The Soufan Group Morning Brief

The Soufan Group Morning Brief, May 11, 2017
THURSDAY, MAY 11, 2017

Days before he was abruptly fired by President Trump, former FBI Director James Comey requested a significant boost in resources, including more prosecutors and other personnel, to accelerate the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election. Comey made the request to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, whose memo was used to justify Comey’s abrupt dismissal on Tuesday. There were other signs that the investigation was accelerating. The Wall Street Journal reports that beginning at least three weeks ago, Comey started receiving daily instead of weekly updates on the investigation. Comey was reportedly concerned by information showing possible evidence of collusion.

Meanwhile, a congressional investigation into Russian meddling picked up steam as the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena Wednesday for the president’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, to produce documents relevant to the investigation. And a federal grand jury in Northern Virginia has issued subpoenas for records tied to Flynn. Wall Street Journal, Politico, New York Times

Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, has emerged as a central player in the drama, after the White House cast him as a prime mover of the decision to fire Comey and insisted that the president acted only on his recommendation. Rosenstein, who has been on the job for two weeks, reportedly threatened to resign after seeing that narrative emerging from the White House on Tuesday evening. Washington Post

The administration’s stated reason for firing Comey -- that he mishandled the investigation into Hillary’s Clinton’s private email server -- continued to be undermined by reports that President Trump was furious over Comey’s repeated appearances before congressional panels, during which he thought Comey was grandstanding, and Comey’s failure to support Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that President Barack Obama had his campaign offices wiretapped. Trump was also said to be frustrated by his belief that Comey was giving too much attention to the Russia probe and not enough to investigating leaks to journalists. He began to talk of firing Comey last week after Comey said he was “mildly nauseous” to think that his handling of the email case had influenced the election. New York Times, Washington Post,  

Comey’s replacement: The Justice Department is said to be interviewing candidates to be Comey’s replacement as FBI director. Five people were interviewed Wednesday, but officials said they were being considered only for interim director. They were Andrew McCabe, Comey’s former deputy; Michael Anderson, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Chicago division; Adam Lee, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Richmond division; Paul Abbate, the executive assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch; and William “Bill” Evanina, the national counterintelligence executive in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Washington Post, Wall Street Journal
Wall Street Journal: Comey to Colleagues: ‘It Is Done and I Will Be Fine’

In an awkwardly timed meeting, President Trump hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak for a meeting in the Oval Office on Wednesday -- a meeting that he held, Trump said, because President Vladimir Putin had asked him to. No reporters were allowed to ask questions and the only photos of the event came from the Russian news agency Tass. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met earlier with Lavrov but did not take questions from the media. Lavrov, however, did invite reporters to the Russian Embassy, and when asked if he was relieved Comey had been fired, Lavrov said, “I never thought I’d have to answer such questions, all the more in the United States of America, with your greatly developed democratic and political system.” New York Times, The Hill, Politico
Washington Post: Presence of Russian Photographer in Oval Office Raises Alarms

Former espionage suspect files lawsuit: Xi Xiaoxing, a Temple University physics professor who was the subject of a dropped espionage investigation over technology he sent to China, has alleged in a lawsuit that the lead FBI agent in the case falsified the key piece of evidence and ignored repeated warnings that he was investigating an innocent man. New York Times

Abu Zubaydah testimony: A lawyer for Guantanamo detainee Abu Zubaydah tells the Miami Herald that his client is waiving immunity from potential prosecution to testify at the military war court about conditions at Guantanamo’s most clandestine prison. Zubaydah could be called to testify on May 19. Miami Herald

Waddell to be No. 2 at National Security Council: Army Reserve Major General Ricky Waddell has been named deputy national security adviser, taking on a role that will soon be vacated by K.T. McFarland. Politico

CIA North Korea center: The CIA has established a mission center geared towards dealing with advancements in North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Time

The U.S. plans to beef up joint intelligence efforts with Turkey to help that government better target terrorists in the region, in an apparent bid to alleviate Turkish anxieties over the Pentagon’s decision to  arm Kurdish forces operating inside Syria. The White House decided this week to authorize the Pentagon to arm the Kurdish fighters, despite vociferous objections from Turkey, because it considers them an effective military proxy in the fight against ISIS. To help soothe anger in Ankara, the U.S. is increasing the capabilities of what is known as an “intelligence fusion center” in Ankara to help Turkish officials better identify and track the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a network that both the U.S. and Turkey have designated a terrorist group. Wall Street Journal, New York Times
Foreign Policy: Trump’s Plan to Arm Syrian Kurds Lays Bare the Strategic Vacuum in Syria

Iran’s highest leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Wednesday that any disrupters of Iran’s national elections, which are less than two weeks away, would receive a “slap in the face,” underscoring the political tensions lurking behind the vote. New York Times
Financial Times: Election Gloves Come Off as Rouhani Attacks Iran Hardliners
Trump’s constitutional crisis: “James Comey is no saint. But thanks to Donald Trump, he is now a martyr,” writes David Cole in the New York Review of Books. “If the president and his attorney general are firing the FBI director because of the FBI’s investigation into the campaign that got the president elected—a campaign in which the attorney general had a direct part—it amounts to an obstruction of justice and an attempt to place the president above the law. This is a constitutional crisis.”

Trump keeps acting like he has something to hide: “Whenever the pressure from Kremlingate has grown too strong, Trump has lashed out in ways that are erratic and counterproductive,” writes Max Boot in Foreign Policy. The question is “will the Republicans now reveal themselves to be men of honor and courage who are willing to stand up for the republic rather than the Republican Party? On that question hinges the future of the rule of law in America.”

The problem isn’t just that Trump fired Comey. It’s how he did it: “How Mr. Trump went about this firing has implications as profound as the action itself for the rule of law in his Administration,” writes Bob Bauer in Lawfare. “The problem overall may be that Mr. Trump cannot help but see the legal process as he did when a businessman for so many years. He was a client, a deponent, a defendant and a plaintiff. His view of the law is, it seems, coldly practical: only the results appear to count.”

An open letter to the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein: “It’s rare that any single person has to bear as much responsibility for safeguarding American democracy as you find yourself carrying now,” write the New York Times in an editorial. “You have one choice: Appoint a special counsel who is independent of both the department and the White House. No one else would have the standing to assure the public it is getting the truth.”

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: A Critical Test for American Democracy

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