The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Special counsel Robert Mueller told President Trump’s legal team in late December that his office is likely to seek an interview with the president, triggering a discussion among Trump’s attorneys about how to avoid a sit-down encounter or set ground rules on such a session.

No formal request has been made and no date has been set. But the special counsel’s team could interview Trump soon on some limited portion of questions — possibly within the next several weeks, reports the Washington Post. “This is moving faster than anyone really realizes,” a person close to the president told the paper.

The president’s attorneys are reportedly reluctant to let him sit for open-ended, face-to-face questioning without clear parameters. Since the December meeting, they have discussed whether the president could provide written answers to some of the questions from Mueller’s investigators, as President Ronald Reagan did during the Iran-contra investigation. They have also discussed the obligation of Mueller’s team to demonstrate that it could not obtain the information it seeks without interviewing the president.

One person familiar with the discussions told the New York Times that Mueller appeared most interested in asking questions about the former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, and the firing of the FBI director, James Comey — not the broader question of possible collusion with Russia. Those topics signal an interest in whether Trump tried to obstruct justice. Washington Post, NBC News, New York Times
Bloomberg editorial: In Defense of Robert Mueller
The FBI says an armed 26-year-old Missouri man who breached a secured area to stop an Amtrak train in southwest Nebraska in October and carried a loaded handgun has links to a white supremacist group and expressed an interest in “killing black people,” according to documents unsealed last week. Taylor Michael Wilson, of St. Charles, Missouri, is charged in U.S. District Court in Lincoln with terrorism attacks and other violence against railroad carriers and mass transportation systems.

Unusually, there was no press release on the case out of Justice Department headquarters in Washington, nor from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Nebraska last week when charges were filed. The reporter who broke the story of the terrorism charges last week, Lori Pilger of the Lincoln Journal Star, said that she spotted the unsealed case when checking the federal court docket online. Lincoln Journal Star, Huffington Post

The Trump administration is signaling its intention to transfer to another country an American citizen it has held without charge for 119 days as an enemy combatant, in order to preempt a federal judge’s rebuke. Justice Department attorneys have asked Judge Tanya Chutkan to recognize a claimed right to transfer the anonymous U.S. citizen the military has held since September in an undisclosed prison in Iraq. “Releasing [the man] from U.S. custody into the custody of another country with a legitimate interest in him is one of the options under consideration,” wrote a team of Justice Department lawyers, arguing to “foreclose any judicial restriction” on a possible transfer. The New York Times reported last month that a live option is transferring him to Saudi Arabia. Daily Beast

War court hearings: Lawyers and the judge in an al-Qaeda war crimes case meet today and tomorrow to discuss secret evidence, but they are convening not at Guantanamo, but in a conference room near the Pentagon. Judge Marine Col. Peter Rubin has scheduled a closed national security session, called a 505H hearing, in the case against alleged al-Qaida commander Abd al Hadi al Iraqi at military commissions headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. Neither the captive nor the public will be allowed to watch it. Miami Herald

Judicial nominee’s questionable torture memo: Questions are being raised about the fitness of Howard C. Nielson, who has been nominated by President Trump for the district court in the District of Utah. Nielson worked in 2005 for the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, where he worked under Stephen Bradbury, one of the infamous authors of the “torture memos.” There he authored a memo that argues that the Geneva Convention devoted to the protection of civilians in enemy custody or detention only applies to civilians held on U.S. territory. Just Security

KT McFarland renominated for Singapore post: The White House renominated K.T. McFarland for the position of U.S. ambassador to Singapore on Monday, despite her coming under scrutiny by congressional investigators as part of their probe into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. McFarland’s nomination has stalled in Congress over lingering concerns about her knowledge of contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian operatives. Politico

Suspect pleads not guilty to San Francisco pier plot: Everitt Aaron Jameson of Modesto, Calif., pleaded not guilty Friday to two felony charges in connection with an alleged plot to go on a murderous rampage on Christmas at Pier 39 in San Francisco. Fresno Bee

North Korea agreed on Tuesday to send athletes to February’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, a symbolic breakthrough after months of escalating tensions over the North’s nuclear program. In talks held at the border village of Panmunjom, North Korean negotiators quickly accepted South Korea’s request to send a large delegation to the Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month -- the first time the North will participate in the Winter Olympics in eight years. South Korea sought unsuccessfully to raise the North’s nuclear program during the bilateral talks. New York Times, Wall Street Journal

A Pakistani court has ordered the release of a radical anti-U.S. cleric who went to Afghanistan with thousands of volunteers to help the Taliban fight against Americans after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Sufi Mohammad was set free on health grounds and the paperwork for his release was still being processed Tuesday. Mohammad, imprisoned since 2009, is also known as the father-in-law of Mullah Fazlullah, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban who is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan.

The development comes amid rising U.S.-Pakistani tensions following President Trump’s accusations that Pakistan was harboring militants, and responded by withholding American aid to Islamabad. Associated Press
Vox: Trump’s Fight with Pakistan, Explained

Somalia calls for debt relief to fight terrorism: Somalia’s prime minister has called on multilateral lenders to accelerate the debt-forgiveness process so that the country can access funds to fight terrorism. Somalia owes around $4bn, most of it interest and penalties on nearly three-decades-old loans made to the former military government of Mohamed Siad Barre, who was overthrown in 1991. Financial Times

McMaster: Russia meddling in Mexican election: U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said in a speech last month that the Russian government has launched a sophisticated campaign to influence Mexico’s 2018 presidential election and stir up division. Reuters

UK couple guilty of bomb plot: A couple who met on a dating site and began researching how to make homemade explosives and the deadly poison ricin were found guilty on Monday in Britain of plotting ISIS-inspired chemical and bomb attacks. Reuters, BBC News

Jordan terror plot: Jordan's state news agency says the country’s intelligence service has foiled a “massive” scheme of simultaneous attacks on military installations, shopping centers and other targets by a cell linked to Islamic State extremists. Associated Press
Why hasn’t Rosenstein recused himself from the Mueller investigation? “We know that Rod Rosenstein was intimately involved in the president’s decision to fire Comey,” writes Jack Goldsmith in Lawfare. “Rosenstein’s memo was used as a pretext to fire Comey; Rosenstein knew that the president wanted to fire Comey; and he read the Bedminster draft before he wrote his own memorandum. In this light, it has been very puzzling for a while why Rosenstein does not have a conflict of interest in the Mueller investigation. And a recent report suggests that Rosenstein had a more proactive role than has been previously believed in the firing of Comey. One possibility is that Rosenstein has no conflict because Mueller is not actually investigating the president for obstruction.”

How not to engage with Pakistan: “While perhaps it is emotionally satisfying to penalize a country that has supported American enemies in Afghanistan for the past 16 years, the administration’s approach of suspending almost all security aid to Pakistan is unlikely to work,” writes Richard Olson in the New York Times. “Pakistan has greater leverage over us than many imagine.”

The war against ISIS will be won or lost on the cyber battlefield: “President Trump and Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis should be congratulated for contributing to the steady decline of Islamic State’s territorial claims,” writes Matthew Heiman in the Los Angeles Times. “But its shrinking territory notwithstanding, Islamic State continues to fly a black flag of aggression rather than a white flag of surrender. It flies this flag most effectively online, using the internet to promote warped religious views, recruit fighters, inspire deadly acts of terrorism and encourage disruption and chaos.”
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.

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