All posts by ERIC TUCKER, Associated Press

Mueller team questions deputy AG amid probe of Comey firing

WASHINGTON (AP) — Special counsel Robert Mueller’s office has questioned Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as it probes the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press on Tuesday. It is not clear exactly when the conversation took place, or how long it lasted, but Rosenstein is relevant to Mueller’s investigation because he authored a memorandum in May that the White House initially held up as justification for Comey’s firing. The fact that Mueller’s team would speak with Rosenstein is not surprising given his direct involvement in Trump administration conversations that preceded the May 9 ouster and the evolving White House explanations of it. But the questioning is nonetheless an indication of investigators’ continued interest in the circumstances surrounding Comey’s ouster, and whether it constituted an effort to obstruct an investigation into potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. Mueller’s team of investigators is expected to interview current and former White House aides in coming weeks as part of that investigation, according to people familiar with the matter. The people who discussed the conversation with Rosenstein, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation. Mueller’s team of investigators reports to Rosenstein, who oversaw the Justice Department’s Russia investigation following the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Rosenstein told The Associated Press in June that he would recuse from oversight of Mueller’s investigation if necessary and warranted, though he has not done so as of Tuesday and it was not clear when or if he intended to. “As the Deputy Attorney General has said numerous times, if there comes a time when he needs to recuse, he will,” the Justice Department said in a statement Tuesday night. Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel one week after Comey’s firing, and one day after it was revealed that Comey had alleged in an internal memo that President Donald Trump had asked him to end an investigationinto former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The White House initially explained Comey’s firing by saying Trump was acting on the recommendation of Rosenstein, who wrote a scathing memo about Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. But that narrative was muddled days later when Trump, in a television interview, said he would have fired Comey regardless of the Justice Department’s recommendation. It was revealed earlier this month that Trump and aide Stephen Miller had drafted, but not sent, an earlier memo that sought to justify Comey’s firing. That document is now in Mueller’s possession. Rosenstein has said he stands by the memo and his assessment that Comey mishandled the Clinton email investigation by publicly announcing the FBI’s findings instead of ceding that authority to the Justice Department. But he has also said he did not intend for his memo to be used as a justification for firing. In a June interview with the AP, Rosenstein said he understood his involvement in Comey’s firing could lead him to eventually step aside from overseeing Mueller’s work. “I’ve talked with Director Mueller about this,” Rosenstein said. “He’s going to make the appropriate decisions, and if anything that I did winds up being relevant to his investigation then, as Director Mueller and I discussed, if there’s a need from me to recuse I will.”
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Trump lawyer: Moscow Trump Tower ‘solely a real estate deal’

WASHINGTON (AP) — An abandoned proposal to develop a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 presidential election was “solely a real estate deal and nothing more,” the personal lawyer for President Donald Trump told congressional staff on Tuesday. Michael Cohen was appearing privately before the Senate Intelligence Committee, one of multiple congressional panels investigating Russian interference in the presidential race and potential ties to the Trump campaign. Special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of investigators are conducting their own criminal investigation. In a prepared statement obtained by The Associated Press, Cohen addressed revelations from last month that the Trump Organization had considered doing business in Russia through a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow around the time of the Republican primaries. Cohen disclosed details of the deal last month in a statement to the House intelligence committee, saying that he had worked on the real estate proposal with Felix Sater, a Russian-born associate who has claimed to have deep connections to Moscow. Cohen also has said that he emailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary after Sater suggested that the proposal would require approvals within the Russian government. The discussions about the potential development occurred in the fall of 2015, months after Trump had declared his candidacy, and ended early last year when Cohen determined that the project was not feasible. In his statement Tuesday, Cohen said the proposal was “solely a real estate deal and nothing more.” “I was doing my job,” he added. The Trump Organization has previously said that the licensing deal “was not significantly advanced” and that no site or financing materialized during the negotiations. Cohen also denounced allegations from a dossier produced by an opposition research firm, calling the document “lie-filled” and fabricated. He said he had never discussed with any member of the Russian Federation or anyone else a plan to hack into email accounts or to interfere with the election. “Given my own proximity to the President of the United States as a candidate, let me also say that I never saw anything — not a hint of anything — that demonstrated his involvement in Russian interference in our election or any form of Russian collusion.”
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Justice won’t allow FBI officials to speak to Senate panel

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department says it will not permit two FBI officials close to fired director James Comey to appear privately before a congressional committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The Senate Judiciary Committee had asked in July to interview the two officials, Jim Rybicki and Carl Ghattas, and then agreed to narrow the scope of questioning after the Justice Department initially declined to make the men available. But in a letter this week obtained by The Associated Press, the Justice Department said it would still not permit the officials to be questioned in order to “protect the integrity” of the investigation being done by special counsel Robert Mueller. Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd said in the letter that the overlapping areas of the committee’s investigation and Mueller’s probe had not yet been sorted out, or “de-conflicted.” Ghattas is the head of the FBI’s national security branch and Rybicki served as chief of staff to Comey, who was fired in May by President Donald Trump. Comey has said those men were among the FBI officials with whom he shared concerns about Trump’s behavior toward him, in the weeks before he was fired. The Justice Department’s refusal to make Ghattas and Rybicki available is an indication that Mueller, who is leading the Justice Department’s investigation into potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, sees them as relevant witnesses to the events leading up to Comey’s firing. Comey has said Trump asked him to end an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn and had also asked him over dinner to pledge his loyalty to him. The July 27 refusal letter from the department, which CNN was first to report on, cites the department’s “long-standing policy regarding the confidentiality and sensitivity of information relating to pending matters.” The Judiciary Committee is one of multiple congressional panels investigating Russian meddling in the election. The committee heard privately last week from Donald Trump Jr. about a June 2016 meeting involving a Russian lawyer and an offer to provide damaging information about his father’s opponent, Hillary Clinton.
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Sessions vows crackdown on leaks of classified information

WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions pledged on Friday to rein in government leaks that he said undermine American security, taking an aggressive public stand after being called weak on the matter by President Donald Trump. The nation’s top law enforcement official cited no current investigations in which disclosures of information had jeopardized the country. His announcement, made with other security officials at the Justice Department, followed a series of news reports involving the Trump campaign and White House that have relied on classified information. In prepared remarks, Sessions said: “No one is entitled to surreptitiously fight their battles in the media by revealing sensitive government information. No government can be effective when its leaders cannot discuss sensitive matters in confidence or to talk freely in confidence with foreign leaders.” Meanwhile, a White House adviser raised the possibility of lie detector tests for the small number of people in the West Wing and elsewhere with access to transcripts of President Donald Trump’s phone calls. The Washington Post has published transcripts of his conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia. Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway told “Fox & Friends” that “it’s easier to figure out who’s leaking than the leakers may realize.” And might lie detectors be used? She said: “Well, they may, they may not.” Trump’s outbursts against media organizations he derides as “fake news” have led to predictions that his administration will more aggressively try to root out leaks. Trump complained on Twitter last week that Sessions was weak in cracking down on leaks, saying, “Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!” Sessions said in his remarks that his department has more than tripled the number of active leaks investigations compared to the number pending when President Barack Obama left office. He said the department is reviewing guidelines related to subpoenas of journalists. “This nation must end the culture of leaks. We will investigate and seek to bring criminals to justice. We will not allow rogue anonymous sources with security clearances to sell out our country any longer,” Sessions said in his remarks. Media organizations also had an often-tense relationship with the Obama administration, whose Justice Department brought more leaks cases than all his predecessors combined and was criticized for maneuvers seen as needlessly aggressive and intrusive. That included a secret subpoena of phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors following a 2012 story about a foiled bomb plot, and the labeling of a Fox News journalist as a “co-conspirator” after a report on North Korea. The Justice Department also abandoned a yearslong effort to reveal his source in the trial of an-ex CIA officer who was later found guilty of disclosing classified information. Following consultation with media lawyers, the department in 2015 revised its guidelines for leak investigations to require additional levels of approval before a reporter could be subpoenaed.
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