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Intel officials say ISIS could regroup after U.S. ‘betrayal’ of Kurds in Syria



WASHINGTON — A sustained Turkish military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria — which President Donald Trump appears to have permitted — would vastly increase the threat to Americans from the Islamic State militant group, which remains intent on attacking the West, current and former intelligence officials tell NBC News.

The immediate concern, officials say, is what will happen with the 12,000 ISIS fighters currently being guarded by the American-backed Kurds. The ISIS prisoners are the world’s largest concentration of terrorists. If those fighters are set free, officials fear a replay of what happened in Iraq between 2010 and 2013, when the core group who founded ISIS were released or escaped from detention after U.S. forces left the country.

Some of the very people who broke out of Iraqi prisons helped turn ISIS into a movement that not only seized territory in Iraq and Syria, but also orchestrated and encouraged terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States.

More broadly, current and former officials say, a large Turkish military incursion into northern Syria will have the effect of removing the single greatest source of counterterrorism pressure against ISIS — a Kurdish force that has been crucial to defeating and containing the terror group.

Asked about the risks, U.S. intelligence officials chose their words carefully Wednesday, not wanting to say anything publicly that appears to criticize Trump’s policies. But they did not dispute what one of the top counterterrorism officials in the government told NBC News last month — that ISIS remains a dangerous threat, and that reduction of counterterrorism pressure on the group would “set the conditions for potential reemergence in a very powerful way.”

“They are absolutely still a viable external operational threat globally,” the official, who chose not to be identified, said.

Just days before Trump ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from the border region of northern Syria, a bipartisan team appointed by Congress, the Syria Study Group, issued a report warning that an American pullout would take the pressure off the terrorists.

“There’s ample evidence ISIS is still very much active, it has access to tremendous resources, its brand still has international appeal,” said Dana Stroul, co-author of the Syria Study Group report and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank.

“We know that ISIS is looking for opportunities to reconstitute and certainly the lifting of pressure on ISIS is likely to provide the organization with that opportunity.”

The report said that ISIS had lost its grip on territory in Syria and Iraq but had “morphed into an insurgency with the will, capability, and resources to carry out attacks against the United States.”

Apart from ISIS, al Qaeda-linked groups and other extremists are active in Syria, taking advantage of the chaos of the country’s civil war, according to the report.

“Areas of Syria have become safe havens for al Qaeda and its fellow travelers and home to the largest concentration of foreign terrorist fighters since Afghanistan in the 1990s,” the report said.

Current and former officials also expressed frustration over what they see as a profound betrayal of the Kurdish force — which fought under the rubric of the Syrian Democratic Forces — that lost thousands of men fighting to defeat the ISIS caliphate on behalf of the United States.

“I’ve worked directly with the SDF and had many fighters from the group I grew to trust with my life,” a former CIA officer told NBC News. “Now, I realize they are all going to be killed or detained after we betrayed them — killed with weapons we gave to Turkey.”

Tom Donilon, who was President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, told Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC, “We have given a green light to the Turks to come and fight our allies. … It’s a real stain on the reputation of the United States.”

Some analysts see it differently, pointing out that U.S. backed Kurdish forces are linked to the PKK, a Kurdish military group that has been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union. Turkey has been fighting the group for decades, they say, and there was always going to be a day of reckoning, unless the U.S. planned to keep troops in Syria forever.

The former CIA officer said in response: “They trusted us and believed us. If we didn’t intend to honor our promise, we should not have made it.”

The White House declined to comment, but referred NBC News to a previous statement by Trump:

“Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place — and we will hold them to this commitment. In addition, Turkey is now responsible for ensuring all ISIS fighters being held captive remain in prison and that ISIS does not reconstitute in any way, shape, or form. We expect Turkey to abide by all of its commitments, and we continue to monitor the situation closely.”

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Trump defends decision to fire inspector general, calls him a ‘disgrace’



WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Saturday defended his decision to fire Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general who flagged the Ukraine whistleblower complaint that ended in his impeachment, calling him a “disgrace.”

“I thought he did a terrible job, absolutely terrible,” Trump said at a press briefing at the White House. “He took a fake report and brought it to Congress… not a big Trump fan, that I can tell you.”

“That man is a disgrace to IGs,” Trump said of Atkinson. “He is a total disgrace.”

Trump also attacked the whistleblower who first reported the phone call Trump had with Ukraine that was at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.

“They give this whistleblower a status that he doesn’t deserve, he’s a fake whistleblower. And frankly, somebody ought to sue his ass off,” Trump said.

Trump informed lawmakers late Friday night that he was firing Atkinson, whose insistence that Congress needed to be made aware of a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine kicked off the impeachment proceedings last year.

Trump had reportedly been considering removing Atkinson since November. His decision to follow through on Friday sparked immediate criticism from Democrats and government watchdogs who warned that Trump’s pattern of removing officials from their positions that cooperated in the impeachment proceedings was concerning.

“That’s my decision. I have the absolute right,” Trump said, defending Atkinson’s firing.

Trump informed Congress in a letter Friday that he was firing Atkinson because he no longer had confidence in him.

Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council aide, were also let go from their positions after cooperating in the impeachment hearings.

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Trump’s small businesses lending program is a failure to launch



One day after the launch of a $350 billion loan program designed to rescue millions of small businesses pummeled by the coronavirus pandemic, technical glitches continued to cripple the ability of the nation’s top lenders to begin processing the loans, throwing into doubt when any of the applicants will start receiving any money.

The lending program, which forms part of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, is a much-needed lifeline for the 30 million small businesses across the country. It offers loans of up to $2 million to companies who employ fewer than 500 people. Those loans are forgiven for eight weeks, as long as the businesses meet certain conditions, such as using the majority of the loan to continue paying worker salaries. Payments are deferred for six months after that.

However, two of the nation’s biggest banks say they have only just been able to start processing loans.

“We are all waiting on the Small Business Administration,” a Chase senior executive told NBC News.

Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase received tens of thousands of applicants within hours of the program’s launch on Friday, senior executives at both companies told NBC News. Bank of America reported receiving over $22 billion in requested funds. Wells Fargo, which appeared to have a late start, on Saturday opened a portal where customers could register and get an email back “with next steps within in a few days.” Citi’s website said “applications will be available shortly.”

To begin the lending process, small businesses must submit their application via an online portal on their bank’s website. A banker then conducts a phone call with the applicant.

However, there’s no way in the hastily fashioned system for the banks’ computers and those of the Small Business Administration, which administers the Paycheck Protection Program loans, to talk to one another. Bankers have resorted to entering applicant information by hand into E-Tran, the proprietary system used by the SBA to guarantee loans and generate loan numbers.

With banks reporting tens of thousands of applications just in the first day, the system is already overwhelmed. The SBA usually processes about 60,000 loans in an entire year.

Despite this, President Donald Trump said in a news briefing Saturday that, “in 24 hours, the SBA processed over 28,000 loans.”

“Remember, we had the greatest economy,” Trump said. “Now we have to open our country.”

Senior banking executives at Bank of America and Chase told NBC News they were still waiting on loan numbers to come back from the SBA, and so far had not processed any more than a trickle from the flood of applicants.

Bankers said they were working systems to automate and speed up the process but had no idea when these customers would start to see money in their accounts.

An email from the Small Business Administration to lenders Saturday morning apologized for “ongoing technical issues,” which included slowness and the inability of “many” lenders to create new logins or reset passwords.

The SBA did not immediately respond to an NBC News request for comment.

Some community banks, locally owned retail banks with less than $1 billion in assets, reported being able to make loans. Connect One Bank of New Jersey told CNBC Friday that they had processed a loan and deposited it into a customer’s account.

@BankofAmerica & community banks are rocking!” Trump tweeted late Saturday morning, adding that he would take additional steps if necessary to shore up the program.

“I will immediately ask Congress for more money to support small businesses under the #PPPloan if the allocated money runs out. So far, way ahead of schedule. @BankofAmerica & community banks are rocking!”

Since the program is first come, first served, small businesses who applied at lenders who were having trouble with the hastily fashioned relief program run the risk of missing out.

Small businesses, which employ almost half the private workforce, don’t have the cash runways of big companies such as Amazon or Starbucks to help them weather a crisis of this magnitude. In a recent study, half the small businesses surveyed had two weeks or less of cash liquidity.

“After the financial crisis, we lost 1.8 million small business owners,” Karen Harned, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business, told NBC News. “After the reaction I’m hearing, I’m worried about what that number might be after this is over.”

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Seeking coronavirus relief, investment firm with ties to Kushner emails Kushner, Trump admin



The co-founder of a huge private equity firm sent an email this week to Jared Kushner and other Trump administration policymakers seeking to relax rules on coronavirus relief money in a way that would benefit the company, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Kushner’s family real estate business has financial ties to the company, Apollo Global Management.

A source close to Kushner says there was nothing remarkable about his receipt of the email, from Apollo co-founder Mark Rowan. Kushner gets hundreds of proposals from all sorts of people, the source said. But Apollo is not just any business: It made a $184 million loan in 2017 to Kushner Companies, the real estate company in which Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, retains an interest.

The email obtained by NBC News went out to Apollo clients and other policymakers, the sources said. It makes a recommendation about a $100 billion loan program recently announced by the Federal Reserve to backstop lenders and investors — a program designed to inject cash into the financial system to prevent it from freezing up.

The details are complicated, but the program will make loans to the financial industry’s holders of certain types of debt, including student, auto and credit card loans. Under the rules, the securities backed by the debt must have the highest rating, usually AAA. One big category of debt is not eligible: unsecured consumer loans.

Many investments held by Apollo — which calls itself “one of the world’s largest alternative investment managers” — wouldn’t qualify because they are higher risk and lower rated. In his email, Rowan makes the case to expand the lending under the program.

“Current TALF supports AAA which is EXACTLY WHERE SUPPORT IS NOT NEEDED,” the email says, referring to the technical name of the program, Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility. “TALF should be expanded to support a broad spectrum of investment grade obligations with guardrails and limitations as described.”

Rowan adds, “There has been no MORAL HAZARD. We have a totally unique situation.”

That is a reference to arguments made during the 2008 financial crisis against bailing out banks and Wall Street firms that had made bad investments in mortgage-backed securities. Critics said a “moral hazard” was created when the government essentially spared many banks the consequences of their bad decisions.

In a financial crisis caused by an unforeseen global pandemic, there is no moral hazard, Rowan argues. But others see it differently. They say some of Apollo’s investments were extremely risky even without a pandemic. If the government backed them, it could be left holding the bag.

In a statement, Apollo did not dispute the authenticity of the email.

“Business leaders around the country are offering their best solutions on how we can come together to respond to the health crisis and restart our economy,” the statement sad. “We are particularly concerned that the plumbing of the financial system is not operating. Apollo, among other voices — including insurance companies, retirement plans, and industry organizations — have been advocating for the broad application of TALF across the investment grade market, which would efficiently reach the largest number of companies and do the most good.”

Apollo is no stranger to the Trump administration.

The New York Times reported that in November 2017, Apollo lent $184 million to Jared Kushner’s family real estate firm, Kushner Companies, to refinance the mortgage on a Chicago skyscraper.

The Times said the loan came after Joshua Harris, a founder of Apollo, attended White House meetings and advised Trump administration officials on infrastructure policy.

He met several times with Kushner, three people familiar with the meetings told the Times. Among other things, the two men discussed a possible White House role for Harris, the Times reported.

The position never materialized.

Christine Taylor, a spokeswoman for Kushner Companies, told the Times that Kushner’s White House role had not affected the company’s relationships with financial institutions.

Through a spokesman, Kushner’s attorney, Abbe Lowell, told the Times Kushner “has met with hundreds of business people.” He said that Kushner “has taken no part of any business, loans or projects with or for” Kushner Companies since joining the White House and that he has followed ethics advice.

In the past, senior White House and Cabinet officials with large investments have put them in a blind trust. Hank Paulson, who was worth an estimated $500 million when he became Treasury secretary under George W. Bush in 2006, did that.

Kushner resigned from his family business and he plays no role in running the Kushner Companies, but he retains a portfolio of real estate investments through the firm. Ethics filings showed that real estate holdings and other investments held by Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump in 2017 were worth as much as $811 million.

President Trump also has elected not to use a blind trust, and retains financial stakes in his family real estate businesses.

Ken Dilanian reported from Washington.

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