The Early Edition: July 21, 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

Ways to limit or weaken special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation are being explored by some of President Trump’s lawyers after Trump asked his advisers about his powers to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the investigation, with Carol D. Leonnig, Ashley Parker, Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger report at the Washington Post.

Trump’s legal team is also reportedly amassing allegations of conflicts of interest against Mueller, an allegation disputed by a source with knowledge of the discussion who spoke to Eli Watkins at CNN.

It would be “extremely disturbing” if President Trump were thinking of pardoning aides who could be implicated in the Trump-Russia investigation, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Mark Warner (Va.) said yesterday following reports that the president was consulting with advisers on his pardoning powers in connection to the probe. The Guardian reports.

It would be a “mistake” to fire Mueller, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee said yesterday, Olivia Beavers reporting at the Hill.

The spokesperson for President Trump’s legal team Mark Corallo resigned because he disagreed with its reported strategy of discrediting or limiting the team directing the Trump-Russia investigation, Josh Dawsey reports at POLITICO.

Trump’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz’ role is being reduced and he is no longer running the legal strategy, which will now be handled by internal White House lawyer Ty Cobb, according to two people familiar with the matter, who added that Kasowitz could leave the team altogether. Josh Dawsey reports at POLITICO.

Special counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly looking at transactions involving Trump’s businesses and those of his associates as part of the Russia probe despite the president’s warning earlier this week that he would cross the line by looking into his finances, Greg Farrell and Christian Berthelsen report at Bloomberg.

There was no question that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, President Trump’s homeland security adviser Thomas Bossert and C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado yesterday, Kevin Johnson reporting at USA Today.

Possible money laundering by former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort is being investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his Russia probe, Erica Orden reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Paul Manafort’s request to retract an article reporting that the former Trump campaign manager was in debt to pro-Russia interests by up to $17 million before he joined the campaign last year was denied by the New York Times, Hadas Gold reports at POLITICO.

With the president’s son, son-in-law and former campaign manager due to testify July 26 before the Senate Judiciary Committee about Russian influence on the U.S. election, Michelle Ye Hee Lee provides a timeline of Donald Trump Jr.’s contradictory statements about his meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya at the Washington Post.

“Everything is fine because nothing happened between Trump and the Kremlin.” The New York Times’ Andrew Rosenthal sets out where things stand according to the wisdom President Trump imparted in his New York Times interview this week, concluding that the Trump team is not evil or corrupt but ignorant and poorly informed, which explains why they have “trouble making moral judgments that most children could make.”

Americans are in danger of forgetting how a president who respected his or her office and the Constitution and had nothing to hide would speak and behave. The Washington Post editorial board imagines what an “ethical president” would have said in Trump’s interview this week.

It is paramount that the Trump administration follows through on the steps taken by its predecessor to make clear that the U.S. is united in opposition to Russian interference and that further attempts will not succeed. Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff from 2013-2017, describes the events that took place inside the Obama administration last fall at the Washington Post.

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS

Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to remain in his role despite comments from the president that he would not have nominated him if he’d known he would recuse himself from the Trump-Russia investigation in an interview this week, Sessions said yesterday, Robert Costa, Sari Horwitz and Matt Zapotosky reporting at the Washington Post.

President Trump still has confidence in Sessions, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckerbee insisted yesterday, but reiterated that Trump was “disappointed” with Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from matters related to Russian interference. Niall Stanage reports at the Hill.

President Trump still has confidence in Sessions, but the better question is does Sessions still have confidence in the president? Trump needs Sessions now more than ever, and if he quits, it might be hard to find someone willing to replace him, writes the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

This is not the typical Trump administration feud. For Trump, Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation triggered everything that has happened since, explain Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman at the New York Times.

RUSSIA

The Treasury Department imposed a $2 million fine on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s former company ExxonMobil for violating Ukraine-related sanction in May 2014 by “signing eight legal documents related to oil and gas projects in Russia with Igor Sechin,” a close ally of Prussian President Putin, according to Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. Robbie Gramer and Noah Buyon report at Foreign Policy.

Exxon filed a legal complaint against the Treasury Department that called the fine “unlawful” and “fundamentally unfair” yesterday, this latest confrontation demonstrating the flipside of Trump’s strategy of filling his cabinet with titans of industry in the hope that their corporate expertise would help them confront global issues, suggest Damian Paletta and Carol Morello at the Washington Post.

G.O.P. lawmakers gave their clearest indication yet yesterday that the Russia sanctions bill would ultimately move forward without the changes to language that would empower Congress to block President Trump from any attempt to ease or end sanctions sought by the White House, reports Elana Schor at POLITICO.

A resolution to the impasse stemming from procedural spats and policy objections over the Russia sanctions bill should be “more or less” reached “over the next 24 hours,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said during an exchange on the House floor with Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) yesterday, Cristina Marcos reports at the Hill.

SYRIA

Fighting has broken out between the al-Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (H.T.S.) and the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib province, as H.T.S. attempt to capture a main border crossing point with Turkey, the AP reports in rolling coverage.

Syrian government forces and the Lebanese group Hezbollah launched an operation on the Syrian-Lebanese border to clear out fighters from the Arsal area, the Lebanese army deploying reinforcements on the outskirts of Arsal in anticipation of fighters fleeing into Lebanon, Al Jazeera reports.

Significant gains in the early stages of the Syrian-Lebanese operation were reported by Hezbollah’s media, Laila Bassam and Tom Perry report at Reuters.

Insurgents ambushed a Syrian military unit killing 28 government troops near the capital of Damascus yesterday, according to an opposition activist and the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the ambush taking place in the rebel-held village of Rihan. The AP reports.

“We definitely feel betrayed,” Gen. Tlass al-Salameh of Osoud al-Sharqiya, a group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, said yesterday, commenting on President Trump’s decision to end the C.I.A. program supporting Syrian rebels, other rebel commanders stating that the decision would boost President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and strengthen Iran. Erin Cunningham and Heba Habib report at the Washington Post.

The C.I.A. program in Syria was doomed from the beginning as it was “too late, too limited and too dependent on dubious partners,” and the program provided Russia with a pretext for military intervention in September 2015. David Ignatius suggests what could have been done differently at the Washington Post.

“I have no doubt we have the support of Congress,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters yesterday following a briefing with lawmakers on the Trump administration’s strategy to combat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, with some expressing confidence and others concerned about the lack of an endgame. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Israel’s “Operation Good Neighbor” has provided treatment and humanitarian aid for Syrian civilians, the project, which started in June 2016, demonstrating cooperation between Syrians and Israelis, providing security benefits for Israel on its border with Syria, and burnishing the reputation of Israel’s military. Isabel Kershner reports at the New York Times.

The Islamic State’s affiliates have successfully set up “provinces” across the world proving that despite the fall of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, the organization has transformed the political ideology of the insurgent groups that joined its caliphate project, Yaroslav Trofimov writes at the Wall Street Journal.

Once again President Trump has proved his subservience to Russia’s interests and worldview in cutting off aid to American proxies in Syria, and concessions without reciprocation made against the advice of foreign policy advisers “smacks more of payoff than outreach” with the result that America is strategically and morally disarmed, writes Michael Gerson at the Washington Post.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The “most important” thing the Trump administration can do is “separate” North Korea from its “dangerous” leader, C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo said yesterday in what CNN’s Eli Watkins cites as “some of the most aggressive comments yet” from the administration on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

North Korea was urged to respond to South Korea’s proposal to hold talks this week at the border truce village of Panmunjom by defense ministry spokesperson Moon Sang-Kyun after it ignored the original offer made Monday, Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. will ban its citizens from traveling to North Korea, the ban due to take effect 30 days after its announcement on July 27, according to two tour agencies that operate there. The U.S. has not confirmed the claims, the BBC reports.

The U.K. stands “shoulder to shoulder” with Japan in putting an end to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said today after meeting his Japanese counterpart in Fumio Kishida, the AP reports.

Why hasn’t North Korea responded to the South’s offer of talks? The AP’s Hyung-Jin Kim and Kim Tong-Hyung offer some explanations, with the caveat that outside knowledge of decision-making under Kim Jong-un is limited.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE       

A decree amending provisions of a law on “combating terrorism” and providing definitions of terms such as “financing terrorism” was issued by Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani yesterday, coming soon after an agreement between Qatar and the U.S. on committing to efforts to tackle terrorism was signed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a recent visit to Doha, Al Jazeera reports.

The cyberattack on Qatar’s official media originated from U.A.E., according to Qatar’s Ministry of Interior, stating that the sophistication of the hack, which attributed false quotes to Qatar’s Emir, was supported by “state resources.” Al Jazeera reports.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has called on Gulf countries to “continue face-to-face talks as soon as possible,” making the comments yesterday following a meeting with Qatar’s Foreign Minister and a day after meeting with a top U.A.E. official. Al Jazeera reports in rolling coverage.

IRAQ

An execution site has been discovered in the recently recaptured Iraqi city of Mosul, according to Human Rights Watch, the rights group raising concerns about allegations of ill-treatment and extrajudicial killings with the government in Baghdad, Al Jazeera reports.

Families accused of having relatives in the Islamic State group have been forcibly displaced to Shahama camp by the Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.), which has been described as an “open-air prison” by Human Rights Watch, the head of the P.M.F. stating that they were being sent to the camp for their own protection. Al Jazeera reports.

The violence in Iraq will not end while perpetrators of abuse and extrajudicial killing act with impunity and the actions of some within the security services will lead to anger, mistrust and, inevitably, more violence and instability. Zaid al-Ali writes at Al Jazeera.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 20 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on July 19. Separately, partner forces conducted six strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

ISRAEL & PALESTINE

Israeli police are prepared for disturbances and violence in Jerusalem today following the Israeli government’s decision to keep in place controversial security measures introduced Sunday after three Palestinian Israeli gunmen emerged from the al-Aqsa mosque – a contested holy site revered by Muslims and Jews – and killed two Israeli police officers on Friday, Ruth Eglash reports at the Washington Post.

Palestinian worshippers clashed with Israeli police near the contested site yesterday over the installation of metal detectors, and Muslim clerics have called for mass protests today, Aron Heller and Ilan Ben Zion report at the AP.

Metal detectors will remain in place at the contested holy site, Israeli police confirmed today, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asking the U.S. to “intervene urgently” to persuade Israel to remove the detectors, according to a senior Palestinian official. The AP reports in rolling coverage.

Muslim men under the age of 50 will not be allowed near the site, Israeli police said today, as tensions rise in Jerusalem and some Palestinians fear that Israel is trying to retake the site by stealth, Al Jazeera reports.

Hamas warned Israel against crossing a “red line” yesterday, the leader of Hamas Ismail Haniyeh stating Israel’s policy of “closure and collective punishment” of Palestinians “will not be tolerated,” Al Jazeera reports.

World leaders have raised concerns about the escalating tensions in Jerusalem and some countries, such as Turkey and Lebanon, have condemned Israel’s restrictions on access to the al-Aqsa Mosque, Al Jazeera reports.

THE PHILIPPINES

The Islamic State’s central command in Syria has sent tens of thousands of dollars to militants in the Philippines in the last year, most likely assisting their seizure of the city of Marawi, according to a report from the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict released today, Jon Emont and Felipe Villamor report at the New York Times.

Warnings of further attacks by militants in Southeast Asia including on foreigners as the battle between Philippine forces and Islamic State-linked fighters in the southern city of Marawi are also contained in the report, Reuters’ Tom Allard reports.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

President Trump has offered the post of U.S. ambassador to Germany to Richard Grenell, a Republican diplomatic aide who served four U.S. ambassadors to the U.N. and worked closely with the George W. Bush administration, Maggie Haberman reports at the New York Times.

The U.S. warned South Sudan yesterday that it would review its “position and priorities on support for the [2015] peace agreement” if South Sudan’s leaders failed to participate in a high-level forum aimed at resolving the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The U.S. should honor its wartime allies by expanding the special immigration visa program and giving Iraqi and Afghani immigrants the opportunity to thrive once in the U.S., Matt Zeller writes at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Air Force Gen. Paul Selva’s nomination to be the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for another two years was approved by voice vote by the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, while the panel by voice vote favorably reported several nominations for civilian Pentagon roles, all of which will now go to the full Senate for a vote. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

A Chinese flotilla is heading for the Baltic Sea where it will engage in military exercises with the Russian Navy, the first ever joint China-Russia operation in European waters, CNN’s Brad Lendon and Steve George report. 

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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

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK