Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Rachel Bercovitz
Thursday, May 11, 2017, 1:46 PM

Fallout from President Trump’s snap dismissal of FBI Director James Comey has continued to settle as reports emerged Wednesday of the motives driving and circumstances surrounding Comey’s dismissal. The Washington Post and New York Times report that Comey’s firing was the product of Trump’s brewing animus toward the director, driven by Comey’s failure to back Trump’s claim that President Obama had ordered the wiretapping of his campaign and for his having revealed the scope of the Bureau’s investigation into Russia’s efforts to sway the tide of the 2016 election. The Wall Street Journal writes that the investigation began heating up in the weeks before Comey’s firing as the director began receiving daily rather than weekly updates. Comey was reportedly concerned over possible evidence of collusion between the Russian government and Trump associates.

The White House has continued to provide a series of shifting and inconsistent explanations for Comey’s firing. In an interview on NBC, President Trump declared that he had decided to fire Comey before speaking with either Attorney General Jeff Sessions or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on the matter. This contradicts the White House’s initial statement that Comey was fired on the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on the basis of Comey’s botched investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server and personal email address. Yesterday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders sought to clarify the administration’s rationale, stating that Comey’s dismissal was the result of Trump’s longtime disappointment with Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation as well as with Comey’s failure to stem the tide of leaks emerging from within the FBI. Sanders dismissed reports that Trump had tasked Sessions and Rosenstein with preparing memoranda laying out the rationale for Comey’s dismissal, despite extensive reporting to the contrary.

Speaking on NBC, Trump announced that he had asked Comey multiple times whether he was personally under investigation in the FBI probe. According to Trump, Comey informed him that he was not—which the President also declared in his letter dismissing the director. Associates of Comey said that the director would never have provided such assurances.

Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee today, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe declined to comment when questioned as to whether Director Comey had ever had a conversation with Trump along those lines. McCabe indicated that the FBI investigation into Russian election interference would continue to go forward in Comey’s absence.

Rod Rosenstein reportedly threatened to resign from office yesterday as the White House narrative emerged that Rosenstein was the lead actor behind Comey’s dismissal. The White House published Rosenstein’s three-page memorandum outlining the rationale for Comey’s firing simultaneously with its announcement of Comey’s dismissal on Tuesday. As of today, Rosenstein has denied threatening to resign.

The White House has conveyed its intention to swiftly appoint Comey’s successor, while many Democrats have maintained that their support for any nominee will be made contingent on the appointment of a special prosecutor to carry out the FBI’s investigation into possible coordination between Russian officials and Trump campaign affiliates. Politico points out the Democrats have scant leverage to block confirmation given that approval requires a simple majority vote in the Senate. Meanwhile, Rosenstein is believed to have interviewed at least four candidates from within the FBI for the role of interim FBI Director, including William Evanina, Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center at the ODNI; Paul Abbate, Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch; Michael J. Anderson, Director of the FBI’s Chicago field office, and Adam Lee, director of its Richmond office.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has subpoenaed former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn for documents relating to his contacts with Russian officials, CNN reports. Flynn’s lawyer previously informed the committee that his client would not be providing the documents responsive to their earlier request.

Meanwhile, Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, submitted a request to Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz to expand the department’s inquiry into the DOJ and FBI’s conduct leading up to the 2016 election to include the “facts and circumstances” pertaining to Comey’s dismissal. Lawfare has the full text of Chaffetz’s statement.

On Wednesday, Trump met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the U.S., Sergey I. Kislyak in an awkwardly-timed meeting to discuss cooperation on Syria and the situation in Ukraine. The Times notes that U.S. reporters were not authorized to attend the meeting and that State Department and White House officials did not release accounts of the discussion. Lavrov thereby held a monopoly on the recap of meeting’s discussion.

In other news, Turkey threatened to intensify and expand strikes against U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters in closed-door meetings with U.S. national security officials this week, the Washington Post reports. The warnings followed the Pentagon’s announcement on Tuesday of its decision to directly arm the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance composed in significant measure of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that Turkey considers an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.- and Turkish-designated terrorist organization. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is expected to visit Washington next week.

In an address before the South Korean National Assembly following his formal swearing in on Wednesday, newly-elected president Moon Jae-in expressed a commitment to pursuing diplomatic engagement with North Korea and a willingness to meet with Kim Jong-un given the appropriate conditions. Moon’s platform marks a departure from those of his two Conservative predecessors, who had cooperated with the U.S. to rein in the North through the application of punitive measures. Analysts expect Moon to adopt a version of the so-called “sunshine policy” of former president Roh Moo-hyun that called for dialogue and engagement with the North as a bridge toward nuclear negotiations. Moon reaffirmed his commitment to the U.S. alliance in a phone call with Trump on Wednesday, a statement likely intended to quell concerns in Washington that the liberal government’s approach toward dialogue with the North might undermine its alliance with the U.S.

The Diplomat reports that the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, scheduled to replace the USS Carl Vinson near the Korean Peninsula, left its home port at Yokosuka naval base in Japan on May 8 to begin sea trials­—the final phase of its maintenance period. The Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group was redirected to the Korean Peninsula in late April to serve as a demonstration of U.S. strength amid heightened tensions with North Korea over its nuclear program.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recaptured the town of Tabqa and the adjacent hydroelectric dam from the Islamic State on Wednesday, a key advance into the last ISIS-held urban center on the road 25 miles east to Raqqa. The SDF are advancing east toward an assault on Raqqa, ISIS’s base in Syria and the largest urban territory under the group’s control.

NATO is evaluating a request from its military authorities to deploy several thousand additional troops to Afghanistan to “train, assist, and advise operation[s]” of Afghan armed forces. An estimated 13,450 NATO troops are currently stationed in Afghanistan, of which 6,900 are U.S military personnel. The requests parallel the Pentagon’s proposal for at least 3,000 additional U.S. combat forces to join the 8,400 currently deployed to the region.

An estimated 22,000 people have fled Mosul since the launch of a new front in the northwest of the city by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces on May 4. Those fleeing join more than 600,000 who have left Mosul over the past seven months since the onset of the Mosul offensive to dislodge the Islamic State.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Bob Bauer assessed the procedure followed and explanation given by the administration for the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Helen Klein Murillo outlined the legal definition of obstruction of justice and assessed how this definition might apply to Comey’s dismissal.

Bobby Chesney provided a backgrounder on the power of the President to appoint and remove the FBI director.

Susan Hennessey and Quinta Jurecic considered whether the involvement of Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the dismissal of Comey constituted a violation of his pledge to recuse himself from “any existing or future investigations or any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President.”

Quinta posted a letter from Representative Jason Chaffetz, Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, requesting an expansion of the Department of Justice’s inquiry into Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation to incorporate the circumstances pertaining to Comey’s dismissal. She also posted a statement by the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence announcing the committee’s issuance of a subpoena for documents from former National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

Paul Rosenzweig evaluated the Department of Homeland Security’s expected expansion of its ban on laptops and other large electronic devices in the cabins of planes departing from Europe.

Benjamin Wittes published the latest episode of the Rational Security Podcast on the “Obi-Wan Comey” edition.

Bobby and Steve Vladeck posted Episode 17 of the National Security Law Podcast on “The Firing of Jim Comey.” Chesney and Vladeck reviewed the President’s power to appoint and remove the FBI director and considered the effects of Comey’s dismissal on the FBI’s ongoing investigations, among other topics.

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