The Soufan Group Morning Brief

The Soufan Group Morning Brief, May 12, 2017
FRIDAY, MAY 12, 2017

In an interview with NBC News that aired Thursday, President Trump revealed that he had planned to fire former FBI Director James Comey regardless of any advice from the Justice Department, contradicting the White House’s initial account of how the president arrived at his decision. Trump called Comey a “showboat” who had lost the faith of his employees and said that he was thinking of “this Russia thing with Trump” when he decided to dismiss Comey, saying “In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’” NBC News, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Politico

The admission undermined days of denials by the vice president and aides that the FBI’s Russia probe was any way involved in the president’s actions. Trump’s contention that Comey had lost the confidence of the bureau also contradicted testimony on Thursday by Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who told the Senate Intelligence Committee that “Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the F.B.I. and still does.” He added that “the vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey.” McCabe said the inquiry into Russian meddling in the election was “highly significant” and pledged to lawmakers that the FBI would resist any attempt to influence or hobble the investigation. New York Times

Trump-Comey Dinner:
The New York Times reported Thursday that a week after the inauguration, Trump summoned Comey to the White House for a one-on-one dinner, and demanded that Comey pledge loyalty to him. Comey reportedly demurred, saying he would give the president “honesty.” The  account of the dinner that the president gave to NBC differed substantially. He alleged that Comey requested the dinner to ask if he could keep his job as FBI director, and that Comey assured Trump he was not under investigation. But former FBI officials called those assertions into question, telling NBC News that Comey did not request the dinner and would never have told the president he was not under investigation. New York Times, NBC News

NBC News also reported Thursday that the White House abandoned an initial idea for Trump to visit FBI headquarters, after learning he would not be greeted warmly there.
Lawfare: Takeaways from Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe’s Testimony
New York Times: Andrew McCabe Known at the FBI for His Precision and Intellect
Politico: Poll: Voters Divided Over Comey’s Firing
Washington Post: Career Attorney Who Oversaw Russia Probe at Justice Steps Aside - Willingly
The New York Times reports on the sequence of events that led up to the NSA’s recent decision to end its “about” surveillance collection in March, a decision that led the FISA court to move ahead with its annual reauthorization of certain parts of the warrantless surveillance program. New York Times
Office of the Director of National Intelligence: Release of the FISC Opinion Approving the 2016 Section 702 Certifications and Other Related Documents

President Donald Trump on Thursday signed a long-delayed cybersecurity executive order that launches sweeping reviews of the federal government’s digital vulnerabilities and makes clear that the heads of federal agencies will be held accountable for protecting their networks. The order creates a bevy of reviews, including an assessment of the cyber risks at every agency. The executive fiat also orders a review of current efforts to protect vital infrastructure like power plants and hospitals, as well as a report on building the cyber workforce. The order is silent on addressing the security of electoral systems or cyber-enabled operations to influence elections. Politico, Washington Post, Reuters
Lawfare: A Summary of the Cybersecurity Executive Order

Bryant Neal Vinas, an American al Qaeda recruit who rubbed shoulders with senior figures in the terror group in Pakistan, was sentenced to time served plus 90 days on Thursday during a New York federal court appearance. Vinas, 34, was captured in Pakistan in November 2008 and began cooperating with the feds days later. He has spent more than eight years providing invaluable counterterrorism intelligence, helping the feds close more than 30 criminal cases. He sat through approximately 100 interviews and sifted through 1,000 photographs to help authorities confirm their understanding, debunk misconceptions and find leads in the war on terror. He could have faced life in prison for pitching senior al Qaeda figures on the idea of bombing the LIRR and a WalMart store. "He may have been the single most valuable witness against al Qaeda," prosecutors said. CNN, New York Daily News

After Pyongyang last week made fairly sensational accusation that South Korea and the U.S. had plotted to kill Kim Jong-Un with a biochemical weapon, North Korean officials on Thursday demanded that Washington and Seoul hand over the “terror suspects.” Pyongyang has offered no details about how the plot was allegedly foiled. South Korean officials called the claim “groundless.” The CIA declined to comment, as is customary. Washington Post
Time: North Korea Sends Rare Letter of Protest to U.S. Congress Over Sanctions

Somalia security pact: Somali officials have signed a security pact with world powers in London to accept assistance in building a security force that will help the country battle al Shabab militants. The effort will support and train Somalia's army and police to take over duties currently performed by the African Union. BBC News

White House officials say that they were unaware the Russian government would allow its state news agency to post photographs of an Oval Office meeting between President Donald Trump, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kisylak this week. The White House was apparently unaware that a photographer accompanying Lavrov to the meeting worked for Russian state media. “They tricked us," an angry White House official told CNN. "That's the problem with the Russians -- they lie," the official added.

The New York Post reported that Trump “jabbed back” at Russia on Thursday when he tweeted photos of himself meeting with Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, noting that he met with the men the same day and said “Lets [sic] make peace.” CNN, New York Post
Washington Post: Here’s How the Russians Might Have Snuck a Recording Device into the Oval Office
The fatal flaw in Trump’s ISIS plan: “America’s infatuation with the PYD-YPG allows it to ignore some uncomfortable realities that will haunt it long after ISIS is ousted from Raqqa,” writes Robert Ford in The Atlantic.

Putin is not the geopolitical genius the world makes him out to be: “Occasionally, people claim that Vladimir Putin is a geopolitical player of extraordinary competence and success,” writes Carl Bildt in the Washington Post. “The jury is still out on that, if history is anything to go by.”

Once we beat ISIS, don’t abandon us: “As President Trump prepares to meet next week with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey — no friend to the Kurds in Syria or in his own country — we ask the American president and people to be mindful of the enormous sacrifice the Kurdish people have made in this fight, and the importance of the unique democratic system we have worked hard to build in the area of Northern Syria known as Rojava,” writes Sinam Mohamad in the New York Times.

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 Disconnect Between the President and the FBI

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