Afghan units implicated in ‘gross violations’ still get Pentagon support, IG finds

U.S. forces have used a loophole in the law to keep training and equipping units of the Afghan security forces that are implicated in "gross violations of humans rights," according to a new report from the Pentagon’s independent watchdog over the 17-year-old conflict.

The Pentagon used the clause to maintain assistance for 12 Afghan units “implicated in 14 gross violations of human rights in 2013,” The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found.

Normally, units with records of human rights abuses should see assistance withheld under the Pentagon’s version of the so-called Leahy law.

But the IG describes how, under the so-called “notwithstanding clause” in the appropriations act that funds security assistance in Afghanistan, the Pentagon can forgo the mandate when it is deemed “infeasible.”

Of a larger total of 75 reported gross human rights violations brought to light as of August 2016, six were found to involve credible or potentially credible allegations of child sex abuse. The report cautions, however, that “the full extent of child sexual assault committed by Afghan security forces may never be known.”

The IG’s investigation was was prompted by allegations, first reported by the New York Times in 2015, that sexual abuse of children by members of Afghan military and police was “rampant."



Nadler calls GOP memo criticizing FBI ‘profoundly misleading’

Rep. Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, says he considers a GOP memo critical of top FBI officials “profoundly misleading” after seeing the highly classified source material Republicans used to craft it.

Few lawmakers have gotten access to the materials House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes relied on to compile his four-page memo, which the committee circulated among all House members last week but has not made public. But Nadler said in a letter released Tuesday that he and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte recently had a chance view the classified materials.

"Those materials tell a very different story than the conspiracy theory concocted by Chairman Nunes and being repeated in the press," Nadler wrote in the letter to Goodlatte.

A parade of GOP lawmakers this week have said the memo confirms misconduct and political bias against President Donald Trump by senior officials at the FBI. Democrats say the memo, which Republicans haven’t shown to the FBI or Justice Department, is an attempt to undermine the special counsel investigation into Russian election meddling and any involvement by Trump’s associates.

Nunes and other top Republicans have been discussing whether to make an unprecedented request to release the classified memo publicly, using an obscure process that would give Trump a chance to weigh in — possibly as soon as next week — and could require a vote of the full House. Many conservatives in Congress and in media have called on them to release the document.

Nadler’s criticism of the memo adds to the partisan furor it’s created on Capitol Hill. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, has called the memo a set of "distortions" and Republican talking points meant to tar investigators and protect the president from ongoing Russia probes. Schiff also said most lawmakers would never see the underlying source material behind the memo, preventing them from assessing its accuracy.

Nadler urged Goodlatte to work with him to "make these source materials available to every member of our Committee."

"Too many of our colleagues appear to be constructing their own version of history — completely unrelated to the facts as you and I understand them — based, at least in part, on this memorandum," he wrote. "Our members should have the benefit of access to the actual record without delay."

Nadler also urged Goodlatte to demand that Nunes release his memo to the Justice Department and FBI, both of which have said they’ve sought the document but have yet to receive it. A Senate Intelligence ommittee source said Nunes also hasn’t responded to requests from members of the panel to share the document with senators.

"Some of our colleagues have compounded the problem by attacking the Department in public — where, because of the classified and sensitive nature of the case, Department officials cannot defend themselves," Nadler wrote.

Goodlatte met over the weekend with Nunes and Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy to discuss how to handle calls to release the memo publicly. They’re considering whether to take a committee vote to do so next week. If they do, it would launch a process that would give Trump five days to approve or reject the request. If he approves, as GOP lawmakers expect, the memo could become public as soon as next Wednesday.

Sources familiar with the memo, which was compiled by aides to Devin Nunes, say it claims senior FBI officials abused a secret surveillance program, commonly known as FISA, to target the Trump campaign last fall. According to three people who have viewed it, the memo suggests that FBI agents seeking a fall 2016 warrant to conduct surveillance of Trump campaign adviser Carter Page concealed the role a disputed dossier alleging Kremlin influence over Trump played in their decision.

The dossier the memo alleges helped drive the decision to seek a FISA warrant on Page was compiled in 2016 by former British spy Christopher Steele, a trusted FBI partner in previous investigations, who had been commissioned by the private research firm Fusion GPS to investigate Trump’s business ties to Russia. Fusion’s work was funded at that time by a lawyer who represented Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee. It’s unclear whether Steele’s relationship to the campaign was disclosed in the FISA application.


Schumer withdraws offer on Trump’s wall

Chuck Schumer is taking his big spending boost for Donald Trump’s border wall off the table.

The Senate minority leader, through an aide, informed the White House on Monday that he was retracting the offer he made last week to give Trump well north of the $1.6 billion in wall funding Trump had asked for this year, according to two Democrats. And now they say Trump will simply not get a better deal than that on his signature campaign promise.

Schumer “took it off,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat. “He called the White House yesterday and said it’s over.”

In the now-infamous cheeseburger summit last Friday with Trump, Schumer offered a large increase in border wall spending as a condition for a broader deal to help Dreamers. But after that offer was rebuffed — prompting the three-day government shutdown — the president has now “missed an opportunity to get the wall,” one Democratic aide said.

Some key Republicans — including Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a key GOP immigration negotiator — had already considered using the promise of border wall funding totaling more than $1.6 billion in order to lure more conservative votes. A Dreamer plan written by a bipartisan group of six senators, including Flake, had included Trump’s $1.6 billion request as part of a broader, $2.7 billion border security package.

“Sen. Schumer’s already indicated that he would go for more. Republicans will go for more,” Flake said. “It’s just how much more we can get from the Democrats.”

Republicans aligned with Trump are unlikely to go for any bill that does not offer a major boost in border wall funding given the president’s strong feelings about the issue. Moreover, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said he was skeptical of Schumer’s recollection of the meeting and the border wall offer anyway.

“They claim that some crazy deal was made,” Cotton said of Democrats. “And then when we say no deal was made, they accuse Republicans and the president of reneging.”

But providing border wall money could also push away more liberal Democrats, who prefer to completey restart negotiations rather than start from any existing bill, even a bipartisan one like the proposal written by Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

“Discussions were had coming up to Friday night are interesting for context,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). But now, he said, “we start from a blank sheet of paper.”


Tillerson: Russia ‘bears responsibility’ for suspected chemical attack in Syria

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday denounced the recent suspected chemical attack in Syria and said “Russia ultimately bears responsibility” for the victims because it has enabled President Bashar Assad.

Rescue teams and activists said Monday that Assad’s government used a poisonous gas on Syrian civilians in an attack that affected at least 20 individuals, including some children, in a rebel-held region near Damascus.

Tillerson, speaking at a conference in Paris, called on the Syrian leader to cease the use of deadly weapons on civilians.

“The recent attacks in East Ghouta raise serious concerns that Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime may be continuing its use of chemical weapons against its own people,” Tillerson said.

The U.S.’s top diplomat added that while Assad is suspected of carrying out the attack, countries like Russia and its leader President Vladimir Putin were also culpable, the latest sign the Trump administration is growing more willing to put pressure on Russia.

“Whoever conducted the attacks, Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in East Ghouta and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons since Russia became involved in Syria,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson’s remarks on Russia came after President Donald Trump appeared to toughen his tone on Putin during an interview with Reuters last week, after saying frequently that he wanted to strengthen ties with Moscow. Trump said in the interview that the country was “not helping us at all” in attempts to temper North Korea’s weapons testing.

“What China is helping us with, Russia is denting,” Trump said. “In other words, Russia is making up for some of what China is doing.”

Tillerson on Tuesday also stressed the need for the international community to deny “impunity to those who use or enable the use of” of chemical weapons.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley declared in a statement Tuesday that the suspected attack was “yet another demonstration” of Syria’s “blatant disregard for international law and cruel indifference for the lives of its own people.”

"The United States will never stop fighting for the innocent Syrian children, women, and men who have become victims of their own government and those who continue to prop it up,” Haley said.


Media biased against Trump, Kurtz writes

Veteran media reporter and Fox News host Howard Kurtz portrays the news media in a new book as excessively negative in its treatment of President Donald Trump and essentially serving as opposition to the White House.

“Many are misguided in their belief that they are doing the right thing, and myopic in their rationalizations about why it’s perfectly fine to treat Trump differently than other presidents,” Kurtz writes in “Media Madness: Donald Trump, the Press, and the War over the Truth.”

POLITICO read the first several chapters of the book, which conservative publisher Regnery will release on Jan. 29. Though Kurtz does chronicle chaos in the West Wing, as The Washington Post noted in a Sunday night piece on excerpts from the forthcoming book, the author is generally sympathetic toward Trump in terms of his relationship with the media. Presumably, Trump will be much happier with Kurtz’s analysis than Michael Wolff’s in “Fire and Fury,” the bombshell bestseller that depicted Trump as ignorant and incompetent.

“The past two years have radicalized me,” Kurtz writes. “I am increasingly troubled by how many of my colleagues have decided to abandon any semblance of fairness out of a conviction that they must save the country from Trump.”

Kurtz characterizes the news media as underestimating candidate Trump, and asserts several times that he recognized the insurgent Republican’s electoral potential when other pundits dismissed him. “The truth is that I wasn’t pro-Trump at all, I was pro-reality,” he writes.

“It turns out they were the ones who failed to recognize what was unfolding before their eyes,” Kurtz writes of the news media. “It was the most catastrophic media failure in a generation.”

For nearly three decades, Kurtz worked at The Washington Post and emerged in the 1990s as one of the nation’s foremost media chroniclers. He has authored several books — on topics ranging from the rise of talk radio to President Bill Clinton’s press shop to and the network news wars — and had a high profile perch as host of CNN’s Reliable Sources. Kurtz left the Post in 2010 for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, where he spent three years, before joining Fox News in 2013 to launch a new Sunday show, “Media Buzz.”

In the book, Kurtz writes that he doesn’t like either political party and believes “even the best politicians can be self-serving hypocrites.” Still, at Fox News, Kurtz’s criticism generally falls in line with the right-leaning network’s running critique of the news media as clouded by liberal bias and often hostile to conservatives. During the campaign, Kurtz charged the news media with “anti-Trump “bias” and last year said anchors had crossed the line in their coverage of the new president.

Last week, Kurtz appeared on Fox News minutes after Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) finished a memorable floor speech in which he characterized Trump’s “enemy of the people” attack on the press as more befitting of dictators, and expressed concerns over a broader assault on truth in America. Kurtz suggested that the retiring Senator “apparently plans to spend the rest of his remaining months in office attacking Donald Trump” and had “undermined” his own argument against the president.

While many journalists have expressed alarm over Trump’s attempt to vilify and delegitimize the press, Kurtz seems to place as much blame on the news media.

“Donald Trump is staking his presidency, as he did his election, on nothing less than destroying the credibility of the news media; and the media are determined to do the same to him,” he writes. Kurtz argues that many news organizations are “no longer making much attempt to hide their contempt” for the president. And he takes issue with prominent journalists who have publicly characterized Trump as a “racist” based on his words and actions through the years.

In the book, Kurtz writes that Trump complained to him that tweets from New York Times political reporter Jonathan Martin were “just horrible" and describes a disputed episode involving the prominent journalist.

Kurtz writes that Martin had a dispute with a Republican National Committee staffer weeks before the party’s July 2016 convention. Martin, by Kurtz’s account, told the RNC staffer that Trump is “a racist and a fascist” and that anyone supporting his candidacy was “culpable.” After a second episode, Kurtz claims that then-RNC communications director Sean Spicer reported Martin’s behavior to a top Times editor, prompting the reporter to fire back at Spicer in a subsequent call.

Martin disputed Kurtz’s account.

“Howie paraphrased a vague, preposterous-sounding quote to me that I told him sounded ridiculous and not the kind of thing I’d say,” Martin told POLITICO. “He couldn’t tell me who I purportedly said it to, but said he’d see what more he could tell me and get back to me. I never heard another word from him after that. And I still have no idea what he or Sean Spicer are talking about.”

A Regnery spokesperson said the publisher and author “absolutely stand by everything reported in the book.”

"That passage is based on sources with direct knowledge of the conversations," a Regnery spokesperson added. "Howie gave Jonathan multiple opportunities to respond and he declined to comment."


Mueller’s team interviews Sessions in Russia probe

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators interviewed Attorney General Jeff Sessions for several hours last week as part of the ongoing probe into ties between Russia and President Donald Trump’s campaign, two Justice Department officials said Tuesday.

The interview with Sessions took place more than seven months after Mueller was appointed, and it came as Trump continues to complain publicly about the ongoing investigation.

Sessions, who was a top adviser to Trump during the 2016 campaign, played a role in events touching on several threads of the special counsel’s inquiry. Perhaps most significantly, he was involved in Oval Office discussions that led to the firing of FBI Director James Comey last March.

The attorney general also wrote a memo endorsing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s letter justifying the FBI chief’s firing based on missteps related to the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Trump later acknowledged that at least part of his reason for axing Comey was ongoing irritation at the FBI’s investigation into alleged collusion between his campaign and Russia.

Other witnesses have said Mueller is investigating events surrounding the firing and whether they amounted to attempts to interfere with the Russia probe, which the special counsel took over after Comey’s exit.

The interview with Sessions comes relatively late in Mueller’s investigation. Several senior White House aides were questioned in November and December.

A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment on what he called “our ongoing investigation.” The interview was first reported by the New York Times.

Sessions also met on at least two occasions with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. but did not disclose those meetings as he was facing confirmation. He later said he didn’t think the encounters were relevant because they were in his capacity as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, not as a campaign official.

Sessions also attended meetings of Trump’s foreign policy team, including a March 2016 round-table gathering attended by George Papadopoulos, who has since pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about his contacts with advocates for Russia. He is cooperating with investigators and awaiting sentencing.

Carter Page, another foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign who has drawn attention from Mueller’s team and congressional investigators, testified that he told Sessions about a planned trip to Russia during the run-up to the 2016 election. Sessions has said he does not recall the exchange.

Sessions recused himself from the Russia inquiry early on in his tenure as attorney general, a decision that infuriated Trump, who has said he should have known about the recusal before nominating Sessions to the post.


Trump to address annual RNC meeting at his D.C. hotel

President Donald Trump is slated to address Republican National Committee members next Thursday evening at their annual winter meeting in Washington, according to a GOP source briefed on the plans.

Trump’s appearance, which comes at the outset of what is expected to be a challenging midterm year for Republicans, will take place at his downtown Trump hotel.

Vice President Mike Pence is expected to speak at an RNC member lunch earlier in the day.

The RNC gathering will kick off next Wednesday at the Hilton hotel and conclude two days later. The 2018 midterms will be front and center at the confab. But party officials are taking initial steps to plan for the next presidential election cycle. Among the topics to be discussed: early planning for the 2020 convention, with a site selection committee slated to meet.


Trump praises Kelly amid reports of in-house tension

President Donald Trump praised chief of staff John Kelly Tuesday, saying he overcame "fake reporting" to do a "fantastic job," after reports the relationship between the two was fraying.

"Thank you to General John Kelly, who is doing a fantastic job, and all of the Staff and others in the White House, for a job well done," the president tweeted. "Long hours and Fake reporting makes your job more difficult, but it is always great to WIN, and few have won more than us!"

Vanity Fair reported Monday that Trump had fumed over Kelly’s large presence in the administration, lamenting to a friend that he has "another nut job here who thinks he’s running things" according to a source briefed on the discussion. Kelly in turn has "expressed frustration with Trump’s freewheeling management style and habit of making offensive statements," Vanity Fair said.

Tensions appeared to spill into public view last week when Trump directly contradicted Kelly’s characterization of the president’s views on immigration.

During an interview on Fox News Wednesday, Kelly said Trump’s stance on immigration had "evolved" with respect to his proposed wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. Kelly added that Trump had “changed the way he’s looked at a number of things” and was considering many practical solutions to improving border security.

"There’s been an evolutionary process that this president has gone through," Kelly added.

Trump directly contradicted Kelly’s remarks on Twitter the following morning.

"The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it," the president wrote in a series of tweets.


Official: Americans killed, injured in attack on Kabul hotel

WASHINGTON (AP) — A State Department official says multiple American citizens were killed and injured in the Taliban’s weekend attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The official isn’t giving exact figures for either the U.S. fatalities or injuries. The official wasn’t authorized to comment by name and demanded anonymity.

The State Department says the United States is sending "deepest condolences" to the families and friends of those killed and wishing the injured a speedy recovery.

The Americans are among 22 people killed in the attack in the Afghan capital. An Afghan interior ministry official has said 14 were foreigners and eight were Afghans. More than 150 people were rescued or escaped.

The 13-hour weekend siege started Saturday when Taliban militants in suicide vests stormed the hotel. It ended Sunday.