McCain releases strategy for Afghanistan, preempting and rebuking Trump

By Karoun Demirjian,

Sen. John McCain on Thursday unveiled a plan to increase U.S. air and ground forces in Afghanistan that would likely bring some American soldiers closer into harm’s way — a move that in effect rebukes President Trump, who has not yet decided on his preferred way forward in the war.

McCain (R-Ariz.) promised to present his plan as an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill, which he intends to return to Washington, D.C. to shepherd through the Senate in September.

The senator is currently undergoing treatment for a recently diagnosed brain tumor, but congressional Democrats and Republicans alike have said they will change the Senate schedule to ensure that McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is able to steer the massive $700 billion measure.

McCain hasn’t shied away from crossing Trump on key policy issues. Last month, he voted against the president on the health-care overhaul bill, effectively ending the chances to pursue a “repeal and replace” measure in the Senate. And since last year, he has consistently excoriated Trump for not taking the threat of Russian meddling in U.S. elections more seriously.

But Afghanistan is a particularly troubling issue for McCain, who has long been impatient with the White House for not providing a cohesive strategy for its combat operations in the war-torn country. For eight years, McCain railed against the Obama administration for the lack of a satisfactory plan, and he has warned the Trump administration that if it failed to articulate something better than “a ‘don’t lose’ strategy,” he would attempt to force the president’s hand by demanding a vote on a plan as part of the defense bill.

On Thursday, McCain apparently lost his patience.

“Nearly seven months into President Trump’s administration, we’ve had no strategy at all as conditions on the ground have steadily worsened,” he said in a statement released along with the plan. “We must face facts: we are losing in Afghanistan and time is of the essence if we intend to turn the tide.”

Trump has also been frustrated with the protracted war in Afghanistan, but has been sitting on proposals from the Pentagon to increase troop levels as he wrestles with his two priorities: to win the war in Afghanistan to get U.S. troops out as quickly as possible.

[National security adviser attempts to reconcile Trump’s competing impulses on Afghanistan]

In contrast, McCain’s plan outlines short- and long-term goals that envision a U.S. presence on the ground — an approach “to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a sanctuary for terrorists to plot and conduct attacks against America.”

McCain does not outline specific troop numbers. But among his plans is a proposal to integrate U.S. military training and advisory teams at the battalion level of the Afghan armed forces known as “kandaks” — each of which has about 600 troops in it. That commitment would by necessity raise the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan significantly, and put those troops — even in their advising and training roles — closer to combat.

McCain’s plan also envisions more U.S. air power and combat support for the Afghan military, and expects that “in the long term” the United States will provide “sustained support” for those troops, even as Afghan forces become more self-sufficient.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

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Senators unveil two proposals to protect Mueller’s Russia probe

By Karoun Demirjian,

Two bipartisan pairs of senators unveiled legislation Thursday to prevent President Trump from firing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III without cause — or at least a reason good enough to convince a panel of federal judges.

Senators have raised concerns that the president might try to rearrange his administration to get rid of Mueller, who is spearheading a probe of Russia’s alleged interference in the presidential election and any possible collusion between the Kremlin and members of the Trump campaign and transition teams.

While Trump cannot fire Mueller directly, many have raised concerns in recent weeks that he might seek to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from all campaign-related matters, including the Russia probe. Sessions’s deputy, Rod J. Rosenstein, said he would not fire Mueller without cause — but a new attorney general could supersede his authority.

The blowback from Congress to Trump’s recent public criticism of Sessions was sharp and substantial, and his allies in the GOP told the president to back off. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) even indicated that he would not make time in the Senate schedule to consider a new attorney general nominee.

[Republicans are starting to draw red lines on Trump firing Sessions and Mueller]

This week, there have been reports that new White House chief of staff John F. Kelly told Sessions he would not have to worry about losing his job.

But that has not quieted the concerns of the Democrats and Republicans behind the latest efforts to safeguard Mueller — and, by extension, his Russia probe — from presidential interference.

“The Mueller situation really gave rise to our thinking about how we can address this, address the current situation,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), the co-author of one of the proposals. He called the effort “a great opportunity, in perpetuity, for us to be able to communicate to the American people that actions were appropriate — or if not, then not,” if an administration ever attempts to terminate a special counsel’s term.

The two proposals — one from Tillis and Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and the other from Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — each seek to check the executive branch’s ability to fire a special counsel, by putting the question to a three-judge panel from the federal courts. They differ in when that panel gets to weigh in on the decision.

Graham and Booker’s proposal, which also has backing from Judiciary Committee Democrats Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), would require the judges panel to review any attorney general’s decision to fire a special counsel before that firing could take effect. Tillis and Coons’ proposal would let the firing proceed according to current regulations, which they codify in the bill — but the fired special counsel would have the right to contest the administration’s decision in court. In that scenario, the judges panel would have two weeks from the day the special counsel’s case is filed to complete their review and determine whether the termination was acceptable.

Tillis and Coons, who pulled their bill together over the past two days, explained the difference as one to ensure that the legislation does not run afoul of constitutional separation of powers. Both senators, as well as Graham, said they expect they may merge their efforts after lawmakers return to Washington in September.

“I think we maybe can have a meeting of the minds. I really appreciate them doing it,” Graham said Thursday of Tillis and Coons’s bill. “I just have a different way of doing it.”

In either guise, the bill effectively would limit the president’s authority to hire and fire special counsels — a privilege that fell more squarely under the executive’s purview after Congress let an independent-counsel law established in the wake of the Watergate scandal expire in 1999, following Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton.

The lawmakers are not expecting that the president will like or support either proposal to protect the special counsel from being fired without cause. But they say they are convinced that there is enough support to pass such a law, even over Trump’s objections, because of the number of Republicans and Democrats speaking out in defense of Mueller and his probe.

Coons identified “a broader bipartisan concern that the president may take inappropriate action to interfere with the ongoing, important work of Bob Mueller,” he said, and guessed that “if the president were to fire the special counsel, the Senate might promptly take action to reappoint him.”

“This is the first step to put a speed bump in place against his improvident firing,” he said of his bill with Tillis.

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Group of GOP senators unveil their answer to Trump’s border wall

By Karoun Demirjian,

A group of Republican senators on Thursday unveiled their answer to President Trump’s border wall: a $15 billion venture to step up multifaceted border security without choking off trade.

The legislation, fronted by the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, comes as a rebuke to the president for his singular focus on getting a border wall built and getting Mexico to pay for it – an endeavor Trump himself dismissed as the “least important” matter that he and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto would discuss in a January phone call, but “politically this might be the most important.”

It also comes as a rejection of the House GOP leaders, who recently pledged to fully fund Trump’s wall, approving the first $1.6 billion installment on it as part of the House’s recently-passed defense authorization bill.

“Border security is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, we need an approach that will work at each unique place along the U.S.-Mexico border,” Cornyn told reporters Thursday.

[Transcript: Trump urged Mexican president to end his public defiance on border wall]

The senators behind the legislation framed it a chance to “regain the public’s confidence” and restore the public “trust deficit” in Congress after several rocky legislative months – not to mention years upon years’ worth of failed attempts to pass an immigration bill encompassing border security measures.

It also gives Republican lawmakers an immigration platform to latch onto that has enjoyed widespread support in the past, just a day after many party members were openly criticizing a proposal from Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) to severely reduce legal immigration that Trump endorsed.

Cornyn congratulated Cotton and Perdue Thursday “for initiating the debate again” on legal immigration, but was firm and clear that their bill was “a beginning, not the end.”

When Cornyn unveiled the bill Thursday, he was joined by Republican Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.), Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.). Their proposal authorizes $15 billion over four years to pay for border security infrastructure that includes a potential wall system, fences, levees, border surveillance technology – which the George W. Bush administration coined a “virtual wall” – and an increase in Border Patrol agents, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and immigration court prosecutors and judges. Those judges would also be required to hear cases of unaccompanied minors who cross the border in an expedited fashion.

Cornyn declined to entirely rule out the president procuring some money from Mexico to foot the bill, though he remarked that “we are used to Congress appropriating the money.”

The bill also incorporates legislation to end the “catch and release” of people who violate immigration law and to punish so-called “sanctuary cities” that refuse to turn over undocumented immigrants to federal authorities by withholding federal funds.

Finally, Cornyn’s bill envisions more resources for border crossings and other ports of entry to make them “more efficient” and ensure that “trade can continue to flourish.” Cornyn has stepped out in recent months to counter Trump’s pledge to either get rid of or entirely renegotiate the North American Free Trade Act, or NAFTA, trumpeting the pact’s benefits for Texas.

Most of the measures in Cornyn’s bill have passed Senate muster before, as part of a comprehensive bill that the body approved in 2013. That bill was the result of intense bipartisan negotiations, and it matched the enforcement measures with initiatives like a pathway to citizenship for certain immigrants living in the United States without official status.

But those olive branches to immigrants – considered key to bringing Democratic support on board – are not part of Cornyn’s most recent proposal.

Read more at PowerPost


Senate confirms Wray as next FBI director

By Karoun Demirjian,

The Senate on Tuesday voted to confirm Christopher A. Wray as the next FBI director, filling a critical post that has remained vacant since President Trump fired James B. Comey in May.

The vote was 92 to 5.

Trump’s firing of Comey immediately led to accusations that he was trying to impede the bureau’s Russia investigation and ultimately led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller. Comey later testified that Trump asked him for a “loyalty” oath and to drop a probe of former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn’s contacts with Russian officials.

Wray, a former senior Justice Department official known for his low-key demeanor, pledged to lawmakers during his confirmation hearing that he would never pledge loyalty to the president and that if Trump ever pressured him to drop an investigation, he would push back or resign. This pledge appeared to gain him the confidence of Senate Judiciary Committee lawmakers, who unanimously approved his nomination and urged their colleagues to vote in favor his confirmation.

“He told the committee that he won’t condone tampering with investigations, and that he would resign rather than be unduly influenced in any manner. Mr. Wray’s record of service, and his reputation, give us no reason to doubt him,” committee chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said Tuesday. “He made no loyalty pledges then, and I expect him never to make such a pledge moving forward.”

Read more at PowerPost


Another conservative House Republican calls on Mueller to resign

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) is calling on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to resign. (AP)

Another conservative House lawmaker is calling for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to resign, arguing that he has a conflict of interest that should disqualify him from running the Department of Justice’s probe of potential connections between President Trump’s surrogates and the Kremlin.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), a staunch conservative and one of the more senior members of the House Judiciary Committee, argued that Mueller and former FBI director James Comey have “a close friendship” and that thus, Mueller “appears to be a partisan arbiter of justice.”

Franks also criticized Mueller for bringing individuals to his team who donated to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, which he called “obviously deliberate partisan hirings” that “do not help convey impartiality.”

“Until Mueller resigns, he will be in clear violation of the law,” Franks concluded.

The focus on Mueller comes as his probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, including allegations of potential collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, accelerates. It also comes as some of Trump’s top surrogates — including his son, son-in-law and former campaign manager — are speaking to congressional committees behind closed doors about their participation in a June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower.

Franks is not the first member of Congress to call on Mueller to remove himself from the Russia probe — his fellow Arizona delegation member, freshman Republican Andy Biggs, already called on Mueller to recuse himself in June. Biggs cited similar arguments, though many — such as the assertion that Mueller and Comey, who served as FBI director and deputy attorney general during George W. Bush’s administration, were especially “close” — have been discredited.

Their arguments are, however, largely an echo of complaints Trump himself has made about Mueller as he also downplays the seriousness or merit of the Russia probe.

Both Arizona lawmakers calling for Mueller to step aside are members of the House Judiciary Committee, where Republicans just days ago called on Justice Department leaders to appoint a second special counsel “to investigate unaddressed matters,” arguing that Mueller’s purview was too “narrow in scope” to focus on episodes of election meddling unrelated to Trump.

Those episodes deserving special attention, in their assessment, include probing former attorney general Loretta Lynch’s “directive” to Comey “to mislead the American people on the nature” of the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s emails; investigating “the FBI’s reliance on ‘Fusion GPS,’ ” a firm behind a dossier of salacious but unverified details about Trump’s time in Russia; connections between the Clinton team and any foreign entities; and “selected leaks of classified information” — a favorite focal point for Trump supporters over the last several months.

The House Judiciary Committee has not been actively pursuing an investigation into alleged links between the Trump campaign and Russian surrogates as its counterpart committee in the Senate, or the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, have done.