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Thursday
May182017

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman top pick for Trump's new FBI director

Win McNamee/iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump says he is "very close" to choosing his nominee to replace James Comey as FBI director.

The president said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is his top choice in the Oval Office on Thursday afternoon. Lieberman was also former Vice President Al Gore's running mate in the 2000 election. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1989 to 2013.

Trump abruptly fired Comey last week amid an investigation into his campaign's potential ties to Russian officials.

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Thursday
May182017

Trump to Muir: Special counsel 'hurts our country terribly'

Pool/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump doubled down on his criticism Thursday of the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russian interference in last year's presidential election, telling ABC News' David Muir the action hurts the United States 'terribly.'

The comments came during a lunch with television network anchors at the White House Thursday as he was asked about the selection of former FBI Director Robert Mueller to lead the inquiry.

Muir asked the president what he’ll say to leaders around the world on his first foreign trip who are watching the headlines here in the United States and how he'll answer when asked if he supports the idea of a special counsel and if he was surprised by the move.

The president answered that he believed it was harmful.

“I believe it hurts our country terribly, because it shows we're a divided, mixed-up, not-unified country," said Trump.

Robert Mueller appointed special counsel to oversee probe into Russia's interference in election
Trump decries 'witch hunt' after special counsel appointed in Russia investigation
"We have very important things to be doing right now, whether it's trade deals, whether it's military, whether it's stopping nuclear -- all of the things that we discussed today," he added. "And I think this shows a very divided country."

The remarks echo sentiments conveyed by Trump in a pair of tweets Thursday morning. After the president was reported to have a measured response to the news Wednesday, he lashed out online, calling the probe a "witch hunt."

"This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!" tweeted Trump, who went on to note in an additional post that a special counsel was not appointed to investigate "the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration."

The president did not provide evidence of such acts' existence.

At the lunch, Trump portrayed the investigation as one driven by the Democratic party in response to his election victory, saying it was "a pure excuse for the Democrats having lost an election that they should have easily won."

"I think it shows division and it shows that we're not together as a country," continued Trump. "And I think it's a very, very negative thing. And hopefully, this can go quickly, because we have to show unity if we're going to do great things with respect to the rest of the world."

Watch “World News Tonight with David Muir” live from Washington, DC Thursday at 6:30 pm ET.

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Thursday
May182017

Trump intends to renegotiate NAFTA as early as August, letter to Congress says

ronniechua/iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The White House has formally told Congress that the Trump administration plans to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, starting a countdown clock until talks between the United States, Canada and Mexico can begin in August.

"NAFTA was negotiated 25 years ago, and while our economy and businesses have changed considerably over that period, NAFTA has not. Many chapters are outdated and do not reflect modern standards," reads a letter from U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to Congressional leadership on Thursday. "I am pleased to notify the Congress that the President intends to initiate negotiations with Canada and Mexico regarding modernization of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)."

The letter begins a 90-day window before beginning formal negotiations as early as August 16.

"The United States seeks to support higher-paying jobs in the United States and to grow the U.S. economy by improving U.S. opportunities under NAFTA," the letter reads.

Trump made criticism of NAFTA a staple of his presidential campaign last year, asserting that the United States was at a disadvantage in trade with its northern and southern neighbors. Trump blamed lopsided trade relationships around the globe for the loss of manufacturing jobs and lackluster economic growth.

"We understand that this is a 25-year-old agreement," he said at a State Department summit on drug cartels with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday. "The world has changed."

House speaker Paul Ryan also acknowledged the letter and his intention to work with the Trump team.

"I welcome the administration’s effort to improve and update NAFTA for the 21st century economy," Ryan said in a statement. "Congress looks forward to working hand-in-hand with the Trump administration to achieve the best deal possible for American workers and our economy."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the move was a "welcome first step, but the devil will be in the details."

"So far, this administration’s trade policy has been characterized by a lot of talk and no action," he said in a statement. "I hope this will change."

Canada or Mexico rank as the first or second largest export market for 30 of the 50 states in the country, according to information on the U.S. Trade Representative's website. The page says American manufacturing exports have climbed more than 250 percent, and exports of computers, furniture, paper and fabricated metals have tripled since 1993.

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Thursday
May182017

Mike Flynn's lawyers will not honor subpoena, Senate Intel chair says

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, R-N.C., said on Thursday that former national security adviser Mike Flynn's lawyers would not be honoring the committee's subpoena for documents related to Flynn's communications with Russian officials.

But Burr's team later backtracked on the claim.

"General Flynn's attorneys have not yet indicated their intentions regarding the Senate Intelligence Committee's subpoena," Burr's spokesperson said. "Consistent with the Committee's position since the beginning of or investigation, I welcome their willingness to cooperate."

Earlier Thursday, Burr told reporters on Capitol Hill: “Gen. Flynn's lawyers said that he would not honor the subpoena and that's not a surprise to the committee.” Burr added that the committee, which is investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 election, would be evaluating its next steps.

ABC News reached out to Flynn's legal team for comment.

Burr and Vice chair Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., announced in a statement released last Wednesday that the committee had subpoenaed Flynn for documents, and noted they made the initial request for the documents in late April. Flynn had declined to cooperate with the committee’s request in April.

Though Flynn has left the Trump administration, the controversy surrounding him has not subsided as newly announced special counsel Robert Mueller, Congress and the FBI investigate potential collusion between Trump campaign associates and the Russian government.

As national security adviser, Flynn held several phone calls with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Trump’s inauguration and immediately after.

Flynn resigned on Feb. 13 at the request of President Trump after it was revealed Flynn had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador and misled the Vice President and other administration officials about the nature of his conversations with Kislyak.

But following his departure, a lawyer for Flynn said that the retired lieutenant general would testify in front of the Senate committee in exchange for "assurances against unfair prosecution.”

"General Flynn has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit," said Flynn's lawyer, Robert Kelner.

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Thursday
May182017

Trump calls Russia probe 'single greatest witch hunt'

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump is responding to the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russia's interference in the 2016 election, calling the Russia probe the "single greatest witch hunt."

Trump also suggested Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and the Obama administration had committed "illegal acts" and there was "never a special counsel appointed!"

It was announced Wednesday that former FBI Director Robert Mueller would be the special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russia's meddling in last year's election and any possible ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia.

The appointment of a special counsel comes during a tumultuous period for the White House: the sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey and a memo reportedly written by Comey detailing a request Trump allegedly made to Comey to drop the investigation into former national security adviser Mike Flynn.

The special counsel announcement was made by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who the White House initially credited for Trump's firing of Comey. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from any existing or future investigations related to Russia.

The White House had "absolutely no indication" the appointment was coming and was given a heads up less than an hour before it was publicly announced, according to a senior White House official.

In a statement released Wednesday night, Trump shot down allegations that his campaign had ties to "any foreign entity" and said that he looks forward to "this matter concluding quickly."

"As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know -- there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity," the statement read.

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Thursday
May182017

Sen. Ben Sasse: Comey memo 'troubling' if true

US Senate(WASHINGTON) -- Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., has said that he finds Tuesday's report that President Donald Trump asked former FBI Director James Comey to end the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn "troubling."

In a wide-ranging interview on ABC News' Powerhouse Politics podcast, Sasse, who ended up on many American voters’ radar during the election when he expressed his disgust for then-candidate Trump on his Facebook page, shared his thoughts on the turmoil plaguing the White House.

Sasse, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has called for a full disclosure of Comey’s memos and any related tapes that the White House could conceivably have.

“It is really troubling if you have a situation where it seems like there’s political interference in decision-making about investigation and prosecution,” said Sasse.

The White House has denied the report: “While the president has repeatedly expressed his view that General Flynn is a decent man who served and protected our country, the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn. The president has the utmost respect for our law enforcement agencies, and all investigations. This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey."

Sasse, 45, went on to say, “The FBI must be an agency that the American people can trust and can know it is insulated from politics. The FBI director has a 10-year tenure for a reason. The public needs to understand why this should not be a blue or red jersey-wearing partisan in that job.”

Sasse also believes Russia is enemy No. 1.

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a thug and he presides over a 'thugocracy,'" Sasse said. "And he is an enemy of free speech, press, religion and assembly, which are the beating heart of the First Amendment and the American experiment. We need to understand that Russia -- they are not the good guys.”

But he doesn’t only fear for the U.S., he worries about those “digital natives” -- children who are addicted to their electronic devices.

“It is possible for them to think that going to the top of the mountain on Instagram and seeing a friend that does it too, might be a substitute for climbing that mountain himself,” he added.

Sasse is the author of a new book published this week, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis -- and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.

In the book, the senator shares lots of ideas about how to bring up strong, principled children, including making sure they get dirt under their fingernails. In fact, he sent his 14-year-old daughter to work on a cattle ranch.

So what’s on his bedside table right now to read? "Classified information," he said, with a chuckle.

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Thursday
May182017

Trump reaction to special counsel measured, says White House

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- Just prior to the Department of Justice's public announcement that former FBI Director Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to continue the investigation into Russian election interference, a group of senior White House staff members joined President Donald Trump in the Oval Office where he offered a measured response, according to a senior White House official.

The official said that the White House had "absolutely no indication" the appointment was coming. White House Counsel Don McGahn personally delivered the news to Trump after receiving a call from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who previously recused himself from issues pertaining to the election, was at the White House at the time, but it is unclear if he had any interaction with Trump.

The senior advisers, which included Vice President Mike Pence, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, Director of Strategic Communications Hope Hicks and Director of Social Media Dan Scavino, convened with Trump after McGahn shared the development to formulate a response.

According to the senior official with knowledge of the situation, Trump explained how the administration should respond and told his aides that it was an opportunity to focus on their agenda. The advisers then drafted a statement which was refined by the president before it was released.

It read, in part, "As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know -- there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity. I look forward to this matter concluding quickly."

The official indicated that, in some ways, the staff feels united by Mueller's appointment and that the inquiry allows for an easier response to questions about Russia -- staff can simply comment that it is under investigation.

Trump is still expected to hold a joint press conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Thursday, but sources say he will not answer questions about the special counsel.

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Thursday
May182017

Lewandowski: White House staff who don't fully agree with Trump's agenda 'should not be there'

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- Staff members in Donald Trump's White House should be "fully supporting the president's agenda" and should be fired for speaking to the press without authorization, according to Trump's former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski.

"Any person who serves in this administration, whether it’s in the White House or in some other department, that isn’t fully supporting the president’s agenda, should not be there. It’s very simple," Lewandowski said Thursday on ABC News' Good Morning America.

Lewandowski's comments come amid reports of increased tension among White House staffers after the appointment of a special counsel to lead the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

"And if you don’t think that the president’s agenda is the right agenda, then you have the prerogative as a staff member to leave at your earliest convenience," he said. "And [you] should be fired candidly if you’re speaking to the press outside of the course of the individuals who are authorized to speak to the press."

Trump has reportedly been turning to old campaign advisors for advice as his White House deals with the fallout from the president's decision to fire FBI Director James Comey last week. The existence of a memo Comey reportedly wrote after a February meeting with Trump at the White House came to light this week. Comey's memo reportedly said Trump had asked him to drop the investigation into his former national security adviser Michael Flynn's dealings with Russia.

Lewandowski, who was fired as Trump's campaign manager in June 2016, said he went to the White House this week "only as a visitor," but denied that he will formally join the Trump administration.

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller was assigned Wednesday by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to "oversee the previously-confirmed FBI investigation of Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election and related matters."

As special counsel, Mueller is expected to have the ability to take matters before a grand jury, issue subpoenas and assign federal agents to the case.

The White House had "absolutely no indication" the appointment was coming, a senior White House official told ABC News. White House Counsel Don McGahn personally delivered the news to Trump after receiving a call from Rosenstein. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who previously recused himself from issues pertaining to the election, was at the White House at the time, but it is unclear if he had any interaction with Trump.

A group of senior advisers, which included Vice President Mike Pence, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, Director of Strategic Communications Hope Hicks and Director of Social Media Dan Scavino, convened with Trump at the White House after McGahn shared the development to formulate a response.

The White House released a statement from the president over two hours later.

"As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know -- there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity," the statement read. "I look forward to this matter concluding quickly. In the meantime, I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country."

Lewandowski declined to provide specifics on his interactions with Trump but described the president as focused on doing "the people's business."

"He has an aggressive agenda," Lewandowski added.

When asked whether Trump understood the backlash his administration would receive with Comey's firing, Lewandowski described Trump as having "the privilege" to fire the FBI director at his discretion.

"The president has the privilege of firing James Comey," he said. "James Comey said that. And he decided that James Comey was no longer up for the task of being the director of the FBI. There is nothing wrong with that."

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Thursday
May182017

Chaffetz questions whether Comey memos are 'actually there'

US Congress(NEW YORK) -- Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, expressed skepticism about memos attributed by several news outlets to James Comey in an interview with Good Morning America Thursday and expressed his hope that the former FBI director would give testimony in "the light of day, in a public setting."

"I think in the light of day in a public setting he should be able to tell us about the materials, if they're there, and I question whether or not they're actually there," he said, adding that he has yet to hear back from Comey about his request for public testimony, which he hopes to schedule for next week.

According to a memo whose existence and content was first reported on by The New York Times on Tuesday and later confirmed to ABC by sources close to Comey, the former FBI director was asked in March by President Trump to drop the bureau's investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Trump fired Comey as director last week.

When questioned by GMA host George Stephanopoulos about his skepticism about the Comey documents, Chaffetz said, "Well nobody's seen them. Even the reporter that did the story hasn't seen them. Nobody that I know of, even the reporter, has not actually seen those documents."

"I want to look at the information and hear from the person who actually wrote it [the memo in question]," Chaffetz said. "I think that's the fair way Republicans and Democrats can look in the light of day in a public setting."

Chaffetz said he nonetheless thought that Comey's firing should be investigated.

"It's just not common that you go out and fire an FBI Director," he said. "So yeah, I think you could support that Congress provides some executive oversight in this case."

Chaffetz also questioned the appointment of a special counsel to take over the investigation into possible Russian interference during the 2016 U.S. election, which Comey had been leading until he was fired.

On Wednesday, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to lead the probe.

"I don't know that a special counsel is warranted at this point," Chaffetz said.

"I have not seen evidence of an actual crime," he added, before saying, "Robert Mueller is probably the best possible choice they could have made."

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Wednesday
May172017

Michael Flynn will be a key figure in Robert Mueller's special Russia probe

Win McNamee/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Trump’s short-lived National Security Advisor, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has emerged as a central figure in ongoing investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, which Former FBI Director Robert Mueller was appointed to oversee as special counsel on Wednesday.

ABC News has confirmed that a federal grand jury has issued subpoenas to Flynn’s private-sector associates and the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has requested documents detailing Flynn’s foreign contacts, his business clients, and his communications with the Russian ambassador.

This week brought word that former FBI Director James Comey kept detailed notes suggesting that, one day after Flynn was forced to resign for lying to Vice President Mike Pence, President Trump urged Comey during a February Oval Office meeting to “see your way clear to … letting Flynn go.” Trump aides have disputed Comey’s account, but if accurate, the Comey memos suggest Trump was growing increasingly uneasy about the investigations into Flynn’s conduct.

Flynn is a life-long military officer with a decorated career, much of it in operational roles overseeing the United States Army’s intelligence-gathering arm. He served in Afghanistan and Iraq, rising swiftly up the ranks. He commanded the 111th Military Intelligence Brigade, was director of intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command, and he was director of intelligence of the United States Central Command. He oversaw the tracking and killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Emir of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which eventually became the Islamic State. In 2011, he took over the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Richard Frankel, a retired FBI agent and ABC News contributor, said Flynn had a reputation for sharp elbows and found himself “in conflict with others who were not happy with his rise up the ranks, especially when he became director of the DIA.” In 2014, Flynn retired as a three-star general, reportedly after being forced out the of the senior intel post. Those close to him say the anger he harbored towards the Obama administration drove him to jump into campaign politics.

After appearing with several Republican candidates in the Fall of 2015, he moved squarely behind Trump, eventually becoming a vocal champion at the candidate’s campaign rallies and on television. When Trump was elected, he approached Flynn about becoming National Security Adviser. According to Michael Ledeen, a historian and neoconservative political analyst who cowrote the book "Field of Fight" with Flynn about battlefield intelligence, Flynn was initially reluctant.

“Trump wanted him although Flynn [initially] said he didn't want the job,” Ledeen told ABC News. “He's a very talented man. He revolutionized U.S. military battlefield intelligence and was attempting to do the same thing at DIA when he was fired for telling the truth under oath.”

But Flynn accepted, and many believe his new post as the senior national security adviser to President Trump, made him a target. One Flynn confidant told ABC News the probing into Flynn’s business background started even before the 2016 election.

Before rejoining the government, Flynn founded a consulting firm, the Flynn Intel Group, and accepted several paid speaking engagements. The first hints of controversy came when photos emerged from a December 2015 trip Flynn took to Moscow showing him seated within arm's reach of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia's state-owned TV network RT paid Flynn $33,750 to attend.

At the same time, his firm began doing work for a firm with ties to the Turkish government. The former Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey had served as an unpaid advisor to the group but told reporters he dropped out after attending a September 2016 meeting. Woolsey grew concerned about the work the firm was considering – including a brainstorming session in which the group entertained whisking a critic of the Turkish government out of the United States in the dark of night.

Perhaps more concerning, the firm had never registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for Turkey. Failing to register as a foreign agent can be a crime in some circumstances. In March, after it became clear the FBI was looking into possible registration violations, an attorney for Flynn made an effort to remedy the problem, filing papers detailing $530,000 worth of lobbying work Flynn had done for his Turkish client prior to Election Day.

But Flynn’s White House job became imperiled shortly after Justice Department lawyers began reading transcripts of recorded calls between Flynn and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak. Flynn had told Vice President Mike Pence that he had not discussed economic sanctions with Kislyak, but the transcripts revealed that was not true.

Sally Yates, who was serving as the acting attorney general, later told Congress that she was concerned that Flynn had lied to the vice president about his Russian contacts, and the Russians knew it. That, she argued, made him vulnerable to blackmail.

“We wanted to tell the White House as quickly as possible,” Yates testified in May. “To state the obvious: You don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians.”

Flynn has not spoken publicly since his resignation, but some close to him told ABC News he has grown uneasy watching Yates level accusations through the media. Frankel, the retired FBI agent and a friend of Flynn’s, told ABC News he did not agree with Yates’s conclusion that Flynn had been compromised by the Russians.

“Conversations between the National Security Advisor and a foreign official – Russian or otherwise -- that is not something that exposes him to blackmail,” Frankel said. “It’s done all the time. If someone tried to blackmail you, you would just call your boss and explain it. Lots of senior government officials speak with their counterparts around the world.”

In the days after his resignation, Flynn’s lawyer floated the idea that he would meet with Senate investigators in exchange for an offer of immunity, but political leaders called that idea premature. His legal team and supporters have continued to maintain that Flynn has done nothing wrong, and that the overheated political climate is fueling the ongoing probes into his conduct, but questions have persisted.

“We in Congress need to know who authorized his actions, permitted them and continued to let him have access to our most sensitive national security information despite knowing these risks,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee, in February. “We need to know who else within the White House is a current and ongoing risk to our national security.”

This week, at least, it appears that Flynn’s legal troubles have taken a back seat, as President Trump’s purported efforts to protect Flynn from scrutiny have landed Trump, once again, in the spotlight.

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