SitRep: FBI Investigating Trump Moscow Ties, Demolishes Wiretap Claim; Tillerson Skips NATO for Putin Meeting; Iraqi PM Says More U.S. Help Coming
North Korea’s Uranium; Counter-ISIS Meeting in DC This Week; And Lots More
With Adam Rawnsley
Not long after President Donald Trump took to Twitter to insist that stories about potential ties between his campaign and the Russian government were “made up” and “FAKE NEWS,” FBI Director James Comey told Congress on Monday that his investigation into the matter was very, very real.
The affirmation came at the beginning of a contentious 5-hour hearing before the House Intelligence Committee that ended with a criminal investigation hanging over the White House, which began scrambling to portray major figures in Trump’s circle — now ousted for being less than forthcoming about their contacts with Russian officials — as periphery players in the election.
It was an extraordinary moment as the head of the FBI and Adm. Michael Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, together demolished Trump’s false claim that he was wiretapped by then President Barack Obama during the campaign, and that the British GCHQ intelligence agency was in on the job. Asked directly if he or anyone else at the NSA had asked the GCHQ to spy on Trump or his team, Rogers replied: “No, sir, nor would I.”
Last week, the normally tight-lipped British spy agency took the extraordinary step of slapping down White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s claim of British involvement, calling the accusation “utterly ridiculous” and a claim that ought to be “ignored.”
Rogers’ deputy, Rick Ledgett, told the BBC that any suggestion of spying on Trump Tower is “especially stupid.” The NSA chief added that while the U.S-U.K relationship is “strong enough” to survive the controversy, it “clearly frustrates a key ally of ours.”
Why not? Just hours after the hearing, Reuters reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is planning to skip a key NATO summit in Brussels next month in order to stay at Trump’s for-profit Mar-a-Lago report in Florida for two days of meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Just after that meeting, Tillerson will head to Moscow. More: “A former U.S. official and a former NATO diplomat, both speaking on condition of anonymity, said the alliance offered to change the meeting dates so Tillerson could attend it and the Xi Jinping talks but the State Department had rebuffed the idea.” Perhaps, as Tillerson recently said about refusing the take the press along on overseas trips, “I personally don’t need it.”
Well, here’s something. Tillerson will meet with some NATO officials this week in Washington at a summit aimed at pushing the fight against the Islamic State forward, but State Department aides say his interactions will focus solely on the ISIS fight. In all, 68 nations are sending representatives to DC for the talks, including Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who met with Trump at the White House Monday.
ISIS, Iraq, and Terrorism. Speaking at the United States Institute for Peace afterward, Abadi said that the White House had “given assurances that [U.S.] support won’t only continue, but will accelerate” in the fight. He added that “I think this administration wants to be more engaged in fighting terrorism” than the Obama administration, which often frustrated the Iraqis by taking weeks or months to make decisions. Abadi did offer a veiled warning, however, that just sending more troops and helicopters isn’t the answer. “Committing troops is one thing, while fighting terrorism is another thing. You don’t defeat terrorism by fighting it militarily. There are better ways.”
Here’s the new approach to North Korea. The Trump administration is weighing a new round of sanctions “aimed at cutting North Korea off from the global financial system as part of a broad review of measures to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile threat,” Reuters reports. As currently envisioned, the sanctions “would be part of a multi-pronged approach of increased economic and diplomatic pressure – especially on Chinese banks and firms that do the most business with North Korea – plus beefed-up defenses by the United States and its South Korean and Japanese allies, according to the administration official familiar with the deliberations.”
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Bots. The FBI in investigating a network of bots linked to Russia that flooded social media with links to pro-Trump stories from far right wing news sites during the 2016 presidential campaign. Two anonymous sources tell McClatchy that the bureau is investigating whether news sites like Breitbart, InfoWars, RT, and others were aware of or colluded with the operators of the bot networks. The FBI’s Counterintelligence Division is carrying out the investigation as part of a broader look into Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign.
Training. It’s not just the U.S. whose relationship with Syria’s Kurdish militants risks provoking Turkish ire. The AP reports that Russia’s Defense Ministry has embedded ground troops with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria as part of an effort to monitor a truce between the group and Turkish-backed anti-Islamic State rebels. YPG officials, however, say the Russian troops are providing training for them as a prelude to closer relations with Moscow. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization and has frequently criticized the U.S. for its relationship with YPG fighters in the fight against the Islamic State.
Carry on. The Washington Post reports that the U.S. is now banning passengers traveling from airports in 10 predominately Muslim countries from carrying electronic devices larger than a cell phone in their carry-on luggage. Word of the ban came not from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security but from Royal Jordanian Airlines, which issued a statement on social media noting that “certain concerned US departments” had ordered the ban. CNN reports that an anonymous U.S. official claims the ban is being driven by intelligence suggesting that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is capable of building bombs that can slip past metal detectors.
Little help. Syria is once again signaling that it would like Russia to intervene in order to halt Israeli airstrikes on the country. “Russia can play a role so that Israel no longer attacks Syria,” Syrian President Bashar al Assad told reporters on Monday. Israel has reportedly grown increasingly worried about Syria’s transfer of weapons to Hezbollah and Iran’s ability to use Syria to launch attacks against targets in the north of Israel.
But why though? President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka is getting a security clearance, a government-issued phone, and an office in the White House. Politico reports that Ivanka will be moving in next door to National Security Council deputy strategic advisor Dina Powell. It’s unclear why Ivanka needs a security clearance, particularly given that she will not be a federal employee, or what kind of classified information she would have access to. Ivanka’s lawyer Jamie Gorelick says Ivanka intends to comply with ethics rules that apply to federal employees nonetheless.
Fuel. The head of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) tells the Wall Street Journal that North Korea has doubled the size of its uranium enrichment facility in Yongbyon. Director General Yukiya Amano says that the IAEA discovered the expansion via satellite imagery as North Korea booted out the agency’s inspectors from the country in 2009. The expansion would allow the North to produce more weapons-grade fuel in addition to its plutonium production facilities in Yongbyon. “The situation is very bad…It has gone into a new phase,” Amano says.
Punchline. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met with President Donald Trump on Monday and managed to slip in a line towards the end of the meeting. “We have nothing to do with the wiretap,” he told Trump as reporters filed out, according to NBC News.
Photo Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images