Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein last year suggested secretly recording President Donald Trump and using the 25th Amendment to forcibly remove him from office, the New York Times reported Friday afternoon.
The Washington Post and ABC News confirmed the report shortly after, hanging theirs heavily on contemporaneous memos written by then-acting FBI director Andrew McCabe.
The extraordinary stories describe an unprecedented consideration of the invocation of the 25th Amendment, may further jeopardize Rosenstein’s position within the administration, and paint him in a deeply unflattering light even as they further call into question Trump’s fitness for office.
Per the reports, Rosenstein’s suggestions came in the chaotic aftermath of Trump’s May 2017 move to abruptly fire James Comey as FBI director. Rosenstein spoke to other Justice Department and FBI officials about his concerns, some of which were memorialized in McCabe’s memos, sources told the news outlets.
Efforts to declare the president incapable of holding office would have required recruiting members of Trump’s own cabinet to the cause. Rosenstein told McCabe that he believed he could persuade Attorney General Jeff Sessions and John Kelly to join this effort, the Times reported.
The Times’ sources appeared to be critical of Rosenstein’s performance in his role:
In the end, the idea went nowhere, the officials said. But they called Mr. Rosenstein’s comments an example of how erratically he was behaving while he was taking part in the interviews for a replacement F.B.I. director, considering the appointment of a special counsel and otherwise running the day-to-day operations of the more than 100,000 people at the Justice Department.
In a statement to the newspaper, Rosenstein called the story “inaccurate and factually incorrect.”
“I will not further comment on a story based on anonymous sources who are obviously biased against the department and are advancing their own personal agenda,” he said. “But let me be clear about this: Based on my personal dealings with the president, there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment.”
Sources who spoke to the Post and ABC said that Rosenstein never actually intended to record the president, and was just making a sarcastic comment. Per the Post, after McCabe described pushing for the Justice Department to open a probe into the president, Rosenstein reportedly cracked, “What do you want to do, Andy, wire the president?”
McCabe’s attorney, Michael R. Bromwich, released a statement saying his client did not leak the memos he made while at the FBI.
“Andrew McCabe drafted memos to memorialize significant discussions he had with high level officials and preserved them so he would have an accurate, contemporaneous record of those discussions,” the statement read. “When he was interviewed by the Special Counsel more than a year ago, he gave all of his memos — classified and unclassified — to the Special Counsel’s office. A set of those memos remained at the FBI at the time of his departure in late January 2018. He has no knowledge of how any member of the media obtained those memos.”
The bombshell stories are the latest example of the rocky relationship between Trump and the senior officials who run the Justice Department and FBI.
Rosenstein assumed oversight of the federal investigation into Russia’s election interference last year, after Sessions recused himself due to his own contacts with Russian officials during the campaign. Shortly after, he appointed Robert Mueller as the special counsel tasked with probing all matters related to Russian interference and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.
Trump has publicly lashed out at both Rosenstein and Sessions ever since, blaming them for fueling what he called a “witch hunt” bent on undermining his administration.
As evidence accumulated over the past year that a blue wave will wash over the House in November, some two dozen Republicans resigned or retired from Congress, fearing that they would be wiped out by anti-Trump backlash. One of those lawmakers was New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, who is retiring after over two decades in his seat.
But the nominee to replace Frelinghuysen is further to the right on a host of social issues, from abortion to the Second Amendment, putting him somewhat out of step with the Garden State’s affluent, highly educated 11th District. Throughout his career, Assemblyman Jay Webber, who was endorsed by President Trump Thursday as “outstanding in every way,” has also been a particularly vocal crusader against LGBT rights.
That history has been one flashpoint in Webber’s campaign against Democratic opponent Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor.
In a six-figure ad buy released this week on Webber’s “harmful record,” Sherrill mentions his multiple votes against gay marriage and support of conversion therapy to “fix” gay teenagers. She also points out that he voted against an equal pay bill in the state Legislature this year.
National Democrats, too, are calling out Webber as disconnected from the district he would represent.
“Assemblyman Webber’s anti-LGBT record is simply disqualifying, not just for Democrats or Independents, but for all Garden State voters,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Spokesman Evan Lukaske told TPM in a statement.
The National Republican Congressional Committee and Webber did not respond to TPM’s requests for comment. In a statement responding to the Sherill ad, Webber called his Democratic opponent “unhinged—showing her progressive-left true self” and denied, despite his voting record, that he opposes equal pay for equal work.
One reason may be the wide gulf on social issues between the outgoing House veteran and the GOP nominee to replace him. Frelinghuysen is a fiscal conservative who favored stricter sentencing for hate crimes, abortion rights, and prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation. Webber, a Catholic father of seven, was backed by the Susan B. Anthony List as a “passionate defender of unborn children.”
Matters of sexual orientation have been a particular focus for Webber since his days at Harvard Law School in the late 1990s. The New Jersey Republican served as the president of the Society for Law, Life and Religion student group. In an interview at the time, Webber told the Harvard Law Record that homosexuality was a choice that individuals could help be led away from through “a deep belief in Jesus Christ.”
During Webber’s tenure in the New Jersey Assembly, where he’s served since 2008, he became a stalwart opponent of civil unions and gay marriage. In a March 2012 speech from the Assembly floor, Webber said that legalizing marriage between gay couples would “override or redefine the institution of marriage for everyone else in this society.” He repeatedly co-sponsored a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and woman, even after gay marriage was legalized in the state. In 2013, he voted against a bill to ban LGBT conversion therapy.
More recently, Webber has rejected various pieces of transgender rights legislation. He voted against a 2017 bill to prohibit health insurers from discriminating based on gender identity and, in both 2017 and 2018, bills to establish a trans equality task force.
Webber’s reputation as the “conservative conscience of the state Legislature” served him well when he was representing New Jersey’s staunchly Republican 26th Legislative District. But Clinton lost the wealthy, suburban 11th Congressional District by only 1 point in the 2016 presidential election.
In an emailed statement to TPM, Sherrill said, “In 2018, it is difficult to imagine that we would have an Assemblyman in New Jersey who does not believe in equal treatment under the law for our LGBTQ community,” Sherrill said.
In the only public survey of the race, Monmouth University found Sherrill beating Webber 40 percent to 38 percent among all potential voters—a statistical dead heat.
It’s all happening. Former Trump fixer Michael Cohen has reportedly been spending hours in interviews with special counsel Robert Mueller, where they’ve talked about the President’s ties to Russia and any possible offers he’s made of a pardon.
Cohen and his lawyer, Lanny Davis, sent out identical tweets about these talks on Thursday, applauding Cohen for voluntarily providing “critical information” to Mueller without a cooperation agreement in place.
Another cooperating witness, former national security advisor Michael Flynn, has provided all the useful information he has to the special counsel team. A D.C. judge has set a December 18 date for his sentencing in federal court.
Trump’s legal team is still trying to get a sense of the scope of the investigations into the President, and what dirt those once close to him could have divulged, according to the New York Times.
Republicans, led by Trump, are in a rush to declassify and release troves of material related to the congressional and federal Russia probes.
Trump made the unprecedented announcement that he wants to declassify text messages about the investigation sent by some of his top former (perceived) foes in the U.S. government: James Comey, Bruce Ohr, Andrew McCabe, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok.
For good measure, Trump also wants the DOJ to release the underlying materials the FBI used to request a secret surveillance warrant for former campaign advisor Carter Page. His interest, the White House said, is “transparency.”
But Trump retreated on Friday, citing outreach from multiple U.S. allies and DOJ officials who said that releasing the materials would compromise intelligence-gathering methods and sources. In a pair of tweets, he said he would have the DOJ Inspector General review the documents before unleashing them on the world. He noted he could “always declassify if it proves necessary,” however, because “speed is very important to me — and everyone!”
Meanwhile, Trump is still fuming about his own personnel choices, saying, nonsensically, that he should have fired Comey during the 2016 race, when Barack Obama was still president.
Trump also complained that he doesn’t “have an attorney general” because Jeff Sessions, who he blames for the launch of the special counsel probe, has done such a poor job in the role.
He has reason to be worried. As Politico reported, Democrats are keen to subpoena a long list of Trump allies, including Donald Trump Jr., if they retake the House this fall.
In international news, Russian officials reportedly held private meetings with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange last year to discuss a potential plan to help him escape the Ecuadorian embassy in London. President Vladimir Putin has also reportedly continued to stoke Trump’s anger at the “deep state” in their private conversations.
UPDATE, Friday Sept. 21, 9: 50 a.m. ET: This post was updated to include a statement from Gov. Scott’s campaign provided after the story was published.
No campaign wants its planned speaking tour overshadowed by coverage of throngs of angry protesters. But that’s the situation Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) found himself in this week as he hopscotched across the state on his “Make Washington Work Bus Tour.”
Scott was booed out of a Venice restaurant after only 10 minutes on Monday by protesters calling him “coward” and “Red Tide Rick,” a reference to the toxic red tide algal blooms currently choking the state’s Gulf coast. His campaign canceled an event in his hometown of Naples the next day. At his final stop in Orlando on Tuesday, a smaller group of environmental activists drew headlines, chanting, “Que se vaya” in Spanish.
Overlapping, persistent environmental crises plaguing the Sunshine State’s heavily-populated coasts are becoming a liability in a campaign that has so far been a smooth ride for Scott, who is challenging incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL).
In a race that is shaping up as crucial for both parties’ efforts to win the Senate majority, even the algae counts.
“It is noteworthy in the sense that this is the first time in the governor’s picture-perfect campaign that you’ve seen things like major opposition and protest at his events,” Florida GOP lobbyist Justin Sayfie told TPM.
“People want someone to blame,” Sayfie continued. “You have tourism going down; you have the stench not just of the dead fish but of the algae bloom in the air. You want to hold somebody responsible.”
In a Friday statement, Scott spokesman Chris Hartline dismissed the criticism as Democrats’ “attempt to score political points before an election.”
“It’s ridiculous for Bill Nelson and his fellow democrats to try to blame Governor Scott for an issue that’s been neglected by the same federal government Nelson has been a part of for decades,” Hartline said.
Some voters do appear to blame the Scott administration for the outbreak, which he declared an emergency in August. A Florida Atlantic University poll released Thursday found Nelson closing in on Scott, with the governor narrowly ahead 42 percent to 41 percent. Asked whose policies were most responsible for the problems plaguing the state’s waters, 32 percent of voters said state government, compared to only 16 percent for local government and 13 percent for the federal government.
“Should the red tide be as significant as it is now, it’s going to be on a lot of voters’ minds in November,” FAU political science chair Kevin Wagner told TPM Thursday, noting that “a clear plurality of Floridians” appear to blame the state government.
Wagner, who helped oversee the FAU poll, noted that some of the worst-affected areas are concentrated on the reliably Republican southwest coast of the state.
“If Scott’s vulnerable in that area of Florida, that’s going to be a very difficult situation for him because that tends to be an area where Republicans get a lot of votes,” he said.
Red tides are a perennial problem on the Gulf Coast. Caused by a marine organism known as Karenia brevis, these algal blooms occur naturally, intensifying in the period from October through February. There is little understanding among scientists why some years suffer worse red tides than others, though they’re believed to be exacerbated by pollution including fertilizers and leaky septic tanks. Unfortunately for Scott, 2018 has seen one of the worst, most enduring blooms on record.
The algae makes water toxic for marine wildlife, and the carcasses of pale, bloated dolphins, manatees, fish, eels, and sea turtles have piled up along shorelines. Residents, particularly the elderly, have reported respiratory distress from the Karenia brevis.
At the same time, a separate blue-green bloom has flourished in central Florida’s freshwater Lake Okeechobee. Runoff containing human waste and fertilizers creates the algae and flows out of Okeechobee’s clogged estuaries onto beaches along the southeast coast, which have closed for swimming due to feces-related bacteria in the water.
Veteran Florida GOP strategist Mac Stipanovich said that he doesn’t believe there’s a “credible” way to blame the Scott administration for worsening environmental issues that have long plagued the state.
But Stipanovich acknowledges Scott is “on the defensive on this issue” because the blame people are trying to attribute to him on the environment “is at least speciously plausible.”
“If you’re trying to press home your advantages, whether it’s jobs, the economy, tax cuts or whatever, you’re not succeeding if you’re defending yourself on some hot-button issue,” he said.
Environmentalists, Florida Democrats and several local newspaper editorial boards have pointed to the algae problems as another mark on what the Ocala Star-Banner called Scott’s “putrid environmental record.” During his first term in 2011, Scott cut $700 million in funding from Florida’s water management oversight. He is seen as an ally to Big Sugar, one of the state’s largest polluters. In his push to jumpstart Florida’s economy, Scott has drastically rolled back environmental regulations including required septic-tank inspections.
His administration also forbade state officials from using the terms “climate change” or “global warming,” as the Florida Democratic Party reminded voters in a recent tweet.
“The sight of green slime in our waterways and dead fish on our beaches is a visible sign of just how bad a job Rick Scott has done as governor,” Nelson communications director Ryan Brown told TPM in a statement.
The Scott campaign has pointed fingers at Nelson, in turn, saying that he came into office pledging to clean up Florida’s environment and has not managed to do so. At his stop this week in Orlando, Scott said that he respected protesters’ “right to what they think” about the issue, but that his administration is “doing everything we can right now.”
“We need really good easterly winds right now,” Scott told reporters. “I wish it would get off our beaches. I know so many people would enjoy our beaches and enjoy our fishing.”
Some Republicans in the state see the algae problems as a non-issue in the Senate race, arguing that the economy and public safety are more important factors driving voters to the polls.
GOP strategist Mike Hanna told TPM that the red tides were an issue during the two terms he served alongside Jeb Bush in the governor’s mansion, and will remain one long after the midterms.
“The oceans are a big part of our economy, but this is not what’s going to drive the vote in November,” Hanna told TPM. “This is an issue of the week.”
In some of the hardest-hit areas, though, the blooms do seem to be moving voters. The August primary results saw Scott sailing to victory with 89 percent of the vote, but hurting in the Treasure Coast’s Martin County, where the Lake Okeechobee algae has poisoned waterways.
As Stipanovich points out, the coastal areas affected by these twin blooms continue to expand by the day. Just Thursday, reports went out that the red tide outbreak has crept past Tampa Bay onto the shores of northwest Florida.
“This can be one of those issues that could very well be pivotal in a close election,” FAU’s Wagner said. “I suspect that talking about red tide is not what Scott’s campaign wanted to be doing at this point.”
The Texas man who founded a company that develops and publishes blueprints to create 3-D printed guns was charged with child sexual assault Wednesday, according to the Austin Statesman.
An affidavit reviewed by the newspaper alleges that a girl under the age of 17 told her counselor at the Center for Child Protection that she had sex with a 30-year-old man, whom she identified as Cody Wilson, at a local hotel on Aug. 15. The man paid her $500, according to the report.
Wilson is not yet in custody, according to the Statesman. He did not immediately respond to TPM’s email requesting comment, and his cellphone inbox was full.
Texas considers sexual assault a second-degree felony punishable by between two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Wilson allegedly met the girl on SugarDaddyMeet.com and began exchanging messages with her. He went by the username “Sanjuro,” per the affidavit reviewed by the Statesman. In the lead-up to their encounter, they shared nude photographs, and Wilson, via text, allegedly shared his name and told her he was a “big deal.”
The Austin resident is currently embroiled in a high-profile battle with the federal government over the legality of the open-sourced 3-D printed gun blueprints his company, Defense Distributed, has shared online. After the State Department in 2013 ordered Wilson to pull the plans from the internet, Wilson sued the Obama administration on First Amendment grounds. The Trump administration settled with Wilson earlier this year, allowing him to share the 3-D weapons plans online.
Various states have subsequently sued Wilson on national security and public safety grounds, and a Seattle federal judge has ordered him to halt the distribution of his plans.
Wilson also served as the founder of the now-defunct Hatreon, a far-right answer to Patreon, a platform that allows content creators to solicit paid subscriptions from supporters.
After last summer’s deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Wilson told TPM that he spent “12 grand a month” of his own money to fund the site, which he called a “passion project.” He said he was personally “not right-wing” but was “sympathetic” to the “alt-right” and didn’t believe they should be “banished from the internet.”
Democrat Tony Evers is pulling ahead of Scott Walker in the race to become Wisconsin’s next governor, according to a Marquette University Law School poll released Tuesday.
Evers earned 49 percent of support among likely voters, compared to 44 percent for Walker. This is the first time since Evers won the nomination this August that he has led Walker in the Marquette poll, regarded as the premium in-state survey. Last month, the two nominees were tied at 46 percent.
Walker previously won his seat in GOP wave years, and his crackdown on voting rights and sweeping cuts to the state education budget have bruised his reputation among Wisconsin voters.
Support for Evers, the state schools superintendent, appears to be bolstered by independent voters. Per Marquette, GOP support for Walker and Democratic support for Evers are both over 90 percent. Among independents, the breakdown is 52 percent for Evers and just 32 percent for Walker.
Results also looked good for Democrats in the U.S. Senate race, with incumbent Tammy Baldwin expanding her lead from two points to 11 in her race against GOP challenger Leah Vukmir. Baldwin earned 53 percent of likely voters compared to 42 percent for Vukmir.
The Marquette survey was conducted among 800 registered Wisconsin voters from Sept. 12-16. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points
Hours after Christine Blasey Ford went on the record accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of attempted sexual assault, Kavanaugh’s far-right supporters were hard at work trying to explain away the allegations.
One particularly flimsy conspiracy theory circulating in recent days is that Ford is acting out of revenge because Kavanaugh’s mother, a Maryland state judge, foreclosed on Ford’s childhood home.
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee called President Trump’s move to declassify Justice Department materials related to the Russia investigation “a clear abuse of power” that risks exposing U.S. intelligence-gathering strategies.