The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Mueller Has Dozens of Questions for Trump in Russia Probe

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has reportedly given a list of almost four dozen questions to lawyers for President Donald Trump as part of his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether Trump obstructed justice. Although Mueller’s team has indicated to Trump’s lawyers that he is not considered a target of the probe, investigators remain interested in whether the president’s actions constitute obstruction of justice and want to interview him about several episodes in office.

The list of questions focuses largely on Trump’s decisions to fire former FBI Director James Comey last spring as the agency’s Russia investigation was underway. They also touch on the obstruction issue, including Trump’s reaction to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation. The questions additionally center on Michael Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Advisor, who is cooperating with Mueller and has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his discussions on sanctions against Russia with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition.

Mueller is also seeking information from Trump about his relationship with Russia. Mueller would like to ask the president whether he had any discussions during the campaign about meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and whether he spoke to others about either American sanctions against Russia or meeting with Putin. One question asks what the president may have known about a possible attempt by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to set up a back channel with Russia before Trump’s inauguration.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a member of Trump’s legal team in the Russia investigation, met with Mueller last week to discuss a possible interview with the president. New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal
New York Times: What Mueller Wants to Ask Trump About Obstruction, and What It Means


Time for a new U.S. foreign policy narrative: “Foreign policy is not something that happens an ocean away. It affects not only the wars we fight but the bills we pay. Not just the weapons we use abroad but the computers we use at home. Not only crisis and disease on another continent but illness and injustice down the street,” Ian Bremmer and Joe Kennedy III write in Foreign Affairs. “Any attempt to get the American public invested in an active foreign policy demands a clear picture of the world that we are navigating today.”

Russia is a state sponsor of terrorism—but don’t treat it that way: Russia is indeed a sponsor of terrorism. But designating it as such would be counterproductive, and a closer look at the question shows the limits of designation as a tool of U.S. foreign policy,” Daniel Byman writes in Lawfare.

To contain Iran, look first to Yemen—not sanctions: “In the Middle East, all eyes are fixed on Syria’s ongoing carnage and the international response to the latest chemical attack by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But if the United States seeks stability in the region, it needs a strategy to contain Iran’s threats to its neighbors,” Carlos Pascual writes in Reuters. “The most effective place to start defies conventional wisdom: it is building an international coalition for a ceasefire in Yemen.”

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Manafort seeks court hearing on leaks: Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, is demanding a hearing into a flurry of media leaks that his defense says unfairly accused him of improper collusion with the Russian government. Lawyers for Manafort, who is facing separate indictments in two federal courts, argued in a motion filed Monday night that government officials had engaged in repeated leaks of classified information, grand jury secrets, and sensitive investigative details that have jeopardized his right to a fair trial. Manafort’s defense team said that it had repeatedly requested evidence of intercepted conversations between Manafort and Russian officials from prosecutors, but that none had been produced. Politico

Man gets 10 years for terror plot involving older brother: A man who admitted to discussing plans to explode bombs in Times Square and other New York locations received a 10-year prison sentence on Monday for conspiring with others, including his older brother, to support a terrorist organization. Nader Saadeh had faced a maximum of 15 years but received a lighter sentence because his cooperation helped the government prosecute four other men, including his older brother, Alaa, who was sentenced to 15 years in 2016. Another defendant, Samuel Rahamin Topaz, pleaded guilty and is scheduled to be sentenced on Tuesday. Associated Press


The headquarters coordinating the activities of U.S. ground forces in Iraq closed down on Monday, marking the end of major combat operations against ISIS. The deactivation of the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command in Baghdad also signifies “the changing composition and responsibilities of the Coalition” to defeat ISIS, according to a statement by U.S. Central Command. About 5,000 American ground forces were stationed in Iraq at the height of the war against the ISIS.

The ground forces were in Iraq to advise, equip, and assist the Iraqi  military during the three-year fight to claw back the territory that ISIS had claimed. Since Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over ISIS in December, U.S. forces have been gradually drawing down while shifting their tasks to the training of Iraqi forces in intelligence gathering and policing. It is not clear how many American forces remain in the country. Abadi has said he wants the troops to stay to facilitate the rehabilitation of Iraq’s security forces. His opponents in influential Shiite militias have demanded that the U.S. troops leave immediately. Washington Post, Wall Street Journal

The U.S. and its allies do not want to pull troops out of Syria before diplomats achieve peace, Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Monday, one of the strongest signs yet that a full U.S. withdrawal is unlikely anytime soon. President Donald Trump said last week he wants to withdraw American troops from Syria relatively soon, but appeared to temper that position by voicing a desire to leave a “strong and lasting footprint.” Mattis said the U.S. and its allies were close to victory against ISIS and added they would not want to abandon Syria while it remained in a state of war. Mattis met on Monday with UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura to about the ongoing peace process in Syria. Reuters

ISIS ally stakes out territory around Lake Chad: From the shores of Lake Chad, the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA), which split from Boko Haram in 2016, is on a mission to win the support of the local people. The campaign, which has created an economy for ISWA to tax, is part of the armed group’s push to control territory in northeastern Nigeria and in Niger. ISWA stretches farther and is more entrenched than officials have acknowledged, according to witnesses, researchers, and Western diplomats who have for the first time provided details of the group’s growing efforts to establish a form of administration in the Lake Chad area. Reuters

Trump vows to help Nigeria in fight against Boko Haram: President Donald Trump pledged support for Nigeria's fight against Boko Haram on Monday following a meeting with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Trump said he was prepared to sell helicopters to Nigeria in addition to light fighter aircraft the U.S. has already agreed to provide. “These new aircraft will improve Nigeria's ability to target terrorists and protect civilians,” Trump said. France24

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said Israel is in possession of tens of thousands of documents, obtained from Iran’s secret nuclear archive, that prove that Iran lied about the history of its nuclear weapons program when it signed the 2015 nuclear deal. Most of the documents, as described by Netanyahu, are dated from 2003 and before when Iran had a clandestine weapons development program dubbed “Project Amad.” The allegation comes ahead of a May 12 deadline for President Donald Trump to decide whether to continue to waive statutory sanctions on Iran that were lifted as part of the 2015 deal. Netanyahu has waged a fierce campaign for the deal to be changed or scrapped.

Trump said Netanyahu’s announcement showed he was “100 percent right” in describing the nuclear agreement as the “worst deal” ever signed. “We’ll see what happens,” he said of the upcoming deadline. Richard Nephew, a former senior State Department official who was part of the team that negotiated the Iran deal said Netanyahu’s revelations were “interesting, and important for building a history of [Iran’s] program. But it is not a new revelation, at least in terms of where the program was when we were negotiating.” Washington Post, BBC News

President Donald Trump on Monday signaled his preference via Twitter to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, following the example set last week by the leaders of the two Koreas. White House officials have been discussing sites including Singapore and Mongolia for the planned meeting between Trump and Kim. Officials had privately played down the possibility of holding the meeting at the Peace House, built by South Korea on the Demilitarized Zone to hold meetings with officials from the North, due to concern over the optics of Trump traveling to Kim’s doorstep. New York Times


For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.
Editor-in-Chief, Karen J. Greenberg, Center on National Security, Fordham Law School

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