The Soufan Group Morning Brief


The Soufan Group Morning Brief, May 18, 2017
THURSDAY, MAY 18, 2017
MUELLER APPOINTED SPECIAL COUNSEL OF FBI’S RUSSIA PROBE

The Justice Department appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel on Wednesday to oversee the investigation into ties between President Trump’s campaign and Russian officials, dramatically raising the legal and political stakes in an affair that has threatened to engulf Trump’s young presidency.

Deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller, who led the bureau from 2001 to 2013. The move came after a dramatic few days in Washington, which included reports that former FBI Director James Comey had written memos earlier this year in which he suggested that President Trump had pressured him to drop the FBI’s inquiry into Michael Flynn, former national security adviser. Rosenstein said in a statement that “the unique circumstances the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command.”

Trump wrote in a statement: “As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know — there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity. I look forward to this matter concluding quickly. In the meantime, I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country.” New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Reuters
Related:
New York Times: How a Special Counsel Alters the Russia Investigation
Wall Street Journal: Mueller Returns to Political Fire After Long Career with the FBI
Washington Post op-ed//Jennifer Rubin: With Mueller as Special Counsel, White House Has Every Reason to Panic
TRUMP TEAM HAD AT LEAST 18 UNDISCLOSED CONTACTS WITH RUSSIANS
Michael Flynn and other advisers to Donald Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race, current and former U.S. officials familiar with the exchanges told Reuters.

REPORT: TRUMP TEAM KNEW FLYNN WAS UNDER INVESTIGATION BEFORE INAUGURATION
Michael Flynn told President Trump’s transition team weeks before the inauguration that he was under federal investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign, according to the New York Times. Despite this warning on January 4, Trump made Flynn his national security adviser, giving Flynn access to nearly every secret held by American intelligence agencies.

According to people who have talked to Flynn about the case, he sees the Justice Department’s investigation as part of an effort by the Obama administration and its holdovers in the government to keep him out of the White House. New York Times

FLYNN HALTED MILITARY PLAN TURKEY OPPOSED
Ten days before Trump was sworn in as president, Obama’s national security team asked Trump’s team for a sign-off on the Pentagon’s plan to retake ISIS’s de facto capital of Raqqa with Syrian Kurdish forces. But Michael Flynn told Obama’s team to hold off -- delaying the operation for months. That decision conformed to the wishes of Turkey, whose interests, unbeknownst to anyone in Washington, Flynn had been paid more than $500,000 to represent. McClatchy

TRUMP LOOKS FOR RESET ON FIRST FOREIGN TRIP
President Trump leaves for his first overseas trip on Friday, with stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Belgium, Italy, and the Vatican over nine days. But with scandals at home intensifying by the day and the potential for damaging off-script moments high, there’s a good possibility Trump’s foreign policy agenda could be eclipsed by other events.

The president will reportedly deliver a major speech on Islam during his visit to Saudi Arabia. The speech is still being written by aide Stephen Miller. He will also deliver a speech in Israel, affirming the strong alliance between the U.S. and Israel. Politico, New York Times, Reuters
Related:
New York Times: Sudan President, Charged with Genocide, Is Invited to Saudi Summit with Trump
CNN op-ed//Aaron David Miller: Trump’s First Foreign Trip Will Be a Reality Check  

David Clarke to DHS: Polarizing Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke, who once claimed that ISIS and Black Lives Matter activists were forming an alliance to destroy America, announced Wednesday that he was accepting a senior position with the Department of Homeland Security coordinating the department’s outreach for state and local governments and law enforcement agencies. The White House, however, declined comment and DHS said no official announcement had yet been made. New York Times


REPORT: ISIS IS CREATING CHEMICAL CELL
U.S. intelligence believes ISIS is bringing together all of its experts on chemical weapons from Iraq and Syria into a new “chemical weapons cell,” a U.S. official tells CNN. The cell is comprised of chemical weapons specialists from Iraq and Syria who have not previously worked together, the official added. The new unit is being set up in an ISIS-controlled area in Syria within the Euphrates River Valley, between Mayadin, Syria and the town of al Qaim, just across the Iraqi border. CNN


IRANIAN ELECTION ON FRIDAY WILL DETERMINE FUTURE OF ECONOMY
Iranians will head to the polls Friday to elect a president who could determine the future of the economy that is still recovering from years of crippling sanctions. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is seeking a second term as he faces off against a handful of hardline conservative candidates. His main opponent on Friday’s ballot is the conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who has consolidated the support of hardliners worried that religious values are under assault, and stirred up populist anger about Iran’s feeble economy. Guardian, Financial Times, CNN
Nuclear deal waiver:
The Trump administration issued a waiver to Tehran on Wednesday to allow Iran to continue enjoying benefits from the 2015 nuclear deal, but added fresh sanctions on ballistic missiles. AP

ISRAELI SOURCE SEEN AS KEY TO COUNTERING ISIS THREAT
The Wall Street Journal reports that the classified information that President Trump shared with Russian officials last week came from an Israeli source described by multiple U.S. officials as the most valuable source of information on external plotting by ISIS. One official said now that the Russians are aware of the source, there is greater risk the source could be compromised in some way. But another official doubted that the Russians would be able to identify the nature of the source based on Trump’s statements, though Moscow might learn more about where in Syria the intelligence was coming from. Wall Street Journal

Terror arrests in London: Four men have been arrested on suspicion of plotting a terror attack in the UK as part of an investigation by MI5. Independent

Russia’s offer to provide transcript of Trump meeting: U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday laughed off Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer to provide a transcript of Trump’s meeting with Russian envoys in the Oval Office as an effort by Putin to meddle in U.S. affairs. Washington Post
TOP OP-EDS
Can Trump screw up the world’s best intelligence relationship? After Trump’s intelligence disclosure to the Russians, “Netanyahu’s intelligence chiefs are up in arms,” writes Ronen Bergman in the New York Times. “Israel and the United States have been locked in a mutually necessary and beneficial intelligence-sharing relationship for more than 60 years. But what if it’s not so beneficial anymore?”

FBI counterintelligence agents don’t forgive or forget: “It’s worth noting that a subset of the FBI almost certainly felt implicated in Trump’s bullying: the FBI special agents who conduct foreign counterintelligence investigations, known within the intelligence community as FCI cases,” writes David Gomez in Foreign Policy. “These agents are their own breed within the FBI, spending their careers working silently on cases of immense national security interest. And Trump may soon regret picking a fight with them.”

I was in the CIA. We wouldn’t trust a country whose leader did what Trump did. “As a former CIA officer, I know how U.S. intelligence evaluates whether we can trust our partners in other countries,” writes Stephen Hall in the Washington Post. “If another head of state handled the sensitive information we had provided so casually, it would damage our relationship badly. It would cause us to reevaluate how and what we passed, and almost certainly result in our sharing less.”

The dangerous distrust between Trump and the national security agencies: “North Korea. Iran. The Islamic State. Russian meddling and aggression. Chinese influence. Global cyber-insecurity. The list of national security challenges and potential flash points facing the United States and our allies is long and deeply worrying,” writes Michael Leiter in the Washington Post. “But increasingly we face a more foundational national security crisis that is of our own making: the breakdown of trust between the president and our critical national security agencies.”
EDITOR'S PICK

EVENTS
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
6PM-7:30PM
113 West 60th Street
RSVP

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
6PM
55 Fifth Avenue
RSVP
 
SOUFAN GROUP
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSG IntelBrief: Nine Tumultuous Days in Washington




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