TBR News February 3, 2018

Feb 03 2018

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C. February 3, 2018:”The so-called Nunes Memo is not the last word on the subject of Trump’s alleged Russian connections. There is another report, this one from Russian intelligence and highly detailed, which, if released, would put the final nail in Trump’s coffin. Many reports that are viewed negatively by the oligarchs that run the country never see the light of day but this Russian report is certain to have legs.”


Table of Contents

  • Abandoning the Kurds: What the Turkish Invasion Means for Syria
  • Why we should fear the ‘Washington establishment’ figures who are pulling the strings in the Trump administration
  • Motives behind GOP-Nunes memo release deeply troubling
  • Nunes memo release is Trump’s attempt quell threats to him and his circle
  • Nunes Memo Accidentally Confirms the Legitimacy of the FBI’s Investigation
  • Justice Department says Mueller probe lawful
  • Trump claims Nunes memo ‘totally’ vindicates him as FBI says ‘talk is cheap’
  • Bitcoin biggest bubble in history, says economist who predicted 2008 crash


Abandoning the Kurds: What the Turkish Invasion Means for Syria

By invading Afrin, one of the last unscathed regions in Syria, Turkey is trying to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state. The U.S. is looking on powerlessly while Russia is rubbing its hands in glee. Ultimately, the true winner might be Bashar Assad.

February 2, 2018

by Christian Esch, Maximilian Popp, Christoph Reuter and Christoph Scheuermann


The first victims on both sides of the front hadn’t done anything. All they wanted was to survive. When the Turkish air force began bombing Kurdish positions in and around the Syrian town of Afrin on Jan. 20, one of their rockets struck a chicken farm near the village of Jalbara and wiped out almost the entire Hussein family. The mother and six children were killed, with only the father surviving. They were refugees from Maarat al-Numan, a city located further south in the province of Idlib, which has once again become the the target of massive bombings by the Syrian air force and has been under fire since December.

The next morning, another rocket, this time fired from the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, struck near the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, slamming into the ground only two meters away from Nadir al-Fares’ car. The taxi driver was killed instantly when the razor-sharp metal shrapnel ripped his car to shreds. Fares had fled to the border region from Bashar Assad’s army back in 2012. He had managed to make it into Turkey, while Hussein family’s flight ended in Afrin, where they endured the stench of the chickens to at least have a roof over their heads during the cold winter.

The deaths of these civilians shows on a small scale what the larger situation in the region looks like. They show how new battle lines are constantly being drawn and new hotspots are constantly emerging in the war in Syria. A conflict that those involved aren’t even trying to stop anymore.

For the last two weeks, a brand new front has encircled Afrin. The increasingly autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had repeatedly announced his intention to extend his fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party across the border into Syria. There, the PKK offshoot YPG, or People’s Protection Units, controls around a quarter of the country and has established what is effectively its own Kurdish state. The region includes areas traditionally settled by Kurds, but also places where a majority of residents are Arab.

The Kurdish party may operate under different acronyms, as the PKK, the YPG or the PYD, but it ultimately acts on behalf of the same leadership and all the various offshoots venerate party founder Abdullah Öcalan. It used to be that Kurdish officials never sought to conceal their de facto unity, but once the Kurds began trying to win the United States as a partner, they started acting as though there were serious differences. Ultimately, though, decisions are made at headquarters in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq.

Erdogan finally acted on his threats on Jan. 20. Turkish fighter jets flew sorties from the north and the west and conducted aerial strikes against YPG military installations and radio stations. Turkish-operated Leopard 2 tanks, made in Germany, rolled through the hilly terrain, accompanied by Arab-Syrian rebels under Turkish command. The rebels came from groups that had once been part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and originate largely from the northern part of the province of Aleppo, where the Turkish army occupied a large area during the summer of 2016.

By the middle of that first week, the attackers claimed to have seized five villages near the border, whereas YPG announced that it had fended off every attack. It’s difficult to find independent source because many of the internet connections in Afrin are provided by Turkish mobile phone company Turkcell, meaning the authorities have the ability to cut them off.

The most reliable claims are likely those made by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in Britain, which has stated that by Feb. 1, 91 YPG fighters and 85 pro-Ankara rebels had been killed in addition to 68 civilians on the Syrian side. The Turkish government contests the civilian deaths, but it has been confirmed by hospitals in Afrin, where doctors say they receive casualties on a daily basis. Turkey claims to have lost seven soldiers. In the last days of January, storms and heavy rainfall temporarily impeded the advance, but the fighting intensified again this week.

Grave Danger

But there’s considerable danger that far more people, especially civilians, will die as a result of the fighting. Afrin is one of the few areas in northern Syria that hasn’t been badly damaged in the war. More than 100,000 internally displaced, including Kurds and Arabs from Aleppo and other areas have taken refuge in the region.

Throughout the conflict, Afrin has been lucky. The Syrian Kurds never joined the insurgency against Assad’s dictatorship, instead adopting a neutral position in 2011. At times they would align with Damascus, at others with the rebels, and at still others with the Russians or the U.S., or preferably both. Assad’s army withdrew and Afrin was never the target of bombing. Even as the Islamic State (IS) captured one village after the other to the south of Afrin in 2013, the enclave escaped a similar fate because in a rare show of unity, rebels pushed IS out of Idlib and Aleppo province in early 2014.

When Washington changed its strategy in summer 2014, declaring Islamic State its primary enemy following the brutal IS attacks on Yazidis in Iraq and on the Kurdish city of Kobani in Syria, the Syrian Kurds proved the ideal partner. The FSA rebels, after all, rejected Washington’s condition that they focus entirely on IS and abandon the fight against Assad’s army, even as the Syrian troops continued to blast away at their hometowns.

With weapons and aerial support provided by the U.S., the Kurds essentially became the Americans’ boots on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State “caliphate.” The U.S largely provided simple technology, but did so in immense quantities, delivering munitions, Kalashnikovs and also, according to unconfirmed reports, Russian Grad rockets.

Linguisitic Acrobatics

The new alliance, however, presented a problem: The PKK was still officially listed in the United States as a terrorist organization. Washington, though, managed to skirt the issue with the help of linguistic acrobatics, referring from that point on to the YPG as a valuable ally in the war on terror while continuing to consider the PKK as a terrorist organization. It’s a line that Donald Trump continued to maintain in a late-January telephone conversation with Erdogan, in which the U.S. president demanded military restraint in northern Syria while at the same time pledging his support in the fight against PKK terrorists.

It was a pledge that highlights the entire absurdity of the situation: Washington has expressed its understanding of Turkey’s bombardment of a militia that the U.S. only recently armed.

Erdogan’s political calculation, on the other hand, is completely transparent. In 2015, he ended the peace process with the PKK that he himself had initiated — with the intention of rallying Turks behind him in the face of the Kurdish enemy. It was a cynical ploy, but it worked.

Mutual Ignorance

Despite all their differences, the three main parties to this new conflict — the U.S., Turkey and the YPG — have one thing in common: their ignorance. Each side believes it can wage its own war in the middle of the Syrian conflagration:

  • The United States only wants to wage war against the IS;
  • Erdogan is only interested in fighting the Kurds;
  • And YPG is seeking to gain control of as much territory as it can, even far beyond the core Kurdish areas.

None of the three can or even wants to bring the war to an end. And although the coexistence worked for as long as the common enemy, Islamic State, remained strong, that’s no longer the case now that the “caliphate” has fallen.

Two statements that obviously hadn’t been coordinated — one from a Pentagon spokesperson and the other from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — triggered the following chain reaction that ultimately culminated with Turkey marching into Syria. On Jan. 13, the news portal The Defense Post quoted spokesman Colonel Thomas Veale, of the Combined Joint Task Force, as saying that a “Syrian Border Security Force” with around 30,000 fighters was being established under Kurdish leadership and that the first 230 had already started training.

In a speech given at Stanford University four days later, Secretary of State Tillerson presented an ambitious Syria strategy calling for the final defeat of Islamic State and al-Qaida and for a United Nations-brokered solution to be found that would also include Assad’s resignation. Iran’s influence should also be pushed back, assurances should be provided for the safe return of refugees and all the chemical weapons still held in Assad’s arsenal should be destroyed. Then he added something that likely made NATO partner Turkey shudder: The U.S., he said, would maintain a military presence in Syria in areas held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Apparently caught off guard, Erdogan could hardly contain his anger. “Our mission is to strangle it before it is even born,” the Turkish president said.

Once again, the fact that Tillerson and Donald Trump don’t trust their own State Department, where they’ve left innumerable positions unfilled, has come back to haunt them. “Why is there no American ambassador in Ankara?” Frederic Hof, the former U.S. special advisor on transition in Syria, recently wrote in a heated editorial. “Why is there no senior American special envoy being dispatched to Turkey in the absence of an ambassador?”

It doesn’t appear that they do.

How Putin Is Winning There’s one person who profits most from the dispute between Turkey and the U.S.: Russian President Vladimir Putin. It provides him the opportunity to thwart Washington’s plans, disavow America’s Kurdish ally and to bring a NATO split that much closer. Until recently, 170 Russian soldiers had been stationed in Afrin. But Russia withdrew those troops, cleared the way for Turkish jets and simply dropped the Kurds.

During the three preceding years, YPG had maintained tactical alliances with both the U.S. and Russia. The U.S. had used the Kurds in the battle against IS, and Washington even helped establish the SDF, a force made up of Kurdish and Arabic troops under YPG command, with the YPG allowed to take control of Arab-majority towns and villages in exchange for their services.

Moscow, meanwhile, exploited YPG as a bargaining chip against Ankara after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet at the end of 2015 and also as ground troops to be used against the rebels. With Russian air support, YPG units captured the city of Tell Rifaat north of Aleppo in addition to dozens of villages in February 2016. They drove out most residents, stole from hospitals and bakeries and made the area part of their own Afrin canton. Despite the fact that local rebels in Tell Rifaat had freed themselves from IS in heavy fighting two years before.

Months ago, an analyst with YPG’s intelligence service noted that the Kurdish leadership has known for some time that the diverse web of alliances would not hold forever. He recalled a long drive with a Russian general at the beginning of 2017. “You ought to decide,” he recalls the general saying. “Either us or the Americans!” Yes, you’re right, came the response. “But we really want to be allies with both, with Russia and the U.S.!” The general, he said, merely shook his head with a smile. A Russian Ultimatum

Aldar Khalil, a member of YPG leadership, says that the Russians issued an ultimatum to YPG before withdrawing from Afrin. If Afrin agreed to submit again to Damascus rule, they said, then they wouldn’t be attacked. YPG refused and instead wanted to turn to the Americans for help. But Washington didn’t respond, says Salih Muslim, the former chair of the Kurdish political party in northern Syria. After the start of the Turkish invasion, the Pentagon stated only that Afrin is not part of the U.S. sphere of influence.

The rockets being fired from Afrin on Turkey, however, have allegedly been supplied by the Americans. A former Arab SDF fighter from Afrin recalls that “1,200 of the Grad rockets delivered by the Americans came to Afrin and the transport was escorted by Russian military police.”

By tolerating the Turkish invasion, Moscow has in turn bought Erdogan’s silence on a far more devastating offensive that has been underway for a short time south of Afrin in Idlib. Russian and Syrian fighter jets are bombing the cities of Maarat al-Numan, Saraqib and Khan Shaykhun as well as dozens of villages. So far, more than 200,000 people have been forced to flee to the north.

Nationalist, Religious Hysteria in Turkey

Erdogan had sharply rebuked these attacks – in part because Turkey no longer wants to take in any more Syrian refugees — but fell silent when Russia pulled out of Afrin. Since then, Ankara has said nothing about ongoing airstrikes by Assad’s forces. In Turkey, the offensive has once again stirred up nationalist, religious hysteria. “God is with us in Afrin,” Erdogan announced, praising the army’s deployment as a divine mission.

The Turkish leader has said that he next intends to attack the Kurds in northeastern Syria, where likely around 1,000 American troops are stationed, in an effort to capture the city of Manbij. Kurdish troops liberated the city from IS in 2016, but kept it for themselves despite a pledge to the contrary made to the U.S.

Ultimately, though, the Turkish invasion is likely to help only one person — Bashar Assad, whose removal Erdogan has been demanding for years. On the evening of Jan. 25, the Kurdish party leadership in Afrin demanded something it would have angrily rejected only a week before. “We call on the Syrian state to fulfil its duty as a state and defend its borders against the Turkish occupier.” It was an invitation to Assad’s army to please return.

That’s what the Russians had actually been hoping for. And they may now see that wish fulfilled.

Should that happen, the outlook is going to grow far bleaker for those who once fled Assad’s troops to Idlib. They can’t flee south, where Assad’s troops have been advancing for months. And they also can’t head north now that Assad’s troops have been invited there.

The lucky ones are those who have already made it to Turkey. But what does lucky really mean in this conflict?

The father of the family killed by the Turkish rocket remained in the hospital in Afrin for several days after the attack. And Hassan, the son of taxi driver killed by the Kurdish rocket, asks despairingly: “What did my father do wrong?” He will now have to care for 12 children together with his sister-in-law. “All our other relatives are dead. But how are we supposed to survive?”


Why we should fear the ‘Washington establishment’ figures who are pulling the strings in the Trump administration

The poor judgement of the very people who are meant to be a restraining force on Trump was shown when Tillerson made a classic blunder that may have negative results for the US for years to come

February 3, 2018

by Patrick Cockburn

The Independent/UK

People sitting in cafes in Baghdad under the rule of Saddam Hussein used to be nervous of accidentally spilling their cup of coffee over the front page of the newspaper spread out before them. They had a good reason for their anxiety, because Iraqi newspapers at that time always carried a picture of Saddam on their front page. Defacing his features might be interpreted as an indication of disrespect or even of a critical or treasonous attitude towards the great leader.

Saddam Hussein invariably got star billing in the Iraqi press, but he would be impressed at the astonishing way in which it has become the norm in the US media for the words and doings of President Trump to monopolise the top of the news. Day after day, the three or four lead stories in The New York Times and CNN relate directly or indirectly to Trump. And, unlike Saddam, this blanket coverage is voluntary on the part of the news outlets and overwhelmingly critical.

Trump’s outrageous insults and lies have succeeded in keeping the spotlight firmly on him ever since he declared his candidacy for the presidency in 2015. Whatever else he may be, he is seldom boring, unlike so many of his defeated rivals and opponents, who believed that his obvious failings must inevitably sink him.

One day they may be proved right, but that day is a long time coming; the open loathing for Trump on the part of much of the American media is curiously ineffectual because it is repetitious and no great disaster has so far hit America one year into his presidency. Commentators note that, for all his bellicose rhetoric, he has yet to start any wars – unlike all his Republican predecessors going back to President Ford.

The constant demonisation of Trump carries another danger that is underappreciated and may produce a real-world disaster. The US media blames everything on him and respectfully portrays the bevy of generals who populate the upper ranks of his administration – Chief of Staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser HR McMaster – as the only adults in the room. Yet it may turn out that they and other business and political figures, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the CIA chief Mike Pompeo, are more likely to bring about a war than Trump himself.

Just how poor is the judgement of the very people who are meant to be a restraining force on Trump was shown last month when Tillerson made a classic blunder that may have negative results for the US for years to come. On 17 January, he announced the US military forces would stay in Kurdish controlled north-east Syria after the defeat of Isis, in order to weaken Iran and President Bashar al-Assad. Just three days later on 20 January, Turkey, predictably enraged at what it saw as a US territorial guarantee of a de facto Kurdish state, sent its forces across the Syrian border to invade the Kurdish enclave of Afrin.

Tillerson had unwittingly initiated a new phase in the Syrian conflict in which the US is self-isolated and Turkey, Russia, Iran and Assad had been brought closer together. The Kurds in Afrin, one of the few places in Syria not devastated by war, have to hide in caves as the direct result of the new US initiative.

Trump’s isolationism may be less risky than the neo-interventionism of his senior advisers. Reports from Washington suggest that the decision to get more fully engaged in the Syrian civil war was contrary to what Trump himself wanted. By this account, he would have preferred to use his State of the Union address to announce that the US mission in Syria had ended in triumph with the defeat of Isis and that he was withdrawing US ground forces. Instead, the decision went the other way as McMaster and Mattis, supported by Tillerson, successfully argued for keeping US ground forces in Syria and Iraq.

These senior officials were only advocating the consensus opinion of the US foreign policy establishment, as was swiftly illustrated by media commentators. Even as Turkish tanks were rolling into Syria, an editorial in The Washington Post was applauding Tillerson for having “bluntly recognised a truth that both President Trump and President Barack Obama attempted to dodge” – which is that the US needs a political and military presence in Syria.

What Trump and Obama were really dodging was repeating the post-9/11 US mistake in pursuing open-ended military ventures against multiple enemies in fragmented countries like Afghanistan and Iraq where it could not win. In the case of Obama, this sense of caution and ability to see what might go wrong was carefully calculated; in the case of Trump, the caution is instinctive and not always operative, but the end result was often the same.

Despite all Trump’s condemnation of Obama’s supposed weakness, his strategy in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria did not differ much from his predecessor – that is until his chief security officials switched to an interventionist policy in Syria last month.

Traditional policy of relying on force to overcome all obstacles, or what Obama nicknamed “the Washington playbook”, looks as if it is back in business. He privately condemned the US foreign policy establishment for being wedded to dubious allies like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in pursuit of overambitious objectives.

American strength in the world was ebbing before Trump, though the divisive and mercurial nature of his presidency is speeding up the decline. In every continent a power vacuum has opened up which is being filled by many eager candidates. They generally have the same ingredients of populism, demagoguery, authoritarianism and nationalism, though the quantities of each may differ, and they are certainly making the world a more dangerous place because they do not know the limits of their own power.

From Manila to Warsaw, there has been the rise of the mini-Trumps who tend to know the politics of their own country well, but be dangerously ignorant of that of other countries. It is in the nature of arbitrary rulers who have suppressed domestic criticism, such as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, that they pursue exaggerated ambitions, moving over ice that is always thinner than they imagine.

US power in the world is declining, having reached its peak between the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the start of the Iraq war in 2003. Two dangers are emerging: one is the feckless nature of Trump administration which acts as a sort of out-of-control wrecking ball, though the damage done is limited by Trump’s low attention span and divisions in Washington.

A second danger is the US foreign policy establishment, which has learned nothing new from past failures, which would like to restore US power to what it once was and which does not understand that this can no longer be done. This is “the Washington playbook”, which Obama came to deride and ignore and is just as dangerous as anything Trump may do.


Motives behind GOP-Nunes memo release deeply troubling

The Republican memo purporting to show how the Justice Department and FBI abused their power to probe the Trump campaign is underwhelming. But the reasons for its release are of great significance,

February 2, 2018

by Michael Knigge


After weeks of hype and against the ardent opposition of Democrats, the Republican-led House of Representatives on Friday finally released the memo that President Donald Trump said shows how leaders of the FBI and the Justice Department were biased against him and “have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats.”

The gist of the memo’s claim is that the FBI and the Justice Department, in an application to get a warrant to spy on Trump campaign associate Carter Page from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, did not disclose that part of the application information stemmed from a dossier financed by the Hillary Clinton campaign, and that the dossier’s author, Christopher Steele, was anti-Trump.

Caveats about the claim

While it seems indeed problematic if this information about the source was not disclosed in the surveillance application, there are few key caveats about that claim.

First, we don’t know if this was really the case, since this is the selective Republican interpretation of documents reviewed by the House Intelligence Committee, headed by GOP congressman and Trump acolyte Devin Nunes. Second, Carter Page, due to his extensive Russia ties, was already on the radar of US counterintelligence authorities long before his role in the Trump campaign, according to court documents and testimony reported by the Wall Street Journal. Third, the source background was likely not a legal requirement to get a warrant. Fourth, even if, as Republicans claim, the source background was lacking in the application, this does not automatically render his information false. And fifth, the last page of the memo, perhaps inadvertently, refutes the claim often made by Republicans that the Steele dossier triggered the probe, since it explicitly states that information by former Trump adviser George Papadopoulos triggered it.

To be clear — assuming that the GOP’s claim is true — of course it would have been desirable to include the background about the Steele dossier in the surveillance application simply to avoid the accusation of bias we are dealing with now.

Pretext to undermine Mueller probe

But having said all that about the claims of the memo, the key question to ask is this: Is this memo the smoking gun showing that the FBI and the Justice Department flagrantly conspired to gin up an investigation of the Trump campaign? No, it isn’t — not by a long shot.

Instead, the memo seems more like a desperate attempt by Nunes, who served on Trump’s transition team, to provide a pretext for the president to go after all those in the Justice Department and the FBI whom he views as not being adequately loyal to him. And for Trump this means not doing enough to hamper or shut down the dreaded probe by special counsel Robert Mueller, which is getting closer and closer to the president himself. Because this, make no mistake, is Trump’s ultimate goal — to finally rid himself of the Mueller investigation that could threaten his presidency.

And this is why the memo, despite being more like a dud than the promised bombshell, is deeply troubling. It could pave the way for Trump to fire or force out those who stand in the way of getting rid of Mueller. And at least as worrying is the thought that many, if not most, Republicans would go along with it.


Nunes memo release is Trump’s attempt quell threats to him and his circle

By seeking to discredit investigators, Trump may only deepen his predicament – ensnaring his family members and closest aides

February 3, 2018

by Tom McCarthy in New York and David Smith in Washington

The Guardian

Huddled with his twentysomething communications director on Air Force One somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, Donald Trump needed a cover story. The news that the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr, had hosted Russian operatives at Trump Tower a year earlier was about to erupt in the headlines.

Within a week, Trump would argue that the meeting, at which the younger Trump hoped to obtain damaging information about Hillary Clinton, was unremarkable: “most people would have taken that meeting”, he would say. But by then he was in a corner.

Up in the air on the way back from a G20 meeting in Germany, with Hope Hicks, a former model and one of his most trusted aides, Trump still felt he had room to move. He decided to exhale a great Trumpian smokescreen, crafting a statement depicting the meeting as “primarily” about “the adoption of Russian children”.

Whatever private fears or concerns prompted Trump to push that cover story have now probably multiplied, significantly.

As the Trump presidency stumbles into its second year, Robert Mueller, the powerful independent prosecutor investigating the president’s Russia ties, appears startlingly close to concluding a case that could offer damning evidence that Trump or his subordinates committed an obstruction of justice in the Russia affair, former prosecutors and Washington insiders say.

Such a case, which experts advise is probably only one slice of Mueller’s overall inquiry, could represent a hazard not only for Trump but also for his family members and closest aides. Those include Hicks, Trump Jr and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who may soon face a decision akin to the one taken by former national security adviser Michael Flynn to cooperate with prosecutors.

The two impeachment proceedings advanced against presidents in the last century – Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton – both included an obstruction of justice charge. Trump and his family members have denied all wrongdoing, as has Hicks through a lawyer.

While it is unclear whether Trump recognizes the gravity of his situation, the president clearly understands that he is in an increasingly breathless fight. Trump has dispatched loyalists in Congress and the conservative media to attack the investigators as biased partisans compromised from the start.

In one of his most audacious sallies yet, Trump on Friday ignored the public protests of the justice department and the FBI to approve the release of a classified memo drafted under the aegis of the House intelligence chairman, Devin Nunes.

Critics across the political spectrum have branded the so-called Nunes memo, which criticizes the FBI’s conduct of surveillance of former Trump aide Carter Page, as a flagrant attack on the bureau and on the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia investigation.

Asked on Friday whether he still had confidence in Rosenstein, whom he himself appointed, Trump told reporters: “You figure that one out.”

The president is trying “to torch institutions that pose a threat,” said Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington and editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog. “I don’t think there’s any gentle way to say that.”

But Andrew Wright, a former White House associate counsel and a professor at Savannah Law School, warned that by seeking to influence or discredit investigators, Trump was only deepening his predicament.

Obstruction of justice in the political sense, where Trump is mired now, it’s like quicksand – you can’t better your own situation by thrashing around. The only thing you can do is be still and wait for someone else to bail you out. The problem for the president is he keeps thrashing around, and he keeps sinking further into the mire and muck.

As the circle of sniping and retaliation becomes more tightly wound, close observers of Washington have warned, the risk grows that something major, finally, will break – whether that means the balance of power in government, or Trump’s backbone of support in Congress and across the country.

“I think it’s clear the president is scrambling,” said Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress action fund in Washington. “The president is looking at any way to turn off this investigation to protect himself. In some ways it’s a quite natural reaction: if you committed a crime, knew you were guilty and had a prosecutor coming after you and yet you had the ability to mobilise against them, you would.”

But even if Trump manages to win a round in the fight, there appear to be many still to come. Mueller appears to be pursuing other cases with repercussions for the president in parallel with the obstruction of justice case, potentially including investigations of collusion with Russia, money laundering, fraud or making false statements.

“It seems clear that Mueller is coming to the end of the obstruction investigation, but it’s impossible to know where he stands on the collusion investigation and what his timeline would be,” Alex Whiting, a Harvard Law School professor specializing in criminal prosecution issues, said of Mueller.

Elizabeth de la Vega, a former federal prosecutor for more than 20 years, warned that “we can’t read as much into what we hear about from the Mueller investigation as people like to try to do”.

“You can’t really report or even consider an ongoing investigation like it’s a sporting event, and you analyze this play or that play, because it doesn’t work that way,” she said. “There is a great deal that we don’t know.”

An interview request

A direct cause for Trump’s increasingly pugnacious stance appears to be a request by Mueller’s team to interview the president, in a setting with implicit threats for a witness not known to be overly bound by his word.

“He is a defense lawyer’s nightmare, in terms of thinking about putting him in front of Mueller’s team,” said Whiting, “because of his manner of speaking loosely, of making false statements, just making things up.”

Trump’s legal team appears to be resisting the request from Mueller, and to be exploring alternatives to an open-ended, in-person interview, such as submitting answers in writing to a narrow range of questions agreed in advance, Whiting said.

Matthew Miller, a partner at strategic advisory firm Vianovo and former Obama administration justice department spokesman, said the interview negotiation represented a “dangerous, sensitive” moment for Trump.

“Trump would have such a hard time completing that interview without telling a lie, just because he can’t seem to do anything without telling a lie,” said Miller. “He’s got to find a way to get out of the interview, and completely undermining Mueller might be the way to do it: they just throw up their hands and say, ‘Well, we were going interview but look, this thing is clearly biased, you can’t trust it, so I’m not going to it.’”

Hicks in the spotlight

This week, that flight back from Germany aboard Air Force One in July 2017 was once again in the spotlight, putting Hope Hicks under new scrutiny.

Faced with the challenge of explaining a meeting that fed the worst accusations against him, Trump turned to the aide who had been with him since he asked her to join him on a campaign trip to Iowa in January 2015.

But while her staying power in Trump’s inner circle may be unequalled outside of his immediate family, Hicks’s loyalty to the president could at some point come into direct conflict with a need to protect herself.

The New York Times reported this week that Mark Corallo, a former spokesman for Trump’s legal team, intends to tell Mueller about a conference call the day after the Air Force One flight, in which Hicks, now White House communications director, allegedly said emails written by Trump Jr before the notorious Trump Tower meeting “will never get out”.

This raised concerns for Corallo that Hicks could be seeking to obstruct justice, sources told the Times, though Hicks’s lawyer strongly denied the claims. The emails in question were later released by Trump Jr himself in an effort to pre-empt further damaging coverage.

The latest development raises the prospect that the investigation – and Trump’s entire presidency – could turn on a 29-year-old former Ralph Lauren fashion model and public relations consultant.

Hicks joined the Trump Organization in 2014 to help promote his daughter Ivanka Trump’s merchandise. A year later the now president recruited her to his election campaign and she quickly became an indispensable aide and gatekeeper, vetting all media requests for interviews. She has continued in that role at the White House, where she was named director of communications last August.

But for all her PR savvy, Hicks’s status as a political neophyte who took few legal precautions could now be her undoing if Corallo’s allegations stand up to scrutiny. There is speculation that Mueller might seek to “flip” her like George Papadopoulos, a former Trump foreign policy adviser who agreed to cooperate with the special counsel’s investigation under the terms of a plea agreement.

That could feel like a desperate betrayal for a young aide who has always shown fierce loyalty to Trump. Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury notes: “Hicks was in fact thought of as Trump’s real daughter, while Ivanka was thought of as his real wife.”


Nunes Memo Accidentally Confirms the Legitimacy of the FBI’s Investigation

February 2 2018

by Alex Emmons, Trevor Aaronson

The Intercept

Despite strong objections from the Justice Department, House Republicans released a four-page memo on Friday challenging the “legitimacy and legality” of the FBI’s surveillance of Carter Page, a former adviser to the Trump campaign suspected of having ties to Russian intelligence.

The memo, generated by staffers of House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes, R-Calif., confirms that the FBI sought authorization under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to intercept Page’s communications. The FBI submitted the FISA application in October 2016, after Page had left the Trump campaign, by establishing probable cause to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that Page was acting as an “agent” of Russia. The Nunes memo also reports that FISA surveillance of Page was subsequently renewed three times.

The central claim of the memo is that the FISA surveillance applications relied on a controversial dossier by former British spy Christopher Steele, whose raw intelligence reports claimed that Trump campaign officials had met with Russians and that Russian intelligence had information sufficient to blackmail Donald Trump. Steele was a Russia expert for MI6 and had provided credible information to the FBI in the past.

The Nunes memo does not say Steele’s dossier was the only piece of information used to establish probable cause that Page was acting as a foreign agent. Indeed, when FBI agents submit a FISA application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, they use information from multiple sources, according to current and former FBI officials. What’s more, the same information is not used over and over to extend surveillance under FISA. Instead, every 90 days, the FBI, as a matter of practice, shows evidence to the court that agents are obtaining foreign intelligence information through the surveillance that is in line with the initial FISA application.

According to the Nunes memo, the FBI received three 90-day extensions to monitor Page’s communications under FISA authority. This would have required the FBI to show Justice Department lawyers and the FISA court judge that Page’s intercepted communications included relevant foreign intelligence information. In fact, according to the memo, two Trump appointees at the Justice Department — Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Dana Boente, who served as acting attorney general after Trump fired Sally Yates — reviewed this information and signed off on submissions to the FISA court.

What’s more, it’s highly doubtful that the FISA court judge would not have known about Steele by the time Page’s surveillance came up for renewal, as the Nunes memo suggests. BuzzFeed published Steele’s dossier in full in January 2017.

“Steele was out there. He was in the press at this time,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. “It’s ridiculous to believe that the judge had no idea who Steele was as this is being renewed over and over again.”

According to reports from journalists, unnamed Democrats on the committee have already begun to dispute the memo’s claim that the Steele dossier was an “essential part” of the evidentiary basis for the warrant applications.

But even if the dossier was a key part of the initial investigation, it wouldn’t have helped the FBI renew its warrant on three subsequent occasions.

The memo argues that the FBI’s process was not a good-faith attempt to investigate Russian influence; rather, the memo says, it was a politically motivated operation to spy on someone affiliated with the Trump campaign.

The memo claims that Steele’s dossier is not reliable because an opposition research firm, Fusion GPS, hired Steele after receiving payments from a law firm connected to the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Fusion GPS’s clients for its Trump research, however, were not limited to partisan Democratic Party concerns: The firm began its research into Trump at the behest of the Washington Free Beacon, a right-wing news website that initially opposed Trump’s insurgent campaign.

Nunes’s memo also alleges another funding source for Steele: the document states that he was not only paid for his work by Fusion GPS, but also by the FBI. That means the Trump opposition work was funded by partisans of both parties as well as a federal bureaucracy.

Even if Steele’s work was purely at the behest of the Democratic Party, however, that would not historically exclude it from being used as evidence in court. The context missing from the memo is that the FBI routinely deals in information coming from biased sources. FBI informants, who number more than 15,000 today, are often motivated by revenge, money, or idealism, among other drivers. The FBI collects relevant information, no matter the source, and then exerts extensive effort to corroborate the information — for example, by seeking a wiretap of a campaign official thought to be conspiring with a foreign government.

U.S. government officials have for years suspected that Page, an energy investor who has done business in Russia, had connections to Russian intelligence. According to the New York Times, the FBI became aware of him as early as 2013, when agents learned that he was passing documents about the energy business to a Russian intelligence agent. The FBI interviewed Page at the time, but concluded he had done so unwittingly, passing the documents to a man he thought was a businessman instead of a spy. The FBI again turned its attention to Page after he traveled to Moscow in the summer of 2016.

The Nunes memo is widely seen as an attempt to challenge the credibility of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. After reviewing the memo, but before it was released, the FBI issued a statement saying it had “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impacted the memo’s accuracy.”

Trump took to Twitter on Friday morning and said the FBI and Justice Department “politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans.” The White House later released a statement saying the memo raises “serious concerns about the integrity of decisions made at the highest levels of the Department of Justice and the FBI.”

Despite rhetoric that could help to undermine Mueller’s investigation, the Nunes memo specifically says that George Papadopoulos sparked the counterintelligence investigation that ultimately led to the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, the firing of FBI Director James Comey, and the appointment of Mueller as special counsel. Papadopoulos, a former Trump foreign policy advisor, pleaded guilty in October to making false statements to the FBI.

Even if the controversial Steele dossier and the FISA surveillance of Page had sparked the special counsel’s inquiry, this would not be the first time that politically motivated information led to a special counsel investigation. Conservative businessman Richard Mellon Scaife gave $2 million to the American Spectator in the early 1990s to investigate President Bill Clinton’s real estate investments and sexual harassment claims against him. Information from the reporting Scaife funded led in part the appointment of Kenneth Starr to investigate Clinton.

Throughout the Nunes memo, Republicans appeal to the rhetoric of civil libertarians, who have long argued that the standards and protections of the FISA court are insufficient. Critics have pointed to the fact that the court operates in secrecy and relies on a body of hidden laws and precedents. The FISA court is also non-adversarial, as the government is typically the only party represented, although Congress passed a law in 2015 that allows the court to appoint outside counsel.

The American Civil Liberties Union, a critic of the FISA court’s lack of transparency, charged that Nunes was wrapping a political argument in claims of civil liberties abuse. “The completeness and accuracy of government representations to the FISA court are longstanding concerns,” Christopher Anders, deputy director of ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, said in a statement. “The Nunes memo makes serious charges of FBI and Justice Department misconduct in obtaining a warrant to surveil an American citizen, but on its own, does not contain the facts needed to substantiate its charges.”

Anders added: “Rather than one side or the other cherry-picking facts, all Americans deserve to see all of the facts, including both the minority report and the underlying documents. The goal should be more transparency, not less, particularly when a congressional committee chairman makes serious charges of abuse but does not provide the facts to either prove the charges or allow Americans to make up our own minds.”


Justice Department says Mueller probe lawful

February 3, 2018


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department has backed Special Counsel Robert Mueller over a lawsuit filed against him by Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, and argued that the case should be dismissed.

Manafort sued Mueller on Jan. 3, saying his office’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 presidential election exceeded its legal authority.

The civil lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, accused Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller, of exceeding his legal authority to “grant Mr. Mueller carte blanche to investigate and pursue criminal charges in connection with anything he stumbles across.”

“These claims lack merit,” a Justice Department filing to the court on Friday said. “The Special Counsel’s investigation and prosecutions are entirely lawful.”

The department said the case should be dismissed.

Mueller’s office indicted Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates in October on charges including conspiracy to launder money, conspiracy against the United States and failing to register as foreign agents of Ukraine’s former pro-Russian government. Trump and his Republican allies in Congress on Friday escalated a campaign against U.S. law enforcement agencies over their probe of the president’s ties to Russia, releasing a disputed memo that the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned was misleading and inaccurate.

Democrats said the four-page memo mischaracterized highly sensitive classified information and was intended to undermine Mueller’s criminal probe into the Russia matter launched in May 2017 that grew out of an earlier FBI investigation. They warned Trump against using it as a pretext to fire Rosenstein or Mueller himself.

Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Nathan Layne and Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn


Trump claims Nunes memo ‘totally’ vindicates him as FBI says ‘talk is cheap’

  • President tweets ‘the Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on’
  • FBI director urges agents to ‘keep calm and tackle hard’

February 3, 2018

by Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington

The Guardian

Amid swirling partisan rancor in Washington, mere days after Donald Trump appealed for unity in his State of the Union address, the president fired yet another broadside at special counsel Robert Mueller and the investigation into Russian election meddling

In a Saturday morning tweet, Trump continued to attack the FBI, claiming a contentiously published memo as supposed proof that the Russia investigation is a witch-hunt.

“This memo totally vindicates ‘Trump’ in probe,” the president wrote, oddly placing his own name in quotation marks. “But the Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on.

“Their [sic] was no collusion and there was no Obstruction (the word now used because, after one year of looking endlessly and finding NOTHING, collusion is dead). This is an American disgrace!”

The four-page memo, which was cleared by Trump and published on Friday by the House intelligence committee chairman, Devin Nunes, against protests from Democrats, the Department of Justice and the FBI, claims bias against Trump within the FBI and focuses on the approval of a surveillance warrant in 2016 to monitor Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser.

The document alleges that in order to obtain its warrant the FBI relied on material from a dossier compiled by a former British spy, Christopher Steele, detailing an alleged years-long campaign by Russia to cultivate Trump and sow discord in the US.

A key assertion in the memo is that the FBI did not include in its warrant application knowledge that the Steele dossier was partly funded by Democrats.

The FBI has struck a defiant tone. Hours after Trump declassified the memo on Friday, against the wishes of the national security community, the FBI director, Christopher Wray, sought to rally his agents.

“Talk is cheap; the work you do is what will endure,” Wray wrote in an internal note leaked to media sources. “We speak through our work. One case at a time. One decision at a time.”

Wray urged his employees to ignore the sensational headlines, writing: “Remember: keep calm and tackle hard.”

The message followed speculation that Wray might resign over the release of the memo, which he had warned against in a rare public rebuke.

Trump and his supporters have declared war on the FBI and justice department, as part of attempts to discredit the inquiry into possible collusion between the Trump campaign in Moscow in the 2016 election and potential obstruction of justice by the president.

The memo has been attacked regarding its inconsistencies and omissions, which critics say show a deliberate attempt to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller.

The document fails to note that the US government surveilled Page after he left the Trump campaign. The application to target Page was made on 21 October 2016, a month after the Trump campaign publicly distanced itself from its former adviser, as his ties to Russia came under public scrutiny.

“He’s certainly not part of the campaign I’m running,” Kellyanne Conway, then Trump’s campaign manager, said in September 2016.

The memo also does not note that material from the Steele dossier was a part of the basis for the application but was not solely used for its justification.

Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said the investigation “would persist on the basis of wholly independent evidence had Christopher Steele never entered the picture”.

The memo confirms that the US government investigation into Russian meddling originated in an assertion to an Australian diplomat by George Papadopoulos, another foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, that Moscow possessed damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

Schiff and Democrats on the House intelligence committee sought to release their own memo, but Republicans on the panel voted to block them from doing so.

Critics fear Trump will use the memo as justification for firing high-ranking officials at the FBI and justice department. The president and his supporters have set their sights in particular on Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who has been tasked with oversight of Mueller’s investigation.

Trump was asked on Friday if he still had confidence in Rosenstein. He told reporters in the Oval Office: “You figure that one out.”

Later in the day, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions – who recused himself from the Russia investigation after misleading Congress about his own contacts with Russians – defended Rosenstein and the justice department’s third-ranking official, Rachel Brand.

The two officials “represent the kind of quality and leadership that we want in the department”, Sessions said.

While most Republicans in Congress have either remained silent or lined up behind Trump regarding the release of the Nunes memo, the Arizona senator John McCain was among the few to break ranks.

“The American people deserve to know all of the facts surrounding Russia’s ongoing efforts to subvert our democracy, which is why special counsel Mueller’s investigation must proceed unimpeded,” he said in a statement.

“Our nation’s elected officials, including the president, must stop looking at this investigation through the warped lens of politics and manufacturing partisan sideshows.”



Bitcoin biggest bubble in history, says economist who predicted 2008 crash

Nouriel Roubini calls cryptocurrency the ‘mother of all bubbles’ as it falls below $8,000

February 2, 2018

by Angela Monaghan

The Guardian

The economist credited with predicting the 2008 global financial crisis said a 12% fall in the value of bitcoin on Friday was the latest proof that the cryptocurrency was the biggest bubble in history and destined for a crash.

Nouriel Roubini, professor of economics at New York University, said bitcoin was “the mother of all bubbles” favoured by “charlatans and swindlers” as it fell below $8,000 (£5,600) early on Friday, marking a 30% drop since the beginning of the week as investors became increasingly twitchy about a clampdown on cryptocurrencies by regulators. Later it rallied, climbing back over $8,600 by 3pm (GMT).

Bitcoin has lost more than half its value since hitting a peak of near $20,000 in the week before Christmas. Dubbed “Dr Doom”, Roubini said the sharp fall was the beginning of a crash that would see the value of the digital currency plummet “all the way down to zero”.

The latest sell-off follows reports that US regulators are investigating whether the spike in the price of bitcoin in 2017 was the result of market manipulation. India’s finance minister said the country did not recognise the cryptocurrency as legal tender, pledging to fight their use for “illegitimate activities”.

Digital currencies have also been hit by the news that Facebook is banning all adverts for cryptocurrencies. Ethereum, ripple, litecoin and other digital currencies all suffered double-digit percentage falls on Friday as investors took fright.

“Policymakers and regulators are getting worried. Pretty much every G20 policymaker is talking about a crackdown,” Roubini told Bloomberg Television. “We can’t allow it to become the next Swiss bank account for use by criminals and people evading tax.”

He added that the 1,300 cryptocurrencies or initial coin offerings currently in existence were “a scam”. “Most of them are even worse [than bitcoin] and don’t have any intrinsic value like bitcoin. So if bitcoin is a bubble, it’s a bubble to the power of two or three.”

Critics have warned that bitcoin has all the hallmarks of a classic speculative bubble that could burst, like the dotcom boom and the US sub-prime housing crash that triggered the global financial crisis. Last year it rose in value by more than 900%, making it the best performing asset of 2017.

Robert Shiller, the Nobel prize-winning economist, said last week that while bitcoin was a “really clever idea”, it would not become a permanent part of the financial world.

“I tend to think of bitcoin as an experiment. It is an interesting experiment, but it’s not a permanent feature of our lives,” he said, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Bitcoin is not recognised by any central bank and currently allows people to bypass banks and traditional payment methods to pay for goods and services. Banks and other financial institutions have been concerned about bitcoin’s early associations with money laundering and online crime, and it has not been adopted by any government.

However, the spike in the price is forcing regulators and institutions to consider how to respond.

Jon Cunliffe, deputy governor for financial stability at the Bank of England, has said that bitcoin is too small to pose a risk to the global economy. However, he warned that investors should “do their homework” before backing the digital currency.

“The wheels are coming off the bitcoin bandwagon,” said Neil Wilson, analyst at ETX Capital. “The regulatory crunch appears closer than ever and sooner or later this market could be headed back down to earth. Selling pressure at the moment is intense as there has been nothing but bad news for bitcoin bulls of late. Trying to catch the falling knife is a risky game.”

Bitcoin faces a global backlash from regulators and governments

India’s finance minister said this week that the country does not recognise cryptocurrencies as legal tender and would take action against their use in funding “illegitimate activities”.

US regulators are investigating the Bitfinex exchange and a cryptocurrency company called Tether. They are questioning whether tether, whose coins are used to trade digital currency, are backed by US dollars as it claims.

Facebook has banned bitcoin and other cryptocurrency adverts on its site.

South Korea announced at the end of December that it was planning a crackdown on trading in the digital currency, preparing a ban on opening anonymous cryptocurrency accounts and new legislation to enable regulators to close coin exchanges if they felt there was a need to do so.

UK prime minister Theresa May said last week she was concerned that criminals were taking advantage of digital currencies. “In areas like cryptocurrencies, like bitcoin, we should be looking at these very seriously,” she said.

Steven Mnuchin, US treasury secretary, signalled that bitcoin and cryptocurrencies would be subject to greater regulatory scrutiny in the world’s largest economy.






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