Today's Headlines and Commentary

Jordan Brunner
Wednesday, February 15, 2017, 12:30 PM

The New York Times reports that phone records and intercepted calls show that members of President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.

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The New York Times reports that phone records and intercepted calls show that members of President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election. According to four current and former American officials, law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted communications around the same time they discovered evidence of Russian interference in the presidential election. The communications were not limited to Trump campaign officials, and also included members of the Russian government outside of its intelligence services. Paul Manafort, a former campaign manager of Trump’s, was one person picked up on the calls. Manafort has denied any intentional contacts with Russian intelligence officials.

The reports come a day after Michael Flynn was forced to resign as National Security Adviser after lying about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States before the inauguration. The Times also tells us that Flynn was interrogated by F.B.I. agents about his phone calls in the days immediately following the inauguration, and that investigators came away thinking that Flynn was not entirely forthcoming. This led then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates to notify the White House about Flynn’s potential vulnerability to blackmail, and ultimately to Flynn’s resignation Monday night. The entire situation raises questions about what the President knew and when.

The Washington Post outlines the timeline surrounding the various events that led to Flynn’s resignation, including Flynn’s rise in the presidential campaign coinciding with his resumption of contacts with Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. In the final hours before his resignation, Flynn provided a defiant interview to the Daily Caller saying that he had “crossed no lines,” in his discussions with Kislyak, and insisted that the steady stream of leaks from those inside the government needed to be prosecuted. The Post also notes that the scandal has become a major crisis for the administration, precipitating the first major public breach between Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress.

CNN reports that, following up on numerous calls by GOP lawmakers for investigations in the wake of Flynn’s resignation, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said it’s “highly likely” the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will investigate Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak. “I think the fundamental question for us is what is our involvement in it, and who ought to look at it,” adding “they have broad jurisdiction to do it,” in referring to the SSCI.

Politico tells us that Representative Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told House Democrats that more information will surface in the coming days about Flynn’s contacts with Russia. Schiff also said that any conversations that Flynn had with Kislyak before Trump became president are not covered by executive privilege, and therefore would be subject to investigation. Republicans have so far said they will not probe into the matter.

K.T. McFarland, the deputy national security adviser, has been asked to stay on her role by the President, according to the Hill. The Times had reported that she was planning on leaving later on in the week. However, she will most likely remain as the deputy national security adviser, rather than replacing Flynn.

NPR informs us that the Trump administration has already interviewed former Central Command deputy director and retired Navy Admiral Robert Harward about filling the vacancy left by Flynn’s departure. Harward, who speaks Farsi and grew up in Iran, served on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration and is currently Chief Executive for Lockheed Martin operations in the United Arab Emirates.

The Times reports that numerous former and current national security officials have decried the chaos roiling the national security apparatus under the Trump administration. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said that“nobody knows who’s in charge, and nobody knows who’s setting policy.” General Tony Thomas, head of the Special Operations Command, expressed his concerns as well, stating that, “Our government continues to be in unbelieveable turmoil. I hope that this will sort out soon because we’re a nation at war.” And former C.I.A. Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that he had “never been so nervous” in his life “about what may or may not happen in Washington.”

As Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today, the Hill notes that the Trump administration will not insist on a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. Politico writes that this would be a major gift from Trump to Netanyahu, who faces pressure from right-wing rival Education Minister Naftali Bennett to avoid using the phrase “two-state solution,” and that the main point of discussion instead will be Iran. Israel has welcomed Trump’s tough rhetoric against Iran’s missile tests and regional aggression. The Post notes that Flynn’s resignation could complicate the visit, as it deprives Netanyahu of his strongest ally inside the White House for raising pressure on Iran.

Haaretz tells us that CIA Director Mike Pompeo had a different message about the two-state solution when he met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Syria, among other things. According to one source, Palestinians present at the meeting heard reassuring messages about the two-state solution. Also present in the meeting was the head of Palestinian intelligence, Majid Faraj, and senior negotiator Saeb Erekat. The Times of Israel adds the Trump will brief Abbas on his meeting with Netanyahu after it takes place.

The Post writes that Defense Secretary James Mattis, in meeting with 27 other defense ministers in Brussels for a NATO summit, told NATO allies that they must increase defense spending by year-end, or the Trump administration will “moderate its commitment” to them. The Pentagon chief is apparently now endorsing a claim continually made by Trump during his time on the campaign trail that countries in the alliance were not giving their fair share in terms of financial support to maintaining NATO. Even so, Reuters adds that Mattis also said that NATO “remains a fundamental bedrock for the United States,” and that Russia was firmly on NATO’s agenda, starting with the annexation of Crimea.

Reuters also reports that according to Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Trump expects Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine and reduce violence in Ukraine. However, Spicer also said Trump “fully expects to and wants to get along with Russia.” This is consistent with statements that have been by U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley regarding sanctions on Russia for its activities in Ukraine.

The Post informs us that multiple Russian aircraft buzzed a U.S. destroyer patrolling in the Black Sea last week, in an incident the ship’s captain called “unsafe.” The USS Porter was returning from an exercise with the Romanian navy when the aircraft approached. The aircraft did not respond to radio calls, and apparently did not have their identification transponders on. During the presidential campaign, Trump warned that if incidents liked this happened in the future, Putin should be warned and then aircraft should be shot down if the incidents continued.

NBC News tells us that a wave of airstrikes targeting ISIS commanders at a meeting have killed several senior figures within ISIS. The strikes killed 77 militants in all, with at least 13 senior commanders among them. One of the strikes targeted ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but officials have been unable to confirm whether he had escaped, been injured, or been killed.

ABC News writes that ISIS launched a significant counterattack near the two of Tal Afar, near west Mosul, Sunday night, detonating 17 car bombs and targeting positions held by Shiite militia forces known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. The attack lasted for nine hours killed four militiamen and 48 ISIS fighters before it was repelled. The counterattack comes as the Iraqi army has been moving troops around Mosul ahead of the expected push to retake its western half in a decisive battle for the whole city.

Foreign Policy, in conjunction with Air Wars, reports that the United States used depleted uranium weapons on the battlefield in airstrikes against ISIS despite promises that it would not do so. U.S. Central Command spokesman Major Josh Jacques said that 5,265 armor-piercing 30 mm rounds containing depleted uranium were shot from U.S. aircraft. There is limited but credible evidence that there are potential negative health effects from the use of the weapons.

Al Jazeera notes that Syrian peace talks that were due to begin today in Kazakhstan have been delayed by one day. There was no explanation given for the delay.

A group of Republican senators have written a letter to Trump requesting that he keep the prison at Guantanamo Bay open and fill it with more militants, according to the Miami Herald. Calling the prison a “vital mission,” and “an invaluable asset,” and criticizing former President Barack Obama’s “blatant disregard for the safety of the American people,” the eleven senators supported “expanding the utilization of the detention facility during your administration by detaining current and future enemy combatants who pose a threat to our national security.” The senators also urged the president to freeze the actions of the Periodic Review Board that helps to transfer detainees.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Jack Goldsmith argued that the real danger of the Trump administration is not a president that is too strong, but one that is too weak.

Josh Blackman continued his analysis of the Ninth Circuit’s refusal to narrow an overbroad injunction in Washington v. Trump.

Ryan Scoville provided a legal analysis of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s trip to Syria.

J. Dana Stuster updated the Middle East Ticker.

Quinta Jurecic explained why Steve Bannon isn’t an evil genius but rather an incompetent internet troll.

Stewart Baker posted the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast: Worthwhile Canadian Initiatives.

David Kris explained why the treatment of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s phone calls complies with FISA minimization procedures.

Timothy Edgar pointed out the irony that Flynn may himself be the first victim of civil liberties abuse during the Trump administration based on the leaks, and that he may want to call the ACLU.

Jack argued that in the wake of the Flynn imbroglio, the spotlight will fall on Donald McGahn as White House counsel.

Samuel Cutler described why Flynn’s plan to relax the Russia sanctions would have been terrible policy.

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Jordan A. Brunner is a graduate of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, and was a national security intern at the Brookings Institution. Prior to law school, he was a Research Fellow with the New America Foundation/ASU Center for the Future of War, where he researched cybersecurity, cyber war, and cyber conflict alongside Shane Harris, author of @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex. He graduated summa cum laude from Arizona State University with a B.S. in Political Science.

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