September 20, 2018

White House: Stephen Bannon is out as chief strategist

Stephen Bannon at the White House on June 1. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Stephen Bannon is leaving his position as White House chief strategist.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Friday was Bannon’s last day in the role.

“White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Steve Bannon have mutually agreed today would be Steve’s last day,” Sanders said. “We are grateful for his service and wish him the best.”

The statement came shortly after The New York Times reported that President Donald Trump had decided to remove Bannon. Two administration officials told the Times on Friday about Trump’s decision.

A source close to Bannon told the Times that the decision was his idea and that he had submitted his resignation to Trump over a week ago. The source claimed that the unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, delayed the process.

Bannon’s position in the administration has been intensely scrutinized over the past week. At a news conference, Trump was ambivalent about Bannon’s status, saying “We’ll see” about his future in his strategist role.

On Thursday, the liberal American Prospect magazine published an interview with Bannon in which he mocked members of the administration and criticized Trump’s posturing with North Korea.

Bannon has also feuded for months with other members of the Trump administration, including senior adviser Jared Kushner and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

Bannon, the former head of the right-wing site Breitbart News, has been under fire since he began working for the Trump campaign last year. He has been criticized for calling Breitbart a platform for the “alt-right,” a far-right and white nationalist movement that includes anti-Semitic figures and followers.

Bannon has denied he is anti-Semitic, and supporters point out that Breitbart  is pro-Israel. This week he welcomed the president’s divisive comments on a far-right rally in Charlottesville, saying that as long as Democrats are focused on race and identity, the Republican Party will crush them in the polls.

Klein won’t end campaign against McMaster

Photo of Mort Klein courtesy of ZOA/Facebook.

Mort Klein, President of the Zionist Organization of America, is calling reports about Sheldon Adelson disavowing his campaign against H. R. McMaster “fake news” and “rubbish.”

[This story originally appeared on]

Klein, who is on a speaking tour in Europe, insisted in a phone conversation with Jewish Insider on Wednesday that he did not consult with Adelson before launching his aggressive campaign against McMaster and that the Vegas casino mogul has never said he supported the National Security Advisor.

“Sheldon never said he endorsed McMaster. He’s made it clear that he does not take a position about McMaster. Sheldon simply said that he did not ask ZOA to do a campaign against him, that this had nothing to do with him,” said Klein. “He did not ask us to do this campaign. I haven’t even spoken to Sheldon about this. We do many projects without asking our donors.”

Klein said that U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman asked him to publicize a letter he sent to ZOA asking them to listen to his arguments in defense of McMaster, but has so far not followed up. He also insisted that he did not coordinate his attacks against McMaster with White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. Klein also said that he “knows for a fact that Adelson did not ask that Bannon be fired.”

Asked if he would stop his campaign against McMaster if Bannon called him to do so, Klein said he would only oblige if he’s provided with “new information that showed that he is a friend of Israel and wants to fight Iran.”

Jewish groups spar over Trump National Security Advisor McMaster’s Israel record

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster listens during a daily briefing. July 31. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Jewish organizations sparred over the views of H.R. McMaster, the national security advisor, with the Zionist Organization of America attacking him as anti-Israel and the American Jewish Committee defending him.

ZOA, one of the few Jewish organizations to consistently defend President Donald Trump, issued a report on Thursday sharply critical of McMaster.

In the report, ZOA claims that McMaster is undermining Trump’s Middle East agenda and the relationship between the United States and Israel by firing officials supportive of the Jewish state and critical of the Iran nuclear deal, including Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the hawkish former senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council.

It also asserts that McMaster hired people ZOA claims have negative views on Israel, naming Kris Bauman, who will serve as point man on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Dina Powell, the deputy national security advisor.

The report calls on Trump “to remove General McMaster from his current position and reassign him to another position where he can do no further harm on these critical national security issues.”

Dan Shapiro, who served as ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama, and the American Jewish Committee criticized the ZOA report.

“ZOA claims, on the flimsiest of pretexts that McMaster has ‘animus toward Israel’ and ‘opposes Trump’s pro-Israel policies’,” Shapiro tweeted. “Nonsense. Every Israeli official who met McMaster has found him to be deeply sympathetic, friendly, consistent with longstanding U.S. support for Israel.”

The centrist American Jewish Committee shared one of Shapiro’s tweets, adding: “Agreed. We were honored to host Gen. McMaster at AJC Global Forum and chatted with him before. His admiration for Israel was crystal-clear.”

On Friday, Trump called his national security adviser “very pro-Israel,” an apparent bid to end a barrage of attacks from the right that have depicted McMaster as hostile to Israel.

“General McMaster and I are working very well together. He is a good man and very pro-Israel. I am grateful for the work he continues to do serving our country,” Trump said.

Within the White House, McMaster is seen at odds with Trump’s top strategist Steve Bannon, whom McMaster had removed from the NSC’s principals committee. The ZOA in its statement on McMaster lamented his removal, calling Bannon “a strong opponent of the Iran deal, and a staunch supporter of Israel.”

ZOA first shared its negative assessment of McMaster with Breitbart News, the right-wing web site Bannon headed before joining the Trump campaign, according to a report on the site.

Former top national security officials urge Trump to stick to Iran nuclear deal

US President Donald Trump (L) and White House senior advisor Jared Kushner take part in a bilateral meeting with Italy's Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni (not seen) in Villa Taverna, the US ambassador's residence, in Rome on May 24, 2017. Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

A bipartisan group of former top national security officials urged President Donald Trump to stick to the Iran nuclear deal, saying that war with Iran is “more imaginable” today than it has been in five years.

The statement, published Tuesday on the website of the The National Interest magazine, was responding to reports that Trump may refuse to certify Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the agreement which trades sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program. The next assessment period is in October. The statement is signed by nearly 50 former senior U.S. government officials and prominent national security leaders.

“The international agreement with Iran continues to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” the statement says. “No American national security objective would be served by withdrawing from it as long as Iran is meeting the agreement’s requirements.

“To the contrary,” the letter continues, “given continuing assurance by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran is in compliance with the agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), such a unilateral act would have grave long term political and security consequences for the United States.”

The signers recommend a “comprehensive policy toward Iran that furthers U.S. national security interests.” Such a policy would include American leadership in the JCPOA, a follow-up agreement that would extend terms of the deal farther into the future, and an additional consultative body on major disputes.

The letter also suggests establishing a regular senior-level channel of communication between the U.S. and Iran, and  regular consultations among U.S. allies and partners in the region to share information and coordinate strategies.

The signers warn that a U.S. rejection of the JCPOA could push Iran to return to its pre-agreement nuclear enrichment program under far weaker international monitoring.

Trump last month re-certified Iran’s adherence to the 2015 deal brokered by President Barack Obama. But he did so reluctantly, at the urging of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. They argued that decertification would alienate U.S. allies because Iran is indeed complying with the deal’s strictures.

However, within days of giving the go-ahead to re-certify, Trump reportedly tasked a separate team, led by his top strategist, Stephen Bannon, to come up with a reason to decertify Iran at the next 90-day assessment in October.

The signers include: Morton Abramowitz, former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research; Robert Einhorn, former assistant secretary for nonproliferation and secretary of state’s special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control; Morton Halperin, former director of policy planning at the State Department;  Daniel Kurtzer, former ambassador to both Israel and Egypt; Carl Levin, former U.S. senator and chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services; and Barnett Rubin, former senior adviser to the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

McMaster pushes Cohen-Watnick, Iran hard-liner, out at National Security Council

National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster speaks to reporters in the briefing room at the White House on May 16. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

H.R. McMaster, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, removed from the National Security Council Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a controversial aide, in what appeared to be a sweep of Iran hard-liners.

[MORE: Who is Ezra Cohen-Watnick?]

The White House late Wednesday confirmed a report on a conservative news site, Conservative Review, that Cohen-Watnick, the point man for coordination between the NSC and the intelligence community, was gone. It said he would get another job within the administration.

“A different set of experiences is best-suited to carrying that work forward,” a White House official told media, saying Cohen-Watnick would continue to make “many further significant contributions to national security” as part of the Trump administration.

Cohen-Watnick’s removal comes after the revelation by The Atlantic on Wednesday of the dismissal of Rich Higgins, another Iran hawk who was the NSC’s director of strategic planning. Higgins was sacked for circulating a memo in which he alleged that there was a “Maoist” insurgency within and without the government of “globalists and Islamists.”

Also gone is Derek Harvey, who held the Middle East portfolio at the NSC, and who also was an Iran hawk, and who may assume another role in the administration. McMaster tapped Michael Bell, a retired army colonel who has a conventional career portfolio, to replace Harvey.

The removals come as McMaster seeks to consolidate his control of security policy, and remove loyalists to Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser who left after less than a month because of revelations that he had obscured Russia ties.

Notably, however, all three differ sharply from the relatively moderate Iran policy espoused by McMaster. Last month, McMaster joined Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis in persuading Trump to recertify Iran’s compliance with the Iran nuclear deal; Trump had been leaning toward decertification, which could trigger a crisis with U.S. allies who favor the deal, struck by President Barack Obama. The deal trades sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program.

Within days of the recertification, it was reported that Trump had authorized the establishment of a rival group within the White House, led by his top strategic adviser, Steve Bannon, that would seek a path out of the deal.

McMaster had previously tried to remove Cohen-Watnick from the National Security Council but was overruled by Trump, who heeded interventions on Cohen-Watnick’s behalf by Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is the senior administration official responsible for Middle East policy.

Cohen-Watnick was at the center of a controversy in March, when it emerged that he and another staffer leaked information to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, that Nunes and the White House apparently hoped would vindicate Trump’s baseless claim that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had eavesdropped on him.

McMaster refuses to clarify U.S. position on Kotel

National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster speaks to reporters in the briefing room at the White House on May 16. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

U.S. National Security H.R. McMaster briefed reporters about President Donald Trump’s upcoming trip overseas at the White House on Tuesday.

[This story originally appeared on]

The President’s Israel trip schedule: “The President will continue on to Jerusalem where he will meet with President (Reuven) Rivlin and lay a wreath at Yad Vashem. The President will then deliver remarks at the Israel Museum and celebrate the unique history of Israel and the Jewish people while reaffirming America’s unshakable bond with our closest ally in the Middle East. Later that day, he will meet with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu. That night, the President and the First Lady will join the Prime Minister and Mrs. Netanyahu for a private dinner. The following morning, the President will meet President [Mahmoud] Abbas in Bethlehem where he will convey his administration’s eagerness to facilitate an agreement that ends the conflict, and he will urge Palestinian leaders to take steps that will lead to peace. And he will visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and say a prayer at the Western Wall.”

The National Security Advisor was asked to respond to reports yesterday that U.S. officials told the Israelis that the Western Wall is part of disputed territory in the West Bank and not under Israeli sovereignty. A WH spokesperson said yesterday that the comments “do not represent the position of the United States and certainly not of the President.” McMaster, however, refused to clarify the Trump Administration’s position on the matter.

#1 – Reporter: Can you tell us if Prime Minister Netanyahu would join President Trump at the Western Wall? And does the President believe that the Western Wall is part of Israel?

McMaster: “No Israeli leaders will join President Trump to the Western Wall. He is going to the Western Wall mainly in connection with the theme – to connect with three of the world’s great religions and to pay homage to these religious sites that he is visiting, but also to highlight the theme that we all have to be united against what’s really the enemy of all civilized people, and that we have to be joined together with an agenda of tolerance and moderation.”

#2 – Reporter: I want to follow up on Jennifer’s question which you didn’t answer about the Western Wall being part of Israel?

McMaster: “Oh, that sounds like a policy decision, you know — and that’s the President’s intention. And I did answer the question in terms of what his intention is whether to go with Israeli officials. The President’s intention is to visit these religious sites to highlight the need for unity amongst three of the world’s great religions – unity in confronting a very grave threat to all civilization and unity in embracing an agenda of tolerance.”

Wife of key Trump aide worked to make Putin’s Russia look good in the West 

White House aide Ezra Cohen-Watnick reportedly leaked sensitive information to House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Representative Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), above. Cohen-Watnick's wife worked on behalf of Russia. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

In the rush to connect the dots between the Trump Administration and Russian President Vladimir Putin, a Jewish wedding provided the latest purported link.

Specifically, it’s the Jewish wedding of Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the White House aide whom the New York Times identified as having leaked sensitive intelligence to a high-ranking Republican congressman in March. New information suggests Cohen-Watnick’s wife worked on behalf of the Russian government as a Washington D.C-based public relations specialist before they married.

In November, the 30-year-old Trump aide celebrated his upcoming wedding with Rebecca Miller, a content executive at the multinational public-relations firm Ketchum, which was retained until 2015 by the Russian government. While at Ketchum, Miller reportedly worked to “make Russia look better.”

The information comes from an oral history interview of Miller’s mother, Vicki Fraser, by the State Historical Society of Missouri in August 2014 (Fraser was born in St. Louis).

“Her big challenges right now are Ketchum is responsible for providing PR and marketing to try to make Russia look better,” Fraser told the interviewer of her daughter, “which is particularly difficult when they’re invading other countries and when Putin is somewhat out of control.”

The interview was discovered by E. Randol Schoenberg, a Los Angeles-based attorney and genealogy who made a name and fortune by recovering some $300 million worth of paintings pilfered by Nazis in Vienna in a landmark case in 2006.

On his blog, Schoenberg wrote that he and a fellow genealogist managed to uncover family details about Cohen-Watnick that led to the find.

Cohen-Watnick, the National Security Council senior director for intelligence, reportedly provided California Congressman Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, with information suggesting President Donald Trump was swept up in surveillance by American intelligence agencies.

The leak is particularly significant because it led to a breakdown in the intelligence committee’s investigation of ties between Trump associates and Russia. In addition, after the source of the leak was revealed, National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster reportedly sought the aide’s firing, but Trump intervened personally to save Cohen-Watnick’s job.

Ohr Kodesh Congregation, a Conservative synagogue outside Washington D.C., announced Cohen-Watnick and Miller’s aufruf, the Shabbat celebration that precedes an observant wedding, in November.