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U.S. orders Russia to close diplomatic offices in three cities

Here’s our look at the Trump administration and the rest of Washington:

Trump could pay a price if he hands out pardons in the Russia inquiry as he did for Joe Arpaio

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

President Trump’s granting of a full pardon to former Sheriff Joe Arpaio was seen by many legal experts as a sign of what may come in the special counsel’s inquiry into Russia’s meddling in last year’s presidential race and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.

Trump has insisted the investigation led by former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III is a “witch hunt” and should be shut down, the sooner the better. Some predict that the president will use his power to pardon anyone at any time for nearly any reason to make the investigation moot.

“Kim Jong Un was not the only leader testing his weapons” last week, said Bill Yeomans, a veteran Justice Department lawyer now working with the liberal Alliance for Justice, referring to the North Korean leader’s missile launch a day after Trump pardoned Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona.

“Trump launched a warning pardon that announced the weaponization of the pardon power,” Yeomans said.

Trump insiders who might benefit include Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and anyone else targeted by Mueller.

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Trump is considering ending DACA, but hasn’t decided, aides say

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

President Trump is still reviewing whether to end the Obama-era program that has protected from deportation more than 750,000 people brought to the country illegally as children, senior White House officials said on Thursday.

The officials denied the president had decided to end it, in response to press reports that Trump would announce the decision perhaps Friday.

“My position here today is that the administration is still reviewing the policy,” Trump’s homeland security advisor, Tom Bossert, told reporters.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said a decision to end the program “has not been finalized,” adding that it is being reviewed “from a legal perspective.”

Administration lawyers are studying whether the program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, could withstand an expected legal challenge from conservative state attorneys general that could be filed in court as soon as Sept. 5.

Senior officials from the departments of Justice and Homeland Security met last week to discuss ways to end the program — whether to do so immediately, phase it out or decline to defend it in court.

Trump said repeatedly on the campaign trail he would end the program and called it “unconstitutional.” But as president, he has said in interviews that he is sympathetic to people who were underage when they came into the country illegally and had nothing to do with the decision to come.

When Trump took office in January, aides had written an executive order that would have phased out the program by halting the renewal of two-year work permits issued to those who had submitted to a federal background check. Trump balked at signing the order.

But pressure on the president to act against DACA has continued to mount from hard-line supporters who see it as part of his promise to crack down on illegal immigration.

Congress expected to approve first Harvey relief funds as soon as next week, with more to follow

Congress will likely need to address Tropical Storm Harvey relief aid as soon as next week, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency quickly spending down its main disaster account.

Lawmakers already face a full September agenda when Congress resumes. But the fallout from Harvey and the need to swiftly provide assistance to disaster victims now tops the agenda.

“FEMA will likely run out of money before there’s a comprehensive number to address the entirety of the disaster response, so immediate action is needed,” said a senior Democratic aide.

As of early Wednesday, FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund had $2.3 billion, including $1.4 billion in the major disaster account, which was projected to fall to $830 million with outlays for temporary housing and other pending obligations, according to internal reports.

A FEMA spokesman declined to say how quickly funding would be depleted.

But Tom Bossert, the White House Homeland Security advisor, said an initial request for funding from Congress was coming soon.

“We’re going to go up and ask for a disaster supplemental shortly,” Bossert said.

Bossert said he expected a multi-phase process, with a first request for supplemental funds coming quickly. A second, more substantial funding request would likely come later.

“I will make that request shortly,” he said. “What we’ll do is come back later for a second supplemental request.”

President Trump is set to convene congressional leaders at the White House on Sept. 6, but already House and Senate leaders are talking among themselves about what will be expected.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reached out to Speaker Paul D. Ryan on Monday and spoke with White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly on Tuesday, pressing for emergency funds.

Congress has tangled over disaster funds in recent years, most markedly when Republicans voted in large numbers against relief for Hurricane Sandy victims, saying it should be paid for with funding cuts elsewhere. Even though Republicans held the majority in Congress, GOP leaders relied on Democrats for passage of that measure.

Both parties, though, appear poised to quickly approve disaster funds after Harvey swept through Texas and Louisiana, leaving more than 30 dead. Rain and floodwaters continue to menace the region.

The first tranche of funding may likely be proposed as a separate stand-alone bill, unclouded by other issues, to help ensure quick passage, despite the other must-pass measures requiring attention this fall.

Congress will have a dozen working days in session as it races to meet a Sept. 30 deadline to fund the government, averting a federal shutdown, and raise the debt limit to prevent a financial crisis, among other issues.

Conservatives, who have been reluctant to allow additional spending, warned against linking the relief to other measures.

Both the House and Senate appropriations committees have vowed to quickly address the needs.

“The Senate Appropriations Committee continues to monitor the situation in Texas and Louisiana and remains in contact with FEMA and other relevant authorities,” said Stephen Worley, a spokesman for the panel chaired by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). “Chairman Cochran is prepared to respond quickly to any requests for supplemental appropriations for Hurricane Harvey response and recovery.”

Pentagon chief says he’s been ‘widely misinterpreted,’ denies any rift with Trump

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis.
Defense Secretary James N. Mattis.
(Cliff Owen / Associated Press)

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis moved Thursday to knock down speculation that he was at odds with the White House, less than a week after a video of him talking to troops about American values led to widespread speculation that he was criticizing President Trump.

In the impromptu speech to U.S. forces deployed in Jordan, which was surreptitiously recorded on cellphone video, Mattis talked about political divisiveness in the wake of the racially inspired violence in Charlottesville, Va.

“Our country, right now, it’s got problems that we don’t have in the military,” Mattis said. “You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.”

When the video became public and circulated widely on social media, many interpreted the remarks as a slight against Trump’s leadership.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday, Mattis called that interpretation “ludicrous.” He was reiterating what the president had said about the need for unity, he said.

“If I say ‘six’ and the president says ‘half a dozen,’ they’re going to say I disagreed with him,” Mattis said during the unscheduled appearance at the Pentagon press room.

The video, however, was not the only instance in which Mattis appeared to be saying something different from the president.

On Wednesday, Mattis publicly emphasized diplomacy as the path forward in the increasingly tense situation with North Korea. The statement came just hours after Trump tweeted that “talking is not the answer” to the problems with the defiant communist country.

Pyongyang has fired 21 missiles during 14 tests since February. The latest missile test, which flew over northern Japan on Monday, had triggered Trump’s tweet.

Even though Mattis said the “solutions” to the North Korea problem were likely to be found through diplomatic channels, he emphasized Thursday that he did not disagree with the president.

“There was no contradiction,” he said. “I agree with the president that we should not be talking to a nation that’s firing missiles over the top of Japan, an ally.”

Mattis acknowledged, however, that there are issues on which he and Trump disagreed.

In one example that was widely publicized, Trump reconsidered his calls for resuming the practice of waterboarding of terrorism suspects after talking to Mattis. The president also warmed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance, which he had previously called “obsolete,” following consultation with Mattis.

“First time I met with President Trump, we disagreed on three things in the first 40 minutes I met with him — on NATO, no torture and something else — and he hired me,” Mattis said. “This is not a man who is immune to being persuaded if he thinks you’ve got an argument.”

Despite the initial disagreements with Trump, Mattis agreed to serve as Defense secretary even though that meant coming out of retirement and back into the public spotlight.

“When a president of the United States asks you to do something ... I don’t think it’s old-fashioned or anything, I don’t care if it’s a Republican or Democrat, we all have an obligation to serve,” he said Thursday. “That’s all there is to it. And so, you serve.”

More recently, Trump settled on a new military strategy in Afghanistan, largely shaped by Mattis’ advice, after months of bitter internal debates within his national security team.

Trump said in announcing the strategy that his initial instinct had ben to “pull out.”

Ultimately, he was persuaded by his generals — Mattis, national security advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — to provide U.S. commanders with additional troops and broader authority to pursue militant forces in Afghanistan.

Mattis confirmed that he has signed the first deployment orders to send additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, but would not specify how many were being sent.

A highly respected four-star Marine general before his retirement, Mattis is a hard-charging but scholarly figure who issued heavy reading lists to subordinates and who carried “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius on his deployments.

Trump likes to call him by the nickname “Mad Dog,” even though Mattis dislikes the moniker, dismissing it as something a “reporter came up with years ago on a slow news day.”

Former DeVry University official chosen by White House to head Education Department student aid enforcement unit

(J Pat Carter / Associated Press)

The Trump administration announced Thursday that a former official at for-profit DeVry University has been picked to head an Education Department unit that polices colleges for student aid fraud.

Last year, DeVry paid $100 million to settle federal claims it misled students.

Julian Schmoke Jr., who was an associate dean at DeVry from 2008 to 2012, will lead federal student aid enforcement activities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said.

“In addition to a track record of successfully advocating for students for more than 20 years, he brings experience in higher education leadership, instruction and accreditation, including serving in an academic capacity at DeVry University, where he ensured the delivery of a quality education to students,” the Education Department said in a news release.

“Dr. Schmoke will lead a team focused on identifying, investigating and adjudicating statutory and regulatory violations of the federal student aid programs and on resolving borrower defense claims,” the release said.

The move drew criticism given DeVry’s troubles and the Trump administration’s efforts to reverse an Obama administration crackdown on for-profit colleges.

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U.S. orders Russia to close three diplomatic offices

Responding to a Russian government demand to drastically slash its diplomatic staff in Russia, the Trump administration Thursday ordered Moscow to close three of its consular offices in the United States.

Russia will be required to close its Consulate General in San Francisco, the chancery annex in Washington and the consular annex in New York, the State Department announced.

The move was the latest tit-for-tat action in worsening relations between Washington and Moscow, despite President Trump’s expressions of friendliness toward President Vladimir Putin.

Angered over a package of congressionally mandated economic sanctions, Russia had ordered the U.S. to cut its staff in Russia by around two-thirds, to 455.

Trump called him “my African American.” But he condemns the president’s treatment of black America

On the day that changed his life, Gregory Cheadle almost stayed in bed.

He was tired — he traveled a lot in his long-shot bid for Congress — but asked himself: How often does a candidate for president come to the far reaches of Northern California? And why pass up a crowd and the chance to hand out more fliers?

So Cheadle roused himself that June 2016 morning and secured a spot up close when Donald Trump swooped in for a rally at Redding’s municipal airport.

It was hot, the atmosphere was loose and Trump’s patter seemed more stand-up comedy than campaign spiel. He went into one of those sidelong digressions, about protesters and an African American — “great fan, great guy” — and, by the way, whatever happened to him?

It was then, Cheadle said, he raised his hand and jokingly shouted, “I’m here.”

Trump looked and pointed, his voice a throaty rumble. “Look at my African American over here!” he exclaimed. “Are you the greatest?”

In the days and weeks that followed Cheadle was attacked on social media and harassed by people who dug up his phone number and email address. For a time he stayed home, too nervous to venture outside.

All, he said, because the media portrayed him as something he was not and never has been: a Trump sycophant.

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Lobbyist who attended Trump Tower meeting with Trump Jr. speaks to grand jury, reports say

(Associated Press )

A grand jury used by Special Counsel Robert Mueller has heard secret testimony from a Russian-American lobbyist who attended a June 2016 meeting with President Trump’s eldest son, the Associated Press has learned.

A person familiar with the matter confirmed to the AP that Rinat Akhmetshin had appeared before Mueller’s grand jury in recent weeks. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the secret proceedings.

The revelation is the clearest indication yet that Mueller and his team of investigators view the meeting, which came weeks after Trump had secured the Republican presidential nomination, as a relevant inquiry point in their broader probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The meeting included Donald Trump Jr.; the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. Emails released by Trump Jr. show he took the meeting expecting that he would be receiving damaging information about Hillary Clinton as part of what was described to him as a Russian government effort to aid the Trump campaign.

The Financial Times first reported Akhmetshin’s grand jury appearance. Reached by the AP, Akhmetshin declined comment. Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller, also declined comment Wednesday night.

The confirmation of Akhmetshin’s grand jury testimony comes after he spoke at length about his involvement in the Trump Tower meeting in an interview with the AP last month.

Akhmetshin, a former Soviet military officer who served in a counterintelligence unit, is also a well-known Washington lobbyist. He has been representing Russian interests trying to undermine the story of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison and is the namesake of a U.S. sanctions law.

Akhmetshin has been reported to have ties to Russian intelligence but he has denied that, calling the allegations a “smear campaign.”

Mueller and his team first signaled their interest in the Trump Tower gathering last month by contacting an attorney for at least some of the Russians who attended.

The meeting at issue was disclosed earlier this year to Congress and first revealed by the New York Times.

Trump Jr. has offered evolving explanations for the circumstances of the meeting, initially saying that the purpose was to discuss adoption and later acknowledging that he anticipated receiving information that he thought could be damaging to Clinton.

In addition to Akhmetshin, other attendees at the meeting included Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, music publicist Rob Goldstone — who helped arrange the gathering — and a translator. Ike Kaveladze, who also goes by the name Irakly Kaveladze, also attended the meeting. Kaveladze works for a Russian developer who once partnered with Trump to bring the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow.

An email exchange posted to Twitter by Trump Jr. showed him conversing with Goldstone, who wanted him to meet with someone he described as a “Russian government attorney,” who supposedly had dirt on Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” Trump Jr. wrote in one email response.

U.S. has more troops in Afghanistan than previously disclosed, Pentagon reveals

An Afghan soldier mans a checkpoint in Jalalabad on June 10, 2017.
An Afghan soldier mans a checkpoint in Jalalabad on June 10, 2017.
(Ghulamullah Habibi / EPA)

The Pentagon revealed Wednesday that roughly 11,000 U.S. troops are currently deployed in Afghanistan, 2,600 more than the U.S. military had previously disclosed to the public.

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana W. White and Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., director of the U.S. military’s Joint Staff, blamed the significant undercount on head-counting rules the Obama administration had devised.

The Obama-era policies did not include troops deployed for less than six-months -- a stint the military considers a “temporary basis” -- as part of the military’s total for Afghanistan. Because the Obama administration had set caps on the number of troops allowed to be deployed to active war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, U.S. commanders found ways to supplement their forces by “temporarily” adding additional troops who would not be counted.

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis expressed frustration with the approach and ordered a comprehensive review to give a more accurate picture of the U.S. military footprint, following last week’s announcement by President Trump of a new military strategy in Afghanistan.

“The secretary has been clear about his commitment to transparency in our public reporting procedures and increasing commanders’ ability to adapt to battlefield conditions in countering emergent threats,” White told reporters at the Pentagon.

“Following a comprehensive review of our South Asia strategy, the secretary has determined we must simplify our accounting methodology and improve ... the public’s understanding of America’s military commitment in Afghanistan.”

The new policies “will balance informing the American people, maintaining operational security and denying the enemy any advantage,” White said, adding that the Pentagon is also reviewing its practices for disclosing troop numbers in Iraq and Syria.

“The fight is different in Iraq and Syria than it is in Afghanistan,” McKenzie said. “But in both theaters, eventually we’ll apply the same two pillars: balancing transparency of reporting with a requirement to protect the forces on the ground”

The Pentagon is still examining how many additional troops to deploy to join the 11,000 U.S. and 5,000 North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops now in Afghanistan. The U.S. and allied militaries train and advise Afghan security forces as they seek to quell a resurgent Taliban, Islamic State militants and other militias that have kept much of the country at war.

Trump has given Mattis the authority to send up to 4,000 more troops to the battlefield. U.S. warplanes already have stepped up the Afghan war, dropping 1,984 bombs and missiles so far this year -- more than twice as many as in the same period a year ago, according to Air Force statistics.

1:55 p.m.: This post was updated with additional Pentagon comments.

Pentagon to convene panel on implementing Trump’s ban on transgender personnel in U.S. military

Protesters take to the streets against President Trump's announcement to ban transgender individuals from serving in the U.S. military.
(Associated Press)

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis says the Pentagon won’t change its policy of allowing transgender people to serve in the U.S. military until he receives recommendations from a panel that is supposed to report back on the impact of a ban.

The panel will be drawn from the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, but its members have yet to be named. They will examine how the Pentagon can implement President Trump’s directive banning transgender individuals from entering the armed forces.

Mattis’ statement Tuesday night came in response to Trump’s memo last Friday that directed Mattis, in consultation with secretary of Homeland Security, to submit a plan to him by Feb. 21. Trump has yet to appoint a new Homeland Security chief to replace John Kelly, who became White House chief of staff.

“As directed, we will develop a study and implementation plan, which will contain the steps that will promote military readiness, lethality, and unit cohesion, with due regard for budgetary constraints and consistent with applicable law,” Mattis said.

He said the panel will be made up of people with “mature experience, most notably in combat and deployed operations, and seasoned judgment to this task.”

In the interim, currently serving transgender troops will remain in the armed forces under existing policy, he said.

That policy, which was begun by President Obama last year after a lengthy Pentagon review, placed protection of gender rights in the military on par with race, religion, color, sex and sexual orientation. The move was part of a broader initiative to bring the military in line with shifts with social attitudes.

For the first time, transgender service members could serve openly, and several thousand people in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard did so. The services had to provide medical and training plans, and arrange full implementation by July 1, 2017.

Mattis had pushed that deadline back six months before Trump unexpectedly announced on Twitter on July 26 that he planned to reverse Obama’s policy entirely, saying the military would neither accept nor allow transgender people to serve.

Mattis says U.S. still aiming for diplomacy with North Korea despite Trump’s tweets to the contrary

U.S. Defense Secretary James N. Mattis.
(Cliff Owen / Associated Press)

Hours after President Trump tweeted that “talking is not the answer” in regards to the increasingly tense situation with North Korea, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis emphasized diplomacy as the path forward.

“We’re never out of diplomatic solutions,” he told reporters Wednesday while greeting South Korea’s defense minister, Song Young-moo, at the Pentagon

“We continue to work together, and the minister and I share responsibility to provide for the protection of our nation, our populations and our interests, which is what we are here to discuss today,” he said.

Trump had taken to Twitter less than three hours earlier to respond to North Korea’s latest missile test, which flew over northern Japan on Monday, and to subsequent threats from the isolated nation’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

“The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning.

The statement raised questions about what the president meant, if diplomacy was not the way forward. Trump’s Cabinet members, including Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have repeatedly advocated for dialogue to ease tensions with the defiant communist country.

North Korean state media quoted Kim saying that Monday’s test of a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile was “the first step of the military operation” to target Guam, a U.S. territory that’s home to U.S. Navy and Air Force bases.

North Korea has fired 21 missiles during 14 tests since February, including three on Saturday, with many landing in the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea.

Last month, North Korea successfully test launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles — weapons in theory capable of striking the U.S. mainland, including California.

Kremlin confirms it received email from Trump lawyer but never responded

In this Dec. 16, 2016 file photo, Michael Cohen, an attorney for Donald Trump, arrives in Trump Tower in New York.
(Richard Drew / Associated Press)

The Kremlin on Wednesday confirmed it received an email from President Trump’s personal lawyer during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in which the lawyer asked for help with a potential skyscraper project in Moscow.

Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said he did not respond to lawyer Michael Cohen’s email because the Kremlin does not address “such business requests.”

“It is not our job,” Peskov told reporters in a conference call Wednesday.

The Washington Post reported Monday that a Cohen statement to a House Intelligence Committee indicated that the president’s company pursued a project in Moscow during the Republican primary. The company later abandoned the project for unspecified reasons. The committee is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

The email specifically asked for help with plans to build a Trump Tower skyscraper in Moscow, a plan which Cohen said he was working on with Felix Sater, a Russian-born New York businessman who claimed to have deep connections in Russia. The New York Times reported that Sater told Cohen Russian government approval was required for the project to move forward and suggested that Cohen reach out to Peskov directly for assistance.

“Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote in an email to Cohen. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”

Peskov said his office had located a copy of Cohen’s 2016 email, which was sent to a general address for the Kremlin press office. The address can be easily found online, he told reporters.

Cohen’s email said “the business had been stalled and they were asking for help or some kind of recommendation about how to advance the issue,” Peskov said.

“We left it unanswered,” Peskov said.

The issue was never discussed with the Russian president, because it would be “impossible to discuss with President Putin the hundreds and thousands of requests of all kinds from a variety of countries” that are received in that general Kremlin address, Peskov said.

The Kremlin spokesman said he did not know Cohen personally.

“No, we never met, sadly … or thankfully,” Peskov said.