The Soufan Group Morning Brief

The Soufan Group Morning Brief, May 19, 2017
FRIDAY, MAY 19, 2017

In a news conference at the White House on Thursday, President Trump dismissed the Russian investigation as a “witch hunt,” and said that he believes it hurts the U.S. “terribly.” Trump denied ever asking former FBI Director James Comey to back off on his agency’s investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Referring to deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein’s decision to appoint a special counsel, Trump said, “I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt, and there is no collusion between — certainly myself and my campaign, but I can only speak for myself and the Russians. Zero. Believe me, there’s no collusion.”  The president had also tweeted on Thursday morning that “With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special councel [sic] appointed!” Shortly after he added, “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” Washington Post, BBC News, New York Times

Earlier in the day, Rosenstein told a closed briefing of the full Senate that he knew that Trump was going to fire Comey before Rosenstein wrote his memo to the president. In the initial hours after the firing, the vice president and top White House aides said Comey's firing was made based on the recommendation by Rosenstein. That assertion was later contradicted by the president himself. NBC News
Washington Post: Appointment of Mueller Could Complicate Other Probes into Alleged Russian Meddling
New York Times: Comey, Unsettled by Trump, Is Said to Have Wanted Him Kept at a Distance
Washington Post: Comey Prepared Extensively for His Conversations with Trump
President Trump kicks off his first overseas trip today, beginning the nine-day journey with a stop in Saudi Arabia, where he will deliver a speech about Islam. Trump will arrive in Riyadh for a two-day stay on Saturday, and he will meet with leaders of around 40 Muslim-majority nations to discuss how to combat religious extremism. Wall Street Journal
Wall Street Journal editorial: Trump Goes to Saudi Arabia

Weapons sale and Kushner: The New York Times reports that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in law, was instrumental in finalizing a $100 billion-plus arms deal with the Saudis. During a recent meeting with a Saudi delegation, Kushner stunned his guests by picking up the phone and calling the head of Lockheed Martin to ask for a discount on a sophisticated radar system designed to shoot down ballistic missiles. New York Times

President Trump, 24 hours from his self-imposed deadline for picking a new FBI director, told reporters on Thursday that he was “very close” to choosing a successor to James Comey, and he named Joseph Lieberman, the former Democratic senator and vice-presidential nominee, as a finalist. But members of Mr. Trump’s staff — alarmed by his rapid embrace of Lieberman — have quietly urged him to take more time to make such a critical hire. New York Times
Politico: Senate Democrats Reject Lieberman as FBI Director

In 2012, the FBI. warned a Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California that Russian spies were trying to recruit him, an example of how aggressively Russian agents have tried to influence Washington politics, reports the New York Times. Rohrabacher has been known for years as one of Moscow’s biggest defenders in Washington and as a vocal opponent of American economic sanctions against Russia. New York Times

No testimony from Zubaydah at Gitmo: Abu Zubaydah, the first person subjected to CIA waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques after the Sept. 11 attacks, will not be testifying Friday at the war court after all, his attorneys said Thursday. “On the advice of his attorneys he has made a decision that he will not testify because the risks to him in the future from cross examination prohibit him from being able to give important testimony on the issue before the court,” defense attorney Jim Harrington said. Miami Herald

Facebook terrorism lawsuits dismissed: A federal judge on Thursday dismissed two lawsuits seeking to hold Facebook liable for supporting terrorist groups by letting them use its social media platform to further their goals. Reuters

Proposed legislation on NSA exploits: The NSA could be required to make public any security flaws it finds in software that it exploits to spy on users under a bill proposed by two lawmakers this week. The NSA has been criticized for reportedly developing a Microsoft exploit that later wound up in the hands of hackers and was weaponized last week in the global WannaCry ransomware attack. Engadget, CNBC

U.S. makes rare strike on pro-government forces in Syria: American aircraft struck a convoy of troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday, in a rare direct assault by the United States on forces affiliated with the Syrian government. Washington Post

ISIS kills more than 50 people in Syria: ISIS militants attacked several government-held villages in central Syria on Thursday, killing at least 50 people. Time

Prosecutors in Sweden said on Friday that they would drop their investigation into Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who sought refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London five years ago after the authorities in Stockholm opened a preliminary rape inquiry against him. The Swedish decision comes about six months after Assange was questioned by Swedish prosecutors at the embassy over allegations he raped a woman during a visit to Sweden in 2010 -- allegations that Assange has long denied. The decision does not mean that Assange is in the clear and may leave the embassy freely however. The Justice Department in Washington was reconsidering last month whether to charge Assange for his role in the disclosure of highly classified information. In a Twitter post, WikiLeaks said that Britain had refused to confirm or deny whether it had received an extradition warrant for Assange. Wall Street Journal, New York Times

The International Court of Justice at The Hague has ordered Pakistan to stay the execution of Kulbhushan Jadhav, a former Indian naval officer convicted of espionage, until it can formally examine an appeal lodged by the Indian government. New York Times, Guardian

Iranian elections underway: Iranian voters head to the polls Friday in the first round of a presidential election widely viewed as a referendum on the nuclear deal and economic benefits President Hassan Rouhani pledged it would deliver. Time
What James Comey told me about Trump: “While I am not in the habit of discussing with reporters my confidential communications with friends, I decided that the things Comey had told me needed to be made public,” writes Benjamin Wittes in Lawfare.

Four reasons that Mueller is an ideal special counsel: “It is not just the appointment of a special counsel that is cause for relief but the specific choice of Robert Mueller,” writes Karen J. Greenberg in The Nation. “In many ways, Mueller is as good a person to occupy this post as any we could hope for. By temperament and by experience, Mueller hints at the possibility of an antidote to the Trump administration’s defiant stance against the laws of the land.”

The guardrails can’t contain Trump: “The pleasant surprise of the First 100 Days is over,” said Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post. “Donald Trump’s character — volatile, impulsive, often self-destructive — had not changed since the campaign. But it seemed as if the guardrails of our democracy— Congress, the courts, the states, the media, the Cabinet — were keeping things within bounds. Then came the past 10 days. The country is now caught in the internal maelstrom that is the mind of Donald Trump. We are in the realm of the id. Chaos reigns. No guardrails can hold.”
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSG IntelBrief.

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