ISIS leader killed in daring U.S. raid in Syria, Trump says

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died in a U.S. raid in northwestern Syria, President Donald Trump announced Sunday, describing in detail a daring mission by Army Delta Force commandos that he said had been planned for five months.

Baghdadi, whose self-declared caliphate once covered large swaths of Syria and Iraq, detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and three children after he was cornered in a tunnel.

“The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him,” Trump said from the White House. “Baghdadi’s demise demonstrates America’s relentless pursuit of terrorist leaders and our commitment to the enduring and total defeat of ISIS and other terrorist organizations.”

No U.S. personnel were lost in the raid and Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CNN that two who suffered minor injuries have been returned to duty.

The death of Baghdadi, long considered the most wanted man in the world, came amid weeks of acrimonious debate in Washington about the U.S. role in Syria after Trump’s efforts to remove troops from the region. The abrupt withdrawal allowed scores of ISIS prisoners to escape and set off warning that of a rebirth of an Islamic State sanctuary, which has been the focus of an intense U.S.-led air campaign backed by small number of troops on the ground and local allies, since 2015.

After years of rare and unconfirmed sightings, Baghdadi resurfaced in an unverified video in April, rallying his followers in Iraq and Syria following the group’s loss of its so-called caliphate.

The United States had placed a $25 million bounty on the ISIS leader’s head.

Russia in June 2017 claimed to have killed Baghdadi in an airstrike on Raqqa, Syria. A month later reports of his death again surfaced, this time from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Baghdadi is believed to have been born in 1971 in Samarra, Iraq. He was a cleric in a Baghdad mosque during the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He joined the insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq in its early days and spent 10 months in U.S. military detention in 2004.

Baghdadi become the leader of al-Qaida’s Iraq faction in 2010. In 2014, he declared the Islamic State a global caliphate from the Al-Nuri mosque in Mosul, in what is his only known public appearance as the leader of the terrorist organization.

Trump called ISIS “among the most depraved organizations in history” and listed some of the group’s victims: the Iraqi Yezidi minority group against whom it committed “genocidal mass murder,” the Jordanian fighter pilot burned alive in a cage after his plane crashed in ISIS territory, and the American hostages Jim Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig, and Kayla Mueller who died in the group’s custody.

“His evil acts of beheadings, enslavement of women, rape, torture, and pure brutality follows him to his grave,” Secretary of State Milke Pompeo said in a statement.

Foley’s mother, Diana, thanked Trump and the troops. “I hope this will hinder the resurgence of terror groups and pray that captured ISIS fighters will be brought to trial and held accountable,” she said.

The mission to kill or capture Baghdadi was launched from Iraqi territory. “This raid was impeccable and could only have taken place with the acknowledgment and help of certain other nations and people,” Trump said. “I want to thank the nations of Russia, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, and I also want to thank the Syrian Kurds for certain support they were able to give us.”

The raid, which lasted two hours inside Baghdadi’s compound, was immediately hailed by both parties as a major victory in the fight against Islamic terrorism.

“The death of al-Baghdadi is a triumph for our nation’s anti-terrorism efforts and is a testament to the persistence and expertise of our military and intelligence services,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee. “Al-Baghdadi spread a heinous terrorist ideology which must continue to be snuffed out in Syria and around the world.

“I congratulate President Trump, our allies who assisted in this effort, and, in particular, those who risked their lives in this raid,” she added in a statement.

“It’s tremendous news that the U.S. has ended Baghdadi’s bloody jihad,” added Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican and member of the Intelligence Committee. “The President made the right call to take out this bloodthirsty monster who led ISIS as it raped and pillaged its way through Iraq and Syria.”

But Sasse and others also warned in a statement about letting up the pressure. “As Americans celebrate this victory, we must remain clear-eyed that this is no time to let off the gas: Baghdadi is gone but another animal will take his place as ISIS works to regroup.”

“Removing the leadership of terrorist groups is not on its own a decisive win. It never has been,” said Eric Robinson, a former intelligence official. “Saying that the caliphate is going to crumple as a result of this is just wrong. It will endure.”

The death of its leader won’t mark the defeat of ISIS, agreed Michael Nagata, a retired Army lieutenant general and former senior intelligence official who fought the Islamic State’s predecessor organization in Iraq and was the top special operations commander in the Middle East during the early years of the ISIS campaign.

“I’ve never seen the death of a senior leader be the catalyst for the elimination or destruction of a powerful, well-entrenched, global terrorist movement. It’s a necessary step but it’s never a decisive step,” Nagata said in an interview.

“There are a lot of parallels to be drawn to the impact of Osama bin Laden’s death,” said Nagata, who was also the senior U.S. military official in Pakistan at the time of the 2011 raid that killed the founder of al-Qaida. “It was important at the time and had enormous symbolic value but it is mostly strategically irrelevant now. That’s the trajectory I expect the impact of Baghdadi’s death to follow.”

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mick Bednarek, who was the top U.S. officer at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad during ISIS’ rise in 2014 and 2015, said in an interview it is “incredible news and speaks highly once again of our collective intelligence agencies and more specifically our special operators.”

But Bednarek, who four years ago called the battle against ISIS “the fight of our lifetime,” cautioned against taking too many victory laps.

“When you eliminate the head or figurehead, does that mean the demise of the Islamic State terror organization? Absolutely not. Who is the next emergent leader? It is going to have an impact, but it is not going to be the be all end all where we can rest on our laurels.”

Trump used unusually vivid, even gory, language in describing Baghdadi’s final moments — descriptions that that some regional experts feared could further inflame extremists in the region.

“He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming,” Trump said. “The compound had been cleared by this time, with people either surrendering or being shot and killed. Eleven young children were moved out of the house un-injured. The only ones remaining were Baghdadi in the tunnel, who had dragged three children with him to certain death. He reached the end of the tunnel, as our dogs chased him down. He ignited his vest, killing himself and the three children. His body was mutilated by the blast, but test results gave certain and positive identification.”

“He was a sick and depraved man, and now he’s gone,” Trump said, adding at one point that he would support making public Baghdadi’s final moments.

Trump also said Baghdadi “died like a dog. He died like a coward.” The reference particular could anger Islamist extremists because they view the animals as unclean.

Dana Shell Smith, a former U.S. ambassador to Qatar, warned that being so descriptive could backfire by stoking more anger toward the United States.

She pointed out that former President Barack Obama was far more careful in describing al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden’s killing. The Obama administration even pointed out that it gave bin Laden’s body an Islamic funeral ritual before slipping it into the ocean.

“It was important for our relationships in the region and safety of our military and diplomats,” the former ambassador wrote on Twitter. “It’s how America rolls. With honor. We don’t delight in death like the terrorists do.”

Bednarek said the president’s extended remarks, in which he also repeatedly took credit for the raid and the defeat of ISIS, struck him as “a bit disquieting.”

“But that is his penchant to do.”

Still, the damage inflicted on the group is undeniable, Esper said.

“This is a devastating blow,” he told CNN. “This is not just their leader, it’s their founder. He was an inspirational leader in many ways. He’s the one that when he — he formed ISIS in 2014, he led to the establishment of physical caliphate throughout the region, so this is a major blow to them. And we’re going to watch carefully next steps and as a new leader and leaders pop up, we’ll go after them as well.”

[Politico]

Reality

Let’s take a moment to recognize this is exactly what we expect a President of the United States to do, find the terrorist organization and break it up.

But taking a step back there are several issues with what had transpired.

First, the only reason how we had information on al-Baghdadi’s location is because of Kurdish intelligence, the same Kurd allies who Trump abandoned a week prior just to get off of the phone with Turkish Dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then blasted the Kurds as ‘no angels.’

Second, according to reporting by The New York Times we’ve been following al-Baghdadi for some time, but the military had to act because of Trump’s surprise decision to pull troops from northern Syria. So the operation happened despite Trump, not because of Trump. This put our service men and women at a much greater risk.

Third, Trump compared this a bigger get than Osama bin Laden, who President Barack Obama gave the go-ahead to the mission that brought him to justice. That’s just an incredibly dumb statement to compare the ISIS-inspired attacks to the world-changing event on 9/11, orchestrated by bin Laden.

Fourth, Trump turned our national security into partisanship by keeping this operation secret from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. It was okay for him to let Russia know, but not Nancy Pelosi, or even Mitch McConnell? This is on-brand for Trump’s style of politics where he’d rather be friends with our enemies than work with his fellow Americans.

Fifth, the operation occurred at 3:30pm, Trump was golfing at a resort he still owns, operates, promotes, and receives profits from at that exact time. It’s possible when he got to the White House around 5:30pm the operation was still ongoing, but this image is too staged with most people looking at the camera.

Finally, Donald Trump announcement of the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi revealed a slew of sensitive details about the secret military operation that could imperil future raids, special operations and intelligence. He has no care of national security.

Trump lashes out at former intel officials for criticism of Iran tweet

President Trump blasted former FBI Director James Comey, former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on Saturday for criticism of a tweet Trump sent following a reported accident at an Iranian rocket facility.

The president referred to the three men in a pair of tweets as “failed former ‘Intelligence’ officials” and accused them of scolding him for offering “condolences” to Iranian officials.

“Being scolded by failed former “Intelligence” officials, like James Clapper, on my condolences to Iran on their failed Rocket launch. Sadly for the United States, guys like him, Comey, and the even dumber John Brennan, don’t have a clue. They really set our Country back,” Trump tweeted, adding: “but now we are moving forward like never before. We are winning again, and we are respected again!”

It wasn’t immediately clear what criticism the president was referring to, as the officials had not issued public statements on Trump’s tweet or his decision to release an image taken by U.S. forces of a damaged Iranian rocket facility. Trump has faced criticism from some Democrats for releasing the image due to its high resolution and concerns over whether it should have remained classified.

At a press conference Friday evening, Trump defended his right to release the image, which he said was done under his executive privilege as president.

“We had a photo, and I released it, which I have the absolute right to do,” Trump said Friday. 

“They had a big mishap. It’s unfortunate. So Iran, as you probably know, they were going to set off a big missile, and it didn’t work out too well. It had nothing to do with us,” he added.

NPR previously reported on Thursday that satellite imagery showed an explosion had occurred on the launch pad at an Iranian rocket facility, though it was unclear if the incident resulted in any casualties.

[The Hill]

President Trump Tweets Sensitive Surveillance Image of Iran

President Trump has tweeted what experts say is almost certainly an image from a classified satellite or drone, showing the aftermath of an accident at an Iranian space facility.

“The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir [Space Launch Vehicle] Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran,” the president said in a tweet that accompanied the image on Friday. “I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One.”

NPR broke the news of the launch failure on Thursday, using images from commercial satellites that flew over Iran’s Imam Khomeini Space Center. Those images showed smoke billowing from the pad. Iran has since acknowledged an accident occurred at the site.

Some of the highest-resolution imagery available commercially comes from the company Maxar, whose WorldView-2 satellite sports 46-centimeter resolution.

But the image shown in the president’s tweet appears to be of far better quality, says Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, who specializes in analyzing satellite imagery. “The resolution is amazingly high,” says Panda. “I would think it’s probably below well below 20 centimeters, which is much higher than anything I’ve ever seen.”

Panda says that the tweet discloses “some pretty amazing capabilities that the public simply wasn’t privy to before this.”

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence referred questions about the image to the White House, which declined to comment.

The image shows the aftermath of the accident, which experts believe took place while the rocket was being fueled. Clearly visible is the truck used to transport and erect the rocket, and the words “The product of national empowerment,” which have been written along the edge of the pad. The picture also shows extensive debris and charring around the pad.

It was not entirely clear where the president’s photo came from. Panda believes it was most likely taken by a classified U.S. satellite. But Melissa Hanham, deputy director of the Open Nuclear Network at the One Earth Foundation, believes that the resolution is so high, it may be beyond the physical limits at which satellites can operate. “The atmosphere is thick enough that after somewhere around 11 to 9 centimeters, things get wonky,” she says.

That could mean it was taken by a drone or spy plane, though such a vehicle would be violating Iranian airspace. Hanham also says that the European company Airbus has been experimenting with drones that fly so high, they are technically outside the atmosphere and thus operating outside national boundaries. But she says she doesn’t know whether the U.S. has such a system.

Glare in the center of the image suggests the image in the tweet was itself a photo of a briefing slide. Panda suggests it could have been displayed on a computer screen in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. It’s also possible it was a photo of a piece of paper.

Either way, Panda notes that a small redaction in the upper left-hand corner suggests the intelligence community had cleared the image for release by the president.

But both he and Hanham question whether releasing it was a good idea. “You really risk giving away the way you know things,” Hanham says. “That allows people to adapt and hide how they carry out illicit activity.”

“These are closely held national secrets,” Panda adds. “We don’t even share a lot of this kind of imagery with our closest allies.” In tweeting it out to the world, Trump is letting Iran know exactly what the U.S. is capable of. He’s also letting others know as well, Panda says. “The Russians and the Chinese, you’re letting them know that these are the kind of things that the United States has the capability of seeing,” he says.

[NPR]

Trump vows mass immigration arrests, removals of ‘millions of illegal aliens’ starting next week

President Trump said in a tweet Monday night that U.S. immigration agents are planning to make mass arrests starting “next week,” an apparent reference to a plan in preparation for months that aims to round up thousands of migrant parents and children in a blitz operation across major U.S. cities.

“Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States,” Trump wrote, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “They will be removed as fast as they come in.”

Large-scale ICE enforcement operations are typically kept secret to avoid tipping off targets. In 2018, Trump and other senior officials threatened the mayor of Oakland, Calif., with criminal prosecution for alerting city residents that immigration raids were in the works.

Trump and his senior immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, have been prodding Homeland Security officials to arrest and remove thousands of family members whose deportation orders were expedited by the Justice Department this year as part of a plan known as the “rocket docket.”

In April, acting ICE director Ronald Vitiello and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen were ousted after they hesitated to go forward with the plan, expressing concerns about its preparation, effectiveness and the risk of public outrage from images of migrant children being taken into custody or separated from their families.

Vitiello was replaced at ICE by former FBI and Border Patrol official Mark Morgan, who had impressed the president with statements on cable television in favor of harsh immigration enforcement measures.

In his first two weeks on the job at ICE, Morgan has said publicly that he plans to beef up interior enforcement and go after families with deportation orders, insisting that the rulings must be carried out to uphold the integrity of the country’s legal system.

“Our next challenge is going to be interior enforcement,” Morgan told reporters June 4 in Washington. “We will be going after individuals who have gone through due process and who have received final orders of deportation.

“That will include families,” he said, adding that ICE agents will treat the parents and children they arrest “with compassion and humanity.”

U.S. officials with knowledge of the preparations have said in recent days that the operation was not imminent, and ICE officials said late Monday night that they were not aware that the president planned to divulge their enforcement plans on Twitter.

Executing a large-scale operation of the type under discussion requires hundreds — and perhaps thousands — of U.S. agents and supporting law enforcement personnel, as well as weeks of intelligence gathering and planning to verify addresses and locations of individuals targeted for arrest.

The president’s claim that ICE would be deporting “millions” also was at odds with the reality of the agency’s staffing and budgetary challenges. ICE arrests in the U.S. interior have been declining in recent months because so many agents are busy managing the record surge of migrant families across the southern border with Mexico.

The family arrest plan has been considered even more sensitive than a typical operation because children are involved, and Homeland Security officials retain significant concerns that families will be inadvertently separated by the operation, especially because parents in some households have deportation orders but their children — some of whom are U.S. citizens — might not. Should adults be arrested without their children because they are at school, day care, summer camp or a friend’s house, it is possible parents could be deported while their children are left behind.

Supporters of the plan, including Miller, Morgan and ICE Deputy Director Matthew Albence, have argued forcefully that a dramatic and highly publicized operation of this type will send a message to families that are in defiance of deportation orders and could act as a deterrent.

According to Homeland Security officials, nearly all unauthorized migrants who came to the United States in 2017 in family groups remain present in the country. Some of those families are awaiting adjudication of asylum claims, but administration officials say a growing number are skipping out on court hearings while hoping to live and work in the United States as long as possible.

Publicizing a future law enforcement operation is unheard of at ICE. Trump administration officials blasted Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf last year for warning immigrants about an impending raid, saying she endangered agents’ safety.

“The Oakland mayor’s decision to publicize her suspicions about ICE operations further increased that risk for my officers and alerted criminal aliens — making clear that this reckless decision was based on her political agenda with the very federal laws that ICE is sworn to uphold,” then-ICE Deputy Director Thomas D. Homan said at the time.

Homan later retired, but last week Trump said Homan would return to public service as his “border czar.” On Fox News, Homan later called that announcement “kind of premature” and said he had not decided whether to accept the job.

Schaaf responded late Monday to the president’s tweet teasing the looming ICE roundups.

“If you continue to threaten, target and terrorize families in my community . . . and if we receive credible information . . . you already know what our values are in Oakland — and we will unapologetically stand up for those values,” she wrote.

[Washington Post]

Donald Trump Twitter Account Video Reveals Covert U.S. Navy Seal Deployment During Iraq Visit

President Donald Trump and the White House communications team revealed that a U.S. Navy SEAL team was deployed to Iraq after the president secretly traveled to the region to meet with American forces serving in a combat zone for the first time since being elected to office.

While the commander-in-chief can declassify information, usually the specific special operations unit is not revealed to the American public, especially while U.S. service members are deployed. Official photographs and videos typically blur the individual faces of special operation forces, due to the sensitive nature of their job.

The president’s video posted Wednesday did not shield the faces of special operation forces. Current and former Defense Department officials told Newsweek that information concerning what units are deployed and where is almost always classified and is a violation of operational security.

Trump flew to Iraq late Christmas Day after facing a barrage of negative headlines over the holiday season amid a partial government shutdown. The president and first lady Melania Trump posed for pictures with U.S. service members at al-Asad air base in Iraq.

The clandestine trip came a week after Trump ordered the Pentagon to begin planning the withdraw of roughly 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria and around 7,000 from Afghanistan over the next few months. The abrupt decision prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who disagreed with the drawdown.

A pool report during Trump’s visit said the details of the trip were embargoed until the president finished giving his remarks to a group of about 100 mostly U.S. special operation troops engaged in combat operations in Iraq and Syria.

[Newsweek]

Trump Refutes iPhone Usage in Angry Tweet Sent From iPhone

President Trump began his Thursday morning by blaming the attempted assassination of his political adversaries on the media. He’d said as much the night before at a rally in Wisconsin, but his early-morning tweet seems to be inspired by New York Times report about the president’s careless cell phone use, which has allowed China and Russia to listen in on his calls.

Less than half-an-hour before he attributed the “Anger we see today in our society” to the “Fake News,” Trump railed against the story in the Times.

Trump followed up his capitalized show of reverence to “Government Phones” by noting that he rarely even uses cell phones, preferring the far more dignified “Hard Lines.”

In April, CNN reported that Trump was beginning to use his cell phone with increasing frequency, and that, according to a senior White House official, he “is talking to all sorts of people on it.” The tweets he wrote Thursday morning refuting the story in the Times were sent using an iPhone.

Trump’s refusal to abandon his personal phone has been well documented, but this latest report from the Times delves into the implications of the president’s indifference to securing his communications. The report notes that U.S. intelligence has found that the Chinese are often listening when Trump rings up his friends, “putting to use invaluable insights into how to best work the president and affect administration policy.”

In May, Politico reported that the president uses an unsecured cell phone that is susceptible to hacking and surveillance, and that he has ignored staffers who have insisted he strengthen the security of his communications. According to administration officials, Trump has two cell phones, one for Twitter and one for making calls, and has gone as long as five months without having the latter checked by security experts. The report notes that President Obama swapped out his phone every 30 days. Both Politico and now the Times reported that Trump has refused to do the same, calling the practice too “inconvenient.” The Times also noted that in addition to the two White House cell phones, Trump also maintains a personal iPhone with no security protections because he is able to store his contacts in it.

Though a White House official assured Politico that Trump’s “devices are more secure than any Obama-era devices,” not everyone agrees. “Foreign adversaries seeking intelligence about the U.S. are relentless in their pursuit of vulnerabilities in our government’s communications networks, and there is no more sought-after intelligence target than the president of the United States,” said Nate Jones, who served as a counterterrorism director on the National Security Council under President Obama. The Times report from Wednesday notes that intercepting calls is “a relatively easy skill for governments,” which is why most heads of state refrain from using cell phones.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that both China and Russia have been listening in on the president’s calls. The Times reports that China in particular is using the calls to determine how to influence the president, especially as the trade war between the two superpowers intensifies. Because some of the business magnates with whom the president regularly speaks have interests in China, the nation’s government is attempting to use other business figures to lobby them to nudge the president in a direction they deem beneficial to China. “The strategy is that those people will pass on what they are hearing, and that Beijing’s views will eventually be delivered to the president by trusted voices,” officials told the Times, noting that “they can only hope” the president doesn’t divulge any sensitive information.

The president has reportedly been warned that the adversaries are listening to his phone calls, but has refused refused to change his practices. Meanwhile, Trump’s supporters continue to call for Hillary Clinton to be jailed over her use of an unsecured private email server. Questions surrounding Clinton’s emails served as the foundation of Trump’s attacks against her during the 2016 campaign. “We can’t hand over our government to someone whose deepest, darkest secrets may be in the hands of our enemies,” Trump said that June.

[Rolling Stone]

Reality

Use Twitter’s TweeDesk service, do a search for @realDonaldTrump, find the tweet.

When Trump Phones Friends, the Chinese Listen and Learn

When President Trump calls old friends on one of his iPhones to gossip, gripe or solicit their latest take on how he is doing, American intelligence reports indicate that Chinese spies are often listening — and putting to use invaluable insights into how to best work the president and affect administration policy, current and former American officials said.

Mr. Trump’s aides have repeatedly warned him that his cellphone calls are not secure, and they have told him that Russian spies are routinely eavesdropping on the calls, as well. But aides say the voluble president, who has been pressured into using his secure White House landline more often these days, has still refused to give up his iPhones. White House officials say they can only hope he refrains from discussing classified information when he is on them.

Mr. Trump’s use of his iPhones was detailed by several current and former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could discuss classified intelligence and sensitive security arrangements. The officials said they were doing so not to undermine Mr. Trump, but out of frustration with what they considered the president’s casual approach to electronic security.

American spy agencies, the officials said, had learned that China and Russia were eavesdropping on the president’s cellphone calls from human sources inside foreign governments and intercepting communications between foreign officials.

The officials said they have also determined that China is seeking to use what it is learning from the calls — how Mr. Trump thinks, what arguments tend to sway him and to whom he is inclined to listen — to keep a trade war with the United States from escalating further. In what amounts to a marriage of lobbying and espionage, the Chinese have pieced together a list of the people with whom Mr. Trump regularly speaks in hopes of using them to influence the president, the officials said.

Among those on the list are Stephen A. Schwarzman, the Blackstone Group chief executive who has endowed a master’s program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and Steve Wynn, the former Las Vegas casino magnate who used to own a lucrative property in Macau.

The Chinese have identified friends of both men and others among the president’s regulars, and are now relying on Chinese businessmen and others with ties to Beijing to feed arguments to the friends of the Trump friends. The strategy is that those people will pass on what they are hearing, and that Beijing’s views will eventually be delivered to the president by trusted voices, the officials said. They added that the Trump friends were most likely unaware of any Chinese effort.

L. Lin Wood, a lawyer for Mr. Wynn, said his client was retired and had no comment. A spokeswoman for Blackstone, Christine Anderson, declined to comment on Chinese efforts to influence Mr. Schwarzman but said that he “has been happy to serve as an intermediary on certain critical matters between the two countries at the request of both heads of state.”

Russia is not believed to be running as sophisticated an influence effort as China because of Mr. Trump’s apparent affinity for President Vladimir V. Putin, a former official said.

China’s effort is a 21st-century version of what officials there have been doing for many decades, which is trying to influence American leaders by cultivating an informal network of prominent businesspeople and academics who can be sold on ideas and policy prescriptions and then carry them to the White House. The difference now is that China, through its eavesdropping on Mr. Trump’s calls, has a far clearer idea of who carries the most influence with the president, and what arguments tend to work.

The Chinese and the Russians “would look for any little thing — how easily was he talked out of something, what was the argument that was used,” said John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency who served in Moscow in the 1990s and later ran the agency’s Russia program.

Trump friends like Mr. Schwarzman, who figured prominently in the first meeting between President Xi Jinping of China and Mr. Trump at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s Florida resort, already hold pro-China and pro-trade views, and thus are ideal targets in the eyes of the Chinese, the officials said. Targeting the friends of Mr. Schwarzman and Mr. Wynn can reinforce the views of the two, the officials said. The friends are also most likely to be more accessible.

One official said the Chinese were pushing for the friends to persuade Mr. Trump to sit down with Mr. Xi as often as possible. The Chinese, the official said, correctly perceive that Mr. Trump places tremendous value on personal relationships, and that one-on-one meetings yield breakthroughs far more often than regular contacts between Chinese and American officials.

Whether the friends can stop Mr. Trump from pursuing a trade war with China is another question.

Officials said the president has two official iPhones that have been altered by the National Security Agency to limit their capabilities — and vulnerabilities — and a third personal phone that is no different from hundreds of millions of iPhones in use around the world. Mr. Trump keeps the personal phone, White House officials said, because unlike his other two phones, he can store his contacts in it.

Apple declined to comment on the president’s iPhones. None of them are completely secure and are vulnerable to hackers who could remotely break into the phones themselves.

But the calls made from the phones are intercepted as they travel through the cell towers, cables and switches that make up national and international cellphone networks. Calls made from any cellphone — iPhone, Android, an old-school Samsung flip phone — are vulnerable.

The issue of secure communications is fraught for Mr. Trump. As a presidential candidate, he regularly attacked his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, during the 2016 campaign for her use of an unsecured email server while she was secretary state, and he basked in chants of “lock her up” at his rallies.

Intercepting calls is a relatively easy skill for governments. American intelligence agencies consider it an essential tool of spycraft, and they routinely try to tap the phones of important foreign leaders. In a diplomatic blowup during the Obama administration, documents leaked by Edward J. Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, showed that the American government had tapped the phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

Foreign governments are well aware of the risk, and so leaders like Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin avoid using cellphones when possible.

President Barack Obama was careful with cellphones, too. He used an iPhone in his second term, but it could not make calls and could receive email only from a special address that was given to a select group of staff members and intimates. It had no camera or microphone and could not be used to download apps at will. Texting was forbidden because there was no way to collect and store the messages, as required by the Presidential Records Act.

“It is a great phone, state of the art, but it doesn’t take pictures, you can’t text. The phone doesn’t work, you know, you can’t play your music on it,” Mr. Obama said on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” in June 2016. “So basically, it’s like — does your 3-year-old have one of those play phones?”

When Mr. Obama needed a cellphone, the officials said, he used one of those of his aides.
Mr. Trump has insisted on more capable devices, although he did agree during the transition to give up his Android phone (the Google operating system is considered more vulnerable than Apple’s). And since becoming president, Mr. Trump has agreed to a slightly cumbersome arrangement of having two official phones: one for Twitter and other apps, and one for calls.

Mr. Trump typically relies on his mobile phones when he does not want a call going through the White House switchboard and logged for senior aides to see, his aides said. Many of those Mr. Trump speaks with most often on one of his cellphones, such as hosts at Fox News, share the president’s political views, or simply enable his sense of grievance about any number of subjects.

Administration officials said Mr. Trump’s longtime paranoia about surveillance — well before coming to the White House he believed his phone conversations were often being recorded — gave them some comfort that he was not disclosing classified information on the calls.

They said they had further confidence he was not spilling secrets because he rarely digs into the details of the intelligence he is shown and is not well versed in the operational specifics of military or covert activities.

In an interview this week with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Trump quipped about his phones being insecure. When asked what American officials in Turkey had learned about the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he replied, “I actually said don’t give it to me on the phone. I don’t want it on the phone. As good as these phones are supposed to be.”

But Mr. Trump is also famously indiscreet. In a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office with Russian officials, he shared highly sensitive intelligence passed to the United States by Israel. He also told the Russians that James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, was “a real nut job” and that firing him had relieved “great pressure.”

Still, Mr. Trump’s lack of tech savvy has alleviated some other security concerns. He does not use email, so the risk of a phishing attack like those used by Russian intelligence to gain access to Democratic Party emails is close to nil. The same goes for texts, which are disabled on his official phones.

His Twitter phone can connect to the internet only over a Wi-Fi connection, and he rarely, if ever, has access to unsecured wireless networks, officials said. But the security of the device ultimately depends on the user, and protecting the president’s phones has sometimes proved difficult.

Last year, Mr. Trump’s cellphone was left behind in a golf cart at his club in Bedminster, N.J., causing a scramble to locate it, according to two people familiar with what took place.

Mr. Trump is supposed to swap out his two official phones every 30 days for new ones but rarely does, bristling at the inconvenience. White House staff members are supposed to set up the new phones exactly like the old ones, but the new iPhones cannot be restored from backups of his old phones, because doing so would transfer over any malware.

New phone or old, though, the Chinese and the Russians are listening, and learning.

[The New York Times]

Trump bragged about classified Syria skirmish at fundraiser

The White House has tried to avoid discussing a February skirmish between U.S. troops and Russian mercenaries in Syria, but that didn’t stop President Donald Trump from bragging about the Pentagon’s performance at a recent closed-door fundraiser.

The details of the battle remain classified, but speaking to donors in midtown Manhattan last Wednesday, Trump said he was amazed by the performance of American F-18 pilots. He suggested that the strikes may have been as brief as “10 minutes” and taken out 100 to 300 Russians, according to a person briefed on the president’s remarks, which have not previously been reported.

Trump often makes unscripted comments at fundraisers, and he revels in the exploits of the U.S. military. At a Republican National Committee fundraiser last fall, he told the crowd that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had “never lost a battle,” and he has bragged about the country’s nuclear superiority in confrontations with North Korea.

American officials have long feared that a clash with Russian forces in Syria would add tension to the already strained relationship between the two countries, and they intentionally avoided Russian targets last month when they bombed the country in response to Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons. According to The New York Times, which last week provided the first detailed description of the battle, the confrontation lasted four hours and left between 200 and 300 pro-Assad forces dead.

[Politico]

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 Retweets Fox News Story Containing Classified Info

President Donald Trump’s retweet of a Fox News story claiming US satellites detected North Korea moving anti-cruise ship missiles to a patrol boat is raising eyebrows on Tuesday after US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley indicated that the information in the report is classified and was leaked.

“I can’t talk about anything that’s classified and if that’s in the newspaper that’s a shame,” Haley said Tuesday on “Fox and Friends” when asked about the story that cites two anonymous sources.

Pushed on whether the information was leaked, Haley said “it’s one of those things I don’t know what’s going on. I will tell you it’s incredibly dangerous when things get out into the press like that.”

But just a few hours before Haley’s appearance on Fox, Trump retweeted a post from the Fox News morning show promoting the story said to contain classified information.

CNN has not independently verified the Fox News report and the White House has not responded to a request for comment.

Trump’s motive for retweeting the Fox News story remains unclear but the decision to promote a report that — according to the US ambassador to the United Nations — contains classified information leaked to the press by anonymous sources comes just days after the President praised Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ plan to combat that very practice in the name of national security.

“After many years of LEAKS going on in Washington, it is great to see the A.G. taking action!” Trump tweeted. “For National Security, the tougher the better!” Trump tweeted over the weekend.

Tuesday’s retweet also coincided with the release of a series of new polls that not only call Trump’s Twitter habits into question but also reveal major concerns around the President’s trustworthiness and ability to effectively manage the standoff with North Korea.

According to a new CBS News poll only a third of those surveyed having confidence in Trump’s ability to handle the situation with North Korea.

A new CNN poll shows that a majority (52%) of Americans say Trump’s tweets are not an effective way for him to share his views on important issues, and 72% say they do not send the right message to other world leaders.

Further, 62% overall say that Trump’s statements and actions since taking office have made them less confident in his ability to be president.

In May, Trump was criticized after The Washington Post reported that he shared highly classified information with the Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador to the US in a White House meeting.

Despite statements from top administration officials that called the report “false,” two former officials knowledgeable of the situation confirmed to CNN at the time that the main points of the Post story were accurate.

[CNN]

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