Developments in Washington, D.C., on Thursday include reports that special counsel Robert Mueller has seated a grand jury in the Russia investigation, President Donald Trump tweeting that the U.S.-Russia relationship is at a distinct low point, suggesting he may pressure China over trade and North Korea, the leaking of transcripts of contentious phone calls from January between the president and the leaders of Mexico and Australia, as well as a report that says Trump wants to fire U.S. general heading Afghanistan fight.
Trump Rallies Supporters Hours After Report of Grand Jury in Russia Probe -- Trump, in a defiant speech at a West Virginia rally Thursday night, called stories about his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia “a total fabrication” that makes his political opponents feel better about themselves after their loss of last year’s election. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has seated a grand jury, The Wall Street Journal reported hours earlier, significantly stepping up his probe into Russian interference in the election.
Trump, Russia Agree: Relationship at Distinct Low Point -- Trump blamed Congress Thursday for creating new tensions with Russia by approving sanctions against Moscow, and the Kremlin agreed the penalties would thwart improved relations. "Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low," Trump said on his Twitter account, overlooking the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis a half century ago that brought the world to the brink of nuclear warfare. "You can thank Congress," he said. In his own series of tweets, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Trump's "signing of the package of new Russia sanctions ends hopes for improving our relations."
Trump May Boost Pressure on China Over Trade, North Korea -- Trump may soon attempt to increase pressure on China to change its trade practices and do more to stop North Korea's weapons programs. Reports in the financial press say Trump may sign an order as soon as Friday to start an investigation of Chinese demands that foreign companies share technology secrets in exchange for access to the massive Chinese market.
Trump Sparred with Mexican, Australian Leaders in Contentious Phone Calls -- Trump sparred with the leaders of Mexico and Australia in contentious phone calls shortly after he assumed power in January, newly leaked transcripts show.
Cities Puzzled by Attorney General Targeting Them on Immigration -- Attorney General Jeff Sessions took new steps Thursday to punish cities he believes are not cooperating with federal immigration agents in a move that was met with bewilderment by local officials who said they did not know why they were being singled out. The Justice Department sent letters to four cities struggling with gun violence, telling them they would not be eligible for a program that provides money to combat drug trafficking and gang crime unless they give federal immigration authorities access to jails and notify agents before releasing inmates wanted on immigration violations.
No Lie, Says Sarah Sanders: Trump Got Praise From Mexico, Scouts --
Two phone calls described by Trump that didn't actually happen represent the latest chapter in a long-running series of disputes revolving around the president's rocky relationship with facts. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on Wednesday found herself explaining that compliments Trump had described receiving in phone calls from the Mexican president and the Boy Scouts did happen — just not on the phone. "I wouldn't say it was a lie. That's a pretty bold accusation,'' she told reporters. "The conversations took place, they just simply didn't take place over a phone call. ... He had them in person.''
Trump Attorney Brings 'Street Fighter' Spirit to His Work -- One of the key lawyers in Trump's corner -- John Dowd, a onetime Marine Corps captain -- navigated a popular United States senator through crisis, produced a damning investigative report that drove a baseball star from the game and, early in his career, took on organized crime as a Justice Department prosecutor. Dowd has played a role in some of the defining legal quagmires of the last four decades — among them, the Iran-Contra affair, the Keating Five, the Enron collapse and a scandal over the firing of U.S. attorneys.
Report: Fuming Trump Proposed Firing Afghanistan Commander -- Trump has become increasingly frustrated by the situation in Afghanistan and has recently floated a change in command as he struggles to settle on a new strategy after years of war. NBC News first reported Wednesday that Trump fumed during a meeting last month over the lack of progress. The network said he also proposed firing Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, during the heated Situation Room exchange.
Fact Check: Trump Immigration Pitch on Shaky Ground -- Trump's endorsement of legislation to restrict and reshape legal immigration is based on some shaky assumptions, such as the idea that low-wage green-card holders are flooding in to take jobs from Americans.
Trump Administration Seeks to Make Tougher Visa Form Permanent -- The Trump administration moved Thursday to make permanent a new questionnaire that asks some U.S. visa applicants to provide their social media handles and detailed biographical and travel history, according to a public notice. The questionnaire was rolled out in May as part of an effort to tighten vetting of would-be visitors to the United States, and asks for all prior passport numbers, five years’ worth of social media handles, email addresses and phone numbers and 15 years of biographical information including addresses, employment and travel history.
Trump Set to Embark on 1st Vacation Since Inauguration -- Trump once questioned the wisdom of taking vacations. "What's the point?" he asked. But now the president is getting ready to join the annual August exodus from this town he calls "the swamp." Trump is due to set out Friday on his first extended vacation from Washington since the inauguration — a 17-day getaway to his private golf club in central New Jersey.
White House Fires a Top Intelligence Adviser -- One of Trump's top intelligence directors is the latest person to be fired in a string of shake-ups at the White House and National Security Council. Ezra Cohen-Watnick became a focal point for top national security advisers earlier this year when CIA leaders raised concerns about him with Trump's national security adviser H.R. McMaster.