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The Early Edition: June 14, 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.

JEFF SESSIONS TESTIFIES

“An appalling and detestable lie.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the Senate Intelligence Committee he never met with any Russian officials last year to discuss the Trump campaign and that he couldn’t remember whether he had a passing encounter with the Russian ambassador at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington or any other undisclosed Russian officials. Aruna Viswanatha, Paul Sonne and Del Quentin Wilber examine yesterday’s hearing at the Wall Street Journal.

“I guess I’ll just have to let his words speak for himself.” Sessions would not say whether he believed President Trump would have fired former F.B.I. director James Comey without recommendations from top Justice Department officials, as Trump himself said, Nolan D. McCaskill identifying this and other key moments from Session’s testimony yesterday at POLITICO.

Sessions was in a meeting at the Oval Office in February with Comey and Trump when the president said he wanted to talk to the then-F.B.I. director privately, and Comey did come to talk to him the next day about that meeting, Sessions acknowledged, confirming elements of Comey’s own testimony last week, report Sari Horwitz, Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky at the Washington Post.

Comey’s claim that Sessions did not respond when he asked for protection from Trump was inaccurate, Sessions told the committee, countering this and other key assertions made by Comey last week. Betsy Woodruff, Andrew Desiderio and Spencer Ackerman write at The Daily Beast.

Sessions defended his misstatements in January to the Judiciary Committee as being taken out of context and refused to answer questions about his conversations with the president about Comey’s firing on the basis of an unspecified longstanding policy at the Justice Department predicated on “protecting the right of the president to assert [executive privilege] if he chooses,” the New York Times editorial board proposing a few more questions the attorney general should answer, but probably won’t, following his testimony yesterday.

An important evolution in Sessions’ account of a critical conversation he had with Comey and a “strange lack of curiosity” about President Trump’s “inappropriate, and possibly illegal” interactions with the former F.B.I. director are revealed by examining Sessions’ comments on the subject during his hearing yesterday, writes Just Security‘s Editor Alex Whiting.

Sessions’ recusal from Trump-Russia investigations was merely a procedural matter precipitated by his position as a prominent Trump campaign surrogate in 2016, not a product of any wrongdoing, Sessions insisted in a testimony that did little to move the White House out of the shadow of the Russia investigations, write Matt Flegenheimer and Rebecca R. Ruiz at the New York Times.

Sessions willingly misled senators during his January confirmation hearing and was trying to brush aside suggestions that he may have lied to lawmakers under oath, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said in a statement following Sessions’ testimony yesterday, Max Greenwood reporting at the Hill.

The attorney general was particularly weak in explaining how his recusal from the Trump-Russia investigations allowed him to take part in Comey’s firing, his reason for doing so seemingly that he felt he still had to perform all his duties so – reasoning backwards – his recusal could not prevent him from involvement in Comey’s firing. Jennifer Rubin examines Sessions’ testimony at the Washington Post.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein refused to answer question about the scope of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from Trump-Russia investigations during a Senate hearing yesterday on the basis that Sessions is recused from Department of Justice investigations and ongoing investigations are not discussed, Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

Legal analysts are divided on whether Sessions was correct to refuse to answer questions on the basis of executive privilege, a long legal and political tradition which allows private deliberations involving the president and his top advisers to be kept private, for which he was lambasted by lawmakers during his hearing yesterday, Matt Zapotosky writes at the Washington Post.

“A master class in bamboozling, blustering and butt-covering.” Sessions reacted with outrage at any suggestions of wrongdoing on his part and relied on supposedly long-standing Department of Justice rules against talking about private communications in public whenever he met with uncomfortable questions, writes Andrew Rosenthal at the New York Times.

A transcript of Sessions’ testimony is provided at POLITICO.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

President Trump has “no intention” of firing special counsel Robert Mueller who is leading the Trump-Russia investigation, White House Spokesperson Sarah Huckerbee Sanders confirmed yesterday, Jordan Fabian reporting at the Hill.

Trump’s top aides talked him down from firing Robert Mueller after he was angered by reports that Mueller was close to former F.B.I. director James Comey, Glenn Thrush, Maggie Haberman and Julie Hirschfeld Davis report at the New York Times.

Friend of James Comey Daniel Richman has handed over copies of his memos describing encounters with President Trump to the F.B.I., the same friend who acted as the go-between in disseminating the content of the memos to the press last month, Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

President Trump “keeps trying to delay and disrupt our honest efforts to get to the bottom of what happened.” The president needs to allow Congress and the F.B.I. to get on with their investigations into Russian interference in last year’s presidential election, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said yesterday, John Bowden reporting at the Hill.

Firing Robert Mueller would firm up a case that the President is obstructing justice more than anything else Trump has done in office so far, writes the Washington Post editorial board.

Former president Bill Clinton was impeached for charges less serious than the ones attaching to President Trump now, with the fired former F.B.I. director looking into the possibility of American collusion in the Russian plot to influence the presidential election, a treasonous offense, and while it is not time to start drafting articles of impeachment it is certainly time to pursue the Trump-Russia investigation with energy, writes former Rep. Bob Inglis, who was on the House Judiciary Committee that started the consideration of impeaching Clinton and drafted articles of impeachment, at the Washington Post.

James Comey may have revealed that he gave his memos detailing his conversations with the president to his friend Daniel Richman to the Senate Intelligence Committee last Thursday in order to put his own character and judgement in issue and so preemptively inoculate himself from future attack if he gets called as a witness in a future criminal trial, suggests Asha Rangappa at POLITICO.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

American student Otto F. Warmbier was medically evacuated from North Korea in a coma yesterday after he was detained there last year, charged with a “hostile act” and sentenced to 15 years hard labor, his released following secret negotiations between U.S. officials and the Pyongyang government, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Russell Goldman and Adam Goldman report at the New York Times.

Former N.B.A. star Dennis Rodman’s fifth visit to North Korea got off to a low-key start yesterday, with no clear sign yet that he will meet with leader Kim Jong-un, reports Eric Talmadge at the AP.

Technical details about the methods behind North Korea’s cyberattacks were released by the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security yesterday, the Hill’s Harber Neidig reports.

The release of Otto F. Warmbier raises the prospect of broader U.S.-North Korea talks, though this may depend on the student’s condition, while White House officials have declined to comment on the geopolitical implications of his case, write David Nakamura and Karen DeYoung at the Washington Post.

Otto F. Warmbier’s treatment at the hands of North Korea is outrageous even by the standards of one of the world’s “most vicious and isolated regimes” and should not go unpunished, writes the Washington Post editorial board.

Three Americans remain imprisoned in North Korea after Warmbier’s release, the striking similarities in their circumstances as “pawns in a complex geopolitical game” examined by Russell Goldman at the New York Times.

The “enduring strangeness” of North Korea as a world stage actor is demonstrated by the confluence of Warmbier’s release and the arrival in North Korea of former N.B.A. start Dennis Rodman in North Korea, observes Ishaan Tharoor at the Washington Post.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

The Gulf crisis is “trending in a positive direction,” the State Department said following a discussion between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on the need to work together in relation to the decision by four Arab nations to diplomatically isolate Qatar, Al Jazeera reports.

Russia is “trying to break any kind of multilateral alliance,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday, speculating that if the stories about Russia hacking a Qatari news agency are true, the motivation could be Russia’s desire to subvert the international order. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

There is no military component to the steps taken by Arab nations against Qatar, the U.A.E. ambassador to the U.S. said today, Al Jazeera reports in rolling coverage.

Several high-ranking Iranian officials repeated accusations that Saudi Arabia was behind the twin terror attacks in Tehran last week yesterday, despite the fact that the Islamic State group claimed responsibility, Thomas Erdbrink reports at the New York Times.

Qatar has pulled all its troops from the Djibouti-Eritrea border, it said yesterday, offering no explanation for the move, which comes at a time of Qatar’s diplomatic isolation by other Arab nations. Malak Harb and Elias Meseret report at the AP.

Calls to reopen airspace to flights from Qatar were rejected by Saudi Arabia’s civil aviation authority yesterday, arguing that the measure is necessary to protect Saudi citizens, U.A.E. and Bahrain also issued similar statements, Al Jazeera reports.

Russia cannot officially take sides in the Gulf crisis but it has an interest in maintaining good relations with Saudi Arabia and keeping Qatar on side due to regional politics and access to natural gas reserves, Leonid Issaev writes at Al Jazeera.

AFGHANISTAN

President Trump has delegated control over the number of troops to be deployed to Afghanistan to the Pentagon, the Afghanistan strategy now expected to be completed by next month, according to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Dion Nissenbaum and Gordon Lubold report at the Wall Street Journal.

“We are not winning in Afghanistan right now,” Mattis conceded yesterday in response to questioning by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) over the lack of a strategy, adding that “we will correct this as soon as possible.” Connor O’Brien reports at POLITICO.

Nine insurgents were killed in a suicide bomb attack at a checkpoint in Helmand province today, no group yet claiming responsibility, the AP reports.

SYRIA

The ongoing confrontation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia may deepen divisions within the opposition to the Assad Regime in Syria, Qatar and Saudi Arabia two of the rebels’ biggest state backers along with Turkey and the U.S., Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi reporting at Reuters.

The Gulf crisis “does not help consolidate joint efforts in resolving the conflict in Syria and fighting the terrorist threat,” President Putin said in a conversation with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud yesterday, according to a statement issued by the Kremlin, Al Jazeera reporting.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) made significant progress in the battle for Raqqa yesterday, human rights organizations urging U.S.-backed forces to prioritize protecting the thousands of civilians still trapped in the city, Louisa Loveluck and Zakaria Zakaria report at the Washington Post.

U.S.-backed airstrikes on Raqqa are causing a “staggering loss of civilian life,” U.N. war crimes investigators said today, Stephanie Nebehay reporting at Reuters.

Reports that white phosphorous was used in the Syrian city of Raqqa have been condemned by human rights organizations who claim that, whether used legally or not, its use can cause horrific and long-lasting harm to civilians, the AP reports.

IRAQ

Islamic State fighters in the dozens wearing suicide vests attacked police lines in Mosul today, successfully retaking ground in a large-scale attack starting around 3 a.m. this morning. Loveday Morris and Mustafa Salim report at the Washington Post.

The U.S.-led coalition admitted to using white phosphorous during operations in the city of Mosul to try and get civilians out safely, but human rights organizations have warned of the effects of white phosphorous and warned that its use could amount to a war crime, Alison Meuse reports at NPR.

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition forces carried out 29 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on June 12. Separately, partner forces conducted eight strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

THE PHILIPPINES

U.S. troops are on the ground near the Philippine city of Marawi but are not involved in fighting the Islamic State-linked militants holding parts of the city after four weeks of fighting, a Philippines military spokesperson said today. Neil Jerome Morales and Simon Lewis report at Reuters.

A strategy of destroying Marawi to save it seems to have been adopted by the Philippine military, bombing it at least twice a day in an attempt to remove the militants holed up there, observe Richard C. Paddock and Felipe Villamor at the New York Times.

The U.S. presence near Marawi providing “technical assistance” is an embarrassment for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who ordered American forces to leave Mindanao last year and announced that the Philippines would establish closer ties with China and who now says he did not request U.S. help with Marawi, writes the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

RUSSIA

Democrats and Republicans are backing an Russia-Iran sanctions bill that includes an agreement for further penalties against the Russian government, setting hurdles for President Trump should he seek to lift them, Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pushed back against the bipartisan sanctions bill, arguing that the measures included could close channels with Russia which would be detrimental to anti-terrorism efforts and for seeking a resolution to the Syrian civil war, Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

The decision to veto sanctions against Russia poses a dilemma for President Trump, who has to walk the line between his desire to engage more with Russia and pressure not to appear too friendly to Moscow, David E. Sanger and Matt Flegenheimer write at the New York Times.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

Donald Trump’s proposed arms sale to Saudi Arabia was narrowly backed by the Senate yesterday, Helene Cooper report at the New York Times.

“Our budget will never determine our ability to be effective.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson defended the Trump administration’s plans to cut the State Department’s budget by around 30 percent before senators yesterday, Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A federal lawsuit alleging that President Trump violated the Constitution by profiting from business dealings with foreign governments is expected to be filed by almost 200 Democratic members of Congress today, the third suit on the issue against President Trump since he took office, and involving what is believed to be the most members of Congress to ever sue a sitting president, reports Sharon LaFraniere at the New York Times.

The Trump administration was given more time to explain why the high court should consider its revised travel ban by the Supreme Court yesterday, a move that risks delaying the Supreme Court’s consideration of the case until October, Ted Hesson reports at POLITICO.

A Jordanian soldier entered a not guilty plea today to murder charges in the killing of three U.S. military trainers whose convoy came under fire near an air base in U.S.-allied nation last year, the AP reports.

F.A.R.C. rebels in Colombia handed over another 30 percent of their weapons to U.N. inspectors today, the BBC reports.

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About the Authors

is the Assistant News Editor at Just Security. She is also Legal Researcher at UK-based human rights organization, JUSTICE.

is an assistant news editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK.