U.S. strikes mark a new turn in Syria and beyond. Destination unknown

Hassan Hassan writes: The decision of the US finally to punish Bashar al-Assad for the use of chemical weapons against civilians will turn out to be, no doubt, a catalyst for a new chapter in the Syrian conflict. Even though US officials repeatedly emphasised the missile strikes on the Shayrat airfield were a one-off punitive measure, the unprecedented move comes amid a set of turning points in different parts of Syria and in the way foreign actors operate there. It is against the backdrop of these changes that the regime’s logic behind the use of chemical weapons should be viewed.

Paradoxically, recent changes in the conflict have seemed to favour the regime. Exactly one week before the missile attack, American officials gave Assad something he long wanted, namely, a new stated policy that his removal was no longer a US objective. This came in the form of top-level remarks from Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, and Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, stating that the long-term status of Assad would be decided by the Syrian people .

The message was cause for celebration in Damascus, especially as the about-face reflects the approach of the opposition’s regional and international backers in recent months. [Continue reading…]

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So Trump attacked Assad. What now?

Charles Lister writes: After six years of committing unrestrained and uninhibited violence against his own population, the regime of Bashar Assad experienced the first pangs of justice early Friday morning Syria time, as 59 American Tomahawk cruise missiles struck the strategically vital Al-Shayrat air base in the center of the country. Syrian military aircraft, hardened hangars and refueling facilities were among the targets of America’s first explicit attack on the Assad regime.

This was a justified, proportionate and necessary response for what had been a flagrant war crime committed three days earlier, when chemical nerve agents were dropped by planes from Al-Shayrat onto residential areas of Khan Sheikhoun, a town in Syria’s northwest. As men, women and children alike lost control of their muscles, succumbed to uncontrollable convulsions and began foaming from the mouth and nose, emergency and medical personnel rushed to the scene. They then found their facilities targeted in a series of follow-up bombings, possibly by Russian jets. At least 87 people lost their lives and more than 300 others were injured. This was merely the latest of dozens of chemical attacks conducted by the Assad regime since 2012, the worst of which killed more than 1,400 people east of Damascus in August 2013.

It was that heinous act in 2013, conducted within eyesight of Assad’s own presidential palace, that famously crossed then-President Barack Obama’s self-declared “red line.” That same attack led to Obama’s subsequent decision to back away from the use of force in favor of an agreement brokered by Russia to remove Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles in their entirety, a move that angered America’s Arab allies and effectively ended any potential U.S. efforts to threaten Assad’s rule. At the drop of the hat, overt affiliation with the United States became a politically toxic label that moderate opposition groups sought either to hide or to dissolve.

Recent events have not only demonstrated the clear failure and abrogation of that agreement by the Assad regime, but the presence of Russian troops and possibly also aircraft at the Al-Shayrat airbase appears to suggest that Russia was not only aware of Assad having retained some portion of his chemical weapons, but may also have been in a position to prevent their use.[Continue reading…]

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Stopping Assad requires standing up to Moscow

Molly K. McKew writes: As U.S. Tomahawk missiles soared over the Mediterranean toward Syria’s al-Shayrat airbase, speculation was already flying about how the attack would affect the thaw in U.S.-Russia relations anticipated since Donald Trump took office. Was this a first sign that America’s new president was willing to stand up to Putin?

Arguably the more critical factor in the equation is Russia. To understand the Kremlin’s response to the U.S. strike, and to the preceding chemical attack in Syria, it’s important to face some brutal truths about Russia in Syria.

The U.S. warned Russian forces about the coming strike because we knew they were there. We knew Russians were at Shayrat airbase since at least November 2015. This is why Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that this strike was “on the brink of combat clashes with Russia”: We were bombing a base from which he knew Russian forces guided operations.

In August 2015—well before the Kremlin announced its new Syrian campaign — Russia signed a comprehensive military agreement with Assad. This agreement gave Moscow virtual carte blanche in Syria, and gave Syria a status equivalent to occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia rather than to other sovereign nations where Russian forces are housed.

Russian commanders coordinate the military strategy in Syria, and have been critical to reversing the course of the war against Assad. Russian forces coordinate all aspects of Syrian air power and airstrikes. They reinforced the infrastructure of Shayrat airbase—which supposedly had its chemical stockpiles removed in 2013. There is no chance that, in the course of reconstructing elements of the base, they were not made aware that there were chemical munitions present. [Continue reading…]

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To charm Trump, Paul Manafort sold himself as an affordable outsider

The New York Times reports: Paul Manafort is the rarest of professional pitchmen: one who knows how to sell to a salesman.

That was evident by the effort he made last year to gain a foothold in President Trump’s campaign, a successful pitch documented by letters and memos that were made available by a former Trump associate.

On Feb. 29, 2016, Mr. Manafort, the former lobbyist and Republican operative who now sits at the nexus of investigations into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election, reached out to Mr. Trump with a slick, carefully calibrated offer that appealed to the candidate’s need for professional guidance, thirst for political payback — and parsimony.

The letters and memos provide a telling glimpse into how Mr. Trump invited an enigmatic international fixer, who is currently under investigation by United States intelligence services, a Senate committee and investigators in Ukraine, to the apex of his campaign with a minimum of vetting. The answer? Through family and friends, handshakes and hyperbole.

Mr. Manafort, who has not been accused of any crimes — and who denies any wrongdoing in his political, business and investment dealings — is nonetheless a central figure in the investigation into the interactions of Trump campaign officials with foreign governments. How he got to know Mr. Trump, and how he rose from overseeing the candidate’s operations at the Republican convention to the entire campaign, is very likely to be a focus during coming Senate hearings about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. [Continue reading…]

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Syria strike gives Trump anti-Kremlin credential

Politico reports: In Russia, they call it kozyrnut’. It means “to play a trump card.”

Donald Trump’s missile strike this week against the Russian-backed Syrian regime not only damaged its chemical weapons program, it also happened to give the U.S. president a useful political tool.

Now, whenever anyone accuses Trump of being too cozy with Russia, he can point to the strike against Syria as evidence that he’s willing to defy the Kremlin: Kozyrnut’.

The missile strike on a Syrian airbase came just days before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is due to visit Moscow, and the implications could be wide-ranging for Trump’s relationship with Russia, which kept its push-back largely rhetorical.

The political side effect, meanwhile, could burnish Trump’s defense against claims he is too close to Russia amid ongoing federal probes into whether Moscow tried to swing the 2016 election his way. [Continue reading…]

Or, as the most truthful purveyor of fake news, The Onion, tells the story: After ordering the first U.S. military attack against the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, President Donald Trump held a press conference Friday to express his full confidence that the airstrike had completely wiped out the lingering Russian scandal. “Based on intelligence we have received over the past several hours, the attack on the al-Shayrat air base in Homs has successfully eliminated all discussions and allegations about my administration’s ties to the Russian government,” said Trump, adding that at approximately 4:40 a.m. local time, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from U.S. naval ships obliterated all traces of the widespread controversy in news outlets across the media. [Continue reading…]

As for Politico’s claim that the missile strikes “damaged [Assad’s] chemical weapons program,” that would be very hard to substantiate on at least two counts. Firstly, given that this is a program that had supposedly already been dismantled, there’s been no indication that outside Syria there’s currently any reliable information on how much of the program was secretly kept in place. And secondly, the choice of the al-Shayrat air base as target for missile strikes appears to have derived solely from intelligence indicating that was the location from which chemical weapons-carrying aircraft took off — not the location at which these weapons were manufactured.

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Trump might be going to war. But he has no plans for establishing peace

Ilan Goldenberg and Nicholas Heras write: President Trump’s decision to launch missile strikes against Syria’s Shayrat airfield after a chemical weapons attack on civilians was an appropriate response to an act of unspeakable horror. Yet as analysts who have argued for greater U.S. military engagement to end the Syrian civil war, we find ourselves conflicted about the president’s decision: We fear there is simply no plan for what comes next.

To succeed beyond Thursday’s limited strikes, American leaders must decide on a clear set of objectives, a realistic desired final outcome, a theory of the case for how to get there and a solid understanding of the risks. We see three potential options for how the president could move forward.

The United States could pursue a limited strategy focused on one-off strikes in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. In that case, the strike on the air base from which this week’s chemical attack was launched will probably be enough. President Bashar al-Assad and his generals will get the message and stop using those types of weapons.

However, Trump may soon find this outcome dissatisfying. The regime will continue to terrorize civilians through airstrikes, artillery and surface-to-surface missiles against densely populated areas. It will continue to employ tactics such as starvation sieges and population transfers to tear communities apart.

Pictures of dead children and “beautiful babies,” as the president remarked, will continue to appear on television. And Assad’s forces and their Russian allies may up the scale of attacks to humiliate Trump and demonstrate the fecklessness of American military force. Thus, the pressure may grow on the United States to respond, and it may be hard for Trump to resist. [Continue reading…]

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Rattled by U.S. strike, Assad lashes out at ‘arrogant aggression’

The Washington Post reports: Just a few days ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad looked like he had little to fear.

After six years of war, his army had penned what remained of Syria’s armed rebellion into shrinking swaths of territory, and European leaders were preparing for a conference that could fund the reconstruction of his war-shattered country.

That sense of security appeared shaken Friday after the U.S. military launched a raft of missile strikes at a Syrian military airfield in retaliation for a chemical attack that killed scores of civilians on Tuesday. The images of lifeless bodies splayed across the ground drew international condemnation and dragged the Syrian army’s tactics back into the spotlight.

“The difference between now and one week ago is that Assad and his backers had reasonably concluded they could fight their war however they wished, with impunity, and that the United States was a nuisance but not a threat,” said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank based in Washington.

The missile strikes, authorized by President Trump, marked a significant escalation of American engagement in Syria, broadening the U.S. role beyond the fight against the Islamic State militant group.

The operation contrasted sharply with the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria’s crushing war, which was characterized by strong rhetoric but little political appetite to back words with force.

“Now, we can say that when the United States takes an official position on an issue . . . in this conflict, its rivals will have to factor that into their plans,” Itani said. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. investigating possible Russian involvement in Syrian gas attack

The Hill reports: The Pentagon is looking into whether Russia participated or assisted in the April 4 chemical attack in Syria, as well as well as an attack on a local hospital, senior U.S. military officials said Friday.

“We have no knowledge of Russian involvement in this attack, but we will investigate any information that might lead us in that direction,” a senior official told reporters during a background briefing at the Pentagon. “We’re not done.”

Officials said a Russian-made drone hovered over the hospital where victims of the chemical attack, which left at least 70 civilians dead and hundreds injured, were being treated. Syrian forces own Russian-made aircraft and drones, making it difficult to determine who controlled the craft.
Five hours later, the drone returned and the hospital was struck by munitions dropped from a separate fixed-wing aircraft.

“We don’t know why somebody or who struck that. We don’t have positive accountability yet, but the fact that somebody would strike the hospital potentially to hide the evidence of a chemical attack, about five hours after, is a question that we’re very interested in,” the official said. [Continue reading…]

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Removing Assad’s capacity to bomb his own people

 

Reuters reports: In her first interview since her stunning presidential election defeat by Republican rival Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton on Thursday called for the United States to bomb Syrian air fields.

Clinton, in an interview at the Women in the World Summit in New York, also called Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election a theft more damaging than Watergate.

Asked whether she now believes that failing to take a tougher stand against Syria was her worst foreign policy mistake as secretary of state under President Barack Obama, Clinton said she favored more aggressive action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“I think we should have been more willing to confront Assad,” Clinton said in the interview, conducted by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

“I really believe we should have and still should take out his air fields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them.”

Clinton noted that she had advocated for a no-fly zone in Syria after leaving government, something that Obama opposed. [Continue reading…]

Following the U.S. missile strikes on a single airfield in Syria, Code Pink, voicing what is no doubt widely-held anti-war sentiment, tweeted: “We need to end the war in #Syria, not escalate it. US intervention will not end this horror. We need a ceasefire and a political solution!”

Bashar al-Assad, on the other hand, this week asserted he sees no “option except victory” in the war.

Assad’s pursuit of victory precludes the possibility of a political solution to the conflict. His ability to pursue that goal has been sustained, with Russia and Iran’s support, by his ability to control the skies over Syria and from there rain down terror (mostly in the form of barrel bombs) on a population that is essentially defenseless from aerial assault.

The demolition of Syria’s airfields — most of them, not just one — far from representing a reckless escalation of the war, should on the contrary be seen as a kind of embargo on the transportation and dropping of bombs.

But don’t innocent people always get killed whenever military action takes place?

Consider last night’s cruise missile strikes: Reuters reports that the Syrian army said the attack killed six people at its air base near the city of Homs.

However, the Pentagon said: “Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line. U.S. military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.”

So why were there any casualties?

The most likely reason is because Syrian commanders wanted to parade a few bodies of their own soldiers as victims of American aggression.

If American restraint actually had the effect of hastening a political solution in Syria, the war would already be over — whatever else can be said about President Obama’s approach to Syria, no one can plausibly argue that it was lacking in restraint.

The question now revolves around the mercurial intentions of his successor who just days ago was offering Assad a free pass to remain in power.

Does Trump fire cruise missiles more carefully than tweets?

I’m willing to assume so, not because I think he’s discovered a new sense of responsibility but mostly because they can’t be launched from his phone.

At this moment at least, Trump is largely following directions and a script — from his national security advisor, Gen. H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary Mattis.

Now more than ever, however, it should be clear what a massive liability is imposed both on America and the rest of the world when the voice of an American president has such little credibility.

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Former Obama administration officials credit Trump for doing what their boss failed to do

Antony J. Blinken, a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, writes: President Donald J. Trump was right to strike at the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using a weapon of mass destruction, the nerve agent sarin, against its own people. Mr. Trump may not want to be “president of the world” but when a tyrant blatantly violates a basic norm of international conduct — in this case, the ban on using chemical or biological weapons in armed conflict, put in place after World War I — the world looks to America to act. Mr. Trump did, and for that he should be commended.

The real test for Mr. Trump is what comes next. He has shown a total disinterest in working to end Syria’s civil war. Now, the administration has leverage it should test with the Assad regime and Russia to restrain Syria’s air force, stop any use of chemical or biological weapons, implement an effective cease-fire in Syria’s civil war and even move toward a negotiated transition of power — goals that eluded the Obama administration.

At the same time, it must prevent or mitigate the possible unintended consequences of using force, including complicating the military campaign against the Islamic State. All this will require something in which the administration has shown little interest: smart diplomacy. [Continue reading…]

Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the Obama administration, writes: Donald Trump is president; he now bears full responsibility for addressing the tragedy in Syria, and for the consequences of the response he has chosen. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reflect on America’s response to the Assad regime’s previous chemical weapons attacks—for how we interpret the difficult and debatable choice the Obama administration (in which I served) made not to use military force when Assad last used nerve gas against his people will shape our thinking about this and similar crises for a long time to come. The lesson I would draw from that experience is that when dealing with mass killing by unconventional or conventional means, deterrence is more effective than disarmament.

After Assad’s horrific 2013 sarin gas attack on civilians, President Obama settled first on deterrence—threatening a punitive military response—then changed course when Assad agreed to disclose and surrender his chemical weapons. There were many reasons for Obama’s decision to forego military action, from his own concerns about the risks of getting involved in Syria’s war to the shameful refusal of most members of Congress to back him up. In any case, the administration and many outside observers argued then that the U.S. had achieved a better outcome by threatening force and then negotiating a deal than if we had actually used force. Air and cruise missile strikes could not have eliminated Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, but the diplomatic deal, proponents argued, did.

That argument was never persuasive to Syrians being killed by the barrel bombs and rockets that the chemical weapons deal allowed Assad to keep using. But even if one accepts that there is something uniquely awful about poison gas, the Syrian regime’s repeated use of chlorine weapons after 2013, and now its apparent reuse of sarin, shows the difficulty of relying on disarmament alone to stop a dictator from killing by all means at his disposal. No disarmament regime is foolproof, and it was always understood that Assad likely hid some elements of his chemical weapons production capacity from inspectors. A state that calculates that using a weapon or tactic of war is in its interest will generally find a way to do so.

The more effective strategy is to establish that the costs of using such a weapon or tactic will outweigh its benefits, even if a state keeps the capacity to do so. [Continue reading…]

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Putin calls U.S. Syria strike aggression, ends airspace pact

Bloomberg reports: Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned American air strikes on Syria in response to an apparent chemical attack as an act of “aggression against a sovereign state” and suspended an agreement with the U.S. to avoid hostile incidents in the skies above its Syrian ally.

The sudden escalation between the two nuclear-armed powers catapulted tensions to the highest level since Donald Trump took office in January. The Kremlin said the U.S. action will cause “considerable damage” to ties between Moscow and Washington. The U.S. said it had worked to minimize the risk of causing Russian casualties in the attack, which killed at least six Syrian servicemen.

The Shayrat Airfield was hit early Friday morning by 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from the USS Porter and USS Ross, two Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea, in what the U.S. said was a limited strike against the airbase from which the suspected chemical attack was launched. [Continue reading…]

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Hillary Clinton says Russia used hacking ‘to great effect’ in her defeat

The New York Times reports: Hillary Clinton left no doubt on Thursday that she believes Russia contributed to her defeat by interfering in the election, condemning what she called Moscow’s “weaponization of information.”

“I didn’t fully understand how impactful that was,” Mrs. Clinton said at a women’s conference in New York. She said she was convinced that intrusions into Democratic Party leaders’ emails were carried out by Russian hackers under orders from President Vladimir V. Putin and aided by so-called online trolls and social media bots to spread disinformation.

“It is something that Putin has used inside Russia, outside Russia to great effect,” Mrs. Clinton said, and she called for an independent investigation into Russian involvement.

“I’m hopeful that the Congress will pull together and realize that because of the success the Kremlin feels it’s had they’re not going to go away,” Mrs. Clinton said. “So whatever party you are, whatever business you run, whatever concerns you have, if we don’t take action together to hold whoever was involved accountable, they will be back time and time again.” [Continue reading…]

 

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Trump team gets on warpath with Syria

The Daily Beast reports: President Donald Trump said Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad might have to step down, as his defense officials spent Thursday discussing possible military options to punish the dictator for a suspected sarin gas attack this week against his own people.

“What Assad did is terrible,” Trump told reporters on a plane flight to Mar-a-Lago for meetings with the Chinese premier. “What happened in Syria is truly one of the egregious crimes and…it shouldn’t be allowed to happen.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said steps are already underway for organizing an international coalition to remove Assad.

“Assad’s role in the future is uncertain, clearly, and with the acts that he has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people,” Tillerson said at a Palm Beach, Florida news conference a week after hinting the U.S. could tolerate Assad staying in power. “The process by which Assad would leave is something that I think requires an international community effort—both to first defeat ISIS within Syria, to stabilize the Syrian country, to avoid further civil war, and then to work collectively with our partners around the world through a political process that would lead to Assad leaving.” [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon ‘presenting options’ for military action in Syria

BuzzFeed reports: The military options range from striking the Syrian air force to targeting specific Syrian military targets. The Pentagon on Thursday afternoon was presenting options through a series of exchanges with the White House, rather than through formal meetings.

US radar showed Syrian aircraft in the area at the time of the chemical attack. Tuesday’s strike was believed to have been launched from Syria’s Al-Shayrat air base in Homs, a senior regional security official told BuzzFeed News.

A network of local monitors who track air strikes in Syria reached the same conclusion. According to an internal report by the group — which tracks fighter jets from takeoff to attack around the country, in order to provide civilians with advance warning of air strikes — the Syrian jets left Shayrat just before 6:30am and were then seen circling Khan Sheikhun before the attack. The name of the group is being withheld to protect the safety of its monitors.

Shayrat is a joint Russian-Syrian base that may include members of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to Jenny Cafarella, a Syria analyst for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

At present, the US military is debating whether to conduct such strikes with warships nearby or aircraft and drones in the air. BuzzFeed News witnessed several members of the Joint Chiefs — including Chief Naval Officer Adm. John Richardson and Chief of Staff of the Army Mark Milley — gathering in Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford’s office on Thursday afternoon.

The US goal, it appears, is to signal to the regime that using sarin gas on civilians, as it is suspected of doing in Idlib on Tuesday, will not be tolerated, but stop short of military action that could lead to further escalation. [Continue reading…]

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Russia: Syria gas attack victims faked it

Michael Weiss writes: Between 69 and 100 people have died so far, and hundreds more are still suffering from being poisoned, or from the follow-up airstrike on a nearby hospital that was treating them from being poisoned. As the bodies pile up, so too do the Kremlin conspiracy theories for whodunnit or whether or not this atrocity was even done at all.

Maria Zakharova, the foreign ministry’s new spokesperson, has taken a leaf from her predecessor’s playbook. On Wednesday, she intimated that despite a U.S., EU assessment that around 60 people were gassed by the regime from the air using sarin—a nerve agent Assad has previously admitted to have stockpiled—the whole ordeal was an elaborate bit of playacting.

In a press conference, Zakharova darkly commented on the “too-calm behavior of the representatives of this organization under emergency conditions,” by which she meant the White Helmets, an internationally funded and trained group of first-responders who often pull victims from the rubble of Russian, Syria and American bombing raids. Her government has vilified them as being either agents of regime change, al-Qaeda or both. Though her characterization of the rescue workers’ composure is at odds with press accounts describing how some “grew ill and collapsed from proximity to the dead.” But then, this is a woman who previously said that Donald Trump won the presidency because American Jews decided the election.

Speaking of Trump, one of his allies in the tin-hatted corner of the internet, the conspiracy site InfoWars, ran several articles and segments on Wednesday calling the atrocity a “false flag attack.” One article said the attack hadn’t been carried out by Assad but by the White Helmets, which InfoWars labeled as a “an al-Qaeda affiliated group funded by George Soros and the British government.” [Continue reading…]

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CIA had evidence of Russian effort to help Trump earlier than believed

The New York Times reports: The C.I.A. told senior lawmakers in classified briefings last summer that it had information indicating that Russia was working to help elect Donald J. Trump president, a finding that did not emerge publicly until after Mr. Trump’s victory months later, former government officials say.

The briefings indicate that intelligence officials had evidence of Russia’s intentions to help Mr. Trump much earlier in the presidential campaign than previously thought. The briefings also reveal a critical split last summer between the C.I.A. and counterparts at the F.B.I., where a number of senior officials continued to believe through last fall that Russia’s cyberattacks were aimed only at disrupting America’s political system, and not at getting Mr. Trump elected, according to interviews.

The former officials said that in late August — 10 weeks before the election — John O. Brennan, then the C.I.A. director, was so concerned about increasing evidence of Russia’s election meddling that he began a series of urgent, individual briefings for eight top members of Congress, some of them on secure phone lines while they were on their summer break. [Continue reading…]

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