House Russia probe ending as it began: A mess

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On the roster: House Russia probe ending as it began: A mess - I’ll Tell You What: Battling Bannon - Trump lawyer threatens suit to stop bombshell book - Congress, WH leaders make ‘progress’ on budget talks - Brushless car wash


It was always something of a dubious question whether Congress could handle a matter so sensitive and so politically charged as investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.

A year later and we have a loud and clear answer: Nope.

Senate investigators are to be commended for the degree of bipartisanship and circumspection offered by members of both parties. Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., and top Democrat Mark Warner, D-Va., deserve credit, as do their counterparts on the Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Diane Feinstein, D-Calif. 

In the end, the Senate settled on the achievable – focusing on election protection and oversight of the concurrent Justice Department probe – rather than trying to deliver on the promise of providing a definitive answer as to contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians.

But to say that the House Intelligence Committee has made a hash of its probe into Russian election meddling is an insult to good corned beef.

It is now 10 months until the next election and the House panel has been worse than a bust. Rather than adding clarity and light, its efforts have increased confusion, deepened partisanship and made Americans less confident in the security of our electoral process.

This is hardly a new concept, even if the failures in this case were more consequential. 

There’s an old game in Washington in which Congress serves as the ready irrigation system for leaks of classified information. We certainly saw that with the initial intelligence report on Russian meddling after the election. Unwilling to release the information himself, then-President Obama shoved the findings over to Congress, from whence the findings flowed like the waters of Victoria Falls.

But it works the other way, too. 

Lawmakers, who hold special security clearances by dint of their committee posts, know which witnesses to call and which questions to ask in larger closed-door hearings. Once a larger group has heard the relevant information, leaks become much harder to trace. And the House Intelligence Committee has been a gusher.

Ranking Democrat Adam Schiff of California primed the pump in the early going, turning what was imagined as a position of responsibility transcending partisan fights into a tool for public posturing and casting himself as the leader of the self-styled resistance. Whether he himself was the source of so many salacious leaks we cannot know, but he was at the very least more than willing to take advantage of them as they came along.

It was disappointing but inevitable then when Republicans on the committee, led by Chairman Devin Nunes, returned fire and started their own public effort, this time to discredit the work of both federal law enforcement and the committee itself. Nunes, who was forced out of leading the inquiry for a time by Democrats, got his payback.

Both Schiff and Nunes succeeded in their own ways and for their own partisan audiences. For the impeach-first-ask-questions later crowd, Schiff helped feed a narrative about deep corruption and witting collusion. For Team MAGA, Nunes and his crew helped sow seeds of doubt about the criminal investigation itself. 

But in their real duty to the American people – to impartially and discretely investigate what happened in 2016 – the House committee let the side down. Maybe the task was too great, but the consequences of failure will be real. 

For those who understandably worry about the dangers of powerful, unelected special prosecutors, the ability of Congress to expeditiously and fairly handle such matters is especially crucial. After watching the conduct of Congress in this matter, that argument is substantially weakened.

Nunes says he is now satisfied with the disclosures from the Justice Department over the investigation into the Trump campaign. Good. He can do a great deal to restore confidence in his committee by swiftly bringing the probe to a conclusion and, hopefully, offering some solid, bipartisan recommendations for legislation that might prevent future interference in our campaigns and elections.

“If the periods be separated by short intervals, the measures to be reviewed and rectified will have been of recent date, and will be connected with all the circumstances which tend to vitiate and pervert the result of occasional revisions.” – Alexander Hamilton or James Madison, Federalist No. 50

Nat Geo: “Especially during fishing season, hundreds of eagles come to scavenge and nest in [Aleutian Islands, Alaska], which is home to about 4,400 human residents. The birds make their presence known from atop telephone poles and stoplights. They accost people who wander too close during nesting season, sending victims to the medical clinic for scalp stitches. And they swarm every boat that comes into port, festooning the rigging by the dozen like baleful Christmas ornaments. We’re used to seeing America’s national bird depicted as a majestic hero plucking wild salmon from pristine streams. But here you can see eagles for what they really are: scrappy, opportunistic feeders. If fresh fish isn’t available, the birds will eat seagulls, ducks, squirrels, mice, the occasional raven, bits of rotten meat dug out of the trash—or, in one case, a piece of pepperoni pizza snatched out of a teenager’s hand. Like us, eagles are adaptable. We should be proud.”

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Trump net job-approval rating: -20.6 points
Change from one week ago: up 0.6 points

[President Trump’s score is determined by subtracting his average job disapproval rating in the five most recent, methodologically sound public polls from his average approval rating, calculated in the same fashion.]

This week Dana Perino and Chris Stirewalt talk all about the president’s Tuesday night tweet storm and the Bannon memo that followed. Plus, the duo discuss their new book club, Dana shares her tips for road trips and Chris tries his hand at this week’s trivia. LISTEN AND SUBSCRIBE HERE

USA Today:President Trump’s lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter Thursday to the author and publisher of an explosive new book about the White House, claiming that the book was defamatory and libelous and should not be published or distributed. ‘Your publication of the false/baseless statements about Mr. Trump gives rise to, among other claims, defamation by libel, defamation by libel per se, false light invasion of privacy, tortious interference with contractual relations, and inducement of breach of contract,’ the letter from Trump attorney Charles Harder reads, per a copy obtained by USA TODAY. The letter demands that the publisher, Henry Holt and Co., cease and desist publication, release and dissemination of the book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. The book, written by journalist Michael Wolff, is set for release next week. The letter also demands that no excerpts or summaries be released, and that Wolff and his publisher issue a ‘full and complete retraction and apology.’”

Lawyers lean on Bannon, too -
Fox News: “President Trump’s lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter Wednesday night… Charles Harder, Trump’s attorney, charges in the letter that [Steve Bannon] violated a non-disclosure agreement signed during the campaign by disclosing confidential information, speaking to the media about the campaign and disparaging members of the Trump family. Additionally, Harder suggests that Bannon told lies that defamed and slandered Trump. … In a statement Wednesday night, Harder wrote that Bannon’s actions give rise to ‘numerous legal claims including defamation by libel and slander, and breach of his written confidentiality and non-disparagement agreement with our clients. Legal action is imminent.’”

Lordy, there are tapes! -
 Axios: “Michael Wolff has tapes to back up quotes in his incendiary book — dozens of hours of them. Among the sources he taped … are Steve Bannon and former White House deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh. … Although the White House [Wednesday] portrayed Wolff as a poseur, he spent hours at a time in private areas of the West Wing, including the office of Reince Priebus when he was chief of staff. The White House says Wolff was cleared for access to the West Wing fewer than 20 times. Wolff, a New Yorker, stayed at the Hay Adams Hotel when he came down to D.C., and White House sources frequently crossed Lafayette Park to meet him there.”

Wolff source Walsh under pressure at Trump PAC -
 WashEx: “A group of White House officials are reportedly weighing whether to pressure America First Policies, which is closely aligned with President Trump, to fire a staffer who criticized the president to author Michael Wolff. But in a statement to the Washington Examiner on Thursday, the group’s president said Katie Walsh, a senior adviser to the group, is there to stay. According to Wolff’s new tell-all book about the Trump White House, Walsh told Wolff directly that dealing with the president was like ‘trying to figure out what a child wants,’ citing his supposedly short attention span and inability to absorb policy details or memos.”

Meanwhile, McConnell says WH reaction to Bannon was ‘perfect’ - The Hill: “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reportedly told President Trump that the White House’s reaction to former chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who criticized the president and his family in a new book, was ‘perfect.’ ‘He told the president it was perfect and he wouldn’t change a word,’ one person familiar with the discussion said, according to The Washington Post.”

Bannon stands by his man - WashEx: “Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said he still supports President Trump, despite irking the White House earlier Wednesday after excerpts of a forthcoming book featured unflattering comments from Bannon about the Trump family. ‘The President of the United States is a great man,’ Bannon said during the ‘Breitbart News Tonight’ radio show on Wednesday after a caller asked him about Trump’s harsh response to Bannon in the wake of the excerpts’ release. ‘You know I support him day in and day out.’”

Battle for Breitbart? - 
WashTimes: “Following his cryptic Tweet identifying Steve Bannon’s new benefactor, enigmatic Chinese billionaire Guo WenguiMatt Drudge followed up on Twitter with a personal and impassioned plea for a new direction at Breitbart News: The message accompanying a photo of the late Andrew Breitbart reads: ‘The terrific Larry Solov and Susie Breitbart will take Breitbart into the fresh future. Has it really been 10 yrs since Andrew told me on Santa Monica pier he was going to do it?! His first hire Alex Marlow [he was 21] became one of the best news editors in the world!’ Larry Solov was Breitbart’s long-time friend (they were neighbors in Brentwood. CA and had been pals since the age of four) and business partner who became the President and CEO of Breitbart News after Andrew’s sudden and tragic death in 2012.”

Bannon’s 2018 plan looks like a bust -
Politico: “With a single statement from President Donald Trump, former White House strategist Steve Bannon has gone from kingmaker to political liability. After his ouster from the White House late last summer, Republican Senate candidates of all stripes sought the backing of the Breitbart chairman and his affiliated political group, the Great America Alliance. The thinking was that an endorsement from Bannon would provide an implicit Trump seal of approval, even if the president himself couldn’t or wouldn’t wade into a Republican primary battle. … Whether Wednesday’s Bannon-Trump blowup will be a temporary breakup or permanent rupture could determine how much of a factor the Breitbart chief will turn out to be in the midterms. A lasting breakup could, at least, create an awkward split among Trump loyalists who also devoutly back Bannon’s nationalist brand of politics.”

He’s already lost support from Mercer -
The Hill: “Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon has reportedly lost the support of billionaire backer Rebekah Mercer after he suggested he might run for president himself. A person close to Mercer told The Washington Post that she no longer supports Bannon. According to the report, Mercer was frustrated with Bannon’s strategy in the Alabama Senate special election and pulled her funding after he told other major conservative donors that Mercer would back Bannon in his own presidential bid.”

But wait, there’s more! Wolff: ‘My Year Inside Trump’s Insane White House’ -
Hollywood Reporter: “Donald Trump’s small staff of factotums, advisors and family began, on Jan. 20, 2017, an experience that none of them, by any right or logic, thought they would — or, in many cases, should — have, being part of a Trump presidency. Hoping for the best, with their personal futures as well as the country’s future depending on it, my indelible impression of talking to them and observing them through much of the first year of his presidency, is that they all — 100 percent — came to believe he was incapable of functioning in his job. At Mar-a-Lago, just before the new year, a heavily made-up Trump failed to recognize a succession of old friends.”

No more personal phones in the West Wing -
Bloomberg: “The White House is banning its employees from using personal mobile phones while at work in the West Wing, despite concerns among some staffers that they’ll be cut off from children and other relatives trying to reach them. ‘The security and integrity of the technology systems at the White House is a top priority for the Trump administration and therefore starting next week the use of all personal devices for both guests and staff will no longer be allowed in the West Wing,’ press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement Thursday. … White House chief of staff John Kelly imposed the ban, citing security concerns. President Donald Trump has repeatedly complained about press leaks since taking office, but aides said the change isn’t connected to concerns about unauthorized disclosures to news organizations.”

Politico: “Congressional leaders emerged from closed-door talks with Trump administration officials Wednesday claiming progress toward a budget deal but without any breakthroughs to announce — with less than three weeks to go before another government funding deadline. At issue are fierce debates over federal spending levels as well as immigration and border security. The meeting, which lasted more than an hour in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office, included Ryan (R-Wis.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), as well as White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney and White House legislative director Marc Short. Following the confab, Republicans from the House, Senate and White House issued a joint statement that highlighted their support for higher defense spending and criticized any effort by Democrats to insist on including protections for young undocumented immigrants in a budget deal.”

Feds show uncertainty regarding tax cuts - WSJ: “Federal Reserve officials in December debated whether looming tax cuts might require them to raise short-term interest rates more aggressively in 2018 than last year, when they lifted borrowing costs three times. Officials expressed growing confidence in the strength of the labor market and the economy, according to minutes of the Fed’s Dec. 12-13 policy meeting, which were released Wednesday. Since the meeting, Congress approved and President Donald Trump signed into law a $1.5 trillion tax cut, which could muddy…”

Cuomo to sue federal government on GOP tax law - Bloomberg: “New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said his administration plans to sue the federal government over the new Republican tax law, on the grounds that it’s unconstitutional because it discriminates against New York and other states that voted against President Donald Trump. ‘Make no mistake, they’re robbing the blue states to give money to red states,’ Cuomo said during his State of the State speech in Albany Wednesday. … Cuomo, who described the Trump presidency as ‘the most hostile federal administration in history,’ said the changes to state and local tax deductions in the bill will raise New Yorkers’ property and income taxes by at least 20 percent. The governor added that New York state already contributes $48 billion more annually to the federal government than it gets back.”

Sessions rolls back Obama era policy on legalized marijuana - AP: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rescinded an Obama-era policy that paved the way for legalized marijuana to flourish in states across the country, creating new confusion about enforcement and use just three days after a new legalization law went into effect in California. President Donald Trump’s top law enforcement official announced the change Thursday. Instead of the previous lenient-federal-enforcement policy, Sessions’ new stance will instead let federal prosecutors where marijuana is legal decide how aggressively to enforce longstanding federal law prohibiting it. Sessions’ plan drew immediate strong objection from Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, one of eight states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use.”

Trump shut downs commission investigating voter fraud - NYT: “President Trump on Wednesday abruptly shut down a White House commission he had charged with investigating voter fraud, ending a brief quest for evidence of election theft that generated lawsuits, outrage and some scholarly testimony, but no real evidence that American elections are corrupt. On Thursday, Mr. Trump called for requiring voter identification in a pair of Twitter posts because the voting system ‘is rigged.’ ‘Push hard for Voter Identification!’ Mr. Trump wrote. Mr. Trump did not acknowledge the commission’s inability to find evidence of fraud, but cast the closing as a result of continuing legal challenges. … In fact, no state has uncovered significant evidence to support the president’s claim, and election officials, including many Republicans, have strongly rejected it.”

Fox News Senior Judicial Analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano provides his 2018 office pool: “19) One year from today, a. Hillary and Bill Clinton will have been indicted by a federal grand jury for operating a criminal enterprise. b. Roger Clemens will be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. c. none of President’s Trump’s 2017 advisers will be working for him at the White House. d. more people will be on ObamaCare than were in 2017.” Play along and see how your answers compare to the Judge’s. More here.


Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., announces he will retire at the end of the year - The Hill

Republican wins House of Delegates tie-breaker in Va. shifting control in House - WashTimes

“Joe, Mitch needs your help! He wants you to negotiate!” – Overheard on the Senate floor yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer D-N.Y., talking to Joe Biden. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was standing close by.

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WCAX: “Our NEK native Darren Perron joked that you might call this a Northeast Kingdom car wash! The Dunn family in Victory (Vermont) spotted a moose stopping by for a salty snack, licking road salt off their car just off Granby Road. The moose took off when a truck approached. But the family tells us the moose has come by the last couple of days.”

Chris Stirewalt is the politics editor for Fox News. Brianna McClelland contributed to this report. Want FOX News Halftime Report in your inbox every day? Sign up here.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C.