The Early Edition: March 3, 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

Russia’s Foreign Ministry rejected US allegations that its top diplomat Sergey Kislyak is a spy amid controversy over meetings he held with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Matthew Chance and Laura Smith-Spark report at CNN.

President Trump defended Sessions yesterday in the face of calls from Democrats for him to quit, calling him an “honest man” and insisting that he did not lie about his contacts with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearing, the BBC reports.

Sessions recused himself from any investigation into charges that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election yesterday, or any other investigations related to the presidential campaign, Mark Landler and Eric Lichtblau report at the New York Times.

Sessions didn’t do himself many favors with his initial statement yesterday in which he maintained that he had done nothing wrong, but would nevertheless update the record to clear things up, observes Aaron Blake at the Washington Post, also providing an annotated transcript of Session’s recusal news conference.

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) called separately for Sessions to come back before the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss his meetings with the Russian ambassador yesterday, the Hill’s Jordain Carney reports.

Sessions paid for travel expenses to last years’ Republican National Convention, where he spoke to the Russian ambassador about Donald Trump’s campaign, out of his own political funds, but the Trump administration insists he was there as a then-US senator, report Paul Sonne, Rebecca Ballhaus and Carol E. Lee at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner was at the meeting with former national security adviser Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador in December, Michael S. Schmidt, Matthew Rosenberg and Matt Apuzzo report at the New York Times.

Two of Trump’s early foreign policy advisers J. D. Gordon and Carter Page also met with the Russian diplomat at a conference hosted by the Heritage Foundation in Cleveland last July, reports Max Greenwood at the Hill.

Congressional Republicans resisted calls for a special prosecutor or select congressional committee to review Russian interference yesterday, Matt Flegenheimer reports at the New York Times.

The appointment of a special prosecutor would probably be a mistake, and would ensure that the details of any links between the Trump campaign and Russia remain secret forever, argues Peter Zeidenberg at the Washington Post.

FBI Director James Comey is withholding information about the bureau’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the election, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told reporters after a briefing with Comey yesterday, POLITICO’s Nolan D. McCaskill reports.

Sessions was right to recuse himself, but his poor judgement in not disclosing his meeting with the Russia ambassador while he was a “de facto adviser and representative” for then-presidential candidate Trump provides more fuel to allegations that the Trump team conspired with Russian intelligence services, writes Simon Palamar at the Hill.

Sessions himself has said that recusal in these circumstances is not enough, writes Lucia Graves at the Guardian, recalling his response to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

The Senate Judiciary Committee owes itself and the public a thorough probe, and beyond that, a broader investigation into Russia’ attempted interference in the election is needed – by an independent commission if congressional intelligence committees are hindered by partisanship, writes the Washington Post editorial board.

The Sessions story has a “clear and disturbing precedent” in the case of acting attorney general Richard G. Kleindienst in 1972 who lied about speaking to anyone in the White House about an antitrust suit against Republican campaign contributor International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, Richard W. Painter writes at the New York Times.

It’s hard to decide what is worse, that so many top Trump campaign and administration officials were in contact with the Russian government during and after the campaign, or that they keep neglecting to tell the truth about it, writes the New York Times editorial board.

The story of the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia is either the “most elaborate” cover-up of all time, or the “dumbest,” according to the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

Well-respected scholar and Russia critic Fiona Hill has been offered the job of White House senior director for Europe and Russia by the Trump administration, a White House official told Foreign Policy’s John Hudson.

White House officials are resisting Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ pick for his undersecretary of defence for policy, former US ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, POLITICO’s Eliana Johnson reports.

The Pentagon wants to expand the US military’s response to al-Shabaab in Somalia, where the terrorist group has been carrying out frequent suicide bombings on hotels and military targets, recommendations sent to the White House including increased assistance from US special forces to the Somali National Army and greater flexibility for pre-emptive airstrikes. Abdi Guled reports at the AP.

The Trump administration may be using the same model of “alternative intelligence” that led to the Iraq war, former CIA analyst Nada Bakos is warning, Malak Habbak reporting at The Intercept.

The US needs to spend more on the civilian instruments of national security to achieve long-term success overseas, not its military, which remains in a league of its own, writes Fareed Zakaria at the Washington Post.

In waiting weeks to roll out a revised travel ban, the Trump administration is demonstrating that it doesn’t even buy its own argument for the order on appeal that any delay in implementation would “irreparably harm” the US, points out David J. Bier at The Daily Beast.

SYRIA

Syrian government forces aided by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Russia and US airstrikes retook the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra from the Islamic State yesterday, Liz Sly reports at the Washington Post.

Land mines and explosives left behind by the Islamic State were being cleared from Palmyra today, a Syrian security official told Albert Aji at the AP.

The Assad regime, Turkey and the rebels they back, and US-backed Kurdish forces all have their eye on Raqqa, the target of a looming battle to oust the Islamic State, explains Bassem Mroue at the AP.

The various “bitterly divided” forces looking to Raqqa are examined by the AP.

The issue of political transition will be the focus of peace talks in Geneva today, the AP reports, citing a Syrian official in the main opposition delegation.

The main opposition group is holding the talks “hostage” in their final hours, the Assad regime delegation complained to reporters including Al Jazeera’s Dylan Collins, adding that it will hold the opposition responsible for the talks’ failure.

IRAQ

An Islamic State training camp unlike any other in an old railway tunnel has been discovered by Iraqi forces near Mosul, report Ben Kesling and Awadh Altaie at the Washington Post.

Rival Kurdish groups fought in Iraq’s northwestern Sinjar region today, Reuters reports.

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition forces carried out five airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on Mar. 1. Separately, partner forces conducted five strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

YEMEN

US forces conducted over 20 “precision strikes” in Yemen against al-Qaeda operatives overnight, the Pentagon confirmed, Gordon Lubold at the Wall Street Journal calling it a sign of the US military’s growing interest in combating extremists there.

RUSSIA

Russia’s top military officer spoke to his NATO counterpart for the first time in several years, Russia’s Defense Ministry said today. [AP]

NATO needs a “grand strategy” for security in Europe with the EU to deter Russia, Sir Adrian Bradshaw, NATO’s deputy supreme allied commander, has warned. Sam Jones reports at the Financial Times.

Russia is ready to help unify Libya and hopes to foster dialogue between rival authorities in Tripoli and factions to the east of the country, it announced today. [Reuters]

Mandatory military service will be reinstated in Sweden starting next year, in part in response to Russia’s growing assertiveness and uncertainties about the future of Europe’s relationship with the US, explains Martin Selsoe Sorensen at the New York Times.

The scope of Russia’s propaganda machine – of which Americans have become acutely aware in recent months- is still poorly understood by most in the US, only the few foreign policy and national security professionals who have been forced to grapple with it appreciating it fully. Ilan Berman writes at The Daily Beast.

NORTH KOREA

Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry is “greatly concerned” by the use of a prohibited chemical weapon in a public place to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, it said today, requesting international help in responding to the incident. Richard C. Paddock and Choe Sang-Hun report at the New York Times.

Kim Jong-nam died of heart failure, the leader of the North Korean delegation to Malaysia Ri Tong-il suggested yesterday, Richard C. Paddock reporting at the New York Times.

An arrest warrant for a North Korean airline employee in the killing of Kim Jong-nam was issued by Malaysian police today, Ben Otto and Yantoultra Ngui report at the Wall Street Journal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The private email account used by Vice President Pence when governor of Indiana was later hacked, Pence’s office confirmed yesterday. Abby Philip reports at the Washington Post.

Fears that China is planning a campaign to punish South Korea for its plan to deploy at US-build THAAD antimissile system are growing as Beijing urges the public to boycott South Korean retail products and threatens diplomatic and military repercussions, Jane Perlez and Choe Sang-Hun report at the New York Times.

Three extremist groups in Mali have merged and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda’s leader, Carley Petesch reports at the AP.

The acquittal of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in the killing of protesters during the Arab Spring in 2011 highlights how to goal of that movement remain a “distant dream,” write Sudarsan Raghavan and Heba Mahfouz at the Washington Post. 

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About the Author(s)

Zoë Chapman

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