Flynn, Paid by Turkey, Delayed ISIS Attack Plan That Turkey Opposed

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn pushed to delay a plan to retake Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) stronghold Raqqa that Turkey opposed, according to a new report.

McClatchy reports that former President Barack Obama and his national security adviser, Susan Rice, informed then President-elect Trump of a Pentagon plan to retake the city of Raqqa, an ISIS stronghold, with the help of Syrian Kurdish forces. Obama’s team informed Trump because while the plan would be approved under Obama, it would likely be executed after Trump took office.

Flynn told Rice to delay approving the mission. His explanation for the delay was not recorded, according to McClatchy, but the decision to delay approval lined up with Turkey’s interests in the region. Turkey has been a staunch opponent of the United States partnering with Kurdish forces in the region.

The recommendation to delay the mission approval took place during the Trump team’s transition period, ahead of Trump’s inauguration.

Flynn was under investigation for lobbying for Turkey during the presidential campaign without declaring it. He admitted earlier this year he lobbied on behalf of the Turkish government — and received payment of more than $500,000.

The report follows the revelation that Trump knew about Flynn being under investigation weeks before his inauguration, but appointed him at national security adviser anyway.

Flynn resigned from his post after it was revealed he discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Trump took office and misled top administration officials, including Vice President Pence, about the nature of the talks.

[The Hill]

Trump Told Comey to Consider Jailing Reporters Publishing Leaks

President Trump reportedly told now-ousted FBI Director James Comey to consider jailing reporters who publish leaked classified information, according to The New York Times.

One of Comey’s associates told the newspaper that the conversation occurred shortly after a joint meeting on Feb. 14 that included Vice President Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Following a terrorism threat briefing, Trump reportedly told everyone to leave the room except for the FBI director.

The source told The Times that Trump then began discussing the leaks to the news media and asked Comey to consider jailing reporters for publishing classified information.

According to the report, Trump also asked Comey to end the federal investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Following the meeting, Comey wrote in a memo that Trump told him, Flynn “is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

[The Hill]

Trump ‘Asked FBI to Halt Flynn Inquiry’

President Donald Trump asked FBI chief James Comey to end an inquiry into links between his ex-national security adviser and Russia, US media report.

“I hope you can let this go,” Mr Trump reportedly told Mr Comey after a White House meeting in February, according to a memo written by the ex-FBI director.

The memo was written immediately after the meeting, a day after Michael Flynn resigned, according to US media.

The White House has denied the report in a statement.

“The president has never asked Mr Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn,” it said.

Mr Flynn was forced out in February after he misled the vice-president about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador before Mr Trump took office.

The latest Russian twist, first reported by the New York Times, comes a week after Mr Trump fired Mr Comey over his handling of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while at the state department.

Mr Comey’s dismissal sent shockwaves through Washington, with critics accusing the president of trying to thwart the FBI investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the US election and any Moscow ties to Trump associates.

Mr Comey reportedly wrote a memo following a meeting with the president on 14 February that revealed Mr Trump had asked him to close an investigation into Mr Flynn’s actions.

He reportedly shared the memo with top FBI associates.

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” the president told Mr Comey, according to the memo. “He is a good guy.”

Mr Comey did not respond to his request, according to the memo, but replied: “I agree he is a good guy.”

In response to the report, a White House official pointed out that acting FBI director Andrew McCabe had testified last week that there had been “no effort to impede our investigation to date”.

[BBC News]

President Trump Meets With Turkish President Amid Tensions

President Donald Trump is welcoming Turkey’s president to the White House for their first face-to-face meeting Tuesday, even as Turkish officials fumed over a U.S. decision to arm the Syrian Kurds.

Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are expected to address the Syrian civil war, the refugee crisis and the fight against the Islamic State group.

Shortly after Erdogan arrived in Washington, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told his party members that U.S. cooperation with Syrian Kurds “is not something acceptable” for Turkey.

Turkey is determined to “root out terror,” Yildirim said, if “necessary guarantees for Turkey’s sensitivities and issues pertaining to Turkey’s security are still not given.”

The Trump administration has ramped up efforts to respond to the crisis in Syria, taking unprecedented action against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government over its use of chemical weapons against civilians.

But with Iran and Russia working to bolster Assad’s government, the Trump administration is turning to regional allies, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt for help as it crafts its Syria policy.

Complicating that effort, however, was an announcement by the Trump administration that it plans to arm Kurdish Syrian fighters in the fight against the Islamic State group. Turkey has been pressuring the U.S. to drop support for the Kurdish militants in Syria for years and doesn’t want them spearheading the Raqqa effort.

Turkey considers a Turkish Kurdish group, known as the PKK, a terrorist group because of its ties to the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party inside Turkey. The United States, the European Union and Turkey agree the PKK is a terrorist organization.

Trump’s deal-making skills will be put to the test as he works to assure Erdogan that the decision to arm Kurdish fighters in Syria will not result in weapons falling into the wrong hands.

Erdogan arrived Monday in Washington, the Turkish flag hanging prominently outside the Blair House, a historic presidential guesthouse across the street from the White House.

The meeting is considered high stakes for the nascent Trump administration as it looks to engage regional allies in delicate security matters while enforcing international standards for human rights.

Trump’s willingness to partner with authoritarian rulers and overlook their shortcomings on democracy and human rights has alarmed U.S. lawmakers of both parties. That puts added pressure on him to get results.

Trump has gone out of his way to foster a good relationship with Erdogan. After a national referendum last month that strengthened Erdogan’s presidential powers, European leaders and rights advocates criticized Turkey for moving closer toward autocratic rule. Trump congratulated Erdogan.

But Erdogan may not be amenable to accepting the U.S. military support for the Kurds in a quid pro quo. Last month, the Turkish military bombed Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq, in one case with American forces only about six miles (10 kilometers) away. His government has insisted it may attack Syrian Kurdish fighters again. The U.S., whose forces are sometimes embedded with the Kurds, has much to fear.

Washington is concerned by rising anti-Americanism in Turkey that Erdogan’s government has tolerated since the July coup attempt. The U.S. also has pressed unsuccessfully for the release of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, and other detained U.S. citizens.

[TIME]

Reality

Trump has a property in Turkey, Trump Towers Istanbul, so we can’t be sure if this visit is to benefit the country or his own pocketbook.

Under Trump, Inconvenient Data is Being Sidelined

The Trump administration has removed or tucked away a wide variety of information that until recently was provided to the public, limiting access, for instance, to disclosures about workplace violations, energy efficiency, and animal welfare abuses.

Some of the information relates to enforcement actions taken by federal agencies against companies and other employers. By lessening access, the administration is sheltering them from the kind of “naming and shaming” that federal officials previously used to influence company behavior, according to digital experts, activists and former Obama administration officials.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for instance, has dramatically scaled back on publicizing its fines against firms. And the Agriculture Department has taken off-line animal welfare enforcement records, including abuses in dog breeding operations and horse farms that alter the gait of racehorses through the controversial practice of “soring” their legs.

In other cases, the administration appears to be dimming the prior spotlight on the background and conduct of top officials. The administration no longer publishes online the ethics waivers granted to appointees who would otherwise be barred from joining the government because of recent lobbying activities. Nor is the White House releasing logs of its visitors, making it difficult for the public to keep track of who is stopping by to see the president’s inner circle.

The administration has also removed websites and other material supporting Obama-era policies that the White House no longer embraces. Gone, for instance, is a White House Web page that directed prospective donors to private groups that aid refugees fleeing Syria and other embattled nations.

Officials also removed websites run by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department that provided scientific information about climate change, eliminating access. for instance, to documents evaluating the danger that the desert ecology in the Southwest could face from future warming. (On Friday, protesting against the disappearance of the EPA website, the city of Chicago posted the site online as it had existed under the Obama administration.)

And within a week of President Trump’s inauguration, the White House retired the two-year-old Federal Supplier Greenhouse Gas Management Scorecard, which ranks firms with major federal contracts on their energy efficiency and policies to curb carbon output.

“The President has made a commitment that his Administration will absolutely follow the law and disclose any information it is required to disclose,” said White House spokeswoman Kelly Love in an email Sunday.

The White House takes its ethics and conflict of interest rules seriously,” Love added, “and requires all employees to work closely with ethics counsel to ensure compliance. Per the President’s Executive Order, violators will be held accountable by the Department of Justice.”

But Norman Eisen, who served as President Barack Obama’s special counsel for ethics and government reform, said the changes have undermined the public’s ability to hold the federal government accountable.

“The Trump administration seems determined to utilize a larger version of Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility to cover the entire administration,” said Eisen, now a fellow with the Brookings Institution’s governance studies program.

Across the vast breadth of the government, agencies have traditionally provided the public with massive data sets, which can be of great value to companies, researchers and advocacy groups, among others. Three months ago, there were 195,245 public data sets available on www.data.gov, according to Nathan Cortez, the associate dean of research at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law, who studies the handling of public data. This week it stood at just under 156,000.

Data experts say the decrease, at least in part, may reflect the consolidation of data sets or the culling of outdated ones, rather than a strategic move to keep information from the public. But the reduction was clearly a conscious decision.

Cortez said the Obama administration increased the amount of government data offered to the public, although the information was at times incomplete or inaccurate and sometimes used as a “regulatory cudgel.” Under Trump, the government is taking transparency “in the opposite direction.”

In some cases, federal Web pages are being routinely maintained. In other cases, information that was once easily accessible to the public has moved to locations that are harder to find, access and interpret. Yet other data has entirely vanished.

The Education Department, for instance, continues to update weekly how many universities and colleges are being investigated for how they handle claims of sexual assault and harassment under the federal statute, Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination.

Under Obama, OSHA regularly sent out news releases to publicize the fines levied against companies, aiming to discourage others from engaging in similar behavior. President George W. Bush’s administration had a similar policy, issuing dozens of news releases each month.

Business groups have criticized the practice as scapegoating.

“The issue of shaming through news releases has been a real issue with my members,” said Randy Johnson, senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in an interview, adding, “It’s about trying to drive customers away, so that will put pressure on companies to settle” with the Labor Department rather than fight the alleged violations in court.

Since Trump took office, OSHA has issued more than 200 citations of $40,000 or more, according to the agency’s former deputy assistant secretary Jordan Barab, which was the threshold for issuing a news release under Obama.

But OSHA has issued only two stand-alone press statements on fines of at least $40,000, along with one on a judicial ruling. The releases include an incident where two men died in a collapsed trench in Boston where the agency found the company did not provide safety training or proper safeguards and when a worker in an auto insulation manufacturer in suburban Toledo had his right hand amputated by a machine.

A record of OSHA’s enforcement actions is still available online, but accessing it requires navigating the Labor Department’s extensive website to access raw data that largely lacks context and can be opaque.

Howard Mavity, a labor and employment lawyer at Fisher & Phillips who represents management, said in an interview that Obama officials’ practice of “regulation by shame . . . angered some employers, as well as me.” But putting a near-total stop to the news releases, he said, “was too far the other way.”

“Those news releases served a valuable role, to constantly alert and catch employers’ attention,” Mavity said.

Other documents are simply absent. Just days after taking office, Trump instituted a policy under which appointees are barred from working on any issue on which they have lobbied in the past two years, but the government can still waive this restriction. The administration has not made public which waivers, if any, it has granted.

The waivers detail contacts that could have precluded the person from serving and in some cases outline what contacts that person can have with former clients.

Michael Catanzaro represented clients including American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers and Devon Energy as a partner at the CGCN Group before becoming special assistant to the president for domestic energy and environmental policy in February. Since joining the White House, Catanzaro has played a key role in drafting executive orders that could affect his former clients, including orders on climate and offshore drilling. The administration has not explained what steps, if any, he took to avoid a conflict of interest with those clients.

Catanzaro declined to comment.

Robert Glicksman, a George Washington University environmental law professor, was making the final edits on a law review article when he noticed that a government website he was relying on had vanished. Gone was the ecological assessment issued by the Bureau of Land Management for the Chihuahuan Desert, while another one was archived and a third was moved to an entirely different site.

“It’s one of the most important tools for BLM in understanding the current and likely impact of climate change on the public lands,” Glicksman said, adding that each document ran hundreds of pages and included technical and scientific information. “All that research is essentially off the boards, for now.”

The BLM did not respond to a request for comment.

In some cases, experts say, shelving disclosure requirements can hamper innovation in the private sector. Two years ago, the White House launched the greenhouse gas score card for federal contractors, listing whether they had disclosed their carbon output, have a goal to cut it and could face business risks from climate change. The site was archived within a week of Trump taking office.

Jason Pearson, executive director of the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council, said that action removed a powerful incentive for private companies to improve their environmental practices.

“That transparency about positive action can be one of the most important motivators for the broader community to take action,” he said.

[Washington Post]

Trump Revealed Highly Classified Information to Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador

The Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump divulged highly classified information during his meeting with Russian officials last week.

Officials told the Post that the information was incredibly sensitive and that its exposure endangers the relationship with an ally, which had not approved sharing the information with Russia. This ally, officials told the Post, “has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State.”

BuzzFeed, The New York Times and Reuters later confirmed the Post’s report.

In the wake of the reports, White House officials pushed back, saying Trump didn’t discuss intelligence sources or methods of collection.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that during Trump’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov “the nature of specific threats were discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations.”

National security advisor H.R. McMaster echoed those remarks, saying “At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.”

Dina Powell, deputy national security advisor for strategy, called the reports false, saying “The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced.”

Officials told the Post that Trump’s disclosure could obstruct intelligence operations by the United States and its allies.

While Trump’s release of highly classified information could seriously damage the U.S. relationship with the ally that collected the information, the president, as the Post noted, has the broad authority to declassify information.

The CIA declined to comment to the Post. The NSA did not respond to the Post’s requests for comment.

A former intelligence official told CNBC that if Trump’s reveal was unintentional, it is a demonstration of “shocking disregard or lack of understanding of classified material.” The official added that if Trump’s disclosure was intentional, it would mark a significant shift in the U.S. approach to intelligence alliances.

[CNBC]

Kellyanne Conway blames negative coverage on ‘sexist’ and ‘Trumpist’ media

It’s all about the “feigned pained look, the furrowed brow, the curled lip.”

Or comments such as, “That makes no sense” or “You must be lying” that anchors make anytime an advocate of President Trump goes on television to defend him.

Kellyanne Conway said that’s what television anchors and hosts have resorted to — all in the pursuit of going viral.

“They think it’s the job of the news media now, which it’s not, of course,” the White House counselor said Sunday during an interview with Fox News host Howard Kurtz.

Conway doubled down on her criticisms of the media, specifically on the level of negative coverage of the Trump administration and how the president’s surrogates are treated on air. The harshness and combativeness of TV interviews, she suggested, are attributable to “the quest to go viral,” especially “when there’s nothing else to say.”

“It really doesn’t help democracy and it doesn’t help the body politic because people are looking for the news,” Conway said. “They’re not looking for conjecture. They don’t care that something goes viral and a late-night host gets a couple of laughs out of it. The idea that people are so presumptively negative toward so much that’s going on.”

Her comments, it appears, were inspired by her combative interviews with CNN anchors Anderson Cooper and Chris Cuomo last week in the aftermath of Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James B. Comey. Cooper rolled his eyes in response to a statement by Conway, inevitably paving the way for a viral GIF of his eyeroll. Cuomo, on the other hand, berated Conway throughout the interview.

Cooper’s eyeroll is “possibly sexist,” Conway said, and “definitely what I’d call Trumpist,” a new term that apparently describes anything anti-Trump.

She added that the media — without naming any news outlet or individual reporter — has largely focused on criticisms while ignoring “the news reports or the facts.”

“It feels like there’s this conclusion in search of evidence,” she said, adding later: “No good comes out of it … having to hear all the blather and having to hear all the nonsense and the negativity and the falsities.”

Toward the end of the congenial and largely uninterrupted interview, Kurtz asked about Trump’s tweets and what the media is supposed to do when the president says or tweets something controversial, such as this tweet last week: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

“How do you not cover that as a story?” Kurtz asked.

Conway did not comment on the tweet and instead further criticized media coverage — specifically the media’s “obsession with every tweet and every comment,” while ignoring things such as job growth and the “amazing trade deal” with China.

“That’ll impact more people. it’s like, ‘Trade deal on beef with China. Yawn!’ ” Conway said as Kurtz chuckled. “That’s news. That affects people. That’s significant movement.”

Conway was probably referring to a recent government report stating that the U.S. economy added 235,000 jobs in February and that the unemployment rate dropped to 4.7 percent, compared with 4.8 percent in January. A report the following month, however, had lower numbers. Employers added 98,000 jobs in March, the lowest gain in nearly a year.

The Trump administration also recently reached deals with China to ease market access for a variety of sectors, including beef and financial services.

Conway was a constant presence on cable news interviews in the months immediately after Trump’s victory in the 2016 election. Her appearances on Cooper and Cuomo’s shows this past week aren’t the first combative interviews she has had. The now-famous “alternative facts” comment was made by her during a tense back-and-forth with NBC’s Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press.”

Her TV interviews have become less frequent in recent months. The hiatus has prompted rumors that she had been sidelined, and it led to a “Saturday Night Live” sketch mocking her prolonged absence.

[Washington Post]

Media

 

Trump Travels to His Golf Club in Va.

President Trump traveled to his golf club in Virginia on Sunday.

According to pool reports, he was “glimpsed wearing a red baseball cap” at his Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va.

Pool reports mentioned that Trump has phone calls and lunch scheduled and “may hit a few balls” while at his course.

A New York Times photographer spotted Trump wearing his red cap and golf shoes arriving at his Virginia club.

An NBC News editor noted that the president has now traveled to a Trump-branded property for 15 weeks in a row since becoming president.

Meanwhile, hundreds of demonstrators spelled out the word “RESIST!” in a protest at the president’s Trump National Golf Club in Rancho Palos Verdes in California on Saturday.

[The Hill]

 

 

 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions Enacts Harsher Charging, Sentencing Policy

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is directing federal prosecutors to seek “the most serious” criminal charges against suspects, a move that would result in severe prison sentences – and is expected to reverse recent declines in the overcrowded federal prison system.

The brief, two-page directive, issued to the 94 U.S. attorneys offices across the country late Thursday, replaces a 2013 memo put in place by then-Attorney General Eric Holder that sought to limit the use of mandatory-minimum sentencing rules that had condemned some non-violent offenders to long prison terms – that proved to be expensive for taxpayers.

Justice officials said the new policy would not target low-level drug offenders, unless they were linked to firearms, gang membership or other aggravating crimes.

“This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency,” Sessions said in the directive. “This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us. By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial… sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.”

Under the plan, ten-year mandatory minimum sentences would typically be sought in cases where suspects were in possession of 1 kilogram of heroin (equal to thousands of doses); 5 kilograms of cocaine (about 11 pounds); or 1,000 kilograms of marijuana (more than 2,000 pounds).

“There will be circumstances in which good judgment would lead a prosecutor to conclude that a strict application of… the charging policy is not warranted,” Sessions said. But such exercises of discretion, the attorney general said, would be subject to high-level approval.

On Friday, Holder sharply rebuked the action, calling it “absurd” and “dumb on crime.”

“It is an ideologically-motivated, cookie-cutter approach that has only been proven to generate unfairly long sentences that are often applied indiscriminately and do little to improve public safety,” Holder said. “These reversals will be both substantively and financially ruinous, setting the department back on a track to again spending one-third of its budget on incarcerating people rather than preventing, detecting or investigating crime.”

Justice officials already have alerted federal prison officials that the action, in conjunction with the administration’s recently announced increase in immigration prosecutions, would likely result in a larger prison population.

Last month, Sessions directed federal prosecutors to bring felony charges against immigrants suspected of making repeated illegal entries to the United States. Undocumented entry cases have been previously charged as misdemeanors.

During the Obama administration, Holder’s policy had sought to reduce the size of the federal prison system that has long been a financial drag on the Justice budget. That policy echoed shifts in law enforcement policy that had been sweeping the states in recent years. State officials have increasingly acknowledged that they can no longer bear the cost of warehousing offenders – many for drug crimes – who were targets of harsh punishments which began decades ago.

The number of sentenced prisoners in federal custody fell by 7,981 inmates – or 5% – between the end of 2009 and 2015, according to a January Pew Research Center analysis. Preliminary figures for 2016 show the decline continued during Obama’s last full year in office and that the overall reduction during his tenure will likely exceed 5%, the center found.

The federal prison population now stands at nearly 190,000 inmates.

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill asserted that the Sessions memo represented a reinstatement of “long-discredited policy of harshly punishing individuals who commit low-level, non-violent drug offenses.”

“Attorney General Sessions has turned back the clock on our criminal justice system, ensuring it will continue to disproportionately punish black people, harming our communities and widening painful divides in our society,” she said.

[USA Today]

Trump Lawyers: Tax Returns Show No Income from Russia “With Few Exceptions”

President Trump’s lawyers on Friday said that Trump’s last 10 years of tax returns do not reveal “any income of any type from Russian sources” with some exceptions but refused to release copies of his tax returns to verify.

The claim was made in a letter sent to Trump from his attorney at Morgan Lewis. The letter was obtained Friday but dated March 8, 2017. The letter was also sent to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), as White House press secretary Sean Spicer stated at Tuesday’s press briefing.

The letter says that “with a few exceptions,” Trump’s tax returns show no equity investment by Russians into Trump entities or any debt owed by Trump to lenders. Trump did receive income from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant held in Moscow and a property sold to a Russian billionaire for $95 million.

he report sparked backlash online as many questioned the “with few exceptions” caveat and continued calls for Trump to release his tax returns.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), a leader of Democratic efforts to release Trump’s tax returns, tweeted “exceptions?” following the report.

Congressional Democrats have repeatedly pushed the tax return issue in Congress. They’ve argued that it’s important to see Trump’s tax returns to learn about his potential ties to Russia and that lawmakers need to know how he would benefit from any tax-reform legislation.

Earlier this year, House Democrats offered resolutions for six consecutive weeks that would direct the House to request Trump’s tax returns from the Treasury Department. In April, they started an effort to force a House floor vote on a bill to require presidents and presidential nominees to disclose their tax returns.

While a number of Republican lawmakers have said they want Trump to release his tax returns, most have been reluctant to join Democrats’ efforts on the topic. They’ve said that Trump should release his returns voluntarily and that it’s not against the law for Trump to keep them private.

The public last month also joined in calls for Trump to release his tax returns, with tens of thousands turning out for Tax Day protests across the U.S.

Earlier this week, Trump hinted he would not release his tax returns until after he left office.

(h/t The Hill)

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