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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Trump’s Article 5 omission was an attack against all of NATO

Julie Smith writes: When President Trump spoke to NATO members for the first time on Thursday he failed to say the one thing Europeans were waiting to hear. He never mentioned America’s unwavering commitment to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all. Twitter erupted in a storm of outrage and, for at least a few hours, #NATO was trending. Sean Spicer, responding to the criticism, stressed that even though the president didn’t say it outright, he is “fully committed” to NATO and Article 5.

Spicer’s logic? Trump’s mere presence at the dedication ceremony at the new NATO HQ was evidence enough. For folks that don’t track NATO issues on a day-to-day basis (and that’s most people), the president’s omission may not seem like a big deal. But Trump’s refusal to repeat what so many members of his own Cabinet have already stated — including his vice president — was a significant blow to the transatlantic relationship and could have lasting consequences.

Why were Europeans so eager to hear Trump utter the words “Article 5”? It was just last summer when Trump, in an interview with the New York Times, alluded to the fact that the United States could make its commitment to Article 5 conditional on whether the country in question was spending enough on defense. That sent a shiver down the spines of many NATO allies as they imagined calling Washington in a crisis — only to be asked first asked whether they had met the 2 percent target. (For many, the answer would be no.) Throughout the campaign, Trump also called the alliance “obsolete” (before he said it was “no longer” obsolete) and has repeatedly claimed — falsely — that NATO allies owe the United States vast sums of money. [Continue reading…]

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‘They kill defenceless people’: thousands flee Philippine city of Marawi

The Guardian reports: The CCTV monitor was showing a live feed of gunmen in the hospital lobby. From the safety of another floor, Jan Yamit, a 23-year-old health worker, watched in horror as the militants shot a police officer and then a security guard before storming into the building.

“I can’t explain what I was feeling. I was nervous. I am pissed by those kinds of people. They kill defenceless people,” he said of the attack in Marawi, a city on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

He and his brother, who worked as a lift operator in the building, sneaked from one room to another. Eventually, they found a wooden plank and made a bridge from the third floor to a neighbouring building.

“Those who were killed were Christians,” he said.

The attack on Marawi, a mainly Muslim city of 200,000 people, by the Islamic State-linked Maute group this week has led to a fierce three-day battle, with the army deploying attack helicopters and special forces.

At least 46 people – 15 members of the security forces and 31 militants – have been killed. On Friday, the Maute held its positions on bridges and remained hidden in buildings, despite heavy overnight artillery and airstrikes.

The Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, who cut short a foreign visit to Russia, has imposed martial law in Mindanao and promised bloodshed. “If there’s an open defiance, you will die,” he said on Wednesday. “And if it means many people dying, so be it.” [Continue reading…]

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Coptic Christians: ISIS’s ‘favorite prey’

Samuel Tadros writes: “At this rate Copts will be extinct in 100 years. They will die, leave, convert or get killed,” a friend wrote on Facebook as news broke of the latest bloody attack on Egypt’s Coptic Christians. Less than two months ago, while attending church in Cairo on Palm Sunday, my friend told me she’d mused to herself that it was a blessing her daughter wasn’t with her: If there was a bombing, at least her child would survive. Forty-five Copts were murdered that day by the Islamic State in churches in Alexandria and Tanta. Such are the thoughts of Coptic parents in Egypt these days.

The terrorists chose today’s target well. The Monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor, which I visited a decade ago, is very hard to reach. One hundred and ten miles on the Cairo Luxor desert road, you make a right-hand turn and for the next 17 miles drive on an unpaved road. The single lane forces cars to drive slowly, and, as the only route leading to the monastery, the victims were guaranteed to be Copts. Friday is a day off in Egypt, and church groups regularly take trips there. Outside of a few policemen stationed out front, there is little security presence.

The terrorists waited on the road like game hunters. Coming their way were three buses, one with Sunday school children. Only three of them survived. Their victims were asked to recite the Islamic declaration of faith before being shot.

In the past few months, the Islamic State has made its intentions toward Copts well known. “Our favorite prey” they called my co-religionists in a February video. Their barbaric attacks have left more than 100 Copts dead in the last few months alone. The Northern Sinai is now “Christianfrei,” or free of Christians. [Continue reading…]

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How alleged Russian hacker, ‘Guccifer 2.0,’ teamed up with Florida GOP operative and funneled data to Trump campaign

The Wall Street Journal reports: The hacking spree that upended the presidential election wasn’t limited to Democratic National Committee memos and Clinton-aide emails posted on websites. The hacker also privately sent Democratic voter-turnout analyses to a Republican political operative in Florida named Aaron Nevins.

Learning that hacker “Guccifer 2.0” had tapped into a Democratic committee that helps House candidates, Mr. Nevins wrote to the hacker to say: “Feel free to send any Florida based information.”

Ten days later, Mr. Nevins received 2.5 gigabytes of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee documents, some of which he posted on a blog called HelloFLA.com that he ran using a pseudonym.

Soon after, the hacker sent a link to the blog article to Roger Stone, a longtime informal adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump, along with Mr. Nevins’ analysis of the hacked data.

Mr. Nevins confirmed his exchanges after The Wall Street Journal identified him first as the operator of the HelloFLA blog and then as the recipient of the stolen DCCC data. The Journal also reviewed copies of exchanges between the hacker and Mr. Nevins. That the obscure blog had received hacked Democratic documents was previously known, but not the extent of the trove or the blogger’s identity.

In hopes of a scoop, he said, he reached out to Guccifer 2.0 on Aug. 12 after seeing a newspaper article about a hack of the DCCC. The hacker using the Guccifer 2.0 name had invited journalists to send questions via Twitter direct messages, which Mr. Nevins did.

Seeing that some of what Guccifer 2.0 had was months old, Mr. Nevins advised the hacker that releasing fresher documents would have a lot more impact.

More impressed after studying the voter-turnout models, Mr. Nevins told the hacker, “Basically if this was a war, this is the map to where all the troops are deployed.” [Continue reading…]

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Federal appeals court rules Trump’s Muslim ban ‘drips with religious intolerance, animus and discrimination’

The New York Times reports: Describing President Trump’s revised travel ban as intolerant and discriminatory, a federal appeals court on Thursday rejected government efforts to limit travel to the United States from six predominantly Muslim nations. Attorney General Jeff Sessions quickly vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court.

The decision was the first from a federal appeals court on the revised travel ban, which was an effort to make good on a campaign centerpiece of the president’s national security agenda. It echoed earlier skepticism by lower federal courts about the legal underpinnings for Mr. Trump’s executive order, which sought to halt travelers for up to 90 days while the government imposed stricter vetting processes.

The revised order, issued on March 6, “speaks with vague words of national security, but in context drips with religious intolerance, animus and discrimination,” the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., concluded in its 205-page ruling.

The White House derided the court decision as a danger to the nation’s security. And Mr. Sessions, in pledging to appeal to the nation’s highest court, said the government “will continue to vigorously defend the power and duty of the executive branch to protect the people of this country from danger.” [Continue reading…]

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Greg Gianforte’s victory in Montana hands Republican party a fresh liability

The Guardian reports: Donald Trump will doubtless be gratified that Greg Gianforte won the special election in Montana. Paul Ryan, the House Speaker, might secretly have been hoping that he lost.

Gianforte was charged on Wednesday night with assaulting Ben Jacobs, a Guardian reporter attempting to interview him. If he had gone on to lose, House Republicans could have dismissed him as a candidate gone rogue and cautioned against reading too much into the result on a national level.

As it is, the party will now have to decide whether to embrace, accommodate or ostracise a man who made himself the personification of Trump’s media-baiting, violence-inciting campaign rhetoric. The legal saga will put a dark cloud over him and his movements on Capitol Hill are likely to receive outsized and negative coverage. In short, he is a liability adding to Ryan’s already considerable burden.

“This is going to be another of those moral tests for the Republican party,” said Charlie Sykes, a conservative author and commentator. “It should be an easy one for them to say there is no place for violence against reporters.”

In normal politics, Skyes added, the incident would have been universally condemned. But, since the ascent of Trump, the compass has moved. “It’s hard to overstate the cynicism we’ve seen from Republicans in Washington who will stop at nothing when votes are involved. How far down the road are Republicans willing to go?” [Continue reading…]

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Jared Kushner now a focus in Russia investigation

The Washington Post reports: Investigators are focusing on a series of meetings held by Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and an influential White House adviser, as part of their probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and related matters, according to people familiar with the investigation.

Kushner, who held meetings in December with the Russian ambassador and a banker from Moscow, is being investigated because of the extent and nature of his interactions with the Russians, the people said.

The Washington Post reported last week that a senior White House official close to the president was a significant focus of the high-stakes investigation, though it did not name Kushner.

FBI agents also remain keenly interested in former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, but Kushner is the only current White House official known to be considered a key person in the probe. [Continue reading…]

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Trump becomes first president to fail to reaffirm U.S. commitment to collective defense in NATO

At the NATO summit in Brussels, Trump pushed aside Duško Marković, the prime minister of Montenegro:


But France’s newly elected president, Emmanuel Macron, demonstrated that it is actually possible to make Trump wait his turn and not come first.

 

CNN reports: When President Donald Trump lectured NATO members on their contributions to the trans-Atlantic alliance, he demonstrated a lack of understanding about how the group works and potentially alienated the US’ closest allies, analysts said.

The speech comes at a time when Washington’s longstanding partnerships with the UK and Israel have endured friction over intelligence gaffes by the new administration.

“Diplomatically, the speech was inept at best and deliberately insulting at worst,” said Jeff Rathke, deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Trump’s remarks Thursday, alongside his continued misrepresentation of how the alliance works and his failure to reaffirm US commitment to the group, is likely to further unsettle US allies, sowing doubt about US leadership and possibly making it harder for NATO leaders to convince their people of the need to spend more on defense.

Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO, said that “this was a perfectly scripted event to deliver a very simple message that every president of the United States has delivered at the first possible opportunity, which is that the United States stands firmly behind its commitment to the defense of NATO.”

“We signed a treaty, we uphold it. It was really easy,” Daalder said. “And the fact that he didn’t do it was disturbing and will take a long time to overcome in Europe.”

Trump was making his first visit to the alliance in Brussels, where leaders had carefully scripted his visit, unveiling a memorial to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to mark the only time NATO has invoked Article 5, which holds that all members will defend any one of them that’s attacked.

The NATO-led alliance that came to the United States’ aid in Afghanistan and Iraq sent more than 3,000 soldiers home in body bags.

Against this backdrop, the President accused NATO allies of shortchanging US taxpayers by not meeting the shared target of spending 2% of GDP on defense — a misunderstanding of how the funding system works.

Trump also scored a damaging first, according to Nick Burns, a former US ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush, by becoming the first president since the group’s founding to fail to reaffirm the US commitment to collective defense, the principle that glues the alliance together. [Continue reading…]

 

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‘Anyone . . . with a pulse’: How a Russia-friendly adviser found his way into the Trump campaign

The Washington Post reports: As Donald Trump surged in the Republican primary polls in the early months of 2016, his outsider campaign faced growing pressure to show that the former reality-TV star and noted provocateur was forming a coherent and credible world view.

So when Carter Page, an international businessman with an office near Trump Tower, turned up at campaign headquarters, former officials recall, Trump aides were quick to make him feel welcome.

A top Trump adviser, Sam Clovis, employed what campaign aides now acknowledge was their go-to vetting process — a quick Google search — to check out the newcomer. He seemed to have the right qualifications, according to former campaign officials — head of an energy investment firm, business degree from New York University, doctorate from the University of London.

Page was in. He joined a new Trump campaign national security advisory group, and, in late March 2016, the candidate pointed to Page, among others, as evidence of a foreign policy team with gravitas.

But what the Google search had not shown was that Page had been on the FBI’s radar since at least 2013, when Russian officials allegedly attempted to use him to get information about the energy business.

By the summer of 2016, Page, who had been recently named as a Trump adviser, was under surveillance by FBI agents who suspected he may have been acting as an agent of the Kremlin. [Continue reading…]

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Lieberman withdraws from consideration as FBI director

The New York Times reports: Former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, once President Trump’s preferred candidate for F.B.I. director, has withdrawn his name from consideration, citing his law firm’s central role in Mr. Trump’s legal defense team.

Mr. Lieberman, who has no federal law enforcement experience, said it was a “great honor” to be considered but pulled out after the president tapped Marc E. Kasowitz, a partner in the Manhattan firm that employs Mr. Lieberman, as his counsel in “various” investigations.

“I do believe it would be best to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest, given my role as senior counsel,” Mr. Lieberman, who was Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, wrote in a letter to the White House dated Wednesday and provided by his firm, Kasowitz Benson Torres.

Mr. Lieberman is the latest of several candidates to take themselves out of consideration, including Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, and Alice Fisher, a former Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration. [Continue reading…]

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Iraqi troops torture and execute civilians in secret videos

ABC News reports: Officers of an elite Iraqi special forces unit, praised by U.S. military commanders earlier this year for its role in fighting ISIS, directed the torture and execution of civilians in Mosul in at least six distinct incidents caught on tape.

“That’s a murder,” retired Green Beret Lt. Col. Scott Mann told ABC News after reviewing the graphic footage. “There should be punishment for anyone doing it. It’s reprehensible and it shouldn’t be allowed on any modern battlefield.”

The alarming footage was smuggled out of Iraq by a prize-winning Iraqi photojournalist, Ali Arkady, who spent months embedded in combat with the elite Iraqi troops leading the fight against ISIS late last year. Since turning over his cache of photos and videos to ABC News, he says he has received death threats from the soldiers he once considered friends and has now fled Iraq to seek asylum in Europe. [Continue reading…]

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Jupiter is much stranger than scientists thought

The Atlantic reports: About every eight weeks, hundreds of millions of miles away, a basketball court-sized spacecraft named Juno swoops toward Jupiter. For a few hours, Juno loops around the planet’s poles at high speed, sometimes getting within 2,100 miles of its atmosphere. It surveys Jupiter’s swirling, opaque cloud tops, and then gets flung out to the other edge of its orbit, beyond Callisto, the planet’s cratered moon.

Jupiter is surrounded by a massive magnetic field that produces belts of radiation capable of frying Juno if it wasn’t wearing 400 pounds of protective titanium. The poles are a haven from the strongest radiation, and it’s there that Juno can aim its various scientific instruments at Jupiter’s cloud cover and collect data.

These flybys, which began when Juno entered Jupiter’s orbit last summer, have produced some stunning photographs of the gas giant’s polar regions, unlike the typical views published in textbooks over the years. They have also provided plenty of useful observations for scientists around the world, the first of which were published Thursday, in multiple studies in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters.

At Jupiter’s poles, Juno has observed oval-shaped features, powerful cyclones which measure up to nearly 900 miles wide, according to one of the studies in Science. The finding isn’t surprising, given how good Jupiter is at producing storms. The planet is home to winds blowing at several hundred miles per hour, and storms the size of Earth. But scientists hadn’t observed storms like this at Jupiter’s poles until Juno showed up. They were surprised by the number of cyclonic storms they observed, as well as the differences in the weather patterns on the south and north poles. [Continue reading…]

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