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Norms Watch: Democracy, the Trump Administration, and Reactions to It (July 14-July 21)

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THE TRUMP-RUSSIA CONNECTION

The list of attendees at a Trump Tower meeting between Trump campaigners and Russians grows, Trump and Putin meet a second time, and Mueller’s investigation expands to finances as Trump expresses his discontent.

 

Trump Jr., Manafort and Kushner Met With Russian-American Lobbyist and Accused Money Launderer In Trump Tower

Although Donald Trump Jr. promised last week to be “transparent” as he released copies of emails that showed he attended a meeting after being promised dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of “Russia and its government’s support” for Trump, he did not reveal the identities of all present, disclosing only Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, and British pop manager Rob Goldstone.

One attendee not mentioned by Trump Jr. is Rinat Akhmetshin, a Kremlin-connected lawyer and Soviet army counterintelligence veteran who holds both American and Russian citizenship. He has been accused by some U.S. critics of having links to Russian spy services, and at the time of the June 2016 meeting he was lobbying against the Magnitsky Act, which imposes sanctions on Russia for human rights violations. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has asked why Akhmetshin was not registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Another attendee Trump Jr. overlooked is Ike Kaveladze, a U.S.-based employee of a Russian real estate company who has been the subject of a congressional inquiry into Russian money laundering in U.S. banks. The accusations arose out of his time as president of International Business Creations, a Delaware Corporation. Kaveladze was never charged, and he described the inquiry as “another Russian witch hunt in the United States.” His attorney told the Washington Post he attended the meeting as the representative of Aras and Emin Agalarov, Russian developers who hosted the Moscow Miss Universe pageant in 2013.

The revelations in the news media about the different people in attendance follow Trump Jr.’s shifting explanations for the meeting, which he initially characterized as “primarily” about adoptions, and repeated denials from Trump aides that campaign officials had contact with Russians ahead of the election. The meeting was also attended by Veselnitskaya’s translator Anatoli Smorchornov.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has called Trump Jr. and Manafort to testify publicly next week. Kaveladze has reportedly agreed to be interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller. Kushner will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed-door session on Monday.

 

Trump Asks Advisers About Pardon Powers

Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the Russia investigation, the Washington Post reports.

 

Trump Says He Wouldn’t Have Hired Jeff Sessions If He’d Known He Would Recuse Continue Reading »

Five Questions about the Scope and Limits of the President’s Pardon Power

On the front page of today’s Washington Post, Carol D. Leonnig, Ashley Parker, Rosalind S. Helderman, and Tom Hamburger report that the Trump administration is currently considering a range of options to control and/or block Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation, including the p-word—pardons. On Wednesday, Andy Wright walked through some of the pardon scenarios, and folks should really start with his post. But I wanted to take a shot at framing the pardon issue around five distinct questions, many of which are being asked by folks reacting to today’s Post story. Below the fold, I ask (and try to answer) the questions.  Continue Reading »

Not So Fast: Trump Administration Continues U.S. Sanctions Toward Sudan

After months of speculation, the Trump administration has decided that the current U.S. sanctions against Sudan will remain in place – at least for now.

The State Department announced on July 11 that it would postpone the decision concerning the future of the sanctions. It said it needed more time to review the Sudanese government’s actions pursuant to Executive Order 13761, which President Obama signed on January 13 during his final days in office. Obama’s order surprised many human rights organizations and Sudan analysts as it temporarily removed some sanctions towards Sudan. But the Obama executive order included a six-month window during which the United States had to verify continued progress by the Sudanese government on “five tracks” before permanently lifting the sanctions.

These tracks included a marked reduction in offensive military activity, a pledge to maintain a cessation of hostilities in Sudan’s conflict areas, improved humanitarian access throughout Sudan, and cooperation with the U.S. on addressing regional conflicts and the threat of terrorism. Citing previous progress on these issues, Obama suspended the longstanding U.S. trade embargo with Sudan, unfroze assets, and removed financial restrictions. All of these acts, however, were conditional, pending the six-month assessment.

Other than pushing the sanctions decision from July 12 to October 12, Trump’s executive order does little to alter EO 13761. The interagency decision-making process, which includes input from NGOs, remains the same. Likewise, the general license issued by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control remains in place. The general license makes otherwise prohibited transactions permissible while the sanctions continue. Finally, the criteria for removing the sanctions remain the same, although some have suggested expanding these requirements and the State Department noted the administration’s intention to engage the regime on issues outside of the five tracks including human rights and ensuring that the Sudanese government is not aiding North Korea. Still, as long as Sudan sustains the positive actions that led to Obama’s decision in January, the U.S. will likely end the sanctions program in October.  Continue Reading »

When This Part is Over–America Post the Russia Investigation

 

At some point, Special Counsel Robert Mueller will complete his investigation. He could bring criminal charges, name other co-conspirators, comment on possible grounds for impeachment, or determine that no further legal action is necessary.

Whatever his decision, a significant number of Americans will likely disagree with the outcome. Some have not followed news reports about Russian interference in the 2016 election very closely. Some, on both the right and the left, will have a faulty understanding of the events under investigation because they access only partisan media sources.

Some will question Mueller’s judgment, intelligence, and politics. There will likely be public protests. There could even be violence.

So, as important as Mueller’s current work is, what follows will be even more so. In reacting to Mueller’s findings, our country will either coalesce or fracture further. Here are six things we should all want to see.  Continue Reading »

The Early Edition: July 21, 2017

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

Ways to limit or weaken special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation are being explored by some of President Trump’s lawyers after Trump asked his advisers about his powers to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the investigation, with Carol D. Leonnig, Ashley Parker, Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger report at the Washington Post.

Trump’s legal team is also reportedly amassing allegations of conflicts of interest against Mueller, an allegation disputed by a source with knowledge of the discussion who spoke to Eli Watkins at CNN.

It would be “extremely disturbing” if President Trump were thinking of pardoning aides who could be implicated in the Trump-Russia investigation, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Mark Warner (Va.) said yesterday following reports that the president was consulting with advisers on his pardoning powers in connection to the probe. The Guardian reports.

It would be a “mistake” to fire Mueller, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee said yesterday, Olivia Beavers reporting at the Hill.

The spokesperson for President Trump’s legal team Mark Corallo resigned because he disagreed with its reported strategy of discrediting or limiting the team directing the Trump-Russia investigation, Josh Dawsey reports at POLITICO.

Trump’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz’ role is being reduced and he is no longer running the legal strategy, which will now be handled by internal White House lawyer Ty Cobb, according to two people familiar with the matter, who added that Kasowitz could leave the team altogether. Josh Dawsey reports at POLITICO.

Special counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly looking at transactions involving Trump’s businesses and those of his associates as part of the Russia probe despite the president’s warning earlier this week that he would cross the line by looking into his finances, Greg Farrell and Christian Berthelsen report at Bloomberg.

There was no question that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, President Trump’s homeland security adviser Thomas Bossert and C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado yesterday, Kevin Johnson reporting at USA Today.

Possible money laundering by former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort is being investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his Russia probe, Erica Orden reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Paul Manafort’s request to retract an article reporting that the former Trump campaign manager was in debt to pro-Russia interests by up to $17 million before he joined the campaign last year was denied by the New York Times, Hadas Gold reports at POLITICO.

With the president’s son, son-in-law and former campaign manager due to testify July 26 before the Senate Judiciary Committee about Russian influence on the U.S. election, Michelle Ye Hee Lee provides a timeline of Donald Trump Jr.’s contradictory statements about his meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya at the Washington Post.

“Everything is fine because nothing happened between Trump and the Kremlin.” The New York Times’ Andrew Rosenthal sets out where things stand according to the wisdom President Trump imparted in his New York Times interview this week, concluding that the Trump team is not evil or corrupt but ignorant and poorly informed, which explains why they have “trouble making moral judgments that most children could make.”

Americans are in danger of forgetting how a president who respected his or her office and the Constitution and had nothing to hide would speak and behave. The Washington Post editorial board imagines what an “ethical president” would have said in Trump’s interview this week.

It is paramount that the Trump administration follows through on the steps taken by its predecessor to make clear that the U.S. is united in opposition to Russian interference and that further attempts will not succeed. Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff from 2013-2017, describes the events that took place inside the Obama administration last fall at the Washington Post.

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS

Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to remain in his role despite comments from the president that he would not have nominated him if he’d known he would recuse himself from the Trump-Russia investigation in an interview this week, Sessions said yesterday, Robert Costa, Sari Horwitz and Matt Zapotosky reporting at the Washington Post. Continue Reading »

Palantir Contract Dispute Exposes NYPD’s Lack of Transparency

 

News that the New York Police Department (NYPD) is in a fight with Palantir Technologies over access to analytic data the company produced, raises a host of troubling questions. The dispute over the information stems from NYPD’s plans to cancel its contract with the data mining company as NYPD transitions to a new system —“Cobalt”— which it developed in partnership with IBM, as BuzzFeed recently reported. The most troubling revelation so far is that neither the public nor the City Council had any idea this was going on. New Yorkers have learned more about the NYPD’s relationship with Palantir through this dust-up over a contract dispute than after years of public records requests and a lawsuit. It shouldn’t be this way.

First, some background. Palantir is a secretive tech company founded in part with funds from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is one of dozens of government agencies with multimillion-dollar Palantir contracts, fueling fears that the technology could be used to enforce President Donald Trump’s aggressive immigration agenda. The NYPD has also had a contract with Palantir for years, but the specifics are still unknown.

All we know is that the NYPD was licensing Palantir software to produce analysis from data collected by the police, such as arrest records, license-plate reads, and parking tickets. According to BuzzFeed, Palantir’s software “graphs this data in a way that can reveal connections among crimes and people.” The NYPD’s continued use of this analytic data is at the center of the ongoing contract dispute. Palantir has declined to hand over a readable version of the data to the NYPD, claiming that doing so would threaten its intellectual property.

All of this begs the question: Why are New Yorkers just learning about this now, and where is the public oversight?  Continue Reading »

Nikki Haley is Wrong to Boast About Peacekeeper Budget Cuts: A View From the Central African Republic

Nikki Haley, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, bragged on Twitter recently about cuts to UN peacekeeping funding, saying:

Haley’s ill-advised and alarming boast and promise to cut more funds is a serious risk to UN peacekeeping operations. This is especially so in the Central African Republic (CAR), where we have worked in and with NGOs, and with the UN mission (MINUSCA), advancing civilian protection, humanitarian aid, education, and investigations into war crimes and human rights violations. In the CAR, security reinforcements, not funding cuts, are needed—particularly in a context where peacekeepers have also become a target of attacks.

The country’s security situation is deteriorating rapidly, and the prospect of new mass atrocities, ethnic killings, and forced displacement that had been looming for the past few months, is becoming a reality, particularly in the central and eastern provinces.

Around the towns of Bria, Kaga-Bandoro, and Bambari, tensions have been on the rise since mid-2016. Recently, the Fulani people have been forcibly displaced from the sub-prefecture of Bakouma. Muslim internally displaced people in the city of Bangassou are being prevented by the rest of the population from returning to their neighborhoods, and an armed group made up of former Seleka members calling itself the, L’Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique (UPC), is targeting anti-Balaka militias as well as the communities around the towns of Alindao and Kembe. In the town of Zemio, 19,000 people have been displaced amid outbreaks of violence between armed groups in the past weeks, with some fleeing into the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As we drafted this piece, the grandmother of one of the co-authors was burned alive during an attack on her house in Zemio, and his eight-year old son is missing.  Continue Reading »

Three Ways Trump’s NYT Interview Worsens Team Trump’s Legal Troubles

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump gave an interview with the New York Times that is astonishing in its bombast and disrespect for the competence of people who serve the administration. During the 50-minute session, Trump attacked Attorney General Jeff Session, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, and former FBI Director James Comey.

Trump’s interview will also undoubtedly further antagonize career prosecutors and law enforcement agents within the Department of Justice who take their independence from White House political interference as an article of faith. This interview will become essential reading for Mueller’s investigators and congressional committees, but here are three quick takeaways about how the president has damaged his own legal defense, and exposed his family and associates to greater legal jeopardy as well.

1. Obstruction of Justice Evidence: The Sessions’ Recusal Litmus Test

The biggest headline coming out the interview was Trump’s insistence that it was inappropriate for Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, notwithstanding Sessions’ failure to disclose contacts with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearings to become Attorney General and Sessions’ involvement in the Trump campaign itself. Sessions decision to recuse himself — according to the Justice Department, Sessions’ testimony and Comey’s testimony — was essentially a foregone conclusion due in part to regulations dealing with conflicts of interest that relate to his participation in the presidential campaign, and it was a decision taken on the advice of senior Department officials. Even more alarming, Trump said he would not have appointed Sessions had he known Sessions would recuse. A recusal litmus test for the Attorney General signals to prosecutors that Trump expects to be able to interfere in pending criminal investigations, even when those criminal matters touch on his interests. More specifically, it strengthens evidence that Trump intended to impede the Russia investigation through the management controls of the Presidency. Sessions himself theoretically may be implicated in the possible obstruction of justice, depending on how the decision to fire Comey was orchestrated. And Trump’s statements to the Times suggest he may have had an expectation, if not an understanding, that Sessions would help quash the Russia investigation, and feels betrayed that Sessions backed away.

2. Quid Pro Quo Evidence: The Donald Trump, Jr. Meeting & Russian Adoptions

This week Ian Bremmer broke news of a second, previously undisclosed, meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said that the news was wrong and that the two  leaders only engaged in “pleasantries and small talk.” During Wednesday’s interview, Trump dropped a bit of a bombshell. He said, “we talked about adoption.” As Tom Malinowski, former Assistant Secretary of State has noted, Russian “adoptions” is shorthand for “sanctions” because Putin halted American adoptions in retaliation for the passage of the Magnitsky Act.

Of particular import, Trump then tied his conversation with Putin about adoptions to Donald Trump Jr.’s June 9, 2016 meeting in which the lure had been Russian government dirt on Hillary Clinton. The president said: “And I actually talked about Russian adoption with him, which is interesting because it was a part of the conversation that Don [Jr.] had in that meeting.” One theory of an illegal collusion in the form of a quid pro quo is that Russia would aid Trump’s election in return for sanctions relief–and removal of the Magnitsky Act sanctions is reportedly an obsession for Putin. In the interview, Trump connects the two meetings in a manner that would help establish a quid pro quo. As a legal matter, this implicates not only Trump himself but also his son Don. Jr, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, who each participated in the June 9 meeting and in the email exchange leading up to it. Continue Reading »

Lessons From Mosul: How to Reduce Civilian Harm in Urban Warfare

 

Fighting in densely populated areas poses a number of significant challenges to forces trying to adhere to the rules that govern warfare. Even assuming that international humanitarian law (IHL) is respected, the cumulative effect of urban warfare inevitably leads to human suffering. Nowhere is the tension between the military necessity to defeat an enemy and challenges in protecting civilians more apparent than in cities like Aleppo, Donetsk, Mosul, Raqqa, Sana, and Taiz.

The fight to reclaim Mosul from the Islamic State (or ISIS) is being touted as one of the most significant urban battles since World War II. It is also a case study of the significant challenges in fighting in a densely populated area. The fight in Mosul, with a population of over 1.8 million spread between east and western Mosul separated by the Tigris river, involved primarily the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), who, depending on the unit, have different levels of training, weapons, and competencies, and the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, which mostly used air strikes.

Operations began in October 2016, with the Kurdish Peshmerga and other pro-government forces engaged outside Mosul city, and ended with the capture of the Old City of West Mosul in July 2017. West Mosul’s dense population of 750,000-800,000 people, old buildings, and narrow streets made operations difficult and placed civilian men, women, and children at heightened risk. ISIS prevented many civilians from leaving West Mosul and used them as human shields. In July, when ISIS lost control of Mosul—three years after it overran Iraqi forces—it was a significant victory for the Iraqi people. Many civilians died and remain buried under the rubble in the Old City. More than 800,000 were displaced, and 99 percent of West Mosul was destroyed, this is in contrast to East Mosul where destruction was significantly less.

In Mosul, the military objective to defeat ISIS was intermingled with the larger goal of protecting civilians. While Baghdad issued guidance to limit the use of heavy weapons, such as artillery, in populated areas, all forces did not adhere it to. Some ISF units used artillery and improvised rocket assisted munitions (IRAMs) in western Mosul. Also, while some ISF members, such as the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), received training from the coalition in conducting complex urban operations and performed with more discipline, other units or individual soldiers did not, including on treatment of ISIS members. As the campaign continued, Iraqi forces sustained high casualties from ISIS suicide attacks including while trying to evacuate civilians.  Continue Reading »

The Early Edition: July 20, 2017

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

Donald Trump Jr., White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort are expected to speak with Senate committees next week as part of their ongoing investigation into Trump-Russia collusion, with Kushner down for a private interview with the Senate Intelligence Committee Monday and Trump Jr. and Manafort appearing in an open hearing Wednesday, Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Kushner is prepared to “provide whatever information he has on the investigations to Congress” and “appreciates the opportunity to assist in putting this matter to rest,” his attorney said yesterday, a person close to Kushner telling the Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian and Ashley Parker that he is expected to answer the committee’s questions Monday and not invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Paul Manafort has as much as $17 million in debt to pro-Russia interests before he signed on as now-President Trump’s campaign manager in March last year, according to newly revealed financial records filed in Cyprus where Manafort was keeping bank accounts, Mike McIntire reports at the New York Times.

Top aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher Paul Behrends was pushed out of his role as staff director for the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that Rohrbacher chairs after reports of his relationships with pro-Russia lobbyists emerged in the press, a spokesperson confirming that he no longer worked at the committee yesterday evening. Rosie Gray reports at the Atlantic.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein sought to reassure American citizens that special counsel Robert Mueller was conducting his investigation into Trump-Russia collusion with some degree of independence from the Justice Department yet with the cooperation he required in an interview with Fox News that aired yesterday, saying that he had been asked for an update on the investigation and that he was “not doing any micromanagement” of the probe, Matt Zapotosky reports at the Washington Post.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions “should never have recused himself” and if he was going to he “should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else.” President Trump harshly criticized Sessions for recusing himself from the Trump-Russia investigation in an interview with the New York Times’ Peter Baker, Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman yesterday.

Special counsel Robert Mueller was warned not to investigate the Trump family finances beyond the scope of his investigation into potential Trump administration-Russia ties by the president in his New York Times interview yesterday, Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

Trump’s statements that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein should not be overseeing the Russia probe because of his involvement in the firing of former F.B.I. director James Comey and because he may be a closet liberal because he’s from Baltimore “surprised” a senior official interviewed by POLITICO’s Josh Gerstein, Josh Dawsey and Darren Samuelsohn.

Trump’s public blasting of Sessions suggest he had hoped the Attorney General would play a part in managing an investigation he has consistently referred to as a “witch hunt.” Abby Phillip and Sari Horwitz at the Washington Post evaluate the Trump interview in which he spared virtually no one in contact with the Russia investigation and stated that he believed that former F.B.I. director James Comey meant to use an unsubstantiated dossier of derogatory information about Trump as leverage against him.

Trump would have seen Session’s recusal coming if he’d listened to anything the Attorney General said publicly about how he would handle a Russia investigation involving the president, and while he did not say explicitly that he would recuse himself, he did explain that he would seek legal counsel to avoid the conflict of interest of serving on the Trump campaign followed by the Trump administration, and that’s what he did. Amber Phillips writes at the Washington Post.

It is very possible that Trump’s undoing isn’t direct involvement of Russian election interference but obstruction of justice to protect those close to him for their role in the Russia scandal. James Robenalt takes a lesson from Watergate at POLITICO MAGAZINE.

SECRET TRUMP-PUTIN MEETING

President Trump discussed adoption with Russian President Putin during their previously undisclosed hourlong chat during the G20 summit earlier this month, Trump told the New York Times, adding that he was unaware that his son had discussed the same subject during a meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya last June, Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Trump and Putin did not have a “secret meeting” at the G20 summit but they did chat informally over dinner, the Kremlin said today, Reuters reporting.

Speculation that the U.S. could return two diplomatic compounds seized from Russia by the former administration has been reignited by the private Trump-Putin meeting, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.) saying that “knowing the way Mr. Trump conducts policy” he was “greatly concerned” following the meeting. The Hill’s Katie Bo Williams reports.

It is the deeply troubling and unresolved questions about President Trump’s relationship with Russia rather than the fact that he impulsively sought out Putin for a private chat at a G20 summit dinner that are the real problems and which sensationalize contacts that might otherwise be considered unremarkable, observes the Washington Post editorial board.

SYRIA

The Trump administration has ended the covert C.I.A. mission supporting Syrian rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad, Trump making the decision more than a month ago after discussion with C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, according to a U.S. official, Greg Jaffe and Adam Entous reveal at the Washington Post. Continue Reading »