As it happenedended1560532585

Trump news: President lashes out at ‘nation of terror’ Iran over oil tanker attacks and questions ex-adviser’s Mueller evidence

Another day of chaotic news swirling around the White House

Chris Riotta
New York
,Joe Sommerlad
Friday 14 June 2019 14:33
Trump blames Iran over oil tanker attacks

Donald Trump has insisted that Iran is responsible for an attack on two oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, after the Pentagon released night-vision footage of what it says is an Iranian navy boat retrieving an unexploded mine from the hull of one of the targets.

Phoning in to Fox and Friends for an interview on his 73rd birthday, the president said: ”Iran did do it. You know they did it because you saw the boat.”

Meanwhile in an ABC interview, Mr Trump questioned the testimony given to the Mueller investigation by ex-White House counsel Don McGahn, saying the adviser “may have been confused” when he said under oath that his former employer instructed him to fire the special counsel.

He also said Friday that "of course" he would go to the FBI or the attorney general if a foreign power offered him dirt about an opponent.

It was an apparent walk back from his earlier comments that he might not contact law enforcement in such a situation.

Mr Trump, in an interview Friday with "Fox & Friends," said he would look at the information in order to determine whether or not it was "incorrect."

But he added that, "of course you give it to the FBI or report it to the attorney general or somebody like that."

Earlier in the week, Mr Trump had told ABC News that he would consider accepting information from an outside nation and might not contact law enforcement.

His assertion that he would be open to accepting a foreign power's help in his 2020 campaign had ricocheted through Washington, with Democrats condemning it as a call for further election interference and Republicans struggling to defend his comments.

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Joe Sommerlad14 June 2019 09:08

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has accused Iran of blowing up two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf of Oman, releasing military footage of what the Pentagon says is an Iranian navy boat retrieving an unexploded mine from the hull of one of the targets, a Japanese chemical ship, the Kokuka Courageous.

Donald Trump tweeted his approval of Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe pressing on with a diplomatic mission to Tehran but said of Washington’s own long-running feud with the Middle Eastern state: “I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we!”

The US assessment of Iran's responsibility, which forced the evacuation of the crews of the Kokuka and the Norwegian MT Front Altair in international waters, was based in part on the video intelligence as well as the expertise needed to carry out the operation, Pompeo told reporters in Washington.

It was also based on a recent series of incidents in the region that the US also blames on Iran, including a similar attack on four tankers in the area in May with limpet mines and the bombing of an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia by Iranian-backed fighters, he said.

Each vessel was loaded with petroleum products - the Kokuka with methanol from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the Front Altair with naptha from the UAE - and thelatter burned for hours, a fire that charred half of one of its sides and sent up a column of thick, black smoke. 

Pompeo also said the US would defend its forces and interests in the Middle East, but gave no details on any immediate plans.

Tensions between Iran and the United States have been growing since President Trump last year withdrew from an international agreement aimed at restricting Iran's nuclear programme and reinstated economic sanctions that have had a devastating effect on the Iranian economy.

In May, the US rushed an aircraft carrier strike group and other military assets to the Persian Gulf region in response to what it said were threats from Iran.

Pompeo said Iran had attempted the covert deployment of small boats capable of launching missiles, in an apparent description of the threat that prompted the deployment.

Joe Sommerlad14 June 2019 09:18

Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif has denied the accusations, accusing the Americans of a hawkish plot to "sabotage diplomacy".

Britain has so far backed Pompeo's verdict on the matter, with foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt saying: "This is deeply worrying and comes at a time of already huge tension. I have been in contact with Pompeo and, while we will be making our own assessment soberly and carefully, our starting point is obviously to believe our US allies."

"We are taking this extremely seriously and my message to Iran is that if they have been involved it is a deeply unwise escalation which poses a real danger to the prospects of peace and stability in the region," he added.

But the Japanese ship's operator has said the sailors on board the Kokuka Courageous saw "flying objects" just before the attack, suggesting the tanker wasn't damaged by mines and contradicting the US version of events. 

Here's Borzou Daraghi's report on the original incident.

Joe Sommerlad14 June 2019 09:34

The big news in Washington last night was that Trump's press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is stepping down, a decision announced on the 94th day in a row without her holding a press conference.

President Trump was fulsome in his praise of a "very special person" who has defended him doggedly since taking over the job from Sean Spicer in July 2017, stretching credulity and her own credibility to breaking point.

He even teased the possibility she might run to be governor of Arkansas, a position her face held between 1996 and 2007.

She famously said in December she would like to be remembered in the role as "honest and transparent" in December, a remark positively inviting gallows humour.

Here's Clark Mindock's report.

Joe Sommerlad14 June 2019 09:57

Under Sander's roughly two-year tenure as chief spokeswoman for the White House, daily televised briefings became a relic of the past after she repeatedly sparred with reporters who aggressively questioned her about administration policy, the investigation into possible coordination between Trump's campaign and Russia or any number of controversies involving the White House.

Sanders last held one on 11 March and said she does not regret scaling them back. Instead, reporters were left to catch her and other administration officials on the White House driveway after their interviews with Fox News Channel and other networks.

Trump also has made it a habit to regularly answer reporters' questions in a variety of settings, most notably on the South Lawn before boarding the Marine One helicopter. Sanders often sought to justify the lack of formal briefings by saying they were unnecessary when journalists could hear from Trump directly. 

The Russia report released by special counsel Robert Mueller in April revealed that Sanders admitted to investigators that she had made an unfounded claim about "countless" FBI agents reaching out to express support for Trump's decision to fire FBI director James Comey in May 2017. She characterised the comment as a "slip of the tongue" uttered in the "heat of the moment." 

She faced similar questions last year after Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump's personal attorneys, surprised the White House by saying on national TV that Trump had reimbursed his then-fixer Michael Cohen for the $130,000 (£103,000) Cohen had paid porn actress Stormy Daniels to keep quiet during the campaign about an alleged past sexual encounter with Trump. Sanders was forced to admit she didn't know anything about the repayment until Giuliani disclosed it. 

This short moratorium on her career by Barack Obama's former chief strategist David Axelrod on CNN is hard to beat.

Joe Sommerlad14 June 2019 10:15

Trump himself remains under fire over his statement in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that he would happily accept foreign intelligence on a political rival from a foreign power rather than inform the FBI.

“If somebody called from a country, Norway, [and said] ‘we have information on your opponent’ – oh, I think I’d want to hear it... It's not an interference. They have information. I think I’d take it”, the president said during his Oval Office interview with Stephanopoulos.

The comment was leaped on by Democratic 2020 presidential contenders like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Beto O'Rourke and Eric Swalwell, many of whom called for his impeachment with a renewed sense of urgency.

"It's outrageous and it tells me the guy doesn't understand the job and can't do it very well," Harris told Stephanie Ruhle on MSNBC.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi, dressed in a very fine yellow leather jacket channeling Freddie Mercury, was even more scathing, commenting: “It’s very sad that Trump doesn’t know right from wrong. Everyone in the country should be totally appalled by what the President said last night... we have a duty to report any offer of foreign assistance in campaigns.”

Adam Schiff, head of the House Intelligence Committee, put it equally plainly.

The outrage on Capitol Hill was such that Ellen L Weintraub, chair of the Federal Election Commission, was forced to issue this withering tweet.

Here's more on that extraordinary intervention.

Joe Sommerlad14 June 2019 10:30

Even the Republicans couldn't stomach defending the president on this one.

South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, a zealous Trump convert said: "If a public official is approached by a foreign government offering anything of value, the answer is no - whether it be money, opposition research."

"If a foreign agent or a cutout for a foreign agent approaches any American politician, they should report that to the FBI," agreed Florida senator Marco Rubio, who challenged Trump for the GOP nomination in 2016.

"It's really bad. It's really, really bad. He shouldn't say it, and if he were to do it, it would be impeachable. If a president took information from a foreign government that would be impeachable," a senior Republican source told CNN.

"This is different from the campaign. The difference is, he is the president now, so he knows better. If you are president you cannot say, bring me oppo research - if he does, that is impeachable."

While the likes of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and Idaho senator Jim Risch scurried past reporters declining to answer questions about their own views on the matter, two-time presidential candidate Mitt Romney was more forthcoming.

Here's more from Clark Mindock.

Joe Sommerlad14 June 2019 10:45

With regard to 2020, Kayleigh McEnany, the Trump campaign's national press secretary, told Red & Blue on CBS the president's re-election team would handle approaches by foreign powers "on a case-by-case basis", which was not entirely reassuring.

Trump's own response to all of this negative press was, of course, a wild Twitter rant.

An earlier draft of that first tweet misspelled Wales as "Whales" (a day after mocking a typo in a tweet by CNN's Chris Cuomo). It was hastily deleted but not before screen-grabbed, going viral and inspiring oh so many memes.

Here's Tom Batchelor with more on the familiar lurch to farce.

Joe Sommerlad14 June 2019 11:00

But even when things are looking bad for Trump, he knows he can always rely on his friends at Fox News for support.

Sean Hannity, a man terminally unable to see the wood for the trees, said the ABC interview was a "set-up" intended to trigger “phoney moral outrage”, ignoring the fact that the president answered Stephanopolus's question freely, at leisure in his own office and in his own words.

As always, Hannity resorted to reviving prehistoric scandals about Hillary Clinton.

"Why are they not so outraged about Hillary paying for Russian lies, disinformation, [James] Comey generously using the unverifiable data from Russia to spy on the Trump campaign, again, a FISA warrant," he said.

"No doubt, by the way, this will all get another round of fake, phoney, moral selective outrage over that interview, but it’s the perfect set-up because if they’re outraged about that, then how can you not be outraged over what I just said?

"Of course, that’s all to be expected. In many ways that was a genius set-up because the media mob will fall right into his trap breathlessly spewing fake, phoney outrage over a non-story for days."

Joe Sommerlad14 June 2019 11:15

Sarah Sanders may not be the only prominent spokeswoman soon leaving the Trump administration.

The US Office of Special Counsel has recommended that White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway be removed from office for violating the ethics laws ”on numerous occasions”.

The recommendation follows Conway attacking Democratic presidential candidates during television appearances in which she was acting in an official capacity for the White House, therein violating the Hatch Act that requires a separation between official duties and campaigning efforts.

If you enjoy gloating, here's the woman who coined the Orwellian phrase "alternative facts" sneering at reporters over precisely this subject two weeks ago.

And here's more from Clark.

Joe Sommerlad14 June 2019 11:30

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