SitRep: More on Flynn’s Russia and Turkey Contacts; Special Counsel Probes Trump; The Hunt For Erdogan’s Bodyguards
- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
With Adam Rawnsley
Have another. You thought you might actually make it through a day without a fresh revelation concerning the Trump team, didn’t you? We almost made it, but the New York Times reported Wednesday night that the president’s transition team knew weeks before the inauguration that Michael Flynn was under federal investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign.
Flynn reportedly told current White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II about the investigation on Jan. 4, and “despite this warning, which came about a month after the Justice Department notified Mr. Flynn of the inquiry, Mr. Trump made Mr. Flynn his national security adviser. The job gave Mr. Flynn access to the president and nearly every secret held by American intelligence agencies.”
And don’t forget. While he was advising then-candidate Trump during the presidential campaign, Flynn was also being paid $500,000 by a businessman with close ties to the Turkish government to represent Turkish interests in Washington. But Flynn neglected to register as a foreign agent until March of this year, a month after he was fired by president Trump for lying to VP Mike Pence over his conversations with the Russian ambassador before the inauguration.
Just before Trump’s swearing-in, Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice briefed Flynn on a plan to arm Kurdish YPG fighters in northern Syria in preparation for their assault on the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. The move was certain to enrage the Turks, who consider the YPG a terrorist group. Flynn told Rice to hold off on the plan, and Trump would make the call. It’s unclear if Flynn’s lobbying relationship had any influence over his decision-making. Just this month, the Trump administration decided to go with the Obama plan, after all, as FP reported first.
More more more. And on Thursday morning, Reuters dropped a report that Flynn and other Trump advisers “were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race.” The interactions — which are not in themselves illegal — are being reviewed by FBI and congressional investigators looking into Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election and contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Of note, however: “six of the previously undisclosed contacts described to Reuters were phone calls between Sergei Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, and Trump advisers, including Flynn.” The report notes that the frequency of the contacts were what has raised red flags.
Naming names. On Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein named former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead the investigation into whether there was any coordination between the Trump administration and Russian government officials. The White House was informed of the decision just 30 minutes before the public announcement was made, when Rosenstein called White House Counsel Donald McGahn at 5:30 p.m.
Ankara still unhappy. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday he wanted Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy to the coalition against Islamic State, to be kicked to the curb. McGurk, “is definitely and clearly giving support to the PKK and YPG,” he said. The U.S. sides with Turkey in labeling the Kurdish PKK a terrorist group, but disagrees with the Turkish view that the YPG should also be slapped with the label. “It would be beneficial if this person is changed,” Cavusoglu said. McGurk was appointed by president Obama to lead the diplomatic side of the fight against ISIS, and was kept on by the Trump administration.
Trump keeps Iran deal alive. The Trump administration said Wednesday it will renew sanctions relief for Iran promised under a 2015 nuclear deal but also announced new punitive measures against Iranian officials over the country’s ballistic missile program. “The moves indicated that while President Donald Trump was not ready to openly jettison the international nuclear agreement with Iran, he was keen to display a tougher line over Tehran’s actions across the region,” FP’s Dan De Luce reports.
The sanctions include two Iranian defense officials and a China-based network the U.S. says has supported Iran’s ballistic missile program, the Wall Street Journal reports. A U.S.official said the U.S. had notified China of the pending sanctions. More from the Journal: “One Iranian defense official who is sanctioned facilitated the sale of explosives and provided other support to Syria, the official said. Another is the director of an Iranian organization that is responsible for the Iranian regime’s ballistic missile program.”
Road warrior. Trump leaves Friday for an eight-day international swing that few — including the president and his advisors — appear to be looking forward to. “In private, Mr. Trump’s advisers acknowledge that they are concerned about his off-script eruptions, his tendency to be swayed by flattery and the possibility that foreign leaders may present him with situations he doesn’t know how to handle. They worry he will accidentally commit the United States to something unexpected, and they have tried to caution him about various scenarios,” the New York Times reports.
Trump has been intermittently meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, deputy national security adviser Dina Powell and senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner to prep. But it’s sometimes hard to retain his attention, according to multiple reports. The president skims reports quickly, and according to Reuters, “National Security Council officials have strategically included Trump’s name in ‘as many paragraphs as we can because he keeps reading if he’s mentioned,’” according to one official.
Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to email@example.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
Tapes. The Washington Post has access to a secret recording of House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) from June of 2016 telling House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and other Republican Congressmen that he thinks then candidate Donald Trump is one of two Republican Congressmen paid by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ryan swore the assembled representatives to secrecy following McCarthy’s statement, saying “No leaks…This is how we know we’re a real family here,” according to a transcript of the conversation. Ryan’s spokesman Brendan Buck initially denied to the Post that the conversation had taken place, but then said that the McCarthy’s comments about Trump had been made in jest once the paper informed him it had access to an audio recording.
WiFi. Be careful what you send over the WiFi at Trump’s private club in Florida. Intrepid reporters at ProPublica decided to test the security of the network at Mar-a-Lago by renting a boat, packing up a long range antenna, and loitering just in range of President Trump’s Florida club, and checking to see what kind of encryption the WiFi network offers. Turns out that the club which Trump likes to call the “Southern White House” employs a weak encryption option which hackers can crack with basic, off-the-shelf free tools.
Violence. The U.S. is condemning the brawl that took place outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence, expressing its “concern” to the Turkish government “in the strongest possible terms,” according to Reuters. Turkish security officials and supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan broke through Washington, D.C. police lines, beating anti-Erdogan protesters assembled outside the ambassador’s residence on Embassy Row. D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham called the incident a “brutal attack” on protesters and that his department was working to identify assailants. Towards that end, Bellingcat, the open source investigative news outlet, has a breakdown of imagery from the incident identifying individual officials involved in carrying out the violence.
We’re from the U.S. government, and we’re here to help. In a move that almost perfectly encapsulates the American Way of War, the Pentagon is preparing to send 159 Black Hawk helicopters to the Afghan armed forces, despite the fact that the Afghans don’t know how to fly them, don’t have the capacity to repair or maintain them, and the birds might not be the best fit for the hot, high-altitude environment. The Military Times tell us. Even better: the choppers — slated to replace the aging Russian helicopters the Afghans currently fly — might not even arrive for another two years.
Talks. The Taliban is ruling out the possibility of a negotiated settlement to the war in Afghanistan, RFE/RL reports. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that a peace deal with the Afghan government is “contrary to the national aspirations of millions of martyrs,” and against Islam. Mujahid also pushed back on reports that officials from warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar Hezb-i-Islami faction, which recently signed a peace deal of its own with the government in Kabul, were in talks with Taliban members amenable to a settlement.