The Soufan Group Morning Brief

The Soufan Group Morning Brief, May 10, 2017

In a move that stunned Washington, President Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday, terminating the top official leading a criminal investigation into whether Trump’s advisers colluded with the Russian government to steer the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. The move raised the specter of political interference by a sitting president into an existing investigation by the nation’s leading law enforcement agency and immediately ignited Democratic calls for a special counsel to lead the Russia inquiry.

“This is Nixonian,” Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) said in a statement, in which he called for an independent investigation into possible Trump-Russia ties.

Trump’s stated reason for Comey’s firing was contained in a memo written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and endorsed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The memo cited Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, even though the president was widely seen to have benefited politically from that inquiry.

But in his dismissal letter to Comey, the president betrayed his focus on the continuing inquiry into Russia and his aides. “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.” New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post

Politico: “President Donald Trump weighed firing his FBI director for more than a week….He had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.”

Wall Street Journal: “The more James Comey showed up on television discussing the FBI’s investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, the more the White House bristled, according to aides to President Donald Trump.”

In a curious bit of optics, Trump will sit down with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the White House on Wednesday morning to discuss Syrian and the fight against global terrorism. Washington Post

CNN: Grand Jury Subpoenas Issued in FBI’s Russia Investigation
NBC News: New Acting FBI Director McCabe Considered Respected Bureau Man
Washington Post: After Comey’s Firing, Trump’s Staff Scrambled to Explain Why
The nightmare scenario:
“Make no mistake: The firing of James Comey as FBI director is a stunning event,” write Benjamin Wittes and Susan Hennessey in Lawfare. “It is a profoundly dangerous thing—a move that puts the Trump-Russia investigation in immediate jeopardy and removes from the investigative hierarchy the one senior official whom President Trump did not appoint and one who is known to stand up to power.”

Comey deserved to be fired: “President Trump fired James Comey late Tuesday, and better now than never,” writes the Wall Street Journal in an editorial. “These columns opposed Mr. Comey’s nomination by Barack Obama, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation Director has committed more than enough mistakes in the last year to be dismissed for cause.”

The bipartisan case against Comey: “The memorandum issued by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to explain Comey’s dismissal Tuesday is well crafted and will make it very difficult for Democrats to attack President Trump’s decision,” writes Andrew McCarthy at National Review.

This is not a drill: “The suggestion that Comey was fired to punish him for overzealously mishandling the Clinton email investigation appears laughable,” writes David Frum in The Atlantic. “No, this appears to be an attack on the integrity—not just of law enforcement—but of our defense against a foreign cyberattack on the processes of American democracy. The FBI was investigating the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russian espionage. Trump’s firing of Comey is an apparent attempt to shut that investigation down.”

Trump’s reasoning doesn’t hold water: “I suspect Trump wanted to fire Comey and that they scrambled to find a narrative to support it,” writes Jonah Goldberg in the National Review.

This only magnifies the Russia mystery: “President Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James B. Comey will intensify focus on the issue Trump has been so eager to dismiss — his knowledge of contacts between Michael Flynn and other associates and Russia,” writes David Ignatius in the Washington Post.

Trump is mirroring Nixon’s final days: “For more than 40 years, virtually every major scandal in American politics has been likened to Watergate,” writes David Greenberg in the Washington Post. “But no presidential deed — not Ronald Reagan’s trading of arms for hostages in Iran-contra, not Bill Clinton’s cover-up of his affair with a young White House aide in the Lewinsky affair — ever rivaled any of Richard Nixon’s serial abuses of executive power in their gravity. Until now.”

Editorials: New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe

The Guantanamo detainee known as Abu Zubaydah, who was subjected to prolonged torture at CIA black sites, is expected to give testimony for the first time on Wednesday at a pre-trial hearing convened under the military commission system. He is scheduled to give testimony in an ongoing dispute over conditions at Camp 7, the highest-security facility at Guantánamo where the so-called “high-value detainees” including those accused of organizing the 9/11 attacks are held. If he does appear, it will be only the second time that he has been seen in public since his arrest in Pakistan 15 years ago. Guardian

President Trump on Monday authorized the Pentagon to equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces to help defeat ISIS in its default capital of Raqqa, Syria, despite strenuous objections from Turkey. American military commanders have long argued that arming the Syrian Kurds is the fastest way to seize Raqqa. But Turkey has objected vociferously to such a move, raising fears of a backlash that could prompt the Turks to curtail their cooperation with Washington in the fight against ISIS. New York Times, CBS News, NBC News

The member of the Navy SEALs who was killed last week in Somalia was moving alongside — not behind, as the Pentagon initially said — Somali security forces approaching a complex inhabited by Shabab militants when the insurgents opened fire, American military officials said on Tuesday. New York Times

Execution of Indian spy in Pakistan halted: The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has ordered Pakistan not to carry out the execution of an Indian man convicted of spying while his case is being considered. This week, India initiated proceedings at the Hague against Pakistan regarding the case, accusing Islamabad of “egregious violations of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations” in the sentencing of Kulbushan Jadhav. CNN

AQAP leader calls for ‘simple’ attacks in the West: Qasim al Raymi, the emir of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), wants jihadists in the West to carry out “easy and simple” attacks. The message was released in a short video this week by AQAP’s propaganda arm. Long War Journal

The newly elected president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, ran on a promise to move away from the hawkish policies of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who was impeached and then charged on accusations of corruption, and has vowed to improve relations with North Korea. “For peace of the Korean Peninsula, (I will) constantly be working,” Moon said after his inauguration Wednesday. “If it is necessary, I will fly immediately to Washington and also visit Beijing and Tokyo. If the condition is created, I will also go to Pyongyang.” CNN, Reuters
The wrong enemy in Afghanistan: “The United States obsession with the Islamic State in Khorasan — a minor group in Afghanistan — distracts attention from a more urgent task: negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban, which controls close to half of Afghanistan,” writes Borhan Osman in the New York Times.

Trump’s travel ban - it’s the principle, not the president: “In a rare moment of self-awareness, Trump suggested that courts should not consider his personal faults in evaluating the travel ban,” writes Jonathan Hafetz in the Seattle Times. “‘This goes beyond me,’ he said, ‘because there will be other presidents.’ Trump is right. And that is exactly why courts must maintain checks: to restrain not just Trump, but any future president from running roughshod over the Constitution.”

The knives are out for McMaster: “Inside the White House, opponents of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s second national security advisor, want him out,” writes Kate Brannen in Foreign Policy. “This week, they’ve made their campaign against him public, leaking to reporters details about the rocky relationship he has with his boss and trying to paint him as someone hellbent on overseas nation-building projects that are doomed to fail. The timing isn’t accidental. The effort to damage McMaster comes as the Trump administration decides what its policy should be in Afghanistan, a debate that’s pitting McMaster against Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist.”

The Syrian Crisis
A discussion with CNN Foreign Correspondent Clarissa Ward and Senior Crisis Advisor to Amnesty International Rawya Rageh
Thursday, May 18
113 West 60th Street
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSG IntelBrief:  The Unprecedented Firing of the FBI Director

Center on National Security
Fordham University School of Law
150 W. 62nd St. 7th Floor
New York, NY 10023 US
Copyright © 2016 Center on National Security, All rights reserved.