Trump just blocked his own administration’s Russia sanctions

It appears that President Trump just blocked his own administration’s plan to sanction Russia.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, announced Sunday that the Trump administration was going to hit Russia with new sanctions on Monday over its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons program in the wake of the April 7 chemical attack in Douma, Syria, that killed dozens of people. The sanctions were explicitly focused on Russian companies that deal in equipment linked to Assad’s chemical weapons program.

But just a day later, the White House backtracked, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying that the administration was merely “considering additional sanctions on Russia” and that “a decision will be made in the near future.”

So why the awkward reversal? Apparently President Trump wasn’t on board with sanctioning Russia.

According to the Washington Post, after Haley announced the sanctions on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday morning, Trump told national security advisers he was “upset the sanctions were being officially rolled out because he was not yet comfortable executing them.”

It unclear whether Haley just mistakenly announced the sanctions prematurely before the president had officially signed off on them, or if something else entirely went wrong.

But two things are obvious: The administration is once again botching the rollout of a fairly straightforward policy, and Trump is personally taking steps to ensure that he doesn’t anger Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A Russian foreign ministry official said on Monday that the Trump administration contacted the Russian embassy on Sunday and told them that the sanctions that Haley had mentioned were not actually coming.

[VOX]

Two top Trump officials were registered lobbyists for Russian-born businessman linked to Putin

A new investigation from Vice News reveals that two senior Trump administration officials were once registered lobbyists for a Russian-born businessman who has deep ties to Putin-connected Russian oligarchs.

According to Vice, Makan Delrahim — the Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division in the Department of Justice — and David Bernhardt — who is currently the No. 2 official at the Department of the Interior — were registered lobbyists for Access Industries, a holding company under the control of Soviet-born billionaire Leonard Blavatnik.

Blavatnik, who is a naturalized dual U.S.-U.K. citizen, is connected to Russian oligarchs via Access Industries’ large stake in Russian aluminum company UC Rusal. Two other men who have large stakes in UC Rusal are Oleg Deripaska and Viktor Vekselberg — Russian businessmen who were recently hit with sanctions by the United States Treasury Department.

What is particularly notable about Blavatnik, notes Vice, is that he once spread out campaign donations fairly evenly between Republicans and Democrats — before shifting heavily in favor of the GOP during the 2016 election cycle, when President Donald Trump was the party’s nominee.

What’s more, he’s continued to give to Republicans since Trump’s election.

“Although he didn’t donate directly to Trump’s campaign, after Trump won, Access Industries gave a further $1 million to the Presidential Inaugural Committee,” Vice News reports. “And according to The Wall Street Journal, Blavatnik gave $12,700 in April 2017 to a Republican National Committee fund that was used to help pay for the team of private attorneys representing Trump in the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.”

Read the whole report here.

[Raw Story]

Trump says missiles ‘will be coming’

US President Donald Trump has tweeted that Russia should “get ready” for missiles to be fired at its ally Syria, in response to an alleged chemical attack near Damascus on Saturday.

“Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!'” Mr Trump said in his tweet.

Senior Russian figures have threatened to meet any US strikes with a response.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government denies mounting a chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Douma.

In one of his tweets on Wednesday, Mr Trump called the Syrian leader a “gas killing animal”.

In another, he painted a dark picture of US-Russia relations but said it did not have to be that way.

The US, UK and France have agreed to work together and are believed to be preparing for a military strike in response to the alleged chemical attack at the weekend.

[BBC]

Trump: Saudi Arabia Might ‘Have to Pay’ For U.S. to Keep Troops in Syria

President Donald Trump said in his joint presser with Baltic leaders that Saudi Arabia might “have to pay” for the United States to maintain a military presence in Syria.

“As far as Syria is concerned, our primary mission in terms of that was getting rid of ISIS,” Trump responded to a question. “We’ve almost completed that task.”

“And we’ll be making a decision very quickly in coordination with others in the area as to what we’ll do,” he added. “Saudi Arabia is very interested in our decision. And I said, well, you know, you want us to stay maybe you’re going to have to pay.”

Trump continued:

But we do a lot of things in this country, we do them for — we do them for a lot of reasons. But it is very costly for our country. And it helps other countries a hell of a lot more than it helps us. So we’re going to be making a decision. We’ve had a tremendous military success against ISIS as you know. It is close 100% as I just said. And we’ll be making a decision as to what we do in the very near future. We’ll be consulting also with the groups of our people and groups of our allies.

Reuters White House reporter Steve Holland asked Trump if he is “inclined to pull the troops out” of Syria, to which the president replied:

“I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation. We will have as of three months ago, $7 trillion in the Middle East over the last 17 years. We get nothing out of it. Nothing.”

[Mediaite]

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince reportedly bragged about having Jared Kushner ‘in his pocket’ after being told classified information meant for Trump

Jared Kushner reportedly discussed classified information obtained from the President’s Daily Brief with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who bragged that he had Kushner “in his pocket,” according to a report by The Intercept.

Presidential son-in-law-turned-advisor Jared Kushner reportedly had a penchant for reading President Donald Trump’s daily brief, a highly sensitive intelligence update that is only meant to be seen by the president and his top advisers, before being stripped of his top security clearance and access to the daily brief in February.

Before losing his security access, Kushner was particularly interested about information on the Middle East, the Intercept reported, citing several former White House and US government officials.

When Salman became the new heir to the throne in June last year, the daily brief reportedly began to focus on shifting political allegiances in Saudi Arabia, and named several Saudi royals who were opposed to the crown prince’s position.

Kushner then made a surprise trip to Riyadh in October, reportedly staying up until 4 a.m. with Salman to discuss strategy.

Several sources told the Intercept that following the meeting, Salman told close confidants that Kushner had spilled the names of the Saudi royals “disloyal” to the prince, although Kushner’s camp strongly denies the claim.

Salman reportedly told the United Arab Emirates’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed about the meeting with Kushner, bragging that he had Kushner “in his pocket,” sources told the Intercept.

Just a week after the meeting Salman began his large-scale corruption crackdown, which saw 200 officials arrested. According to the report, Saudi officials mentioned in the daily briefs were among those detained.

The “two princes” have forged a close bond

Kushner has built a close relationship with the Salman, setting the stage for close communication between the the US and Saudi Arabia.

Kushner and Salman began their friendship at a lunch meeting at the White House last year, according to the Washington Post, citing sources familiar with their relationship. The two have been tasked with leading negotiations on Israel-Palestine peace, and have consulted frequently in private phone calls over several months, according to the Post.

A source close to Kushner told CNN that Kushner’s relationship with the Saudi prince is more personal and close than other professional relationships between the US and world leaders, and that Kushner seeks to use that bond to deepen ties between the countries.

Kushner is said to be playing an important role in Salman’s visit to the US this week.

Kushner attended official meetings between the president and the Saudi delegation, and is scheduled in for several dinners with Salman and other US and Saudi officials.

[Business Insider]

Trump Goes After the ‘Crazed’ Media Over Russia Call, Defends His ‘Congratulations’ to Putin

President Trump this afternoon tweeted an attack on the media (again) over its “crazed” coverage of his call with Vladimir Putin.

“I called President Putin of Russia,” POTUS tweeted, “to congratulate him on his election victory (in past, Obama called him also). The Fake News Media is crazed because they wanted me to excoriate him. They are wrong! Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing.”

Some Republicans were critical of Trump congratulating Putin as well––particularly John McCain––but the President is standing by his message and dinging the media for getting worked up about it.

Oh, and he wasn’t done:

“They can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race,” he continued. “Bush tried to get along, but didn’t have the “smarts.” Obama and Clinton tried, but didn’t have the energy or chemistry (remember RESET). PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH!”

[Mediaite]

Trump’s national security advisers warned him not to congratulate Putin. He did it anyway.

President Trump did not follow specific warnings from his national security advisers when he congratulated Russian President Vladi­mir Putin Tuesday on his reelection, including a section in his briefing materials in all-capital letters stating “DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” according to officials familiar with the call.

Trump also chose not to heed talking points from aides instructing him to condemn Putin about the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom with a powerful nerve agent, a case that both the British and U.S. governments have blamed on Moscow.

The president’s conversation with Putin, which Trump called a “very good call,” prompted fresh criticism of his muted tone toward one of the United States’s biggest geopolitical rivals amid the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russia’s election interference and the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials.

Although the Trump administration has taken a tougher stance toward Russia recently — including new sanctions last week on some entities for election meddling and cyber attacks — the president has declined to forcefully join London in denouncing Moscow for the poisoning of Sergie Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury this month. They remain critically ill.

Trump told reporters that he had offered his well wishes on Putin’s new six-year term during a conversation on a range of topics, including arms control and the security situations in Syria and North Korea. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that Skripal’s case was not discussed. Information on Syria and North Korea were also provided to the president in writing before the call, officials said.

“We’ll probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future,” Trump said of Putin, though Sanders emphasized that nothing was planned.

The White House press office declined to comment on the briefing materials given to Trump. Two people familiar with the notecards acknowledged that they included instructions not to congratulate Putin. But a senior White House official emphasized that national security adviser H.R. McMaster did not mention the issue during a telephone briefing with the president, who was in the White House residence ahead of and during his conversation with Putin.

It was not clear whether Trump read the notes, administration officials said. Trump, who initiated the call, opened it with the congratulations for Putin, one person familiar with the conversation said.

The president’s tone drew a rebuke from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who wrote on Twitter: “An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections. And by doing so with Vladimir Putin, President Trump insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election.”

But Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appeared less concerned, noting Trump has also offered congratulations to other leaders of more totalitarian states. “I wouldn’t read much into it,” Corker said.

Putin’s latest consolidation of power came in what foreign policy analysts said was a rigged election in which he got 76 percent of the vote against several minor candidates. Some world leaders have hesitated to congratulate Putin, since his reelection occurred in an environment of state control of much of the news media and with his most prominent opponent barred from the ballot.

[Washington Post]

Trump congratulates Putin on winning sham election

President Donald Trump spoke to Vladimir Putin over the phone Tuesday morning, after the Russian leader’s overwhelming re-election victory.

“I had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory, his electoral victory,” Trump said later Tuesday. He added that the two leaders “will probably get together in the not-too-distant future” to discuss the international arms race.

Trump and Putin will also talk about North Korea, Ukraine and Syria, among “various other things,” the U.S. said.

The election win keeps Putin in office as Russia’s president for another six years. His closest rival in the election, which was held Sunday, scored nearly 12 percent of the vote, while his most vocal opponent, Alexei Navalny, was barred from running in the race.

Putin’s overwhelming victory and the circumstances leading to it have prompted criticism from Russia watchers. The White House, however, skirted the issue Tuesday.

“We’re focused on our elections. We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at Tuesday’s White House press briefing. “What we do know is that Putin has been elected in their country.”

The arms race

Trump’s comment on the arms race came as the top nuclear commander for the U.S. made a case Tuesday for America adding another nuclear weapon to its arsenal.

“I strongly agree with the need for a low-yield nuclear weapon,” Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said of the Pentagon’s request for a low-yield warhead for submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

“That capability is a deterrence weapon to respond to the threat that Russia in particular is portraying,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

Late last month, Putin made waves by boasting about an arsenal of new nuclear weapons, including an underwater drone, a new hypersonic missile and a cruise missile that has a “practically unlimited range.”

Hyten has previously called Russia the “most significant threat” to the U.S. because the the nation poses “the only existential threat to the country right now.”

Sanctions and election meddling

The call between Trump and Putin also comes as the special counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election intensifies. Trump has denied that his campaign colluded with Russia, and Putin has rejected accusations that the Kremlin had anything to do with any election interference.

The Trump administration announced last week that it was sanctioning several Russians and entities linked to the Kremlin for meddling in the 2016 election as well as for cyberattacks against U.S. infrastructure, such as the energy grid.

Trump had resisted calls to punish Russia for its malfeasance, despite U.S. intelligence agencies’ claims that Kremlin-backed operatives did interfere in the campaign.

On Tuesday, Sanders told reporters Tuesday that she doesn’t believe the subject of 2016 election meddling came up in the Putin-Trump phone call. “But it is something that we’ve spoken extensively about,” she said.

The war in Syria

Trump has expressed admiration for Putin dating back to the years before he ran for president, but he is not the only U.S. commander in chief to call the Russian leader after an election victory.

President Barack Obama called Putin in 2012 to congratulate him for his win that year, although Russia-U.S. relations were especially contentious during Obama’s administration due in large part to the conflict in Syria. Russia has backed Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brutal war.

Trump, for his part, has criticized Obama over his handling of the Syrian war. “President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing,” Trump said in August after a suspected chemical attack in Syria. “The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.”

The war in Syria continues to rage, and a Russian military leader recently threatened action against U.S. forces there if Americans target Russian servicemen.

[NBC News]

Reality

Trump joins authoritarians, Xi Jinping, Rouhani, Mohammed bin Salman, Nicolas Maduro,  Evo Morales, Raul Castro, al-Sisi

  • China’s Xi Jinping
  • Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
  • Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro
  • Bolivia’s President Evo Morales
  • Cuban President Raul Castro
  • Egyptian President Fatah al-Sisi

Trump taunts press over North Korea news

President Trump is back to attacking the press again.

After a series of more subdued tweets about North Korea, the President apparently couldn’t resist taking shots at the media again:

Culminating in…

Trump did get some positive media coverage over this week’s announcement. CNN’s Erin Burnett said Trump could go down as a great president if this is successful, and even Bill Maher said Trump could pull it off while telling liberals to stop “reflexively hating” the idea.

[Mediaite]

Trump praises Chinese president extending tenure ‘for life’

U.S. President Donald Trump praised Chinese President Xi Jinping Saturday after the ruling Communist party announced it was eliminating the two-term limit for the presidency, paving the way for Xi to serve indefinitely, according to audio aired by CNN.

“He’s now president for life, president for life. And he’s great,” Trump said, according to audio of excerpts of Trump’s remarks at a closed-door fundraiser in Florida aired by CNN.“And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday,” Trump said to cheers and applause from supporters.

It is not clear if Trump, 71, was making the comment about extending presidential service in jest. The White House did not respond to a request for comment late Saturday.

U.S. Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat, said on Twitter that“whether this was a joke or not, talking about being President for life like Xi Jinping is the most unAmerican sentiment expressed by an American President. George Washington would roll over in his grave.”

U.S. presidents by tradition served a maximum of two four-year terms until President Franklin Roosevelt was elected a record four times starting in 1932. An amendment to the U.S. Constitution approved in 1951 limits presidents to two terms in office.

In order to change the current prohibition, it would require initial support of two-thirds of both houses of Congress or support of two-thirds of state legislatures – and then would need to be ratified by three-quarters of the states.

China’s annual parliament gathering kicks off on Monday as Xi presses ahead with efforts to ward off financial risks without undermining the economy. The Communist party announced on Feb 25 the end of the two-term limit for the president – and the parliament is expected to ratify the move.

During the remarks, Trump praised Xi as“a great gentleman” and added:“He’s the most powerful (Chinese) president in a hundred years.” Trump said Xi had treated him“tremendously well” during his visit in November.

Trump has often praised Xi, but in January Trump told Reuters the United States was considering a big“fine” as part of a probe into China’s alleged theft of intellectual property. He has been critical of China’s trade policies.

Trump told The New York Times in December that because of North Korea he had“been soft on China because the only thing more important to me than trade is war.”

[Reuters]

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