Trump delays decision on Paris climate accords

The New York Times reports: President Trump declined to endorse the Paris climate accords on Saturday, saying he would decide in the coming days whether the United States would pull out of the 195-nation agreement.

Mr. Trump’s lack of a decision after three days of contentious private debate and intense lobbying by other leaders came even as the six other Group of 7 nations reaffirmed their commitment to cutting planet-warming emissions in a joint statement issued on Saturday afternoon.

The lobbying essentially ended in a stalemate, with Mr. Trump remaining opaque about his intentions regarding the 2015 pact as he prepared to return home after a nine-day overseas trip. The impasse underscored the continuing division between the United States and its allies about the global environmental pact.

The joint communiqué made clear that all the G-7 nations except the United States remained determined to carry out the Paris agreement. It said: “Expressing understanding for this process, the heads of state and of government of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom, and the presidents of the European Council and of the European Commission reaffirm their strong commitment to swiftly implement the Paris Agreement.”

In a message on Twitter posted before the joint statement was officially released, Mr. Trump said: “I will make my final decision on the Paris Accord next week!”

The reaction was swift and critical. Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: “President Trump’s continued waffling on whether to stay in or withdraw from the Paris Agreement made it impossible to reach consensus at the Taormina summit on the need for ambitious climate action. But he stands in stark isolation.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump returns to Kushner-focused crisis that the White House is struggling trying to contain

The New York Times reports: Trump’s advisers were working to create a crisis-control communications operation within the White House to separate the Russia investigations and related scandals from the administration’s day-to-day themes and the work of governing, according to several people familiar with their plans and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge the details of a still-evolving strategy.

Aides are talking about bringing Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, and David Bossie, his former deputy campaign manager, onto the White House staff to manage the war room.

Under the evolving scenario, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, would take a diminished public role, with daily on-camera briefings replaced by more limited interactions with journalists, while Mr. Trump would seize more opportunities to communicate directly with his core supporters through campaign rallies, social media appearances such as Facebook Live videos, and interviews with friendly news media outlets.

The president, who has more than 30 million followers on Twitter, has been told by his lawyers to limit his posts. Each one, they argue privately, could be used as evidence in a legal case against him, and the president went through his entire overseas trip without posting a single incendiary message.

Among those most adamant about limiting Mr. Trump’s access to the news media was Mr. Kushner, who has been critical internally of the White House press operation and has sought to marginalize Mr. Spicer, whom he views as too undisciplined to control the president’s message. Mr. Kushner has also favored creating a rapid-response team to counter reports like the ones that emerged on Friday [about Kushner].

In a move that many in the West Wing viewed as emblematic of his attempt to wrest control of communications from Mr. Spicer and Mr. Priebus, Mr. Kushner displaced an operations official from the office across the hall from his own and installed his personal spokesman, Josh Raffel, in his place, according to two people familiar with the matter. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: Underscoring the uncertainty of what lies ahead, some Trump associates said there have been conversations about dispatching Priebus to serve as ambassador to Greece — his mother is of Greek descent — as a face-saving way to remove him from the White House. A White House spokeswoman strongly denied that possibility Saturday.

The president has expressed frustration — both publicly and privately — with his communications team, ahead of the expected overhaul.

Though no final decisions have been made, one option being discussed is having Spicer — who has been parodied on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” to devastating effect — take a more behind-the-scenes role and give up his daily, on-camera briefings.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy White House press secretary, is being considered as a replacement behind the lectern and is likely to appear on camera more often in coming weeks. White House aides have also talked about having a rotating cast of staff brief the media, a group that could include officials such as national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Having several aides share the briefing responsibilities could help prevent Trump — who has a notoriously short attention span — from growing bored or angry with any one staffer. [Continue reading…]

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Kushner’s desire for a back channel to Russia seems to have led him to lie on his application for a security clearance

Ryan Koronowski writes: When he applied for his top-secret security clearance for his White House job, Kushner was required to disclose all meetings with foreign government officials over the previous seven years but omitted dozens of contacts — including this meeting [with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December at Trump Tower].

When questioned about it, his lawyers called it an error.

A top presidential aide simply forgetting a meeting such as this strains the bounds of credulity. As Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) noted, Kushner did not just omit the meeting once on his SF86 security clearance form. He also failed to include it again on his revised form, which Lieu argued would be two separate federal crimes. In a tweet, Lieu showed the certification that everyone must sign to get clearance, acknowledging the consequences that willful false statements can bring, including jail time.


Rep. Lieu called for Kushner to resign if the story is true, and said he should be prosecuted for lying on his security clearance form. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) said Kushner’s clearance “must be revoked until we get to the bottom of this.”

Knowingly falsifying or concealing information on these forms can carry up to five years of jail time.

Malcolm Nance, a career counterintelligence officer, said on MSNBC Friday night that this kind of activity is indicative of espionage. [Continue reading…]

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The FBI hasn’t contacted Kushner, yet — which is why he should be worried even more

Ryan Lizza writes: The Senate Intelligence Committee announced that it wanted to interview Kushner about his contacts with Kislyak and Gorkov. (Kushner has agreed to testify, and, unlike Flynn, he has not announced that he will assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.) In the House, several Democrats sent a letter to the Trump Administration asking that Kushner be stripped of his top-secret security clearance. “Knowingly falsifying or concealing information on a SF-86 questionnaire is a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison,” the letter said.

Given these previous reports, yesterday’s news that the F.B.I. is interested in Kushner is not surprising. “Mr. Kushner previously volunteered to share with Congress what he knows about these meetings,” Kushner’s lawyer, Jamie Gorelick, said in a statement. “He will do the same if he is contacted in connection with any other inquiry.”

The second half of the statement suggests that Kushner has not yet been contacted by the F.B.I., a fact confirmed to me by the White House. Defenders of Kushner seized upon this detail as somehow exculpatory, noting that Flynn had been interviewed by the F.B.I. in January. But this might not mean much. In fact, it could actually be a bad sign. “The fact that Kushner hasn’t been contacted now, let’s assume it’s true,” the source close to Comey said. “It’s either meaningless with respect to culpability or, pointing to the riskier side, the more likely that he’s implicated, because the people you’re really suspicious of you don’t really interview until later.” [Continue reading…]

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Why would Jared Kushner trust Russian officials more than the U.S. government?

Adam Serwer writes: Why did Jared Kushner seemingly trust Russian officials more than he trusted the U.S. government?

Friday evening, The Washington Post broke the story that, according to an intercepted report by the Russian ambassador in Washington to his superiors in Moscow, Kushner sought to use secure communications facilities at the Russian Embassy to correspond directly with Russian officials. The Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, reported that the proposal was made in December, after Trump won the election but before he had taken office. The conversations reportedly involved Michael Flynn, the former Trump national-security adviser who was fired after it was revealed that he lied to administration officials about the content of his conversations with Russian officials.

Although Kushner never used those facilities, former national-security officials said that for officials with access to classified information, entering foreign embassies is considered a security risk. The White House has not commented directly on the report. Kushner’s attorney, Jamie Gorelick, a former Justice Department official with extensive national-security experience, has neither confirmed nor denied the report, but she has emphasized Kushner’s willingness to cooperate with ongoing investigations into the Trump team’s contacts with the Russians. If Kushner did in fact make the request, that alone would have put him in a compromising position, since Russian officials could have used it as leverage against him.

But what is also peculiar is the level of trust Kushner would have been placing in Russian officials in asking for such a communications channel. Foreign affairs is often complex, yet Kushner didn’t want the U.S. government’s help—or supervision.

“What is unusual and borderline disturbing about this is less that it cut out the State Department or cut out the intelligence community; I think there is a precedent for both of those things in back-channels,” said Jon Finer, former State Department chief of staff under John Kerry. “It shows a level of trust in Russian intelligence, and Russian diplomatic personnel beyond the level of trust afforded to American intelligence and American personnel.”

The White House has obliquely defended Kushner’s actions while refusing to comment on them specifically. “We have back-channel communications with a number of countries. So, generally speaking, about back-channel communications, what that allows you to do is to communicate in a discreet manner,” National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters on Saturday. Asked whether it would be cause for concern if a National Security Council staffer used such a back-channel to Moscow, he said: “No, I would not be concerned about it.”

“What puts this in an entirely different category is that this is a transition; they weren’t in the government yet,” said Paul Pillar, a former analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency. “That’s really a departure. It’s normal for an incoming administration to have contacts with foreign leaders, but I can’t think of a precedent for this kind of thing.”

And former national-security officials noted that while back-channel communications are often compartmentalized—meaning they can only be viewed by a select number of officials—they usually have some level of involvement from national-security officials. Communicating with Moscow using Russian facilities could have shielded Kushner’s correspondence from U.S. intelligence agencies, without denying their Russian counterparts the same access.

“The only reason you would operate that way is if you were hiding something from your own government. That’s it. That’s the only plausible explanation,” said Nada Bakos, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former CIA analyst. [Continue reading…]

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Hayden on Kushner: We are in a dark place as a society

 

The Hill reports: Former head of the National Security Agency (NSA) Michael Hayden on Saturday said White House adviser and President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is naive and ignorant if reports that he sought to create a secure communication channel with Russia are true.

“Well, Michael, right now, I’m going with naiveté and that’s not particularly very comforting for me,” Hayden told CNN’s Michael Smerconish.

“I mean what manner of ignorance, chaos, hubris, suspicion, contempt would you have to have to think that doing this with the Russian ambassador was a good or appropriate idea?” [Continue reading…]

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Aleppo after the fall

Robert F Worth writes: One morning in mid-December, a group of soldiers banged on the door of a house in eastern Aleppo. A male voice responded from inside: “Who are you?” A soldier answered: “We’re the Syrian Arab Army. It’s O.K., you can come out. They’re all gone.”

The door opened. A middle-aged man appeared. He had a gaunt, distinguished face, but his clothes were threadbare and his teeth looked brown and rotted. At the soldiers’ encouragement, he stepped hesitantly forward into the street. He explained to them, a little apologetically, that he had not crossed his threshold in four and a half years.

The man gazed around for a moment as if baffled, his eyes filling with tears. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad had just recaptured the city after years of bombing and urban warfare that had made Aleppo a global byword for savagery. This frail-looking man had survived at the war’s geographic center entirely alone, an urban Robinson Crusoe, living on stocks of dry food and whatever he could grow in his small inner courtyard. Now, as he stumbled through an alley full of twisted metal and rubble, he saw for the first time that the front lines, marked by a wall of sandbags, were barely 20 yards from his house.

Three months later, in March, he sat with me under the tall, spindly orange tree in his courtyard and described how he barricaded himself in when the fighting started. He goes by the name Abu Sami, and he has the mild, patient manners of a scholar; he taught at Aleppo University before the war. In the early days of the rebel takeover, he said, his nephews used to drop by with fresh bread and meat. But starting in 2013, the shelling grew worse, and he would go six months or more without seeing another human face. There was no water, no electric light; he gathered rainwater in buckets and boiled it and used a small solar panel to charge his phone. He made vinegar from grapes he grew in the courtyard. He treated his illnesses with aloe and other herbs he grew in pots. Once, when a rotten tooth became too painful, he yanked it out with pliers. He cowered by his bed when bombs shook the house to its foundation.

Most of all, he sustained himself by reading. He carried out a stack of books from his bedroom to show me: treatises by Sigmund Freud, novels by Henry Miller, histories of science and psychology and religion and mythology and cooking, a book on radical theater by the American drama critic Robert Brustein. Some were in Russian, a language he learned as a young man. “I read these things so I wouldn’t have to think about politics or current events,” he said. He read plays — Shakespeare and Molière were favorites — and in his solitude, he found that he was able to see the entire drama acted out in his mind, as if it were onstage.

He led me upstairs to see his dusty study, where the walls and ceiling were shredded with dozens of small shrapnel holes that let in fingers of sunlight. He picked up a bomb fragment, rolled it in his palm and laughed. He pointed to the house next door, where his neighbor, a quiet man who kept pigeons on the roof, had lived until a group of rebels arrived, shouting, and dragged him from the door. They brought back his corpse half an hour later.

I asked Abu Sami why he never left. He gave the same answer that so many others gave me: because it was his house. And because day after day, year after year, he kept thinking, Surely this war is about to end. [Continue reading…]

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Zbigniew Brzezinski 1928 – 2017

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Music: David Munnelly — ‘Transparent’

 

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When the feds come knocking on Kushner’s door …

Timothy L. O’Brien writes: Jared Kushner, according to reporting on Thursday from NBC and the Washington Post, is now front-and-center in the FBI’s investigation of Russia’s intersection with the Trump presidential campaign and, apparently, the Trump White House.

There are some unanswered questions here: NBC noted that Kushner is being treated differently from Trump campaign aides, such as Paul Manafort, and former White House officials, such as Michael Flynn. Grand juries have subpoenaed records from both of those men, and it’s not clear if subpoenas have landed on Kushner’s doorstep.

But the Washington Post also reported — and this seems central and crucial as to why the president’s son-in-law is a different sort of target here — that the FBI is focusing on a series of conversations that Kushner had in December with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.

At the time, Kushner had already spent months trying to arrange fresh financing for a troubled building his family owns, 666 Fifth Avenue. [Continue reading…]

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Kushner met with Russian banker, Sergey Gorkov, who is Putin crony and spy school graduate

NBC News reports: The Russian banker Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner met with in December is viewed by U.S. intelligence as a “Putin crony” and a graduate of a “finishing school” for spies who was often tasked with sensitive financial operations by Putin, according to multiple U.S. officials and documents viewed by NBC News.

Sergey Gorkov, 48, graduated from the FSB Academy, which was chartered in 1994 to educate Russian Intelligence personnel. He has long served Russian President Vladimir Putin in critical economic roles. Most recently, Putin chose him to head of the state-owned VneshEconomBank (VEB). As the Russian state national development bank, VEB has played a critical role in blunting the impact of U.S. sanctions against Russia by finding other sources of foreign capital.

Before that, Gorkov was the deputy chairman of Sberbank, Russia’s biggest bank, also state-owned, and also under U.S. sanctions since 2014. [Continue reading…]

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Kushner was in contact with Russian ambassador even before Trump had won GOP nomination

Reuters reports: U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, had at least three previously undisclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States during and after the 2016 presidential campaign, seven current and former U.S. officials told Reuters.

Those contacts included two phone calls between April and November last year, two of the sources said. By early this year, Kushner had become a focus of the FBI investigation into whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, said two other sources – one current and one former law enforcement official.

Kushner initially had come to the attention of FBI investigators last year as they began scrutinizing former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s connections with Russian officials, the two sources said.

While the FBI is investigating Kushner’s contacts with Russia, he is not currently a target of that investigation, the current law enforcement official said.

The new information about the two calls as well as other details uncovered by Reuters shed light on when and why Kushner first attracted FBI attention and show that his contacts with Russian envoy Sergei Kislyak were more extensive than the White House has acknowledged. [Continue reading…]

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Russian once tied to Trump aide seeks immunity to cooperate with Congress

The New York Times reports: Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch once close to President Trump’s former campaign manager, has offered to cooperate with congressional committees investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election, but lawmakers are unwilling to accept his conditions, according to congressional officials.

Mr. Deripaska’s offer comes amid increased attention to his ties to Paul Manafort, who is one of several Trump associates under F.B.I. scrutiny for possible collusion with Russia during the presidential campaign. The two men did business together in the mid-2000s, when Mr. Manafort, a Republican operative, was also providing campaign advice to Kremlin-backed politicians in Ukraine. Their relationship subsequently soured and devolved into a lawsuit.

Mr. Deripaska, an aluminum magnate who is a member of the inner circle of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, recently offered to cooperate with congressional intelligence committees in exchange for a grant of full immunity, according to three congressional officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. But the Senate and House panels turned him down because of concerns that immunity agreements create complications for federal criminal investigators, the officials said. [Continue reading…]

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Why Trump is a salesman with autocrats and a slumlord with allies

Jeet Heer writes: Since becoming president, Donald Trump has repeatedly refused to explicitly endorse Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which requires member nations to come to each other’s military aid. But that was supposed to change on Thursday, with a speech at the NATO headquarters in Brussels. The New York Times reported Wednesday that “Trump is expected to publicly endorse NATO’s mutual defense commitment at a ceremony on Thursday at the alliance’s headquarters, an administration official said, breaking months of silence about whether the United States would automatically come to the aid of an ally under attack.”

Well, either the administration official lied or Trump changed his mind. Because Trump, who has been berating and disappointing America’s allies for many months now, did so yet again on Thursday.

As he has done repeatedly since inauguration, Trump didn’t explicitly endorse the NATO pledge in his speech. (He did say, “We will never forsake the friends who stood by our side” after the 9/11 attacks, the only time the Article 5 commitment has been invoked. Some consider that clear enough.) Instead, he made his familiar complaint that many NATO members are free riders who take advantage of American taxpayers. “We have to make up for the many years lost” due to “chronic underpayments,” he said. “If NATO countries made their full and complete contributions, then NATO would be even stronger than it is today.” He also implied that the alliance was living high on the hog. “I never asked once what the new NATO headquarters cost,” he said. “I refuse to do that. But it is beautiful.” His snide remark ruffled other leaders. “Standing off to the side of Trump’s podium, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel stifled laughter,” the Independent Journal Review reported, “and Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel raised his eyebrows and turned his head to the side. Several other heads of state clustered around them cringed.”

Trump treated the NATO leaders like a slumlord who, to justify raising the rent, points to his tenants’ lavish spending habits. Which is fitting, given Trump’s business background. In 1985, the Times described the young Trump as having a dual existence as “doer and slumlord both”: “If he isn’t building a skyscraper castle or a football team, he is trying to harass some tenants out of one of his properties.” (Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, is challenging him for the mantle of the worst slumlord in the White House.) But Trump was also a real estate and brand-licensing tycoon. So he is a salesman and slumlord both: When he wants to close a deal, he’ll lay on the charm and say anything to achieve his ends. When he wants collect payments, he turns blustery and nasty, hoping to shame his mark into paying. [Continue reading…]

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Russian ambassador told Moscow that Kushner wanted secret communications channel with Kremlin

The Washington Post reports: Jared Kushner and Russia’s ambassador to Washington discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring, according to U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports.

Ambassador Sergei Kislyak reported to his superiors in Moscow that Kushner, son-in-law and confidant to then-President-elect Trump, made the proposal during a meeting on Dec. 1 or 2 at Trump Tower, according to intercepts of Russian communications that were reviewed by U.S. officials. Kislyak said Kushner suggested using Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States for the communications.

The meeting also was attended by Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser.

The White House disclosed the fact of the meeting only in March, playing down its significance. But people familiar with the matter say the FBI now considers the encounter, as well as another meeting Kushner had with a Russian banker, to be of investigative interest.

Kislyak reportedly was taken aback by the suggestion of allowing an American to use Russian communications gear at its embassy or consulate — a proposal that would have carried security risks for Moscow as well as the Trump team. [Continue reading…]

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Comey acted on Russian intelligence he knew was fake

CNN reports: Then-FBI Director James Comey knew that a critical piece of information relating to the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email was fake — created by Russian intelligence — but he feared that if it became public it would undermine the probe and the Justice Department itself, according to multiple officials with knowledge of the process.

As a result, Comey acted unilaterally last summer to publicly declare the investigation over — without consulting then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch — while at the same time stating that Clinton had been “extremely careless” in her handling of classified information. His press conference caused a firestorm of controversy and drew criticism from both Democrats and Republicans.

Comey’s actions based on what he knew was Russian disinformation offer a stark example of the way Russian interference impacted the decisions of the highest-level US officials during the 2016 campaign.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that this Russian intelligence was unreliable. US officials now tell CNN that Comey and FBI officials actually knew early on that this intelligence was indeed false. [Continue reading…]

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