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Allegra Kirkland

Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.

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Chief White House Strategist Steve Bannon has been removed from his position on the National Security Council, Bloomberg reported Wednesday.

Bannon’s position, assistant to the president and White House chief strategist, was not listed among the officials on the NSC’s Principals Committee in a Tuesday memorandum.

President Donald Trump had appointed Bannon to the Principals Committee shortly after he took office in January, drawing sharp criticism from lawmakers and foreign policy observers who feared that having a White House operative on the council risked politicizing national security decisions.

“He’s not a national security expert,” Julie Smith, deputy national security adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden, told TPM in March. “Other than having served in the navy for a little while in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he really doesn’t have any exposure to national security challenges whatsoever.”

Under the new memorandum, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was given latitude to set the agenda for NSC meetings.

The emerging White House line on Bannon’s demotion is that he was appointed to the NSC specifically to keep tabs on Michael Flynn, who was ousted as national security adviser in February. MSNBC’s Kristen Welker reported, citing anonymous sources, Bannon’s oversight role was no longer needed after Flynn’s removal.

“Susan Rice operationalized the NSC during the last administration,” Bannon said in a statement obtained by the Wall Street Journal. “I was put on to ensure that it was de-operationalized. General McMaster has returned the NSC to its proper function.”

Despite that oversight role, an administration official told the Journal that Bannon only attended one NSC meeting.

Previously, Bannon reportedly overruled McMaster on key personnel decisions. After McMaster allegedly attempted to remove Ezra Cohen-Watnick as senior director for intelligence programs, Bannon and White House adviser Jared Kushner were said to successfully petition Trump to keep Cohen-Watnick in that role.

Cohen-Watnick was later reported to be one of the sources helping funnel classified intelligence reports to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) that purportedly showed President Donald Trump and his transition officials were incidentally caught up in surveillance of foreign nationals.

The news of the NSC shakeup follows on the heels of a Tuesday night report from The Hill claiming that Bannon’s Strategic Initiatives Group, initially described as his “internal White House think tank,” never really had any teeth.

The SIG was set up in late January as an internal policy shop focused on long-term strategy, staffed by deputy assistant to the president Sebastian Gorka and Kushner, among others. Bannon’s dual role running the SIG and sitting on the Principals Committee sparked fears that he would circumvent the latter body and create a “shadow NSC” on foreign policy.

The anonymous White House officials who spoke to The Hill, however, downplayed the group’s importance and said it did not accomplish much. Those White House officials said SIG had been superseded by the Office of American Innovation, a recently announced government modernization effort headed up by Kushner.

“I’ve never known [SIG] to exist,” one unnamed White House aide told The Hill. “There was a lot of speculation about this early, but it was never officially rolled out and if anything, the OAI is an evolution and realization of some of these initial ideas.”

Bannon’s removal from the NSC and the reported dissipation of the SIG should come as a relief to national security experts who hoped McMaster’s arrival would bring some order to the Trump administration’s foreign policy shop.

Derek Chollet, the NSC’s senior director for strategic planning during the Obama administration, told TPM in March that the existence of these overlapping groups begged the question of “who speaks for the President on foreign policy.”

“This is a problem sort of intrinsic to Trump,” he said. “Foreign officials are puzzling over who they listen to—Jim Mattis, Rex Tillerson, whenever he rarely speaks, Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka. They’re desperately trying to figure out who’s who in the zoo.”

This post has been updated.

President Donald Trump and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) remain rather unlikely allies. The two went tit-for-tat on the campaign trail, with Trump making pointed jabs about the Kentucky senator’s poll numbers and Paul mocking Trump as a power-hungry “rich guy from New York.” More recently, Paul helped scuttle a House vote on an Obamacare repeal bill, handing a huge embarrassment to the Trump administration.

This week, though, they’ve been brought together by a shared fixation on surveillance.

Paul has gone to bat for the President over reports that former President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, requested the unmasking of U.S. persons in several intelligence reports that referenced Trump transition officials.

“I believe Susan Rice abused the system and she did it for political purposes. She needs to be brought in and questioned under oath,” he said Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “This was a witch hunt that began with the Obama administration, sour grapes on the way out the door. They were going to use the intelligence apparatus to attack Trump, and I think they did.”

Rice has denied any improper action, saying unmasking names of U.S. persons is sometimes necessary to understand the “context” for intercepted conversations. She also insisted that she leaked no information to the press.

National security experts say this sort of request is perfectly “appropriate” for a high-ranking official like Rice who is tasked with keeping tabs on foreign governments.

Paul isn’t buying it.

“DIRECTIVE FROM OBAMA?” he wrote in a Tuesday tweet linking to a Fox News article about his call for Rice to testify.

While conservative media and the Trump family have also been quick to jump on the Rice allegations, other Senate Republicans have mostly toed the line (with the exception of Sen. Tom Cotton [R-AR], who referred to Rice as the Obama administration’s “Typhoid Mary”).

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told CNN that “we have to have factual evidence” before alleging anything untoward about Rice’s requests.

McCain sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, of which the Republican chair and Democratic vice-chair have vowed to conduct a thorough, bipartisan investigation into Russia’s interference in the U.S. election, including contacts between Trump staffers and Russian officials.

For Paul, a libertarian known for his attempts to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director and the renewal of the Patriot Act, the Rice allegations are fresh fuel in his longstanding crusade against an omnipotent, expansive U.S. government surveillance program.

“For many years Senator Paul has been very vocal against the surveillance state and potential for abuse,” his communication director, Sergio Gor, said in a statement to TPM. “Regarding Susan Rice, he believes it needs to be fully investigated by Congress.”

Since arriving on Capitol Hill, Paul has been one of the loudest critics of the National Security Administration’s sweeping surveillance programs and often cautions Americans against “giving up their liberty.”

Despite Trump’s insistence that he was spied on by Obama administration officials, his administration has demonstrated little interest in loosening U.S. surveillance measures.

Backing the President on this particular allegation could be an opening for Paul to build goodwill with the Trump administration and gain its support for surveillance reforms down the line.

Paul said he discussed the need to reform U.S. intelligence activities while golfing with the President over the weekend.

“I may have given him my opinion on it,” Paul told a scrum of reporters.

On Monday evening, Twitter was abuzz with the news that the English-language publication Arab News published a scathing statement exposing a conservative Middle East expert who asked his former editors to delete columns he wrote criticizing President Donald Trump.

But by Tuesday morning, both the statement and the anti-Trump columns in question had disappeared from the site.

Andrew Bowen, an American Enterprise Institute visiting scholar, reportedly made the request because he was seeking a State Department role. The odd series of events that followed illustrates just how far those seeking jobs in the Trump administration may go to prove fealty to the President. It’s also a case study in how quickly conservatives opposed to Trump became his boosters as soon as he won the election.

In a now-deleted statement, the Saudi Arabia-based Arab News wrote that Bowen “repeatedly requested” the removal of certain articles that denigrated Trump and praised Hilary Clinton. Their removal was necessary for Bowen “to be cleared” for a role in the Trump administration, the statement read.

The publication also alleged that Bowen insinuated “verbally and in writing” that he would enlist “influential friends and contacts” to have the columns removed. The statement noted that Arab News editors declined to grant Bowen’s wish because they found it “unprofessional journalistically” and his pieces contained “no factual errors or libelous comments” necessitating retraction.

That statement now links to a dead web page. Arab News issued no retraction.

While many of Bowen’s other pieces are still live on the site, his most vociferous criticism of Trump is gone. This includes a column written just one day before the election in which Bowen accused Trump of stirring “xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments” and displaying a pattern of “questionable business practices and ethics.”

“Trump has shown repeatedly a frank disregard for human decency and civility,” Bowen wrote at the time (a cached version of the article may be viewed here).

Arab News did not respond Tuesday to TPM’s request for comment.

Bowen did not respond to an interview request from TPM, but told the Washington Post that he was “deeply concerned and saddened” by Arab News’ statement and that the site was addressing his “concerns” with the columns.

Veronique Rodman, public affairs officer for the American Enterprise Institute, told TPM that Bowen was out of the office “dealing with family issues” and said that he relayed to her that Arab News issued the statement mistakenly.

“We talked and he wanted me to be sure to let you know that apparently it’s our understanding that the statement was in error,” Rodman said.

Rodman said she did not have details about whether Bowen made the request to take down his columns. She also said his writing for Arab News did not affect his role at AEI.

“AEI is an independent, nonpartisan political institute and a lot of our scholars often do work on their own,” she said. “It has nothing to do with the institute or the work he does for the institute.”

In the days immediately following the election, Bowen began to push out columns promoting the incoming administration. One December post for AEI argued that Rex Tillerson’s decades working for ExxonMobil made him the “right choice” for secretary of state.

Foreign Policy reported that Bowen is still expected to move into a post on the State Department Policy Planning Staff working on Middle East issues.

Read Arab News’ full statement below, courtesy of Twitter user Ryan Barrell:

Former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice said Tuesday that she never leaked classified information to the press, and that she did not make any requests to unmask the identities of U.S. persons in intelligence reports for political purposes.

“Did you seek the names of people involved, to unmask the names of people involved in the Trump transition, the people surrounding the President-elect in order to spy on them and expose them?” she was asked by MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.

“Not for any political purposes,” Rice replied.

“Did you leak the name of Mike Flynn?” Trump’s ousted national security adviser, Mitchell asked.

“I leaked nothing to nobody and never have and never would,” Rice said.

Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake and Fox News reported Monday, citing anonymous officials, that Rice asked the intelligence community to unmask names in several intelligence reports involving foreign nationals discussing the Trump campaign and between Trump staffers and foreign nationals who were being surveilled by the U.S. government.

President Trump’s defenders seized on those reports as evidence that the Obama administration, led by Rice, was spying on the Trump transition team for political purposes.

Rice told Mitchell there was “not anything political” going on. She said unmasking requests, which must be approved by intelligence officials, were sometimes necessary to get the proper “context” for intercepted conversations in the intelligence reports provided to her.

“Sometimes in that context, in order to understand the importance of the report, and assess its significance, it was necessary to find out, or request the information as to who the U.S. official was,” Rice said.

National security experts who have worked on foreign surveillance cases backed up this explanation, saying it was within Rice’s purview as national security adviser to monitor what foreign governments and actors are doing.

The names of unmasked individuals are provided only to the individual that requested them, Rice said, denying reports from the Daily Caller and Breitbart News that she ordered the production of “spreadsheets” containing the names of all the Trump staffers caught up in incidental collection.

“When the intelligence community would respond to a request from a senior national security official for the identity of an American, that would come back only to the person requested it, brought back to them directly,” she said. “To me, or to whoever might have requested it, on occasion, and this is important. It was not then typically broadly disseminated throughout the national security meeting or the government.”

“So the notion which some people are trying to suggest that by asking for the identity of an American person is the same thing as leaking it, that’s completely false,” Rice continued. “There’s no equivalence between so called unmasking and leaking.”

A Monday Bloomberg report alleging that a former top Obama administration official requested the unmasking of U.S. persons tied to the Trump campaign who were swept up in foreign surveillance is not the “smoking gun” that the President’s backers are making it out to be.

According to surveillance and national security experts, former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice would be within her rights to make such requests if she was trying to determine the extent of Russia’s interference in the presidential election.

“Part of her job as national security adviser is to pay attention to what foreign governments are doing,” Rebecca Lonergan, a former federal prosecutor who handled foreign surveillance cases, told TPM. “If she’s asking for specific names to be unmasked in order to understand what Russia may be doing to influence the U.S. political system and influence our elections, presumably in a way they thought would benefit them, she’s doing her job.”

Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst, noted on Twitter that it was not “odd or wrong” for the national security adviser to read “a report of foreign officials discussing US persons coming into” the White House. And Susan Hennessey, a fellow in national security governance studies at the Brookings Institution, wrote of the Bloomberg article that “nothing in this story indicates anything improper whatsoever.”

Eli Lake, the Bloomberg View columnist who wrote the report, noted in his piece that “some intelligence value” is required for senior officials to request that U.S. persons’ names be unmasked, and that as a result, Rice’s alleged requests were “likely within the law.”

The intelligence reports in question were primarily summaries of conversations between foreign officials discussing the Trump transition, as well as communications between Trump staffers and foreign officials being monitored by the U.S. government, according to Lake’s reporting.

Lonergan said that given the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the U.S. election, which Director James Comey recently confirmed has been ongoing since July 2016, the discovery of such conversations would “naturally and appropriately” prompt top-level national security officials to ask that U.S. persons’ names be unmasked “to see if any inappropriate action is taking place.”

That was not how Trump’s allies viewed the Bloomberg report and other reports alleging Rice asked to have Trump staffers’ identities unmasked, however.

“Smoking gun found!” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) charged on Twitter. “Obama pal and noted dissembler Susan Rice said to have been spying on Trump campaign.”

“Unmasker Unmasked: Susan Rice Named As Intel Boss Who Exposed Team Trump Surveillance,” read the headline on Fox News’ homepage.

That reaction was familiar: A similar chorus erupted when House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) first went public last month with claims that Trump staffers’ names were unmasked in intercepts unrelated to the FBI’s Russia probe. Conservative pundits and politicians seized on the purported unmasking as proof of Trump’s oft-repeated and baseless claim that he was surveilled by the Obama administration.

That interpretation is a fundamental misreading of who the target of the surveillance was and why U.S. persons swept up in that surveillance would be unmasked, according to Lonergan. The Trump team was not being “spied on” by the Obama administration, she explained, but individuals associated with his campaign were being discussed by or in communication with foreign nationals who were being surveilled. She said the staffers’ names would only be unmasked to help U.S. national security officials understand the national security threat posed by Russia’s involvement in the election.

“If we just heard Susan Rice as national security adviser is trying to keep track of Russia’s interference in the election, we’d all cheer,” Lonergan said. “But then we hear the word surveillance and people start talking about it in very inexact ways that make it seem like something wrong was done.”

The opaque nature in which U.S. intelligence is classified makes it easy for politicians and pundits to spin that intelligence in ways that read differently to the press, said Jack Lerner, an expert on technology law at the University of California Irvine School of Law.

“There are lots of minimization procedures, some of which are classified, that the NSA follows. There are various levels of intelligence information in terms of sensitivity, in terms of classification that various people in Congress and the White House are given exposure to,” Lerner told TPM. “And it’s difficult for someone who doesn’t work for that agency to figure it out.”

Lonergan charged that Nunes was himself “leaking classified information” when he went to the press with his initial claims that Trump staffers’ identities had been unmasked and widely circulated within the intelligence community. She said intelligence and national security officials who are required to remain mum about the information they receive are now “clashing” with politicians accustomed to speaking to the public about what they know.

“A lot of people who know what’s actually going on don’t talk about it because they’re not supposed to talk about it,” she said. “And then you get the politicians out talking about it in very broad, accusatory terms so it gets very distorted in the media.”

The Republican National Committee announced Monday that Michael Cohen, longtime attorney and ally to President Donald Trump, will join its financial team.

Cohen, who remains Trump’s personal attorney, will serve as one of several national deputy chairmen.

The brash, New York-based lawyer is a central figure in Trump world, serving as special counsel to the Trump Organization for over a decade and sitting on the boards of the Eric Trump Foundation and Miss Universe Organization. He raised millions for Trump’s presidential campaign and was known for making graphic threats to news organizations that published stories that cast Trump in an unflattering light.

Cohen was also involved in a back-channel scheme to convince the Trump administration to lift sanctions against Russia. He told the New York Times in February that he helped deliver a “peace plan” drawn up by a member of the Ukrainian parliament to fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, before denying that he did so to the Washington Post just one day later.

Cohen was a lifelong Democrat who was unable to vote for his boss in the Empire State primary because of his party affiliation. On March 9, he announced he’d finally “made the official move” to register as a Republican.

A pair of anonymous U.S. officials told Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake that former national security adviser Susan Rice requested the unmasking of U.S. persons in several intelligence reports containing information related to the Trump transition and campaign officials.

As Lake noted in his Monday report, a senior official must believe that there is “some foreign intelligence value” in unmasking a U.S. person’s name, so Rice’s alleged requests were “likely within the law.” The National Security Council reportedly discovered the requests while reviewing how the government decides to unmask the redacted names of U.S. persons who get swept up in legal surveillance of foreign nationals.

Here’s how Lake described the raw intelligence reports in which Trump staffers’ names were unmasked:

The intelligence reports were summaries of monitored conversations — primarily between foreign officials discussing the Trump transition, but also in some cases direct contact between members of the Trump team and monitored foreign officials. One U.S. official familiar with the reports said they contained valuable political information on the Trump transition such as whom the Trump team was meeting, the views of Trump associates on foreign policy matters and plans for the incoming administration.

The individual leading the NSC review was the council’s senior director for intelligence, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, according to the report. Cohen-Watnick was recently reported to be one of three White House staffers who allegedly played a role in providing House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) with intelligence reports in which Nunes claimed Trump transition officials’ identities were inappropriately unmasked.

That revelation burned Lake, who had reported that Nunes told him his source was an intelligence, not White House, official. “He misled me,” Lake wrote of the California lawmaker last week.

Rice did not respond to Bloomberg’s request for comment. In an interview last month on “PBS NewsHour,” Rice said she knew “nothing” about reports that Trump and his transition officials were swept up in foreign surveillance.

“I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that account,” she said at the time.

Reports that Rice prompted the unmasking of Trump associates were first surfaced in a Sunday post on Medium by far-right blogger Mike Cernovich, a noted promoter of the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory.

As Nunes’ backchanneling with the Trump administration has prompted calls for his recusal from the committee’s investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election, the White House has been trying to retrain attention on Trump’s predecessor. The President this weekend sent tweets referring to the “crooked scheme against us” and claiming the Trump team had been “spied on before he was nominated.”

A newly surfaced detail in the trust agreement Donald Trump established to administer his business holdings shows the extent to which the President remains financially wedded to the Trump Organization months after moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

As ProPublica reported Monday, Trump added a clause to his trust agreement on Feb. 10 that allows him to withdraw funds at any time from any of his businesses, which number more than 400, without disclosing it publicly.

“The Trustees shall distribute net income or principal to Donald J. Trump at his request, as the Trustees deem necessary for his maintenance, support of uninsured medical expenses, or as the Trustees otherwise deem appropriate,” the document reads.

Before Trump took office, he promised to cede control of the Trump Organization to his two adult sons, who also pledged to keep the President in the dark about the company’s day-to-day operations. As it turns out, Trump not only may continue to withdraw money from his businesses, but his son Eric Trump also has said he plans to give his father regular financial updates. As ProPublica noted, the revised trust agreement stipulates that trustees “shall not provide any report to Donald J. Trump on the holdings and sources of income of the Trust.”

If Trump’s refusal to release any of his tax returns is any indication, the public is unlikely to learn any details about what profits Trump is taking from his businesses while he is in office.

Reports that the White House funneled classified information on intercepts of President Donald Trump’s transition team to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) are mostly “innuendo,” he said Friday.

“Those reports are mostly wrong,” the embattled lawmaker told his hometown TV station KSEE.

The New York Times and Washington Post identified three White House officials that reportedly helped Nunes gain access to intelligence reports that he said showed Trump and his transition team were swept up in U.S. surveillance of foreign nationals. He has confirmed he met with a source, who he previously said was an intelligence, not a White House, official, on White House grounds the day before he went public with those allegations.

Nunes told KSEE that just because people in the White House might have been aware of the reports, they weren’t necessarily “the source of my information.”

The California Republican’s handling of the situation has prompted calls from every Democratic member of his committee, as well as at least one Republican lawmaker, for his recusal from the investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election.

Nunes doesn’t see the big deal: As he told KSEE, all Republicans in Congress likely voted for Trump, so none of them are any less close to the administration than he is (Nunes also served on Trump’s transition team’s executive committee).

According to Nunes, there’s a “tough job” to be done and “there’s nobody else better than me to be doing it.”

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, is headed to the White House Friday afternoon to review documents purporting to show incidental collection of information about Trump administration officials.

In a statement, he cautioned against drawing alarmist conclusions about this legal incidental collection stemming from routine foreign surveillance. His comments read as a pointed rebuke of his committee’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), who said he was “alarmed” by what he perceived as surveillance of the Trump transition staff.

“My staff director and I plan to review the documents at the White House, fully cognizant of the fact that in the absence of the appropriate agency representatives it will not be possible to understand the full content and context of any documents we may review,” Schiff said.

He said he was not sure if the documents the White House invited him to view would be the same as those Nunes saw. The Washington Post and New York Times have reported that White House officials actually flagged these intelligence reports to Nunes and helped him to view them during a visit to White House grounds, one day before he went public with these claims. The chairman has refused to disclose his sources.

Schiff said he wanted all of the relevant documents made available to both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, as well as the relevant intelligence agencies. He also called for transparency from the White House on what role it may have played in digging up this information and bringing it to Nunes.

“If these documents are the same as those shared with our Chairman over a week ago, the White House must fully disclose what role it appears to have played in concealing that the White House was the very source of documents presented to the White House,” he wrote.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Friday called Nunes’ secret visit “routine and proper.”

Read the full statement below:

Washington, DC – Today, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the Ranking Member of the House Permanent Select Committee, released the following statement:

“Today, my staff director and I plan to review the documents at the White House, fully cognizant of the fact that in the absence of the appropriate agency representatives it will not be possible to understand the full content and context of any documents we may review. For that reason and because any issues regarding minimization procedures — if that is the subject matter here — are issues properly within our ordinary oversight responsibilities, I will be urging the Administration to make all these documents available to the full House and Senate Intelligence Committees. Since I will not be able to discuss the content of anything I review — and no conclusions can be drawn from an inability to do so — it is all the more important that these documents be made available to not only our committees, but to the relevant agencies. Finally, if these documents are the same as those shared with our Chairman over a week ago, the White House must fully disclose what role it appears to have played in concealing that the White House was the very source of documents presented to the White House.”

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