Briefing :-16/05/17

Here is CurrentHow’s Briefing™ for the 16th of May, 2017 :-

1. Trump revealed highly-classified information to Russian diplomats in White House : Washington Post :-

Embattled US President Donald Trump faced explosive allegations that he divulged top secret intelligence to Russian diplomats in the Oval Office, a charge the White House scrambled to rebut Monday.

The Washington Post reported that Trump revealed highly classified information on the Islamic State group during a meeting last week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Moscow’s man in Washington Sergey Kislyak.

In a shock twist, the intelligence reportedly came from a US ally who did not authorize Washington to share it with Moscow. That development could shatter trust that is essential to intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation.

National Security Advisor HR McMaster denied the president had revealed “intelligence sources or methods,” but acknowledged that Trump and Lavrov “reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation.”

The Post, citing unnamed officials, said that Trump went off script during the meeting, describing details about an Islamic State terror threat related to the use of laptop computers on airplanes, revealing the city where the information was gathered.

The Trump administration recently barred the use of laptops in the passenger cabin from several countries in the Middle East and is mulling the expansion of that ban to cover jets originating in Europe.

“There’s nothing that the president takes more seriously than the security of the American people. The story that came out tonight as reported is false,” McMaster said without elaborating on which elements were wrong.

“Two other senior officials who were present, including the secretary of state, remember the meeting the same way and have said so. Their on-the-record accounts should outweigh those of anonymous sources. I was in the room. It didn’t happen.”

McMaster earlier refused to answer questions to a group of journalists gathered in the West Wing, saying “this is the last place I wanted to be” before leaving.

The revelations are the latest in a wave of crises to hit the White House, which late Monday was in a state of shock, with aides frantically trying to put out the fire and determine the source of such damaging leaks.

Since coming to office in January, Trump has lurched from crisis to crisis, lampooning the intelligence services, law enforcement and the media along the way.

Last week, Trump threw his administration into turmoil by taking the virtually unprecedented step of firing his FBI director James Comey.

Comey had been overseeing investigations into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia to skew the 2016 election.

The meeting came a day after that firing, and was already controversial in itself, a red carpet welcome for top aides of Vladimir Putin just months after being hit with US sanctions for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump’s administration was left red-faced after Moscow surprised them by releasing pictures of what was meant to be a closed-door meeting.

For Trump’s already weary allies in Congress, the latest crisis brought more headaches and demanded yet more explanation from an administration that is struggling to leave its legislative mark.

“We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation’s secrets is paramount,” said Doug Andres, a spokesman for Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan.

“The speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration.”

Senior Republican Senator John McCain told CNN that “if it’s true, it’s obviously disturbing.” But he cautioned: “Let’s wait and see what this was all about first.”

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer accused Trump of potentially putting American lives at risk.

“If the report is true, it is very disturbing. Revealing classified information at this level is extremely dangerous and puts at risk the lives of Americans and those who gather intelligence for our country,” he said.

“The president owes the intelligence community, the American people and Congress a full explanation.”

2. United Nations Security Council vows sanctions over North Korea missile test :-

The UN Security Council has strongly condemned North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test and vowed strong measures, including sanctions, to derail Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.

North Korea’s long-term bid to develop a credible nuclear attack threat to the US mainland saw it launch Sunday what appeared to be its longest-range missile yet.

Pyongyang said the new weapon, called the Hwasong-12, was capable of carrying a “heavy nuclear warhead”.

In a unanimous statement backed by the North’s main ally China, the council on Monday vowed to punish Pyongyang’s “highly destabilizing behavior” and demanded a halt to any further nuclear or missile tests.

Pyongyang carried out two atomic tests last year, and has accelerated its missile launch programme, despite tough UN sanctions aimed at denying leader Kim Jong-Un the hard currency needed to fund his weapons ambitions.

“There’s a lot of sanctions left that we can start to do, whether it’s with oil, whether it’s with energy, whether it’s with their maritime ships, exports,” US Ambassador Nikki Haley told ABC television’s “This Week”.

“We can do a lot of different things that we haven’t done yet. So our options are there.”

The United States is in talks with China, Pyongyang’s main trading partner,on a possible new sanctions resolution and the Security Council is expected to hold a closed-door emergency meeting starting around 2000 GMT Tuesday.

Kim personally oversaw Sunday’s test, the official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) said, and pictures by state media showed him gazing at the missile in a hangar before the launch.

The missile was launched on an unusually high trajectory, before splashing down in the Sea of Japan (East Sea).

Analysts said the test suggested an actual range of 4,500 kilometres (2,800 miles) or more if flown for maximum distance.

“This is the longest-range missile North Korea has ever tested,” Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in the US told AFP.

On the respected 38 North website, aerospace engineering specialist John Schilling said it appeared to be an intermediate-range ballistic missile that could “reliably strike the US base at Guam” in the Pacific, 3,400 kilometres away.

“More importantly,” he added, it “may represent a substantial advance to developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)”.

The North has made no secret of its quest to develop a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the continental United States,  something President Donald Trump has vowed “won’t happen”.

KCNA cited Kim as saying the North would never succumb to what it called the “highly ridiculous” US strategy of “militarily browbeating only weak countries and nations which have no nukes”.

“If the US dares opt for a military provocation against the DPRK, we are ready to counter it,” it said.

In April Pyongyang put dozens of missiles on show at a giant military parade through the capital, including one that appeared to be the type launched on Sunday.

There are doubts whether the North can miniaturise a nuclear weapon sufficiently to fit it onto a missile nose cone, and no proof it has mastered the re-entry technology needed to ensure it survives returning into Earth’s atmosphere.

Sunday’s test came less than a week after South Korea elected a new president, Moon Jae-In, who advocates reconciliation with Pyongyang and had expressed a willingness to visit the North to ease tensions.

But Moon slammed the latest launch as a “reckless provocation” and said dialogue would be possible “only if the North changes its attitude”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the test was dangerous, but warned against attempts to “intimidate” Pyongyang.

Pyongyang could find itself the target of further global censure after security researchers reported Monday signs of a potential North Korean link to cyberattacks that have wreaked havoc on computer networks around the world.

In the first clues of the origin of the massive ransomware attacks, Google researcher Neel Mehta posted computer code that showed similarities between the “WannaCry” malware and a vast hacking effort widely attributed to Pyongyang.

Other experts quickly jumped on this as sign, although not conclusive, that North Korea may have been behind the outbreak.

3. France’s Macron appoints Edouard Philippe as new Prime Minister :-

Newly inaugurated French President Emmanuel Macron appointed a conservative prime minister on Monday in a move to broaden his political appeal and weaken his opponents before parliamentary elections in June.

Edouard Philippe, 46, a lawmaker and mayor of the port city of Le Havre, is from the moderate wing of the main centre-right party, The Republicans, and will provide a counterweight to former Socialist members of parliament who have joined Macron’s cause.

Macron wants to smash the left-right divide which has dominated France for decades, and his start-up centrist Republic on the Move (REM) party, which is just a year old, needs to forge a wide base of support.

Success in the parliamentary elections is vital to his chances of pushing through his plans to cut state spending, boost investment and create jobs, after years of economic malaise and high unemployment.

The choice of Philippe is aimed at drawing more defectors from The Republicans, in the same way as Macron’s decision not to put up an REM candidate in Manuel Valls’ constituency pulls the Socialist former prime minister closer, and makes it hard for a divided left to re-unite.

It is the first time in modern French political history that a president has appointed a prime minister from outside his camp without being forced to by a defeat in parliamentary elections.

Appearing at a handover ceremony with outgoing Socialist prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who is also from Normandy, Philippe joked that Normans were “aggressively moderate” as well as “conquerors.”

He also described himself as “a man of the right.”

Philippe is “a prime minister who will bring everyone together around a progressive, daring, unifying programme,” said Gerard Collomb, the Socialist mayor of Lyon and one of the earliest backers of Macron.

By appointing him, Macron has passed over some loyal followers including Richard Ferrand, a former Socialist who was one of the first to join Macron’s cause last year and is secretary general of REM.

Christophe Castaner, Macron’s campaign spokesman, said on Sunday this was the kind of tough choice that would have to be made in Macron’s inner circle now that the battle for the presidential Elysee Palace was won.

The rest of the government is expected to be announced on Tuesday afternoon.

Philippe’s nomination is a direct challenge to The Republicans (LR), who say they aim to be the biggest party in the lower house of parliament but are lagging behind REM in the first opinion polls ahead of that ballot.

Members of the party had very different reactions to Philippe’s nomination, with loyalists criticising it.

“This is not at all a government coalition but an individual decision. We regret it,” LR said in a statement. “He has placed himself outside of our political family,” LR secretary general Bernard Accoyer said.

Philippe is a close associate of former prime minister Alain Juppe, who leads LR’s moderate wing, and his mentor was more positive. Juppe welcomed the move, wishing him good luck and telling reporters Philippe has “all the qualities needed for this difficult job.”

Juppe said he would be backing LR lawmakers in the mid-June elections, and not Macron’s candidates. But he added that if LR and its allies did not win a majority in June, voters “would not understand if we systematically opposed everything.”

Bruno Le Maire‏, a veteran LR lawmaker who has also been pushing for a rapprochement with Macron, congratulated Philippe on Twitter, saying: “Let’s go beyond the old divides to be of use to France and the French people.”

Philippe began his political life as a Socialist activist affiliated to former prime minister Michel Rocard while he was a student, before turning to the right.

A trained lawyer, he worked as public affairs director for the state nuclear group Areva between 2007 and 2010, before becoming a member of parliament in 2012, and then mayor of Le Havre in 2014.

Last year he was part of Juppe’s unsuccessful campaign team in The Republicans’ primaries, and then joined the presidential campaign of Francois Fillon, the party’s nominee. Philippe quit that cause when Fillon’s campaign was hit by a financial scandal over publicly funded jobs for members of his family.

Philippe, like Macron, attended the elite ENA school, and his political hero is Rocard – another point in common with the 39-year-old new president.

In a May 3 column for left-leaning daily Liberation, Philippe said of Macron: “He’ll have to be daring. Step out of the old, comfortable, institutionalised, one-on-one left-right opposition to constitute a majority of a new kind. The path will be narrow. And risky.”

He might be less at ease now with a more critical column he wrote mid-January, in which he said Macron was no John Fitzgerald Kennedy, adding that he didn’t have JFK’s charisma.

4. Car bombs kill at least six in Syrian camp near Jordan border :-

Two car bombs killed at least six people and wounded several others in Syria’s sprawling Rukban refugee camp near the border with Jordan late on Monday, a rebel official and a resident said.

One explosion was near a restaurant and the second targeted the camp’s market nearby, they said.

“There are at least six civilians dead and the number is expected to rise,” said Mohammad Adnan, a rebel official from Jaish Ahrar al-Ashair who runs the policing of the camp.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

In January, a car bomb killed a number of people in the camp, and Islamic State militants have since launched attacks on Syrian rebels in the area.

Rukban, near the joint Syria-Iraq-Jordan border, is home to refugees and also to rebel groups, including the Jaish Ahrar al-Ashair, which fight both President Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State movement. It was also hit by bomb attacks last year.

5. Last 1,000 rebels leave Damascus district under evacuation deal :-

More than 1,000 insurgents and their families left an opposition-held district of Damascus on Monday, completing an agreement between the Syrian government and rebels, Syrian state media outlets and a war monitoring group said.

Well over 3,000 people have left Qaboun in two days of evacuations, paving the way for the government to regain control of the area, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

They headed for areas still under opposition control east of the Syrian capital, or for the northwestern province of Idlib, also held by insurgents, it said.

Syria’s military released a statement saying it had “returned peace and security to the Qaboun area” after killing many insurgents and blowing up tunnels they had used for supplies.

“This strengthened the perimeter of security around Damascus and chokes the terrorist groups” to the east, it said, referring to rebels.

Damascus has done a number of similar deals in recent months with the Syrian opposition, supported in some cases by Syria’s ally Iran and Qatar, which backs the rebels. The government sees the deals as an alternative to failing peace talks.

The opposition says the agreements amount to forced displacement of President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents from areas around the capital, and are often reached after months or years of siege by government forces and their allies.

The United Nations has criticised both the use of siege tactics which precede such deals and the evacuations themselves as amounting to forcible displacement.

State TV quoted the Damascus provincial governor as saying that Qaboun “is empty of militants”. It said army engineering teams had entered the district, on the city’s northeastern edge, to begin clearing it of mines and unexploded ordnance.

The Observatory said 1,300 rebel fighters and their families had left on Monday. On Sunday, more than 2,000 rebels and their family members left Qaboun, state media said.

State TV said several hundred fighters had decided to stay in the district under the agreement as government forces took control.

Many residents and some rebels have chosen to stay, preferring not to move to Idlib, areas of which are frequently targeted by air strikes.

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