The Early Edition: May 19, 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.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

The F.B.I.’s investigation into Trump-Russia collusion is no longer a strictly counterintelligence investigation but is also a criminal one, and President Trump intended to fire the agency’s former director James Comey before Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein sent him a memo that was later relied on by the White House as justification for the dismissal, Rosenstein told the Senate yesterday, lawmakers said. The Hill’s Katie Bo Williams and Jordain Carney report.

Newly appointed special counsel Robert Mueller will ask congressional investigations into possible Trump-Russia collusion to restrict their public hearings and instead proceed with his own investigation, Emmarie Huetteman, Rebecca R. Ruiz and Matthew Rosenberg report at the New York Times.

Former F.B.I. director Comey may not be able to testify before Congress now that a special prosecutor has been appointed, the chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee that oversees the F.B.I. Sen. Lindsey Graham said yesterday. Austin Wright reports at POLITICO.

There was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia and Trump never asked former F.B.I. director James Comey to shut down his agency’s investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, President Trump insisted yesterday, calling the investigation a “witch hunt,” but adding that he can “only speak for [himself] and the Russians.” Sara Horwitz, Ashley Parker and Ed O’Keefe report at the Washington Post.

Trump met with his legal team a day after the announcement that former F.B.I. director Robert Mueller would be appointed as special counsel in the ongoing Russia investigation, lawyers aiming to stop the president from further entrenching himself in the investigation, POLITICO’s Alex Isenstadt and Josh Dawsey report.

The White House was advised that President Trump should hire a “tough Washington lawyer” to help him to respond to the special counsel investigation of possible ties between himself and the Russians by his longtime private attorney, Michael Kranish reports at the Washington Post.

There is no decision yet from former national security adviser Michael Flynn as to whether he will honor the subpoena for documents relevant to his interactions with Russia, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr said yesterday after previously commenting that Flynn would not cooperate with the subpoena. Betsy Klein reports at CNN.

A Justice Department ethics review of Robert Mueller will look at potential conflicts of interest in relation to his former law firm whose clients include several individuals who could be involved in the probe into Trump-Russia collusion, Matea Gold and Rosalind S. Helderman report at the Washington Post.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is still reviewing intelligence on Russian election meddling despite recusing himself from his panel’s investigation last month, CNN’s Tom LoBiano reports.

“I think it’s totally ridiculous. Everybody thinks so.” President Trump seems determined to combat the investigation that has dogged him since he took office, even if doing so prolongs the controversy and potentially puts him at increased legal risk, observes Abby Phillip at the Washington Post.

JAMES COMEY

Former F.B.I. director James Comey’s “poor, poor performance” in recent testimony before lawmakers contributed to President Trump’s decision to fire him, Trump said yesterday, Cristiano Lima reporting at POLITICO.

Comey’s detailed memos on his contacts with the president provide insight into a fraught relationship between a president trying to win over and influence Comey, and a former F.B.I. director who had built his reputation on asserting his independence, occasionally dramatically, writes Michael S. Schmidt at the New York Times.

Concern that President Trump would not respect the legal and ethical boundaries of his own and Comey’s roles led the former F.B.I. director to prepare extensively for his conversations with him, his associates told Devlin Barrett, Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous at the Washington Post.

SYRIA

Syria condemned U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on pro-Syrian government forces yesterday near the Jordan border which it said killed “a number of people” and was a “blatant attack on forces fighting terrorism,” the BBC reports.

The attack on pro-Assad forces took place after they ignored warnings and violated a restricted zone around a base where the U.S. and British Special Forces train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State, according to a Coalition statement.

Turkey will not take part in the offensive on the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa because the U.S.-led coalition will include Kurdish fighters, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said yesterday, CNN’s Ralph Ellis reporting.

Turkey will strike the U.S.-backed Kurds if they threaten its security, it told the U.S. yesterday, Zeynep Bilginsoy reporting at the AP.

Turkey called for the replacement of the Trump administration’s envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition yesterday, Kareem Fahim citing it as the latest sign of Turkey’s frustration with America’s war strategy in Syria at the Washington Post.

The demand to remove envoy Brett McGurk is a reflection of Turkey’s dissatisfaction with the outcome of President Erdoğan’s recent visit to President Trump, where he was unable to convince the U.S. to abandon its plan to arm the Kurds among other policy matters, and which will be most enduringly associated with Erdoğan’s guards’ attack on peaceful protesters, writes the New York Times editorial board.

The damage Michael Flynn could have done to American foreign policy. While Trump administration defenders point out that the former national security adviser’s policy recommendations on Syria, whether or not they were made to please Turkey, did not materially affect policy, that is not the point, write Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson at the New York Times.

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition forces carried out 22 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on May 17. Separately, partner forces conducted 10 strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

TRUMP’S FIRST FOREIGN TRIP

Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s intervention in a $110 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia ahead of the president’s trip to Saudi Arabia today signals the Trump administration’s readiness to dispense with custom in favor of informal, hands-on deal making and an insight into how it hopes to change America’s position in the Middle East, write Mark Lander, Eric Schmitt and Matt Apuzzo at the New York Times.

The “strategic partnership” between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia will be reinforced when President Trump visits Riyadh Saturday where he will seal several political and economic deals, the kingdom’s foreign minister said. Al Jazeera reports.

Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia will be “much more than a run-of-the-mill state visit,” the event internationalized by the Saudis who have invited leaders from dozens of Muslim countries to what it is calling the “Arab Islamic American Summit,” writes Ben Hubbard at the New York Times.

Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia is an opportunity for the president to restate that the U.S. has a loyal ally in the Middle East and affirm the depth of the strategic relationship between America and Saudi Arabia, suggests Ali Shihabi writing at the New York Times.

While U.S.-Saudi alliance is valuable, the Trump administration’s new embrace of it lacks the “healthy scepticism” of Saudi enmity toward Iran the Obama administration, and is dangerously blasé about the Saudi’s military intervention in Yemen, writes the Washington Post editorial board.

A Trump Doctrine for the Middle East. The kernels of a long-term vision for the Middle East are already in place, and Trump’s visit to the region is his chance to put it in place, Michael Doran anticipates at The Economist.

Trump’s first overseas trip along with potential action in Congress and the Iranian presidential election could undermine the Iran nuclear deal, meaning that we have entered possibly the most consequential week for U.S. policy toward Iran since the nuclear deal was implemented over a year ago, nine former Obama administration officials warn at POLITICO MAGAZINE.

DONALD TRUMP FOREIGN POLICY

Many European leaders fear that the mounting domestic scandals surrounding President Trump could undermine Washington’s ability to respond to foreign policy challenges from Russian to terrorism to North Korea, Michael Birnbaum reports at the Washington Post.

On the bright side, all the catastrophes that have befallen the Trump presidency so far have been self-inflicted: the U.S. has yet to experience any external shocks under his administration, which is where the real problems will start. Catherine Rampell offers some encouraging words at the Washington Post.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The U.S.S. Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier is moving to the Korean Peninsula where it will undertake duel-carrier training exercises with the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, two defense officials told CNN’s Barbara Starr, Zachary Cohen and Brad Lendon.

China’s premier is willing to help ties with South Korea return to a “normal track” following the rift over Seoul’s deployment of a U.S.-built T.H.A.A.D. missile defense system, he said today, Christopher Bodeen reporting at the AP.

The U.S. must develop a realistic strategy for containing, defending against and deterring what will be a persistent and growing nuclear threat from North Korea, writes Stephen Rademaker at the Washington Post.

CHINA

Chinese fighter jets intercepted a U.S. military plane over the East China Sea this week, an incident the U.S. military described as “unprofessional.” Ben Kelsing and Josh Chin report at the Wall Street Journal.

A framework agreement on a code of conduct for the South China sea between China and the Association of Southeast Asia Nations has been reached, marking a potentially major step toward easing tensions in the region, Christopher Bodeen reports at the AP.

TRUMP-ERDOGAN MEETING

The Turkish ambassador was called in to the State Department to meet with Under Secretary of State Thomas Shannon hours after Turkish President Erdoğan’s guards attacked a crowd of protesters this week, U.S. officials confirmed yesterday. Phill McCausland and Abigail Williams report at NBC News.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called for the Turkish ambassador to be expelled from the U.S. following the incident in Washington Tuesday, Amanda Holpuch reports at the Guardian.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Trump’s main contender for new F.B.I. director former senator Joe Lieberman lacks the kind of experience required for the post, according to Senate Democrats who spoke to Burgess Everett and Seung Min Kim at POLITICO, some holding a grudge against him for his rightward turn and opposition to some of former president Barack Obama’s agenda late in his Senate career, others certain that the job of F.B.I. director should not go to a former politician.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis appointed three more senior positions in his team at the Pentagon, it was announced yesterday: Stephen Kitay as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for space policy; Sergio de la Peña as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere affairs; and Vayl Oxford as director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

If Washington does extend its ban on laptops in aircraft cabins to all flights to the U.S. Europe will not be singled out, U.S. homeland security officials told European commissioners in Brussels this week, adding that ample warning of any extension of the ban would be given. Paul McClean and Katrina Manson report at the Financial Times.

The U.S. National Security Agency should take some of the blame for the WAnnaCry ransomware attack, state-run Chinese newspaper China Daily insisted yesterday.

A recently-activated Russia-donated land-based satellite station in Nicaragua is not for the purpose of spying on the region or the U.S., Nicaragua insisted. [AP]

Swedish prosecutors have dropped their seven-year probe into alleged rape targeting WikiLeaks’ editor Julian Assange, removing one of the reasons he has given for remaining in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Wiktor Szary reports at the Wall Street Journal.

British police will still arrest Assange if he leaves the Ecuadorian embassy, they said today, Simon Johnson and Michael Holden reporting at Reuters.

GUANTANAMO BAY

Abu Zubaydah will not be testifying at Guantánamo Bay war court today about his treatment at a C.I.A. Black Site after 9/11, his attorneys said last night. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

Defense lawyers in the 9/11 death penalty case at Guantánamo Bay argued that the case runs contrary to the international war of law combined with the U.S. constitution over two days this week, including an argument that if the U.S. was truly at war with a-Qaida on 9/11 then it would have been legal to commandeer aircraft, and that Congress did not have the authority to invent war crimes called terrorism, hijacking and conspiracy. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald. 

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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