Today's Headlines and Commentary

Rachel Bercovitz
Thursday, May 18, 2017, 1:31 PM

Yesterday evening, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate possible ties between Russian officials and Trump campaign affiliates.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Yesterday evening, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate possible ties between Russian officials and Trump campaign affiliates. Rosenstein stated that “public interest” motivated his decision to “place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command.” Mueller, who served as FBI Director under Presidents Bush and Obama from 2001 to 2013, will be answerable to Rosenstein but will enjoy more independence in pursuing an investigation than would a United States attorney. The Times notes that President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions were not provided advance notice of Mueller’s appointment.

Former national security advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn had informed the Trump transition team’s chief lawyer, Donald F. McGahn II, on January 4 that he was under federal investigation for having worked as a lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign, the New York Times reports. This disclosure clarifies that the transition team was made aware of the investigation of Flynn several weeks before Trump’s inauguration and his appointment of Flynn as national security advisor—far earlier than had been previously known.

Reuters reports that President Trump’s campaign team communicated with Russian officials through at least 18 unique phone calls or emails in the seven months leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Of these, six involved phone calls between Trump campaign officials and Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. Following election day, correspondence between Kislyak and Flynn gathered pace as the two sought to formulate a back-channel mode of communication by which Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin might evade the U.S. national security apparatus—considered by the administration to be an impediment to efforts to strengthen relations between the two parties.

Yahoo News reports that Trump sent a message to Flynn telling him to “stay strong” last month, indicating that the two men have stayed in contact as the investigations continue. It unclear through what medium Trump communicated with his former national security advisor.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has invited Comey to testify in both open and closed sessions on reports that Trump had prodded Comey to drop the Bureau’s investigation of Flynn. The Committee also requested that acting FBI director Andrew McCabe submit any memos written by Comey about his discussions with senior White House or Justice Department officials relating to the Russia investigation. The Hill notes that the Senate Judiciary Committee issued a similar invitation to Comey to testify, as well as a request for all “audio recordings, transcripts, notes, summaries, or memoranda” that Comey may have received (including any “tapes” referenced by Trump in a Twitter post last Friday); for information on communication between Comey and White House officials; and for any memos prepared by Comey describing his communication with current and former Justice Department officials regarding the Russia investigation.

Trump is scheduled to interview four candidates for the position of FBI director in the coming days. They are: former senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT), former governor Frank Keating (R-OK), former FBI official Richard McFeely, and FBI Acting Director Andrew McCabe.

U.S. airstrikes targeted Syrian regime forces that had entered a “deconfliction zone” and were traveling toward a military base used by U.S. coalition forces to train Syrian fighters for the anti-ISIS effort, CNN writes. According to a U.S. official, an initial airstrike was used as a “show of force” to push the vehicles to turn around. A second airstrike then hit the convoy, which consisted of pro-government militia forces. It remains unclear whether Syrian Army forces were also stuck in the attack. Officials are indicating that the strikes were intended as force protection for the U.S. special forces stationed at the base.

President Trump rejected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s appeal for the U.S. to reverse its decision to directly arm the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) during his meeting with the Turkish President at the White House on Wednesday. The Guardian suggests that Trump’s stance is a reflection of the growing alignment of Russian and U.S. positions with respect to Syria and the role of Kurdish forces in the fight against the Islamic State. Following Erdoğan’s meeting with Trump, Turkey’s foreign minister called for the removal of Brett McGurk, the U.S. official leading the anti-ISIS effort, on the grounds that McGurk “giving support” to the Syrian Kurdish YPG and the Kurdish PKK, which Turkey considers to be terrorist organizations.

Reuters reports that the SDF have continued their advance east toward Raqqa, where an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Islamic State forces are said to be stationed. SDF commander Abdul Qader Hevdeli indicated the coalition would begin its final advance on Raqqa at the start of the summer.

The Washington Post reports that during his visit to Saudi Arabia this weekend, Trump will set forth a proposal for an “Arab NATO” to coordinate antiterrorism operations and to act as a bulwark against Iran. The announcement will constitute the first demonstration of U.S. support for such a regional security apparatus, which Arab countries have advanced on past occasions. The arrangement calls for the development of a unified coalition of Sunni states that will lay the groundwork for a NATO-like structure, and for a substantial arms deal estimated to be between $98 billion and $128 billion. The proposal is an outgrowth of negotiations between White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has sought to deepen Saudi-U.S. relations under Trump. White House officials acknowledge that a strategy for bringing together the relevant parties and managing the alliance has not yet been formulated.

The United States expanded sanctions relief for Iran as called for by the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord, while also imposing new sanctions on several Iranian and Chinese individuals and four organizations for their support of Iran’s ballistic missile program. The simultaneous announcements, issued two days before general elections are scheduled to occur in Iran, signaled the administration’s provisional commitment to the nuclear accord and its parallel desire to demonstrate toughness against Iran. Trump has criticized the accord and threatened to “dismantle the disastrous deal.”

The Iranian judiciary alleged that more than 60 electoral “violations” have occurred in the period leading up to Iran’s general elections, scheduled to take place this Friday. Incumbent president Hassan Rouhani is favored to win a second term in office over principal opposition candidate Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline Islamic cleric who has held several high-level positions in the Iranian judiciary.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Quinta Jurecic posted statements by Rosenstein and Trump on the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel.

Jane Chong, Quinta, Susan Hennessey, Matthew Kahn, and Ben Wittes put forth their initial reaction to Mueller’s appointment. David Kris outlined his thoughts on the appointment in a separate post.

Bobby Chesney dismissed the suggestion of Fox News reporter Gregg Jarrett that Comey may have violated the law by failing to report to Justice Department officials Trump’s request that he terminate the FBI’s investigation of Flynn.

Andrew Kent, Susan, and Matthew examined the legislative and political considerations informing the establishment of the FBI Director’s ten-year term.

Susan Landau welcomed the Senate Sergeant at Arms’s decision to approve Senate staffers’ use of the encrypted communications application, Signal.

Mailyn Fidler and Trey Herr assessed the PATCH Act that would codify the Vulnerability Equities Process (VEP) as law.

Paul Rosenzweig reflected on reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had built a crematorium at the Sednaya prison complex north of Damascus in order to dispose of evidence of mass murder at the site.

Steve Vladeck reviewed James E. Pfander’s monograph, Constitutional Torts and the War on Terror (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Bob Bauer considered factors contributing to the “crisis” of the Trump presidency and steps to address them.

Paul voiced concern over the prospect of routinized violation of norms across agencies and institutions during the Trump presidency.

Robert Litt reviewed National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s statements regarding Trump’s disclosure of classified information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, underscoring McMaster’s failure to address the appropriateness of the disclosure.

Email the Roundup Team noteworthy law and security-related articles to include, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for additional commentary on these issues. Sign up to receive Lawfare in your inbox. Visit our Events Calendar to learn about upcoming national security events, and check out relevant job openings on our Job Board.

Rachel Bercovitz holds a J.D. from Columbia Law School. She previously served as an editor for the quarterly Journal of Democracy. She holds a B.A. in History from Columbia College.

Subscribe to Lawfare