Trump, Priebus, the FBI and Russia: Everything you need to know
For all the White House assertions that media reports about contacts between Russia and the president's team are false, Reince Priebus sure is upset these stories keep coming. The president's chief of staff contacted the deputy director of the FBI to request the agency dispute last week's stories that the Trump campaign had contact with Russian officials, according to a Thursday CNN report.
The communication between the FBI and Priebus was highly unusual; the meddling puts the president's chief of staff in the middle of an ongoing investigation that involves his boss. FBI Director James Comey refused Priebus' request because alleged contacts between Trump's campaign and Russia are still under review.
Consider this: As a candidate, Trump spent months telling Americans that Washington's government institutions were "rigged" against him. He attacked Bill Clinton for speaking with Attorney General Loretta Lynch on an airport tarmac shortly before the Justice Department decided not to pursue charges over Hillary Clinton's private email server. Trump praised Comey's public intervention in the election when the FBI director informed Congress he was reopening the investigation into Clinton's emails. (That reopened investigation found nothing new and quickly closed.) As recently as last week, Trump has attacked the intelligence community — a continuation of a months-long spat with American officials tasked with ferreting out truths critical to national security.
All this to say that when Republicans previously caught a whiff of smoke from the direction of the Democrats, they were the first to yell "Fire!" Now that they've won, and their party's flag flies from the House, the Senate and the Oval Office, Republicans appear to be the ones holding the kerosene.
And yet, Priebus' move to rebuke these reports shows Trump's advisers understand how they could weaken the president. Though it is not clear the sources who fueled last week's stories came from the intelligence community, the president blasted the FBI and NSA on Twitter as if they were quietly trying to oust him. Trump did it again Friday morning, following the CNN report, by tweeting that the FBI "is totally unable to stop the national security 'leakers.'"
Now, after the critique and vitriol, Trump's chief surrogate is asking the FBI to intervene to help the White House win a public relations battle. Can you blame Comey for saying no?
Speaking of Russia: Politico reported Thursday that Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign manager, was the target of blackmail while he was still affiliated with Trump's presidential campaign last summer. Texts sent to Manafort's daughter's cell phone said records existed that showed Manafort had close financial ties to the former president of Ukraine, a Russian ally. The texts alleged Manafort also helped set up a meeting between Trump and an associate of the Ukrainian president in 2012.
Manafort confirmed the texts' existence but denied the claims of their contents. The exchange is another bizarre data point in the ongoing discovery of digital hijinks between people with ties to both Russian and American leaders.
This is Mic's daily read on Donald Trump's America — and how it affects you. Welcome to the political newsletter that can confirm Reince Priebus did not ask us for a rebuke.
• Today: Why the White House cares about Russia leaks
• More: The federal government will use private prisons again — and it may be coming for your legal weed.
• Even more: Caitlyn Jenner ripped Donald Trump on Twitter. There goes the president's most prominent LGBT supporter.
• A must-watch video: Marco Rubio running away from a protester. Find it below.
• Trump's agenda today: The president delivered a morning speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. More on that below. He will also meet with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and sign an executive order targeting regulations.
What to watch in Washington
Sen. Ted Cruz thinks there will be another open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court by "this summer." Cruz says he has no evidence to back that eerie prediction — Supreme Court seats typically open when a justice dies — but assuming current nominee Neil Gorsuch is confirmed, a second opening could give Trump the opportunity to alter the court's balance for decades. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the court's most liberal votes, is 83 years old; Anthony Kennedy, whose swing vote made same-sex marriage legal, is 80.
That brings us to another legal matter that may have blown up your phone on Thursday. The White House may move against states that have legalized use of recreational marijuana. State-level recreational marijuana legalization that has proliferated over the past four years — from zero in 2011 to eight states and the District of Columbia now — could be rolled back following comments from Sean Spicer. "There is still a federal law we need to abide by," Spicer said during a press conference. That ignited a wave of reports that the federal government may crack down on recreational marijuana use at the state level. The Department of Justice will be "taking action" against those states, Spicer said. That seemed at odds with Spicer's comments earlier in his briefing that Trump rolled back Barack Obama's guidance for transgender students because "it's a states rights issue." (In case you were wondering: Stronger marijuana is far more widely available now than it was when weed first gained popularity in the 1960s. But that doesn't mean it's more dangerous.)
Another policy shift making waves: Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rescinded the Obama-era decision to phase out federal use of private prisons. Sessions argued continuing to use private facilities will help the Justice department effectively house inmates. But civil liberties advocates have criticized private prisons as poorly managed, overpacked profit machines for corporate owners who do not value treating inmates humanely. Obama's Justice Department moved away from private facilities in 2016, arguing recent reports — including a blockbuster investigation from Mother Jones — demonstrated the private facilities were immoral. After Trump won the election, stock prices for two private prison companies skyrocketed. And Sessions has long supported private prisons in his home state of Alabama.
Backlash to the decision on transgender protections
Caitlyn Jenner used to be a Donald Trump fan — but things changed on Thursday. The transgender athlete and reality TV star used her Twitter to slam Trump and those opposed to federal transgender rights provisions. "From one Republican to another, this is a disaster," Jenner said of Trump's move to give each state the ability to determine whether transgender students can use the public school bathroom of their choice. Jenner urged her followers to fight Trump's decision by learning more about the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Before this kerfuffle, Jenner was a prominent Trump supporter. She attended Trump's inauguration and called him a champion for LGBTQ Americans last year. A withdrawal of Jenner's support may be the final blow to any credibility Trump had with the LGBTQ people, given the president's Cabinet is packed with Sessions and others with anti-LGBTQ legacies. Coupled with criticism from Jenner, Trump's June promise to "fight for" LGBTQ Americans now rings hollow.
Also Thursday, demonstrators gathered in front of the Stonewall Inn in New York City to protest Trump's transgender rights decision. We have pictures.
Donald Trump at CPAC
There was nothing particularly "new" about Trump's keynote speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference. The president attacked the media, promised a continued immigration crackdown, said he will bring back manufacturing jobs and railed against shootings in Chicago. If anything, Trump's speech felt like another campaign stop. The president frequently paused for applause and encouraged audience participation. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Rolling Stones blared at the conclusion of the address.
Yet Trump advanced a new narrative about his ongoing war with journalists, saying he specifically views news reports he considers "fake" that include unnamed sources as the real "enemy of the people." Trump's criticism of reporters quoting someone without naming them is notable because he may have once acted as his own spokesman to brag about his love life.
While the mood at CPAC was overwhelmingly supportive, not everything went according to plan. Some people in the audience at Trump's speech began waving small Russian flags with the word "Trump" on them as he started speaking. The flags were quickly confiscated.
Thursday's highlights from CPAC: Alt-right leader Richard Spencer was booted from the gathering in a signal from the conservative establishment that Spencer does not align with today's GOP. The head of the American Conservative Union called the alt-right "fascists" who have no role in today's conservative movement. White House chief strategist Steve Bannon made a rare public appearance. He called for the "deconstruction of the administrative state" and promised an intensified war with the media. He also said Trump will keep all of his campaign promises, while Priebus painted his relationship with Bannon as strong. We'll be watching.
News and insight you cannot miss:
• This weekend's protest guide: Transgender rights and immigration protests are expected in America's major cities this weekend. Mic has previews of gatherings in New York and Chicago.
• Know about some protests we didn't mention? Email tips to Aaron Morrison at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Trump told Reuters Thursday he wants to ensure America's nuclear arsenal is at the "top of the pack." He also reiterated support for the European Union and calls for other members of NATO to pay more to support the alliance.
• A man in Kansas yelled "get out of my country" and then shot three people he believed were of Middle Eastern descent. One man was killed, and two others were injured. The man who was killed was originally from India and worked in the aviation systems division at Garmin. (BuzzFeed)
• The bizarre evolution of Ed Schultz: From left-wing MSNBC host to a panelist at CPAC (CNN)
• CPAC attendees do not believe protecting Trump is costing the Secret Service a lot more than it cost to protect Obama. (It is.) Why? #FakeNews. (Vox)
• Facebook pages are growing huge followings by promoting a simple premise: They're anti-Trump. (Politico)
• People are chasing Sen. Marco Rubio all over Florida, trying to make him host town hall meetings to vent their grievances. Watch the videos here.
• The latest Trump approval rating numbers: Read them here.
The not-so-loyal opposition: All eyes on Atlanta
The halls of an Atlanta hotel are littered with Keith Ellison and Tom Perez signs. Rival groups of supporters for the leading candidates to take over leadership of the Democratic National Committee are chanting in the entryway to the hotel's conference hall. Inside, party insiders are bickering over resolutions about the power of corporations vs. people.
Come Monday, this rowdy conversion of left-wing forces (should) produce a new head of the Democratic National Committee. Perez has gained late momentum as the chairman of South Carolina's Democratic Party dropped his bid and backed the former labor secretary. But the vote is expected to be a nail-biter. Minnesota Congressman Ellison is making a bid from the party's progressive left wing to oust establishment control. The battle between the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton wings of the party comes as a horde of Democrats are eyeing the 2020 presidential race against Trump. Whether Perez or Ellison controls the party apparatus could impact who secures the nomination to face Trump in four years.
A walk-off question from this journalist... Do you trust sources who are quoted anonymously? Does it depend on the journalist who wrote the story? Or the news outlet that published it?
Andrew Joyce contributed to this report.