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The President’s Address Regarding Syria Live Feed

Here’s the live feed:

Stay frosty!

Open thread.



Another Point For Christopher Steele: Mueller Has Evidence That Cohen Was In Prague In 2016

Gonna be that kind of Friday!

From McClatchy:

The Justice Department special counsel has evidence that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen, secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

Confirmation of the trip would lend credence to a retired British spy’s report that Cohen strategized there with a powerful Kremlin figure about Russian meddling in the U.S. election.

It would also be one of the most significant developments thus far in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of whether the Trump campaign and the Kremlin worked together to help Trump win the White House. Undercutting Trump’s repeated pronouncements that “there is no evidence of collusion,” it also could ratchet up the stakes if the president tries, as he has intimated he might for months, to order Mueller’s firing.

Cohen has vehemently denied for months that he ever has been in Prague or colluded with Russia during the campaign. Neither he nor his lawyer responded to requests for comment for this story.

It’s unclear whether Mueller’s investigators also have evidence that Cohen actually met with a prominent Russian – purportedly Konstantin Kosachev, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — in the Czech capital. Kosachev, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of a body of the Russian legislature, the Federation Council, also has denied visiting Prague during 2016. Earlier this month, Kosachev was among 24 high-profile Russians hit with stiff U.S. sanctions in retaliation for Russia’s meddling.

But investigators have traced evidence that Cohen entered the Czech Republic through Germany, apparently during August or early September of 2016 as the ex-spy reported, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is confidential. He wouldn’t have needed a passport for such a trip, because both countries are in the so-called Schengen Area in which 26 nations operate with open borders. The disclosure still left a puzzle: The sources did not say whether Cohen took a commercial flight or private jet to Europe, and gave no explanation as to why no record of such a trip has surfaced.

Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller’s office, declined comment.

Much more at the link!

Stay frosty!

Open thread.



The Need To Focus Among Large Amounts of Breaking News

A lot of news has broken this week, including today. I would argue that everyone take a deep breath and a step back and focus on which bits of the breaking news contain the really important information. I would argue that the really important domestic/American news to have come out so far this week, other than Speaker Ryan calling it quits, is that Michael Cohen is alleged to (may have?) been taping his phone conversations for several years.

From The Washington Post:

President Trump’s personal attorney Michael D. Cohen sometimes taped conversations with associates, according to three people familiar with his practice, and allies of the president are worried that the recordings were seized by federal investigators in a raid of Cohen’s office and residences this week.

Cohen, who served for a decade as a lawyer at the Trump Organization and is a close confidant of Trump’s, was known to store the conversations using digital files and then replay them for colleagues, according to people who have interacted with him.

“We heard he had some proclivity to make tapes,” said one Trump adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation. “Now we are wondering, who did he tape? Did he store those someplace where they were actually seized? . . . Did they find his recordings?”

On Monday, FBI agents seized Cohen’s computers and phones as they executed a search warrant that sought, among other records, all communications between the lawyer and Trump and campaign aides about “potential sources of negative publicity” in the lead-up to the 2016 election, The Washington Post reported.

It is unknown whether Cohen taped conversations between himself and Trump. But two people familiar with Cohen’s practices said he recorded both business and political conversations. One associate said Trump knew of Cohen’s practice because the attorney would often play him recordings Cohen had made of his conversations with other top Trump advisers.

“It was his standard practice to do it,” this person said.

Legal experts said Cohen’s taped conversations would be viewed by prosecutors as highly valuable.

“If you are looking for evidence, you can’t do any better than people talking on tape,” said Nick Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor.

Such recordings “would be considered a gold mine,” said Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University who specializes in legal ethics.

“The significance is 9.5 to 10 on a 10-point scale,” he added, noting that investigators know “that when people speak on the phone, they are not guarded. They don’t imagine that the conversation will surface.”

Federal investigators would not automatically get access to any tapes that might have been seized in the raids. First, the recordings would be reviewed by a separate Justice Department team and possibly by a federal judge. The review is designed to protect lawyer-client privilege and to be sure that the conversations turned over are within the terms of the search warrant, legal experts said.

Getting these recordings is among the the most important things, if not the real prize, that was being sought in the raids on Cohen’s office, home office, and the hotel suite where he is staying while his home is being renovated. The President actually sent a real attorney – as in an attorney that know what she’s doing, not attorneys like Michael Cohen – to Federal Court this morning to argue the President has a personal interest in what was seized pursuant to the search warrant that was executed on Monday. And there was a scramble to hire this new attorney – she was only retained two days ago.

For those concerned with potential breaking news regarding Deputy AG Rosenstein, here’s a good primer from Lawfare.

Stay frosty!

Open thread.



Life As Metaphor: The Wall Goes Down!

A fitting metaphor for Infrastructure Week. It is always Infrastructure Week…

Open thread!



No Plan Survives Contact With The Enemy: Military Strikes And The Strategic Complications At The Heart Of The Syrian Problem Set

This morning the President warned Russia and its Syrian and Iranian clients that we had the nice, new missiles all ready to go as a response to both the chemical attack on Eastern Ghouta, as well as Russia’s attempts to warn the US and its potential allies – from both the existing US led coalition that is Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve or from a new, smaller coalition of the US, Britain, and France designed to just punish the Assad government for the chemical attacks – off of responding.

Always a good choice to avoid the pre-owned missiles. Sometimes they’re owned by little old ladies who only use them to get to and from church on Sunday. But sometimes they’re used by folks that just abuse them, don’t give them regular maintenance, and run up the mileage on them…

There are already reports of the Syrian military relocating its personnel and equipment to the Russian bases in Syria to protect them.

This makes anything more than a demonstration strike, which is what was done last year, much, much more dangerous and problematic. The reason for this is that in order to actually reduce Syria’s capability to make war, and specifically try to deter the future use of chemical weapons, means that the US and its partners would have to target Syrian personnel and equipment that are now within Russian lines, for lack of a better term. This is one of the major strategic complications as it would create a de facto reality that the US and its partners have just attacked Russian military sites in order to get at the Syrian assets we want to degrade, attrit, and reduce.

Another part of this strategic complication is that the Russian navy has both sortied its Mediterranean fleet to get it out of port where these ships would be easy targets and has conducted a live fire exercise.

The lone Russian air craft carrier is back in port in Russia – it is actually in dry dock for the better part of the next four years or so undergoing a refit. As a result this eleven vessel fleet has limited capability.

More worrisome is that the Russian’s have begun electronically jamming US intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR) drones.

The Russian military has deployed jamming tactics against US drones that have affected the US military’s ability to operate in the region, NBC News reports.

US officials told NBC News that the Russian military has been jamming smaller US drones. The jamming is focused on the GPS systems of drones, which can result in things like the operators not knowing where the drone currently is, to more extreme results like crashes.

Department of Defense officials speaking to NBC News did not confirm if they lost any of the drones to crashes as a result of the jamming, but one official did say that the jamming is having an operational impact on military operations in Syria.

The drones that have been targeted are smaller surveillance drones, and not the larger ones with strike capability like the MQ-1 Predator or the MQ-9 Reaper, according to NBC News. US military drones are encrypted and are supposed to have defenses against electronic counter measures, suggesting that Russian capabilities are more advanced than previously thought.

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, then the commanding general for US Army Europe, said in in 2016 that he has seen Russian “electronic warfare capability at a tactical level that we absolutely don’t have.”

Russia’s ally in Syria, Iran, also reportedly has hacking capabilities. In 2011 it claimed that it hacked into a US RQ-170 Sentinel and forced it to land after it gained access to its GPS.

Russian jamming of our ISR drones is intended to communicate to US and allied military commanders that they will not have a friendly electronic environment if they go with an application of strategic air strikes. This complicates not only targeting, but any potential search and rescue operations that might need to be conducted if something went wrong.

There is another set of strategic complications I want to focus on, which is where Russia has moved its military assets over the past 6 months or so. Russia has begun building out its Western Military District. This is the Russian version of a geographic combatant command that borders the Baltics, Scandinavia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

This includes ramping up exercises and mobilizations under cover of wildfire season preparedness:

Here’s how Russia’s military is deployed in their military districts:

(Map 1: Russian Military Units)

And here’s how NATO and Russia’s military stack up right now:

(Figure 1: NATO Assets Vs. Russian Assets as of 2017)

 

(Figure 2: NATO and Russian Deployments as of 2016)

This second strategic complication should be of great concern. The Russian military, despite being much smaller than the US’s and much degraded by Russian economic realities from the vaunted Soviet military, has been deployed and positioned to threaten the US’s NATO and other allies in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Sweden and Finland have been moving towards a war footing, while our Baltic allies have also increased their readiness. Moreover, the Russians have been sniffing around the undersea transatlantic cables that connect the US and Europe for communications purposes. And we now know that Russia’s cyberwarfare capabilities means they don’t have to actually do anything military to retaliate. Russia could just take down parts or all of the US power grid. Russia has also been able to both penetrate for manipulation and penetrate to take down emergency communication systems, as well as planting false stories about natural disasters and terrorist attacks via social media penetrationImagine what happens should Putin decide to retaliate by turning parts of the US power grid off and interfering with 911 and emergency communications systems, while at the same time spreading disinformation made to look like actual news reports or official municipal, state, and/or Federal responses to the disaster he’s created.

Either a military response against US forces in Syria and Iraq, our NATO allies and partners in Europe, and/or a cyberwarfare response within the US are all potential Russian responses to a US led coalition military response to the chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta last week. These are the strategic complications that the US and its potential allies face in developing their plans and sequels to them. These are the strategic complications faced by the President’s senior military, national security, and foreign policy advisors.

The final strategic complication is the one we started with, the one the President created for himself this morning. By threatening Russian and its Syrian and Iranian proxies with the nice, new, and smart missiles he’s tweeted himself into a corner. He either has to actually do something in response to the chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta or he will have destroyed any credibility on this type of matter in the future, as well as weakened America’s strategic communication capabilities. Regardless of the strategic complications on the ground in Syria, in Europe, or within the cyber domain, the President has boxed himself in. The President has finally tweeted himself into trouble that he can’t tweet himself out of. Either he orders a response and risks an escalation or he backs down and loses what little face he had.

Stay frosty!

Open thread.



A Quick Housekeeping Note On The Michael Cohen News: This Is A Federal, Not A New York State, Investigation

Just a quick housekeeping note to clarify something important regarding the FBI executing a Federal search warrant on Michael Cohen’s office, home, and hotel room today. This is a Federal investigation. It is being conducted by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, also known as the Southern District of New York or SDNY. According to reporting by Bloomberg, Special Counsel Mueller brought his investigatory concerns to Deputy AG Rosenstein who then determined that this should be handled by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, not the Office of the Special Counsel.

Mueller brought information involving Cohen to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who decided that the inquiry should be handled by federal prosecutors in New York, according to a person familiar with the situation.

Under Justice Department regulations, Mueller is required to consult with Rosenstein about how to handle evidence and matters that may fall outside his jurisdiction and authority. Mueller is investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, whether anyone close to Trump engaged in collusion and whether Trump sought to obstruct justice.

This is a Federal investigation. Michael Cohen is the target of this Federal investigation. It is not, based on reporting, as of now, a joint Federal/NY State investigation. I would expect that the NY state Attorney General Schneiderman will be asked to be read on in case there are parallel charges that would be more appropriately brought in NY state or, in case parts or all of the Federal investigation does not go forward, that could then be brought in NY state.

So just to reiterate: this is currently a Federal investigation being supervised/undertaken by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York as a result of guidance/instructions from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The current US Attorney for the Southern District of New York is Geoffrey S. Berman, who was appointed on an interim basis by Attorney General Sessions on behalf of the current President and assumed his current office in January 2018.

My guess is that in addition to all the other news that broke today, this story is going to continue to develop through the evening and into tomorrow.

Stay frosty!

Open thread.



The Trump Doctrine and Syria: “I, And By Extension The US, Will Be Treated Fairly Or Else” Runs Into The Ambiguity Of A Wicked National Security Problem

The President appears to have decided that the US needs to leave Syria as soon as possible. This decision caught his national security and foreign policy team flatfooted. It really isn’t a change in US policy as I’m not sure anyone could actually articulate this administration’s policy in regard to Syria. When the President gave his campaign speech on foreign and national security policy in 2016, I wrote that he had articulated the Trump Doctrine, which is: “America will be treated fairly or else…”.

The President’s meandering remarks in his April 2016 speech touched on a number of his long standing national security and foreign policy beliefs: America’s allies are taking advantage of our treaty and other obligations in the national security space; America’s allies and peer competitors are ripping the US off through our trade agreements; the US should go it alone if it can’t renegotiate better deals; and only a President Trump could guarantee that the US would be treated fairly – or else. That only a President Trump could guarantee that the US would be treated fairly, whether in national security arrangements or global trade, was simply an extension of one of the major, if not the major theme of his campaign: Donald Trump would be treated fairly or else and only Donald Trump could guarantee that Americans, especially the forgotten men and women as he phrased it, would be treated fairly or else.

That the US will be treated fairly or else, and that only a President Trump could guarantee that happening became the central, unifying them of his national security and foreign policy approach was actually a stroke of strategic communication genius. A significant amount of the President’s initial strategic communication approach was through tying his primary opponents, the Republican National Committee, and the broadcast and cable news networks in knots about treating him fairly. This included trying to get Megyn Kelly removed from debate moderation after he felt she treated him badly, as well as actually dropping out of a GOP primary debate on Fox News and holding a competing charity event for veterans because he did not like that Fox wouldn’t comply with his demands. And if they failed to do so he’d deal with them harshly. Then candidate Trump threatened his fellow primary opponents and the RNC by making it clear that if he didn’t feel he was being treated fairly by them, then the or else would be his running as an independent candidate, thereby splitting the Republican vote for president, and handing the election to the then presumed Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton.

By making this the dominant theme of his national security and foreign policy approach, he was able to make a singular through line for his campaign – “I, Donald Trump, will be treated fairly or else by the GOP, the RNC, and the news media; only I, Donald Trump, can guarantee that you the forgotten men and women of America are treated fairly in regards to both domestic politics and foreign policy; and only I, Donald Trump, can guarantee that the US will be treated fairly or else there will be serious and severe repercussions for the GOP, the RNC, the news media, elected and appointed officials, and America’s allies, partners, and peer competitors”. Here was the simple through line to connect Make America Great Again both domestically and internationally by placing America first. It is also the essence of the real Trump Doctrine: President Trump and by extension the forgotten men and women of America, as well as America itself, will be treated fairly or else.

The President, and his preferences as enumerated in the Trump Doctrine, are now in conflict with the reality of the wicked problem that is the Syrian Civil War and the US led coalition fight against ISIS.

The Washington Post reports that:

Trump’s words, both in public and private, describe a view that wars should be brutal and swift, waged with overwhelming firepower and, in some cases, with little regard for civilian casualties. Victory over America’s enemies for the president is often a matter of bombing “the s— out of them,” as he said on the campaign trail.

For America’s generals, more than 17 years of combat have served as a lesson in the limits of overwhelming force to end wars fueled by sectarian feuds, unreliable allies and persistent government corruption. “Victory is sort [of] an elusive concept in that part of the world,” said Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, who led troops over five tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. “Anyone who goes in and tries to achieve a decisive victory is going to come away disappointed.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis echoed that point in late November when he outlined an expanded role for U.S. forces in preventing the return of the Islamic State or a group like it in Syria. “You need to do something about this mess now,” he told reporters. “Not just, you know, fight the military part of it and then say, ‘Good luck on the rest of it.’ ”

His remarks reflected a broader Pentagon consensus: In the absence of a clear outcome, winning for much of the U.S. military’s top brass has come to be synonymous with staying put. These days, senior officers talk about “infinite war.”

“It’s not losing,” explained Air Force Gen. Mike Holmes in a speech earlier this year. “It’s staying in the game and . . . pursuing your objectives.”

The Army recently rewrote its primary warfighting doctrine to account for the long stretch of fighting without victory since 9/11. “The win was too absolute,” said Lt. Gen. Michael Lundy of the old document. “We concluded winning is more of a continuum.”

LTG Lundy is the Commanding General of the US Army Combined Arms Center (CAC) at FT Leavenworth. As the CAC Commander he oversees doctrine for the US Army. Unfortunately US Army doctrine is pretty silent on what winning or victory means. So is joint doctrine. I spent all morning going through the DOD Dictionary, Joint Publication 3-0/Joint Operations, TRADOC Pamphlet (PAM) 525-3-6/The US Army Functional Concept for Movement and Maneuver, TRADOC Pamphlet (PAM) 525-3-1/The US Army Operational Concept: Win in a Complex World, and the 2015 National Military Strategy in an attempt to find a definition of win, winning, and/or victory. The only two documents that included a definition, or something close, where in the endnotes of PAM 525-3-1/The US Army Operational Concept: Win in a Complex World and in the body of the previous administration’s National Military Strategy.

PAM 525-3-1 defines win in endnote 2 as:

The dictionary defines “win” as: to be successful or victorious in (a contest or conflict). Winning in this concept is meeting the policy objectives of the Commander in Chief. It refers to more than simply defeating threat forces; it means meeting national goals and objectives that are unique for each operation. The joint commander must define success for each operation (or campaign) based upon the national goals and objectives, which may change, based on conditions during the operation

The 2015 National Military Strategy defines win as:

We are prepared to project power across all domains to stop aggression and win our Nation’s wars by decisively defeating adversaries.

The President’s senior military and national security advisors don’t have much to work with in trying to help the President, or any president, define successful termination of hostilities, especially for the ambiguous low intensity, irregular, asymmetric, and unconventional wars that the US has been involved in over the past seventeen years or so. We’re not talking about an interstate war, with two or more state combatants fighting in identifiable uniforms, where victory is achieved when one side in the conflict has either been rendered incapable of continuing to fight or has made the decision that it cannot endure any more pain as a result of a continuation of hostilities. Whether the US and its allies ever participate in that type of war again is an interesting question that is discussed in military and civilian classrooms, as well as in other forums, but it is not the reality we are in and expect to be in any time soon.

This ambiguity regarding what successful combat operations, let alone victory, looks like in the early 21st Century Operating Environment (OE), and the US military’s acceptance of it, is running head first into the President’s preferences, specifically the Trump Doctrine. The President has made it clear he wants the US out as soon as we finish reducing ISIS’s physical foot print. And he wants the Saudis and the Gulf states to pay for reconstruction and reconciliation efforts in the US led Coalition liberated areas within Syria.

Unfortunately, ISIS’s actual center of gravity isn’t the amount of physical terrain it holds. Rather, it is its extreme theology and doctrine of tawheed – the radical unity of the Deity. The US, its coalition partners and allies, including the Syrian Kurdish militias we are training, equipping, and assisting in our by, with, and through strategy against ISIS, aren’t really fighting for terrain. Or to kill or capture as many ISIS fighters and officials and supporters as possible. What they are really fighting is ISIS’s theology and doctrine. This is the strategic target. Trying to decisively measure success in combatting the spread and acceptance of ideas is very, very difficult. As is killing them. It is very hard to stop the signal. This creates a very unpleasant reality: the inability to create actual strategic measures of effectiveness in the fight against ISIS, which is really the fight against ISIS’s doctrine.

Finally, simply taking our personnel and equipment and going home once the physical caliphate has been reduced is only going to help reset the conditions for either ISIS to make a comeback or for something new and likely equally dangerous to rise from its ashes. Defeating ISIS means defeating the conditions that led to its creation – the economic despair, the social inequality, the despotic rule of the Assads, the sectarian divisions – which can only be done through reconciliation and reconstruction. There isn’t a lot of room in here for the US to be treated well in exchange for doing this. It is largely thankless. It is not a mission to achieve decisive victory on the battlefield. These operations are much more similar to the Marshall Plan, which is how we secured the peace in Europe after World War II. It is a longer term, ambiguous mission to work by, with, and through our local partners to manage and mitigate significant social, political, economic, and religious problems and disputes in an attempt to prevent ISIS’s reemergence or the emergence of something even worse. Failure to do so will simply see the US and its Coalition allies and partners back in the Levant once again conducting kinetic operations as refugees stream out of a region that becomes more unstable leading to more loss of life on all sides. The US’s actions in Iraq from 2003 through 2011 helped to set the conditions for the rise of ISIS. Taking responsibility for that reality and working by, with, and through our local partners in Syria and Iraq to manage and mitigate it is a moral responsibility. It is not, however, a matter of being treated fairly or an opportunity for turning a profit.

Open thread.



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