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At the White House

BREAKING: My colleagues Juliet Eilperin and Missy Ryan scoop that the White House is working to form a panel to figure out if climate change poses a national security threat. “It's a conclusion that federal intelligence agencies have already affirmed several times since President Trump took office," they report.

  •  “The proposed Presidential Committee on Climate Security, which would be established by executive order, is being spearheaded by William Happer, a National Security Council senior director. Happer, an emeritus professor of physics at Princeton University, has argued that carbon emissions linked to climate change should be viewed as an asset rather than a pollutant.”

Undermining the science: Eilperin and Ryan point out the news comes less than three weeks after Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said that climate change was a signifigant security risk in the worldwide threat assessment

  • “This is the equivalent of setting up a committee on nuclear weapons proliferation and having someone lead it who doesn’t think nuclear weapons exist,” Francesco Femia, chief executive officer of the Council on Strategic Risks and co-founder of the Center for Climate and Security, told my colleagues in an interview. “It’s honestly a blunt force political tool designed to shut the national security community up on climate change.”

While we're on the topic of Director Coats: Shane Harris, Josh Dawsey and Ellen Nakashima report that Trump “has grown increasingly disenchanted with [Coats], who has served as the nation’s top intelligence official for nearly two years, leading some administration officials to worry he will soon be dismissed, according to people familiar with the matter.”

Officials told my colleagues that while they don't believe that Coats will be fired immediately, Trump is considering removing the former Indiana senator over frustration about public statements seen as undercutting Trump's policy goals -- especially on North Korea. 

  • “Trump is still 'enraged' about Coats’s congressional testimony on national security threats last month, believing that the director undercut the president’s authority when he shared intelligence assessments about Iran, North Korea and the Islamic State that are at odds with many of Trump’s public statements, said one adviser who spoke with the president over the weekend,” my colleagues report. 

P.S.: Attorney General William Barr has now been on the job since last Friday. On Tuesday, the White House formally announced the nomination of Jeffrey Rosen  -- "the deputy secretary of transportation, who worked previously at Kirkland & Ellis, the firm where Barr also previously worked"-- as deputy attorney general to replace Rod Rosenstein. 

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On The Hill

A NUCLEAR ARMS RACE . . . IN THE GULF: House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) yesterday released a wide-ranging report detailing the accounts of whistleblowers from within (at some point, anyway) Trump's National Security Council concerned that a proposal pushed by former national security adviser Michael Flynn to transfer “sensitive nuclear technology” to Saudi Arabia violated the law and is still being pursued today.

  • “Multiple whistleblowers came forward to warn about efforts inside the White House to rush the transfer of highly sensitive U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in potential violation of the Atomic Energy Act and without review by Congress as required by law — efforts that may be ongoing to this day,” per the 24-page report. “They have warned of conflicts of interests among top White House advisers that could implicate federal criminal statutes.”
  • Bonus: “They have also warned about a working environment inside the White House marked by chaos, dysfunction, and backbiting. And they have warned about political appointees ignoring directives from top ethics advisors at the White House who repeatedly and unsuccessfully ordered senior Trump Administration officials to halt their efforts.”

Swampy: The proposal advanced by Flynn and Derek Harvey, the director for Middle Eastern affairs at the NSC at the time, was referred to as the “Middle East Marshall Plan.” It's also been pushed by outside lobbyists with close ties to the president (Tom Barrack, chair of Trump's inaugural committee), along with Saudi Arabia and U.S. Nuclear power developers.

  • The possible sale of nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia was discussed in the Oval Office just last week, my colleagues Tom Hamburger, Steven Mufson and Ellen Nakashima report. “The meeting included Energy Secretary Rick Perry, representatives from the NSC and State Department, and a dozen nuclear industry chief executives, one of the people present told The Washington Post.”
  • The NSC's ethics counsel, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other seniors staffers instructed staff to halt work on the plan because of alleged “criminal” conflicts. But Harvey and others continued to work on the proposal, according to the whistleblowers, the report said.

The timing is raising eyebrows as U.S.-Saudi relations are under increased scrutiny in the wake of the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. 

  • Some members of Congress are reticent to continue normal relations with the kingdom and are at odds with Trump over Khashoggi's killing. 
  • Jared Kushner, who has fostered an especially close relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, next week commences a tour of the Middle East — including a stop in Riyadh — to discuss the Trump administration's Middle East peace plan. 
  • Conflict of interest?: One of the power plant manufacturers that could benefit from a deal with Saudi Arabia is a subsidiary of Brookfield Asset Management, the company that took a 99-year lease on Kushner's troubled Manhattan property at 666 Fifth Ave. 

Most alarming to experts and some lawmakers is the risk of an escalating nuclear arms race in the Gulf, especially after the admnistration withrew from the Iran nuclear deal. Power Up spoke with newcomer Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, about the report. He expressed concern the Trump White House has potentially transferred technology allowing Saudi Arabia to covertly develop nuclear weapons. 

  • Rouda: “We’re seeing a complete disregard for Congress's role in insuring that top secret information is not given to any other country until proper approval process is taking place,” Rouda told us. “I think our concern is that all of us should want to avoid [a nuclear arms race] and there have been ongoing concerns that Iran has in the past attempted to develop nuclear weapons and Saudi Arabia has said that if Iran does, they will do the same.”

  • Rouda did not call on Kushner to cancel his Middle East trip but said that “the countless number of meetings, visits and interactions that have taken place off the record between Saudi officials and White House officials are only now starting to come to light.”

Some nuclear weapons experts think the U.S. should sell nuclear technology to the Saudis to prevent them from getting such technology from Russia and China. Saudi officials “have said they would like to buy nuclear power plants so that their country is not totally reliant on oil, although it has the world's second-largest known petroleum reserves,” per my colleagues. But concerns loom large about the kingdom's underlying desire to compete with Iran's uranium enrichment program:

  • “What is most disturbing is that it raises the issue of adding one more element to the massive arms race in the Gulf, and to risk a war which even if it never becomes nuclear, could make the attacks on petroleum facilities that occurred during the Iran-Iraq War seem like a walk in the park,” Tony Cordesman, a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who consulted at the State and Defense departments during the Iraq War and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Power Up. “We seems to be focusing on arms sales and reactor sales when the real issue is the risk of a war and that could jeopardize the stability of the entire region, and create a whole new range of forces that encourages extremism and terrorism[.]”

  • Republican senators in October 2018 wrote a letter to Trump on the matter: “We remain concerned that the Saudi Government has refused, for many years, to consider any agreement that includes so-called 'Gold Standard' requirements against pursuing technologies to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium-laden spent nuclear fuel,” wrote Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Todd Young (Ind.), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Rand Paul (Ky.) and then-Sen. Dean Heller (Nev.).

  • Dig a little deeper, from December 2017: “Flynn’s actions could have further destabilized an already volatile region,” wrote Laura Holgate, a former NSC senior director who represented the U.S. at the International Atomic Energy Agency; and Mieke Eoyang, the vice president for the national security program at Third Way.

  • More from the Wayback Machine: “It was often argued that if Iran wasn’t stopped, it could have begun a nuclear arms race between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Ripping up [the Iran nuclear] deal, as Flynn advocated, and allowing Iran to race for the bomb would  have given Saudi Arabia motivation to acquire a large number of civilian nuclear reactors, providing cover for an ostensibly civilian enrichment capacity that could mask a covert weapons program. Such a policy posture would guarantee the kind of Middle East nuclear arms race that the Iran nuclear agreement was designed to halt.”

REMEMBER THAT NATIONAL EMERGENCY?: My colleague Kate Rabinowitz is keeping track of where Republican senators stand on Trump's national emergency declaration. A super helpful graphic that we'll keep updated is pictured above. A quick by the numbers: 

  • "At least four Republican senators, Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), have expressed opposition to the national emergency since it was declared. All four support more border security but saw the move as executive overreach and potentially unconstitutional."
  • "At least nine GOP senators, including Graham and Rick Scott (R-Fla.), early proponents of the national emergency, have expressed support for the declaration, which they described as a necessary use of executive power and which some saw as a fulfillment of Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall."
  • Over a dozen GOP senators have previously expressed concerns but are waiting to make a definitive statement. 

The Investigations

'INTIMIDATION, PRESSURE, HUMILIATION': That's the understated headline on a new New York Times piece that looks at Trump's “two-year war on investigations encircling him.” It reveals several unreported nuggets reportedly showing Trump intervening to hamper special prosecutor Robert Mueller's probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and the one into ex-fixer Michael Cohen by federal prosecutors in New York.

Reporters Mark Mazzetti, Maggie Haberman, Nicholas Fandos and Michael S. Schmidt argue that the daily churn of Trump attacking law enforcement obscures the “extraordinary story of a president who has attacked the law enforcement apparatus of his own government like no other president in history, and who has turned the effort into an obsession.”

  • Then: Trump asked acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker if he could put in charge of the New York probe a Trump loyalist, U.S. District Attorney for New York Geoffrey Berman. Whitaker could not as Berman had already recused himself from the Cohen case.
  • Now: “Mr. Whitaker, who this month told a congressional committee that Mr. Trump had never pressured him over the various investigations, is now under scrutiny by House Democrats for possible perjury,” reports the Times's Mark Mazzetti, Maggie Haberman, Nicholas Fandos and Michael S. Schmidt. The Justice Department denied that the White House had asked Whitaker to interfere in the probe.
  • Read to the bottom: “What exactly Mr. Whitaker did after the call is unclear, but there is no evidence that he took any direct steps to intervene in the Manhattan investigation. He did, however, tell some associates at the Justice Department that the prosecutors in New York required 'adult supervision,'" the story says.
  • Flynn: White House lawyers compiled a memo about the former national security adviser's departure after then-press secretary Sean Spicer presented a misleading narrative, egged on by the president, at the podium. “The lawyers’ main concern was that Mr. Spicer overstated how exhaustively the White House had investigated Mr. Flynn and that he said, wrongly, that administration lawyers had concluded there were no legal issues surrounding Mr. Flynn’s conduct,” the Times reports.
  • Ride or die: Trump embraced the strategy launched by hardline conservative Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio) to attack the investigators and kick off counter-probes into . . . Hillary Clinton's emails. Trump, the Times says, “repeatedly leaned on administration officials on behalf of the lawmakers — urging Mr. Rosenstein and other law enforcement leaders to flout procedure and share sensitive materials about the open case with Congress.”

From the chair of the House Judiciary Committee:

Outside the Beltway

FEEL THE BERN AGAIN: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) jumped into the 2020 race yesterday and raised $3.3 million from 120,000 individual donors in the first ten hours after announcing his presidential campaign, according to the Associated Press's Steve Peoples. 

  • Sanders described his renewed bid as “a continuation of what we did in 2016.” But that's minus the fact the Vermont senator is now one of nearly a dozen Democratic candidates as opposed to being the lone challenger against Hillary Clinton in 2016.
  • A lot can happen in three years: Sanders's ideas have taken hold on such things on Medicare-for-All, free college tuition, and tax hikes on billionairesy. He's also bolstered his foreign policy chops since his last bid, hiring Matt Duss who has ""played a key role in advancing the Yemen resolution and has deeply informed Sanders’s growing emphasis on international affairs," David Klion writes in a profile of Duss for The Nation earlier this month. 
  • “You know what’s happened in over three years? All of these ideas and many more are now part of the political mainstream,” Sanders told CBS This Morning's John Dickerson.  
  • Even Trump weighed in on the announcement to say that while he likes Sanders and his views on trade, he thinks the 77-year-old self-described Democratic Socialist "missed his time.” 

Key hire: The Daily Beast's Gideon Resnick, Spencer Ackerman, and Sam Stein broke the news that Sanders hired Faiz Shakir to serve as his campaign manager. Shakir previously served as the ACLU's national political director and is the first Muslim-American to manage a campaign. 

In the Media

Congrats to my colleagues, Karen & David: 

 

Viral

Quote of the day (month? year?):