The Soufan Group Morning Brief

The Soufan Group Morning Brief, May 17, 2017

President Trump asked the FBI director, James Comey, to shut down the federal investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, in an Oval Office meeting in February, according to a memo Comey wrote shortly after the meeting .“I hope you can let this go,” the president told Comey, according to the memo, which was first reported by the New York Times.

The bombshell is the clearest evidence that the president has tried to directly influence the Justice Department and FBI investigation into links between Trump’s associates and Russia. The conversation between Trump and Comey took place after a national security meeting in February following Flynn’s firing. The president asked to speak privately to the FBI director, and the others left the room, according to Comey associates.

Comey’s account of the February talk made it clear that his understanding of the conversation was that the president was seeking to impede the investigation, according to people who have read the account or had it read to them. Comey’s notes also made it clear he felt that the conversation with the president was improper and decided to withhold details of it from the case agents working on the Russia probe. The notes also described how the president said that he wanted to see reporters in jail for leaks and expressed his dissatisfaction with what he viewed as the FBI’s inaction in pursuing whoever leaked his conversations with foreign leaders, according to Comey associates. New York Times, Washington Post, CNBC

Legal analysts say Trump's actions could constitute obstruction of justice. “There’s definitely a case to be made for obstruction,” Barak Cohen, a former federal prosecutor, told the Washington Post. “But on the other hand you have to realize that — as with any other sort of criminal law — intent is key, and intent here can be difficult to prove.” Washington Post, NBC News

On Tuesday, all 33 Democrats on the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees sent a letter to their Republican counterparts asking to launch an investigation into whether Trump and those in his administration were “engaged in an ongoing conspiracy to obstruct” the various probes by the Justice Department, FBI, and Congress. House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) sent his own letter to the FBI’s acting director, asking him to turn over all records of communications between Comey and Trump, noting that reports about the communications “raise questions as to whether the President attempted to influence or impede the FBI’s investigation.” Politico

New York Times editorial: Did Trump Obstruct Justice?
New York Times editorial: Did Trump Violate His Oath of Office?
Washington Post: A Moment of Reckoning for Congressional Republicans
Lawfare: Another Bombshell Drops
The source of the highly classified ISIS intelligence that President Trump shared with Russian diplomats last week reportedly came from Israel. Trump’s boasting about some of Israel’s most sensitive information to the Russians could damage the relationship between the two countries and raises the possibility that the information could be passed to Iran, Russia’s close ally and Israel’s main threat in the region. Current and former U.S. officials told ABC News that the life of a spy placed by Israel inside ISIS could now be at risk given the disclosures. “The real risk is not just this source,” said Matt Olsen, the former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, “but future sources of information about plots against us.” New York Times, ABC News
Haaretz: Trump Called Netanyahu on Tuesday But Israel and White House Kept Mum

Trump aides defend president’s disclosure: National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster continued to defend the president’s disclosure to Russian diplomats on Tuesday, a day after claiming the reports were false. McMaster said that the president’s disclosure was “wholly appropriate” in the context of the conversation and that Trump did not share intelligence sources or methods with the Russians. He also said that leaks of classified information to the media threatened national security. Bloomberg, RealClear Politics
New York Times: Trump May Have Shifted U.S. Intelligence Policy on Russia. Or Maybe Not.
New Yorker: McMaster and Appropriate Presidential Behavior

President Trump on Tuesday praised President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey as a stalwart ally in the battle against Islamic extremism and Erdogan in turn praised Trump’s electoral victory -- signs that the two leaders were choosing to ignore Erdogan’s authoritarian crackdown and brush aside recent tensions between the two countries during Erdogan’s visit to Washington. But there were cracks in the facade: With Trump standing by his side at the White House, Erdogan denounced Washington’s Syrian Kurdish allies and said he would never accept them as partners in the region. Mr. Erdogan suggested that the Syrian Kurdish group is a “clear and present danger” to Turkey and said “there is no place for the terrorist organizations in the future of our region.” Erdogan’s comments came days after Trump approved plans to directly arm the Kurdish force in Syria. Wall Street Journal, New York Times

In widely shared cellphone video, Erdogan’s security can be seen savagely beating protesters near the Turkish Embassy on Embassy Row in Washington. Quartz

Cornyn withdraws from FBI consideration: Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) removed himself from consideration to be the next FBI director Tuesday, becoming the latest high-profile possibility to bow out. The second-ranking Republican senator said his decision came after two days of resistance from his Republican colleagues to the idea of him filling the post. It also came one day after Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) took himself out of the running. Washington Post, Reuters

Manning to leave prison: Chelsea Manning, the transgender Army private whose lengthy prison sentence for leaking classified documents to Wikileaks was commuted last year by President Obama, is scheduled to be released from a military prison Wednesday. Washington Post

Guantanamo 9/11 hearings: A military judge at Guantanamo cautioned a 9/11 prosecutor on Tuesday against turning testimony about conditions at this base’s most clandestine prison into a “mini-trial” on Abu Zubaydah. Zubaydah is expected to see the inside of an actual court for the first time on Friday, as a witness for alleged 9/11 deputy Ramzi bin al Shibh, 45, who has complained for years that somebody’s intentionally causing noises and vibrations to deprive him of sleep in his Camp 7 cell. Miami Herald

DHS terror warning: The Department of Homeland Security renewed a bulletin late Monday that warned of the dangers posed by homegrown terrorists and called the threat environment in the country one of the “most serious” since the 9/11 attacks. CNN

Suicide bombers stormed the state television offices in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad on Wednesday, officials said, with heavy fighting underway and a large number of casualties feared. New York Times

Shadow Brokers, the hacking group that leaked the bugs that enabled last week's global ransomware attack, is threatening to make public even more computer vulnerabilities in the coming weeks — potentially including “compromised network data” pertaining to the nuclear or missile programs of China, Iran, North Korea and Russia, as well as vulnerabilities affecting Windows 10, which is run by millions of computers worldwide. Washington Post
New York Times: Malware Case Is Major Blow for the NSA
Trump’s disclosures to the Russians might have actually been illegal: “A number of laws may well prohibit what Trump did, and Congress may have the power to subject even a sitting president to such restrictions,” writes Steve Vladek in the Washington Post. “No one should expect grand jury indictments to be forthcoming. (Spoiler alert: They won’t be.) But the classic Nixonian argument — when the president does it, it’s not illegal — doesn’t apply in this situation.”

Trump’s presidency is beginning to unravel: “The threat to Trump’s presidency is deepening,” writes David Ignatius in the Washington Post. “His credibility is unraveling, with prominent Republicans now voicing concern about his erratic, impulsive decisions. Each new revelation builds the narrative of a man who has been trying to bully or cajole intelligence and law enforcement officials since his election. As one GOP veteran told me: ‘There are no guardrails for this president.’”

Is the Comey memo the beginning of the end? “Trump has a long record of lying, shady business practices, public deception, and crossing legal lines,” writes David Remnick in the New Yorker. “His instructors in this include Roy Cohn and Roger Stone and other base figures. Comey’s memos are far more likely to bury Trump than to exonerate him.”

The 25th Amendment solution: “This will not get better. It could easily get worse,” writes Ross Douthat in the New York Times. “And as hard and controversial as a 25th Amendment remedy would be, there are ways in which Trump’s removal today should be less painful for conservatives than abandoning him in the campaign would have been.”

What happens when intelligence agencies lose faith in the president? “If bureaucrats restrict the information they share with political leaders, the damage could prove deep and lasting,” writes David Frum in The Atlantic.

The Syrian Crisis
A discussion with CNN Foreign Correspondent Clarissa Ward and Senior Crisis Advisor to Amnesty International Rawya Rageh
Fordham University School of Law
Thursday, May 18
113 West 60th Street

International Law and National Security: 
A View From Abroad on Current Trends in Targeting, Detention, and Trials

Benjamin Cardozo School of Law
Thursday, May 18
55 Fifth Avenue
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSG IntelBrief.

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