For Grieving Parents, Trump Is ‘Speaking for the Dead’ on Immigration

The families could reel off all the times they had called the media and written to Washington, but after all that trying, they had never heard anyone who mattered say anything like it: Most Mexican immigrants, Donald J. Trump declared in his first campaign speech, were “rapists” who were “bringing drugs, bringing crime” across the border.

Now he had come to meet them, the families of people killed by undocumented immigrants, and they wanted to tell him he was right.

One son had been struck by a truck, another shot just around the corner from home. Different causes of death, but the driver, the gunman, all the perpetrators were the same, the parents said: people who never should have been in the country in the first place.

Sitting alone with them at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in July 2015, the candidate distributed hugs as the families wept. When the campaign had called, most of them had been told only that they were going to meet with Mr. Trump. But then the group was ushered into the next room, where the campaign had invited reporters to a news conference.

It was a surprise, but no one seemed to mind. Several stepped up to endorse Mr. Trump.

“He’s speaking for the dead,” said Jamiel Shaw Sr., whose teenage son was shot to death by a gang member in Los Angeles in 2008. “He’s speaking for my son.”

A memorial to Jamiel Shaw Jr. who was shot and killed in 2008 by a gang member who had entered the country illegally. CreditMonica Almeida/The New York Times

Mr. Shaw wanted the news media to know that Mr. Trump could have gone further when he called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals.

“I would have said they were murderers,” he said.

Hailed for bravery, accused of racism, scorned as puppets, these are some of Mr. Trump’s most potent surrogates, the people whose private anguish has formed the emotional cornerstone of his crusade against illegal immigration and clouded the futures of America’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants.

Their alliance came down to this: To parents parched for understanding, Mr. Trump was a gulp of hope. The Trump campaign flew them to speak at rallies and at the Republican National Convention, put them up in Trump hotels and kept in touch with regular phone calls and messages. After his victory, Mr. Trump invited at least one to the Inaugural Ball and seated three more with the first lady during his first address to Congress.

Then and since, they have defended him on social media and in the press, assuring the world that, with President Trump in office, their children will not have died in vain.

This week, the House of Representatives plans to vote on a bill that would intensify penalties for immigrants who re-enter the United States after being deported. The bill is named for a woman fatally shot by a man who illegally crossed the border at least five times.

Sabine Durden, the mother of another victim, recalls dropping to her knees and sobbing when she first heard Mr. Trump warn of the dangers of illegal immigration. Then his campaign called.

“It was almost an out-of-body experience after being so deeply hurt and nobody listening and nobody wanting to talk to you about this,” she said. “It’s almost like I put on a little Superwoman cape because I knew I was fighting a worthwhile fight.”

In Washington in April, they sat in the front rows as Mr. Trump’s homeland security secretary unveiled an office for victims of crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants: of the many promises the new president had made in their names, one of the first kept.

To Mr. Trump’s critics, the office and the people it was supposed to represent were little more than pawns in his crude attempts to make monsters out of a largely law-abiding population — one that research has shown to comit crimes at a lower rate than native born Americans. But here before the cameras, the secretary, John F. Kelly, was putting his hand over his heart and thanking families.

“To say the least, my heart goes out to you,” Mr. Kelly told them.That night, they celebrated what felt like their achievement over dinner and drinks at the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was expensive, they admitted, but it felt right.It was strange that one of the sweetest moments of their lives was about reliving the single bitterest. But there had been a lot of that over the past year or two, as they searched for a way to make it all mean something: the startled and painful pride of finding themselves booked on national television and welcomed to the White House to talk about the blight of illegal immigration, all because of their sons and daughters, who were gone.An Overnight AwakeningThe local news reportssaid Dominic Durden’s motorcycle was hit by a pickup truck as he rode down Pigeon Pass Road in Moreno Valley, Calif., on his way to his job as a 911 dispatcher. He was 30.They identified the other driver as Juan Zacarias Tzun, who was charged with vehicular manslaughter. It was July 12, 2012.Sabine Durden had last seen her son at the airport the day before, when he dropped her off for a trip to Atlanta. Across the country, she said, she nearly blacked out at the moment of his death. Later, after her phone lit up with messages from his friends, she was sure she knew why.

Ms. Durden, right, with Barbara Gonzalez, the acting assistant director of the new Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office, in Washington in April. CreditSusan Walsh/Associated Press

Not until later, she said, did she find out from some of her son’s friends in law enforcement that Mr. Tzun had come to the country illegally from Guatemala, and that he had been convicted twice of driving under the influence. He had been released on bail several weeks before the collision.

At his sentencing in 2013, Mr. Tzun blamed God for the crash. Ms. Durden blamed the immigration system.

“If it was an accident, I could deal with it, but this wasn’t an accident, because if that guy wasn’t in the country at 5:45 on July 12, 2012, my son would still be alive,” she said. (Mr. Tzun was deported in 2014.)

But nobody overseeing her son’s case seemed willing to view his death that way, she said. “You feel like you got the runaround,” she said.

Ms. Durden, 59, had come to the United States from Germany when she married an American in the Army, eventually becoming a citizen. He was a Democrat, so she was a Democrat. She had never thought much about the immigration debate before Dominic died. Now it was her whole life.

Then came Mr. Trump. Whenever she saw him, he greeted her with a “great big hug,” she recalled. “Dom’s mom,” he called her.

“He would say, ‘You’ll never be alone again. You’ll never have to fight this alone,’” said Ms. Durden, who went on to speak at three of his rallies.

Sabine Durden on undocumented immigrants: “Build the wall!” Video by PBS NewsHour

The Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, was out there talking about the need to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. When Ms. Durden heard that, she changed her voter registration to Republican the same day.

In a series of recent interviews, the families described a similar trajectory: The death of a loved one. The spasm of realizing that the other driver, or the gunman, was living in the country illegally. The political awakening — for the Republicans, a hardening toward illegal immigrants; for the Democrats, a quick, grim conversion. The relief, when another “angel mom” or “angel dad” saw them on the news and found them online.

Most of all, the fear that their children would diminish into fading news and Facebook tributes, horror stories circulated in the outer boroughs of the American right — until Mr. Trump thundered into their lives, bearing cameras.

Immigration was “one of those issues that, it didn’t affect me — I was busy working,” said Steve Ronnebeck, 50, whose 21-year-old son, Grant, was shot and killed as he worked overnight at a convenience store in Mesa, Ariz., in January 2015.

“As time went on and the more angry I got, that’s when I got more active,” he said. “This is how I deal with my grief.”

For another parent who came to the Beverly Hills meeting, Don Rosenberg, a self-described lifelong liberal from Westlake Village, Calif., it was hard to embrace Mr. Trump, even if he had the right idea about immigration.

As he watched Mr. Trump announce his presidential bid on TV, “I’m saying to myself, he’s talking about illegal immigration — why did it have to be Trump?” said Mr. Rosenberg, 64, whose 25-year-old son died in a motorcycle accident in 2010. He had been struck by a Honduran man in the country illegally. “To me, an immigration policy isn’t, ‘Build a wall, Mexico will pay for it.’”

Still, by the election, Mr. Rosenberg had come around. He said that he had not voted for either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump, knowing it was not likely to make a difference in California, but that if he had lived in a swing state, he would probably have cast his ballot for Mr. Trump.

V.I.P. Treatment

Here was the paradox of Donald Trump, the unfiltered tycoon who seemed as far away as Fifth Avenue and as close up as the living-room TV. Even as a legion of critics warned he was pandering to his fans on the way to betraying them, the alliance he had made with the families felt, to many of them, like an unshakable bond.

The thing was, he paid attention. And he never stopped.

After the Beverly Hills meeting, Mr. Shaw received a gift basket containing Mr. Trump’s “The Art of the Deal,” chocolates, and Trump-branded ties and cuff links, according to an account in The Wall Street Journal. At one point, Mr. Shaw flew on Mr. Trump’s private plane. At another, while staying at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas, he cut a campaign commercial.

Jamiel Shaw Sr., first row center, was a guest of President Trump’s during his first address to a joint session of Congress in February. CreditWin Mcnamee/Getty Images

The other families received regular care from the campaign, too. A Trump adviser, Stephen Miller, would call or text at least once a month, inviting them to speak at rallies or just checking in. Some spoke regularly to Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager at the time, or to Hope Hicks, the campaign’s spokeswoman.

Mr. Miller, an advocate of restricting immigration and now a senior White House adviser, helped draft Mr. Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order directing the government to intensify immigration enforcement.

A few of the parents also regularly texted with Keith Schiller, Mr. Trump’s longtime bodyguard and current Oval Office aide. It was Mr. Schiller whom the president sent to hand-deliver a letter to James B. Comey informing him he was no longer director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

To find some of the families, Mr. Trump’s team had help from the Remembrance Project, a nonprofit founded in 2009 to draw attention to the victims of crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants. It caught the Trump wave early, bringing several families to the Beverly Hills meeting and other campaign events and hosting a fund-raiser for Mr. Trump in Houston last fall.

As the campaign offered a national audience to more of the parents, however, many of the Remembrance Project’s members abandoned the group, chafing at what several said were its founder’s attempts to dictate what they said and even what they wore. Mr. Trump, they said, had allowed them their own voice.

Before going onstage at some events, Mr. Trump would shoo aides away for a private moment with the families.

“To me, I find it much more personal when the president comes up to you and says, ‘Steve, how are you doing?’” Mr. Ronnebeck said. “He knows my name. He doesn’t just, you know, speak the whole time. He listens.”

For the Trump campaign, the private cultivation paid off. In public, the families became some of the campaign’s most compelling witnesses.

They could be picked out by what they carried, the talismans of absence: the T-shirts printed with photographs of the smiling dead. The commemorative buttons. The ashes held close in a locket.

At one rally in Phoenix in August, a hush muted the crowd when Mr. Ronnebeck and other family members approached the microphone, one by one, to speak about a lost son or daughter.

“I truly believe that Mr. Trump is going to change things,” Mr. Ronnebeck said, his voice catching.

At the Republican National Convention, Mr. Shaw, Ms. Durden and another parent took turns speaking about their children. Mr. Trump’s acceptance speech was partly devoted to the story of Sarah Root, 21, who was killed in Nebraska the day after graduating from college by a Honduran immigrant who was driving drunk.

“I’ve met Sarah’s beautiful family,” the nominee said. “But to this administration, their amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting.”

07/21/16 RNC The Story of Sarah Root Video by NationalAcq

He also mentioned the case that, at least on the right, had come to define the dangers of illegal immigration: that of Kathryn Steinle, a 32-year-old woman shot to death on a San Francisco pier in 2015. The suspect was an ex-felon from Mexico who had been deported five times. A few months before Ms. Steinle’s death, the local authorities had released him from jail without notifying federal immigration agents.

“My opponent wants sanctuary cities,” Mr. Trump said, referring to local governments, including San Francisco, that limit their cooperation with immigration officials. “But where was the sanctuary for Kate Steinle?”

The president has since vowed to starve such cities of federal funding, but a judge has temporarily blocked his administration from doing so. The House is scheduled to vote this week on a bill, known as Kate’s Law, that would stiffen penalties for immigrants caught illegally re-entering the country after being deported.

For all the heat the Steinle case generated, however, her family kept a distance from the campaign, occasionally breaking their silence to voice discomfort with the way her death had become a political grenade. (Through their lawyer, they declined to comment.)

“For Donald Trump, we were just what he needed — beautiful girl, San Francisco, illegal immigrant, arrested a million times, a violent crime and yada, yada, yada,” Liz Sullivan, Ms. Steinle’s mother, told The San Francisco Chronicle in September 2015.

‘We’ve Chosen to Speak.’

Politics makes public playthings of private lives. As their losses came to eclipse everything else about them, the families became, in Mr. Trump’s telling, living testimonials to all that was broken about the immigration system.

Still, those who appeared on the campaign’s behalf said they had never felt like props. Mr. Trump was no more using them, they said, than Mrs. Clinton was using hardworking Hispanic families to humanize the issue.

“He’s never once asked us to speak,” said Michelle Root, 48, Sarah Root’s mother. “We’ve chosen to speak.”

It looked very different to the other side, of course. People on social media, and even some friends, did not hesitate to let them know that they thought they were being used. Lots of people called them racist. They insisted that they were not, emphasizing that they did not think all undocumented immigrants were bad.

A large body of research, accumulated over many years, has found that immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes or to be imprisoned than native-born citizens.

For the families, such studies were beside the point. To them, illegal immigration was an epidemic of preventable deaths.

The glare of other people’s judgment did get to them sometimes. Mr. Ronnebeck took a break from social media for six weeks, as the anniversary of Grant’s death passed, then the inauguration, then Grant’s birthday.

Steve Ronnebeck, whose son Grant was killed in January 2015 by an undocumented immigrant.CreditAl Drago/The New York Times

“There’s people that think I’m a racist and there’s people out there that think I’m the devil,” he said. “It gets to a point where you just can’t do the negative anymore.”

Not for long, though. With Mr. Trump in the White House, they could take their message straight to the corridors of power. Some hope the president will revoke Obama-era protections for young undocumented immigrants; others pray to see the wall built.

“I think we could email or text or even pick up the phone, for some of them, and call them and have them pass it on,” Ms. Root said of her contacts in the White House. “And he would listen. He might not agree, and might not do it, but I know our voice would be heard.”


Trump: Obama ‘did nothing’ about Russia election meddling

(CNN)President Donald Trump questioned former President Barack Obama’s response to Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election in an interview airing Sunday morning, saying Obama didn’t do enough to address the situation.

“Well I just heard today for the first time that Obama knew about Russia a long time before the election, and he did nothing about it,” Trump said in an excerpt of his interview on Fox News’ “Fox and Friends” released Friday. “But nobody wants to talk about that.”
“The CIA gave him information on Russia a long time before they even — before the election,” Trump said. “And I hardly see it. It’s an amazing thing. To me, in other words, the question is, if he had the information, why didn’t he do something about it? He should have done something about it. But you don’t read that. It’s quite sad.”
The President also tweeted his concerns Friday night.
The Washington Post reported earlier Friday on the Obama administration’s efforts to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for trying to sway the presidential election in Trump’s favor, quoting a former Obama official saying the administration “sort of choked.”
“It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend,” the former senior Obama administration official told the Post. “I feel like we sort of choked.”
The Post report details how the CIA’s assessment that Putin was directly involved in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the US presidential election in an effort to help Trump prompted the Obama administration to debate dozens of options for deterring or punishing Russia. Those included proposed cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure, the release of CIA-gathered material that might embarrass Putin and economic sanctions, the newspaper reported.
Before the election, the Obama administration issued several warnings to Moscow about its activities, including one delivered by the President to Putin in September, the Post reported.
Ultimately, Obama approved only modest punitive measures: the expulsion of a few dozen diplomats, the closure of two Russian compounds, and narrowly targeted economic sanctions that some who designed them described as largely symbolic, the Post said. Another measure, the planting of cyberweapons in Russia’s infrastructure, was still in the planning stages when Obama left office.
While some closest to Obama defend the response, saying that by late summer it was already too late to prevent troves of hacked emails from transferring to WikiLeaks and other groups, others expressed regret, the newspaper said.
Tony Blinken, Obama’s former deputy national security adviser, said Friday that the administration took significant action to prevent Russia from interfering with the electoral system itself.
“We made massive efforts so they couldn’t do that,” Blinken, who is now a CNN global affairs analyst, told the network’s Kate Bolduan on “At This Hour.” “This led to two things: President Obama issued a very stark warning to President Putin in September at the G-20 conference in China. What we saw, or thought we saw, after that, it looked like the Russians stopped their efforts. But the damage was already done.”
The report, which features three-dozen high-level officials, confirms what many Democratic lawmakers already believed about Putin, Sen. Jeff Merkley said Friday on CNN’s “New Day.”
“Nothing like the extensive hacking effort and manipulation effort could occur without his involvement,” the Oregon Democrat told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota. “Now we actually know: Yes, Putin directed it.”
“He had a specific goal to defeat (Democratic nominee) Hillary Clinton and that explains the huge coordinated effort from the botnets to the trolls,” Merkley added.
Merkley and other Democratic lawmakers said Russia used extensive methods in the cyber campaign, including 1,000 trolls, hacking and bots to generate fake messages on social media.
Officials in the Post article suggested Obama struggled to find a way to respond to Putin without being so aggressive that he would be perceived as trying to influence the election in Clinton’s favor — a point Merkley echoed Friday.
“It is such a dilemma, because if he had acted aggressively, in a way that he had gone public and said, ‘This is why we’re doing this,’ it would have been seized upon as an attempt to bias the election,” Merkley said. “So, there was enormous bias in the election because of the Russians, but how do you balance that out without further damaging it? It is an extremely difficult problem.”
Sen. Ron Wyden expressed disappointment Friday that the administration wasn’t more aggressive.
“I am troubled learning this new information, that the Obama administration didn’t do more,” the Oregon Democrat told CNN’s Jim Sciutto on Friday. “And I think the standard has got to transcend one particular administration, Democratic or Republican.”
“It has got to be to protect our institutions first, and politics to the wind,” Wyden added.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger said Friday that he didn’t find the Post report shocking.
“I think President Trump was legitimately elected by people who voted for him, but this is a very serious issue about defending democracy and our country and integrity of the election system,” he told CNN’s David Gregory on “New Day.” “So we have to go back to countering Russia disinformation. Congress has to work with the White House to give them tools to push back. This is a very serious issue.”
The Illinois Republican, who serves on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said Republicans must take the intelligence about Russia’s involvement in the election very seriously to protect future elections.
“The reality is, in two or four years it will serve Vladimir Putin’s interest to take down the Republican Party,” Kinzinger said. “If we weren’t upset about it, we have no right to complain in the future.”
Also speaking Friday morning on “New Day,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway dismissed the idea that Russia influenced the 2016 presidential election.”I think it’s very important to show no nexus has been proven between what Russia or any other foreign government tried to do in the actual election result,” Conway said. “Really the only person making that case prominently is Hillary Clinton.”
“You’ve got everyone saying that there is no nexus, that not a single vote was changed and we’re going to stand by that,” Conway added. “We know that Donald Trump won fairly and squarely 306 electoral votes. It had nothing to do with interference.”

Johnny Depp apologizes for Trump assassination joke


LOS ANGELES (AFP) — Johnny Depp apologized Friday for joking about President Donald Trump being assassinated, as his remarks to a music festival audience triggered an angry backlash.

The “Pirates of the Caribbean” star made the off-color comments late Thursday at the Glastonbury Festival in southwest England, telling the crowd it had “been a while” since an actor had assassinated a president.

The remarks drew a stern response from the White House, as Depp said he had intended no malice.

“President Trump has condemned violence in all forms and it’s sad that others like Johnny Depp have not followed his lead,” said Trump’s spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

“I hope that some of Mr. Depp’s colleagues will speak out against this type of rhetoric as strongly as they would if his comments were directed to a Democrat elected official.”

In a statement to celebrity magazine People, the 54-year-old expressed regret that his words “did not come out as intended,” adding that he had intended no malice and “was only trying to amuse, not to harm anyone.”

“I apologize for the bad joke I attempted last night in poor taste about President Trump,” he said.

Actor Johnny Depp arrives to introduce his film, The Libertine, to the audience at 'Cineramageddon', the outdoor cinema venue, at the Glastonbury Festival of Music and Performing Arts on Worthy Farm near the village of Pilton in Somerset, South West England, on June 22, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / OLI SCARFF)

The A-Lister had turned up at a drive-in cinema at Glastonbury, introducing his 2004 film “The Libertine” and answering questions from the 1,500-strong audience.

“I think he needs help and there are a lot of wonderful dark, dark places he could go,” Depp said when asked about Trump.

“When was the last time an actor assassinated a president? I want to qualify, I am not an actor. I lie for a living.”

“However, it has been a while and maybe it is time,” Depp added.

In 1865, Civil War president Abraham Lincoln was shot dead in a Washington theatre by actor John Wilkes Booth.

“This is going to be in the press, and it will be horrible,” the actor acknowledged to the Glastonbury crowd, telling them he was glad they were “all a part of it.”

Lack of outrage

Depp is the latest of a string of entertainment industry figures to make controversial statements about Trump.

Singer Madonna was reportedly the subject of a Secret Service investigation after saying she wanted to “blow up the White House”.

Comedian Kathy Griffin lost her New Year presenting job at CNN after posing for a picture while holding a mask styled to look like Trump’s bloody severed head.

Screenshot from a clip published on Kathy Griffin's social media profiles showing her holding a bloodied, severed head of Trump's likeness. (Screenshot)

A production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in New York’s Central Park was recently interrupted by right-wing protesters outraged that it appeared to depict Trump, as Caesar, being knifed to death.

Demonstrators shouted that the play had the “blood of Steve Scalise on its hands,” referring to the recent shooting of the Republican congressman, although its defenders highlighted that a 2012 production featuring Barack Obama as Caesar attracted little controversy.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer, in a media briefing Friday, described both the play and Depp’s comments as “troubling.”

“It is troubling the lack of outrage that we have seen in some of those instances where people have said what they said with respect to the president,” he said.

“The president had made it clear that we should denounce violence in all of its forms.”

Depp, who has drawn headlines recently for all the wrong reasons, was revealed in January to have spent so lavishly that he reached the brink of financial ruin.

Over the best part of two decades, the actor has been spending $2 million a month, according to a lawsuit from the Beverly Hills-based The Management Group, which is suing the star in Los Angeles for an unpaid loan.

Depp and actress Amber Heard, 31, reached an out-of-court settlement in August last year to end their 18-month marriage, agreeing that he would pay her $7 million.

Neocons Jews Cheer As Trump’s Military Escalation in Syria Risks Kicking off Global War

Donald Trump campaigned (inconsistently) on a pledge to pursue a foreign policy that broke with the interventionist orthodoxy in Washington. He even correctly notedthat past U.S. “foreign interventions unleashed ISIS in Syria, Iraq and Libya.”

Given the persistent hypocrisy and myriad contradictions in his campaign, it may come as no surprise that just over five months into his presidency, Trump has abandoned any pretense of resisting imperial wars. The president is now pursuing a classically militaristic approach that is strikingly similar to what his opponent, Hillary Clinton, had called for.

Trump’s hawkishness is most apparent in Syria, where his administration has ramped up U.S. military aggression and might be hurtling towards a direct confrontation with Iran and Russia.

Colin Kahl, a former top U.S. Middle East policy official under Obama who is by no means an anti-war stalwart, recently warned that the country is on “the path to quagmire, a possible clash with Russia and the war with Iran some in Trump’s administration (and outside think tanks) want.”

Numerous U.S. attacks near a military base at a border area in southeast Syria called al-Tanf risk pushing the conflict into what could well become a global war.

It is looking more and more like the U.S. is also reviving goals to divide Syria on sectarian religious and ethnic lines, in order to weaken the government and its close ally Iran.

The Carnegie Middle East Center, a centrist Pentagon-funded think tank, has even acknowledged that the Trump administration is more than willing to deprioritize the fight against ISIS to do so.

Meanwhile, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists alike are rejoicing at the Trump administration’s belligerence. In an article in Foreign Affairs, the notorious Iran-contra figure Elliott Abrams applauded Trump for his “surprisingly standard foreign policy.” He wrote admirably, “This is not a revolutionary administration. The broad lines of its policy fit easily within those of the last few decades.”

Abrams, a posterboy for neoconservative war hawks, served as a top foreign policy official in the administrations of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. Although he was criminally convicted of misleading Congress over the Iran-contra scandal, in which the U.S. smuggled cocaine and sold weapons to far-right death squads in Latin America, he went on to join Bush’s State Department, where he became an architect of the illegal U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Given Abrams’ record, his celebration of Trump’s policy on the Syrian-Iraqi border is one of the most chilling signs of how dangerous the escalating U.S. military intervention could be.

Rapid escalation against Iran and Russia

The tensions in Syria erupted May 18 and carried through to June 20. In this month, the Trump administration carried out three attacks on Syrian government-allied forces, destroyed two Iran-made drones and shot down a Syrian army warplane — the U.S. Air Force’s first air-to-air engagement in 18 years.

These incidents came in the aftermath of the U.S.’ launching of 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria’s Shayrat airbase on April 6, which destroyed some 20 percent of the government’s planes, according to the Pentagon.

When the Trump administration downed a Syrian aircraft on June 19, Russia warned it will begin to consider U.S. planes as “targets.” The next day, U.S. officials accused a Russian aircraftof “provocatively” and “rapidly” flying toward an American spy plane and buzzing it within just five feet. (The Russian defense ministry denied the claims and said it was the U.S. spy plane that made “a provocative turn toward” its aircraft.)

In the meantime, the U.S. has quietly deployed more troops to southeast Syria, where it has also for the first time sent long-range rocket launchers known as high mobility artillery rocket systems, or HIMARS, which can fire missiles up to nearly 200 miles away. Though the U.S. claims to be operating within a “deconfliction zone,” where it is training a band of rebels, it is reportedly operating more than 100 miles from its de facto base.

‘Mad Dog’ is calling the shots — and wants war with Iran

President Trump has effectively handed over power to the Department of Defense to set his foreign policy and carry out major operations without his approval. “What I do is I authorize my military,” Trump declared in April. “We have given them total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing.” A White House official told the Los Angeles Times that this policy has enabled the military to take a “more aggressive approach.”

The generals are in charge, while Trump golfs at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Secretary of Defense James Mattis (known by the moniker “Mad Dog,” which he earned while presiding over the razing of the Iraqi city of Fallujah) and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, another former four-star general, are calling the shots. They are supplemented by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, an ex-general, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford.

Naturally, the Pentagon’s go-to solution to foreign-policy problems has been even greater military force. It is presently moving to send 3,000 to 5,000 new troops to Afghanistan, where the U.S. has been waging a war for 16 years that has brought only misery, destruction and death to the country’s weary people.

The defining characteristic of the Trump administration’s foreign policy from the beginning has been virulent aggression against Iran. Mattis has for decades depicted the country as public enemy number-one.

This staunch anti-Iran posturing is a key reason for the Trump administration’s record-shattering $110 billion arms deal with the draconian Saudi absolute monarchy. While Iran is pouring resources into the fight against ISIS, the Trump administration seems more intent on ramping up tensions with Iran than squashing the genocidal Salafi-jihadist group.

De-prioritizing the fight against ISIS

A report by the Carnegie Middle East Center, an influential U.S. government-funded think-tank, noted that the U.S. does not want ISIS to be defeated if Iran and its allies, the Syrian government and Hezbollah, are the ones to do it.

In the final paragraph of a research report, the Carnegie Middle East Center’s senior editor Michael Young observed, “the greatest paradox, one nobody in Washington will mention, is that in the greater game between Iran and the U.S., the Americans do not want the Islamic State in Deir Ezzor to be defeated by anyone but themselves—certainly not by Tehran’s allies.”

The report added: “[the U.S.] seeks to expand its sway along the Syrian-Iraqi border, which is unacceptable to Iran. No wonder. The standoff in southeastern Syria only really makes sense if we assume that Washington also intends to hinder Iranian moves and gain leverage that potentially allows it to shape a political endgame in the Syrian conflict.”

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, of which the Middle East Center is a part, is hardly an anti-war bastion. It is funded by the U.S. government, along with other American allies and large corporations. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Defense and Defense Intelligence Agency provided huge funds to the think tank, according to its annual report, along with the U.K. Department for International Development, the Ford Foundation, the Japanese embassy, and the foundation of British-Syrian billionaire Asfari, a top funder of the Syrian opposition.

The Trump administration’s three attacks on Syrian government-allied forces in southeast Syria took place near al-Tanf, a critically important region along the Syrian-Iraqi border. The U.S. has created a base at al-Tanf, where it is training Sunni militants as a supposed proxy force against ISIS.

If the Syrian government retakes this strategically significant area, its ally Iran will have a land path from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon that leads straight through the cities of Baghdad, Ramadi, Damascus and Beirut, reestablishing the so-called Axis of Resistance against American empire and Israeli aggression. The U.S. and its Sunni allies are hellbent on preventing this scenario from taking form.

In order to weaken Iran and the Syrian government, it seems that the Trump administration is intent on reviving the imperial dream of dividing Syria along sectarian lines. The spearhead of its divide-and-conquer policy is the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Syrian militia comprised primarily of Kurdish fighters whose situation is precarious at best.

‘The risk of sliding into a big war is rising’

The dangers of the Trump administration’s policy spiraling into a hot war with Iran or even Russia can hardly be underestimated. And the threat festers while conspiracy-minded Democrats obsessively depict Russia as a foreign bogeyman controlling Trump’s every move.

A former top foreign policy official in the Barack Obama administration has candidly acknowledged these perils, noting that Trump’s policy in Syria bears striking similarities to the kind counseled by neoconservatives and liberal interventionists over the years.

“Watch Syria. The risk of sliding into a big war is rising,” warned Colin Kahl in a series of tweets on June 19.

During the Obama era, Kahl served as deputy assistant to the president and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. While in government, he supported the Syrian armed opposition, like so many of his colleagues. These days, however, Kahl is faced with the dire consequences of direct American intervention in Syria, and he is terrified of what he sees.

“The days of the [anti-]ISIS campaign happening in strategically marginal parts of Syria are over. The two halves of the Syrian war are merging,” Kahl wrote.

When pressured by Charles Lister, an analyst who has long lobbied for U.S.-led regime change in Syria and who works for the Middle East Institute, a think tank funded by the U.S. State Department and Gulf monarchies, Kahl replied, “My personal view? We shouldn’t be at Tanf. We set up an Alamo we now have to defend.”

During the presidential campaign, Trump’s supporters touted his flirtations with anti-interventionist rhetoric to increase his appeal. Trump played off this perception to cast himself as the anti-establishment candidate contrasted with Hillary Clinton, who even the New York Times (which endorsed her) acknowledged was the most hawkish candidate in the race.

But some warned from the beginning that Trump was inconsistent and contradictory: he would criticize the Iraq war one moment and in the next, insist he would have perpetually occupied the Middle Eastern nation and stolen its oil. He condemned the disasters created by past U.S. military intervention, yet declared he would intentionally kill the family members of extremist Islamist militants (a war crime).

More than 100 days into the Trump era, the president has set the U.S. on the course for another disastrous conflict, this time with two of the most powerful militaries in the world. As Trump disengages from his administration’s foreign policy and gives the military free rein, the hawks who would welcome such a scenario are filling the void.

Ben Norton is a reporter for AlterNet’s Grayzone Project. You can follow him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

The ultimate lawsuit: Trump will eventually fire special counsel Robert Mueller — and a lawyer games out what will happen next

Eventually, Trump is likely to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Trump’s repeated statements about the Russia “hoax” — along with his apparent attempts to influence the FBI’s investigation — warrant a close look at the process by which he could do so. Equally important are the limited ways to stop him. Whether by design, inadvertence or a combination of both, Trump and his minions — including Newt Gingrich and Trump’s lawyers — have been laying the groundwork for what could become America’s defining moment.

The Rules and the Players

To stop the investigation, Trump’s cleanest path requires that one of his loyalists occupy a Senate-confirmed position in the Justice Department’s chain of command. With Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal, the power to end the inquiry has now landed in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s lap. But Sessions’ recusal also gave Rosenstein the authority to appoint a special counsel. When he tapped Robert Mueller for the job, it was a game-changer.

Under the Justice Department’s special counsel regulations, Trump can’t fire Mueller directly. Only the attorney general can pull the trigger for “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest or for other good cause, including violation of departmental policies.” For now, that determination rests with Rosenstein. If he drops out, next in line are Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand and US Attorney Dana Boente. After that, things get murky, because the Senate has not confirmed any other Justice Department official. That’s important because without Senate confirmation, even temporary advancement to departmental leadership is problematic.

Step 1: Clearing the Board

As the FBI’s Russia investigation intensified, so would have Trump’s desire for DOJ loyalists whom he could direct to end it. That might explain Trump’s curious about-face involving Manhattan’s US Attorney Preet Bharara. In November, Trump had personally asked Bharara to remain on the job during his administration. But on March 10 — a week after Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation — Trump made a stunning reversal: He fired Bharara, along with every remaining US attorney in the country, except for Rod Rosenstein and Dana Boente. Overnight, the Justice Department was without any Senate-confirmed officials, except for the three who now remain: Sessions, Rosenstein and Boente.

Step 2: Removing Rosenstein

After Trump cleared the board, Rosenstein became a problem for the president, starting with his appointment of special counsel Mueller. Then Rosenstein testifiedbefore the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 13 that he would not fire Mueller without the necessary “good cause” — and that he hadn’t seen any yet. After that performance, Trump couldn’t count on Rosenstein to fire Mueller, and the process for moving Rosenstein out began swiftly. Once reports surfaced that Mueller was investigating the possibility that Trump had obstructed justice by firing FBI Director Comey, it took only a tweet to put Rosenstein in the hot seat:

I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt

Then Trump’s personal attorney followed up on the Sunday morning talk show circuit — Face the NationFox News SundayMeet the Press — reviving the false story that Rosenstein’s May 9 memo led Trump to fire Comey. Bottom line: If Mueller’s investigation includes the circumstances surrounding Comey’s firing, Rosenstein will likely become a witness and may feel compelled to recuse himself from supervising Mueller.

Step 3: But Trump Can’t Count on Brand or Boente

If Rosenstein drops out, Rachel Brand takes the stage. The Senate confirmed her as associate attorney general on May 18. A longtime Republican, she worked on Elizabeth Dole’s presidential campaign and in the office of legal policy for President George W. Bush’s Justice Department. But Brand’s solid Republican credentials are irrelevant to her personal and professional integrity. Benjamin Wittes, a friend in whom then-FBI Director James Comey confided some of his concerns about Trump, tweeted on June 16:

Next in line: Associate AG Rachel Brand, who is a conservative lawyer active in GOP and not a career prosecutor. Thoughts, @benjaminwittes 

@MaxBoot I think very highly of Rachel, who is a friend, a patriot, and a person in whom I have confidence.


If Wittes’ assessment is correct, Brand would balk at executing an unlawful Trump order. At a minimum, Trump’s advisers gaming out the “fire Mueller” scenario have to assume that she would not fall in line.

Next up, Dana Boente, would be no sure thing for Trump, either. Regarded as tough but evenhanded, he’s a career prosecutor who has spent 33 years in the Justice Department.

Step 4: Find Allies

For three months after he fired every incumbent US attorney, Trump didn’t nominate any replacements. But on June 12 — the same day Trump’s longtime friend and chief executive of Newsmax Media, Chris Ruddy, visited the White House and then said on the PBS NewsHour that Trump was “considering, perhaps, terminating the special counsel” — Trump announced his first wave of nominees:

  • Alabama (Southern District): Richard W. Moore White Freemason 
  • Alabama (Northern District): Jay E. Town White Freemason 
  • Alabama (Middle District): Louis V. Franklin Sr. White Freemason 
  • District of Columbia: Jessie K. Liu White Freemason 
  • Ohio (Northern District): Justin E. Herdman White Freemason 
  • Oklahoma (Eastern District): Brian J. Kuester Jew/Kike 
  • Tennessee (Western District): D. Michael Dunavant White Freemason 
  • Utah: John W. Huber White Freemason 

Once confirmed, each of these US attorneys becomes eligible for the Justice Department’s line of succession. The next step would be for Trump to issue another executive order. (It would be his third one resetting the departmental lineup.) He could list new US attorneys based on their fealty to him. When the time came to fire Mueller without satisfying the “cause” requirements of the governing regulations, Trump could proceed down that list until he got compliance.

Step 5: Move ‘Em Through the Senate

Regardless of Trump’s underlying motivations, the prior sequence of events raises the stakes in the otherwise routine task of confirming a president’s selections for US attorney. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but three nominees hail from Jeff Sessions’ home state of Alabama. And Trump’s Ohio pick comes from White House counsel Don McGahn’s former law firm, Jones Day — which has supplied a dozen lawyers to the Trump administration. All eight nominees merit close scrutiny.

What Can Stop Trump?

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) could halt the confirmation hearing on Trump’s Ohio nominee by using the Senate’s traditional “blue slip” process to express disapproval. But except for the District of Columbia, which has only “shadow senators” who can’t vote, all other Trump nominees are from states with two Republican senators (Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah). Unless they break ranks, there’s no “blue slip” obstacle to Senate hearings on those nominees.

In the upcoming confirmation hearings, senators should ask each candidate a critical question that transcends party politics: Will you defy a presidential order to fire Robert Mueller?

The answer will reveal everything the country needs to know about the nominee’s respect for democracy and the rule of law. To assist concerned citizens who want to prod members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to do the right thing, here’s a list with links to individual contact information:




It’s possible that Trump won’t fire Mueller and precipitate a constitutional crisis. But that would require unprecedented Trump behavior: placing the country ahead of his personal self-interest.

Firing Mueller will mark a new low in Trump’s scorched-earth attack on established norms and the rule of law. When Mueller files suit to keep his job, it will become the most important litigation in American history. Every patriot should pray that he wins.


Johnny Depp

Actor Johnny Depp poses on a Cadillac before presenting his film The Libertine, at Cinemageddon at Worthy Farm in Somerset during the Glastonbury Festival in Britain, June 22, 2017.. (photo credit:DYLAN MARTINEZ/REUTERS)

Fifty-four-old-actor Johnny Depp is no stranger to controversy, but he found himself in hotter water than usual on Thursday for a remark against US President Donald Trump, The Telegraph reported.

“I think Trump needs help,” he said while promoting his film The Libertine at Glastonbury Festival. “There are a lot of dark places he could go.”
He continued, “I’m not insinuating anything – by the way, this will be in the press and it will be horrible – but when was the last time an actor assassinated a president?”

Johnny Depp: “When was the last time an actor assassinated a President?”

Crowd reaction? Cheers & laughter

GOP reps targeted/shot days ago

In response to cheers, Depp added, “Don’t worry, I’m not an actor, I lie for a living.”

American actress Kathy Griffin recently lost a contract with CNN due to a failed attempt at comedy in which she was photographed holding a model of Trump’s bloody and decapitated head.

Trump publicly doubting that Russia meddled in election

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump appeared to cast doubt on the assessment of 17 US intelligence agencies that blame Russia for election meddling, questioning Thursday why the Obama administration didn’t try to stop it.

“By the way, if Russia was working so hard on the 2016 Election, it all took place during the Obama Admin.,” the president tweeted. “Why didn’t they stop them?”

All 17 intelligence agencies have agreed Russia was behind the hack of Democratic email systems and tried to influence the 2016 election to benefit Trump. The findings are at the heart of an investigation into contacts that members of Trump’s campaign team may have had with Russian officials during the campaign and the transition.

Trump, frequently lashes out at the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt” spearheaded by Democrats.

He tweeted Thursday that the Democratic National Committee turned down an offer from the Department of Homeland Security “to protect against hacks (long prior to election). It’s all a big Dem HOAX!”

“…Why did the DNC REFUSE to turn over its Server to the FBI, and still hasn’t? It’s all a big Dem scam and excuse for losing the election!” he wrote.

A day earlier, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told the House intelligence committee that in the late summer and into the fall, he was very concerned about the meddling in state election systems and that the department encouraged states to seek assistance from DHS. He said he was frustrated DHS learned of the hack into the DNC late in the game and that the committee refused help because it was using a private cyber security firm.

In this Sept. 27, 2016 file photo, FBI Director James Comey, center, flanked by Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson, lower left, and Director of National Counterterrorism Center, Office of the National Intelligence, Nicholas J. Rasmussen, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

“In retrospect, it would be easy for me to say that I should have bought a sleeping bag and camped out in front of the DNC in late summer,” Johnson said.

Johnson also addressed the Obama administration’s political sensitivity when it came to warning of the Russian meddling, and alluded to problems created at the time by Trump’s own statements.

“One of the candidates, as you’ll recall, was predicting that the election was going to be rigged in some way. And so we were concerned that, by making the statement, we might in and of itself be challenging the integrity of the — of the election process itself,” Johnson said.

Last month, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was leading the agency’s Russia probe. The president has come under harsh criticism by some who claim he threatened to undermine the investigation by firing Comey.

Special counsel Robert Mueller was later named to lead the investigation, and The Washington Post reported that Mueller is considering investigating Trump for obstruction of justice because he fired Comey.

The investigation has shadowed Trump from the outset, though he’s denied any ties to Russia or knowledge of any campaign coordination with Moscow.

Trump also claimed Thursday that Johnson “is latest top intelligence official to state there was no grand scheme between Trump & Russia.” But Johnson didn’t say that Wednesday. He said he wasn’t aware of efforts by Trump or his campaign to collude with Russia beyond what the intelligence community already knows. Johnson also said Russian hacking didn’t change election totals, but added that he can’t be sure other meddling didn’t influence public opinion.

“It is not for me to know to what extent the Russian hacks influenced public opinion and thereby influence the outcome of the election,” he said.

Trump has picked fights with intelligence agencies in the past, blaming them for leaks about his associates’ Russia ties. During the transition before his inauguration, he ripped into the intelligence community for being behind the leaks and even compared them to Nazi propaganda. “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to “leak” into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?” he tweeted in January.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday that while the president doesn’t think the election results were influenced by Russia, he has “made it clear that we have to protect the integrity of the electoral process.”

Sanders pointed to comments Trump made at a January news conference, underscoring that he has not dismissed the idea that Russia hacked the US election, but he also believes “we also get hacked by other countries and other people.”

McCain Threatens to Shut Down Trump’s Deputy Secretary of Defense Nomination

Though President Donald Trump nominated top Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan to be the deputy secretary of defense in March, the prospective number two man at the Pentagon has only just sat down for Senate confirmation hearings. Now, he is at risk of being further delayed by one particular Republican senator.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee which is holding the hearing, threatened to withhold Shanahan’s name from being voted on due to finding the nominee’s answers regarding Ukraine and his ties to Boeing “not satisfactory,” The Washington Post reported.

“In your questions that were submitted to you, one of the questions was providing the Ukrainians with legal, lethal defense weaponry with which to defend themselves,” McCain said. “Inexplicably, you responded by saying you have to look at the issue. It’s not satisfactory, Mr. Shanahan.”

Shanahan made it clear that he did support arming the Ukrainians, but due to his current inability to see all classified information regarding such matters, he needed to wait until he was fully briefed before taking a final position. According to McCain, he found this explanation “very disappointing” and accused Shanahan of dodging questions.

“Not a good beginning. Not a good beginning. Do not do that again, Mr. Shanahan, or I will not take your name up for a vote before this committee,” McCain threatened, according to The Hill.

Though Shanahan seemed to be respected by most of the other members of the committee, McCain continued to chastise and grill him, both in regard to the Russia/Ukraine issue as well as his time as an executive at Boeing.

Defense News reported that Shanahan — senior vice president of supply chain operations and former VP of the missile defense systems and the Rotorcraft Systems division at Boeing — noted that, if confirmed, he would recuse himself from any decision making on programs in which Boeing was involved, unless a waiver was given to him by the ethics office.

But that wasn’t good enough for McCain, who said, “Your job is one of the most important and key elements (for DoD) and frankly I’m not overjoyed that you came from one of the five (big defense) corporations, 90 percent of the spending of the taxpayer dollars comes out of five different corporations. That’s not what our founding fathers had in mind.”

Defense News noted that the tough line of questioning and threat to hold up the nomination process was particularly unexpected given McCain’s prior statements about Shanahan in April, when he cited the nominee’s “excellent reputation” as a reason for moving forward with the confirmation process.

We expect Democrats to stall the process and throw a wrench into the Trump administration’s plans at every opportunity, but such behavior is not expected from Republicans, at least not from those who are even tangentially on board with the overall mission of strengthening the military and making America great again.

Sen. McCain appears to have completely missed that train, and his behavior at the confirmation hearing will only have more of the Republican base questioning the senator’s loyalty to country and party and whether he should continue to serve as a member of Congress.

Trump’s staff blew him off when he demanded they ‘do something’ about veterans being deported

Among the many of people being deported to their country of origin are a number of veterans who have served in the United States military. Democrats approached President Donald Trump about the problem at a private dinner but his staff rebuffed his interest in helping.

“We should do something about this,” Trump said, sources familiar with the meeting told BuzzFeed.

According to the report, a staffer promptly told Trump that the veterans committed crimes and that was why they were being deported. Trump then told Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX) he should send the request in writing and Gonzaez said that he already has sent two letters.

“These veterans fought for our country and many suffer PTSD caused by their service,” Gonzalez wrote in his letter to Trump. “I hope to work with you and your administration to create an executive order that stops the deportation of veterans who served in combat.”

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) announced that it would work to help veterans being deported. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) is leading a delegation of members of Congress to meet deported vets now living in Mexico. Members of the caucus requested a meeting with the Department of Veterans Affairs to discuss the matter and Attorney General Jeff Sessions denied a meeting request.

BuzzFeed reports that some Democrats think it’s a waste of time to approach Trump on this issue.

“I find it amazing that after someone calls you a rapist, a drug dealer and a murderer, you can just sit down with him and have dinner without him apologizing first,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL). “To me, that seems like turning your back on the kids and the families who are in harm’s way.”

According to numbers released in May, immigration arrests are up 38 percent nationwide under Trump. Arrests of undocumented immigrants whose only crime is coming into the United States illegally have increased by an even greater number. Between Jan. 22 and April 29, ICE did 10,800 “non-criminal arrests.” That number was less than half in 2016 at just 4,200, which marks a more than 150 percent increase.

Thomas Homan, ICE’s acting director, claimed the spike in arrests come from “agents and officers have been given clear direction to focus on threats to public safety and national security.”

“I don’t think you sit down and break bread with Trump until there is a cease-fire,” he continued. “The attorney general has refused to meet with the CHC, so I don’t see avenues for productive dialogue until this administration changes its tune.”

Another Texas Democrat agreed with Gonzalez’s attempt at doing whatever is possible to help veterans.

“The president of the United States invites you to dinner at the White House, you go,” he told BuzzFeed. “But there’s a right way and a wrong way to handle it. The meeting made him look weak, it made him look like the president was using him, and he didn’t help himself with that fucking letter.”

Trump Says He Did Not Tape Comey Conversations

WASHINGTON — President Trump cleared up one of the capital’s least suspenseful mysteries on Thursday, acknowledging that he did not record conversations with James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director he fired in anger over an investigation into his campaign’s possible ties to Russia.

Meeting a self-imposed deadline of this week to resolve questions he himself raised by implying that he had taped Mr. Comey, Mr. Trump said on Twitter that he had not made tapes of what Mr. Comey has testified were attempts by the president to derail the Justice Department’s investigation.

But if few people believed that Mr. Trump actually possessed recordings, his motives in warning Mr. Comey that he might have taped him remain a mystery, particularly since it set off a chain of events that accelerated, rather than slowed, the investigation into Mr. Trump and Russia.

Mr. Comey testified that it was Mr. Trump’s veiled threat of tapes that led him to authorize the disclosure of memos of his conversations with the president — the details of which prompted the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to look into the case.

The timing of the announcement — after an internal debate in which Mr. Trump was at first reluctant to come clean quickly — seemed calculated to change the subject. Hours earlier, Senate Republicans released their heath care bill, which drew immediate opposition from four Republican senators and fanned fresh doubts about the president’s legislative agenda.

“With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information,” Mr. Trump said in a pair of tweets posted around 1 p.m., he has no idea “whether there are ‘tapes’ or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.”

That left open the possibility that the conversations were taped without his knowledge, even by the F.B.I. or intelligence agencies, which eavesdrop and intercept calls. Asked whether Mr. Trump believed he was currently under surveillance in the Oval Office, the deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said, “Not that I’m aware of.”

The decision to confirm there were no recordings was made by last weekend, when Mr. Trump and his family made their first getaway to Camp David, according to people briefed on the discussions. The White House counsel’s office reviewed the language in the tweet, these people said, and Mr. Trump’s personal legal team was aware of it. The wording did not change significantly over the past few days.

But by giving the president some room to claim he might have been referring to someone other than himself doing the taping, his wording could diminish the possibility that his original tweet could have been interpreted as pressure on Mr. Comey before his testimony to the Senate.

Yet when shorn of their extraneous details, the tweets essentially confirmed that Mr. Trump had been leveling a baseless threat when he wrote on May 12, “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

For Mr. Trump the businessman, who used guile and misdirection in countless real estate negotiations, the episode may have been a classic case of a bluff he then had no choice but to call. But for Mr. Trump the president, it could have consequences.

Some legal experts have said the president’s threat could be used in an obstruction of justice case against him, since it could be interpreted as putting pressure on Mr. Comey not to share details of their conversations about the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation.

Mr. Trump’s statement did not satisfy congressional investigators, who said it did not resolve the question of whether the White House had any recordings and it raised questions about his truthfulness.

“If the president had no tapes, why did he suggest otherwise?” said Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “Did he seek to mislead the public? Was he trying to intimidate or silence James Comey?”

Mr. Trump’s original tweet appeared to refer to an article in The New York Times that reported that he had asked Mr. Comey to pledge loyalty during a dinner at the White House shortly after the inauguration. The F.B.I. director rebuffed him, viewing the request as inappropriate.

This month, Mr. Comey testified in detail about that dinner and other conversations, saying the president had appealed to him on multiple occasions not to pursue an investigation of his former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, and his alleged links to Russian officials.

Asked during the Senate hearing whether he worried about the existence of tapes, Mr. Comey replied, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”

Ms. Sanders said that Mr. Trump had promised to answer that question by the end of the week, and that he had delivered on that promise. She also said she did not believe the president’s intention in his original Twitter post about tapes had been to intimidate Mr. Comey.

“The president’s statement via Twitter is extremely clear,” Ms. Sanders told reporters during a briefing from which the White House again banned television cameras.

The episode was yet another example of Mr. Trump’s predilection for sowing confusion and uncertainty. It also, at least temporarily, threw the news media off the trail of the Russia investigation.

Initially, people briefed on the talks said, Mr. Trump clung to the prospect of drawing out an announcement about the tapes, even as some advisers urged him to find a quicker path out.

For weeks, Mr. Trump’s aides and legal team had urged him to stay off Twitter. His personal lawyer, Marc E. Kasowitz, had told White House officials that the president had turned a corner and agreed to limit his tweets, according to two people briefed on the discussion.

But Mr. Trump has refused to give up his favorite form of venting — one he believes allows him to circumvent the news media. He has also indulged in a longtime practice of using tapes as leverage.

At times, he has told reporters that he was taping an interview or a phone call, but then declined to produce one. Other times, according to former aides, Mr. Trump was believed to have taped calls or conversations in his office at Trump Tower. That made it harder to discern the truth when the president raised the prospect that he had recorded Mr. Comey.

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