Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Matthew Kahn
Friday, May 19, 2017, 3:53 PM

The New York Times reports that President Donald Trump told Russian diplomats in the Oval Office that firing former FBI Director James Comey relieved “great pressure” on him, calling Comey “a real nut job” and adding “I’m not under investigation.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has not disputed the account, which was derived from a document summarizing the meeting. The May 10 meeting with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the day after Comey was fired, made headlines on Monday after the Washington Post reported that President Trump had disclosed highly classified information to Russian diplomats.

James Comey was uncomfortable with a series of efforts by President Trump to build a personal relationship with him, according to the Times. Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes, a friend of Comey’s, gave an on-the-record account of conversations with Comey that described two such efforts. Comey, like previous FBI directors, believed that he should maintain an “arm’s length relationship with the presidents” he served. Ben wrote an adjoining piece on Lawfare. Yesterday, the Post carried a story telling that according to associates of Comey, the former FBI Director prepared extensively for his meetings with Trump “out of concern that the president was unlikely to respect the legal and ethical boundaries governing their respectives roles.” The Times reported earlier this week that Trump asked Comey to end the FBI investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

The Post reports that the investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia has selected a senior White House adviser as a “significant person of interest,” as investigators attempt to determine whether individuals close to the President committed financial crimes. The story provided no further identifying information about the official in question, but the revelation highlights that the investigation has now reached the highest levels of the administration.

The FBI has also opened an inquiry into whether payments from the Turkish government influenced Michael Flynn’s decision-making as National Security Advisor, reports the Wall Street Journal. Flynn did not fully disclose his relationship with Turkey until weeks after he resigned and only retroactively registered as a foreign agent.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein returned to Capitol Hill today after briefing the Senate Thursday on his role in the Comey firing in a conversation that “left several key questions unanswered,” reports the Post. After saying that he knew in advance that President Trump planned to fire then-FBI Director James Comey, today Rosenstein told the House of Representatives that he appointed a special counsel to restore public confidence in the executive branch investigation into possible collusion between President Trump’s associates and the Russian government. The appointment of Bob Mueller, the designated special counsel, may complicate the role of congressional investigations into possible Russian collusion and interference, wrote the Post. Paul Rosenzweig posted on Lawfare this morning about the importance of concurrent congressional and special counsel investigations.

The Times reports that in 2012, the FBI warned Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) that he was the recruitment target of Russian spies. Law enforcement did not believe Rohrabacher was actively working with Russian intelligence nor did they find evidence that he had received payments from the Russians, though Rohrabacher admits to losing a drunken arm-wrestling match with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the 1990s.

President Trump departs on his first foreign trip today. Over nine days, the president will visit Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, and the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, and attend a G7 Summit in Sicily. According to CNN, President Trump’s previous comments about Islam and NATO may be sources of tension, in addition, reports the Post, to his decision to cut short his visit to Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial.

The Times writes that Jared Kushner played an integral role in the sale of an anti-ICBM radar system to Saudi Arabia. Kushner, a White House Senior Advisor and son-in-law of President Trump, personally called Marillyn Hewson, the CEO of Lockheed Martin, to negotiate a lower price for the anti-missile system. The final value of the weapons sale is estimated at over $100 billion.

The Journal reports that the U.S.-led military coalition in Syria struck Syrian forces advancing on al-Tanf, near the Jordanian border. The troops included both Syrian military and government-allied forces. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, eight “regime loyalists” were killed. Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated the strike was necessary to defend U.S. troops and allies, saying “We are not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war, but we will defend our troops.”

Today is election day in Iran. Incumbent Hassan Rouhani, who seeks better relations with West, and Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric, lead the contest. Reuters reports high turnout, with initial results expected by tomorrow morning.

The Swedish government has dropped rape allegations levied against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on the grounds that there is no possibility of arresting Assange “in the foreseeable future,” AP reports. Assange has sought refuge in the Embassy of Ecuador in London since Swedish law enforcement opened an inquiry against him in 2012. His future with the law remains unclear: British authorities have an outstanding warrant against him for failing to appear in court, and the Justice Department last month reported that it was reconsidering charging Assange for the disclosure of highly classified information.

Lastly, the Miami Herald reports Guantanamo deatinee Abu Zubaydah has elected not to testify before the military commission hearing the 9/11 case at Guantánamo Bay on the advice of counsel, as he was scheduled to do today. His attorney released a statement saying that he made the decision due to the risk of testimony being used against him in future cross-examination.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Quinta Jurecic posted a special edition of the Lawfare Podcast, featuring conversation between Ben and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former White House Counsel Neil Eggleston at the Federalist Society.

Ben posted this week’s Rational Security: The “Chatterbox-in-Chief” Edition, discussing the many news stories of the past week.

Alice Hill wrote on the need for the U.S. to invest more seriously in biodefense to prepare for the next pandemic.

Bobby Chesney responded to a U.S. News story about the Presidential Policy Guidance on hostilities against ISIS.

Russell Spivak analyzed the Supreme Court’s decision to deny Mohammed Jawad’s petition for certiorari.

Quinta Jurecic posted the decision by the District Court for the Eastern District of New York to dismiss a lawsuit seeking to hold Facebook liable for attacks by Hamas.

Susan Hennessey and Helen Murillo summarized Congress’ options when someone refuses to comply with a subpoena.

Dan Maurer wrote about the relationship between between presidents and the generals who serve them.

Luke McNamara posted about the challenges of dealing with cyber-capable nuclear states such as North Korea.

Bob Bauer provided insight into the President’s tweets terming the Russia investigation a “witch hunt.”

Ben wrote about his conversations with James Comey about Donald Trump and his interview with the New York Times.

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