The Soufan Group Morning Brief

The Soufan Group Morning Brief, June 14, 2017

Nearly 200 Democratic members of Congress are expected to file a federal lawsuit on Wednesday accusing President Donald Trump of violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause by profiting from business dealings with foreign governments. The plaintiffs—believed to be the most members of Congress to ever sue a sitting president—contend that Trump is in violation of the constitutional clause that prohibits federal officials from accepting gifts from foreign powers without congressional approval. At least 30 senators and 166 representatives are involved.
This marks the third such lawsuit against Trump on the issue since he became president, reflecting a coordinated effort by the president’s critics to force him to reveal his business entanglements and either sell off his holdings or put them in a blind trust. “The founders ensured that federal officeholders would not decide for themselves whether particular emoluments were likely to compromise their own independence or lead them to put personal interest over national interest,” the lawsuit states. “An officeholder, in short, should not be the sole judge of his own integrity.” The lawsuit follows a similar suit filed in federal court on Monday against Trump by the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia. New York Times, BBC News

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, where he defended himself against what he called “an appalling and detestable lie” that he may have colluded with the Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 election. However, Sessions refused to answer questions about his private conversations with President Trump, including whether he spoke to Trump about former FBI Director James Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation. CNN, BBC News, Washington Post,
Sessions defended his decision to participate in the firing of Comey, even though he had recused himself from the Russia investigation. “It is absurd, frankly,” Sessions said, “to suggest that a recusal from a single specific investigation would render the attorney general unable to manage the leadership of the various Department of Justice law enforcement components that conduct thousands of investigations.” Sessions did corroborate two key parts of Comey’s testimony last week before the same committee -- regarding Comey’s meeting with Trump in the Oval Office on February 14 and Comey’s request not to be left alone with Trump. New York Times
Sessions said that Trump had not invoked executive privilege concerning his testimony. However, in refusing to answer some questions, he said, “I am protecting the right of the president to assert it if he chooses; and there may be other privileges that could apply in this circumstance.” Democrats criticized Sessions for sidestepping questions, and, following the hearing, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, suggested that Congress could be prepared to hold Sessions in contempt of Congress in an effort to force him to testify in more detail. Washington Post
CNN: Winners and Losers from Jeff Sessions’ Testimony on Russia
The Atlantic: The Questions Sessions Left Unanswered
New York Times: Jeff Sessions Gives a Master Class in Dissembling
Just Security: Highlights of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Hearing
Russia’s cyberattack on the U.S. electoral system ahead of the 2016 vote was far more widespread than has been publicly revealed, Bloomberg reports, and included incursions into voter databases and software systems in 39 states, nearly twice as many states as has been previously reported. In Illinois, investigators found evidence that cyber intruders tried to delete or alter voter data.
Illinois was among the states that gave the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security almost full access to investigate its systems. As many as 90,000 records were compromised, the state found, after a hacker gained access to its voter database. Investigators also found evidence that the hackers tried but failed to alter or delete some information in the database, an attempt that wasn’t previously reported.
This suggests a potential a test run for a disruptive attack, according to individuals familiar with the investigation. The new details of Russia’s hacking efforts are supported by a classified NSA document that was leaked to The Intercept by U.S. intelligence contractor Reality Winner, who has been charged with willful retention and transmission of national defense information. Bloomberg, CNBC
Following an interview by Christopher Ruddy, a friend of President Trump and president of the conservative media outlet Newsmax, in which he said Trump was considering firing Robert Mueller, officials in Washington and Trump aides urged the president not to terminate the special counsel appointed to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
“While the president has every right to [fire Mueller], he has no intention to do so,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “I think the best thing to do is to let Robert Mueller do his job,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said. New York Times, Washington Post
Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller, said Tuesday he would not permit the special counsel to be dismissed without legitimate reason. “As long as I’m in this position, he’s not going to be fired without good cause,” Rosenstein said. He added that Mueller will have the “full independence he needs to conduct that investigation” and that he has not spoken to Mueller about the substance of the investigation since appointing him. Politico, CNN
CNN: What Would Happen if Trump Tried to Fire Special Counsel Mueller
New York Times: President Trump Can’t Just Fire Robert Mueller
Comey associate says he turned over memos to the FBI: Daniel Richman, a Columbia Law School professor who former FBI Director James Comey identified as the individual that disseminated details of Comey’s alleged interactions with President Trump to the media, has turned over all “relevant materials” to the FBI. Richman’s decision comes as several congressional committees have asked for copies of Comey’s memos. Meanwhile lawyers for President Trump said they are unlikely to file a planned complaint to the Justice Department this week against Comey over disclosing details about conversations with the president, but may do so next week. ABC News, Politico, Reuters
Tillerson signals trouble for Senate’s bipartisan Russia sanctions deal: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday that a bipartisan Russia sanctions deal would shut off communications with Moscow that he would like to remain open. Senators in both parties have urged Trump to avoid leveling any veto threat on the deal, which sets up a congressional review process if the president decides to ease or remove penalties against Moscow. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tillerson said it was important for Trump to have the flexibility “to turn the heat up” on Russia, but that he does not want to preemptively shut down a potentially productive conversations. Politico, ABC News

President Trump has given Defense Secretary Jim Mattis the authority to determine troop levels in Afghanistan, opening the door for sending more American forces to a war that the Pentagon chief acknowledged the U.S. was “not winning.” Mattis is believed to favor sending several thousand more American troops to strengthen efforts to advise Afghan forces. But officials said he had not yet decided how many more forces to send to Afghanistan, or when to deploy them.
This marks the latest in a series of moves by the White House to give the Pentagon and its military commanders more latitude to deploy forces and carry out operations. In late April, Trump similarly gave Mattis the authority to manage the U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Syria. “We are not winning in Afghanistan right now, and we will correct this as soon as possible,” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. New York Times, ABC News, Washington Post
U.S. deploys long-range artillery system to southern Syria for first time: The U.S. military has moved its High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) from Jordan into southern Syria for the first time. HIMARS, a truck-mounted system which can fire missiles as far as 300 kilometers, is a major boost to U.S. combat power near its coalition training base at Tanf. CNN

Germany builds an election firewall to fight Russian hackers: To guard against Russian interference in Germany’s upcoming elections in September, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is calling for a law that would allow the country to “hack back” and wipe out attacking servers. The country’s top technology security agency has set up cyber security response teams to clean up after attacks and help government agencies keep computer systems from collapsing. Bloomberg
Trump weighs vetoing France’s African anti-terrorism plan: The Trump administration is weighing whether to veto in the U.N. Security Council a French resolution that would empower an African counterterrorism force. The dispute hinges on the question of who will help fund the force of 5,000 African soldiers and police in the Sahel and whether French military planners have devised a workable strategy. France spearheaded the effort to assemble the five-nation African anti-terrorism force, but the countries taking part are looking to the U.S., its allies, and the United Nations to share the burden of funding and supporting the cross-border operations. Foreign Policy
Detained American is evacuated from North Korea in a coma: Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student detained at the Pyongyang airport in January 2016 and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for attempting to steal a propaganda sign from a hotel, was medically evacuated from North Korea on Tuesday. Warmbier has reportedly been in a coma for over a year, a fact his parents were informed of just last week. His release followed secret negotiations between American officials and the government in Pyongyang that unfolded as tensions escalated over North Korea’s nuclear program. New York Times
Economists’ view of Qatar cutoff is a little scary: “If Trump gets his way, the Qataris will probably have to accede to some of the demands, or seek Iranian or perhaps Turkish intervention on their behalf. Those scenarios are difficult to game out, but American security guarantees would fall precipitously in value, especially as they might apply to small, vulnerable countries,” Tyler Cowen writes in Bloomberg View. “In sum, many more countries will feel less secure, and many of these countries will most likely court additional favor with their local or regional hegemons.”
Inside the Trump-Tillerson divide over Qatar: “The Trump administration is sending out two competing messages on its policy toward Qatar, which reflects the different perspectives of President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson,” Josh Rogin writes in the Washington Post. “The Trump-Tillerson difference reflects a similar divide in Washington. Tillerson, who has decades of experience with Qatar, represents a large swath of the foreign policy and national security community who believe that Qatar has been a reliable albeit complicated ally supporting U.S. military operations. Isolating and punishing Qatar runs counter to the goal of getting its leadership to address U.S. concerns, their argument goes.”
Can Britain still keep calm and carry on? “The threat from terrorism today appears very different from the battles of an earlier age...But for counterterrorism officials and policymakers, history still offers certain important insights,” John Gearson writes in Foreign Policy. “Britain has for many years based its counterterrorism policies on a delicate balance of security and liberty. Crucial to this balance has been that, for the most part, it has sought to maintain ‘normality’ in confronting the threats — though it has not always succeeded. Instead how we define normality has changed. The public has been told to keep calm and carry on but, contradictorily, that it is not a question of if but when further terrorist attacks occur.”
The teenagers standing up to Putin: “The thousands who descended on Moscow are young, some of them very young, and have known virtually no other power but that of Mr. Putin, who has ruled for 17 years. They are fed up,” Amie Ferris-Rotman writes in the New York Times. “Mr. Navalny has spent the past several years being harassed endlessly by the Kremlin. His campaign offices have been habitually bombarded and shuttered. His eyesight has been irreparably damaged by unknown assailants. And he has spent months under house arrest. For such a man to command that kind of power — enough to shut down the center of Moscow at his word — is something the Kremlin would be hard-pressed to ignore.”
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