Bloomberg reports: President Donald Trump reorganized his National Security Council on Wednesday, removing chief strategist Stephen Bannon from a key committee and restoring the roles of top intelligence and defense officials, according to a person familiar with the decision and a notice published in the Federal Register.
The realignment increases the influence of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, whose public stances were sometimes at odds with those of Bannon. In addition to gaining greater control over the NSC, McMaster will have the Homeland Security Council under his authority.
The change downgrades the role of Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert, who had been given authority to convene or chair the NSC’s principals committee under Trump’s original structure. He’ll serve those roles now as delegated by McMaster, according to a presidential memorandum dated Tuesday.
The national intelligence director, Dan Coats, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, are again “regular attendees” of the principals committee, as in the Obama administration. Trump downgraded their roles and put Bannon on the committee in a Jan. 28 memorandum.
The secretary of energy, the Central Intelligence Agency director and the United Nations ambassador also were added to the principals committee under Wednesday’s revisions. [Continue reading…]
Ryan Goodman writes: A major question remains as to whether President Trump’s inner circle violated federal law before coming into office by communicating with foreign governments and undermining the official policies of President Barack Obama. But if you listen to almost any recent commentary, you would think that the law in question — 1799’s Logan Act — is essentially a dead letter. Why? We’re told that no one has been convicted of violating the Logan Act since the law was signed more than 200 years ago.
That’s true, but that’s not nearly the end of the argument. What commentators miss is that the Logan Act has been “enforced” and relied upon time and again by the executive branch, most notably through the State Department.
In the 19th century, secretaries of state kicked foreign ambassadors out of the country for aiding and abetting violations of the Logan Act. The Spanish minister to the United States in 1805 and the British consul during the Civil War were expelled on that basis. (It is fair to wonder if the current Russian ambassador — Sergey Kislyak — should meet a similar fate for his conversations with ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn before Trump’s inauguration.) [Continue reading…]
Roger Cohen writes: The United States meets China this week in a position of weakness. Since taking office, Donald Trump has handed China a strategic gift by abandoning a trade pact designed to offset Chinese power in the region, been obliged to grovel after offending China over Taiwan, and turned President Xi Jinping of China into an unlikely poster boy for climate change concern and an open global trading system.
So much for the art of the deal; to Asian nations like Singapore worried about China’s aggressive territorial expansion in the South China Sea, American policy under Trump has looked more like a blink-first exercise.
Now Trump — having given the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, the full Mar-a-Lago – is obliged to give Xi the same at his Florida resort. (Angela Merkel, merely the German chancellor, need not apply.)
Top of the Florida menu is North Korea and how far China will help Trump in rolling back Kim Jong-un’s nuclear and missile program. The thousands of acres of new land built by China in the form of artificial islands or expanded reefs in the Spratly Islands off the coast of the Philippines — an extraordinary act of lawless territorial expansionism — will also be part of the discussions. Then of course there’s bilateral trade and Trump’s unhappiness with the $347 billion U.S. deficit last year — although with North Korea’s belligerent Kim now in a position to hit Japan, that feels like a manageable irritant in the symbiotic U.S.-Chinese economic entanglement. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: President Trump said on Wednesday that he thought that the former national security adviser Susan E. Rice may have committed a crime by seeking the identities of Trump associates who were swept up in the surveillance of foreign officials by American spy agencies and that other Obama administration officials may also have been involved.
The president provided no evidence to back his claim. Current and former intelligence officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations have said that nothing they have seen led them to believe that Ms. Rice’s actions were unusual or unlawful. When Americans are swept up in surveillance of foreign officials by intelligence agencies, their identities are supposed to be obscured, but they can be revealed for national security reasons, and intelligence officials say it is a regular occurrence.
“I think it’s going to be the biggest story,” Mr. Trump said in an interview in the Oval Office. “It’s such an important story for our country and the world. It is one of the big stories of our time.” [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The embattled Fox News host Bill O’Reilly got powerful backing on Wednesday from none other than the president of the United States, who called him “a good person.”
Mr. Trump praised Fox News and Mr. O’Reilly, just days after The New York Times reported that the host had been involved in five settlements with women who said he had harassed them. The deals resulted in payouts totaling about $13 million, The Times reported.
“Personally, I think he shouldn’t have settled,” Mr. Trump said in an interview in the Oval Office with Times reporters. “Because you should have taken it all the way; I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.” [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Japan and South Korea have condemned North Korea after it launched another ballistic missile – but the US refused to be drawn in, with secretary of state Rex Tillerson saying the country “has spoken enough about North Korea”.
Japan lodged a strong protest over the “extremely problematic launch”, which landed in waters off the Korean peninsula on the eve of a summit between US and Chinese leaders that is expected to focus on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.
The South Korean foreign ministry said it “threatens the peace and safety of the international community as well as the Korean peninsula”.
But Tillerson responded to the test with an a enigmatic statement saying only: “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”
A few hours earlier, before news of the new missile launch broke, a senior Trump administration official suggested time was running out for a diplomatic solution. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: Russia suggested on Wednesday it would publicly stand by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad despite outrage over a chemical weapons attack, setting Donald Trump’s new U.S. administration on course for a head-on diplomatic collision with Moscow.
Western countries including the United States blamed Assad’s armed forces for the chemical attack, which choked scores of people to death in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in a rebel-held area of northern Syria hit by government air strikes.
Washington said it believed the deaths were caused by sarin nerve gas dropped by Syrian aircraft. But Moscow offered an alternative explanation that could shield Assad: it said it believed poison gas had leaked from a rebel chemical weapons depot struck by Syrian bombs.
Hasan Haj Ali, commander of the Free Idlib Army rebel group, called the Russian statement a “lie”.
“Everyone saw the plane while it was bombing with gas,” he told Reuters from northwestern Syria.
“Likewise, all the civilians in the area know that there are no military positions there, or places for the manufacture (of weapons). The various factions of the opposition are not capable of producing these substances.” [Continue reading…]
In 2013, after Seymour Hersh ignorantly claimed, “It’s not hard to make sarin. You could mix it in the backyard. Two chemicals melded together,” I wrote a post on how in fact it’s not easy to make sarin.
Julian Borger writes: The scale and horror of Tuesday’s gas attack on civilians in Idlib highlighted the vacuum in the Trump administration’s foreign policymaking: the incident was met first by silence, then by criticism of Barack Obama.
Donald Trump described the attack, which killed scores of victims, including many children, as a direct “consequence” of his predecessor’s Syria policy.
“These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the last administration’s weakness and irresolution,” he said in a statement. “President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.” [Continue reading…]
Shortly after the Ghouta chemical attack in which hundreds of Syrian civilians died, Trump tweeted:
AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA – IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2013
Charles B. Anthony provides a reminder of 17 Trump tweets in which he implored Obama not to attack and said the U.S. should “forget Syria.”
Trump blames Syria gas attack on Obama for not attacking Syria. So, here’s 17 tweets from Trump in 2013 begging Obama to not attack Syria pic.twitter.com/9giz5uD37E
— Charles B. Anthony (@CharlesBAnthony) April 5, 2017
Reuters reports: The United States, Britain and France on Tuesday proposed a United Nations Security Council resolution to condemn a suspected deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria, which diplomats said would likely be put to a vote on Wednesday.
The three countries blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces for the attack, which killed dozens of people. The Syrian military denied responsibility and said it would never use chemical weapons.
U.N. Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura said the “horrific” chemical attack had come from the air.
The draft text, seen by Reuters, says Syria’s government must provide an international investigation with flight plans and logs for Tuesday, the names of all helicopter squadron commanders and provide access to air bases where investigators believe attacks using chemicals may have been launched.
It asks U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to report monthly on whether the Syrian government is cooperating with an international investigation and a fact-finding mission into chemical weapons use in Syria.
The draft resolution “expresses its outrage that individuals continue to be killed and injured by chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, and expresses its determination that those responsible must be held accountable.” [Continue reading…]
The Guardian notes: Tuesday’s strike came days after the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said the Trump administration was no longer prioritising the removal of Assad, and that the Syrian people would ultimately decide his fate.
The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, made similar comments on Monday, affirming a shift in US policy that began under the Obama administration.
Critics of the stance have said that the absence of a credible threat has given the regime licence to commit war crimes with impunity as its backers, Iran and Russia, steadily claw back years of battlefield losses. [Continue reading…]
The Atlantic reports: Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Tuesday she did not spy on President Trump or members of his team for political purposes, and that she had not leaked information gleaned from intelligence reports about them.
But while she refused to confirm it directly, citing classified information, Rice seemed to imply she requested that members of the Trump team whose names were redacted in intelligence reports be “unmasked,” or identified, as a report Monday from Bloomberg View’s Eli Lake asserted. The stories focus on “incidental collection,” when an American is caught up in surveillance of a foreign target, in which case the American’s name is redacted but can legally be revealed at the request of certain officials, including the national security adviser.
“There were occasions when I would receive a report in which a U.S. person was referred to, name not provided,” Rice said. “Sometimes in that context in order to understand the significance of the report and assess its significance, it was necessary to request the information as to who that person was.”
For example, Rice said, if a hypothetical report dealt with an American trying to sell bomb-making equipment to foreigners, she would want to know whether the American was a “kook” or a credible person, in which case the report would be taken more seriously. She said any unmasking request had to run through an established intelligence-community protocol. Rice also said she never requested reports, but sometimes asked for unmasking in reports sent to her by intelligence officials. [Continue reading…]
The Daily Beast reports: Days ago, in Ankara, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled that the U.S. had no quarrel with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, a man Tillerson’s predecessor compared to Adolf Hitler after he slaughtered more than 1,000 people with poison gas in 2013.
The “longer-term status of President Assad,” Tillerson said, “will be decided by the Syrian people,” a euphemism used by Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran to indicate that he isn’t going anywhere.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer used almost identical language the next day, saying, “Well, I think with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now.”
But the gas, it appears, is raining down once again on civilians.
In a video made Tuesday, Dr. Shajul Islam showed the camera a young man lying on a gurney with a catatonic expression on his face. His pupils were shrunk to the size of pinheads. “This is not chlorine,” he said. “We do not smell chlorine on this patient.” The industrial chemical has often been used as crude weapon on the Syrian battlefield.
Perhaps this time it was organic phosphate, another easily acquired chemical. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: The EU has reasserted that Bashar al-Assad has no future in Syria, just days after the Trump administration said his departure was no longer a priority for settling the conflict.
Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, said after six and a half years of war it was completely unrealistic to believe that the future of Syria would be exactly the same as its past. The EU wanted “a meaningful and inclusive transition in Syria” open to Syrians from all backgrounds, she said. “It is for the Syrians to decide, but for all Syrians.”
The French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, was more specific: “France does not believe for an instant that this new Syria can be led by Assad.”
The fine-tuning of the EU stance on Syria comes ahead of a major aid conference in Brussels, which is partly an attempt to boost momentum behind UN-led peace talks.
In a communique, EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg agreed the EU would only get involved in reconstruction of the war-shattered country once a “comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition” was firmly under way.
The EU stance contrasts with the US administration, which said last week that getting rid of Assad was no longer a priority. “You pick and choose your battles,” said Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN. “It’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.” [Continue reading…]
Gideon Resnick writes: During a segment on InfoWars today, Roger Stone, who was previously an adviser during the early months of President Trump’s campaign, claimed to host Alex Jones that Trump’s own son-in-law Jared Kushner was leaking information to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough.
“Jared Kushner, perhaps the one presidential aide who cannot be fired, is now in regular text message communications with Joe Scarborough,” Stone claimed. “Many of the anti-Steve Bannon stories that you see, the themes that you see on Morning Joe, are being dictated by Kushner. And while Mr. Kushner’s plate is very full with Middle Eastern peace and the China visit, and so on, in this case I think he is disserving the president.” [Continue reading…]
George Monbiot writes: Propaganda works by sanctifying a single value, such as faith, or patriotism. Anyone who questions it puts themselves outside the circle of respectable opinion. The sacred value is used to obscure the intentions of those who champion it. Today, the value is freedom. Freedom is a word that powerful people use to shut down thought.
When thinktanks and the billionaire press call for freedom, they are careful not to specify whose freedoms they mean. Freedom for some, they suggest, means freedom for all. In certain cases, this is true. You can exercise freedom of thought, for instance, without harming others. In other cases, one person’s freedom is another’s captivity.
When corporations free themselves from trade unions, they curtail the freedoms of their workers. When the very rich free themselves from tax, other people suffer through failing public services. When financiers are free to design exotic financial instruments, the rest of us pay for the crises they cause.
Above all, billionaires and the organisations they run demand freedom from something they call “red tape”. What they mean by red tape is public protection. An article in the Telegraph last week was headlined “Cut the EU red tape choking Britain after Brexit to set the country free from the shackles of Brussels”. Yes, we are choking, but not on red tape. We are choking because the government flouts European rules on air quality. The resulting air pollution frees thousands of souls from their bodies.
Ripping down such public protections means freedom for billionaires and corporations from the constraints of democracy. This is what Brexit – and Donald Trump – are all about. The freedom we were promised is the freedom of the very rich to exploit us. [Continue reading…]
Steven A Cook writes: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is visiting Washington. Since being elected in 2014 after orchestrating a coup d’état in the summer of 2013, the Egyptian leader has sought a White House meeting. President Barack Obama resisted, given the iron fist Sisi has employed to establish control over Egyptian society. The country is now among the top jailers of journalists in the world, thousands of others have been arrested for their opposition to the government, and Egyptian security forces killed about 800 people on a single day in August 2013.
Sisi’s visit signals the end of this period of mistrust and tension between the two countries. Egyptian officials were extremely pleased when, after meeting Sisi last September in New York, then-candidate Donald J. Trump’s campaign declared, “Mr. Trump expressed to President el-Sisi his strong support for Egypt’s war on terrorism, and how under a Trump Administration, the United States of America will be a loyal friend, not simply an ally, that Egypt can count on in the days and years ahead.”
It is hard to know for sure given the Trump administration’s policymaking style, but it seems clear that the White House wants to turn back the clock to the Hosni Mubarak era. During those three decades, successive U.S. administrations supported Mubarak because he ensured that the Suez Canal would stay open, maintained peace with Israel and kept his boot on the throat of Islamists. For the Trump White House, with its emphasis on fighting extremists, a Mubarak redux makes a lot of sense. American officials will likely discover that this is going to be hard. Egypt is very different today, and does not necessarily compare well to the country that Mubarak once ruled. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: Islamic State said on Tuesday the United States was drowning and “being run by an idiot”.
In the first official remarks by the group referring to President Donald Trump since he took office, spokesman Abi al-Hassan al-Muhajer said:
“America you have drowned and there is no savior, and you have become prey for the soldiers of the caliphate in every part of the earth, you are bankrupt and the signs of your demise are evident to every eye.”
“… There is no more evidence than the fact that you are being run by an idiot who does not know what Syria or Iraq or Islam is,” he said in a recording released on Tuesday on messaging network Telegram. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: The former CIA director John Brennan has described Donald Trump’s travel ban on visitors from Muslim countries as “simplistic and misguided”, predicting it would be counterproductive if implemented.
Brennan, who was director of central intelligence from March 2013 until the last day of the Obama administration on 20 January this year, was highly critical of a range of Trump policies and actions in an interview with the BBC Newsnight programme aired on Monday night.
He said the administration’s use of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” served to legitimise terrorists in their own eyes, and warned that the president’s disparagement of US intelligence agencies would hurt morale and recruitment. [Continue reading…]