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The Early Edition: February 17, 2017

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

The TRUMP CABINET’S RELATIONSHIP WITH RUSSIA

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn denied he had discussed US sanctions with the Russian ambassador in an interview by FBI agents last month, contradicting the contents of intercepted communications, report Sari Horwitz and Adam Entous at the Washington Post.

Trump’s top choice to replace Flynn Robert S. Harward turned down the job yesterday, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

The FBI is not expected to pursue charges against Flynn in the absence of further information about his contact with the Russian ambassador, Evan Perez reports at CNN.

Flynn was “just doing his job,” President Trump insisted at what some have described as a “wild” and “unhinged” press conference yesterday. Matt Wilstein reports at The Daily Beast.

Trump denied any connections to Russia or any knowledge of his election campaign team having contacts with Moscow at the presser yesterday, David Smith reports at the Guardian.

Trump’s vague offering that he had no knowledge that his campaign team had contacted with Russian officials – having first claimed it was “fake news” was not a flat denial but a “dodge” followed by a “dismissal,” suggest Matthew Nussbaum and Madeline Conway at POLITICO.

The chances of pursuing a closer relationship with Russia have been all but destroyed by the mood in the US surrounding reports of contacts between Moscow and those close to Trump, the President said. Nathan Hodge, Damian Paletta and Julian E. Barnes report at the Wall Street Journal.

The full transcript of the press conference is provided at CNN.

The importance of information about sanctions to Russia is illustrated by two recently filed court documents involving a two-year-old case against Russian bank employee Evgeny Buryakiv, who admitted being a Russian intelligence agent, Kate Zavadski writes at The Daily Beast.

The presence of a Russian naval ship in international waters of the east coast of America has for some become a symbol of the Trump administration’s ties with Moscow, writes Christine Hauser at the New York Times.

Mike Flynn filed no documentation of his 2015 trip to Moscow where he dined with the Russian president and possibly accepted unconstitutional payments from a foreign government for his attendance, the Pentagon has told lawmakers. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions must appoint a special prosecutor to be in charge of an immediate and full investigation of the Trump administration’s ties to Russia, as he himself advocated just before the election in relation to an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server, writes the New York Times editorial board.

In the case of Mike Flynn we have the first recorded instance of a cover-up in the absence of a crime, observes Charles Krauthammer at the Washington Post.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

The US still backs a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley said yesterday, Somini Sengupta reporting at the New York Times.

Israelis and Palestinians are debating what comes next after Trump’s deliberate or otherwise reneging on years of US support for the two-state solution Wednesday, writes Isabel Kershner at the New York Times.

Experts compare Trump’s comments on the two-state solution to those he made about the “one China” policy, anticipating a similar pattern of revocation followed by reinstation, writes Mark Landler at the New York Times.

Trump’s pick for US ambassador to Israel David Friedman repeatedly expressed regret for a series of incendiary comments under questioning by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, promising to only give “respectful and measured” comments if he is confirmed, Dion Nissenbaum reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly are leading a US delegation to the Munich Security Conference opening today, giving world leaders, diplomats and defense officials their first chance to meet with members of the Trump administration amid worries over President Trump’s commitment to NATO and his attitude toward Russia, David Rising writes at the AP.

An agreement on increasing communication to avoid “unintended incidents” was the result of the first meeting between top military officers from the US and Russia since 2014, the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said yesterday. The Hill’s Rebecca Kheel reports.

America’s commitment to Article 5 “remains solid,” Defense Secretary James Mattis told his NATO counterparts in Brussels yesterday, appearing to reject increased military ties between the US and Russia, Helene Cooper reports at the New York Times.

“If your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to the alliance, each of your capitals needs to show its support for our common defense,” Mattis told NATO allies, the Wall Street Journal editorial board expressing the hope that his “tough love” will spur other NATO countries to pay their way.

European NATO members have already responded to Mattis’ warning, Al Jazeera reports, agreeing to purchase airplanes and submarines jointly and possibly open a new command headquarters.

There is “very little doubt” that Russia tried to interfere in democratic elections in the past, Mattis also said, Nikita Vladimirov reporting at the Hill.

Mattis’ comments came as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Russia needs to honor its commitments to “de-escalate the violence in Ukraine” following his meeting with the Russian foreign minister in Bonn, Germany, yesterday. Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

Rex Tillerson is heading a seriously weakened State Department that is cut out of the key foreign policy decisions being made at the White House, writes Julian Borger at the Guardian.

Ukraine is still waiting for a clear policy from President Trump on Russia’s annexation of eastern Ukraine, writes Serge Schememann at the New York Times.

How should Trump build on his landmark phone call to Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen last December in order to boost Taiwan as a democratic and strategic partner? The Wall Street Journal editorial board has some suggestions.

The MUSLIM BAN

The Trump administration will start the travel ban from scratch with a new executive order rather than seek a rehearing of the decision of a federal appeals court that shut down the original ban last week, Adam Liptak reports at the New York Times.

SYRIA

Turkey’s military is close to taking the Syrian city of al-Bab from the Islamic State, it said today. Tulay Karadeniz reports at Reuters.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Mac Thornberry (R.-Texas) does not foresee the US sending a “large ground force” to Syria, he said yesterday. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Foreign ministers France and Germany were cautiously optimistic about the willingness of the Trump administration to engage on Syria following a discussion on the matter in Germany in which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took part, Frank Jordans reports at the AP.

A former Syrian rebel was sentenced to life imprisonment in Sweden for his part in the killing of seven captured Syrian soldiers in 2012, Swedish officials said yesterday. Christina Anderson reports at the New York Times.

IRAQ

A suicide bomber killed at least 45 people at a car market in southwestern Baghdad last night, the deadliest in a spate of attacks in the Iraqi capital that have been blamed on the Islamic State, Mustafa Salim and Kareem Fahim report at the Washington Post.

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition forces carried out 15 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on Feb. 15. Separately, partner forces conducted nine strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

EUROPE

The importance of close intelligence cooperation between Germany and the US was stressed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday during a parliamentary committee investigating the work of US and German intelligence services in the past few years, Andrea Thomas reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Brutalized” British Islamic State fighters may be returning home to pose an increased terrorist threat, Britain’s top police officer warned, Vikram Dodd reporting at the Guardian.

CHINA

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met China’s foreign minister on the sidelines of a meeting of foreign ministers in Germany today, according to Chinese state media. [Reuters]

China must use “all tools” to moderate North Korea’s behavior, Tillerson urged today, according to his spokesperson. [Reuters]

Japan intends to speed up a warship building program to make two frigates within a year to patrol the edges of the East China Sea, where it disputes island ownership with China, Nobuhiro Kubo reports at Reuters.

A week of training exercises by China in the South China Sea was finished today, Reuters reports.

PAKISTAN

A suicide bomb attack at a Sufi shrine in Pakistan yesterday killed at least 70 people and was the worst act of terrorism to hit the country in months. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, Salman Masood reports at the New York Times.

Afghanistan has ignored repeated requests to take action against militants targeting Pakistan from its territory, Pakistan’s highest-ranking foreign ministry official said today. [AP]

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

President Trump personally directed the Justice Department to investigate who was responsible for the “criminal leaks” that have unfairly damaged his administration, an unusual move, the Guardian’s Charlie Savage and Eric Lichtblau report.

The leaking of certain information might by justified under the Trump administration, Pentagon Papers whilstleblower Daniel Ellsberg suggested, the Hill’s Owen Eagan reporting.

No-one from the White House appeared to attend the annual R.S.A. conference in downtown San Franciso – one of the largest digital and cyber security events of its kind, and where panels discussing cybersecurity policy worked off leaked drafts of an executive order abandoned by the Trump administration, observes Jenna McLaughlin at The Intercept.

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About the Author

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security, Legal Researcher at UK-based human rights organization, JUSTICE