Friday, April 7, 2017

"Trump Was Right to Strike Syria. The crucial question is what comes next." - by Nick Kristof - NYT | Apart from Russia and Iran, the entire world applauded the military operation carried out by the U.S. against the Syrian regime... | Donald Trump’s welcome show of US global leadership - by Nicholas Burns | Syrians hail Donald Trump as their new champion: Abu Ivanka al-Amriki | M.N.: "Divide and conquer" - always works. | “I now have responsibility, and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly, I will tell you that,” the president said of Syria on Wednesday. “It is now my responsibility.” | Downsizing Mr. Bannon - NYT Editorial - Trump News and Investigations Updates - 4.7.17

Trump News and Investigations Updates - 4.7.17 




"Syria is a spectacular country redolent with history, and inhabited by a normally warm and hospitable people. Yet Obama’s well-meant caution has allowed Syria’s downward spiral to turn it into a symbol of brutality and suffering that has also aggravated the Sunni-Shia schism all over the world.

Because there was no good option on any given day, we always chose to do little or nothing. The result was that more than 300,000 people were killed, vast numbers were tortured and raped, almost five million refugees fled Syria and destabilized other countries, ISIS sowed terrorism worldwide, and genocides unfolded against the Yazidi and Christian communities in Syria and Iraq.

For all the legitimate concerns about the risks ahead, now again we just might have a window to curb the bloodshed in Syria. I’m glad Trump took the important first step of holding Assad accountable for using chemical weapons. But it’s all going to depend now on whether Trump, who so far has been a master of incompetence, can manage the far more difficult challenge of using war to midwife peace."




Apart from Russia and Iran, the entire world applauded the military operation carried out by the U.S. against the Syrian regime 

early on April 7 in retaliation against the latter’s chemical attack near Idlib, which killed dozens of civilians including children. 

U.S. President Donald Trump made clear that such inhumane attacks will not be left unpunished and implied that he would not hesitate to give similar orders to the army after future chemical or biological attacks. 

Like the rest of the world and members of the U.S.-led international coalition fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Turkey also welcomed the action taken by the Trump administration, while repeating demands for more. 


Donald Trump’s welcome show of US global leadership


by: 
In his most consequential national security decision to date, President Donald Trump was right to order US air strikes against the Syrian air force on Friday morning. President Bashar al-Assad’s repeated chemical weapons attacks against his civilian population called for a forceful international response. By ordering a targeted cruise missile strike, Mr Trump sent an unmistakable warning to Mr Assad that any further assaults against defenceless civilians will not be tolerated.
The most surprising aspect of this military action by the new president was its speed. Ordinarily, American leaders would have taken considerable time to assess the risky trade-offs in deploying military force in such a difficult and dangerous environment. Mr Trump’s rapid fire attacks were surely meant to send a signal well beyond Damascus to Iran and Middle East terrorist groups that he will act quickly to defend US interests when provoked.
The strikes were also a warning to Russia that it no longer has sole sway over events in Syria. And Mr Trump’s guest at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, President Xi Jinping of China, undoubtedly now understands that the US president believes he has options in reining in the dangerous and unpredictable North Korean regime. During the 2016 election campaign Mr Trump insisted that he would return strength and decisiveness to American global leadership. The Syria strikes are the first demonstration of that resolve.
The US administration has hinted, however, that the attack was a singular event and does not presage a wider US military involvement in Syria’s brutal civil war. Still, Mr Trump will now be expected to articulate a more detailed strategy for how the US intends to help stem the violence and bloodshed that have left more than half a million Syrians dead and millions more homeless in the world’s most tragic humanitarian conflict. This is a far more demanding calculus for an administration focused to date solely on combating Isis rather than the Assad government.
The options available are all daunting, making Syria one of the most truly complicated issues on the global agenda. President Barack Obama concluded that the risks of action in the mosh pit of Syria’s tangled civil war were far greater than those of doing nothing.
Turkey is pressing the US to join in establishing safe zones and a no-flight zone along its border with Syria to protect civilians and keep rival militias at bay. Mr Trump expressed interest recently in just this idea, but it would be extraordinarily difficult to pull off. Doing so could also put the US president on a collision course with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Russia’s forces, along with Iran and the Syrian army, are the strongest inside the war-ravaged country.
The US, Turkey and local militias would need to carve out a zone inside Syria that they could control and use to repel both the Assad army and terrorist groups such as Isis and the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. It would require a sizeable presence of US and other ground forces as well as a permanent presence of air power to patrol an already crowded, dangerous airspace. Mr Trump’s most difficult task would be to convince a sceptical Congress and American public while memories of the tortuous Iraq war are still vivid.
Alternatively, the US could launch a diplomatic challenge to Mr Assad, Russia and Iran to commit to a serious negotiation with rebel groups about a ceasefire in war-torn Idlib province and eventual talks to end the war itself. This is the Mount Everest of international politics and would require months if not years of patient, painstaking, complex diplomacy. Does Mr Trump have the grit and patience for such an effort?
The most direct way the president could help Syria’s besieged population would be to open America’s doors to Syrian refugees. In every previous refugee crisis since the second world war, the US has taken in half the total refugees to be resettled. Mr Trump’s determination to prevent a single Syrian refugee from entering the US is now called into question by his air strikes. The US can no longer easily stand by and do nothing while Syrians are trapped in desperate refugee camps. If Mr Trump continues to ban all refugees, he will be rightly accused of hypocrisy by the Syrian people and Europeans who have welcomed more than a million refugees.
The Syria strikes have also taught us much about Mr Trump as Commander-in-Chief. His decisive action has restored some of America’s lost credibility in a violent, unstable Middle East. It is an early sign of his inner convictions.
But, the astonishing quickness with which he shifted course this week also illustrates the brash and impulsive side of his character. This was a relatively straightforward mission that earned the support of European and Arab leaders. Yet Mr Trump’s penchant to shoot from the hip and pay scant attention to details and the law of unintended consequences in wartime could also spell trouble ahead. It could even lead to disaster in a future crisis with a more powerful adversary such as North Korea.
Lest the initial plaudits of his Syria strike mislead him, Mr Trump would do well to tread carefully as he traverses the Middle East and global minefields ahead.
The writer is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a former US under­secretary of state
_______________________________





The president’s aides described a deliberative process with meetings of the National Security Council, military options presented by the Pentagon and a classified briefing for Mr. Trump held under a tent erected in Mar-a-Lago to secure the communications with Washington. They spoke of phone calls to American allies, consultations with lawmakers, and the diplomatic engagement that would follow the Tomahawk cruise missiles.
What is clear, however, is that Mr. Trump reacted viscerally to the images of the death of innocent children in Syria. And that reaction propelled him into a sequence of actions that will change the course of his presidency. Mr. Trump’s improvisational style has sometimes seemed ill-suited to the gravity of his office. In this case, it helped lead him to make the gravest decision a commander-in-chief can make.
“I now have responsibility, and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly, I will tell you that,” the president said of Syria on Wednesday. “It is now my responsibility.


M.N.: "Divide and conquer" - always works.

“This president’s method of managing is by him personally curating points of views from a diverse group of people in whom he has some trust and credibility,” said Thomas Barrack Jr., a longtime friend of Mr. Trump who led his inaugural festivities. “And he very rarely accepts one course of action or one suggestion without laundering it amongst all of them. And what happens in that process is confusion amongst those from whom he’s seeking advice. What works for him is that, out of that milieu, his instincts take him to the right answer.”
... 
The wrestling match has spilled over into public view as each camp seeks reinforcements among news media and conservative figures. Roger J. Stone Jr., an on-and-off adviser to Mr. Trump for 30 years, accused Mr. Kushner of planting negative views of Mr. Bannon on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” a show the president is known to watch.



"Mr. Bannon still has his security clearance, still has Mr. Trump’s ear and still apparently is running a policy shop that is viewed as a competitor to the council. Among those working for Mr. Bannon is Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism adviser and founder of an extreme right-wing party in Hungary in 2007; The Forward has published articles saying that Mr. Gorka publicly supported a violent, racist and anti-Semitic paramilitary militia that was later banned as a threat to minorities by multiple court rulings. If such charges are true, Mr. Gorka obviously should not be working for the White House.


And the president’s messages have been confusing on Russia, China, North Korea and especially on Syria. Mr. Bannon’s departure gives General McMaster an opening to bring more professional discipline to policy making. Mr. Trump should help him do so."

Downsizing Mr. Bannon - The New York Times

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President Trump’s decision to remove Stephen Bannon, his chief political adviser, from his post as a principal on the National Security Council has led to no end of speculation in Washington, some of it inspired by Mr. Bannon’s rivals in the White House, that this is the beginning of the end of Mr. Bannon’s outsize influence and payback for his role in the administration’s early missteps. But whatever the fallout bureaucratically, on a substantive level the move was a welcome course correction, removing a contentious and extremist political voice from a vitally important policy-making body and thus making it more likely that people with actual expertise will help an inexperienced president make tough choices. That need was driven home as reports came in that the administration had ordered air strikes in Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons.
No presidential adviser in recent memory had so brazenly tried to consolidate power as Mr. Bannon, who moved quickly to establish himself not just as Mr. Trump’s Svengali, but as a kind of de facto president. One sign was an executive order, framed by Mr. Bannon, and issued after the inauguration, that named him to the council’s principals committee, which includes the vice president, secretaries of state and defense and other top officials. It is the primary policy-making body that decides national security questions that do not rise to the level of the president, and it frames the debate over matters that do.
Previous presidents have decided that such decisions should be separate from politics; Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s chief political adviser, was barred from council meetings. Mr. Bannon’s appointment was thus widely condemned, not only because he was a political adviser but also because he was a particularly combative one. Mr. Trump, angry he was not warned about the implications of the appointment, briefly considered rescinding it immediately, then did not, fearing even more furor.
The new order has to be seen as a victory for Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the new national security adviser and a respected professional who reportedly insisted on purging Mr. Bannon in an effort to ensure that profound decisions about the country’s security are made without regard to political calculation.
Mr. Trump’s order also corrected another error in the original directive, restoring the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence to the committee. The committee membership has been expanded, and will now include the energy secretary, the C.I.A. director and the United Nations ambassador.
Mr. Bannon, aided by Breitbart News, the alt-right platform he brought to prominence, has tried to spin his removal as a natural evolution in the administration’s governance strategy. He says he was put on the committee to watch over Michael Flynn, Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser, and that with Mr. Flynn out of the picture, his presence was no longer required. Yet if the White House leak machine is to be believed, his influence was already in decline and he had lost favor with other advisers, including Mr. Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, who have been embarrassed by big defeats on important issues like health care and immigration that Mr. Bannon has had a hand in.
Mr. Bannon still has his security clearance, still has Mr. Trump’s ear and still apparently is running a policy shop that is viewed as a competitor to the council. Among those working for Mr. Bannon is Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism adviser and founder of an extreme right-wing party in Hungary in 2007; The Forward has published articles saying that Mr. Gorka publicly supported a violent, racist and anti-Semitic paramilitary militia that was later banned as a threat to minorities by multiple court rulings. If such charges are true, Mr. Gorka obviously should not be working for the White House.
And the president’s messages have been confusing on Russia, China, North Korea and especially on Syria. Mr. Bannon’s departure gives General McMaster an opening to bring more professional discipline to policy making. Mr. Trump should help him do so.
Read the whole story

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Germany and the nuclear weapons: M.N.: Germany uses the pretenses of "Trump's withdrawal" and the "dangers of Putin's aggression" to open the discussions about "going nuclear". It confirms, in my opinion, the German part of the "Gang of Four" hypothesis, namely the role of the German Intelligence in the "Trump affair". In fact, this is the attempt to justify the German revanchism and Germany's 70+ years old itch to acquire the nuclear weapons.

M.N.: This article, presenting the arguments for Germany "to go nuclear" due to "Trump's withdrawal from NATO" and the "dangers of Putin's aggression", confirms, in my opinion, the German part of the "Gang of Four" hypothesis, namely the role of the German Intelligence in the "Trump affair". 

In fact, this is the attempt to justify the German revanchism and Germany's 70+ years old itch to acquire the nuclear weapons. This reveals their motivation at interference in the U.S. 2016 Presidential Elections, and their skillful and deeply concealed and masked manipulations, (diverting the suspicions and the responsibility, and shifting the blame to Russia - and doing so demonstratively, ostentatiously, deliberately; thus driving a wedge between the two old allies in the WW2: Russia and the U.S.), in addition to their design to demonstrate the Germany's "leading moral role and status" as the "protector" of the human rights in Europe and the world, especially when compared with the "aggressive Russia" and the "decadent, dysfunctional, dictatorial" America under Trump. 

Quite a twist: a mixture of the utter moral hypocrisy and the suppressed, pent-up rage at their old defeats and the potential aggressive tendencies of the "great economic power", claiming its "natural rights". 

Michael Novakhov 

Last Update: 4.7.17

Putin Trump - Google News
If Germany Goes Nuclear, Blame Trump Before Putin - Foreign Policy (blog)
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Donald Trump has put Germany’s security at risk. 

His campaign trail claim that NATO was “obsolete” eroded the alliance’s most important resource — its credibility. But his repetition of the same comments as U.S. president has been a five-alarm fire for German strategists and for anyone else who cares about the future of Europe.
NATO is not just the world’s most powerful and long-standing military alliance, which has successfully deterred the potential enemies of its members for seven decades. It is a guarantor of Germany’s national security and a precondition of its continued existence as a politically independent state in Europe. And nobody disputes that NATO’s backbone is the United States’ superior and vast military capacities. They protected Germany against Soviet aggression during the Cold War and have deterred revisionist Russia’s repeated demonstrations of force over the last decade. And at the core of this deterrent are nuclear weapons, many of them stationed in Germany itself.

That leaves Germany with a very serious debate ahead: whether to continue relying on a United States that is now committed to signaling its unreliability or to begin pursuing its own nuclear deterrent — either on its own or as part of a new European security structure. 

Rudolph Herzog’s recent Foreign Policy article presented a simple view of this argument, where proponents of the idea, such as myself, were represented as adventurous cowboys blind to the lessons of history. But the debate is far more complicated, and more critical, than Herzog portrayed. This is a debate triggered not by indulgent fantasies but by the potential of a strategic vacuum at the heart of the continent.
The withdrawal of this security guarantee, as repeatedly suggested by Trump (to the delight, or perhaps at the prompting, of Vladimir Putin), would expose Germany and its neighbors to an increasingly revisionist and aggressive Russia, intent to redress the collapse of the Soviet Union that cost Russia its imperial possessions in Eastern Europe. We can’t be blind to the signs of Russian aggression. Look at the fate of Crimea in 2014, annexed by Russia in a fit of pique at Ukraine’s refusal to be a vassal state, or the Russian nuclear weapons in the exclave of Kaliningrad (the former Königsberg) now pointing at German targets.
Russia is unlikely to invade Germany itself. But if the power balance swings in favor of Russia and against Western Europe, that leaves small states like the Baltics in danger from Putin’s revanchist ambitions. With the whip hand in Eastern Europe, Putin would be able to pressure or frighten Western Europe into accepting his authoritarian view of the world. Smaller states would swing toward the Russian side, leaving Germany dangerously exposed.

For both moral and realist reasons, Germany needs to shield Eastern Europe against Trump — and nuclear weapons are the only way to guarantee its neighbors independence.

Putin is one tweetstorm by Trump away from having the conventional and strategic military upper hand in Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel cannot sustain her sanctions regime, backed by the EU, if the United States retreats from Europe, precisely because Putin knows that her very effective use of economic power ultimately rests on American military power standing at the ready in the background. But if NATO goes, the weakness of German and European diplomacy, faced with a revisionist great power, becomes conspicuously clear.

If this really were to happen, German nuclear weapons would be the most powerful way to compensate for the American withdrawal and the best means to even out the military imbalance that Trump would have created in Russia’s favor. 

The inherent terror of nuclear weapons means even a relatively small German program could be a mighty deterrent against Russia’s 7,000 nuclear warheads.
In his piece, Herzog argues that nuclear weapons go against Germany’s post-World War II efforts to act as a global moral leader. But Germany’s European neighbors don’t want lecturing but a

more engaged and militarily active Germany

The Baltic states openly demanded German panzer battalions during the Crimean crisis. Even the powerful conservative Polish politician Jaroslaw Kaczynski, formerly an outspoken Germanophobe, publicly welcomed the idea of a German-driven “European nuclear superpower” in February.
World War II has no real political weight in today’s relations between Germany and its eastern (and western) neighbors anymore. Rather, today’s perception of the Russian-driven security dilemma in Eastern Europe determines the views of the Eastern European countries whose courage helped bring down Soviet oppression in the late 1980s. Central and Eastern Europe share this perception of threat from Russia, and, as Kaczynski indicated, this means

nuclear power projection on the part of Berlin would be accepted as legitimate. 

We might ask why the Germans don’t figure something out with the British and the French, both of whom already own nuclear weapons. But the U.K.’s and France’s nuclear stockpiles are partly outdated, too small, and largely tactical (i.e., short-range). And, critically, would the two countries really step in and shield Germany and Eastern Europe against a Russian attack? Extended deterrence is a fine thing — as long as it works when push comes to shove. The question that the U.K. and France would most likely ask themselves in such a scenario is why not stay out and make peace with Russia, rather than risk war for the sake of interests in Eastern Europe that they see as distant from their own concerns. Such a self-protective reaction would be understandable (and predictable).

But it also underlines Germany’s need to acquire nuclear weapons that provide it the ability to independently protect itself and its neighbors to the east.

It’s true that Germany is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This tremendously important international treaty requires all “have-nots” of nuclear weapons to refrain from acquiring them while the “haves,” in turn, make sure that no one else gets them. That is a valid statement, as long as the foundations that made it unnecessary for Germany to even consider nuclear weapons and sign the treaty still exist. But with NATO becoming “obsolete,” the times are rapidly and drastically changing.

If the power conditions that made Germany’s position as a “have-not” justifiable are removed, the country cannot be obliged to remain unprotected in the face of a heavily nuclear-armed Russia. 

Other countries, like Japan, may remain shielded by the United States — but if Europe is abandoned, a responsible, and deeply realistic, government can’t afford this degree of self-denial.
All this talk of a Berlin deterrent has another purpose, which outsiders — even the Economist — have not fully appreciated. Proponents of a German nuclear deterrent are fully aware that despite the U.S. president’s final executive power, making NATO “obsolete” would require the more explicit approval of the administration’s top echelons. Starting the debate has been a reminder to the more cautious or wiser elements in the U.S. government of the stark consequences of abandoning NATO.

The United States doesn’t want Germany to have nuclear weapons, and preventing Bonn — and eventually Berlin — from getting them has been one of the side benefits of NATO. 

This is not to say that the nuclear proposal was critical in taming Trump’s wild talk for the moment. Other factors may have pushed and pulled the administration much more strongly to cautiously re-appreciate the strategic value of NATO. Still, with Merkel having to deny any such nuclear plans in public early this year, it is not unlikely that the debate was noted in the United States. Certainly this was the case at NATO itself when its (American) deputy secretary-general, Rose Gottemoeller, rejected the idea and instead reassured the European public that the new U.S. president was aware of his long-standing obligations and the benefits for international stability.

Nuclear weapons are expensive, contentious, potentially contagious, and dangerous. Germany is in no rush to get them. But if the shelter of the U.S. nuclear umbrella is removed while Russian weapons are still pointed at Berlin, it will have no choice. 

Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images 

By Maximilian Terhalle
Political scientist

EXPERTISE: Maximilian Terhalle is Associate Professor (Reader) at Winchester University and Senior Research Fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE). His most recent book, "The Transition of Global Order", was published by Survival / IISS "The Munich Consensus and the Purpose of German Power" (with B. Giegerich) and by Palgrave Macmillan. His research focus is the analysis of the politics of large-scale children.
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In September 2007 the French president Nicolas Sarkozy offered Germany to participate in the control over the French nuclear arsenal. Chancellor Merkel and foreign minister Steinmeier declined the offer however, stating that Germany "had no interest in possessing nuclear weapons".[11] Due to concerns over Vladimir Putin's actions, Merkel reversed her position, stating to the German press, "As long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, we need to have these capabilities, as NATO says.[12]

M.N.: We cannot exclude that at least in part, these "concerns" were also engineered by the survived, revived, and increasingly ambitious and sophisticated German Intelligence. 


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News Reviews and Opinions: Stockholm terror attack: "Stock-holm - Ah-lens": T...: A truck crashed into the Ahlens department store in central Stockholm on Friday.  M.N.:  " Stock -holm -  Ah- lens , Swe-den&qu...

C.I.A. Had Evidence of Russian Effort to Help Trump Earlier Than Believed - NYT | Russia Collusion Investigations Struggle to Find Evidence - THE SNAKE PIT: Trump News and Investigations Review - 4.6.17 - Page 2



4.6.17 - Page 2  - Trump News Review

Russia Bashes Trump as Syria Gas Attack Hits Detente Hopes - Bloomberg 
Twitter sues U.S. over demand for records on anti-Trump account | Reuters 
Trump to be briefed on full range of military options in Syria: source | Reuters 

4.6.17 - Trump Investigations Updates

Russia Collusion Investigations Struggle to Find Evidence
Several Investigations Underway on Trump-Russia Connections
The Trump-Russia allegations sound incriminating. But would any of them be illegal? - Vox
House Russia investigators stumble into 'new phase' - CNNPolitics.com
House Intelligence Republicans Boycott Briefing From FBI’s Russian Double Agent - The Daily Beast



"When the “highly classified assessment,” as the government report called it, was made public by BuzzFeed, even BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith wrote, “There is serious reason to doubt the allegations.”

The narrative has since unraveled, as was revealed by James Clapper, who led the investigations as director of national intelligence under Obama, during a March 5 segment of NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Clapper said, “We did not include any evidence in our report (and I say, ‘our,’ that’s NSA, FBI, and CIA, with my office, the director of National Intelligence) that had anything, that had any reflection of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians. We had no evidence of such collusion.”"







Tillerson, Russia's Lavrov spoke about Syria poison gas attack

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Russia Collusion Investigations Struggle to Find Evidence

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There are multiple investigations into whether a foreign power interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. They began with allegations of Russian meddling, yet have taken a new turn with the revelation that the Obama administration was monitoring the communications of the Trump team, possibly for political reasons.
Former national security adviser Susan Rice, responding to a question about whether she had sought to unmask the names of members of the Trump campaign or the Trump transition team, told on MSNBC she had not done so “for political purposes.” Rice claimed later in the interview that any unmasking that she ordered was done for national security reasons.
Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees are now calling on Rice to testify on whether the gathered intelligence was used improperly.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said on Twitter that Rice “needs to testify under oath.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told CNN’s “State of the Union” that there is still no conclusive evidence showing the Trump campaign collaborated with Russia, saying, “I don’t think we can say anything definitively at this point.”
The investigations into Russian interference pull from a legitimate concern that a foreign power may have interfered with the U.S. presidential elections. This was initially based on suspicions that WikiLeaks, an information-leaking website, had released emails that may have been stolen from Hillary Clinton’s aides by Russian hackers.
It carried an additional component, however, that is now beginning to unravel—the idea that the Trump campaign may have had a hand in the leaks.
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told ABC News on March 6, that in his investigations into Russian interference in the elections, conducted under the Obama administration, “There was no evidence whatsoever, at the time, of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.”
Former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell arrives for testimony before the House Select Intelligence Committee in Washington on April 2, 2014. The committee heard testimony on the topic of "The Benghazi Talking Points and Michael J. Morell&squot;s Role in Shaping the Administration&squot;s Narrative."  (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell arrives for testimony before the House Select Intelligence Committee in Washington on April 2, 2014. The committee heard testimony on the topic of “The Benghazi Talking Points and Michael J. Morell’s Role in Shaping the Administration’s Narrative.” (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Obama’s acting CIA chief Michael Morell also stepped back on his initial hardline that the Trump team may have colluded with Russia, and said at a March 16 event, according to NBC News, “On the question of the Trump campaign conspiring with the Russians here, there is smoke but there is no fire, at all.
“There’s no little campfire, there’s no little candle, there’s no spark. And there’s a lot of people looking for it.”
Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is currently investigating whether Russia interfered in the election, are starting to quell expectations. BuzzFeed News said it spoke with more than six individuals involved in the investigation, both Republicans and Democrats, and noted that “there’s a tangible frustration over what one official called ‘wildly inflated’ expectations surrounding the panel’s fledgling investigation.”
An official told Buzzfeed, “I don’t think the conclusions are going to meet people’s expectations.”

Emotions on Overdrive

The 2016 elections were hard on most Americans, to say the least, but they were especially difficult for Democrats, who were told up to Election Day that Trump stood no chance against Clinton—only to watch this fade away on election night. And they were told again that the electoral college could flip its vote and Clinton would still have a shot, only to again be disappointed.
There is a huge disparity between the amount of evidence that is cited in news stories and the charges—they’re overcharging, if there is any evidence at all.
— William McGowan, , author, 'Gray Lady Down'
Many major news outlets, meanwhile, have hunkered down on the idea that the Trump presidency is not legitimate, and the Russia probe has become their last bastion against Trump.
This has led to a style of reporting that has blown many findings out of proportion, and that has failed to put information into its accurate context. At the same time, many of the ongoing controversies are based not on new evidence, but instead on new comments about old evidence.
President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on, Jan. 28, 2017. Also pictured, from left, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on, Jan. 28, 2017. Also pictured, from left, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
“There is a huge disparity between the amount of evidence that is cited in news stories and the charges—they’re overcharging, if there is any evidence at all,” said William McGowan, author of the books “Coloring the News” and “Gray Lady Down” and a former editor at Washington Monthly who has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and other national news organizations.
William McGowan, author, 'Gray Lady Down'
William McGowan, author, ‘Gray Lady Down’
McGowan said that while he’s not a fan of Trump’s antagonistic style, he has found the coverage and commentary on Trump to be “strikingly biased, and much more successful at expressing fear and loathing than in encouraging an understanding of the man and his movement.”
He noted that in their coverage, many news outlets take the road of misquoting Trump, then using the misquotes to denounce him. As an example, McGowan cited a video in which Trump allegedly—as The New York Times put it in their headline—”calls on Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails.”
The press conference video is widely cited by major news outlets as evidence that Trump was tied to WikiLeaks’ releasing of stolen emails from the Clinton campaign.
Taken in context, however, Trump’s statement was very different from how it has been framed. At the time of the press conference on July 27, 2016, WikiLeaks had already started releasing the stolen emails, and news outlets were already trying to accuse Trump of being tied to the leaks. Trump condemned Russia’s actions, saying, “Russia has no respect for our country,” and said that if a foreign government was behind the leaks, it was a “total sign of disrespect for our country.”
Reporters continued to press Trump about the leaks, however, and continued to accuse him of being involved—without evidence. Trump then responded, “What do I have to get involved with Putin for?”, and then accused the reporters of bias and double standards, asking them why they weren’t similarly holding Clinton accountable for her missing emails. He then stated, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
News outlets then began widely circulating clips of Trump’s ending statement to allege he called on Russia to hack Clinton.
McGowan said, “What you have is a shred of a statement or utterance, and the media takes a huge leap from that.”
According to Ronald J. Rychlak, a lawyer and staunch critic of Russia, people tend to draw incorrect conclusions when they start looking at issues from an existing assumption. Rychlak co-authored the book “Disinformation” with Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest-ranking Soviet bloc intelligence official who ever defected to the West.
In legal cases, Rychlak said, there are checks and balances on burden of proof and on cross examination. With accusations spread in the news, “reporters get to set their own standards.”
“Some evidence is inconclusive,” he said, noting that if you approach an investigation while already assuming that one party is guilty, then “your starting assumption is going to determine your ultimate conclusion.”

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Carter Page

There are at least three investigations into the Trump–Russia connection by the FBI.
In addition, Congress has five standing committees and one sub-committee investigating Russian interference in the election as well as contacts between Trump’s team and Russian officials.
Rep. Schiff said during a March 20 testimony to the House Select Intelligence Committee that at least four people involved in the Trump campaign are being investigated: Carter Page, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone.
Page was allegedly named a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, although Trump’s campaign staffers deny this. He was accused by Schiff of doing business in Russia—specifically with Russian oil companies Gazprom and Rosneft. As with most major companies in Russia, the oil industry is largely controlled by Russian oligarchs, and company CEOs typically have relations with the Russian government.
Page, an oil industry consultant, is the founder and managing partner of Global Energy Capital, a New York investment fund and consulting firm that specializes in the oil and gas industries in Central Asia and Russia.
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Michael Flynn

Flynn is arguably the most controversial figure in the investigations. He allegedly wants to testify to the House and Senate committees to explain his case, but has also requested immunity.
While his request looks bad—suggesting he broke the law somewhere along the line—it likely ties to legal issues that are already known.
Flynn is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who served as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under Obama from July 24, 2012, until Aug. 7, 2014. He later served as an adviser to the Trump campaign and started as Trump’s national security adviser on Jan. 20.
Flynn served as adviser for just 24 days, before he was removed from the position on Feb. 13. Flynn said he resigned, and Trump said he was fired.
Flynn was accused of lying to Vice President Mike Pence, claiming he did not discuss Russian sanctions during a call he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislya before Trump took office. It was revealed in intercepted transcripts from the Obama administration that Flynn did discuss sanctions.
In his resignation letter, Flynn apologized and said it was not intentional. He said in his resignation letter that “in the course of my duties as the incoming national security adviser, I held numerous phone calls with foreign counterparts, ministers, and ambassadors.” He said the calls were to ensure a smooth transition for the Trump presidency and that “because of the fast pace of events,” he had unintentionally provided Pence with “incomplete information.”
Schiff also accused Flynn of receiving $33,750 from Russian television network RT, which receives part of its funding from the Russian government, for a speech he made in Moscow in 2015. The Trump administration said Flynn did not disclose his payments from RT.
In March, Flynn registered as a foreign agent lobbying for Turkey. His firm, Flynn Intel Group, was paid $530,000 by Netherlands-based firm Inovo BV, which is owned by Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish businessman close to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Most of this was already known. Online news portal The Intercept reported in Nov. 2016 that Flynn Intel Group registered as a lobbying entity in September 2016, and in that same month, Robert Kelley, the company’s general counsel, registered as a lobbyist for Inovo BV.
Flynn may be in hot water over both of these issues—mainly on the grounds that he failed to disclose his RT payment to the Trump team and that he did not register himself as a foreign-agent lobbyist in the Turkey deal.
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Paul Manafort

As for Manafort, he and Stone both worked for the Trump campaign—Manafort as campaign manager and Stone as an adviser. Both are professional lobbyists with the Washington-based lobbying firm Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly.
In August 2015 Trump fired Stone, while Manafort resigned in August 2016. Stone claimed he quit, but the Trump campaign said he was fired because, according to CNN, “We have a tremendously successful campaign and Roger wanted to use the campaign for his own personal publicity.”
Schiff has accused Manafort of long being “on the payroll of pro-Russian Ukrainian interests.”
According to The Associated Press, Manafort worked with a Russian billionaire to “greatly benefit the Putin government,” which took the form of a $10 million annual contract with Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, chairman of Basic Element Co.
Put into context, however, Manafort’s deal with Deripaska started more than 10 years ago in 2006 and ended by 2009 at the latest, according to AP. It notes that by 2016, the relationship between Manafort and Deripaska had gone sour, and during the 2016 presidential campaign, “Deripaska’s representatives openly accused Manafort of fraud” and were trying to recover money from him.
Manafort is also accused of working with the Russian government through Ukraine. This accusation concerns his having worked with Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, who was pro-Russia.
Manafort’s lobbying firm, Prime Policy Group, lobbies U.S. Congress on behalf of foreign governments. It was formed in a 2010 merger between Timmons & Co. and BKSH & Associates, and its members have many political connections—both Republican and Democrat. Charles Black Jr. was a senior adviser to Ronald Reagan in his 1980 and 1984 presidential campaigns, and later to George H.W. Bush. Peter Kelly, also in the firm, was an adviser to Al Gore and Bill Clinton.
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Roger Stone

The case against Stone was also outlined by Schiff on March 20. He claimed that Stone communicated with Julian Assange, head of WikiLeaks, which would later publish emails of Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, and that Stone also communicated with the hacker behind the leaks, Guccifer 2.0, who has been inconclusively accused of working for Russian intelligence.
Stone did communicate with Guccifer 2.0 over Twitter—but it was close to a year after he was fired from the Trump campaign and at a time when the leaks were well underway.
In August 2016, Twitter had reinstated Guccifer 2.0’s account after suspending it for leaking private information on Democrats when the scandal over Clinton’s missing emails was running hot. Stone told Politico on March 27 his message was just to send him a “high-five saying, ‘Glad you’re reinstated,’ because I’m against censorship.”
Stone made his full Twitter discussion with Guccifer 2.0 public on March 10, showing he sent three short messages. The first two were in August 2016, and said he was glad his account was reinstated, then asked him to retweet an article on how the election could be rigged against Trump. His third message in September 2016 was in response to a story Guccifer sent to him via Twitter direct message, to which Stone replied, “Pretty standard.”
Stone claimed he communicated with Assange on Aug. 8, 2016, again close to a year after he left the Trump campaign. According to FactCheck.org, “Stone later clarified that he never spoke directly with Assange, but that the two have a mutual journalist friend,” and that the journalist told Stone that Assange was going to release emails on Hillary Clinton in October.
Schiff also alleged that Stone predicted Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta would fall victim to a cyberattack and have his emails published, before it happened. Schiff’s statement was based on a tweet Stone published on Aug. 21 that said, “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the barrel. #CrookedHillary”
He sent the tweet after WikiLeaks had already begun publishing documents on the Clinton campaign, close to a year after he was fired by Trump.
Stone later clarified his tweet in an interview with Breitbart News, saying it was in response to political attacks about Manafort’s business deals with former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
He said the tweet was meant to predict that Podesta’s own business deals with Russia would be exposed. This was related to information leaked in the Panama Papers, which unveiled, according to The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the “rogue industry” that hides money for politicians and criminals.

The Clinton Campaign

Stone’s reference to Podesta was also pointed to by Trump, who alleged other connections between Russia and Clinton’s team.
Trump tweeted on March 27, “Why isn’t the House Intelligence Committee looking into the Bill & Hillary deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia, Russian speech … money to Bill, the Hillary Russian ‘reset,’ praise of Russia by Hillary, or Podesta Russian Company.”
According to the Observer, the Panama Papers showed The Podesta Group, co-founded by Podesta and his brother, company chairman Tony Podesta, has lobbied Washington on behalf of Russia’s biggest bank, Sberbank. Tony Podesta is a registered lobbyist for Sberbank and was a top campaign bundler and contributor for Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The Observer states Tony Podesta worked for Sberbank to “help lift some of the pain of sanctions placed on Russia in the aftermath of the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine, which has caused real pain to the country’s hard-hit financial sector.”
Fox News reported that in 2011, Podesta joined the board of Massachusetts-based energy company Joule Energy, and two months later, a Russian company invested close to $35 million into it. The Russian company was Rusnano, a joint-stock company owned by the Russian government.
Podesta claims he disclosed his 75,000 stock shares in the company and transferred them in January 2014, before he became counselor to Obama that same month.
In another case, Bill Clinton was paid $500,000 by Russian investment bank Renaissance Capital, owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, for a speech in 2010, according to Hillary Clinton’s financial disclosures.
According to PolitiFact, some critics of the Clintons suggest the speaking fee “might have been an attempt by Renaissance Capital to curry favor with the State Department,” since Renaissance Capital was involved in a deal to obtain Uranium One, an international mining company headquartered in Canada but with operations in the United States, that supplied close to 11 percent of U.S. uranium in 2014.
Around the time of Bill Clinton’s speech, the State Department—under Hillary Clinton as secretary of state—had to sign off on Renaissance Capital’s bid to gain a controlling stake in Uranium One. The New York Times reported in April 2015 that as the bids were approved from 2009 to 2013, “a flow of cash made its way to the Clinton Foundation” that totaled $2.35 million.”

Falsified Cyber Reports

During the presidential transition in December 2016, former president Barack Obama ordered an investigation into the possibility that Russia helped Trump win the election. This produced two reports, which Obama rushed to the public before Trump was sworn into office on Jan. 20.
The first report, from Dec. 29, 2016, from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), began with a disclaimer that it “does not provide any warranties of any kind regarding any information contained within.”
The report dedicates less than three pages to the allegations that two hacker groups breached the DNC’s networks, and breaks up these pages with large infographics showing how basic cyberattacks work. It then shows a list of nicknames given to alleged Russian hacker groups by the cybersecurity community, and then dedicates the remaining pages to tips on how companies can guard against cyberattacks.
The 13-page report alleges that Guccifer 2.0 is actually two hacker groups, and at least one breached “a political party.” The report fails, however, to show any conclusive evidence to support this claim.
It also turned out that much of the work in the FBI report came from investigations of cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, which recently revised and retracted some of its initial conclusions that Russia was behind the cyberattacks.
Part of the Russia connection was from a CrowdStrike claim that it found evidence the Russian government hacked a Ukrainian artillery app, which shut down Ukraine’s howitzers in its war against pro-Russia separatists. This proved to be false, however. Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense said the hacking never happened, according to Voice of America, and the International Institute for Strategic Studies disavowed the CrowdStrike report, noting that contrary to claims, CrowdStrike never contacted them.
Malicious actors can easily position their breach to be attributed to Russia, and that even hackers with the most basic skills can do this.
— Report from the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology
CrowdStrike was hired by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to investigate who hacked its accounts. After one day of analysis, it concluded the attacks were from “Fancy Bear” and “Cozy Bear,” nicknames cybersecurity researchers have given to alleged Russia hacker groups.
The problem with CrowdStrike’s findings is they were based solely by the tools the hackers used, the traits of the targets, and similar information.
Guccifer 2.0, the hacker behind the leaked emails, issued a statement on Jan. 12 stating the accusations of him being tied to Russian intelligence are “unfounded” and noted that “any IT professional can see that a malware sample mentioned in the Joint Analysis Report was taken from the web and was commonly available. A lot of hackers use it.”
“It’s obvious that the intelligence agencies are deliberately falsifying evidence,” he stated.
Many cybersecurity experts have pointed out similar issues, noting none of the information in the reports is conclusive, since any hacker can spoof such attacks by simply using the same tools and methodology of a known hacker group.
report from the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology (ICIT) says, “Malicious actors can easily position their breach to be attributed to Russia,” and that even hackers with the most basic skills can do this.
It adds, “It would be easy to baselessly declare that all of the attacks were launched by Russia based on the malware employed.”
To make things still more complicated, the method that CrowdStrike used to identify the alleged Russian hackers looks at the same information that the CIA can allegedly spoof. Under the CIA’s UMBRAGE group, revealed by WikiLeaks on March 7. The CIA maintains a digital library of attacks and techniques from various hacker groups, so that it can use these methods to launch attacks while framing known hacker groups.
WikiLeaks noted in a press release that the CIA’s UMBRAGE files included attack profiles of Russian hacker groups, which could be used to leave falsified “fingerprints” for cyberforensics investigators.

No Evidence of Collusion

The next report was released on Jan. 6 through the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which collected analysis from the CIA, FBI, and National Security Agency (NSA).
It alleged that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.” The keywords here are “influence campaign.”
The evidence presented by the 25-page report consists almost entirely of news articles from Russian news outlet RT. Its says the Russian government favored a Trump victory, and the state-funded RT reported favorably on Trump and negatively on Clinton.
The report’s core claim to foreign interference is on the grounds that RT news articles received traction in U.S. news outlets and social media networks.
Of course, similar analyses could be applied to any foreign official who openly supported or decried a U.S. presidential candidate, and whose comments received broad media coverage. Most foreign leaders, including in Canada and Europe, took an opposite stance from Russia and openly supported Clinton and decried Trump.
The report also made broad allegations based on classified evidence that was not made public. The nature of the classified information was later released by BuzzFeed on Jan. 10, and was shown to have come from a 35-page dossier collected by a former British MI6 agent who now runs a private security business.
When the “highly classified assessment,” as the government report called it, was made public by BuzzFeed, even BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith wrote, “There is serious reason to doubt the allegations.”
The narrative has since unraveled, as was revealed by James Clapper, who led the investigations as director of national intelligence under Obama, during a March 5 segment of NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Clapper said, “We did not include any evidence in our report (and I say, ‘our,’ that’s NSA, FBI, and CIA, with my office, the director of National Intelligence) that had anything, that had any reflection of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians. We had no evidence of such collusion.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated when Paul Manafort was hired for and resigned from the Donald Trump presidential campaign. Manafort was hired in March 2016 and resigned in August 2016.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Paul Manafort’s role in the Trump campaign. Manafort served as campaign manager to the Trump campaign.
Epoch Times regrets the errors.
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The Trump-Russia allegations sound incriminating. But would any of them be illegal?

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House Intelligence Republicans Boycott Briefing From FBI’s Russian Double Agent

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The incident was the latest example of the dysfunction, partisanship, and paralysis that’s gripped the panel since Chairman Devin Nunes blew up its Russia investigation.
Republicans boycotted a Wednesday briefing on Russian intelligence methods organized by Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, who had hoped the committee’s members could gather in a bipartisan manner to hear non-controversial testimony from an expert.
Weeks ago, House Intelligence Committee staff and Swalwell reached out to a national-security specialist, Naveed Jamali. In the 2000s, Jamali was a double agent in the service of the FBI after the Russian government tried to recruit him as an asset.
Every single Republican lawmaker on the House Intelligence Committee was invited to the members-only briefing on Wednesday. Not one showed.
“I want [the Republicans on the committee] to know that they had an opportunity to go, and I hope we can show the bipartisan cooperation that a lot of us have experienced before the investigation began,” Swalwell told The Daily Beast. “This was an effort to do that, and I will continue to reach out.”
The idea was for Jamali to brief House Intelligence Committee on Russian methods for targeting and recruiting intelligence assets. The briefing was held in a private setting, and rather than discussing Russia-Trump ties, looked only at the Russian government’s tactics. It was billed as an unclassified meeting that took place outside of the committee’s secure briefing area, and was not formally organized by the committee.
“It was an informal opportunity for all members of the committee to meet someone who had a real-life, Russian recruiting experience,” Swalwell said. “So he shared with members how Russia used business entanglements to approach a U.S. person and to seek influence.”
Jamali briefed the lawmakers on his personal experience as an FBI double agent who interacted with the Russian government, noting that Russian intelligence often didn’t have a specific purpose for recruitment—they found assets and looked for a use for them later.
“When I look at what is out in the public domain… about Michael Flynn and others, my concern is that there are echoes of what the Russians did with me, in what happened in [the presidential elections of] 2016,” Jamali told The Daily Beast. “It takes years to recruit an asset… ‘they say someone is of interest, let’s recruit them’ and then it could be years after they’ve been recruited when they’re put into play.”
Swalwell said after Jamali’s briefing that he had expected Republicans would attend, and had been assured by some that they would try to make it. A spokesman for Nunes had no comment Wednesday about the decision by Republicans on the committee to skip it.
The committee met for regular business Monday evening to pursue normal intelligence oversight duties, but did not discuss in detail how to restart their investigation into Russian inference in the U.S. presidential election. The committee will meet again for an all-hands briefing Thursday morning.
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Two weeks ago, Nunes held a press conference with a shocking assessment: Information about Trump transition officials had been “incidentally collected” during legal foreign surveillance by the United States government. The chairman then rushed to brief the president—a subject of the committee’s investigation—without telling the rest of his committee what had happened.
In the intervening days, it was reported that Nunes had visited the White House privately the night before his press conference, and that his sources were White House staff. Nunes then cancelled a planned open hearing for the committee, where it had expected to receive testimony about Russia from senior national security officials who had served in the Obama administration.
The committee remains fractious and relationships are frayed. There is no word on if or when the panel’s hearings on Russia might resume.
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Russia Bashes Trump as Syria Gas Attack Hits Detente Hopes

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Devin Nunes to Step Aside From House...

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Devin Nunes to Step Aside From House Investigation on Russia

New York Times - ‎38 minutes ago‎
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, was pursued by reporters as he left the Capitol on Thursday. Credit Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press. WASHINGTON — Representative Devin Nunes, the embattled California ...

Rep. Devin Nunes steps aside from Russia probe amid ethics investigation

Los Angeles Times - ‎1 hour ago‎
Devin Nunes steps aside from Russia probe amid ethics investigation; Gorsuch set to be confirmed for the Supreme Court, but will the fight break the Senate? President Trump removes controversial advisor Stephen K. Bannon from the National Security ...

Nunes Recusal Gives House Russia Inquiry Chance for Fresh Start

Bloomberg - ‎3 hours ago‎
The decision by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes to step aside from its investigation into Russian interference in last year's U.S. election gives the panel a chance to rescue a probe that has been paralyzed by partisan disputes.

Nunes steps aside from Russia probe

Politico - ‎3 hours ago‎
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) will temporarily step aside from an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, including interactions between Moscow and the Trump campaign. The move comes as the House ...

House Intel Chairman Devin Nunes Temporarily Steps aside from Russia Probe

Fortune - ‎2 hours ago‎
The chairman of the House intelligence committee announced Thursday he is temporarily stepping aside from the panel's probe into Russian meddling in last year's presidential election. The decision by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., comes amid partisan ...
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Devin Nunes says he's temporarily stepping aside from Russia probe

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House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes today said he's temporarily stepping aside from the Russia probe amid ethics accusations that he may have disclosed classified information. 
Nunes (R-Tulare) said he was stepping down temporarily as head of the House probe into whether Trump associates colluded with Russia during last year’s election.
In a statement, Nunes said he was taking the action because “several  leftwing activist groups have filed accusations against me with the Office of Congressional Ethics.”
“Despite the baselessness of the charges, I believe it is in the best interests of the House Intelligence Committee and the Congress for me to” step aside from the Russia probe “while the House Ethics Committee looks into this matter,” Nunes said.
Nunes said “the charges are entirely false and politically motivated, and are being leveled just as the American people are beginning to learn the truth about the improper unmasking of the identities of U.S. citizens and other abuses of power.”
Nunes said he had asked to speak to the ethics committee "at the earliest possible opportunity in order to expedite the dismissal of these false claims.”
Nunes has come under fierce criticism from Democrats for making public information provided him to him last month by White House aides about classified intelligence reports that referred to Trump associates, and that Nunes did not provide to members of his committee.
Nunes said that  Rep. Mike Conaway, (R-Texas), with assistance from Representatives Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Tom Rooney, (R-Fla.) would temporarily take charge of the GOP-led committee's Russia investigation
He said he would remain as chairman of the committee.
The leaders of the House Ethics Committee said it is  investigating whether Nunes improperly disclosed classified information, apparently when he held a press conference last month to claim that Trump associates names had been revealed in intelligence reports.
“The Committee is aware of public allegations that Representative Devin Nunes may have made unauthorized disclosures of classified information, in violation of House Rules, law, regulations, or other standards of conduct," Rep. Susan Brooks, (R-Ind.), the committee chairwoman, and Rep. Theodore Deutch, (D-Fla.), the top Democrat on the panel. said in a statement.
The ethics committee "is investigating and gathering more information regarding these allegations,” they said.
Democrats applauded Nunes' decision to step aside. 
“Good for him,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, (D-Calif.), a member of the Senate intelligence committee, which is conducting a separate probe of Russian meddling in the election.
“He stopped being objective,” she added, referring to Nunes’ failure to share the intelligence he received from the White House with the House committee before he made it public.
Speaker Paul Ryan also appeared to support Nunes' decision to step aside.
In a statement, Ryan said Nunes "is eager to demonstrate to the Ethics Committee that he has followed all proper guidelines and laws. In the meantime, it is clear that this process would be a distraction for the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in our election.”
7:02 a.m.: This post has been updated with information on the ethics accusations that Nunes says have been filed against him.
This post originally published at 6:51 a.m.
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Putin, the perpetual spoiler, tries his hand at a peace process

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MOSCOW — Russian President Vladi­mir Putin has made it his mission to reestablish his country as a dominant, indispensable player in the Middle East, one that can rival the influence of the United States. And, by some measures, he is succeeding.
Not only has Russia’s 15-month airstrike campaign probably saved the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but it also has spawned this week’s negotiations sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey to agree on a mechanism to support a delicate cease-fire in the Syrian conflict. It was a Russian-led diplomatic effort testing Moscow’s improbable role as peacemaker, with a twist that must draw smiles in the Kremlin: no formal role for the United States.
“Russia is seeking to show it has national interests not only in Crimea, Donbas and Georgia but everywhere, throughout the Middle East,” said Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It is a very important symbol.” (Donbas is a disputed section of eastern Ukraine.)
According to Putin, those interests have been threatened by the United States, which he has accused of fomenting the current instability in the Middle East through a flawed foreign policy of intervention and democracy promotion. Decisions such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as well as the Arab uprisings beginning in 2011 (which he accused the United States of paying to foment), have encouraged the spread of radicalism, he says. 
The nadir for Putin came in March 2011, when he was prime minister. The president at the time, Dmitry Medvedev, declined to veto a U.N. no-fly resolution in Libya that paved the way for NATO airstrikes there. The decision seemed to confirm Russia’s role as a second-rate power in the Middle East. A deeply angry Putin publicly broke with Medvedev, his protege, and  declared the U.N. resolution “reminiscent of a medieval call for a crusade.”
(Reuters)
Russia, Turkey and Iran, which back warring parties in Syria, end two days of talks in Astana, Kazakhstan with a promise to enforce the country's fragile cease-fire. Russia, Turkey and Iran pledge to enforce Syria cease-fire (Reuters)
Now in his third term as president and amid a growing rift with the United States over the annexation of Crimea, Putin has dug in his heels.
Russia “can no longer tolerate the current state of affairs in the world,” he told the U.N. General Assembly in a 2015 speech, days before announcing his intervention in Syria.
“Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster,” Putin said in the speech. “I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation, do you realize now what you’ve done? But I am afraid no one is going to answer that.”
Putin likes to portray himself as part of the solution, forging an anti-terrorist alliance he compares to the coalition against Nazi Germany. But for a world leader who has so often embraced the role of spoiler and antagonist to the liberal West, converting military force into diplomatic sway will prove complex. 
Putin has had diplomatic triumphs, among them the 2013 deal he struck with the United States to seize Syria’s chemical weapons (and ward off military strikes against Assad for using them). But mediating the Syrian conflict, with its fractious and shifting politics, is far more difficult than taking part in it.
“Yes, everyone is at this point forced to listen to Russia’s concerns,” said Leonid Isayev, a Middle East researcher at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics. “But influence is not always positive. You can be a destructive force or you can try to resolve conflicts. The first is simpler and Russia has the military potential for that. The question is whether their military influence can now be translated into political influence.”
As a result, the goal of the negotiations in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, was modest: shoring up a cease-fire, rather than seeking a political solution to the conflict that has eluded negotiators in Geneva for years. But in bringing together the warring sides for the first time, the Kremlin has already achieved some success.
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The negotiations are “a stress test for Russian capacity,” said Nikolay Kozhanov, an expert in Middle East Affairs at St. Petersburg University. “Now after the regime victory in Aleppo, the Astana meeting is a serious claim to prove that Russia has become an influential realm in the region.” 
Headlines recently have been dominated by Putin’s growing influence abroad but mostly in the West: Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and expectations of the same in forthcoming European elections that could determine the fate of the European Union. A Kremlin connection is suspected but unproven, and Putin is unlikely to claim responsibility. 
But in the Middle East, he may seek to establish a legacy for himself, by taking on a growing diplomatic and political role in a conflict that has outlasted the Obama administration.
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Trump-Putin Cooperation for Peace Is the Establishment's Fear

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PARIS -- An apparent suicide bombing on a metro train killed at least 14 people and wounded dozens of others this week in St. Petersburg, Russia. The attack took place during Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to St. Petersburg, his hometown.
Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump have expressed interest in cooperating to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism. Such cooperation with Russia would be a shift from the Obama administration's strategy of sponsoring "Syrian rebels" and maintaining close ties with terrorism-sponsoring allies in the Persian Gulf.
But here's the problem for the establishment: If Russia and the U.S. cooperate to eliminate terrorism and other security threats, the prospect of peace would be a jolt to the military-industrial complex, making it more difficult to scare up taxpayer cash.
Developed nations are now well into an era of belt-tightening, and many voters specifically elected Trump because of his proven experience as a businessman with an eye for the bottom line. Trump promised to reel in the freewheeling spending of tax dollars. But to keep the government cash flowing into the deep pockets of the military-industrial complex, there always has to be a threat. It's not hard to see the motivation to portray Trump as some sort of Manchurian candidate.
When the terrorism threat temporarily subsided in the wake of the 2007 George W. Bush-ordered troop surge in Iraq, and prior to the Obama-facilitated rise of the Islamic State, we started being told about -- and being sold on -- the cybersecurity threat. Of course, this threat could only be vanquished by burying it under a pile of taxpayer money. And hey, why not revive the Cold War while we're at it? After all, the Russian bad guy has always stoked the public's imagination better than the Islamic-terrorist villain. One need only look at their respective frequencies in Hollywood films.
Here in Europe, we've been witnessing a parallel hysteria on the part of the European Union, as its popularity continues to plummet among citizens of its member states due to its perceived ineptitude. To stay relevant, the EU has been desperate to create a purpose for itself, so it has attempted to convince citizens that the EU's new role is to protect them from the mean Russians.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has warned us that "the Russians are actively involved in the French elections" -- but declined to offer any details, of course. This warning was subsequently pushed by the heavily state-subsidized French establishment media, whose benefactors were recently prodded by a European parliamentary resolution to actively counter media that didn't fit the anti-Russia narrative.
But Trump is standing in the way of all the threat-peddling. Last week, America's new ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, suggested that Trump was interested in winding down the war in Syria without securing the regime change sought by Obama and those with an interest in pursuing conflict and chaos for profit. "And when we're looking at this, it's about changing up priorities, and our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting (Syrian President Bashar) Assad out," Haley said.
Oh no, what if terrorism is eradicated, and Trump is getting along with Putin, and there are no more dangers that can be used to drain billions of dollars out of people's pockets?
Trump has proposed increasing the defense budget to $603 billion, but congressional Republicans are nonetheless criticizing Trump's defense-spending increase as insufficient.
"President Trump intends to submit a defense budget that is a mere 3 percent above President (Barack) Obama's defense budget, which has left our military underfunded, undersized and unready to confront threats to our national security," Republican Sen. John McCain said in a statement.
McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has long been an outspoken critic of Russia. Without McCain promoting Russia as a threat, how could he possibly justify the kind of taxpayer largesse that he's demanding?
The Senate Intelligence Committee held a hearing last week on alleged Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, but the committee has yet to uncover any evidence of collusion between Russia and Trump. If there's one thing on which Trump and Putin can be accused of colluding, it's recognizing the establishment's insistence on using the threat of fear for self-justification and profit at the average citizen's expense.
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