when the Atlanta Falcons had a 99 percent chance of victory.

And when the unlikely happens, people scream: The probabilities were wrong!

Usually, they were not wrong. The screamers were wrong.

I used to believe that the best response was explanation and context. After all, people understand that many outcomes with long odds do happen. “Just because it’s rare,” says the medical expert H. Gilbert Welch, “doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.” You draw an ace (8 percent). A random baby girl grows up to be at least 5’9” (6 percent). New York has a white Christmas (11 percent). In my computer, I’ve got a long list of these unlikely events.

But I now think explanation is doomed to fail. For an individual event, people can’t resist saying that a probability was “right” if it was above 50 percent and “wrong” if it was below 50 percent. When this happens, those of us who believe in probabilities can’t just shake our heads and mutter about white Christmases. We have to communicate more effectively.

I think part of the answer lies with Kahneman’s insight: Human beings need a story.

It’s not enough to say an event has a 10 percent probability. People need a story that forces them to visualize the unlikely event — so they don’t round 10 to zero.

Imagine that a forecast giving Candidate X a 10 percent chance included a prominent link, “How X wins.” It would explain how the polling could be off and include a winning map for X. It would all but shout: This really may happen.

Welch, a Dartmouth professor, pointed me to an online pictograph about breast-cancer risk. It shows 1,000 stick figures, of which 973 are gray (no cancer), 22 are yellow (future survivor) and five are red (die in next 10 years). You can see the most likely outcome without ignoring the others.

Yes, I understand that ideas like this won’t eliminate confusion. But even modest progress would be worthwhile.

The rise of big data means that probabilities are becoming a larger part of life. And our misunderstandings have real costs. Obama administration officials, to take one example, might have treated Russian interference more seriously if they hadn’t rounded Trump’s victory odds down to almost zero. Alas, unlike a dice roll, the election is not an event we get to try again.


 

Source: What I Was Wrong About This Year – The New York Times

Trump Reverses Restrictions on Military Hardware for Police – The New York Times

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Police lined up near an armored vehicle during clashes with protesters in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014.

Credit
Whitney Curtis for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Police departments will now have access to military surplus equipment typically used in warfare, including grenade launchers, armored vehicles and bayonets, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Monday, describing it as “lifesaving gear.”

The move rescinds limits on the Pentagon handouts that were put in place by President Barack Obama in 2015 amid a national debate over policing touched off by a spate of high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of the police, including the shooting death in 2014 of 18-year-old Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., by a white officer. Some local residents viewed police use of military equipment during the ensuing protests as an unnecessary show of force and intimidation.

In a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville, Mr. Sessions said Mr. Obama had made it harder for the police to protect themselves and their neighborhoods.

“Those restrictions went too far,” Mr. Sessions said. “We will not put superficial concerns above public safety.”

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“We will not put superficial concerns above public safety,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville on Monday.

Credit
Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Mr. Sessions said that President Trump would sign an executive order on Monday fully restoring the military program, called 1033, and that the president was doing “all he can to restore law and order and support our police across America.”


Mr. Sessions has rolled back a number of Obama-era efforts toward police reform. In April, he ordered a sweeping review of federal agreements with dozens of law enforcement agencies, including consent decrees with troubled police departments nationwide.

Mr. Obama ordered a review of the Pentagon program in late 2014 after the police responded to protests with armored vehicles, snipers and riot gear. The images of police officers with military gear squaring off against protesters around the country angered community activists who said law enforcement agencies were reacting disproportionately.

In addition to the prohibitions on certain military surplus gear, he added restrictions on transferring some weapons and devices, including explosives, battering rams, riot helmets and shields.

The Pentagon said 126 tracked armored vehicles, 138 grenade launchers and 1,623 bayonets had been returned since Mr. Obama prohibited their transfer.

The program was started in the 1990s as a way for the military to transfer surplus equipment to federal, state and local police agencies fighting the drug war. More than $5 billion in surplus gear has been funneled to law enforcement agencies.

Local law enforcement officials have defended the program, saying that it is a way to acquire equipment that is useful in dangerous situations without stretching tight budgets. For example, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Texas, the site of severe flooding in recent days, received two armored vehicles under the program. One was used for high-risk operations and the other for high-water rescues.

Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division under Mr. Obama, criticized Mr. Trump’s policy reversal. She said the limits were created to make sure police departments “had a guardian, not warrior, mentality.”

“Our communities are not the same as armed combatants in a war zone,” Ms. Gupta said in a statement. “It is especially troubling that some of this equipment can now again be used in schools where our children are sent to learn.”

Trump’s decision angered community activists and some Republicans. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said in a tweet: “I will oppose this move by the AG and administration. And I will continue to fight for our civil liberties and criminal justice reform.”

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People were rescued from flood waters from Hurricane Harvey in an armored police vehicle in Dickinson, Tex., on Sunday.

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Rick Wilking/Reuters

After learning about changes to the program, an animated Representative Mark Sanford, Republican of South Carolina, said, “Are you kidding me?” Mr. Sanford recalled traveling to a small South Carolina county when he was governor and finding a sheriff taking helicopter lessons because, Mr. Sanford noted, the jurisdiction had “pulled about seven copters” thanks to the federal program.

“This makes my blood boil,” he said, from “both a taxpayer standpoint and a civil liberties standpoint.”

Administration officials defended the restoration of the program, saying the police need all the tools available to do their jobs.

In a set of talking points distributed ahead of the announcement, the Justice Department noted that a military-style helmet saved the life of an officer responding to last year’s mass shooting in Orlando, Fla., in which a gunman killed 49. Armored vehicles and military gear were also used to hunt the two terrorists who mounted an attack in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015.

The document says much of the equipment provided through the 1033 program is “entirely defensive in nature.”

But it is not clear why the police need bayonets, which the talking points did not address. Even the Pentagon has said it does not understand why the police would require them. Trump administration officials said that the police believed bayonets were handy, for instance, in cutting seatbelts in an emergency.


 

Source: Trump Reverses Restrictions on Military Hardware for Police – The New York Times

Trump Digs In on Wiretap, No Matter Who Says Differently – The New York Times

Senators Mark Warner, left, Democrat of Virginia, and Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, in January at hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which they oversee.

Credit
Al Drago/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The former president denied it. So did the former national intelligence director. The F.B.I. director has said privately that it is false. The speaker of the House and the chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees — all three Republican — see no indications that it happened.

But President Trump insists he is right. No matter how many officials, even in his own party, dismiss his unsubstantiated claim that President Barack Obama secretly tapped his phones last year, the White House made clear on Thursday that it would stand by the assertion.

Ultimately, it insisted, the president will be proved correct.

Nearly two weeks after Mr. Trump first accused his predecessor in a series of Saturday morning Twitter posts, the standoff between the president and the available record has come to shadow the White House even as it tries to overhaul the nation’s health care system and drastically rewrite the federal budget. Much like his longstanding assertion that Mr. Obama was not born in the United States, Mr. Trump dismisses contrary information with undiminished surety.

Indeed, the White House even added a new assertion on Thursday during a fiercely combative and sometimes surreal briefing by the press secretary, Sean Spicer, who berated reporters and read from news accounts that either did not back up the president’s claims or had been refuted by intelligence officials.

One report that Mr. Spicer read contended that Mr. Obama used Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, the signals agency known as GCHQ, to spy on Mr. Trump. In effect, the White House was embracing a claim that the United States’ closest ally collaborated with a president against a presidential candidate.


“There’s widespread reporting that throughout the 2016 election, there was surveillance that was done on a variety of people,” Mr. Spicer said. Asked if the president stood by his original allegation, Mr. Spicer said, “He stands by it.”

The White House defiance came shortly after the top two senators overseeing the intelligence community joined the chorus of lawmakers debunking the claim.

“Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016,” Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, and Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, said in a statement.

The blunt conclusion by the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee means that all four congressional leaders who oversee intelligence-based surveillance by the government have rejected Mr. Trump’s claim. On Wednesday, their counterparts on the House Intelligence Committee, Representatives Devin Nunes, a Republican, and Adam B. Schiff, a Democrat, both from California, made similar statements.

For the president’s staff, the continuing furor over his claim has produced mixed responses. Some advisers, privately recognizing that there is no evidence to support it, are increasingly frustrated that it continues to dominate the conversation in Washington and wish Mr. Trump would find a way to let it go.

At the same time, they feel besieged by what they see as a hostile Washington establishment and resent the carping. In some cases, as Mr. Spicer did at his briefing, they argue that the news media has cherry-picked information to make the president look bad.

But they assume that Mr. Trump will stick by his assertion no matter what comes out of an emerging congressional investigation. After all, he refused to back off his “birther” allegation — and then only grudgingly — until five years after Mr. Obama produced a birth certificate showing that he had been born in Hawaii.

In this case, Mr. Trump sees the surveillance allegation as a way to push back against what he considers the unfair insinuation that he somehow colluded with the Russians during last year’s election — another assertion for which intelligence committee leaders have said they so far have found no evidence.

Video

‘No Evidence’ of Wiretap at Trump Tower

Representatives Devin Nunes and Adam B. Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee told reporters there was “no evidence” to support President Trump’s claim that he was wiretapped by President Barack Obama.


By REUTERS.


Photo by Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times.

Watch in Times Video »

In recent days, the president and his aides have tried to recast his original assertion to make it more defensible. Mr. Trump and Mr. Spicer have both noted that in two Twitter posts the president used quotation marks around the phrases “wires tapped” or “wire tapping,” which they said indicated that they were not meant to be taken literally.

“That really covers surveillance and many other things,” Mr. Trump told Tucker Carlson in an interview on Wednesday night on Fox News. “Nobody ever talks about the fact that it was in quotes, but that’s a very important thing.”

That, however, ignores the fact that two other messages Mr. Trump posted that morning did not use quotation marks and were pretty specific. “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process,” he wrote in one, misspelling the word tap. “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

Mr. Trump also suggested that he had secret evidence no one else had seen. He told Mr. Carlson that he “will be submitting things before the committee very soon that hasn’t been submitted as of yet — but it’s potentially a very serious situation.” Mr. Trump added, “You’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks.”

The White House staff took its cue from that interview and mapped out an aggressive defense on Thursday. Mr. Trump was already angry that two courts had blocked his temporary travel ban even though he had been assured by his staff that his latest one would pass judicial muster. So Mr. Spicer headed to the lectern on Thursday primed for a fight and armed with a stack of news clippings that he read at length to justify the president’s claim.

“The bottom line is the investigation by the House and the Senate has not been provided all the information,” Mr. Spicer said.

But Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for Mr. Warner, later responded: “The bipartisan leaders of the Intelligence Committee would not have made the statement they made without having been fully briefed by the appropriate authorities.”

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White House Alleges That Britain Spied

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, on Thursday quoted Fox News coverage implicating Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters in a wiretapping of Trump Tower. President Trump “stands by” his original accusations of surveillance, Mr. Spicer said.


By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS.


Photo by Al Drago/The New York Times.

Watch in Times Video »

At the White House briefing, among the articles Mr. Spicer read from were several from The New York Times. However, none of them actually reported that Mr. Obama had authorized surveillance of Mr. Trump or that Mr. Trump had been eavesdropped. The Times has reported that law enforcement agencies are investigating contacts between some associates of Mr. Trump and Russian figures and had access to intercepted communications.

Other news reports cited by Mr. Trump on Wednesday night and Mr. Spicer on Thursday repeated months-old claims that a secret foreign intelligence court had approved a surveillance order involving Mr. Trump in October. Reporters from The Times have not been able to corroborate the existence of such an order.

The British assertions came from a Fox News commentator, Andrew Napolitano.

Early on Friday, GCHQ, the British communications intelligence agency, issued a statement denying that it had wiretapped Mr. Trump during the presidential campaign, saying that the allegations were “nonsense.”

“They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”

The agency rarely comments on intelligence matters; its statement was both unusual and unusually vehement.

Mr. Spicer complained that reporters had not focused on a comment by Mr. Nunes, the House intelligence chairman, that “it’s possible” that intelligence agencies could have swept up others in the course of their surveillance, including Mr. Trump. Mr. Nunes did note that Mr. Trump was concerned about “other surveillance activities looking at him and his associates” and said his committee would find out.

But Mr. Nunes was firm in saying that Mr. Trump’s original Twitter posts were not borne out by the facts. “I don’t believe there was an actual tap of Trump Tower,” he said on Wednesday. If Mr. Trump’s posts were to be taken literally, “then clearly the president was wrong,” Mr. Nunes said.

That was not a word the White House was willing to use on Thursday. Asked if Mr. Trump would apologize to Mr. Obama if it turned out he was wrong, Mr. Spicer demurred.

“We’re not going to prejudge what the outcome of this is,” he said. “I think we’ve got to let the process work its will, and then when there’s a report that comes out conclusive from there, then we’ll be able to comment.”


 

Source: Trump Digs In on Wiretap, No Matter Who Says Differently – The New York Times

White House Tries to Soothe British Officials Over Trump Wiretap Claim – The New York Times

Livid British officials adamantly denied the allegation and secured promises from senior White House officials never to repeat it. But a defiant Mr. Trump refused to back down, making clear that the White House had nothing to retract or apologize for because his spokesman had simply repeated an assertion made by a Fox News commentator. Fox itself later disavowed the report.

The rupture with London was Mr. Trump’s latest quarrel with an ally or foreign power since taking office. Mexico’s president angrily canceled a White House visit in January over Mr. Trump’s proposed border wall. A telephone call with Australia’s prime minister ended abruptly amid a dispute over refugees. Sweden bristled over Mr. Trump’s criticism of its refugee policy. And China refused for weeks to engage with Mr. Trump because of his postelection call with Taiwan’s president.

Mr. Trump’s strained relations with Europe, which has viewed his ascension to power with trepidation, were fully on display on Friday, not just in the British spy flap but also in the venue in which it was addressed. The president was hosting for the first time Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who is seen by many Europeans as the most important champion of the liberal international order.


Though polite, the two leaders seemed stiff and distant during their public appearances. European news outlets and social media made much of the fact that she suggested a handshake for photographers in the Oval Office and he did not respond, although it appeared that he did not hear her. Either way, the two were clearly on separate pages on issues like immigration and trade.

The angry response from Britain stemmed from Mr. Trump’s persistence in accusing Mr. Obama of tapping his phones last year despite the lack of evidence and across-the-board denials. At a briefing on Thursday, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, read from a sheaf of news clippings that he suggested bolstered the president’s claim.

Among them was an assertion by Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News commentator, that Mr. Obama had used Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, the agency known as the GCHQ, to spy on Mr. Trump. In response to Mr. Spicer, the agency quickly denied it as “nonsense” and “utterly ridiculous,” while British officials contacted American counterparts to complain.

Video

A Timeline on Trump’s Wiretap Claims

A look at the reactions, clarifications and explanations after President Trump, in a series of tweets, accused Barack Obama of tapping his phones last fall.


By SHANE O’NEILL, QUYNHANH DO and MARK SCHEFFLER on Publish Date March 17, 2017.


Photo by Stephen Crowley/The New York Times.

Watch in Times Video »

“We said nothing,” Mr. Trump told a German reporter who asked about the matter at a news conference with Ms. Merkel. “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it.” He added: “You shouldn’t be talking to me. You should be talking to Fox.”

The president tried making a joke about it, turning to Ms. Merkel, who was angered during Mr. Obama’s administration by reports that the National Security Agency had tapped her cellphone and those of other leaders. “At least we have something in common, perhaps,” Mr. Trump said. She made a face that suggested she had no interest in getting involved.

After the news conference, Mr. Spicer echoed Mr. Trump’s unapologetic tone. “I don’t think we regret anything,” he told reporters. “As the president said, I was just reading off media reports.”

Shortly afterward, Fox backed off Mr. Napolitano’s claim. “Fox News cannot confirm Judge Napolitano’s commentary,” the anchor Shepard Smith said on air. “Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now president of the United States was surveilled at any time, any way. Full stop.”

Mr. Trump’s unremorseful tenor further stunned British officials, who thought they had managed to contain the matter. Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the United States, had raised the matter on Thursday night with Mr. Spicer at a St. Patrick’s Day reception in Washington. Mark Lyall Grant, the national security adviser to Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, had contacted his American counterpart, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster.

On Friday morning, a spokesman for Mrs. May said the White House had backed off the allegation. “We’ve made clear to the administration that these claims are ridiculous and should be ignored,” the spokesman said, on the condition of anonymity in keeping with British protocol. “We’ve received assurances these allegations won’t be repeated.”

But White House officials, who also requested anonymity, said Mr. Spicer had offered no regret to the ambassador. “He didn’t apologize, no way, no how,” a senior West Wing official said. The officials said they did not know whether General McMaster had apologized.

The furor underscored the continuing troubles for the White House since Mr. Trump first accused Mr. Obama of tapping his phones, an allegation refuted by intelligence agencies as well as Republican and Democratic officials. Even as Mr. Trump refused to back down, fellow Republicans appeared increasingly irritated by what they see as a distraction from their policy goals.

Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma said on Friday that Mr. Trump had not proved his case and should apologize to Mr. Obama. “Frankly, unless you can produce some pretty compelling truth, I think President Obama is owed an apology,” Mr. Cole told reporters. “If he didn’t do it, we shouldn’t be reckless in accusations that he did.”

The conspiracy theorizing also tested what is often called the special relationship between the United States and Britain. American intelligence agencies enjoy a closer collaboration with their British counterparts than any other in the world. GCHQ was the first agency to warn the United States government that Russia was hacking Democratic Party emails during the presidential campaign.

Foreign policy analysts expressed astonishment that Mr. Trump would so cavalierly endanger that partnership. “It illustrates the extent to which the White House really doesn’t care what damage they do to crucial relationships in order to avoid admitting their dishonesty,” said Kori Schake, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush now at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “America’s allies are having to protect themselves against being tarred with the White House’s mendacity.”

Eric S. Edelman, an under secretary of defense under Mr. Bush, has written about the stresses between the United States and Britain in recent years. “I hope that this latest episode doesn’t drive a stake through the heart of the strongest remaining element of Anglo-American partnership,” he said.

Julianne Smith, who was a deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., said Mr. Trump did not appear to realize how much American intelligence agencies depend on Britain in dealing with threats around the world. “He will probably live to see the day when he will regret firing off such an egregious insult to Britain and then failing to apologize for it,” she said.

The issue clearly touched a nerve at GCHQ, which usually refuses to comment on intelligence matters. Its vehement response surprised British officials and analysts. Dominic Grieve, the intelligence committee chairman in Parliament, pointed to elaborate safeguards that prevent spying on the United States and require “a valid national security purpose” for any monitoring. “It is inconceivable that those legal requirements could be met in the circumstances described,” he said.

Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the last British coalition government, described Mr. Spicer’s repetition of the claims as “shameful” and said Mr. Trump was “compromising the vital U.K.-U.S. security relationship to try to cover his own embarrassment.”

Downing Street evidently wanted to avoid adding to any embarrassment in Washington while making it clear that Britain had no part in any such wiretapping. But in rebuffing that effort, Mr. Trump showed that Mrs. May, who was the first foreign leader to visit the White House after his inauguration, may not have forged the bond she had hoped, analysts said.

“It’s very easy to have a good meeting with Trump,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a former State Department official who is the research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. “He’s very pleasant in person. He’ll promise you the world. And 48 hours later, he’ll betray you without a thought. He won’t even know he’ll be betraying you.”

Correction: March 17, 2017 An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of Britain’s ambassador to the United States. It is Kim Darroch, not Derroch. An earlier version also gave the wrong first name for a Fox News commentator. He is Andrew Napolitano, not Anthony.


Source: White House Tries to Soothe British Officials Over Trump Wiretap Claim – The New York Times

Trump Aides Address His Wiretap Claims: ‘That’s Above My Pay Grade’ – The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Trump has no regrets. His staff has no defense.

After weeks of assailing reporters and critics in diligent defense of their boss, Mr. Trump’s team has been uncharacteristically muted this week when pressed about his explosive — and so far proof-free — Twitter posts on Saturday accusing President Barack Obama of tapping phones in Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign.

The accusation — and the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, and the former national intelligence director, James R. Clapper Jr., emphatically deny that any such wiretap was requested or issued — constitutes one of the most consequential accusations made by one president against another in American history.

So for Mr. Trump’s allies inside the West Wing and beyond, the tweetstorm spawned the mother of all messaging migraines. Over the past few days, they have executed what amounts to a strategic political retreat — trying to publicly validate Mr. Trump’s suspicions without overtly endorsing a claim some of them believe might have been generated by Breitbart News and other far-right outlets.

“No, that’s above my pay grade,” said Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary and a feisty Trump loyalist, when asked on Tuesday at an on-camera briefing if he had seen any evidence to back up Mr. Trump’s accusation. The reporters kept at him, but Mr. Spicer pointedly and repeatedly refused to offer personal assurances that the president’s statements were true.


“No comment,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said earlier in the day. Last week, Mr. Sessions recused himself from any investigations involving the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.

“I don’t know anything about it,” John F. Kelly, the homeland security secretary, said on CNN on Monday. Mr. Kelly shrugged and added that “if the president of the United States said that, he’s got his reasons to say it.”

Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina and the chairman of the Senate intelligence panel, have said they will add Mr. Trump’s request to pre-existing inquiries into intelligence community leaks.

But Mr. Nunes and Mr. Burr said they had not seen specific evidence backing up Mr. Trump’s claim.

Other Hill Republicans have responded with similar verbal shrugs. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a member of the Intelligence Committee, said on Tuesday that he “didn’t know what the basis” of Mr. Trump’s statement was.

Mr. Trump’s Twitter posts, viewed with amazement outside the West Wing bubble, often create crises on the inside. That was never truer than when Mr. Trump began posting from his weekend retreat at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida shortly after sunrise on Saturday.

His groggy staff realized quickly that this was no typical Trump broadside, but an allegation with potentially far-reaching implications that threatened to derail a coming week that included the rollout of his redrafted travel ban and the unveiling of the Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act.

It began at 6:35 a.m. with a Twitter post reading: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”

Three other posts quickly followed, capped by a 7:02 rocket that read: “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

That led to a succession of frantic staff conference calls, including one consultation with the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, as staff members grasped the reality that the president had opened an attack on his predecessor.

Mr. Trump, advisers said, was in high spirits after he fired off the posts. But by midafternoon, after returning from golf, he appeared to realize he had gone too far, although he still believed Mr. Obama had wiretapped him, according to two people in Mr. Trump’s orbit.

He sounded defiant in conversations at Mar-a-Lago with his friend Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media, Mr. Ruddy said. In other conversations that afternoon, the president sounded uncertain of the procedure for obtaining a warrant for secret wiretaps on an American citizen.

Mr. Trump also canvassed some aides and associates about whether an investigator, even one outside the government, could substantiate his charge.

People close to Mr. Trump had seen the pattern before. The episode echoed repeated instances in the 2016 presidential campaign.

During the primary contests, Mr. Trump seized on a false National Enquirer article that raised a connection between the father of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Later, Mr. Trump justified it to skeptical campaign aides by saying, “Even if it isn’t totally true, there’s something there,” according to a former campaign official.

Over the weekend, aides to Mr. Trump decided the only real solution to the presidential Twitter posts was to kick the allegations to Congress. On Sunday, Mr. Spicer issued a statement saying that the matter was effectively closed and that the president would not address it again until the intelligence committees had released their findings — which could be many months away.

But that has not quieted the uproar. Mr. Comey was incensed by Mr. Trump’s accusation because it implied that the F.B.I. had broken the law, and he pressed the Justice Department, unsuccessfully, to deny it.

On Tuesday, even as Mr. Spicer was telling reporters that the matter was above his pay grade, he said the president had “absolutely” no intention of taking back his accusations.

Mr. Trump has not spoken to Mr. Comey about the matter, Mr. Spicer said, offering a muted response when asked if the F.B.I. director retained the president’s confidence. “I have no reason to believe he doesn’t,” Mr. Spicer said, adding that Mr. Trump “has not suggested that to me.”

Mr. Spicer bristled when pressed by a reporter to weigh in on the veracity of the president’s wiretapping allegation.

“I get that that’s a cute question to ask,” he said. “I think we’ve tried to play this game before. I’m not here to speak for myself. I’m here to speak for the president of the United States and our government.”


 

Source: Trump Aides Address His Wiretap Claims: ‘That’s Above My Pay Grade’ – The New York Times

Obama Administration Rushed to Preserve Intelligence of Russian Election Hacking – The New York Times

American allies, including the British and the Dutch, had provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officials — and others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — and associates of President-elect Trump, according to three former American officials who requested anonymity in discussing classified intelligence.

Separately, American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates.

The disclosures about the contacts came as new questions were raised about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s ties to the Russians. According to a former senior American official, he met with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, twice in the past year. The details of the meetings were not clear, but the contact appeared to contradict testimony Mr. Sessions provided Congress during his confirmation hearing in January when he said he “did not have communications with the Russians.”

Mr. Sessions said in a statement late Wednesday that he “never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign.”


“I have no idea what this allegation is about,” he said. “It is false.”

Mr. Trump has denied that his campaign had any contact with Russian officials, and at one point he openly suggested that American spy agencies had cooked up intelligence suggesting that the Russian government had tried to meddle in the presidential election. Mr. Trump has accused the Obama administration of hyping the Russia story line as a way to discredit his new administration.

Video

Jeff Sessions’s Testimony on Russia Contacts

In this footage from his confirmation hearing, Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he “did not have communications with the Russians.” A Justice Department official more recently said Mr. Sessions had two conversations with Ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak.


By THE NEW YORK TIMES on Publish Date March 2, 2017.


Photo by Al Drago/The New York Times.

Watch in Times Video »

At the Obama White House, Mr. Trump’s statements stoked fears among some that intelligence could be covered up or destroyed — or its sources exposed — once power changed hands. What followed was a push to preserve the intelligence that underscored the deep anxiety with which the White House and American intelligence agencies had come to view the threat from Moscow.

It also reflected the suspicion among many in the Obama White House that the Trump campaign might have colluded with Russia on election email hacks — a suspicion that American officials say has not been confirmed. Former senior Obama administration officials said that none of the efforts were directed by Mr. Obama.

Sean Spicer, the Trump White House spokesman, said, “The only new piece of information that has come to light is that political appointees in the Obama administration have sought to create a false narrative to make an excuse for their own defeat in the election.” He added, “There continues to be no there, there.”

As Inauguration Day approached, Obama White House officials grew convinced that the intelligence was damning and that they needed to ensure that as many people as possible inside government could see it, even if people without security clearances could not. Some officials began asking specific questions at intelligence briefings, knowing the answers would be archived and could be easily unearthed by investigators — including the Senate Intelligence Committee, which in early January announced an inquiry into Russian efforts to influence the election.

At intelligence agencies, there was a push to process as much raw intelligence as possible into analyses, and to keep the reports at a relatively low classification level to ensure as wide a readership as possible across the government — and, in some cases, among European allies. This allowed the upload of as much intelligence as possible to Intellipedia, a secret wiki used by American analysts to share information.

There was also an effort to pass reports and other sensitive materials to Congress. In one instance, the State Department sent a cache of documents marked “secret” to Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland days before the Jan. 20 inauguration. The documents, detailing Russian efforts to intervene in elections worldwide, were sent in response to a request from Mr. Cardin, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, and were shared with Republicans on the panel.

Photo

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Credit
Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik

“This situation was serious, as is evident by President Obama’s call for a review — and as is evident by the United States response,” said Eric Schultz, a spokesman for Mr. Obama. “When the intelligence community does that type of comprehensive review, it is standard practice that a significant amount of information would be compiled and documented.”

The opposite happened with the most sensitive intelligence, including the names of sources and the identities of foreigners who were regularly monitored. Officials tightened the already small number of people who could access that information. They knew the information could not be kept from the new president or his top advisers, but wanted to narrow the number of people who might see the information, officials said.

More than a half-dozen current and former officials described various aspects of the effort to preserve and distribute the intelligence, and some said they were speaking to draw attention to the material and ensure proper investigation by Congress. All spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified information, nearly all of which remains secret, making an independent public assessment of the competing Obama and Trump administration claims impossible.

The F.B.I. is conducting a wide-ranging counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s meddling in the election, and is examining alleged links between Mr. Trump’s associates and the Russian government. Separately, the House and Senate intelligence committees are conducting their own investigations, though they must rely on information collected by the F.B.I. and intelligence agencies.

On Wednesday, a Justice Department official confirmed that Mr. Sessions had two conversations with Ambassador Kislyak last year, when he was still a senator, despite testifying at his Jan. 10 confirmation hearing that he had no contact with the Russians. At that hearing, Mr. Sessions was asked what he would do if it turned out to be true that anyone affiliated with the Trump team had communicated with the Russian government in the course of the campaign. He said he was “not aware of any of those activities.”

“I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it,” Mr. Sessions said at the time.

However, Justice officials acknowledged that Mr. Sessions had spoken with Mr. Kislyak twice: once, among a group of ambassadors who approached him at a Heritage Foundation event during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July and, separately, in an office meeting on Sept. 8. The contacts were first reported by The Washington Post.

Sarah Isgur Flores, Mr. Sessions’s spokeswoman, said “there was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer” because he did not communicate with the ambassador in his capacity as a Trump campaign surrogate. She said Mr. Sessions had at least 25 conversations in 2016 with ambassadors from a range of nations — including Britain, Japan, China, Germany and Russia — while on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The revelation prompted congressional Democrats to issue a torrent of statements reiterating their demands that Mr. Sessions recuse himself from overseeing any investigation into Russia’s contacts with the Trump campaign. So far, Mr. Sessions has demurred.

Representative Adam B. Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement on Wednesday that if the reports about Mr. Sessions were accurate, “it is essential that he recuse himself from any role in the investigation of Trump campaign ties to the Russians.” Mr. Schiff added, “This is not even a close call; it is a must.”

Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House, called on Mr. Sessions to resign, saying on Twitter that “he is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country.”

A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, backed up Mr. Sessions late Wednesday, calling the accusations “the latest attack against the Trump administration by partisan Democrats.”

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Dan Coats, President Trump’s nominee for director of national intelligence, has pledged cooperation in investigating the Russia allegations.

Credit
Al Drago/The New York Times

At a CNN town hall on Wednesday, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said he did not know if there was anything between the Trump campaign and the Russians. But he added that if there was, “it is clear to me that Jeff Sessions, who is my dear friend, cannot make this decision about Trump.”

At his confirmation hearing on Wednesday, former Senator Dan Coats, Mr. Trump’s nominee for director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that “I think it’s our responsibility to provide you access to all that you need.”

Some Obama White House officials had little faith that a Trump administration would make good on such pledges, and the efforts to preserve the intelligence continued until the administration’s final hours. This was partly because intelligence was still being collected and analyzed, but it also reflected the sentiment among many administration officials that they had not recognized the scale of the Russian campaign until it was too late.

The warning signs had been building throughout the summer, but were far from clear. As WikiLeaks was pushing out emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee through online publication, American intelligence began picking up conversations in which Russian officials were discussing contacts with Trump associates, and European allies were starting to pass along information about people close to Mr. Trump meeting with Russians in the Netherlands, Britain and other countries.

But what was going on in the meetings was unclear to the officials, and the intercepted communications did little to clarify matters — the Russians, it appeared, were arguing about how far to go in interfering in the presidential election. What intensified the alarm at the Obama White House was a campaign of cyberattacks on state electoral systems in September, which led the administration to deliver a public accusation against the Russians in October.

But it wasn’t until after the election, and after more intelligence had come in, that the administration began to grasp the scope of the suspected tampering and concluded that one goal of the campaign was to help tip the election in Mr. Trump’s favor. In early December, Mr. Obama ordered the intelligence community to conduct a full assessment of the Russian campaign.

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In the weeks before the assessment was released in January, the intelligence community combed through databases for an array of communications and other information — some of which was months old by then — and began producing reports that showed there were contacts during the campaign between Trump associates and Russian officials.

The nature of the contacts remains unknown. Several of Mr. Trump’s associates have done business in Russia, and it is unclear if any of the contacts were related to business dealings.

The New York Times, citing four current and former officials, reported last month that the American authorities had obtained information of repeated contacts between Mr. Trump’s associates and senior Russian intelligence officials. The White House has dismissed the story as false.

Since the Feb. 14 article appeared, more than a half-dozen officials have confirmed contacts of various kinds between Russians and Trump associates. The label “intelligence official” is not always cleanly applied in Russia, where ex-spies, oligarchs and government officials often report back to the intelligence services and elsewhere in the Kremlin.

Steven L. Hall, the former head of Russia operations at the C.I.A., said that Mr. Putin was surrounded by a cast of characters, and that it was “fair to say that a good number of them come from an intelligence or security background. Once an intel guy, always an intel guy in Russia.”

The concerns about the contacts were cemented by a series of phone calls between Mr. Kislyak and Michael T. Flynn, who had been poised to become Mr. Trump’s national security adviser. The calls began on Dec. 29, shortly after Mr. Kislyak was summoned to the State Department and informed that, in retaliation for Russian election meddling, the United States was expelling 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives and imposing other sanctions. Mr. Kislyak was irate and threatened a forceful Russia response, according to people familiar with the exchange.

But a day later, Mr. Putin said his government would not retaliate, prompting a Twitter post from Mr. Trump praising the Russian president — and puzzling Obama White House officials.

On Jan. 2, administration officials learned that Mr. Kislyak — after leaving the State Department meeting — called Mr. Flynn, and that the two talked multiple times in the 36 hours that followed. American intelligence agencies routinely wiretap the phones of Russian diplomats, and transcripts of the calls showed that Mr. Flynn urged the Russians not to respond, saying relations would improve once Mr. Trump was in office, according to multiple current and former officials.

Beyond leaving a trail for investigators, the Obama administration also wanted to help European allies combat a threat that had caught the United States off guard. American intelligence agencies made it clear in the declassified version of the intelligence assessment released in January that they believed Russia intended to use its attacks on the United States as a template for more meddling. “We assess Moscow will apply lessons learned,” the report said, “to future influence efforts worldwide, including against U.S. allies.”


 

Source: Obama Administration Rushed to Preserve Intelligence of Russian Election Hacking – The New York Times

If Donald Trump Targets Journalists, Thank Obama – The New York Times

WASHINGTON — If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump made his animus toward the news media clear during the presidential campaign, often expressing his disgust with coverage through Twitter or in diatribes at rallies. So if his campaign is any guide, Mr. Trump seems likely to enthusiastically embrace the aggressive crackdown on journalists and whistle-blowers that is an important yet little understood component of Mr. Obama’s presidential legacy.

Criticism of Mr. Obama’s stance on press freedom, government transparency and secrecy is hotly disputed by the White House, but many journalism groups say the record is clear. Over the past eight years, the administration has prosecuted nine cases involving whistle-blowers and leakers, compared with only three by all previous administrations combined. It has repeatedly used the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I-era red-baiting, not to prosecute spies but to go after government officials who talked to journalists.

Under Mr. Obama, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. have spied on reporters by monitoring their phone records, labeled one journalist an unindicted co-conspirator in a criminal case for simply doing reporting and issued subpoenas to other reporters to try to force them to reveal their sources and testify in criminal cases.


I experienced this pressure firsthand when the administration tried to compel me to testify to reveal my confidential sources in a criminal leak investigation. The Justice Department finally relented — even though it had already won a seven-year court battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court to force me to testify — most likely because they feared the negative publicity that would come from sending a New York Times reporter to jail.

In an interview last May, President Obama pushed back on the criticism that his administration had been engaged in a war on the press. He argued that the number of leak prosecutions his administration had brought had been small and that some of those cases were inherited from the George W. Bush administration.

“I am a strong believer in the First Amendment and the need for journalists to pursue every lead and every angle,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with the Rutgers University student newspaper. “I think that when you hear stories about us cracking down on whistle-blowers or whatnot, we’re talking about a really small sample.

“Some of them are serious,” he continued, “where you had purposeful leaks of information that could harm or threaten operations or individuals who were in the field involved with really sensitive national security issues.”

But critics say the crackdown has had a much greater chilling effect on press freedom than Mr. Obama acknowledges. In a scathing 2013 report for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Leonard Downie, a former executive editor of The Washington Post who now teaches at Arizona State University, said the war on leaks and other efforts to control information was “the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in The Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate.”

When Mr. Obama was elected in 2008, press freedom groups had high expectations for the former constitutional law professor, particularly after the press had suffered through eight years of bitter confrontation with the Bush administration. But today, many of those same groups say Mr. Obama’s record of going after both journalists and their sources has set a dangerous precedent that Mr. Trump can easily exploit. “Obama has laid all the groundwork Trump needs for an unprecedented crackdown on the press,” said Trevor Timm, executive director of the nonprofit Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Dana Priest, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post, added: “Obama’s attorney general repeatedly allowed the F.B.I. to use intrusive measures against reporters more often than any time in recent memory. The moral obstacles have been cleared for Trump’s attorney general to go even further, to forget that it’s a free press that has distinguished us from other countries, and to try to silence dissent by silencing an institution whose job is to give voice to dissent.”

The administration’s heavy-handed approach represents a sharp break with tradition. For decades, official Washington did next to nothing to stop leaks. Occasionally the C.I.A. or some other agency, nettled by an article or broadcast, would loudly proclaim that it was going to investigate a leak, but then would merely go through the motions and abandon the case.

Of course, reporters and sources still had to be careful to avoid detection by the government. But leak investigations were a low priority for the Justice Department and the F.B.I. In fact, before the George W. Bush administration, only one person was ever convicted under the Espionage Act for leaking — Samuel Morison, a Navy analyst arrested in 1984 for giving spy satellite photos of a Soviet aircraft carrier to Jane’s Defense Weekly. He was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton.

Things began to change in the Bush era, particularly after the Valerie Plame case. The 2003 outing of Ms. Plame as a covert C.I.A. operative led to a criminal leak investigation, which in turn led to a series of high-profile Washington journalists being subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury and name the officials who had told them about her identity. Judith Miller, then a New York Times reporter, went to jail for nearly three months before finally testifying in the case.

The Plame case began to break down the informal understanding between the government and the news media that leaks would not be taken seriously.

The Obama administration quickly ratcheted up the pressure, and made combating leaks a top priority for federal law enforcement. Large-scale leaks, by Chelsea Manning and later by Edward J. Snowden, prompted the administration to adopt a zealous, prosecutorial approach toward all leaking. Lucy Dalglish, the dean of the University of Maryland’s journalism school, recalls that, during a private 2011 meeting intended to air differences between media representatives and administration officials, “You got the impression from the tone of the government officials that they wanted to take a zero-tolerance approach to leaks.”

The Justice Department, facing mounting criticism from media organizations, has issued new guidelines setting restrictions on when the government could subpoena reporters to try to force them to reveal their sources. But those guidelines include a loophole allowing the Justice Department to continue to aggressively pursue investigations into news reports on national security, which covers most leak investigations. In addition, the guidelines aren’t codified in law and can be changed by the next attorney general.

More significantly, the Obama administration won a ruling from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in my case that determined that there was no such thing as a “reporter’s privilege” — the right of journalists not to testify about their confidential sources in criminal cases. The Fourth Circuit covers Virginia and Maryland, home to the C.I.A., the Pentagon and the National Security Agency, and thus has jurisdiction over most leak cases involving classified information. That court ruling could result, for example, in a reporter’s being quickly jailed for refusing to comply with a subpoena from the Trump administration’s Justice Department to reveal the C.I.A. sources used for articles on the agency’s investigation into Russian hacking during the 2016 presidential election.

Press freedom advocates already fear that under Senator Jeff Sessions, Mr. Trump’s choice to be attorney general, the Justice Department will pursue journalists and their sources at least as aggressively as Mr. Obama did. If Mr. Sessions does that, Ms. Dalglish said, “Obama handed him a road map.”


 

If Donald Trump Targets Journalists, Thank Obama – The New York Times.

Source: If Donald Trump Targets Journalists, Thank Obama – The New York Times

Trump refuses to face reality about Russia – The Washington Post

ALTHOUGH PRESIDENT Obama’s sanctions against Russia for interfering with the U.S. presidential election came late, his action on Thursday reflected a bipartisan consensus that penalties must be imposed for Moscow’s audacious hacking and meddling. But one prominent voice in the United States reacted differently. President-elect Donald Trump said “it’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things.” Earlier in the week, he asserted that the “whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on.”

No, Mr. Trump, it is not time to move on. U.S. intelligence agencies are in agreement about “what is going on”: a brazen and unprecedented attempt by a hostile power to covertly sway the outcome of a U.S. presidential election through the theft and release of material damaging to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The president-elect’s dismissive response only deepens unanswered questions about his ties to Russia in the past and his plans for cooperation with Vladi­mir Putin.

For his part, Mr. Putin seems to be eagerly anticipating the Trump presidency. On Friday, he promised to withhold retaliatory sanctions, clearly hoping the new Trump administration will nullify Mr. Obama’s acts. Then Mr. Trump cheered on Twitter: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) — I always knew he was very smart!”

For any American leader, an attempt to subvert U.S. democracy ought to be unforgivable — even if he is the intended beneficiary. Some years ago, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned of a “cyber-Pearl Harbor,” and the fear at the time was of a cyberattack collapsing electric grids or crashing financial markets. Now we have a real cyber-Pearl Harbor, though not one that was anticipated. Mr. Obama has pledged a thorough investigation and disclosure; the information released on Thursday does not go far enough. Congress should not shrink from establishing a select committee for a full-scale probe.

Mr. Obama also hinted at additional retaliation, possibly unannounced, and we believe it would be justified to deter future mischief. How about shedding a little sunshine on Mr. Putin’s hidden wealth and that of his coterie?

(Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Mr. Trump has been frank about his desire to improve relations with Russia, but he seems blissfully untroubled by the reasons for the deterioration in relations, including Russia’s instigation of an armed uprising in Ukraine, its seizure of Crimea, its efforts to divide Europe and the crushing of democracy and human rights at home.

Why is Mr. Trump so dismissive of Russia’s dangerous behavior? Some say it is his lack of experience in foreign policy, or an oft-stated admiration for strongmen, or naivete about Russian intentions. But darker suspicions persist. Mr. Trump has steadfastly refused to be transparent about his multibillion-dollar business empire. Are there loans or deals with Russian businesses or the state that were concealed during the campaign? Are there hidden communications with Mr. Putin or his representatives? We would be thrilled to see all the doubts dispelled, but Mr. Trump’s odd behavior in the face of a clear threat from Russia, matched by Mr. Putin’s evident enthusiasm for the president-elect, cannot be easily explained.

Trump refuses to face reality about Russia – The Washington Post.

Source: Trump refuses to face reality about Russia – The Washington Post

The Stolen Supreme Court Seat – The New York Times

Photo


Credit
Chris Gash

Soon after his inauguration next month, President-elect Donald Trump will nominate someone to the Supreme Court, which has been hamstrung by a vacancy since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February. There will be public debates about the nominee’s credentials, past record, judicial philosophy and temperament. There will be Senate hearings and a vote.

No matter how it plays out, Americans must remember one thing above all: The person who gets confirmed will sit in a stolen seat.

It was stolen from Barack Obama, a twice-elected president who fulfilled his constitutional duty more than nine months ago by nominating Merrick Garland, a highly qualified and widely respected federal appellate judge.

It was stolen by top Senate Republicans, who broke with longstanding tradition and refused to consider any nominee Mr. Obama might send them, because they wanted to preserve the court’s conservative majority. The main perpetrators of the theft were Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, and Charles Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. But virtually all Republican senators were accomplices; only two supported holding hearings.

The Republican party line — that it was an election year, so the American people should have a “voice” in the selection of the next justice — was a patent lie. The people spoke when they re-elected Mr. Obama in 2012, entrusting him to choose new members for the court. And the Senate has had no problem considering, and usually confirming, election-year nominees in the past.

Of course, Supreme Court appointments have always been political, and the court’s ideological center has shifted back and forth over time. But the Senate has given nominees full consideration and a vote even when the party in power has opposed a president’s choice. That is, until this year, when Republicans claimed that though the Constitution calls for the Senate’s “advice and consent,” senators aren’t obligated to do anything. This is a bad-faith reading of that clause, even if there is no clear way to force a vote. It certainly obliterates a well-established political norm that makes a functioning judicial branch possible. As Paul Krugman wrote in his column on Monday, institutions are not magically self-sustaining, and they “don’t protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms.”

This particular norm is of paramount importance because the court’s institutional legitimacy depends on its perceived separation from the elected branches — a fragile concept in the best of times. By tying the latest appointment directly to the outcome of the election, Mr. McConnell and his allies took a torch to that idea — an outrageous gambit that, to nearly everyone’s shock, has paid off. But while Republicans may be celebrating now, the damage they have inflicted on the confirmation process, and on the court as an institution, may be irreversible.

The slope is both slippery and steep. If Republicans could justify an election-year blockade, what’s to stop Democrats in the future from doing the same? For that matter, why should the party controlling the Senate ever allow a president of the opposing party to choose a justice? Indeed, in the weeks before the election, Senate Republicans were threatening, with the encouragement of leading conservative thinkers, never to confirm anyone to fill the vacancy if Hillary Clinton won.

Can anything be done to repair the harm? One step — as obvious as it is unlikely — would be for Mr. Trump to renominate Mr. Garland. Conservatives will scoff, but they know he is as qualified for the job as anyone in the country. When Mr. Garland was floated as a possible choice for the Supreme Court in 2010, Orrin Hatch, the senior Republican senator from Utah, called him a “consensus nominee” and said there was “no question” that he would be confirmed with bipartisan support. That’s partly why Mr. Obama nominated him this time, and also why Mr. McConnell denied him a hearing — he knew he couldn’t prevent a Senate vote once Americans saw an eminently qualified and reasonable jurist testify on live TV.

At the very least, Mr. Trump could follow President Obama’s example and pick a centrist — someone who commands wide respect and operates within the bounds of mainstream legal thought. That would be an appropriate gesture from a man who lost the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes and will enter office with the lowest approval ratings in recent history.

The shameful, infuriating actions of the Senate Republicans won’t be ignored in the history books. In a desperate effort to keep a conservative majority on the court, they rejected their own professed values of preserving American institutions. There’s little hope that they will come to their senses now, but they and Mr. Trump have the power, and the obligation, to fix the mess they created.


 

The Stolen Supreme Court Seat – The New York Times.

Source: The Stolen Supreme Court Seat – The New York Times

The Torture Report Must Be Saved – The New York Times

Given President-elect Donald J. Trump’s unconscionable campaign pledge to “bring back waterboarding” and “a hell of a lot worse” — acts that would be illegal if carried out — President Obama’s leadership on this issue has never been more important.

Drawing on our decades of work in the Senate and our chairmanships of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, we are calling on President Obama to preserve the full torture report as a matter of profound public interest. We are not asking him to necessarily agree with all of the report’s findings, though we certainly hope he does, but we are asking him to protect it as an important piece of history.

The president could do this simply by allowing departments and agencies that already possess the document to enter it as a federal record, making it much more difficult for a future administration to erase.

This simple but consequential action is something that President Obama can do now, and it is something that he can do unilaterally.

Why is this so important?

Many people do not realize that the roughly 500-page summary of the Senate report that was declassified and made public at the end of 2014 is only a small part of the story. The full report remains classified. It is one of the largest reports in Senate history, and it is by far the most thorough account of what happened during a dark period when waterboarding and other brutal techniques were used and given legal cover — a decision by the George W. Bush administration that President Obama wisely reversed.

While we are not allowed to discuss the contents of the full report, we can say that it contains volumes of new information — information that leads to a more complete understanding of how this program happened, and how it became so misaligned with our values as a nation. Most important, the full report contains information that is critical to ensuring that these mistakes are never made again.

However, that written history is in jeopardy.

In 2014, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, then the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, sent the full report to the Obama administration, asking relevant departments and agencies like the C.I.A., Defense Department, State Department and Department of Justice to read it, and to make use of it in their training materials. However, after Republicans took control of the Senate, the new chairman, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, took the unusual step of trying to recall the full report that Senator Feinstein had distributed — to prevent it from ever being widely read or declassified. In this effort, Senator Burr has written to President Obama, insisting that the full report not only be returned but that it “should not be entered into any executive branch system of records.”

Since then the full report has been locked in limbo, with the Obama administration unwilling to even open the document, but also unwilling to return it to Senator Burr.

This state of limbo is likely to change in January.

Given the rhetoric of President-elect Trump, there is a grave risk that the new administration will return the Senate report to Senator Burr, after which it could be hidden indefinitely, or destroyed.

Establishing the report as a federal record would prevent this from happening.

President Obama has said that “one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better.” We couldn’t agree more, but to do that it is critical to know our history and to have a full accounting of how mistakes happened in the first place. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s full report on torture is that history.

Now in his final days in office, the president has an opportunity to ensure that his efforts to prevent a return to torture endure beyond his time in the White House. He has said of torture, “I will continue to use my authority as president to make sure we never resort to those methods again.” We urge him to make good on that pledge by protecting the full Senate report from those who may try to hide or destroy it.


The Torture Report Must Be Saved – The New York Times.

Source: The Torture Report Must Be Saved – The New York Times