Donald Trump’s Berlin Wall moment? A Reagan-sized opportunity for Middle East stability

Last month Donald Trump reset the strategic landscape in the Middle East, withdrawing U.S. troops from a lengthy war in Syria while managing to eliminate ISIS’s top leader.

The killing of the most wanted terrorist in the world, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, came within a few weeks of Trump’s brokering a deal with Turkey that ended months of dead end negotiations on a so-called “safe zone.”

Those events have significantly advanced U.S. interests in the Middle East, a chess play ripped from the pages of Ronald Reagan’s peace-through-strength manual. They also could open the door to several regional deals that return refugees home and enhance stability in the region — including a new, more comprehensive, and tougher nuclear deal with Iran.

But you would have a hard time getting the whole picture from news coverage, which has been preoccupied with the U.S. “sellout” of the Kurds and how Trump’s statement on Baghdadi compared with Obama’s on Osama Bin Laden. Or the differences in the White House photos.

To appreciate the opportunity that has opened up for America in the Middle East, one must first examine the facts and correct the misleading narrative.

Trump did not “sell out” the Syrian Kurds, who have been fantastic partners in the fight against ISIS, and will continue to be. The U.S. never had a formal treaty with the Kurds. Neither President Obama nor Trump ever committed to protect the Kurds against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad. And Congress never approved a formal alliance. 

That’s a fact that gets omitted by the neo-conservative policymakers and military industrial complex cheerleaders who have dominated the airwaves the last few weeks.

Second, our partnership with the Syrian Kurds has not been a one-way street: U.S. troops helped the Kurds beat back ISIS from their towns and villages. Even with the US troop withdrawal, cooperation between America and the Kurds continues, as the successful Al Baghdadi raid demonstrated.  And the Syrian Kurds, no fools at all, always kept a line to Damascus, which left them able to cut their own deal after Trump withdrew troops. 

Third, Turkey is a formal ally of the United States, bound to us by the essential military alliance known as NATO. In fairness, Turkey is a troublesome ally for sure, and one with whom we disagree about the Syrian Kurds. And there is compelling evidence Turkey has not complied with recent ceasefires.

It might be for both sides to ask how U.S. interests are served by sanctioning Turkey, and keeping troops in Syria, because we disagree with Erdogan about the Kurds. But where ever that debate ends, the United States chose to be bound to Turkey in ways it was never to the Kurds.    

With those facts in mind, let’s examine the opportunities on the horizon.

Trump currently appears to be testing Russia’s and Turkey’s commitment to degrade and defeat ISIS and other terrorist groups remaining in Syria, while maintaining the new but fragile peace deal with the Kurds. 

There are still more than 10,000 jihadists in northwest Syria, where Al Baghdadi was hiding.  If Vladimir Putin and Erdogan want to risk their blood and treasure to take them out, that could save America lives and money. Why not put Turkey, Russia and Iraq to the test in battling the rest of the terrorists?

With the territorial defeat of the ‘caliphate’ and the killing of Baghdadi, ISIS and other terrorists in Syria are now orphans.  Former backers of various jihadi factions in the Gulf and elsewhere aren’t getting behind these armed thugs any longer.  The money is drying up, and the terrorist dead enders are increasingly isolated in the northwest city of Idlib, which is facing an imminent day of reckoning with Syrian and Russian forces.

If Putin and Erdogan fail to defeat these ISIS and Al Qaeda leftovers, Trump still holds the option to re-deploy U.S. troops, positioned nearby in Iraq and elsewhere to finish the job.

The U.S. can also stop Erdogan if he is tempted to usurp some of those battle-tested jihadists for his own sectarian agenda, as some fear.

Second, Trump is watching closely whether Putin delivers a peace deal between Syria and Turkey.  This is happening, and barely covered in the press.  If Turkey and Syria bury the hatchet, the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey could eventually return to their original homes —  while letting Russia foot the bill for needed security.  This step, while not a done deal, would be monumental toward ending the war, and should be welcomed by the international community.  

Third, many in the U.S. government and outside may see this dynamic as an unacceptable concession to Assad, Iran, and Putin.  But the Trump administration quietly has grabbed some powerful leverage by having U.S. troops secure the lucrative but tattered Syrian oil fields. 

Syrian oil will only increase in value for future negotiations with Putin.  It assures that Assad, and Iran, will continue to be boxed in by U.S. power until there is a Syrian political process that resolves Assad’s future and Iran’s use of Syrian space to threaten Israel.

Fourth, with all these moves Trump has sparked Syria’s neighbors and other regional states to work out their own issues rather than wait for U.S. intervention.  Not all of these countries are ones we like, such as Iran and Syria. But the regional shuttles are flying, and Trump set them in motion.

One such deal occurred this week when the Saudi’s brokered a peace deal between Yemen’s official government and rebels fighting in the civil war in that country. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed the deal on Twitter.

Fifth, Trump can continue to count on support from Israel, whose regular bombing of Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria also provides a needed stick.  The U.S. doesn’t just have the armed Kurdish groups as an asset in Syria, we have Israel, America’s closest regional ally, as our partner too.

Sixth, an even bigger prize looms on the horizon: a better nuclear deal with Iran. This goal is important to Israel, as well as our partners in the region and around the world, and it has gained new urgency with Tehran’s announcement this week it has new advanced centrifuges to accelerate uranium enrichment.

There are other reasons why now is the time to move on Iran.  The economic sanctions that Trump imposed on Tehran are having a devastating impact; the IMF projects Iran’s economic growth will contract by a stunning 9.5% this year.  

Likewise, events in the region, especially in Lebanon, where a secular, anti-Iran trend is taking hold, opens the door to more comprehensive peace, which could address Israel’s concerns about the missile and terrorist threat from Hezbollah. 

A carrot and stick approach that gets at the core issue, disarming Hezbollah and supporting reform minded technocratic leaders, would be best to settle Israel’s security needs long-term.  Trump has the rare window to seize the moment with a big deal rather than interim steps like conditioning aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces

Nearby, a new government in Jerusalem,  perhaps absent the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, may be more willing to engage in a fresh approach to Iran.  No one doubts Trump’s commitment to Israel.  This was not the case with the previous administration, and a key reason why the Iran nuclear deal and its peace plans ultimately failed.

Trump and Israel also have allies willing to help bring Iran to the negotiating table.  A weakened Iran is still a proud country, but Putin, who also keeps in contact with Israel, can help. If Russia shows good faith on the Turkey-Syrian front, it could earn that seat at the table with Americans, Europeans, Israelis and Iranians.  

French President Emmanuel Macron is already working the back channels, fashioning a credit lifeline of $15 billion for Iran — if it will engage in a better nuclear deal, help end Yemen’s civil war, and support regional and maritime security in the Persian Gulf. 

Those are a lot of “ifs” … but none much different than when Reagan boldly dared Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Few could imagine in June 1987 the Soviet collapse would so soon follow. But it did.  

Time will tell if the Trump chess game can yield similar historic dividends in the Middle East and open the door to shrinking America’s war swollen budget deficits.  

So far, Trump has maneuvered the complicated pieces —  Russia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran – into a place where peace and security may be closer than ever.  

Now he needs a team that embraces his bold approach to end endless conflict in the Middle East, rather than undercut it with leaks and tired thinking.   

Such a journey begins by eliminating the false narratives that are obscuring the potential breakthroughs in the region.

After Russia collusion controversy, FBI faces ‘red flag’ concerns over vetting informants

Back in the summer of 2007, a well-respected FBI executive marched up to Capitol Hill to assure members of Congress that the bureau had reformed and modernized its management of human sources, more commonly known as informants.

“Both the Attorney General and the Director have made clear their expectations that the FBI’s Confidential Human Source Program must rise to the challenge of our current mission, integrate fully with the broader intelligence community, and set a standard for integrity and quality,” Assistant Director for Intelligence Wayne M. Murphy testified.

Appearing then before subcommittee led by now-House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler, Murphy laid out an impressive set of new rules governing how the FBI would vet, share and utilize human sources, including a new manual for managing informants and new training.

“The validation process will ensure every FBI source is subjected to a level of validation and provides the capability to evaluate sources in a broader national context and make decisions accordingly,” Murphy told the lawmakers.

A dozen years later, those reforms and the FBI’s adherence to them are coming under renewed scrutiny after one of the bureau’s most infamous cases, the Russia collusion investigation, relied on an overtly partisan informant with only “minimally” valuable intelligence to secure a warrant to spy on the Trump presidential campaign at the end of the 2016 election.

Multiple sources confirm the Justice Department inspector general is putting the finishing touches on an investigative report raising concerns about the FBI’s maintenance of human source validation reports, its vetting of sources and its handling of red flags about informants.

The review, expected to be released as early as this month, does not focus specifically on the work of British intelligence operative Christopher Steele, whose Hillary Clinton-funded dossier formed the cornerstone evidence the FBI used to justify securing an October 2016 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant targeting ex-Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

The warrant, renewed three times, allowed the bureau to gather intelligence for nearly a year on the Trump campaign, transition and early administration in search of evidence they might be colluding with Russia to hijack the 2016 election or American foreign policy.

No such evidence was found, and only months after the probe began did the public learn that Steele had been terminated as a source early in the investigation for leaking and his dossier funded by Trump’s rivals at the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee. Despite those warnings, Steele’s evidence continued to be represented as credible to the courts.

While Steele’s not the focus, the IG report is expected to lay out missteps, failures and a lack of adherence to the very reforms Murphy laid out for the bureau’s modern day informant network.

A source familiar with the preliminary findings says the IG appears to have identified a pattern of FBI agents ignoring red flags raised about sources during the course of investigations or from other intelligence agencies.

In addition, there is some concern that human source validation reports were incomplete or outdated, the source said.

Preliminary IG findings often go through revisions before the publication of a final report, as the FBI and DOJ react to conclusions. But if the final report does confirm the failure to adhere to red flags and vetting procedures, it is certain to lead to new oversight in Congress, possibly by Nadler’s committee or the Senate Judiciary Committee led by Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

And the missed warning signs about Steele may ultimately be viewed and understood in a broader context of FBI’s systemic failures to react to red flags about informants.

Reporting I did earlier this year exposed how the FBI was alerted on Oct. 13, 2016  — eight days before Steele’s dossier was used to support the first FISA warrant — that the FBI informant had traveled to the State Department to brief a senior official named Kathleen Kavalec about his investigative work on Trump.

During the course of his meeting, Steele divulged he had an Election Day deadline to get his information out, was working with the FBI and also was talking to major news media. He also provided evidence of a widely debunked conspiracy theory that Trump and Putin were communicating via a secret server inside Russia’s Alfa Bank.

The State Department alerted the FBI to the contact. And separately, a senior Justice Department official named Bruce Ohr warned that Steele appeared to be “desperate” to defeat Trump in the election and likely was working in some capacity with Clinton’s campaigns.

Despite those red flags, the FBI proceeded to use Steele and his work to support the FISA warrant on Oct. 21, 2016, even telling the judges the bureau had no derogatory information about his reliability or credibility as an informant.

More recently, congressional sources were briefed in a non-classified setting and told the United States possesses information that British intelligence offered a caution about Steele and his reliance on so-called sub-sources as early as 2015, according to an eyewitness to that briefing.

Such information, if corroborated and made public, could further change the narrative about the Russia case and the FBI’s larger use of human sources.

Earlier this year, the DOJ released a highly redacted version of Steele’s own source validation report from his time working as an informant in the Russia probe. The report appears to have been completed well after Steele was deactivated on Nov. 1, 2016 for leaking to the news media because it lists database checks made in February 2017.

But the report makes clear the FBI only had “medium” confidence that Steele had furthered their investigation and that his intelligence was only “minimally corroborated.”

That’s not a foundation, many experts see in retrospect, upon which the FBI should have built one of its most sensitive counterintelligence cases in the last decade.

In midst of 2016 election, State Department saw Burisma as Joe Biden’s issue, memos show

In recent interviews, Joe Biden has distanced himself from his son’s work at a Ukrainian gas company that was under investigation during the Obama years, with the former vice president  suggesting he didn’t even know Hunter Biden served on the board of Burisma Holdings.

There is plenty of evidence that conflicts with the former vice president’s account, including Hunter Biden’s own story that he discussed the company once with his famous father.

There also was a December 2015 New York Times story that raised the question of whether Hunter Biden’s role at Burisma posed a conflict of interest for the vice president, especially when Joe Biden was leading the fight against Ukrainian corruption while Hunter Biden’s firm was under investigation by Ukrainian prosecutors.

But whatever the Biden family recollections, the Obama State Department clearly saw the Burisma Holdings investigation in the midst of the 2016 presidential election as a Joe Biden issue.

Memos newly released through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Southeastern Legal Foundation on my behalf detail how State officials in June 2016 worked to prepare the new U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, to handle a question about “Burisma and Hunter Biden.”

In multiple drafts of a question-and-answer memo prepared for Yovanovitch’s Senate confirmation hearing, the department’s Ukraine experts urged the incoming ambassador to stick to a simple answer.

“Do you have any comment on Hunter Biden, the Vice President’s son, serving on the board of Burisma, a major Ukrainian Gas Company?,” the draft Q&A asked.

The recommended answer for Yovanovitch: “For questions on Hunter Biden’s role in Burisma, I would refer you to Vice President Biden’s office.”

The Q&A is consistent with other information flowing out of State. As I reported yesterday, when a Burisma representative contacted State in February 2016 to ask for the department’s help in quashing the corruption allegations, Hunter Biden’s role on the company’s board was prominently cited.

And a senior State Department official who testified recently in the impeachment proceedings reportedly told lawmakers he tried to warn the vice president’s office that Burisma posed a conflict for Joe Biden but was turned aside.

There are no laws that would have prevented Hunter Biden from joining Burisma, even as his father oversaw Ukraine policy for the President Obama.

And the corruption investigations launched in 2014 by British and Ukraine authorities involving Burisma and its owner Mykola Zlocvhevsky involved activities that pre-dated Hunter Biden’s arrival on the board. They were settled in late 2016 and early 2017.

Some of Biden’s media defenders have falsely suggested the investigations were dormant. They were not.

The real public interest question involves Joe Biden. Federal ethics rules require government officials to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, and ethics experts I talked with say the vice president should have recused himself from issues affecting Burisma.

That became poignantly public when Biden leveraged the threat of canceling $1 billion in U.S. aid in March 2016 to get Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who just happened to oversee the Burisma probe. A month before the firing, Shokin escalated the corruption probe against Burisma by seizing the company owner’s property and assets.

Shokin says he was making plans to interview Hunter Biden and insists he was fired because he refused to stand down on the Burisma probe. Joe Biden insists he prompted Shokin’s firing because he believed the prosecutor was ineffective.

There are more memos and documents to be released in the coming months under the FOIA lawsuit I filed with the Southeastern Legal Foundation that may shine light on what actually happened.

But one thing is already clear: long before President Trump or his attorney Rudy Giuliani began investigating Ukrainian issues, career State officials already saw Burisma as an issue for Joe Biden.

Hunter Biden’s Ukraine gas firm pressed Obama administration to end corruption allegations, memos show

Hunter Biden and his Ukrainian gas firm colleagues had multiple contacts with the Obama State Department during the 2016 election cycle, including one just a month before Vice President Joe Biden forced Ukraine to fire the prosecutor investigating his son’s company for corruption, newly released memos show.

During that February 2016 contact, a U.S. representative for Burisma Holdings sought a meeting with Undersecretary of State Catherine A. Novelli to discuss ending the corruption allegations against the Ukrainian firm where Hunter Biden worked as a board member, according to memos obtained under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. (I filed that suit this summer with the help of the public interest law firm the Southeastern Legal Foundation.)

Just three weeks before Burisma’s overture to State, Ukrainian authorities raided the home of the oligarch who owned the gas firm and employed Hunter Biden, a signal the long-running corruption probe was escalating in the middle of the U.S. presidential election.

Hunter Biden’s name, in fact, was specifically invoked by the Burisma representative as a reason the State Department should help, according to a series of email exchanges among U.S. officials trying to arrange the meeting. The subject line for the email exchanges read simply “Burisma.”

“Per our conversation, Karen Tramontano of Blue Star Strategies requested a meeting to discuss with U/S Novelli USG remarks alleging Burisma (Ukrainian energy company) of corruption,” a Feb. 24, 2016, email between State officials read. “She noted that two high profile U.S. citizens are affiliated with the company (including Hunter Biden as a board member).

“Tramontano would like to talk with U/S Novelli about getting a better understanding of how the U.S. came to the determination that the company is corrupt,” the email added. “According to Tramontano there is no evidence of corruption, has been no hearing or process, and evidence to the contrary has not been considered.”

At the time, Novelli was the most senior official overseeing international energy issues for State. The undersecretary position, of which there are several, is the third-highest-ranking job at State, behind the secretary and deputy secretary. And Tramontano was a lawyer working for Blue Star Strategies, a Washington firm that was hired by Burisma to help end a long-running corruption investigation against the gas firm in Ukraine.

Tramontano and another Blue Star official, Sally Painter, both alumni of Bill Clinton’s administration, worked with New York-based criminal defense attorney John Buretta to settle the Ukraine cases in late 2016 and 2017. I wrote about their efforts previously here

Burisma Holdings records obtained by Ukrainian prosecutors state the gas firm made a $60,000 payment to Blue Star in November 2015.

The emails show Tramontano was scheduled to meet Novelli on March 1, 2016, and that State Department officials were scrambling to get answers ahead of time from the U.S. embassy in Kiev.

The records don’t show whether the meeting actually took place. The FOIA lawsuit is ongoing and State officials are slated to produce additional records in the months ahead.

But the records do indicate that Hunter Biden’s fellow American board member at Burisma,  Devon Archer, secured a meeting on March 2, 2016 with Secretary of State John Kerry. In addition to serving on the Burisma board, Archer and Hunter Biden were partners at an American firm known as Rosemont Seneca.

“Devon Archer coming to see S today at 3pm – need someone to meet/greet him at C Street,” an email from Kerry’s office manager reads. “S” is a shorthand frequently used in State emails to describe the Secretary of State. The memos don’t state the reason for the meeting.

Tramontano, a lawyer for Hunter Biden, Archer and Joe Biden’s campaign did not return messages seeking comment on Monday.

In an interview with ABC News last month, Hunter Biden said he believed he had done “nothing wrong at all” while working with Burisma but “was it poor judgment to be in the middle of something that is…a swamp in — in — in many ways? Yeah.”

Whatever the subject of the Archer-Kerry meeting, its existence is certain to spark interest. That’s because Secretary Kerry’s stepson, Christopher Heinz, had been a business partner with both Archer and Hunter Biden at the Rosemont Seneca investment firm in the United States.

Heinz, however, chose not to participate in the Burisma dealings. In fact, he wrote an email to his stepfather’s top aides in May 2014, pointedly distancing himself from the decision by Hunter Biden and Devon Archer to join Burisma’s board.

Heinz’s spokesman recently told The Washington Post that Heinz ended his relationship with Archer and Hunter Biden partly over the Burisma matter. “The lack of judgment in this matter was a major catalyst for Mr. Heinz ending his business relationships with Mr. Archer and Mr. Biden,” Heinz spokesman Chris Bastardi told the newspaper

A person who assisted Blue Star and Buretta in settling the Burisma matters in Ukraine told me in an interview that the late February 2016 overture to State was prompted by a dramatic series of events in Ukraine that included when that country’s top prosecutor escalated a two-year probe into Burisma and its founder, the oligarch Mykola Zlochevsky.

Zlochevsky’s gas firm hired Hunter Biden and Archer as board members for Burisma Holdings in spring 2014, around the time that British officials opened corruption investigations into Zlochevsky’s gas firm for actions dating to 2010 before Hunter Biden and Archer joined the firm. Ukraine officials opened their own corruption probe in August 2014.

A firm called Rosemont Seneca Bohai began receiving monthly payments totaling more than $166,000 from Burisma Holdings in May 2014, bank records show. The records show Devon Archer was listed as a custodian for the Rosemont Seneca Bohai firm and that Hunter Biden received payments from it. You can read those bank records here.

In September 2015, then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt gave a speech imploring Ukrainian prosecutors to do more to bring Zlochevsky to justice, according to published reports at the time.

By early 2016 the Ukrainian investigation had advanced enough that then-Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin authorized a court-ordered seizure of Zlochevsky’s home and other valuables, including a luxury car. That seizure occurred on Feb. 2, 2016, according to published reports in Ukraine.

The same day that the Zlochevsky seizure was announced in Ukraine, Hunter Biden used his Twitter account to start following Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, a longtime national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden who was promoted to the No. 2 job at State under Secretary John Kerry.

The Feb. 4, 2016 Twitter notification from Hunter Biden to Blinken was captured by State email servers and turned over to me as part of the FOIA release.

Within a few weeks of Tramontano’s overture to Novelli and of Archer’s overture to Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden took a stunning action, one that has enveloped his 2020 campaign for president in controversy.

By his own admission in a 2018 speech, Joe Biden used the threat of withholding $1 billion in U.S. aid to strong-arm Ukraine into firing Shokin, a prosecutor that he and his office knew was investigating Burisma.

Biden has said he forced Shokin’s firing because he and Western allies believed the prosecutor wasn’t aggressive enough in fighting corruption.

Shokin disputes that account, telling both me and ABC News that he was fired specifically because he would not stand down from investigating Burisma. In fact, Shokin alleges, he was making plans to interview Hunter Biden about his Burisma work and payments when he got the axe.

Ukraine prosecutors have said they do not believe the Bidens did anything wrong under Ukraine law. But some of the country’s prosecutors made an effort in 2018 to get information about Burisma to the U.S. Justice Department because they believed American prosecutors might be interested in some activities under U.S. law. You can read about that effort here.

Some experts and officials have been quoted in reports saying Joe Biden’s actions created the appearance of a conflict of interest, something all U.S. government officials are supposed to avoid. The questions about conflicts were previously raised in a 2015 article by the New York Times and the 2018 book Secret Empires by author Peter Schweizer.

The new evidence of contacts between Burisma, Hunter Biden and Archer at State are certain to add a new layer of intrigue to the debate. Those contacts span back to at least spring 2015, the new memos show.

On May 22, 2015, Hunter Biden emailed his father’s longtime trusted aide, Blinken, with the following message: “Have a few minutes next week to grab a cup of coffee? I know you are impossibly busy, but would like to get your advice on a couple of things, Best, Hunter.”

Blinken responded the same day with an “absolutely” and added, “Look forward to seeing you.”

The records indicate the two men were scheduled to meet the afternoon of May 27, 2015.

The State Department records also indicate Hunter Biden met Blinken in person for lunch on July 22, 2015, when State officials gave the name of a person to meet to help him enter the building. “He has the VIP pin and can escort you upstairs for your lunch with Tony,” the email said.

The emails don’t indicate whether the meeting had to do with Burisma or one of Hunter Biden’s other interests.

But they clearly show that Hunter Biden, his business partner and Burisma’s legal team were able to secure contacts inside the State Department, including to one of his father’s most trusted aides, to Secretary Kerry and to the agency’s top energy official.

The question now is: Did any of those contacts prompt further action or have anything to do with Joe Biden’s conduct in Ukraine in March 2016 when he forced Shokin’s firing?