By JULIE PACE, ZEKE MILLER and JONATHAN LEMIRE
WASHINGTON (AP) — Rattled by two weeks of muddled messages, departures and spitting matches between the president and his own top officials, Donald Trump is facing a shrinking circle of trusted advisers and a staff that’s grim about any prospect of a reset.
Even by the standards of Trump’s often chaotic administration, the announcement of Hope Hicks’ imminent exit spread new levels of anxiety across the West Wing and cracked open disputes that had been building since the White House’s botched handling of domestic violence allegations against a senior aide late last month.
One of Trump’s most loyal and longest-serving aides, Hicks often served as human buffer between the unpredictable president and the business of government. One official on Thursday compared the instability caused by her departure to that of a chief of staff leaving the administration — though that prospect, too, remained a possibility given the questions that have arisen about John Kelly’s competence.
Hicks’ departure comes as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation appears to be circling the Oval Office, with prosecutors questioning Trump associates about both his business dealings before he became president and his actions in office, according to people with knowledge of the interviews. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, has also been weakened after being stripped of his high-level security clearance amid revelations about potential conflicts of interest.
The biggest unknown is how the mercurial Trump will respond to Hicks’ departure and Kushner’s more limited access, according to some of the 16 White House officials, congressional aides and outside advisers interviewed by The Associated Press, most of whom insisted on anonymity in order to disclose private conversations and meetings. Besides Kushner and his wife, presidential daughter Ivanka Trump, most remaining White House staffers were not part of Trump’s close-knit 2016 campaign. One person who speaks to Trump regularly said the president has become increasingly wistful about the camaraderie of that campaign.
Rarely has a modern president confronted so many crises and controversies across so many fronts at the same time. After 13 months in office, there’s little expectation among many White House aides and outside allies that Trump can quickly find his footing or attract new, top-flight talent to the West Wing. And some Republican lawmakers, who are eying a difficult political landscape in November’s midterm elections, have begun to let private frustrations ooze out in public.
“There is no standard operating practice with this administration,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota. “Every day is a new adventure for us.”
Thune’s comments described the White House’s peculiar rollout Thursday of controversial new aluminum and steel tariffs. White House aides spent Wednesday night and Thursday morning scrambling to steer the president away from an announcement on an unfinished policy, with even Kelly in the dark about Trump’s plans. Aides believed they had succeeded in getting Trump to back down and hoped to keep television cameras away from an event with industry executives so the president couldn’t make a surprise announcement. But Trump summoned reporters into the Cabinet Room anyway and declared that the U.S. would levy penalties of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum imports.
Some of Trump’s populist supporters cheered the move. The stock market, which Trump looks to for validation for his economic policies, plunged.
Some officials are bracing for more departures. On Thursday, NBC News reported that the White House was preparing to replace national security adviser H.R. McMaster as early as next month.
White House Sarah Huckabee Sanders told “Fox & Friends” on Friday that “Gen. McMaster isn’t going anywhere.”
As for talk of a White House in upheaval, Sanders pointed out the tax cuts passed late last year: “If they want to call it chaos, fine, but we call it success and productivity and we’re going to keep plugging along.”
For those remaining on the job, the turbulence has been relentless. Just two weeks ago, Kelly, the general brought in to bring order, was himself on the ropes for his handling of the domestic violence allegations against a close aide, Rob Porter. Trump was said to be deeply irritated by the negative press coverage of Kelly’s leadership during the controversy and considering firing him. But first, the president planned to give his chief of staff a chance to defend himself before reporters in the briefing room and gauge the reaction, according to two people with knowledge of the episode. The briefing, however, was canceled after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Kelly’s standing has stabilized somewhat as media attention to the Porter issue has waned.
One Kelly backer said the chief of staff’s standing remains tenuous, in part because of his clashes with Kushner over policy, personnel and White House structure. The tensions were exacerbated by Kelly’s decision to downgrade Kushner’s security clearance because the senior adviser had not been permanently approved for the highest level of access.
Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who also serves as a senior White House adviser, have been frustrated by Kelly’s attempt to restrict their access to the president, and they perceive his new crackdown on clearances as a direct shot at them, according to White House aides and outside advisers. Kelly, in turn, has grown frustrated with what he views as the couple’s freelancing. He blames them for changing Trump’s mind at the last minute and questions what exactly they do all day, according to one White House official and an outside ally.
The ethics questions dogging Kushner relate to both his personal financial interests and his dealings in office with foreign officials. Intelligence officials expressed concern that Kushner’s business dealings were a topic of discussion in conversations he was having with foreign officials about foreign policy issues of interest to the U.S. government, a former intelligence official said. Separately, The New York Times reported that two companies made loans worth more than half a billion dollars to Kushner’s family real estate firm after executives met with Kushner at the White House.
Allies of Kushner and Ivanka Trump insist they have no plans to leave the White House in the near future. As for Kelly, he appeared to hint at his tough spot during an event Thursday at the Department of Homeland Security, where he served as secretary before departing for the White House.
“The last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of homeland security,” he said at the agency’s 15th anniversary celebration in Washington. “But I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess.”
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC, Jonathan Lemire at http://twitter.com/jonlemire and Zeke Miller at http://twitter.com/zekejmiller
Georgia Republicans honor their threat, pass bill punishing Delta for cutting ties with NRA
In a show of political strength, Georgia lawmakers on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill that was stripped of an earlier provision granting Delta Air Lines a lucrative tax break.
By passing the bill, lawmakers carried out the threat that Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, R, made to Atlanta-based Delta earlier this week: if the airline did not restore discounted fares to members of the National Rifle Association, Republicans would strike down a $50 million sales-tax exemption on jet fuel from its larger tax-cut package. Delta, which is one of the state’s largest employers, would have been the primary beneficiary of the exemption.
Cagle threatened Delta days after it announced it would stop offering discounted fares to NRA members amid the national gun-control debate after the deadly Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. United Airlines, Best Western, MetLife and at least a dozen other companies also cut perks and discounts to NRA members.
“I will kill any tax legislation that benefits @Delta unless the company changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with @NRA,” Cagle tweeted on Monday. “Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back.”
The bill granting the jet-fuel tax exemption was easily approved in the House last week, and appeared to have wide support. Advocates said it would attract flights to Atlanta as opposed to other major airports, where jet-fuel taxes are charged. But in the days since Delta’s announcement, other Georgia Republicans rallied behind Cagle, and the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday voted to remove the jet-fuel exemption from the tax-cut package.
Cagle, who has served as Georgia’s lieutenant governor since 2007, could weave the issue into his campaign in Georgia’s upcoming gubernatorial race, in which he is considered the leading GOP contender to replace Gov. Nathan Deal, R. Deal this week said he would reluctantly support the measure because of the bill’s broader cuts to the state’s income tax rate, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Delta has not commented on the threat from Cagle, who says he is “a lifelong member of the NRA” and boasts that he has earned an A+ rating from the organization every year he has served in elected office. The airline could not immediately be reached for comment on lawmakers’ removal of the tax exemption.
Delta at first resisted taking a stance, as companies with even the slightest affiliation to the NRA were called out and a list of companies that had cut ties with the NRA began circulating on Twitter. But Delta held out against the pressure for only a few hours.
The NRA has lashed out at companies who’ve dropped the discounts, saying they were participating in “a shameful display of political and civic cowardice.” But the group also downplayed the importance of the company’s actions, saying the “loss of a discount will neither scare nor distract one single NRA member from our mission.”
In the days since the showdown between Delta and Georgia Republicans began, top blue-state politicians have encouraged Delta to relocate its hub from Atlanta.
“@Delta, if Georgia politicians disagree with your stand against gun violence, we invite you to move your headquarters to New York,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D, in a tweet Tuesday.
But experts say it’s unlikely Delta will respond to the invitations of Democratic state leaders by moving its hub. According to a Bloomberg article:
“Delta virtually ‘owns’ the world’s busiest airport. Sure, the city is technically the landlord, but nothing of much import happens at Hartsfield without Delta’s say-so. Part of this influence derives from location, seeing as it’s headquartered right next to the runways. Another source of power is the estimated $71 billion in annual economic impact that Georgia enjoys from Hartsfield, which claims to be the state’s largest employer. Moreover, less than two years ago, Delta signed a 20-year lease to stay in Atlanta, its home for the past 77 years.”
Although Delta ended its alliance with the NRA, the company said its position on the gun-control debate remains neutral. “Out of respect for our customers and employees on both sides, Delta has taken this action to refrain from entering this debate and focus on its business. Delta continues to support the 2nd Amendment,” the airline said in a statement Saturday.
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Depth Of Russian Politician’s Cultivation Of NRA Ties Revealed
Russian politician Alexander Torshin, standing next to then-Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, attends a ceremony at the Kremlin in 2011. Torshin is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, and says he met Donald Trump through the group in 2015.
A prominent Kremlin-linked Russian politician has methodically cultivated ties with leaders of the National Rifle Association, and documented efforts in real time over six years to leverage those connections and gain access deeper into American politics, NPR has learned.
Russian politician Alexander Torshin claimed his ties to the National Rifle Association provided him access to Donald Trump — and the opportunity to serve as a foreign election observer in the United States during the 2012 election.
Torshin is a prolific Twitter user, logging nearly 150,000 tweets, mostly in Russian, since his account was created in 2011. Previously obscured by language and by sheer volume of tweets, Torshin has written numerous times about his connections with the NRA, of which he’s a known paid lifetime member. NPR has translated a selection of those posts that document Torshin’s relationship to the group.
These revelations come amid news that the FBI is investigating whether Torshin, the deputy governor of the Bank of Russia, illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to assist the Trump campaign in 2016, McClatchy reported in January.
In a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate intelligence committee, the NRA denied any wrongdoing and suggested the FBI is investigating Torshin, not the NRA. Neither the NRA nor Torshin responded to inquiries from NPR.
Investigations by Congress and the Department of Justice have revealed that the Russian government has sought to sharpen political divisions among American citizens by amplifying controversial social issues. Investigators have expressed concern about Russian links to the NRA, one of the most politically polarizing organizations in the U.S.
Torshin is a former Russian senator and served as the deputy speaker of Russia’s parliament for more than a decade. Known as a Putin ally, he also spent time on Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee, a state body that includes the director of Russia’s internal security service and the ministers of defense, interior and foreign affairs.
Translation of November 2016 tweet: “For 15 years, I’ve traveled to the US with official delegations, and more often – privately. In this time, I NEVER HEARD ONE BAD WORD ABOUT RUSSIA!”
Torshin’s use of NRA connections to open doors, and his 2015 claim to know Trump through the organization, raise new questions about the group’s connections with Russian officials — at a time when the organization is being roundly criticized by its opponents, and at times the president himself, for opposition to gun control.
The president has also defended the group in recent days as the gun debate has reemerged in the wake of a Florida school shooting, including a tweet calling the group’s leaders “Great American Patriots.”
The NRA has been a key part of Trump’s conservative base. After a meeting with lawmakers in which Trump angered many conservatives for entertaining proposals for gun control, the president tweeted that he had another meeting with NRA leaders in the Oval Office on Thursday night.
On his verified Twitter account, Torshin talked about how he knew Donald Trump through the NRA, citing a connection at the group’s 2015 convention. Responding to a tweet about comedian Larry David accusing Trump of being a racist, Torshin said he knew the businessman through the NRA, and defended him.
Translation of November 2015 tweet: “A comedian should make people laugh! Right? So he is trying! I know D. Trump (through NRA). A decent person.”
“I saw him in Nashville” in April 2015, Torshin added later, the date and site of the NRA’s 2015 convention. Trump gave a speech at that convention, the outlines of which would become familiar as his stump speech throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. The White House did not respond to repeated requests for comment by NPR, but denied Trump has ever met Torshin to Bloomberg News in 2017.
Among his tens of thousands of tweets, Torshin also documented his attendance at every NRA convention between 2012 and 2016, only some of which have been previously reported.
Torshin’s attendance at the NRA convention in 2016 is where he reportedly met with Donald Trump, Jr.
Torshin had made repeated attempts to meet with Donald Trump himself at that convention during the presidential election year, but there is no evidence of this occurring. A conservative activist with ties to Torshin aide Maria Butina reached out to the Trump campaign in 2016, saying that Russia was “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S.” and would try to use the NRA convention to make “first contact,” the New York Times reported.
“Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” the activist, Paul Erickson wrote. “He wants to extend an invitation to Mr. Trump to visit him in the Kremlin before the election.” Erickson has business ties to Butina, having started an LLC with her in South Dakota.
Torshin has used his repeated trips to NRA conventions to cultivate relationships with top NRA officials. And his Twitter account documents that he has personally met with every person who has been president of the NRA since 2012.
On Twitter, Torshin portrayed these meetings as more than merely casual encounters. In 2017, he tweeted that he was bringing a gift to then-NRA President Allan Cors, and suggested he was familiar with Cors’ hobbies.
Translation of January 2017 tweet: “Bought a gift for NRA President Allan Cors. Tanks are his favorite topic!”
Cors is the founder of the Virginia Museum of Military Vehicles, according to its website.
In a public DropBox album that Torshin linked to from his Twitter account, he’s seen meeting with former NRA president Jim Porter, as well as former NRA president David Keene.
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His tweets suggest a longtime relationship with Keene, who repeatedly appears in photos as Torshin documents his visits, suggesting that their meeting was not merely coincidental. Keene did not respond to a request for comment.
Torshin has also met the current president of the NRA, Pete Brownell. Brownell was part of an NRA delegation that visited Moscow in 2015.
These relationships that he cultivated appeared to open another door. Torshin came to the United States in 2012 as an international election observer, and watched as ballots were cast during the Obama-Romney presidential contest in Tennessee. This was possible, he wrote, due to his NRA links.
Translation of January 2015 tweet: “I was there at Obama’s last election! The NRA card, to me as an observer from Russia, opened access to any [polling] station.”
“Tennessee resident Kline Preston requested Mr. Torshin to be an international observer in November 2012,” Adam Ghassemi, a spokesman for the Tennessee Secretary of State, told NPR. The Washington Post reported last year that Preston, a Tennessee lawyer, was the one who originally introduced Torshin to former NRA president David Keene back in 2011.
The heat is on the Russian politician, who was alleged by Spanish police to have directed financial transactions for the Russian mob. Not only is the FBI reportedly investigating him — the bureau declined to comment for this story — but lawmakers involved in congressional investigations have also expressed interest in Torshin.
Both the Senate and House intelligence committees are currently engaged in investigations into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
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Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee and a member of the Senate intelligence committee, has demanded the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network hand over documents related to Torshin and the NRA.
“The NRA and its related entities do not accept funds from foreign persons or entities in connection with United States elections,” NRA General Counsel John Frazer wrote in response to a request from Wyden to turn over documents related to transactions between the NRA and Russian citizens. “NRA political decisions are made by NRA officers and executive staff, all of whom are United States citizens. No foreign nationals are consulted in any way on these decisions.”
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Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, told NPR this week that the committee’s members have asked relevant witnesses about the NRA through the course of their investigation.
“I can’t go into what we’ve been able to learn thus far on that issue. I can tell you it’s one of deep concern to me and to other members of the committee, that we get to the bottom of these allegations that the Russians may have sought to funnel money through the NRA,” Schiff said. “It would be negligent of us not to investigate.”
Glenn Simpson, the co-founder of research firm Fusion GPS, alluded to Torshin and the NRA during his closed-door testimony before the House intelligence committee in November.
“It appears the Russians, you know, infiltrated the NRA. And there is more than one explanation for why,” Simpson told lawmakers. “But I would say broadly speaking, it appears that the Russian operation was designed to infiltrate conservative organizations. And they targeted various conservative organizations, religious and otherwise, and they seem to have made a very concerted effort to get in with the NRA.”
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Not only are congressional investigators interested in the NRA’s relationship with Russia, but this inquiry comes as the NRA is receiving additional pressure from groups hoping to pass additional gun restrictions into law, and as dozens of American companies have cut ties with the NRA in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., shooting last month.
“These revelations suggest that for years the NRA courted a top Putin ally who is now reportedly attracting scrutiny from the FBI,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, told NPR. “NRA leaders still haven’t explained their close relationship with Russian officials in Putin’s orbit. Until they do, people will continue to wonder what the NRA is hiding.”
NPR’s Alina Selyukh and Audrey McNamara contributed to this story.
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“Some countries have a very, very tough penalty — the ultimate penalty — and by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do,” President Donald Trump said. | Win McNamee/Getty Images
Trump suggests death penalty to stop opioid epidemic
By SARAH KARLIN-SMITH and BRIANNA EHLEY
President Donald Trump on Thursday suggested using the death penalty on drug dealers to address the opioid epidemic, equating providing lethal drugs with murder.
“We have pushers and drugs dealers, they are killing hundreds and hundreds of people,” Trump said at a White House summit on opioid abuse. “If you shoot one person, they give you life, they give you the death penalty. These people can kill 2,000, 3,000 people and nothing happens to them.”
Trump said countries that impose the death penalty on drug dealers have a better record than the United States in combating substance abuse.
“Some countries have a very, very tough penalty — the ultimate penalty — and by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do,” he said.
The remarks follow media reports earlier this week that Trump has privately praised countries like Singapore that mandate the death penalty for drug traffickers, arguing a softer approach to substance abuse won’t be successful.
The remarks are likely to rankle administration critics who have urged the White House to focus on the public health component of the opioid crisis. The president’s remarks did not touch on health approaches like providing additional funding for treatment.
“It makes us all very nervous” that the U.S. could move back to a “penal-first approach,” said Andrew Kessler, who leads Slingshot Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in behavioral health policy that advocates for substance abuse treatment and prevention. “I have no love for high-level traffickers or cartels, but a very high percentage of people who sell drugs do it to support their own habit.”
He and others said the government would be better offer treating people for addiction than imprisoning them.
“We have done the experiment with extreme mass incarceration to shrink the drug market and it failed,” said Mark Kleiman, who leads the crime and justice program at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management. “Between 1980 and today, the number of drug dealers behind bars has gone up by a factor of 30 and the prices of heroin and cocaine have fallen more than 90 percent. So the problem with putting drug dealers in prison is there is another drug dealer in there to take his place.”
It’s also unclear whether harsh sentences for drug dealers lower the level of drug use in a country. While Singapore “has done a pretty good job of reducing drug consumption,” countries like the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia still have “‘huge” drug problems, Kleiman said.
Former Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a member of the president’s White House Commission on Opioids, who was not invited to the summit, said Trump should use the bully pulpit to promote an “orchestrated solution across many departments of government.”
“There is a certain easiness about talking tough when in fact we have been talking tough for years and it hasn’t gotten us anywhere,” Kennedy said.
Former Republican Rep. Mary Bono, co-founder of the Collaborative for Effective Prescription Opioid Policies, said Trump should have specified who he was referring to when suggesting harsh penalties for drug dealers.
“If he is really talking about the worst of the worst, he needs to be clear,” she said. “It gets into a gray area, and it can be a little uncomfortable when you go there.”
Trump’s remarks also deviate from the tone taken by his own Surgeon General Jerome Adams earlier Thursday. At a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event on the opioid crisis, Adams talked about his brother, who is in state prison due to crimes he committed to support his addiction. He emphasized the need for the country to move toward earlier intervention and strengthening its mental health services so that drug-related crimes and prison can be avoided.
“At the end of the day, if you commit a crime, there are folks out there who are dedicated to and need to address the public safety aspect of it, but the question I ask myself is how many opportunities did we miss earlier on to have had that warm handoff, to have connected him to care so that he didn’t continue to go down his addiction pathway, his criminal pathway. That would have saved us money and save trouble for the people who he honestly did victimize,” Adams said.
Trump also said his administration will unveil new policies to address the crisis over the next few weeks but did not provide any details, simply stating they would be “very, very strong.”
He expressed support for going after pharmaceutical companies and distributors that supply prescription painkillers for their role in the crisis.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said this week that the Justice Department will file a statement of interest in litigation that includes hundreds of lawsuits by states and localities against opioid manufacturers and distributors.
The Justice Department will argue that the federal government has borne substantial costs due to the opioid epidemic and should be reimbursed for health programs and law enforcement efforts to combat the crisis.
Cities, counties and states are seeking to recover the costs associated with providing treatment and public safety, by targeting companies that they allege used false, deceptive or unfair marketing practices for prescription opioids.
Sessions also said the federal government is studying the possibility of initiating its own opioid litigation.
The federal government previously went after many opioid-makers in court a decade ago, with companies like Purdue Pharma pleading guilty to misleading regulators, doctors and patients about the drugs’ risks of addiction and abuse.
Trump’s remarks came at the end of a summit that highlighted different approaches to addressing drug abuse.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar talked about increasing access to treatment programs and focusing on researching non-opioid pain therapies. HUD Secretary Ben Carson discussed how communities can provide support and housing for people suffering from addiction.
Some public health experts advocated for a greater focus on prevention efforts.
“My concern is we’re focused on treatment and arresting and not focused on prevention,” said Mike Fraser, the executive director for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
Advocates and drug policy experts said they are eager to see a follow-through.
Regina LaBelle, who served as chief of staff at the Office of National Drug Control Policy during the Obama administration, said she thought the White House’s efforts were headed in the right direction. “I thought they did a great job,” she said. “Now we have to make sure that we follow it up with action.”
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