After US-Israeli talks, White House expresses ‘concerns’ with settlement building

WASHINGTON — After four days of high-level discussions between the Trump administration and an Israeli delegation, which concluded Thursday, no agreement has been forged regarding Israel’s ongoing settlement construction, an issue that concerns US President Donald Trump, the Trump administration indicated Thursday evening.

“The United States delegation reiterated President Trump’s concerns regarding settlement activity in the context of moving towards a peace agreement,” according to a joint readout of the talks. “The Israeli delegation made clear that Israel’s intent going forward is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes those concerns into consideration.”

The two sides said they will continue to engage in dialogue over Israel’s continued building in disputed areas of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. They described the discussions as “serious and constructive, and they are ongoing.”

Trump publicly asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.”

The series of meetings in Washington this past week followed Trump’s special envoy for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt’s trip to the region last week, in which he met with both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to try and jumpstart peace talks.

Greenblatt led the US delegation along with other representatives of the National Security Council staff and State Department, including Michael Ratney. The Israeli delegation was led by Yoav Horowitz, Netanyahu’s chief of staff, and Israel’s ambassador to the US Ron Dermer.

View of the Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumin, in the West Bank on January 4, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

Other topics of discussion included boosting the Palestinian economy in the West Bank and reconstruction of vital infrastructure in the Gaza Strip.

“A principal focus of the discussions was specific measures that could have a meaningful impact on the economic environment in the West Bank and Gaza, allowing the Palestinians to more fully realize their economic potential,” the read out said.

“The Israelis welcomed United States interest in continuing to play a facilitating role in advancing issues regarding electricity and water in ways that will benefit both Israel and the Palestinians and also move the Palestinians toward self-sustainability in these crucial areas.”

Quality of life issues for Palestinians have long been a priority in a US policy geared toward creating the conditions for a peace agreement.

Both sides concluded their latest round of talks by emphasizing they had a “particular focus” on “concrete, near-term measures to improve the overall climate in order to advance the prospects for a genuine and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

There is no immediate word on a date for resuming the US-Israel talks.

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Abbas said invited to White House mid-April

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will travel to Washington mid-April to meet with US President Donald Trump, Palestinian media reported Saturday.

There was no immediate confirmation of the report from the White House.

The report of Abbas heading to Washington came just after Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt visited Israel and the West Bank.

Trump spoke to Abbas for the first time over the phone last week and invited the Palestinian leader to the White House in the near future.

“President Trump has extended an official invitation to President Abbas to visit the White House soon to discuss ways to resume the political process, stressing his commitment to a peace process that will lead to a real peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said at the time.

Abbas was scheduled to visit Cairo on Sunday at the invitation of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Army Radio reported. The two were expected to discuss Trump’s initiative to reenergize the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The summit follows two months of tensions between the PA leadership and Egypt, which included the expulsion of Palestinian official Jibril Rajoub after his arrival in Cairo.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (right) meets with Jason Greenblatt, the US president's assistant and special representative for international negotiations, at Abbas's office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 14, 2017. (WAFA)

Abbas told Trump’s special peace envoy Greenblatt on Tuesday that he believes a “historic” peace deal with Israel is possible with Trump in office, according to a US Jerusalem Consulate General readout.

During a meeting at the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters in Ramallah, Abbas committed to combat Palestinian incitement, the statement said. The Palestinian leader and Greenblatt also discussed building up the PA’s security forces, advancing the peace process, and improving the Palestinian economy.

According to the readout, Abbas told Greenblatt that “he believes that under President Trump’s leadership a historic peace deal is possible, and that it will enhance security throughout the region.”

“President Abbas committed to preventing inflammatory rhetoric and incitement,” the statement added.

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been adamant that PA-sanctioned media and school curriculum are responsible for inciting terrorism.

Abbas told Greenblatt that the Palestinians see the two-state solution as their “strategic choice.”

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/ SAUL LOEB)

The PA leader said he was “looking forward to discussing the possibilities for peace directly with President Trump during his upcoming visit to Washington,” the readout said.

Greenblatt described the meeting on Twitter as a “positive, far-ranging exchange about the current situation.”

The Palestinian daily al-Quds cited sources in the US Congress who said Greenblatt warned Abbas that US lawmakers are working to condition US aid to the Palestinians — with the exception of security assistance — on ending incitement, including payments to the families of Palestinian terrorists.

The PA pays monthly stipends to families who have a member who is considered to have been “martyred,” which usually means being killed by an Israeli while carrying out a terror attack or suspected attack, or who is spending time in Israeli prison for perpetrating a terrorist act.

The US government has already taken measures to ensure its aid isn’t funneled to the families of terrorists. That includes paying the debts of the PA directly, rather than transferring funds into the PA’s coffers.

Abbas has called numerous times to reinstate the US-Palestinian-Israeli tripartite anti-incitement committee, including at the Seventh Fatah Congress in December. The committee was formed as part of the Wye River Memorandum in 1998, and met every two months until the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000. However, images depicting and glorifying attacks on Israelis have also been posted on Facebook pages associated with Abbas’s Fatah party.

Abbas and Greenblatt also “reaffirmed the US and the Palestinian Authority’s joint determination to combat violence and terrorism,” the US readout said.

Prior to meeting Abbas in Ramallah, Greenblatt met with a group of Palestinian hi-tech entrepreneurs, Greenblatt said on Twitter.

During the meeting With Abbas, Greenblatt also discussed “plans to grow the Palestinian economy and the importance of ensuring economic opportunities for Palestinians, which would enhance the prospects for a just, comprehensive and lasting peace,” the readout said.

After the meeting, Greenblatt toured the Jalazone refugee camp in Ramallah.

Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations, Jason Greenblatt meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Monday, March 13, 2017. (Photo Credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)

Greenblatt told Netanyahu during their talks last week that “enabling the growth of the Palestinian economy and improving the quality of life for Palestinians” were important to Trump. The prime minister replied that he was “fully committed to broadening prosperity for Palestinians,” seeing the issue “as a means of bolstering the prospects for peace.”

On March 10, Trump held his first phone conversation with Abbas, inviting him to visit the White House “soon.”

Abbas said that his phone conversation with Trump was “constructive” and that the US president had “confirmed his full commitment to the peace process.”

He added: “We will continue to cooperate with [Trump], in order to arrive at a comprehensive and just peace that will bring security and stability to everyone.”

The US administration is currently said to be weighing how to proceed with a renewed peace effort after Abbas’s visit to Washington. One possibility being considered is a regional summit, to be held in Egypt or Jordan.

Trump welcomes Merkel to White House for high-stakes meeting amid friction on trade, refugees

President Trump on Friday said he has “strong support” for NATO, but he emphasized during a White House summit with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that member nations “must pay what they owe” to support the alliance.

At a joint news conference, Trump said some NATO countries owe “vast sums” in dues, which is “very unfair to the United States.”

“These nations must pay what they owe,” Trump said, with Merkel standing next to him in the East Room.

Yet Trump appeared to misstate how NATO financing works, arguing each nation agreed to contribute 2 percent of gross domestic product. In fact, the organization long ago set a goal that each member would devote at least 2 percent of GDP to defense in their own budgets. They “contribute” their capabilities to NATO, not monetary assessments. Those who haven’t reached 2 percent, which is the majority of nations, don’t “owe” or have to make up shortfalls of the past.

During the news conference, Trump also addressed immigration, calling it a “privilege, not a right” and adding that “the safety of our citizens must always come first.” His remarks come after federal judges this week suspended, for a second time, his attempt to impose a travel ban on some majority-Muslim nations.

The White House summit marked a high-stakes first meeting for the pair of western leaders who have clashed on issues such as refugees, trade and multilateral alliances.

The summit comes as the president has called into question the need for a unified Europe and has shaken the continent’s confidence over the United States’ commitment to NATO.

Trump was also sharply critical of Merkel during the presidential campaign, accusing her of “ruining Germany” over her more liberal policies on free trade and Syrian refugees. He has expressed support for Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

“It’s always better to talk to one another than about one another,” Merkel said through an interpreter at the news conference.

As the two earlier sat for a brief photo op for reporters in the Oval Office, they said little and did not shake hands, though they did shake when Trump met her limousine outside the West Wing.

“We talked about lots of things,” Trump said, in response to a flood of questions from the media.

Trump also said he expected legislative efforts, backed by the White House, to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act would ultimately be approved by Congress, despite widespread concerns among Republicans.

“It’s going to be passed, I believe,” he said. “It’s coming together beautifully. We have conservative groups, other groups, everybody wants certain things.”

The friction between the two is a sharp contrast to Merkel’s warm relationship with former president Barack Obama, whose world view was largely aligned with Merkel’s on many issues. Her meeting with Trump is being closely watched at home and abroad for signs of how the two leaders will engage each other, which could help determine the future of U.S. support for the European Union and NATO.

As much as Trump has rejected the linchpins of the post-World War II international order and Merkel has been its defender, German officials insisted her visit is intended to strengthen the relationship between the longtime allies.

“The chancellor comes to Washington with a very open mind-set and a constructive, pragmatic and forward-looking attitude,” German Ambassador Peter Wittig told The Washington Post this week. Noting that the United States is Germany’s most important foreign ally, he added, “We want to build on the strong relationship we’ve had over the past 70 years.”

Their meeting was postponed earlier this week due to weather in Washington.

Beyond their seemingly divergent world view, the two leaders could not be more different in terms of personality. Trump is a brash, outspoken businessman and Merkel a staid and reserved trained scientist.

Merkel arrived in Washington with an entourage that included German business executives to emphasize the important economic ties between the nations. Trump has opposed multilateral trade deals, and talks on a major U.S.-European pact called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which had been negotiated by the Obama administration, has bogged down.

They will host a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House on Friday where both are likely to face questions about Trump’s past comments questioning the viability of both NATO and the European Union.

Meanwhile, Trump also faces rising domestic pressure over his efforts to impose a U.S. travel ban aimed at six majority-Muslim nations in the Middle East and Northern Africa. However, the ban was blocked for a second time this week by federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland.

Merkel’s decision to welcome large numbers of Syrian refugees stand in sharp contrast to Trump’s insistence that the U.S.’s refu­gee program has made the country vulnerable to terrorist infiltration.

Trump has also sought to realign America’s trade relationships with much of the world, and has decried globalist economic policies and his advisers have specifically cited Germany’s trade surplus with the United States as proof of unfair economic policies. Trump has also threatened to hit German companies, like automakers, with high tariffs, which threatens to spark a trade war.

Trump officials have sought to reassure Europe that this White House has not abandoned free trade.

“The president does believe in free trade but he wants free and fair trade,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Thursday while traveling in Germany.

White House Tries to Soothe British Officials Over Trump Wiretap Claim

WASHINGTON — The White House has tried to soothe an angry Britain after suggesting that President Barack Obama used London’s spy agency to conduct secret surveillance on President Trump while he was a candidate last year.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said on Friday that the White House had backed off the allegation, although it was not clear whether it had apologized for airing it in the first place.

“We’ve made clear to the administration that these claims are ridiculous and should be ignored,” the spokesman said on condition of anonymity in keeping with British protocol. “We’ve received assurances these allegations won’t be repeated. We have a close relationship which allows us to raise concerns when they arise, as was true in this case. This shows the administration doesn’t give the allegations any credence.”

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, spoke with Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to Washington, on Thursday night to try to smooth over the unusual rupture between the United States and its closest international ally. The White House said it would issue a statement later on Friday morning.

The flap started when Mr. Spicer, in the course of defending Mr. Trump’s unsubstantiated accusation that Mr. Obama had ordered the future president’s phones tapped last year, read from the White House lectern comments by a Fox News commentator asserting that the British spy agency was involved. Andrew Napolitano, the commentator, said on air that Mr. Obama had used Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, the signals agency known as the GCHQ, to spy on Mr. Trump.

The GCHQ quickly and vehemently denied the contention in a rare statement issued by the spy agency on Thursday, calling the assertions “nonsense” and “utterly ridiculous.” By Friday morning, Mr. Spicer’s briefing had turned into a full-blown international incident. British politicians expressed outrage and demanded apologies and retractions from the American government.

Two British officials confirmed on Friday morning that Mr. Spicer and Mr. Darroch spoke on Thursday night but would not confirm that the press secretary apologized. “We won’t get into private conversations,” said one of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with British diplomatic protocols.

Mr. Trump has continued to stick by his claim about Mr. Obama even after it has been refuted by a host of current and former officials, including leaders of his own party. Mr. Obama denied it, as has the former director of national intelligence. The F.B.I. director has privately told other officials that it is false. After being briefed by intelligence officials, the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have in the last few days said they have seen no indication that Mr. Trump’s claim is true.

Mr. Spicer tried to turn the tables on those statements during his briefing on Thursday by reading from a sheaf of news accounts that he suggested backed up the president. Most of the news accounts, however, did not verify the president’s assertion while several seemed to have been refuted by intelligence officials.

For instance, he read several stories from The New York Times, which has written extensively on an investigation into contacts between associates of Mr. Trump and Russian officials. The Times has reported that intelligence agencies have access to intercepted conversations as part of that investigation. But it has never reported that Mr. Obama authorized the surveillance, nor that Mr. Trump himself was monitored.

Representative Devin Nunes of California, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said this week that “it’s possible” Mr. Trump or others were swept up in the course of other surveillance but when it came to the president’s assertion that Mr. Obama authorized tapping of Trump Tower, “clearly the president was wrong.”

His Senate counterpart, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, issued a joint statement on Thursday with Senator Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, saying they saw “no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016.”

In pointing the finger at Britain on Thursday, Mr. Spicer read from comments made by Mr. Napolitano on Fox this week. “Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command,” Mr. Spicer read. “He didn’t use the N.S.A., he didn’t use the C.I.A., he didn’t use the F.B.I., and he didn’t use the Department of Justice. He used GCHQ.”

“What is that?” Mr. Spicer continued. “It’s the initials for the British intelligence spying agency. So simply, by having two people saying to them, ‘the president needs transcripts of conversations involved in candidate Trump’s conversations involving President-elect Trump,’ he was able to get it and there’s no American fingerprints on this.”

In London, outrage quickly followed. “It’s complete garbage, it’s rubbish,” Malcolm Rifkind, a former chairman of Parliament’s intelligence committee, told BBC News.

Trump praises arrest of ‘troubled’ White House intruder

POTOMAC FALLS, Va. (AP) — US President Donald Trump said Saturday that the US Secret Service did a “phenomenal job” apprehending a “troubled person” who got onto the White House grounds after climbing a fence on the east side of the property while Trump was inside the executive mansion.

It was the first known security breach at the White House since Trump took office nearly two months ago.

The Secret Service said in a statement that the individual, whom it did not identify, was arrested on the south grounds without further incident after climbing an outer perimeter fence near the Treasury Department and East Executive Avenue at about 11:38 p.m. Friday.

No hazardous materials were found during a search of a backpack the individual carried over the fence, the agency said.

“Secret Service did a fantastic job last night,” Trump said Saturday from his golf club in Northern Virginia. Trump described the intruder as a “troubled person” and “very sad.” He was briefed on the matter Friday night.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly also was briefed on the incident, the Secret Service said. Kelly was among several Cabinet secretaries and senior White House staff members who attended a working lunch with the president at the Trump National Golf Club.

President Donald Trump, center, meets Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, right, and Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin, left, along with other members of his cabinet and the White House staff, Saturday, March 11, 2017, at the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The Secret Service also said a search of the north and south White House grounds found “nothing of concern to security operations.”

The agency didn’t provide an update Saturday on the individual’s status. Standard practice is to turn intruders over to the local police department

Trump invites Abbas to White House ‘soon’ to discuss stalled peace process

US President Donald Trump and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas held their first conversation on Friday since the controversial real estate mogul took office in January, with the president formally inviting the Palestinian leader to the White House for a meeting.

“The president emphasized his personal belief that peace is possible and that the time has come to make a deal,” the White House said. “The president noted that such a deal would not only give Israelis and Palestinians the peace and security they deserve, but that it would reverberate positively throughout the region and the world.”

During the conversation, the US president invited Abbas “to visit the White House soon to discuss ways to resume the [Palestinian-Israeli] political process,” Wafa quoted Abbas’s spokesman as saying.

The spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, said that Trump stressed his “commitment to a peace process that would lead to a real peace between Palestinians and Israelis”, Wafa reported.

Abbas told Trump that peace was a “strategic choice” for the Palestinian people that should lead to the “establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.”

The report made no mention of the two-state solution, which the Trump administration appeared to distance itself from last month ahead of Trump’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At a joint press conference with Netanyahu on February 15, Trump said: “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.”

Rudeineh said after Friday’s call that the Palestinians were “ready to deal with President Trump and the Israeli government to resume the negotiations. If the Israelis are ready, President Abbas has committed himself to a peaceful deal with President Trump.”

Rudeineh went on to add that “President Trump is a very honest man, very courageous man, looking for a deal, a just deal.”

Ahead of the conversation with Trump Friday, Rudeineh said the PA president spoke to Jordanian King Abdullah II to coordinate stances on the peace process.

The phone call between the two ended nearly two months of what Palestinian officials said had been near-total silence between Ramallah and the new administration.

The conversation came days before Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, is expected to sit with Abbas and Netanyahu in separate meetings during his first visit to the region in that role.

Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he speaks during a joint statement with French President following their meeting on February 7, 2017 at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris. (AFP/Stephane de Sakutin)

Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he speaks during a joint statement with French President following their meeting on February 7, 2017 at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris. (AFP/Stephane de Sakutin)

A senior administration official told Walla news that Greenblatt will visit the leaders in Jerusalem and the West Bank “to hear their positions on the current state of affairs and on steps that can be taken to move towards peace.”

Palestinian officials had complained several times that attempts to reach out to the new Trump administration met little success, with messages and other communications going unanswered.

US President Donald Trump, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/Saul Loeb)

US President Donald Trump, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/Saul Loeb)

Since taking office on January 20, Trump has spoken by phone with Netanyahu twice and hosted him at the White House, reflecting what many say is the administration’s slant toward Israel.

Unnamed officials said last month that CIA chief Mike Pompeo paid a secret visit to Ramallah, and there have been reports of lower level contacts between officials in Washington and Ramallah.

On Thursday, Union of Reform Judaism head Rabbi Rick Jacobs met with Abbas and said that he learned from Palestinian officials that they had spoken with the Trump administration, confirming that US policy continues to support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinian officials have expressed frustration over the White House initially appearing to back settlement building and refusing to commit to a two-state solution. In recent weeks, the administration has sent signals to Jerusalem that it does not support unbridled settlement construction or plans to annex some areas of the West Bank.

On Monday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said he had received a message from Washington against annexation proposals.

“We received a message directly — not indirectly, not a hint — from the US, that Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank means an immediate crisis with the new administration,” Liberman said.

On Thursday, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmed Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel in a narrow vote. David Friedman’s nomination will now go before the full Senate for approval.

Friedman’s critics cited have his past skepticism of the two-state solution and his deep philanthropic investment in the settlement movement.

White House condemns new bomb threats against Jewish sites

Sean Spicer

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer speaking at a White House daily briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Feb. 27, 2017. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

(JTA) — White House press secretary Sean Spicer condemned a new wave of bomb threats against Jewish sites, including Jewish community centers and Anti-Defamation League offices.

“I want to acknowledge that there’s been an additional wave of threats to Jewish community centers and Anti-Defamation League offices,” Spicer told reporters at a press briefing on Tuesday.

“I share the president’s thoughts that he vehemently hopes that we don’t continue to have to share these reports with you. But as long as they do continue, we’ll continue to condemn them and look at ways in which we can stop them,” he said.

As of midday Tuesday, at least a dozen Jewish institutions across North America had received threats of lethal attack, the sixth such wave since the beginning of the year. Among those targeted were at least 10 community centers, a pair of Jewish day schools and four regional offices of the Anti-Defamation League. More than 100 Jewish institutions, most of them community centers, have been targeted since the beginning of the year.

Trump, who has come under fire for delayed responses to the threats, noted them during his address to a joint session of Congress last week.

“Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that still remains,” Trump said at the opening of his speech. “Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”

White House condemns anti-Semitism in ‘strongest terms’

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday said that the Trump administration condemns anti-Semitism “in the strongest terms” as Jewish institutions across north America were hit with a fresh wave of bomb threats.

“We denounce these latest anti-Semitic and evil threats in the strongest terms,” Spicer said, speaking at the daily White House press briefing.

“I share the president’s hopes that we don’t have to continue to share these disturbing reports with you,” he added.

He spoke shortly after at least ten Jewish community centers across North America and four offices of the Anti-Defamation League received attack threats, in the sixth such wave since the beginning of the year.

Spicer said that as long as the threats continue, the administration will keep condemning them and look at ways to stop them.

Illustrative: The Albany JCC closed briefly due to a bomb scare, January 18, 2017. (Screenshot from Twitter via JTA)

Illustrative: The Albany JCC closed briefly due to a bomb scare, January 18, 2017. (Screenshot from Twitter via JTA)

At least 14 Jewish sites were targeted Tuesday, resulting in multiple evacuations and parents pulling their children out of JCC school programs. Since this trend began in January, more than 100 Jewish institutions have experienced bomb threats and multiple Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized.

Also on Tuesday, the entire US Senate signed an open letter to the Trump administration urging them to take action against the continued surge in anti-Semitic attacks throughout the US.

“These cowardly acts aim to create an atmosphere of fear and disrupt the important programs and services offered by JCCs to everyone in the communities they serve, including in our states,” the senators said in the appeal.

Following a growing uproar over his failure to denounce the recent wave of anti-Semitic incidents, US President Donald Trump issued his first explicit condemnation of the phenomenon last month, calling anti-Semitism “horrible,” “painful and a “sad reminder” of evil.

US President Donald J. Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC, USA, 28 February 2017. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / JIM LO SCALZO)

US President Donald J. Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC, USA, 28 February 2017. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / JIM LO SCALZO)

Trump again denounced anti-Semitic attacks in his maiden speech to Congress one week ago, opening that address by saying the phenomenon was a reminder “of our nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that remains.”

“Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” he said.

Despite Trump’s condemnations of anti-Semitism, US Jewish groups remain concerned that not enough is being done to tackle the problem, with the ADL, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Community Center Association of North America, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Orthodox Union, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Union for Reform Judaism all coming out in support of Tuesday’s letter signed by every US senator calling for a more aggressive stance against anti-Semitism.

White House defends contacts with FBI over Russia reports

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House on Friday defended chief of staff Reince Priebus against accusations he breached a government firewall when he asked FBI Director James Comey to publicly dispute media reports that Trump campaign advisers had been frequently in touch with Russian intelligence agents.

President Donald Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, argued Priebus had little choice but to seek Comey’s assistance in rebutting what Spicer said were inaccurate reports about contacts during last year’s presidential campaign. The FBI did not issue the statement requested by Priebus and has given no sign one is forthcoming.

“I don’t know what else we were supposed to do,” Spicer said.

The Justice Department has policies in place to limit communications between the White House and the FBI about pending investigations. Trump officials on Friday not only confirmed contacts between Priebus and the FBI, but engaged in an extraordinary public airing of those private conversations.

Spicer said it was the FBI that first approached the White House about the veracity of a New York Times story asserting that Trump advisers had contacts with Russian intelligence officials during the presidential campaign. Spicer said Priebus then asked both FBI Director James Comey and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe if they would condemn the story publicly, which they declined to do.

“The chief of staff said, well, you’ve put us in a very difficult situation,” Spicer said. “You’ve told us that a story that made some fairly significant accusations was not true. And now you want us to just sit out there.”

The FBI would not comment on the matter or verify the White House account. The CIA also declined to comment.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. (AP/Susan Walsh)

The White House also enlisted the help of Republicans on Capitol Hill to talk to reporters about the New York Times story. Jack Langer, a spokesman for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House intelligence committee, said the White House asked Nunes to speak with one reporter. He said the chairman told the journalist the same thing that he has said publicly many times before — that he had asked but not received any information from intelligence officials that would warrant a committee investigation of any American citizens’ contacts with Russian intelligence officials.

Langer acknowledged that this could make it harder to convince people that the House investigation into the matter will be independent and free of political bias, but he said the White House did not tell Nunes what to tell the reporter, or give him “talking points.”

The ranking Democrat on the committee, California Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said if the White House indeed contrived to have intelligence officials contradict unfavorable news reports, it threatens the independence of the intelligence community.

“Intelligence professionals are not there to serve as the president’s PR firm,” Schiff said, adding, “For its part, the intelligence community must resist improper efforts like these by the administration to politicize its role.”

The Washington Post reported Friday that the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee also was enlisted by the White House. The newspaper quoted Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., saying he had conversations about Russia-related news reports with the White House and engaged with news organizations to dispute articles by The New York Times and CNN.

The ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, Mark Warner of Virginia, said Friday night that he had called CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Burr to express his “grave concerns about what this means for the independence” of the congressional investigation already underway.

Warner said he emphasized to the two that he would “not accept any process that is undermined by political interference.” He said if the Senate intelligence committee cannot conduct a proper probe, he will support whomever can do it.

In this March 1, 2016 file photo, FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

Friday’s revelations were the latest wrinkle in Trump’s already complicated relationship with the FBI and other intelligence agencies. He’s accused intelligence officials of releasing classified information about him to the media, declaring in a tweet Friday morning that the FBI was “totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government for a long time.”

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi accused Priebus of “an outrageous breach of the FBI’s independence” and called on the Justice Department’s inspector general to look into all conversations Priebus and other White House officials have held with the FBI on ongoing investigations.

“The rule of law depends on the FBI’s complete independence, free from political pressure from the targets of its investigations,” Pelosi said.

A 2009 memo from then-Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department is to advise the White House on pending criminal or civil investigations “only when it is important for the performance of the president’s duties and appropriate from a law enforcement perspective.”

Ron Hosko, a retired FBI assistant director who oversaw criminal investigations, said the discussions between the FBI and the Trump White House were inadvisable.

“It is a very slippery slope,” Hosko said. “Do I get in the position of where I’m updating the White House on my priority criminal cases? The answer is no, I should not be doing that.”

Other FBI veterans said the interactions between Priebus and the FBI were not unprecedented. Robert Anderson, a retired executive assistant director who served under Comey and oversaw counterintelligence investigations, said contacts between the bureau and White House are “usually very-well documented” in order to avoid the perception of inappropriate contacts.

CNN first reported that Priebus had asked the FBI for help, and a White House official confirmed the matter to The Associated Press Thursday night. On Friday morning, two other senior White House officials summoned reporters to a briefing to expand on the timeline of events.

The White House officials would only discuss the matter on the condition of anonymity. Two hours later, Trump panned news stories that rely on anonymous sources, telling a conservative conference that reporters “shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name.”

Spicer later briefed some reporters on the record. The Associated Press declined to participate in that briefing because some major news organizations were not invited, but audio of the briefing was later circulated by reporters who attended.

Trump has been shadowed by questions about potential ties to Russia since winning the election. US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia meddled in the campaign in an effort to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

On Feb. 14, The New York Times reported that intelligence agencies had collected phone records and call intercepts showing frequent communication between Trump advisers and Russian intelligence agents during the campaign. Trump has said he is not aware of such contacts.

The White House says Priebus was holding a previously scheduled meeting with McCabe the morning after the Times story was published. According to Spicer, McCabe told Priebus in “very colorful terms” that the report was inaccurate, prompting the chief of staff to ask if the FBI would make its view known publicly.

Spicer said McCabe told the White House the bureau did not want to be in the practice of rebutting news stories. A similar message was conveyed to Priebus later in the day by Comey, according to the White House spokesman.

The White House said McCabe and Comey instead gave Priebus the go-ahead to discredit the story publicly, something the FBI has not confirmed.

Priebus alluded to his contacts with the FBI over the weekend, telling Fox News that “the top levels of the intelligence community” had assured him that the allegations of campaign contacts with Russia were “not only grossly overstated but also wrong.”

During the campaign, Trump and other Republicans strongly criticized a meeting between Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former President Bill Clinton, husband of Trump’s general election opponent. The meeting came as the FBI — which is overseen by the Justice Department — was investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email address and personal internet server.

Spicer said he was not aware of an FBI investigation into Trump campaign advisers’ contacts with Russia. Administration officials have acknowledged that the FBI interviewed ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn about his communications with Russia’s ambassador to the US during the transition.

Flynn was fired after it was revealed that he misled Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about the content of those conversations.

FBI refused White House request to knock down recent Trump-Russia stories

Washington (CNN)The FBI rejected a recent White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump’s associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign, multiple US officials briefed on the matter tell CNN.

But a White House official said late Thursday that the request was only made after the FBI indicated to the White House it did not believe the reporting to be accurate.
White House officials had sought the help of the bureau and other agencies investigating the Russia matter to say that the reports were wrong and that there had been no contacts, the officials said. The reports of the contacts were first published by The New York Times and CNN on February 14.
The direct communications between the White House and the FBI were unusual because of decade-old restrictions on such contacts. Such a request from the White House is a violation of procedures that limit communications with the FBI on pending investigations.
Late Thursday night, White House press secretary Sean Spicer objected to CNN’s characterization of the White House request to the FBI.
“We didn’t try to knock the story down. We asked them to tell the truth,” Spicer said. The FBI declined to comment for this story.
The discussions between the White House and the bureau began with FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on the sidelines of a separate White House meeting the day after the stories were published, according to a US law enforcement official.
The White House initially disputed that account, saying that McCabe called Priebus early that morning and said The New York Times story vastly overstates what the FBI knows about the contacts.
But a White House official later corrected their version of events to confirm what the law enforcement official described.
The same White House official said that Priebus later reached out again to McCabe and to FBI Director James Comey asking for the FBI to at least talk to reporters on background to dispute the stories. A law enforcement official says McCabe didn’t discuss aspects of the case but wouldn’t say exactly what McCabe told Priebus.
Comey rejected the request for the FBI to comment on the stories, according to sources, because the alleged communications between Trump associates and Russians known to US intelligence are the subject of an ongoing investigation.
The White House did issue its own denial, with Priebus calling The New York Times story “complete garbage.”
“The New York Times put out an article with no direct sources that said that the Trump campaign had constant contacts with Russian spies, basically, you know, some treasonous type of accusations. We have now all kinds of people looking into this. I can assure you and I have been approved to say this — that the top levels of the intelligence community have assured me that that story is not only inaccurate, but it’s grossly overstated and it was wrong. And there’s nothing to it,” Preibus said on “Fox News Sunday” last weekend.
CNN has previously reported that there was constant communication between high-level advisers to then-candidate Trump, Russian officials and other Russians known to US intelligence during the summer of 2016.
Several members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees tell CNN that the congressional investigations are continuing into those alleged Russian contacts with the Trump campaign, despite Priebus’ assertion that there is nothing to those reports.
It is uncertain what the committees will eventually find and whether any of the information will ever be declassified and publicly released. But the push to investigate further shows that Capitol Hill is digging deeper into areas that may not be comfortable for the White House.
The Trump administration’s efforts to press Comey run contrary to Justice Department procedure memos issued in 2007 and 2009 that limit direct communications on pending investigations between the White House and the FBI.
“Initial communications between the [Justice] Department and the White House concerning pending or contemplated criminal investigations or cases will involve only the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General, from the side of the Department, and the Counsel to the President, the Principal Deputy Counsel to the President, the President, or the Vice President from the side of the White House,” reads the 2009 memo.
The memos say the communication should only happen when it is important for the President’s duties and where appropriate from a law enforcement perspective.
A Department of Justice spokesman said Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reviewing the memos and that “the Department is following the guidelines in its communications with the White House.”
The effort to refute the CNN and New York Times stories came as increasing numbers of congressional members were voicing concern about Russia’s efforts to influence individuals with ties to Trump.
On February 17, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held a briefing with Comey. It’s unclear what was said, but senators suggested there was new information discussed about Russia.
“Every briefing we go through we gain new information,” said Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, a member of the committee. Lankford declined to be more specific about the briefing.
Sen. Angus King of Maine also declined to reveal what was discussed during the Comey briefing. In response to a question on Priebus’ strong denial of the claims, King said he was “surprised” that Priebus would be “that categorical.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the goal of his panel’s inquiry is to follow “leads wherever they go even if they may be uncomfortable to Republicans.”
“The American public will want to know if the President had personal or financial ties to the Russian government,” Swalwell said.