The Soufan Group Morning Brief



President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that he did not fault his son Donald Trump Jr. for meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya during the 2016 presidential election campaign and that he was unaware of the meeting until a few days ago. “I think many people would have held that meeting,” Trump said in an interview with Reuters.

This week, Trump Jr. released an email chain in which he agreed to meet Veselnitskaya, whom he was told had damaging information about Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. In an interview in Moscow on Wednesday, Veselnitskaya acknowledged that Trump Jr. had expected her to present him with incriminating information about Clinton, but called the situation a misunderstanding. “I think he was misled about my role, myself and about my request to everyone. I have never had compromising materials on Hillary Clinton. I have never pronounced such a word,” she said. ABC News

Meanwhile, President Trump said he had directly asked Russian President Vladimir Putin if he was involved in alleged Russian meddling in the presidential campaign during a recent meeting in Hamburg. “I said, ‘Did you do it?’ And he said, ‘No, I did not. Absolutely not.’ I then asked him a second time in a totally different way. He said absolutely not,” Trump said. Asked whether his campaign had worked with Russia, Trump said, “There was zero coordination. It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” In another interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Trump said he gets along “very well” with Putin. Reuters, NPR, BBC News
CNN: Trump Jr. Emails Stir New Conservative Worries About White House
CNN: Video Shows Trump With Associates Tied to Email Controversy
New York Times: Conspiracy or Coincidence? A Timeline Open to Interpretation
Politico: Pence Team Denies He's Distancing Himself From Trump over Russia

During testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Christopher Wray, President Donald Trump’s nominee for FBI director, told senators that he had not been asked to pledge loyalty to Trump and that he would resign if the president should ask him to do anything illegal. “I will never allow the FBI’s work to be driven by anything other than the facts, the law and the impartial pursuit of justice. Period,” Wray said.

Wray said that he has no doubts about the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. He disagreed with president’s Trump characterization of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian inference as a “witch hunt.” He added, “I would consider an effort to tamper with Director Mueller’s investigation unacceptable and inappropriate and would need to be dealt with very sternly indeed.” Washington Post

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) questioned Wray about his role leading the criminal division of the Justice Department under President George W. Bush and whether he had signed off on enhanced interrogation techniques used by the CIA on detainees suspected of terrorism, including waterboarding and sleep deprivation. Wray said he played no role in reviewing or signing off on “torture memos” written during Bush’s administration. “My view is that torture is wrong, it’s unacceptable, it’s illegal and I think it’s ineffective...The FBI is going to play no part in the use of any techniques of that sort,” he said. New York Times, NBC News
Washington Post: 5 Takeaways from FBI Nominee Wray’s Principled Confirmation Hearing
Lawfare: Wray Does Well; the Senate Judiciary Committee Does Not
ACLU: Christopher Wray Has a Troubling Record on Civil Liberties

Two Democratic Party donors and a former party staff member have filed an invasion of privacy lawsuit against President Trump’s campaign and longtime adviser Roger Stone Jr. The suit accuses Stone and the campaign of conspiring to release emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee, which intelligence agencies say were hacked by Russia in an effort to harm Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. WikiLeaks released the emails in July of last year. Trump and his political advisers, including Stone, have repeatedly denied colluding with Russia.

The plaintiffs include Scott Comer, the former chief of staff in the finance department of the Democratic National Committee, and Democratic Party donors Roy Cockrum and Eric Schoenberg. Cockrum and Schoenberg’s Social Security numbers, dates of birth, home addresses, and other personal details became public when WikiLeaks published the emails. The lawsuit says the disclosures resulted in attempts by strangers to steal the plaintiffs’ identities and obtain credit in their names. Stone called the lawsuit meritless and said he expected it to be “quickly dismissed.” New York Times

Appeal of Guantanamo conviction stalls: A former al Qaeda soldier's appeal of his Guantanamo Bay war crimes conviction stalled on Wednesday as U.S. attorneys clashed over his legal representation. The dispute halted a fact-finding hearing about whether Ibrahim al Qosi, who reportedly rejoined al Qaeda after his 2012 release from Guantanamo Bay, was an enemy belligerent. Qosi, a cook and occasional driver for Osama bin Laden, pleaded guilty in 2010 before a military commission at Guantanamo. He was transferred to his native Sudan after completing a reduced term. Navy Capt. Brent Filbert said that legal rules allowed him and two other Pentagon attorneys appointed to represent Qosi to begin a case for the appeal even though they have had no contact with Qosi. Prosecutors argued that only Qosi’s original lawyer, Suzanne Lachelier, was empowered to represent him. However, Lachelier testified Wednesday that she could not represent Qosi on the question of whether he was an enemy belligerent, citing an unspecified conflict of interest. Reuters, Miami Herald

House rejects Trump’s Middle East aid cuts: The House released its version of the State and Foreign Operations bill on Wednesday, rejecting the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to Middle East aid and in some cases voting to increase assistance over the current year’s budget. While the State Department request for the fiscal year starting October 1 sought deep cuts across the board, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said they would not reduce aid to U.S. allies including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia. They also said the Trump administration’s proposal to change some foreign military financing grants into loans is a nonstarter. Al Monitor

U.S. troops are operating inside of ISIS’ self declared capital of Raqqa in Syria, military spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon said Wednesday. The U.S. troops, many of them special operations forces, are working to “advise, assist, and accompany” local fighters from the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces that are battling ISIS. The troops are not playing a direct combat role but are calling in airstrikes. They are working much closer to the fight than did U.S. forces assisting in the liberation of Mosul in Iraq, Dillon said. He added that the U.S. estimates that there are about 2,000 ISIS fighters remaining in Raqqa, down from about 2,500 when the assault on the city began over a month ago. While the SDF were “moving very, very fast” at the start of the campaign, he said they had encountered “stiffening resistance” in recent days. Agence France Presse, CNN
Washington Post: What the Islamic State is saying about its loss of Mosul

19 killed in Boko Haram attacks in northern Nigeria: Four Boko Haram suicide bombers killed 19 people in a series of attacks in Nigeria on Tuesday in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram’s insurgency. The attacks targeted a civilian self-defense force and people who had gathered to mourn their deaths and prepare their burials. A spokesman for the self-defense force said Boko Haram had purposefully targeted his colleagues while they were on duty, using female suicide bombers. Associated Press

Militants find sanctuary in Libya’s south: A series of military victories over Islamic groups along Libya’s Mediterranean coastline has forced hundreds of militants, including ISIS fighters, to seek refuge in the country’s ungoverned south. The area, which is home to militias from neighboring countries, cross-border criminal gangs, and mercenaries, provides a sanctuary for ISIS to reorganize, recruit, train, and plot new attacks, even as the group loses territory in its strongholds in Syria and Iraq. It is unknown how many ISIS fighters are in the country, but some estimates put the number at around 1,000. Associated Press

The British government said Wednesday it would not publish in full its report on the sources of funding of Islamist extremism in Britain. The report, commissioned in November 2015 by then-Prime Minister David Cameron, was submitted to the government last year. Ministers have been under pressure to release its findings following three deadly attacks since March  allegedly carried out by Islamist militants.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd said some extremist Islamist organizations were receiving hundreds of thousands of pounds in funding. The most common source of funding was from small, anonymous donations from people based in Britain, she said, however overseas funding was a significant source of income for a small number of organizations. Rudd said that she had decided against publishing the review in full “because of the volume of personal information it contains and for national security reasons.” While some critics said the government was attempting to shield Saudi Arabia, a strong British ally, from the results of the report, the government insisted that “diplomatic relations played absolutely no part in the decision not to publish the full report.” Reuters, The Guardian

German military aviation command launches cyber threat initiative: The German military’s aviation safety chief has launched a new initiative against cyber threats. A defense ministry spokesman said the development of new “aviation cyber expertise” would cover everything from raising consciousness about cyber threats to technical research projects and equipping aircraft with protective systems. Reuters

Indonesia issues decree aimed at cracking down on hardline Islamist groups: Indonesia announced a decree on Wednesday that will make it easier for the president to disband religious and civil society organizations, in an effort to challenge hard-line Islamist opposing President Joko Widodo’s administration. The decree amends a 2013 law regulating mass organizations and allows the government to sidestep a potentially lengthy court process to implement a ban on some organizations. The law is widely considered to be the first step in the government’s plan to ban the conservative Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir. New York Times, CNN

Russia hands 20-year jail term to killer of Putin critic: A Russian court sentenced a man convicted of murdering opposition leader Boris Nemtsov to 20 years in jail on Thursday and handed terms of between 11 and 19 years to four other men convicted of being his accomplices. Nemtsov, one of President Vladimir Putin's most vocal critics, was murdered in 2015. The same court last month found the five men guilty of killing Nemtsov, but Nemtsov’s allies said the investigation had been a cover-up and that the people who had ordered his killing remained at large. Reuters
The Trump vision for America abroad: “President Trump just concluded a second overseas trip to further advance America’s interests and values, and to strengthen our alliances around the world. Both this and his first trip demonstrated the resurgence of American leadership to bolster common interests, affirm shared values, confront mutual threats and achieve renewed prosperity,” Gary D. Cohn and Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster write in the New York Times. “Perhaps most important, President Trump affirmed on this trip that America First is grounded in American values — values that not only strengthen America but also drive progress throughout the world. America champions the dignity of every person, affirms the equality of women, celebrates innovation, protects freedom of speech and of religion, and supports free and fair markets.”

How to make the Islamic State’s defeat last: “While there’s much to celebrate in the fall of Mosul, we also need to steel ourselves for the road ahead. The defeat of the Islamic State in Mosul and Raqqa is necessary but not sufficient,” Ash Carter writes in the Washington Post. “At this stage, I am less concerned about the military campaign in Iraq than the political and economic campaigns that must follow. Unless Iraqis are satisfied with what comes next, there will be a slide back to chaos and radicalism.”

Frustrated foreign fighters: “Returned foreign fighters pose a significant terrorism threat to their home countries, but policies that aim to block the flow of foreigners frustrate some of these would-be jihadists. That frustration poses new problems,” Daniel Byman writes in Lawfare. “Yet, while foreign fighters pose a potential long-term danger both in combat zones and in their home countries, their decision to go abroad may lead to decreased violence in the short-term. We should prepare for an increase in violence from individuals who might have traveled abroad to fight on behalf of the Islamic State but rather opted to remain in their home countries.”

Trump wanted to collude, but did Putin? “It takes two to collude. The Trumps and other people on their side were ready to dance. But the partner, apparently, was a no-show,” Leonid Bershidsky writes in Bloomberg View. “If it's true that the Kremlin did not want to collude with the Trump camp -- and it certainly looks that way – its possible reasons are the most interesting part of the story. An obvious explanation that comes to mind is that Putin didn’t believe in his ultimate victory and so didn’t want be caught helping him because of possible retaliation from President Clinton. The only thing for Putin to like about Trump is the chaos he can cause with his overconfident novice's ways, but it can also be a threat.”

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