“Trump said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia.”

Developments on Day 139 of the Trump Administration:

Comey Releases Testimony Pointing to Trump’s Attempted Obstruction of Justice

Even before testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, former FBI Director James Comey steps up pressure on Donald Trump by releasing an advance copy of his testimony.

Comey’s nine-page statement goes into details of his three meetings and six phone calls with Trump since January 6. Taken from notes written immediately after the discussions, they depict Trump’s repeated attempts to limit the expanding inquiry into links between his associates and Russian officials. On three occasions, Trump sought assurances that he was not under personal investigation by the FBI.

Read the statement

He asked what we could do to “lift the cloud. I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could, and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our having done the work well. He agreed, but then re-emphasized the problems this was causing him.

The gist of the statement was already known, in revelations by Comey’s associates since Trump fired the FBI director on May 9 because of the Trump-Russia investigation. It includes Trump’s demand for personal loyalty from Comey in late January, made in the context of a veiled caution that the FBI director’s job depended on the President’s approval.
However, the statement adds matter-of-fact detail and Comey’s conclusion that Trump was stepping beyond his authority, to the point where the FBI director asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions — unsuccessfully — to deal with the President.

The release of the statement pre-empted any Trump attacks on Comey before Thursday’s testimony, and it overshadowed Trump’s naming of former Justice Department official Christopher Wray as the next FBI director.

Trump’s personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz, who is reportedly heading the legal team appointed by the President over the Trump-Russia inquiry, responded by distorting Comey’s statement about the reasons for not naming Trump as a subject of the inquiry:

The President is pleased that Mr. Comey has finally publicly confirmed his private reports that the president was not under investigation in any Russian probe. The President feels completely and totally vindicated. He is eager to continue to move forward with his agenda.

In contrast, Comey describes a meeting on March 30 with Trump again calling for a public statement that he was not a subject of the inquiry:

He described the Russia investigation as “a cloud” that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country. He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to “lift the cloud.” I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could, and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our having done the work well. He agreed, but then re-emphasized the problems this was causing him.

US Intelligence Heads Refuse to Answer Legislators’ Questions About Trump Contacts

In contrast to Comey’s statement, two current heads of US intelligence agencies refuse to answer questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee about conversations they had with Donald Trump and other officials over the Trump-Russia investigation.

Committee members asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and the director of the National Security Agency, Mike Rogers, to publicly state that there was no evidence of collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign.

Rogers said:

In the three-plus years that I have been the director of the National Security Agency, to the best of my recollection, I have never been directed to do anything I believe to be illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate. And to the best of my recollection, during that same period of service, I do not recall ever feeling pressured to do so.

Coats, a former Republican Senator who was confirmed as DNI in mid-March, said:

In interacting with the president of the United States or anybody in his administration, I have never been pressured.

I’ve never felt pressure to intervene or interfere in any way and shape — with shaping intelligence in a political way, or in relationship to an ongoing investigation.

Some Senators, such as Angus King, an Independent from Maine, grew frustrated, asking on what legal basis Coats refused to give information such as the substance of his conversations with FBI Director James Comey.

“I’m not sure I have a legal basis, but I am more than willing to sit before this committee … in a closed session and answer your questions,” Coats replied.

Trump Surprises Staff with FBI Pick

Donald Trump surprises White House staff with his nomination of former Justice Department official Christopher Wray as FBI Diretor.

Senior officials learned of Trump’s selection only when the President announced it on Twitter.

Trump’s communications staff had no knowledge of the tweet, according to multiple White House officials. There was no fact sheet or official press release about the nomination.

Key members of Congress also had no notice. Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein, the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee; Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer; and House Speaker Paul Ryan all learned of the news through Trump’s tweet.

“We woke up to this,” one official said. “[We] should all be used to this by now….This is how [Trump] operates.”

Wray was not among the possible successors mentioned when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9. He only came to attention when he visited the White House on Tuesday.

A former federal prosecutor, Wray recently defended New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — a member of Trump’s transition team who almost became his Vice Presidential running mate — in the “Bridgegate scandal”.

Trump Declares Infrastructure “Plan” But Prefers to Bash Democrats

Declaring a plan for US infrastructure, Donald Trump spends most of his speech in Cincinnati, Ohio bashing Democrats as “obstructionists”.

Trying to regain the initiative from the Trump-Russia inquiry, the White House has scheduled a series of events this week. They began with the declaration of Trump’s initiative, which he said will be up to $1 trillion in airports, roads, bridges, and tunnels.

However, details of the upgraded infrastructure and how it will be financed are sketchy, with the Federal Government cutting back its share of the costs and passing them to state and local communities and private finance.

Rather than providing information, Trump said:

I’m calling on all Democrats, who honestly have really been obstructionists — boy, have they tried on every single thing….Every single thing is obstruction. If I was in that party, I would not do it that way. I’d be doing positive things. That’s why they lost the House, it’s why they lost the Senate, it’s why they lost the White House.

Administration Restricts Liability of Businesses for Wage-Law Violations

The Labor Department, spurred by the White House, restricts the liability of businesses for wage-law violations.

The department rescinding the Obama Administration’s standard for determining when companies are “joint employers” of contract and franchise workers.

Companies had been considered joint employers when they hired and fired workers and set wages, but the Obama Administration also said a worker’s level of “economic dependence” on a company should be considered.

Some members of the business community said the expanded standard threatened the franchise business model and would draw companies into lawsuits when they are not responsible for setting working conditions.

The Labor Department also withdrew a 2015 guidance that many workers are improperly treated as independent contractors when they are actually employees, which would make them eligible for minimum wage, overtime, and other legal protections.

Lobbyists Granted Ethics Waivers, Breaking Trump Vow to “Drain the Swamp”

Lobbyists have been granted ethics waivers to work in the Executive Branch, breaking a vow by Donald Trump to “drain the swamp”.

The waivers for six officials include employment of Lance Leggitt, who collected $400,000 in fees while trying to influence Medicare policy at the Department of Health and Human Services, as chief of staff of that agency. Brian Callanan, deputy general counsel at the Treasury, worked recently at a law firm that handled federal housing finance matters.

Last week, a set of 14 waivers covering White House staff was made public, with former energy and financial services lobbyists granted permission to handle policy matters overlapping with recent private-sector work.

Essential Reading: Kushner and the Russians

Jared Kushner’s Not-So-Secret Channel to Putin

Evelyn Farkas — Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia from 2012 to 2015 — writes for The New York Times about the December 2016 secret meeting between Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Sergei Gorkov, the head of the Russian Vnesheconombank:

In the case of the major Russian state banks, their lending decisions are often politically directed, and when capital is tight — such as after the 2008 recession or the 2014 imposition of sanctions by the United States and the European Union on banks for supporting Moscow’s military adventurism in Crimea and eastern Ukraine — the Russian government has provided cash infusions from the state treasury.

The bank executive Mr. Kushner met with last December, Sergei Gorkov, is a graduate of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service academy. His bank, VEB, is regularly used by the Kremlin to finance politically important projects, including some of the infrastructure for the Sochi Olympics in 2014, which cost the Russian government a total of about $50 billion. VEB also bailed out Ukrainian banks after the 2008 global financial crisis and purchased two failing steel plants in Ukraine — aid reportedly designed to keep President Yanukovych, a Putin ally, under the Kremlin’s control. In Chechnya, the bank provided funds for an industrial park to Ramzan Kadyrov, the republic’s ruthless leader and a staunch Putin loyalist. The bank also purchased shares in a Ukrainian steel maker from a Russian-Canadian partner of Mr. Trump in 2010, who built a Trump hotel in Toronto.

VEB employed and financed the defense of a Russian intelligence operative, Evgeny Buryakov, who was deported in April after pleading guilty and being sentenced in 2016 to 30 months in prison for his role in a spy ring. That ring also attempted in 2013 to recruit Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign who has sought to do business with Gazprom. Another Trump campaign adviser, Michael Caputo, did work for Gazprom Media in the early 2000s.