Lawyer, informant, consultant -- or something else -- Natalia Veselnitskaya and her admission of ties
to the Russian government grabbed headlines. But whatever the nature of her relationship with the Kremlin is, the real focus shouldn't be on Veselnitskaya, but rather on Vladimir Putin.
Putin's no PR novice, and has long been using all tools in his toolkit to make the United States look weaker.
Earlier this year, the director of national intelligence said publicly
that, even after the 2016 election, Russia has continued to use social media, propaganda and "other means of influence" to "exacerbate social and political fissures." This is why the Russians use their bot and troll armies to spread extreme views on all sides of the political and social spectrum -- from Parkland propaganda
to fake news
about the Syria strikes.
They want to sow discord.
And while Putin developed a taste for you, Mr. President, over Hillary Clinton, that preference was based on his views of your likelihood to pursue policies favorable to Russia.
But men, and their preferences, are fickle, and Putin may be changing his tune after the United States implemented tough sanctions against Russian oligarchs
, retaliated against Moscow for the poisoning of Sergei Skirpal and his daughter by expelling Russian diplomats
, and led strikes against Syrian chemical weapons targets.
Veselnitskaya had long denied ties to the Kremlin (including when she spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee).
Now, in this recent TV interview
she has said that she does have ties to the Kremlin and that she is actively communicating with the Russian government.
Putin has to know that Veselnitskaya's new public admission of Kremlin ties is not good PR for you or the participants in the Trump Tower meeting, because, to the untrained eye, it looks like your team was meeting with a Russian asset of some kind.
This very well may be a signal from Putin that he can, and will, use information at his disposal to now denigrate you and manipulate American political discourse. Veselnitskaya's reversal may have been a Putinesque show of force. If he has further information that is damaging to you, we may see him start to release it as he attempts to scratch his real itch: making America weak again.
North Korea: 'Denuclearization' may translate differently in Pyongyang
From a security perspective, the last weeks have brought a significant de-escalation of near-term threats from North Korea, and expressions of goodwill and public displays of affection between North Korea and the United States -- including Kim Jong Un's statement during the intra-Korean summit
that he won't use nuclear weapons to target the United States (remember when
they actively threatened Guam a few months ago?).
"Little Rocket Man" is becoming a media darling, and, despite heavy skepticism based on past history, the United States is working hard to see whether Kim will put his money where his mouth is.
Even after Kim and South Korean President Moon signed a statement
"confirming the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula," the devil is in the denuclearization details.
You've focused on "getting rid
" of North Korean nuclear weapons, but that can mean a lot of different things. Kim may be trying to throw us off course by offering some concessions that are not, by themselves, satisfactory steps toward complete and verifiable denuclearization, such as:
Offering to stop nuclear tests
: This is unsatisfactory. Nuclear programs don't disappear when you just stop nuclear tests, and North Korea's already said publicly
they don't need to test nuclear weapons. So while this is a good step in terms of mitigating tensions, it's not enough from a denuclearization perspective.
Offering to close nuclear test sites
: Also unsatisfactory. You and
the South Koreans reported that Kim is closing down a nuclear test site, and now there's news that they may invite
South Korean and American experts journalists to witness it. That's okay, but it isn't an olive branch. Since the North Koreans have said they don't need the test site anymore because they've already completed their nuclear mission, it's entirely plausible that the North Koreans could use the "closing" ceremony to celebrate their nuclear achievements. Visits by American experts and journalists
to the "closing" could make them witnesses to an actual North Korean celebration, which would be awkward.
Designing a map for denuclearization: Close, but no cigar. The North Koreans may in fact provide their own map, or timeline, for dismantling their nuclear program. But they could use this to lock in a protracted nuclear breakup period -- and this can't be a drawn-out affair. Giving them years to relinquish their crown jewels increases the risk that they change their minds (not a small fear, since Kim's been erratic in the past, to say the least).
These steps could represent a freeze, which is better than where we were last year, but we need to watch out and keep our eye on denuclearization as we define it.
Instead of getting distracted by Kim Jong Un's antics, we need to let the grownups hammer out the details and communicate them to the North Koreans well before a US-North Korean summit -- otherwise it will be a media event at best, and a US embarrassment at worst, if we look like we were unprepared, too flexible, or, to put it bluntly, played.
Israel: Expect trouble ahead
In light of your potential trip
to Israel next month to open the new US Embassy in Jerusalem, and your decision by May 12 on whether to recertify or decertify the Iran deal
, we should expect some rocky waters ahead in the Middle East.
Our first priority needs to be the safety and security of US personnel deployed overseas, and if you decertify the Iran deal, Iran may choose not only to restart its nuclear program but also to retaliate by targeting US personnel and interests in the Middle East. Iran is active
in theaters including Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, where we have significant numbers of diplomats and military personnel on the ground. In the run-up to the May 12 deadline, we may see increased threats from Iran and may need to devote additional resources to ensure security at US embassies and other diplomatic facilities.
of the new US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14
will also likely contribute to more risks to American personnel and interests in the region. When you announced your decision to move the embassy
from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, we saw protests
, action against the United States
at the United Nations, and admonishments from a majority of other countries. The decision also cut off the US role in the Middle East peace process, adversely impacting any efforts to work with the Palestinians ahead of the embassy opening to identify and mitigate risks.
With that in mind, we can expect direct threats to US personnel and a tenser overall security environment in Israel when the embassy opens. The leader of Hamas has already said
he can't contain mass Palestinian protests on the day of the embassy move.
This is happening while clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces at the Israel-Gaza border
are ongoing. Over the last month, violence at the border has left 40 Palestinians dead and more than 5,500 wounded, according to
the United Nations.
May 15 also marks the Palestinian observation of al-Nakba -- or as many Palestinians and others call it
, the "catastrophe" that was the creation of the state of Israel and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Past demonstrations have led to clashes
between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, including during last year's demonstrations.
Due to all of these events, Mr. President, we assess that there is a heightened risk to US personnel in the Middle East, and the policy team can identify whether additional resources are needed.