Any Half-Decent Hacker Could Break Into Mar-a-Lago

We tested internet security at four Trump properties. It’s not good.

by Jeff Larson, ProPublica, Surya Mattu, Gizmodo, and Julia Angwin, ProPublica [propublica.org]

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Two weeks ago, on a sparkling spring morning, we went trawling along Florida’s coastal waterway. But not for fish.

We parked a 17-foot motor boat in a lagoon about 800 feet from the back lawn of The Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach and pointed a 2-foot wireless antenna that resembled a potato gun toward the club. Within a minute, we spotted three weakly encrypted Wi-Fi networks. We could have hacked them in less than five minutes, but we refrained.

A few days later, we drove through the grounds of the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, with the same antenna and aimed it at the clubhouse. We identified two open Wi-Fi networks that anyone could join without a password. We resisted the temptation.

We have also visited two of President Donald Trump’s other family-run retreats, the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., and a golf club in Sterling, Virginia. Our inspections found weak and open Wi-Fi networks, wireless printers without passwords, servers with outdated and vulnerable software, and unencrypted login pages to back-end databases containing sensitive information.

The risks posed by the lax security, experts say, go well beyond simple digital snooping. Sophisticated attackers could take advantage of vulnerabilities in the Wi-Fi networks to take over devices like computers or smart phones and use them to record conversations involving anyone on the premises.

“Those networks all have to be crawling with foreign intruders, not just ProPublica,” said Dave Aitel, chief executive officer of Immunity, Inc., a digital security company, when we told him what we found.

Security lapses are not uncommon in the hospitality industry, which — like most industries and government agencies — is under increasing attack from hackers. But they are more worrisome in places where the president of the United States, heads of state and public officials regularly visit.

U.S. leaders can ill afford such vulnerabilities. As both the U.S. and French presidential campaigns showed, hackers increasingly exploit weaknesses in internet security systems in an effort to influence elections and policy. Last week, cyberattacks using software stolen from the National Security Agency paralyzed operations in at least a dozen countries, from Britain’s National Health Service to Russia’s Interior Ministry.

Since the election, Trump has hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and British politician Nigel Farage at his properties. The cybersecurity issues we discovered could have allowed those diplomatic discussions — and other sensitive conversations at the properties — to be monitored by hackers.

The Trump Organization follows “cybersecurity best practices,” said spokeswoman Amanda Miller. “Like virtually every other company these days, we are routinely targeted by cyberterrorists whose only focus is to inflict harm on great American businesses. While we will not comment on specific security measures, we are confident in the steps we have taken to protect our business and safeguard our information. Our teams work diligently to deploy best-in-class firewall and anti-vulnerability platforms with constant 24/7 monitoring.”

The White House did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Trump properties have been hacked before. Last year, the Trump hotel chain paid $50,000 to settle charges brought by the New York attorney general that it had not properly disclosed the loss of more than 70,000 credit card numbers and 302 Social Security numbers. Prosecutors alleged that hotel credit card systems were “the target of a cyber-attack” due to poor security. The company agreed to beef up its security; it’s not clear if the vulnerabilities we found violate that agreement. A spokesman for the New York attorney general declined comment.

Our experience also indicates that it’s easy to gain physical access to Trump properties, at least when the president is not there. As Politico has previously reported, Trump hotels and clubs are poorly guarded. We drove a car past the front of Mar-a-Lago and parked a boat near its lawn. We drove through the grounds of the Bedminster golf course and into the parking lot of the golf course in Sterling, Virginia. No one questioned us.

Both President Obama and President Bush often vacationed at the more traditional presidential retreat, the military-run Camp David. The computers and networks there and at the White House are run by the Defense Information Systems Agency.

In 2016, the military spent $64 million on maintaining the networks at the White House and Camp David, and more than $2 million on “defense solutions, personnel, techniques, and best practices to defend, detect, and mitigate cyber-based threats” from hacking those networks.

Even after spending millions of dollars on security, the White House admitted in 2015that it was hacked by Russians. After the hack, the White House replaced all its computer systems, according to a person familiar with the matter. All staffers who work at the White House are told that “there are people who are actively watching what you are doing,” said Mikey Dickerson, who ran the U.S. Digital Service in the Obama administration.

By comparison, Mar-a-Lago budgeted $442,931 for security in 2016 — slightly more than double the $200,000 initiation fee for one new member. The Trump Organization declined to say how much Mar-a-Lago spends specifically on digital security. The club, last reported to have almost 500 members paying annual dues of $14,000 apiece, allotted $1,703,163 for all administration last year, according to documents filed in a lawsuit Trump brought against Palm Beach County in an effort to halt commercial flights from flying over Mar-a-Lago. The lawsuit was dropped, but the FAA now restricts flights over the club when the president is there.

It is not clear whether Trump connects to the insecure networks while at his family’s properties. When he travels, the president is provided with portable secure communications equipment. Trump tracked the military strike on a Syrian air base last month from a closed-door situation room at Mar-a-Lago with secure video equipment.

However, Trump has held sensitive meetings in public spaces at his properties. Most famously, in February, he and the Japanese prime minister discussed a North Korean missile test on the Mar-a-Lago patio. Over the course of that weekend in February, the president’s Twitter account posted 21 tweets from an Android phone. An analysis by an Android-focused website showed that Trump had used the same make of phone since 2015. That phone is an older model that isn’t approved by the NSA for classified use.

Photos of Trump and Abe taken by diners on that occasion prompted four Democratic senators to ask the Government Accountability Office to investigate whether electronic communications were secure at Mar-a-Lago.

In March, the GAO agreed to open an investigation. Chuck Young, a spokesman for the office, said in an interview that the work was in “the early stages,” and did not offer an estimate for when the report would be completed.

So, we decided to test the cybersecurity of Trump’s favorite hangouts ourselves.

Our first stop was Mar-a-Lago, a Trump country club in Palm Beach, Florida, where the president has spent most weekends since taking office. Driving past the club, we picked up the signal for a Wi-Fi-enabled combination printer and scanner that has been accessible since at least February 2016, according to a public Wi-Fi database.

An open printer may sound innocuous, but it can be used by hackers for everything from capturing all the documents sent to the device to trying to infiltrate the entire network.

To prevent such attacks, the Defense Information Systems Agency, which secures the White House and other military networks, forbids installing printers that anyone can connect to from outside networks. It also warns against using printers that do more than printing, such as faxing. “If an attacker gains network access to one of these devices, a wide range of exploits may be possible,” the agency warns in its security guide.

We also were able to detect a misconfigured and unencrypted router, which could potentially provide a gateway for hackers.

To get a better line of sight, we rented a boat and piloted it to within sight of the club. There, we picked up signals from the club’s wireless networks, three of which were protected with a weak and outmoded form of encryption known as WEP. In 2005, an FBI agent publicly broke this type of encryption in minutes.

By comparison, the military limits the signal strength of networks at places such as Camp David and the White House so that they are not reachable from a car driving by. It also requires wireless networks to use the strongest available form of encryption.

From our desks in New York, we were also able to determine that the club’s website hosts a database with an insecure login page that is not protected by standard internet encryption. Login forms like this are considered a severe security risk, according to the Defense Information Systems Agency.

Without encryption, spies could eavesdrop on the network until a club employee logs in, and then steal his or her username and password. They then could download a database that appears to include sensitive information on the club’s members and their families, according to videos posted by the club’s software provider.

This is “bad, very bad,” said Jeremiah Grossman, chief of Security Strategy for cybersecurity firm SentinelOne, when we described Mar-a-Lago’s systems. “I’d assume the data is already stolen and systems compromised.”

A few days later, we took our equipment to another Trump club in Bedminster, New Jersey. During the transition, Trump had interviewed candidates for top administration positions there, including James Mattis, now secretary of defense.

We drove on a dirt access road through the middle of the golf course and spotted two open Wi-Fi networks, TrumpMembers and WelcomeToTrumpNationalGolfClub, that did not require a password to join.

Such open networks allow anyone within range to scoop up all unencrypted internet activity taking place there, which could, on insecure sites, include usernames, passwords and emails.

Robert Graham, an Atlanta, Georgia, cybersecurity expert, said that hackers could use the open Wi-Fi to remotely turn on the microphones and cameras of devices connected to the network. “What you’re describing is typical hotel security,” he said, but “it’s pretty concerning” that an attacker could listen to sensitive national security conversations.

Two days after we visited the Bedminster club, Trump arrived for a weekend stay.

Then we visited the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., where Trump often dines with his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, whose responsibilities range from Middle East diplomacy to revamping the federal bureaucracy. We surveyed the networks from a Starbucks in the hotel basement.

From there, we could tell there were two Wi-Fi networks at the hotel protected with what’s known as a captive portal. These login screens are often used at airports and hotels to ensure that only paying customers can access the network.

However, we gained access to both networks just by typing “457” into the room number field. Because we provided a room number, the system assumed we were guests. We looked up the hotel’s public IP address before logging off.

From our desks in New York, we could also tell that the hotel is using a server that is accessible from the public internet. This server is running software that was released almost 13 years ago.

Finally, we visited the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia, where the president sometimes plays golf. From the parking lot, we recognized three encrypted wireless networks, an encrypted wireless phone and two printers with open Wi-Fi access.

The Trump club websites are hosted by an Ohio-based company called Clubessential. It offers everything from back-office management and member communications to tee time and room reservations.

In a 2014 presentation, a company sales director warned that the club industry as a whole is “too lax” in managing and protecting passwords. There has been a “rising number of attacks on club websites over the last two years,” according to the presentation. Clubessential “performed [an] audit of security in the club industry” and “found thousands of sensitive documents from clubs exposed on [the] Internet,” such as “lists of members and staff, and their contact info; board minutes, financial statements, etc.”

Still, the club software company has set up a backend server accessible on the internet, and configured its encryption incorrectly. Anyone who reaches the login page is greeted with a warning that the encryption is broken. In its documentation, the company advises club administrators to ignore these warnings and log in regardless. That means that anybody snooping on the unprotected connection could intercept the administrators’ passwords and gain access to the entire system.

The company also publishes online, without a password, many of the default settings and usernames for its software — essentially providing a roadmap for intruders.

Clubessential declined comment.

Aitel, the CEO of Immunity, said the problems at Trump properties would be difficult to fix: “Once you are at a low level of security it is hard to develop a secure network system. You basically have to start over.”

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Wall Street tumbles as investors flee latest Trump crisis

By Sinead Carew [reuters.com]

The S&P 500 was heading for its biggest one-day tumble since September and shares extended losses through the day after reports of a memo by former FBI chief James Comey suggested that President Donald Trump tried to interfere with a federal investigation, setting off alarm bells on Wall Street.

Trump had asked Comey to end a probe into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s ties with Russia, the reports said.

It was only the latest worry in a tumultuous week at the White House when Trump unexpectedly fired Comey and then disclosed classified information to Russia’s foreign minister about a planned Islamic State operation.

A specialist trader works at his post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

“As the afternoon wears on and the market doesn’t find support, sellers just pile on,” said Ken Polcari, Director of the NYSE floor division at O’Neil Securities in New York who said he expected the market to fall further before the close.

Bank stocks, which outperformed in the post-election rally, were the worst hit. The S&P 500 bank sub-sector .SPXBK was down 4.5 percent while the broader financial sector .SPSY sank 3.4 percent, led by a 6.2 percent decline in Bank of America (BAC.N) stocks and a 4 percent drop for JPMorgan (JPM.N).

“This is the unwinding of the Trump trade as people are losing any optimism he might get his agenda through,” said Robert Phipps, director at Per Stirling Capital Management in Austin, Texas. “What’s interesting is that the sell off is so small.”

Both the Dow and the S&P 500 fell below their 50-day moving average for first time since late April. The S&P began the session by opening 0.74 percent lower, the largest gap down since March 30, 2009, when the index suffered a 0.84 percent drop at the start of trading.

At 2:49 p.m. EDT, the Dow Jones Industrial Average .DJI was down 347.56 points, or 1.66 percent, to 20,632.19, the S&P 500 .SPX had lost 40.55 points, or 1.69 percent, to 2,360.12 and the Nasdaq Composite .IXIC had dropped 146.00 points, or 2.37 percent, to 6,023.87.

The VIX .VIX, Wall Street’s “fear gauge”, shot up to 14.57, its highest level since April 21.

Eight of the 11 major S&P 500 sectors were lower.

The only gainers were utilities .SPLRCU, real estate .SPLRCR and consumer staples .SPLRCS sectors – so-called defensive stocks which often do well in times of uncertainty due to their predictable if slow growth and high dividend yields.

Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by a 3.60-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 5.48-to-1 ratio favored decliners.

The S&P 500 posted 9 new 52-week highs and 19 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 25 new highs and 84 new lows.

(Additional reporting by Yashaswini Swamynathan in Bengaluru, Chuck Mikolajczak in New York; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)

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Losing Faith

Senate Republicans have no idea how to continue to cover up for the president.

By  [slate.com]

Sen. John McCain departs the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on April 26.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

In the wake of revelations that President Donald Trump had shared highly classified information in a meeting with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, Sen. Bob Corker made a splash on Monday afternoon when he stated that the White House was in a “downward spiral.” The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made clear on Tuesday that he had expressed this concern “very directly” to the “principals” at the White House, too. He was then asked, as many senators were on the day after the Russia revelation, whether he had faith in President Trump’s ability to handle classified information.

Corker paused, shrugged, and said, “sure.” It was less than convincing.

Still, it was more of a direct answer than Sen. John Thune would give reporters following the Republicans’ caucus lunch. Does he trust the president to handle classified information, like the highly sensitive intelligence he was blabbing to the Russians?

“We’re getting more information,” he responded. “I think there’s some questions the White House needs to answer about what happened at that particular meeting.”

Another reporter in the huddle followed up, restating the question: Do you trusthim to handle sensitive, classified information?

“Well, I think the president is the commander in chief; he decides what is classified information and what is not,” Thune said, still not answering. “And I think most of us fully admit we all make mistakes, obviously.” Who among us hasn’t revealed closely held intelligence secrets, provided by our close ally, to a chief adversary, so as to impress them? Mistakes are made.

Senate Republicans are past the point where they feel confident covering up for President Trump, touting the White House line and saying everything is just fine, nothing to see here. It is no longer tenable. They acknowledge that something is wrong here that needs to be fixed. They’re just not quite willing to say that the problem is President Trump, as it obviously is.

The superficial complaint that many of them, including Thune, Sen. Susan Collins, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, will pass to the press corps is one of inconvenience: that the “distractions” or “drama” coming from the White House divert their and the public’s attention from important health care and tax reform efforts. (I’m not sure to what degree they should see this as a negative, but that’s another story.)

“Can we have a crisis-free day?” Collins said to reporters Monday, after the news of Trump’s gossipy meeting with the Russians broke. “That’s all I’m asking.”

Sen. Collins’ request would not be met on Tuesday. Late in the afternoon, the New York Times reported that then–FBI Director James Comey had written a memo in which he claimed the president had asked him to “let this go,” meaning the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. After this, several leading Democrats—including Sens. Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, and Richard Blumenthal—began to toss around the term obstruction of justice more freely. Sen. Angus King, meanwhile, was using the I-word. Republican senators coming out of a late afternoon vote, for their part, said that they hadn’t had time to read the story yet. Which may have been true: It had broken as they were on the floor. But they’ll be asked about this on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. How can they possibly deflect this one?

“To be really blunt, I think my Republican colleagues are shaken by the continual upheaval,” Blumenthal said Tuesday afternoon. “Any rational observer would have to question the competence and control the White House has over itself. And that the president has.”

“I think it would be helpful to have less drama emanating from the White House,” McConnell said during his own press conference earlier on Tuesday, reiterating comments he made even earlier in the morning.

McConnell, the most disciplined communicator in Washington, D.C., was able to keep it together when asked whether he had concerns about Trump’s ability to manage classified information. He was silent for a couple of seconds, giggled to himself, and finally said, in a very soft voice, “no.”

The line about White House “drama” serving as a distraction from the Republican agenda is damning enough from a political perspective, national security questions aside. The GOP leaders are implying that they could fulfill the White House’s agenda if only the White House could get out of their way. It’s not a note of confidence from the president’s party some four months into his administration.

The “distraction” talking point may be the story that most of them are willing to share, but the actual problem seems to run much deeper. Consider how Thune, in his gaggle with reporters, addressed the issue of the “distractions.”

“These are daily—not daily but seems like [it’s] lately daily—distractions,” he said, “and you just have to manage around them.”

They’re more than just “distractions.” They’re self-inflicted errors from a president who doesn’t know how to do the job and apparently can’t control his most basic impulses. Republicans don’t just have to “manage around” the distractions. They have to “manage around” him, and that will never change.

Few Republican senators said Tuesday that they were hoping to hear more from Trump himself on the issue of what he said to the Russians. They usually might say that they want to hear from “the White House,” as Thune offered, or specifically name-check National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, perceived at the start of the week as one of the last presidential advisers with credibility intact (credibility he’s depleting in short order as he continues to serve as the public face of this latest spin job). McMaster’s deployment to the press briefing dais Tuesday morning was, as much as anything, an effort to show Capitol Hill that a grown-up was in charge of the situation and that the presidency was in good hands: McMaster’s.

“I take General McMaster at his word,” Arizona Sen. John McCain said Tuesday, following McMaster’s weasel-worded assurance in the briefing that Trump hadn’t compromised any sources or methods. Sen. Roger Wicker admitted that he hadn’t had a chance to watch the briefing but that he was “sure that answered a lot of questions.”

What they were expressing faith—or hope, more likely—in was McMaster’s ability to mop up the president’s latest mess and make it go away. They expect him to manage around a president who’s shown no signs he can do the job properly—manage Republican PR, manage national security, manage reportedly fraying relationships with our allies and apparent succor being offered to adversaries. The president is more than just a “distraction.” Who’s to say how this failed experiment ends?

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The White House is overwhelmed with the Russia scandal

Staffers are having trouble coming to grips with the situation Trump has put them in.

  [salon.com]

(Credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

As President Donald Trump reels from Russia-related scandal to Russia-related scandal, reports are depicting members of the Trump White House as wallowing in fatigue and despair, with one senior official bluntly admitted to The Daily Beast: “I don’t see how Trump isn’t completely fucked.”

The unending wave of crises have caused so much chaos that they’ve started having an almost “numbing effect,” the outlet reported. Another staffer initially told the site that “every time I feel like we’re getting a handle on the last Russia fiasco, a new one pops,” but then admitted that because news of the James Comey memo leaked before Trump could get through the controversy of him sharing classified Israeli intelligence with Russian officials, “I guess I was wrong about the timing. We can’t even wrap up one Russia fiasco before we’re on to the next one.”

The prevailing attitude was perhaps best summed up by a Trump administration official who admitted, “I feel like running down the hallway with a fire extinguisher.”

Part of the problem is that the sheer magnitude of Trump’s ongoing scandals, as well as the fact that no one seems to know what will happen next, has left White House staffers without any sense of direction.

“Nobody knows where this really goes from here. Everyone is walking around saying, ‘What is next?’” one staffer told Politico. Even staffers who constantly read reports that their jobs are in jeopardy (most notably press secretary Sean Spicer) find themselves exhausted as they put in 12-hour days in an increasingly thankless work environment. Staffers are reluctant to publicly defend the administration not only because the scandals are becoming increasingly indefensible, but because Trump often goes on Twitter and publicly undercuts the people who try to advocate on his behalf.

Even though the White House knew about the New York Times’ impending story on former FBI Director James Comey’s memo two hours before it was published, Trump didn’t even provide staffers with a complete reading of that conversation.

“It’s not like we were in on the meeting. We had no idea. We still don’t really know what was said,” one staffer told Politico.

Trump apparently retreated to the White House residence within an hour-and-a-quarter of the story being published, leaving staffers to fend for themselves.

Considering that Trump is the same president who politically survived the revelation that he openly bragged about committing sexual assault, it is entirely possible that he will pull off a miracle and emerge from the Russia scandal unscathed. But it’s increasingly impossible to envision how he can shake the impression that he obstructed the FBI’s investigation into alleged collusion between his presidential campaign and Russia — and if he can’t, he may be impeached.

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Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation

By

James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing this month. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Trump asked the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, to shut down the federal investigation into Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, in an Oval Office meeting in February, according to a memo Mr. Comey wrote shortly after the meeting.

“I hope you can let this go,” the president told Mr. Comey, according to the memo.

The documentation of Mr. Trump’s request is the clearest evidence that the president has tried to directly influence the Justice Department and F.B.I. investigation into links between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia. Late Tuesday, Representative Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, demanded that the F.B.I. turn over all “memoranda, notes, summaries and recordings” of discussions between Mr. Trump and Mr. Comey.

Such documents, Mr. Chaffetz wrote, would “raise questions as to whether the president attempted to influence or impede” the F.B.I.

Mr. Comey wrote the memo detailing his conversation with the president immediately after the meeting, which took place the day after Mr. Flynn resigned, according to two people who read the memo. It was part of a paper trail Mr. Comey created documenting what he perceived as the president’s improper efforts to influence a continuing investigation. An F.B.I. agent’s contemporaneous notes are widely held up in court as credible evidence of conversations.

Mr. Comey shared the existence of the memo with senior F.B.I. officials and close associates. The New York Times has not viewed a copy of the memo, which is unclassified, but one of Mr. Comey’s associates read parts of it to a Times reporter.

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Comey, according to the memo. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Mr. Trump told Mr. Comey that Mr. Flynn had done nothing wrong, according to the memo.

Mr. Comey did not say anything to Mr. Trump about curtailing the investigation, replying only: “I agree he is a good guy.”

In a statement, the White House denied the version of events in the memo.

“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 statement said. “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.”

Mr. Chaffetz’s letter, sent to the acting F.B.I. director, Andrew G. McCabe, set a May 24 deadline for the internal documents to be delivered to the House committee. The congressman, a Republican, was criticized in recent months for showing little of the appetite he demonstrated in pursuing Hillary Clinton to pursue investigations into Mr. Trump’s associates.

But since announcing in April that he will not seek re-election in 2018, Mr. Chaffetz has shown more interest in the Russia investigation, and held out the potential for a subpoena on Tuesday, a notably aggressive move as most Republicans have tried to stay out of the fray.

In testimony to the Senate last week, Mr. McCabe said, “There has been no effort to impede our investigation to date.” Mr. McCabe was referring to the broad investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. The investigation into Mr. Flynn is separate.

A spokesman for the F.B.I. declined to comment.

Mr. Comey created similar memos — including some that are classified — about every phone call and meeting he had with the president, the two people said. It is unclear whether Mr. Comey told the Justice Department about the conversation or his memos.

Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey last week. Trump administration officials have provided multiple, conflicting accounts of the reasoning behind Mr. Comey’s dismissal. Mr. Trump said in a television interview that one of the reasons was because he believed “this Russia thing” was a “made-up story.”

The Feb. 14 meeting took place just a day after Mr. Flynn was forced out of his job after it was revealed he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of phone conversations he had had with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

Despite the conversation between Mr. Trump and Mr. Comey, the investigation of Mr. Flynn has proceeded. In Virginia, a federal grand jury has issued subpoenas in recent weeks for records related to Mr. Flynn. Part of the Flynn investigation is centered on his financial links to Russia and Turkey.

Mr. Comey had been in the Oval Office that day with other senior national security officials for a terrorism threat briefing. When the meeting ended, Mr. Trump told those present — including Mr. Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — to leave the room except for Mr. Comey.

Alone in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump began the discussion by condemning leaks to the news media, saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information, according to one of Mr. Comey’s associates.

Mr. Trump then turned the discussion to Mr. Flynn.

After writing up a memo that outlined the meeting, Mr. Comey shared it with senior F.B.I. officials. Mr. Comey and his aides perceived Mr. Trump’s comments as an effort to influence the investigation, but they decided that they would try to keep the conversation secret — even from the F.B.I. agents working on the Russia investigation — so the details of the conversation would not affect the investigation.

Mr. Comey was known among his closest advisers to document conversations that he believed would later be called into question, according to two former confidants, who said Mr. Comey was uncomfortable at times with his relationship with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Comey’s recollection has been bolstered in the past by F.B.I. notes. In 2007, he told Congress about a now-famous showdown with senior White House officials over the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. The White House disputed Mr. Comey’s account, but the F.B.I. director at the time, Robert S. Mueller III, kept notes that backed up Mr. Comey’s story.

The White House has repeatedly crossed lines that other administrations have been reluctant to cross when discussing politically charged criminal investigations. Mr. Trump has disparaged the continuing F.B.I. investigation as a hoax and called for an inquiry into his political rivals. His representatives have taken the unusual step of declaring no need for a special prosecutor to investigate the president’s associates.

The Oval Office meeting occurred a little over two weeks after Mr. Trump summoned Mr. Comey to the White House for a lengthy, one-on-one dinner at the residence. At that dinner, on Jan. 27, Mr. Trump asked Mr. Comey at least two times for a pledge of loyalty — which Mr. Comey declined, according to one of Mr. Comey’s associates.

In a Twitter post on Friday, Mr. Trump said that “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

After the meeting, Mr. Comey’s associates did not believe there was any way to corroborate Mr. Trump’s statements. But Mr. Trump’s suggestion last week that he was keeping tapes has made them wonder whether there are tapes that back up Mr. Comey’s account.

he Jan. 27 dinner came a day after White House officials learned that Mr. Flynn had been interviewed by F.B.I. agents about his phone calls with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak. On Jan. 26, the acting attorney general, Sally Q. Yates, told the White House counsel about the interview, and said Mr. Flynn could be subject to blackmail by the Russians because they knew he had lied about the content of the calls.

Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman contributed reporting.

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Tim Kaine: Two-Thirds of Senate Republicans Are ‘Deeply Worried’

WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 10: Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) speaks on a morning television news show about President Trump’s firing yesterday of FBI Director James Comey, on Capitol Hill May 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Elizabeth Dias [time.com]

Sen. Tim Kaine said that “probably two-thirds” of Senate Republicans are “deeply worried” about President Trump but that they won’t say so publicly.

The Virginia Democrat, who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016, said that the recent controversy over President Trump’s alleged revelation of classified information at an Oval Office meeting with the Russians showed the concern from his colleagues across the aisle.

“I know from my dialogue with my colleagues that probably two-thirds of the Republicans in the Senate are deeply worried about President Trump,” he told TIME. “A handful have been willing to say so. Sen. (Bob) Corker last night was quick to characterize what is happening at the White House as a downward spiral that is driven largely by their own lack of discipline. And other members have been blunt too. But many more than have said so have the same concerns.”

Kaine also said that Trump’s controversies have slowed Senate work to a crawl.

“I think he has lost all credibility here on the Hill with respect to his role as commander-in-chief,” he said. “His national security credibility has been lost, and I think the combined bombshells of the last week … have hijacked every other bit of legislative agenda.”

He added that his conversation with a reporter was a sign of that slowdown.

“I would normally not be talking to you at quarter of 11 on a Tuesday because we would be in the middle of committee hearings,” he said.

“We won’t get similar information again”: an intel expert on the real costs of Trump’s breach

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(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

There are few people more qualified to talk about President Trump’s disclosure of classified information to the Russians than Paul Pillar. Pillar served in the CIA for 28 years, where he worked on counterterrorism and the Middle East. Today he’s a professor at Georgetown, where he studies the intelligence community and US foreign policy.

So on Monday night, I called up Pillar and asked for his thoughts about Trump’s intelligence disclosure.

He was not amused.

“This is a very serious breach,” he said. “It indicates utter disregard, or utter lack of knowledge, at the very top!”

US intelligence-gathering efforts, especially when it comes to terrorism, rely pretty fundamentally on cooperation with foreign intelligence services. They have access to knowledge, by virtue of their geographic location and language skills, that US agencies simply don’t. Some of them may even have their own spies inside terrorist groups.

So when they share a critical piece of intelligence with the United States, they do so with the explicit understanding that the US will not share that information with anyone else unless they say it’s okay. That’s because doing so could potentially endanger the lives of their spies out in the field.

A major disclosure like this, on ISIS specifically, will make countries the world over less likely to cooperate with America — hampering the US’s ability to manage the ISIS threat at a time when intelligence is becoming all the more valuable in the ISIS fight.

What follows is a transcript of my conversation with Pillar explaining why, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp

What’s your reaction to all of this?

Paul Pillar

This is a serious breach of confidence with a liaison partner — that confidence being a critical part of intelligence-sharing relationships. I see that part of the White House spin after this incident is, “Well, he didn’t talk about intelligence sources and methods.” Well, if he had, that would have been an unbelievably egregious breach as opposed to a very concerning one.

Any use, at all, of information or reporting that came from a liaison partner that goes beyond use in our own government would be seen by the liaison partner as a serious breach of trust. And the cost for us, just on the intelligence level, is the likelihood that we won’t get similar information again — at least for a little while.

Zack Beauchamp

From this partner or many other partners?

Paul Pillar

Whoever this partner is. Although there would be a secondary effect, since this is in the news, among other partners about the unreliability — or at least the hazards involved — in sharing information with the United States, if any of that information gets to the White House.

I had personal experience when I was in the business. I recall one instance in which information that came from a particular partner was leaked. It wasn’t a matter of giving it directly to the Russian foreign minister — it was just a garden-variety Washington leak, and it wound up in the papers.

This partner cut off the sharing relationship for a while. When enough time went by, I had a meeting with their service. Part of my job was to be as profusely apologetic as I could about how the leak had occurred, and to offer as many assurances as I could that this won’t happen again, and could we please resume our exchange of information?

So at the intelligence level, this is a very serious breach.

Zack Beauchamp

There are sort of two strains to what you just said. The first is that breaches of foreign intelligence happen, and that intelligence services have means of dealing with it — though it’s unpleasant for a time.

But second, this isn’t just an ordinary leak to the media. This is the president literally telling the Russian foreign minister in a meeting.

Paul Pillar

Right.

Zack Beauchamp

So how would you rate this on a scale of “conventional” to “awful and unprecedented”?

Paul Pillar

I would consider this more serious. It indicates utter disregard, or utter lack of knowledge, at the very top!

So the foreign partners will say, “My goodness, even if we’re given assurances of how carefully our information will be used — as long we’ve got this guy at the top who does this sort of thing, those US assurances don’t mean very much.”

Zack Beauchamp

So how critically does US foreign intelligence depend on foreign cooperation?

Paul Pillar

It matters a great deal.

We’d like to think that our services, whether it’s intelligence services or anything else, are the best in the world. That we’ve got the technology and the smarts. But it’s at least as much a matter of access, experience, knowledge of the local neighborhood and the local culture and the local languages that is critical in collecting the sources of information we need.

Very often, there’s somebody else who’s better at those things than we are.

I would note that the topic involved is terrorism — and that was something I was deeply involved in. I would say, on terrorism, the reliance on foreign services sharing information is at least as important as any other intelligence topic.

That’s a reflection of the fact that these foreign internal security and intelligence and sometimes national police forces are on the front lines of confronting groups. As a matter of geography and language and culture, they are closer to the problem. So they’re better able to collect against groups than we are. Especially when we’re talking about human intelligence: A well-placed human source is the best possible source you can have on this.

Zack Beauchamp

It’s kind of a painful time too, right? These leaks were about ISIS. Right now the conventional war against ISIS is winding down as they lose territory in Iraq and Syria — and turning into a fight against harder-to-find but still dangerous ISIS cells.

Paul Pillar

As long as we’ve had this ISIS mini state, then as an intelligence target it’s had a lot of the same characteristics as a real state. You can use overhead imagery; you can go after this intelligence target in the way you go after big governments with return addresses.

In many ways, it’s still not as great a challenge as the tremendous challenge that’s faced in counterterrorism: going after plots and plans and infrastructure that consists of small, clandestine, highly secured groups of individuals. So yeah, I agree.

Zack Beauchamp

Shifting gears a bit: How do you think this will affect the president’s already rocky relationship with the intelligence community?

Paul Pillar

There are going to be buildings full of rolled eyes and expressions of exasperation.

I think there will be additional hard thoughts — I expect there were already a lot of these thoughts — about just what and how information can be presented to the White House, and specifically to the president. You can’t cut the president out … the president is assumed to have every clearance there is.

Nonetheless, given that this particular president doesn’t seem to have much of an appetite for a large volume of information anyway, I think there’s going to be thoughts about restricting the flow even more. Then you immediately run into questions of, well, how do you do this with the president?

That’s one set of thoughts. There will certainly be conversations — if there haven’t been already — between senior intelligence officials and the likes of [National Security Adviser] Gen. [H.R.] McMaster to discuss this as a problem. And I’m sure McMaster, even though he said the requisite things trying to downplay this publicly, realizes this was a big problem.

Zack Beauchamp

That’s the thing that gets me, thinking about this. The whole system is dependent on the president signing off on things and the president having information on things.

You said earlier that you can’t cut the president off from sensitive information — and that’s really true. For him to make even minimally informed decisions, you have to tell him some really sensitive stuff.

Paul Pillar

It’s senior people at the White House — like the national security adviser — who play a critical role here. I can imagine some really sensitive stuff coming up where [Director of National Intelligence Dan] Coats or [CIA Director Mike] Pompeo comes to McMaster and says, “Tell us how we can work with you to handle this in a way that things don’t get screwed up when the boss is finally involved.”

Here’s maybe the plus side of Trump’s weaknesses. Given how much he seems to be hands-off with regards to national security stuff — we’ve seen all the reporting about how all kinds of authority has been delegated to [Secretary of Defense James] Mattis on things — well, from the intelligence community’s point of view, that’s maybe a good thing.

Zack Beauchamp

That’s kind of a grim upside, since it comes from the president’s ignorance.

Paul Pillar

That’s exactly what I’m saying, yes.

The great debate is: Is the incompetence of this administration something we should be happy about, so they can’t do all the authoritarian awful things they would do if they were more competent? It’s kind of finding another negative to offset the first negative.

Trump revealed highly classified information to Russian foreign minister and ambassador

By Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe [washingtonpost.com]

During a May 10 meeting with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, Trump began describing details about an Islamic State terror threat, according to current and former U.S. officials.

President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.

The information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said.

The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said Trump’s decision to do so endangers cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State. After Trump’s meeting, senior White House officials took steps to contain the damage, placing calls to the CIA and the National Security Agency.

“This is code-word information,” said a U.S. official familiar with the matter, using terminology that refers to one of the highest classification levels used by American spy agencies. Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.”

The revelation comes as the president faces rising legal and political pressure on multiple Russia-related fronts. Last week, he fired FBI Director James B. Comey in the midst of a bureau investigation into possible links between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Trump’s subsequent admission that his decision was driven by “this Russia thing” was seen by critics as attempted obstruction of justice.

One day after dismissing Comey, Trump welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — a key figure in earlier Russia controversies — into the Oval Office. It was during that meeting, officials said, that Trump went off script and began describing details of an Islamic State terrorist threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft.

For almost anyone in government, discussing such matters with an adversary would be illegal. As president, Trump has broad authority to declassify government secrets, making it unlikely that his disclosures broke the law.

White House officials involved in the meeting said Trump discussed only shared concerns about terrorism.

“The president and the foreign minister reviewed common threats from terrorist organizations to include threats to aviation,” said H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, who participated in the meeting. “At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed, and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.”

McMaster reiterated his statement in a subsequent appearance at the White House on Monday and described the Washington Post story as “false,” but did not take any questions.

In their statements, White House officials emphasized that Trump had not discussed specific intelligence sources and methods, rather than addressing whether he had disclosed information drawn from sensitive sources.

The CIA declined to comment, and the NSA did not respond to requests for comment.

But officials expressed concern about Trump’s handling of sensitive information as well as his grasp of the potential consequences. Exposure of an intelligence stream that has provided critical insight into the Islamic State, they said, could hinder the United States’ and its allies’ ability to detect future threats.

“It is all kind of shocking,” said a former senior U.S. official who is close to current administration officials. “Trump seems to be very reckless and doesn’t grasp the gravity of the things he’s dealing with, especially when it comes to intelligence and national security. And it’s all clouded because of this problem he has with Russia.”

In his meeting with Lavrov, Trump seemed to be boasting about his inside knowledge of the looming threat. “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” the president said, according to an official with knowledge of the exchange.

The Post is withholding most plot details, including the name of the city, at the urging of officials who warned that revealing them would jeopardize important intelligence capabilities.

“Everyone knows this stream is very sensitive, and the idea of sharing it at this level of granularity with the Russians is troubling,” said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official who also worked closely with members of the Trump national security team. He and others spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the subject.

The identification of the location was seen as particularly problematic, officials said, because Russia could use that detail to help identify the U.S. ally or intelligence capability involved. Officials said the capability could be useful for other purposes, possibly providing intelligence on Russia’s presence in Syria. Moscow would be keenly interested in identifying that source and perhaps disrupting it.

Russia and the United States both regard the Islamic State as an enemy and share limited information about terrorist threats. But the two nations have competing agendas in Syria, where Moscow has deployed military assets and personnel to support President Bashar al-Assad.

“Russia could identify our sources or techniques,” the senior U.S. official said.

A former intelligence official who handled high-level intelligence on Russia said that given the clues Trump provided, “I don’t think that it would be that hard [for Russian spy services] to figure this out.”

The officials declined to identify the ally but said it has previously voiced frustration with Washington’s inability to safeguard sensitive information related to Iraq and Syria.

“If that partner learned we’d given this to Russia without their knowledge or asking first, that is a blow to that relationship,” the U.S. official said.

Trump also described measures the United States has taken or is contemplating to counter the threat, including military operations in Iraq and Syria, as well as other steps to tighten security, officials said.

The officials would not discuss details of those measures, but the Department of Homeland Security recently disclosed that it is considering banning laptops and other large electronic devices from carry-on bags on flights between Europe and the United States. The United States and Britain imposed a similar ban in March affecting travelers passing through airports in 10 Muslim-majority countries.

Trump cast the countermeasures in wistful terms. “Can you believe the world we live in today?” he said, according to one official. “Isn’t it crazy?”

Lavrov and Kislyak were also accompanied by aides.

A Russian photographer took photos of part of the session that were released by the Russian state-owned Tass news agency. No U.S. news organization was allowed to attend any part of the meeting.

Senior White House officials appeared to recognize quickly that Trump had overstepped and moved to contain the potential fallout. Thomas P. Bossert, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, placed calls to the directors of the CIA and the NSA, the services most directly involved in the intelligence-sharing arrangement with the partner.

One of Bossert’s subordinates also called for the problematic portion of Trump’s discussion to be stricken from internal memos and for the full transcript to be limited to a small circle of recipients, efforts to prevent sensitive details from being disseminated further or leaked.

White House officials defended Trump. “This story is false,” said Dina Powell, deputy national security adviser for strategy. “The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced.”

But officials could not explain why staff members nevertheless felt it necessary to alert the CIA and the NSA.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he would rather comment on the revelations in the Post story after “I know a little bit more about it,” but added: “Obviously, they are in a downward spiral right now and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening. And the shame of it is, there’s a really good national security team in place.”

Corker also said, “The chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating an environment that I think makes — it creates a worrisome environment.”

Trump has repeatedly gone off-script in his dealings with high-ranking foreign officials, most notably in his contentious introductory conversation with the Australian prime minister earlier this year. He has also faced criticism for seemingly lax attention to security at his Florida retreat, Mar-a-Lago, where he appeared to field preliminary reports of a North Korea missile launch in full view of casual diners.

U.S. officials said that the National Security Council continues to prepare multi-page briefings for Trump to guide him through conversations with foreign leaders, but that he has insisted that the guidance be distilled to a single page of bullet points — and often ignores those.

“He seems to get in the room or on the phone and just goes with it, and that has big downsides,” the second former official said. “Does he understand what’s classified and what’s not? That’s what worries me.”

Lavrov’s reaction to the Trump disclosures was muted, officials said, calling for the United States to work more closely with Moscow on fighting terrorism.

Kislyak has figured prominently in damaging stories about the Trump administration’s ties to Russia. Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign just 24 days into the jobover his contacts with Kislyak and his misleading statements about them. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced to recuse himself from matters related to the FBI’s Russia investigation after it was revealed that he had met and spoke with Kislyak, despite denying any contact with Russian officials during his confirmation hearing.

“I’m sure Kislyak was able to fire off a good cable back to the Kremlin with all the details” he gleaned from Trump, said the former U.S. official who handled intelligence on Russia.

The White House readout of the meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak made no mention of the discussion of a terrorist threat.

“Trump emphasized the need to work together to end the conflict in Syria,” the summary said. The president also “raised Ukraine” and “emphasized his desire to build a better relationship between the United States and Russia.”

Julie Tate and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.

Sean Spicer Refuses to Deny President Trump Taped Ex-FBI Director James Comey

Associated Press  [time.com]

(WASHINGTON) — White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is declining to say whether President Donald Trump taped conversations he had with fired FBI Director James Comey.

Spicer says: “The president has nothing further to add on that.”

Spicer was asked multiple times during the daily White House briefing about the president’s Friday morning tweet stating that, “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

Spicer said the tweet was “not a threat” warning Comey not to talk to the press.

But Spicer insists that, “the tweet speaks for itself.”

Trump suddenly fired Comey on Tuesday. The FBI is investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion with Trump’s campaign and aides.

Trump has dismissed those allegations as a “hoax.”