The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Monday, March 19, 2018

Trump Assails Mueller Probe, Drawing Rebuke from Republicans

President Trump on Sunday abandoned a strategy of showing deference to the special counsel examining Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, lashing out at what he characterized as a partisan investigation and alarming Republicans who feared he might seek to shut it down.

In his first Twitter post to target the special counsel, Robert Mueller, by name, Trump on Saturday said the probe “should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime.” On Sunday, the president mentioned Mueller again, suggesting his team of prosecutors consisted of “hardened Democrats” intent on taking down the Republican president.

Trump’s personal attorney, John Dowd, called Saturday for an end to the Mueller inquiry, prompting both Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Sunday to urge the president and his legal team to cooperate fully with the investigation and warned of serious ramifications if they did not.

“If he tried to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency, because we’re a rule-of-law nation,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an ally of the president, said on “State of the Union” on CNN. Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, said if the president was innocent, he should “act like it” and leave Mueller alone, warning of dire repercussions if the president tried to fire the special counsel.

The New York Times reported last week that Mueller has subpoenaed records from the Trump Organization. Trump’s lawyers met with Mueller’s team last week and received more details about how the special counsel is approaching the investigation, including the scope of his interest in the Trump Organization.

White House lawyer Ty Cobb issued a statement Sunday night that said: “In response to media speculation and related questions being posed to the Administration, the White House yet again confirms that the President is not considering or discussing the firing of the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller.” Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Times
New York Times: How Top Republicans Reacted - Or Didn’t - To Trump’s Mueller Tweets


What is a constitutional crisis, really? “As the Trump presidency approaches a troubling tipping point, it’s time to find the right term for what’s happening to democracy,” said Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes in The Atlantic.

The U.S. needs to talk to the Taliban: “Over years of interviews with Taliban fighters and leadership I have found that the narrative of the United States being the primary enemy unites them. In recent weeks, the Taliban too have called for peace talks but only with the United States,” said Borhan Osman in the New York Times.

Will Trump let Assad get away with using chemical weapons? “The Trump administration maintains that it won’t tolerate chemical weapons attacks by Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its partners in Syria, despite reported widespread use of chlorine gas, along with credible reports of the nerve agent sarin,” said Josh Rogin in the Washington Post. “But there’s no real plan to stop these war crimes, and America’s credibility is on the line.”

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Andrew McCabe, the former deputy FBI director who was fired late Friday less than 48 hours before his planned retirement from the bureau, reportedly kept contemporaneous memos about his interactions with President Trump and his conversations with the former director James Comey.

The memos could bolster the account of Comey, whose own memos and testimony describe repeated requests by Trump to clear his name. Comey said Trump also asked him to shut down a criminal investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn. Both matters are under investigation by the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

The firing of McCabe late Friday evening by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who himself has come under fire from President Trump, came after the Justice Department’s inspector general reportedly found a “lack of candor” in McCabe’s disclosures about contact with the news media, in relation to an October 2016 Wall Street Journal report.

The FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility recommends dismissal if “lack of candor” is found, but allies of McCabe say the finding was rushed and lacks a substantive basis.

In a series of weekend tweets, Trump celebrated McCabe’s firing, and leveled a new attack on Comey and what he called the “lies and corruption going on at the highest levels” of the FBI. “Spent very little time with Andrew McCabe, but he never took notes when he was with me,” the president tweeted Sunday morning. “I don't believe he made memos except to help his own agenda, probably at a later date. Same with lying James Comey. Can we call them Fake Memos?” Wall Street Journal, NBC News, CNN, New York Times
Bloomberg/Eli Lake: McCabe’s Firing Wasn’t Political. Until Trump Made It Political.
Lawfare: What We Know, and Don’t Know, About McCabe’s Firing

Confirmation battles loom for President Donald Trump’s nominees to run the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, complicating the administration’s foreign-policy efforts ahead of important decisions regarding North Korea and Iran.

Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) told CNN on Sunday that he would try to filibuster Trump’s choices of Mike Pompeo to be secretary of state and Gina Haspel, now the CIA’s deputy director, to take Pompeo’s current slot as CIA director. Paul had said previously that he opposes the nominations.

Pompeo and Haspel are viewed by many Democrats, as well as by Sen. Paul as too hawkish on those and other major foreign-policy issues. Haspel also faces questions over her record as part of a team that oversaw the CIA’s detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists, as well as her role in ordering the destruction of torture tapes. The threat of lengthy confirmation fights comes as the president has set a May deadline to withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord unless allies agree to changes. Trump also has agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in May over that nation’s nuclear-weapons program. Wall Street Journal, Washington Post
Daily Beast: Rights Groups Demand Declassification of CIA Nominee’s Role in Torture

Fourth package bombing in Austin: Hours after Austin police made a public appeal Sunday regarding three deadly package explosions in the city this month, they were called to investigate yet another incident that caused multiple injuries in a residential area. Two men in their 20s were injured after a package bomb detonated as they passed on bicycles. Unlike the other explosions, which detonated after victims tried to pick up packages left at their homes, this package was left on the side of the road and was possibly triggered by a tripwire. Washington Post, NBC News

Trump has White House staff sign non-disclosure agreements: President Trump reportedly last year asked senior White House staff members  to sign nondisclosure agreements vowing not to reveal confidential information and exposing them to damages for any violation. One draft of the NDA reportedly showed a $10 million penalty for disclosures. Washington Post

Kansas bomb plot trial: Jury selection begins Tuesday in the trial of a trio of Kansas men who called themselves the ‘Crusaders’ and plotted to bomb an apartment complex housing Somalis in Kansas. On Friday, a judge ruled that jurors will not hear evidence about alleged child pornography found during searches of the men’s homes. Associated Press, Associated Press


Turkish-backed Syrian rebels seized control on Sunday morning of the city of Afrin, the target of a two-month military operation against Kurdish militias in the enclave in Syria. The takeover dealt a blow to Kurdish aspirations for self-administration there and added to Turkey’s growing footprint in the country.

The Syrian rebel forces, which have served as advance troops for the Turkish operation, seemed to have entered the city without a fight, after the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, withdrew to the surrounding hills. But residents described chaos as fleeing civilians were trapped by artillery and by Turkish airstrikes. New York Times, Los Angeles Times

Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, arrives in Washington on Monday to kick off a two-and-a-half week visit to the United States. His weeklong itinerary will have him meet with President Trump, as well as Silicon Valley technology leaders, Los Angeles entertainment executives, oil industry figures in Houston and captains of finance in New York. Washington Post
NBC News: Saudi Crown Prince Has Hidden His Mother from the King

Russian voters gave President Vladimir Putin resounding approval for a fourth term on Sunday, with nearly complete figures from the Central Election Commission showing him winning more than 75 percent of the vote with a turnout of more than 67 percent. The big numbers allow Putin, 65, to claim a popular mandate for another six-year term, which under current term limits should be his last. Putin has been president since 2000, stepping aside for one term as prime minister to get around term limits. New York Times

Facebook on Sunday faced a backlash about how it protects user data, as American and British lawmakers demanded that it explain how a political data firm with links to President Trump’s 2016 campaign was able to harvest private information from more than 50 million Facebook profiles without the social network’s alerting users.

The New York Times and The Observer of London reported this weekend that Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm founded by Stephen Bannon and Robert Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor, had used the Facebook data to develop methods that it claimed could identify the personalities of individual American voters and influence their behavior. The firm’s so-called psychographic modeling underpinned its work for the Trump campaign in 2016.

Facebook did not inform users whose data had been harvested. The lack of disclosure could violate laws in Britain and in many American states.  New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post

The U.K. government said Sunday it has evidence that Russia has spent the last decade secretly developing nerve agents to use in assassinations, in what it said was a violation of international treaties banning chemical weapons.

“We have evidence that Russia has been investigating delivery of nerve agents and has been creating and stockpiling Novichok,” Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the BBC, referring to the poison British authorities say was used in the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, a Russian colonel who spied for the
British and was traded in a spy swap in 2010.

In a statement, Britain’s Foreign Office said its information indicates that Russia has been producing and stockpiling Novichok “within the last decade” as part of a program to develop ways of using nerve agents in assassinations, in a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Wall Street Journal
Washington Post: Poisoning of Russian Ex-Spy Puts Spotlight on Moscow’s Secret Military Labs


For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.
Editor-in-Chief, Karen J. Greenberg, Center on National Security, Fordham Law School

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