Trump White House weighing plans to create rogue global spy network

The Intercept reports: The Trump administration is considering a set of proposals developed by Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a retired CIA officer — with assistance from Oliver North, a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal — to provide CIA Director Mike Pompeo and the White House with a global, private spy network that would circumvent official U.S. intelligence agencies, according to several current and former U.S. intelligence officials and others familiar with the proposals. The sources say the plans have been pitched to the White House as a means of countering “deep state” enemies in the intelligence community seeking to undermine Trump’s presidency.

The creation of such a program raises the possibility that the effort would be used to create an intelligence apparatus to justify the Trump administration’s political agenda.

“Pompeo can’t trust the CIA bureaucracy, so we need to create this thing that reports just directly to him,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official with firsthand knowledge of the proposals, in describing White House discussions. “It is a direct-action arm, totally off the books,” this person said, meaning the intelligence collected would not be shared with the rest of the CIA or the larger intelligence community. “The whole point is this is supposed to report to the president and Pompeo directly.”

Oliver North, who appears frequently on Trump’s favorite TV network, Fox News, was enlisted to help sell the effort to the administration. He was the “ideological leader” brought in to lend credibility, said the former senior intelligence official.

Some of the individuals involved with the proposals secretly met with major Trump donors asking them to help finance operations before any official contracts were signed.

The proposals would utilize an army of spies with no official cover in several countries deemed “denied areas” for current American intelligence personnel, including North Korea and Iran. The White House has also considered creating a new global rendition unit meant to capture terrorist suspects around the world, as well as a propaganda campaign in the Middle East and Europe to combat Islamic extremism and Iran.

“I can find no evidence that this ever came to the attention of anyone at the NSC or [White House] at all,” wrote Michael N. Anton, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, in an email. “The White House does not and would not support such a proposal.” But a current U.S. intelligence official appeared to contradict that assertion, stating that the various proposals were first pitched at the White House before being delivered to the CIA. The Intercept reached out to several senior officials that sources said had been briefed on the plans by Prince, including Vice President Mike Pence. His spokesperson wrote there was “no record of [Prince] ever having met with or briefed the VP.” Oliver North did not respond to a request for comment. [Continue reading…]

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The Trump administration is mulling a pitch for a private ‘rendition’ and spy network

BuzzFeed reports: The White House and CIA have been considering a package of secret proposals to allow former US intelligence officers to run privatized covert actions, intelligence gathering, and propaganda missions, according to three sources who’ve been briefed on or have direct knowledge of the proposals.

One of the proposals would involve hiring a private company, Amyntor Group, for millions of dollars to set up a large intelligence network and run counterterrorist propaganda efforts, according to the sources. Amyntor’s officials and employees include veterans of a variety of US covert operations, ranging from the Reagan-era Iran–Contra affair to more recent actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Amyntor declined to discuss the proposals, but a lawyer for the company said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that the type of contract being contemplated would be legal “with direction and control by the proper government authority.”

Another proposal presented to US officials would allow individuals affiliated with the company to help capture wanted terrorists on behalf of the United States. In keeping with that proposal, people close to the company are tracking two specific suspects in a Middle Eastern country, the sources said, for possible “rendition” to the United States. [Continue reading…]

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Interrogators blast Trump’s ‘clueless’ CIA pick Tom Cotton

The Daily Beast reports: The Central Intelligence Agency is set to receive an advocate of waterboarding, sweeping surveillance powers, jailing journalists, and conflict with Iran as its next director.

A combat veteran and first-term Arkansas GOP senator, Tom Cotton has wasted little time building his twin reputations as one of the Senate’s hardest hardliners and friendliest Donald Trump allies. In one of his earliest Senate soundbites, he rebuked a Pentagon official in 2015 for the failed plan to close Guantanamo Bay, saying its detainees should “rot in hell.”

More recently, he has mocked the idea that Trump colluded with Russia.

Now, following months of whispered reporting, White House chief of staff John Kelly has developed a plan to transition Cotton over to the Central Intelligence Agency directorship—the better to oust flailing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA director and fellow Trump loyalist Mike Pompeo, according to the New York Times.

Cotton’s prospective arrival at the CIA is the latest dalliance with a restoration of torture to the spy agency’s agenda. Trump as a presidential candidate advocated “worse” torture techniques than waterboarding, only to proclaim himself swayed away from torture by the opposition of Jim Mattis, now the defense secretary. [Continue reading…]

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ICC prosecutor seeks probe into war crimes allegations against U.S. military, CIA in Afghanistan

The Washington Post reports: The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court on Monday formally requested authorization to investigate the U.S. military and CIA for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan.

Fatou Bensouda, a Gambian jurist who has been the ICC’s chief prosecutor since 2012, confirmed earlier suspicions that the United States would be implicated in the probe. The decision marks the first time the ICC under Bensouda will investigate American forces and operatives.

In a statement, Bensouda clarified that alleged “war crimes by members of the United States armed forces” and “secret detention facilities in Afghanistan” used by the CIA justified the court’s investigation. Earlier this month, she had announced that “there is a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed” in Afghanistan but had declined to specify by whom.

On Monday, she named the U.S. armed forces and the CIA among a roster of probe targets that also included the Taliban and its affiliated Haqqani network, as well as the Afghan National Security Forces. [Continue reading…]

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Pompeo emerges as favorite to succeed Tillerson

Politico reports: President Donald Trump has turned his daily intelligence briefing — a routine that in previous administrations has been a dry, formal affair — into a free-flowing conversation during which he peppers his CIA director, former House member Mike Pompeo, with questions about everything from national security threats to the internal dynamics of Congress.

After their 10 a.m. sessions, which Pompeo conducts in person about four mornings a week, Trump often asks Pompeo to accompany him to his next meeting — whatever it is.

The CIA director’s favored status in the West Wing has made him the odds-on choice to succeed Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, according to more than half a dozen administration officials and outside advisers familiar with the White House’s current plans. It’s not clear when Tillerson might leave — he has vigorously denied rumors that he plans to resign anytime soon — but Pompeo has told associates that he expects the president to tap him for the position and that he’d accept the job if it’s offered to him. [Continue reading…]

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CIA director met advocate of DNC hack conspiracy theory at Trump’s request

Duncan Campbell and James Risen report: CIA director Mike Pompeo met late last month with a former U.S. intelligence official who has become an advocate for a disputed theory that the theft of the Democratic National Committee’s emails during the 2016 presidential campaign was an inside job, rather than a hack by Russian intelligence.

Pompeo met on October 24 with William Binney, a former National Security Agency official-turned-whistleblower who co-authored an analysis published by a group of former intelligence officials that challenges the U.S. intelligence community’s official assessment that Russian intelligence was behind last year’s theft of data from DNC computers. Binney and the other former officials argue that the DNC data was “leaked,” not hacked, “by a person with physical access” to the DNC’s computer system.

In an interview with The Intercept, Binney said Pompeo told him that President Donald Trump had urged the CIA director to meet with Binney to discuss his assessment that the DNC data theft was an inside job. During their hour-long meeting at CIA headquarters, Pompeo said Trump told him that if Pompeo “want[ed] to know the facts, he should talk to me,” Binney said. [Continue reading…]

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CIA director distorts intelligence community’s findings on Russian interference

The Washington Post reports: CIA Director Mike Pompeo declared Thursday that U.S. intelligence agencies determined that Russia’s interference in the 2016 American presidential election did not alter the outcome, a statement that distorted spy agency findings.

“The intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election,” Pompeo said at a security conference in Washington.

His comment suggested — falsely — that a report released by U.S. intelligence agencies in January had ruled out any impact that could be attributed to a covert Russian interference campaign that involved leaks of tens of thousands of stolen emails, the flooding of social media sites with false claims and the purchase of ads on Facebook.

A report compiled by the CIA and other agencies described that Russian operation as unprecedented in its scale and concluded that Moscow’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process and help elect Donald Trump.

But the report reached no conclusions about whether that interference had altered the outcome — an issue that U.S. intelligence officials made clear was considered beyond the scope of their inquiry. [Continue reading…]

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Russia needed help targeting U.S. voters, two former CIA leaders say

Bloomberg reports: Two former heads of the Central Intelligence Agency said Russia probably didn’t have the ability to microtarget U.S. voters and districts in the 2016 presidential campaign on its own, meaning some sort of assistance would have been necessary.

“It is not intuitively obvious that they could have done this themselves,” former CIA director Michael Hayden said in an interview Wednesday in Washington.

Michael Morell, who spent his career at the CIA including a stint as acting director of the agency, said in a separate interview that Russia either needed someone to help give it information on microtargeting or stole the necessary information, such as through hacking.

“They do not have the analytic capability to do that themselves,” Morell said.

The two former directors said they based their comments on knowledge they have of Russia’s capabilities. [Continue reading…]

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Trump poised to drop some limits on drone strikes and commando raids

The New York Times reports: The Trump administration is preparing to dismantle key Obama-era limits on drone strikes and commando raids outside conventional battlefields, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations. The changes would lay the groundwork for possible counterterrorism missions in countries where Islamic militants are active but the United States has not previously tried to kill or capture them.

President Trump’s top national security advisers have proposed relaxing two rules, the officials said. First, the targets of kill missions by the military and the C.I.A., now generally limited to high-level militants deemed to pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to Americans, would be expanded to include foot-soldier jihadists with no special skills or leadership roles. And second, proposed drone attacks and raids would no longer undergo high-level vetting.

But administration officials have also agreed that they should keep in place one important constraint for such attacks: a requirement of “near certainty” that no civilian bystanders will be killed.

The proposal to overhaul the rules has quietly taken shape over months of debate among administration officials and awaits Mr. Trump’s expected signature. Despite the preservation of the protections for civilians, the other changes seemed likely to draw criticism from human rights groups. [Continue reading…]

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CIA director viewed with suspicion inside the agency

The Washington Post reports: As CIA director, Mike Pompeo has taken a special interest in an agency unit that is closely tied to the investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, requiring the Counterintelligence Mission Center to report directly to him.

Officials at the center have, in turn, kept a watchful eye on Pompeo, who has repeatedly played down Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and demonstrated a willingness to engage in political skirmishes for President Trump.

Current and former officials said that the arrangement has been a source of apprehension among the CIA’s upper ranks and that they could not recall a time in the agency’s history when a director faced a comparable conflict.

“Pompeo is in a delicate situation unlike any other director has faced, certainly in my memory,” said Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a CIA official for 23 years who served in Russia and held high-level positions at headquarters, “because of his duty to protect and provide the truth to an independent investigation while maintaining his role with the president.”

The Russia issue has complicated Pompeo’s effort to manage a badly strained relationship between the agency and a president who has disparaged its work and compared U.S. intelligence officials to Nazis. Amid that tension, Pompeo’s interactions with the counterintelligence center have come under particular scrutiny.

The unit helped trigger the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia by serving as a conduit to the FBI last year for information the CIA developed on contacts between Russian individuals and Trump campaign associates, officials said.

The center works more closely with the FBI than almost any other CIA department does, officials said, and continues to pursue leads on Moscow’s election interference operation that could factor in the probe led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, a former FBI director.

Pompeo has not impeded that work, officials said. But several officials said there is concern about what he might do if the CIA uncovered new information potentially damaging to Trump and Pompeo were forced to choose between protecting the agency or the president. [Continue reading…]

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Some in Congress don’t get the ‘gravity’ of Russian election meddling, former CIA director said

Jason Leopold reports: In an internal memo to CIA employees last December, CIA Director John Brennan complained that some members of Congress he had briefed about the agency’s assessment that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election did not “understand and appreciate the importance and gravity of the issue.”

Brennan’s December 16, 2016 memo did not identify the lawmakers who expressed skepticism about the CIA’s judgment that Russia helped Donald Trump win the election. But three intelligence sources told BuzzFeed News that Brennan’s criticism was directed at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator John Cornyn, the Majority Whip. At the time, the two Republican lawmakers downplayed the importance of the CIA’s intelligence. Cornyn said it was “hardly news.”

Four congressional committees are now investigating Russia’s role in the presidential election and ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.

The Brennan memo offers rare insight into a tense time when the CIA was under pressure by the White House and Congress to produce evidence to support its conclusions about Russia’s meddling in the election. It was obtained by BuzzFeed News and Ryan Shapiro, an MIT doctoral candidate and co-founder of the transparency project Operation 45, in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the CIA and other intelligence agencies for documents about Russia’s role in the election. [Continue reading…]

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Trump and Putin fail in achieving their shared goal of lifting sanctions

The New York Times reports: Throughout 2016, both Donald J. Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin complained that American-led sanctions against Russia were the biggest irritant in the plummeting relations between the two superpowers. And the current investigations, which have cast a shadow over Mr. Trump’s first six months in office, have focused on whether a series of contacts between Mr. Trump’s inner circle and Russians were partly about constructing deals to get those penalties lifted.

Now it is clear that those sanctions not only are staying in place, but are about to be modestly expanded — exactly the outcome the two presidents sought to avoid.

How that happened is a story of two global leaders overplaying their hands.

Mr. Putin is beginning to pay a price for what John O. Brennan, the former C.I.A. director, described last week as the Russian president’s fateful decision last summer to try to use stolen computer data to support Mr. Trump’s candidacy. For his part, Mr. Trump ignited the movement in Congress by repeatedly casting doubt on that intelligence finding, then fueled it by confirming revelation after revelation about previously denied contacts between his inner circle and a parade of Russians.

If approved by Congress this week, Mr. Trump has little choice, his aides acknowledge, but to sign the toughened sanctions legislation that he desperately wanted to see defeated.

Just days ago, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and other top officials were lobbying fiercely to preserve Mr. Trump’s right to waive Russia sanctions with a stroke of the pen — just as President Barack Obama was able to do when, in negotiations with Iran, he dangled the relaxation of sanctions to coax Tehran to agree to sharp, decade-long limits on its nuclear activity.

As one of Mr. Trump’s aides pointed out last week, there is a long history of granting presidents that negotiating leverage when dealing with foreign adversaries.

But by constantly casting doubt on intelligence that the Kremlin was behind an effort to manipulate last year’s presidential election, Mr. Trump so unnerved members of his own party that even they saw a need to curb his ability to lift those sanctions unilaterally.

On Sunday, Mr. Trump’s new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, repeated the White House position that Mr. Trump remains unconvinced by the evidence Russia was the culprit behind the election hacking. He said that when the subject comes up, Mr. Trump cannot separate the intelligence findings from his emotional sense that the issue is being used to cast doubt on his legitimacy as president.

“It actually in his mind, what are you guys suggesting?” Mr. Scaramucci said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “You’re going to delegitimize his victory?”

If so, Mr. Trump is the only one with access to the best intelligence on the issue who still harbors those doubts.

Last week at the Aspen Security Forum, four of his top intelligence and national security officials — including Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director — said they were absolutely convinced that the Russians were behind the effort to influence the election.

“There is no dissent,” Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, said on Friday at the Aspen conference. The Russians, he said, “caught us just a little bit asleep in terms of capabilities” the Kremlin could bring to bear to influence elections here, in France and Germany. The Russians’ goal was clear, he said: “They are trying to undermine Western democracy.” [Continue reading…]

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Syrian rebels feel betrayed by U.S. decision to end CIA support: ‘It will weaken America’s influence.’

The Washington Post reports: Syrian rebel commanders said Thursday that they were disappointed in the Trump administration’s decision to end a covert CIA weapons and training program for opposition fighters, an initiative that began under President Barack Obama but fizzled out amid battlefield losses and concerns about extremism within rebel ranks.

“We definitely feel betrayed,” said Gen. Tlass al-Salameh of Osoud al-Sharqiya, a group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. Salameh and his deputies say that they have received CIA support to rout the Islamic State from areas of eastern Syria but that they have also fought battles against pro-government ­forces.

“It feels like we are being abandoned at a very difficult moment,” Salameh said. “It feels like they only wanted to help when we were fighting [the Islamic State]. Now that we are also fighting the regime, the Americans want to withdraw.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump ends covert CIA program to arm anti-Assad rebels in Syria, a move sought by Moscow

The Washington Post reports: President Trump has decided to end the CIA’s covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling the government of Bashar al-Assad, a move long sought by Russia, according to U.S. officials.

The program was a central plank of a policy begun by the Obama administration in 2013 to put pressure on Assad to step aside, but even its backers have questioned its efficacy since Russia deployed forces in Syria two years later.

Officials said the phasing out of the secret program reflects Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia, which saw the anti-Assad program as an assault on its interests. The shuttering of the program is also an acknowledgment of Washington’s limited leverage and desire to remove Assad from power.

Just three months ago, after the United States accused Assad of using chemical weapons, Trump launched retaliatory airstrikes against a Syrian air base. At the time, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, said that “in no way do we see peace in that area with Assad at the head of the Syrian government.”

Officials said Trump made the decision to scrap the CIA program nearly a month ago, after an Oval Office meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster ahead of a July 7 meeting in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin. [Continue reading…]

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Trump misrepresents intelligence findings on Russian interference in U.S. election

The New York Times reports: President Trump said on Thursday that only “three or four” of the United States’ 17 intelligence agencies had concluded that Russia interfered in the presidential election — a statement that while technically accurate, is misleading and suggests widespread dissent among American intelligence agencies when none has emerged.

The “three or four” agencies referred to by Mr. Trump are the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the F.B.I. and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, all of which determined that Russia interfered in the election. Their work was compiled into a report, and a declassified version was released on Jan. 6 by the director of national intelligence. It said that all four agencies had “high confidence” that Russian spies had tried to interfere in the election on the orders of President Vladimir V. Putin.

The reason the views of only those four intelligence agencies, not all 17, were included in the assessment is simple: They were the ones tracking and analyzing the Russian campaign. The rest were doing other work.

The intelligence community is a sprawling enterprise that includes military officers who track enemy troop movements, accountants who analyze the finances of Islamist militants and engineers who design spy satellites. There are soldiers, sailors and Marines; tens of thousands of civilian government employees and tens of thousands of private contractors.

Asked about Russia’s election meddling during a news conference on Thursday in Poland, Mr. Trump repeated his familiar refrain that “it could” have been Russia or other countries that interfered in the election, and then appeared to suggest that there was hardly an intelligence community consensus on the matter.

“Let me just start off by saying I heard it was 17 agencies,” he said when asked about the intelligence assessment.

“I said, ‘Boy, that’s a lot.’ Do we even have that many intelligence agencies, right? Let’s check it. And we did some very heavy research,” Mr. Trump continued. “It turned out to be three or four — it wasn’t 17 — and many of your compatriots had to change their reporting, and they had to apologize, and they had to correct.”

Mr. Trump was also correct about inaccurate news reports. Some, including an article in The New York Times, incorrectly reported that all 17 American intelligence agencies had endorsed the assessment.

But there is no evidence that significant uncertainty or dissent exists across the intelligence community, simply because not all 17 were involved in the assessment of Russian interference. [Continue reading…]

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Why CIA vets say Putin hates America — and why Trump shouldn’t trust him

The Daily Beast reports: The Russian intelligence officers picked up the American spies from Moscow’s Metropole Hotel and drove them a few short blocks to an ornate, lushly appointed guest house. It used to be the home of a wealthy Jewish dentist before being turned into a meeting place for Russia’s intelligence services.

The 17th-century mansion served as backdrop of a 2007 summit of CIA officers, FBI agents, and their Russian counterparts, as the Bush administration tried to build a cooperative relationship with Moscow on counterterrorism.

Over glasses of cognac and the occasional shot of chilled vodka, the Russian and American agents sat across from each other at a long conference table, in what turned into an interrogation instead of the hoped-for bridge-building exercise. The Russians probed the Americans to find out where their sources were, how big their networks were and any potential weaknesses to exploit them later.

“It was worse than a polygraph,” one former senior intelligence officer told The Daily Beast. “They used different people to ask us the same questions over and over, each time phrased in slightly different ways, as if to see whether we were lying,” and to trick information out of them.

That interaction is emblematic of 20 years of U.S. attempts to reach out to Moscow, with the initially Pollyannish new American administration seeking cooperation, and the Russians using each opportunity to gather intelligence on their enemy to advance their own interests.

“We, the United States, are the ‘main enemy’ to them,” said former CIA officer John Sipher. “In their mind, they are at war with us. Anything that’s hurtful to the United States is positive for Russia.” That goes doubly for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who once led Russia’s FSB, the successor to the infamous Soviet-era KGB. [Continue reading…]

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Despite concerns about blackmail, Flynn heard CIA secrets

The New York Times reports: Senior officials across the government became convinced in January that the incoming national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, had become vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

At the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — agencies responsible for keeping American secrets safe from foreign spies — career officials agreed that Mr. Flynn represented an urgent problem.

Yet nearly every day for three weeks, the new C.I.A. director, Mike Pompeo, sat in the Oval Office and briefed President Trump on the nation’s most sensitive intelligence — with Mr. Flynn listening. Mr. Pompeo has not said whether C.I.A. officials left him in the dark about their views of Mr. Flynn, but one administration official said Mr. Pompeo did not share any concerns about Mr. Flynn with the president.

The episode highlights a remarkable aspect of Mr. Flynn’s tumultuous, 25-day tenure in the White House: He sat atop a national security apparatus that churned ahead despite its own conclusion that he was at risk of being compromised by a hostile foreign power. [Continue reading…]

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Trump asked intelligence chief if he could pressure Comey to end FBI Russia probe

The Washington Post reports: The nation’s top intelligence official told associates in March that President Trump asked him if he could intervene with then-FBI Director James B. Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn in its Russia probe, according to officials.

On March 22, less than a week after being confirmed by the Senate, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats attended a briefing at the White House together with officials from several government agencies. As the briefing was wrapping up, Trump asked everyone to leave the room except for Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

The president then started complaining about the FBI investigation and Comey’s handling of it, said officials familiar with the account Coats gave to associates. Two days earlier, Comey had confirmed in a congressional hearing that the bureau was probing whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia during the 2016 race.

After the encounter, Coats discussed the conversation with other officials and decided that intervening with Comey as Trump had suggested would be inappropriate, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters.

The events involving Coats show the president went further than just asking intelligence officials to deny publicly the existence of any evidence showing collusion during the 2016 election, as The Washington Post reported in May. The interaction with Coats indicates that Trump aimed to enlist top officials to have Comey curtail the bureau’s probe. [Continue reading…]

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