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The Early Edition: August 4, 2017

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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

A grand jury has been impaneled in Washington by special counsel Robert Mueller to investigate Trump-Russia collusion, a sign that Mueller’s probe is entering a new phase of increased intensity according to people familiar with the matter who spoke to Del Quentin Wilber and Byron Tau at the Wall Street Journal.

Mueller has not impaneled a new grand jury, according to several lawyers involved in the case, but he has issued subpoenas from a pre-existing Washington-based grand jury in recent weeks, at least some of which were for documents related to the business dealings of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Matt Apuzzo reports at the New York Times.

Subpoenas in connection with a June 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and others in President Trump’s inner circle and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya have also been issued by Mueller’s grand jury, Reuters’ Karen Freifeld and John Walcott report.

“There were no Russians in our campaign,” President Trump told a rally in Huntingdon, West Virginia, yesterday, insisting that Mueller and his team were “trying to cheat you out of the leadership that you want with a fake story.” David Smith reports at the Guardian.

A measure that would bar the president from directly firing any special counsel that would apply retroactively to cover special counsel Robert Mueller’s appointment in May will be introduced by Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) next week in an effort to protect Mueller, Tom LoBianco reports at CNN.

President Trump is not considering firing Mueller, Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow said yesterday, John Bowden reporting at the Hill.

The federal probe into alleged Trump-Russia collusion has expanded to focus on possible financial crimes, including some leads unrelated to Russia but involving people close to the president, CNN’s Evan Perez, Pamela Brown and Shimon Prokupecz report.

News that Mueller has impaneled a grand jury isn’t a “nothing-burger,” but it doesn’t suggest anything new. Grand juries are how federal prosecutors conduct their investigations, having the subpoena power that prosecutors require to compel reluctant witnesses to testify and gather documentary evidence, explains Randall D. Eliason at the Washington Post.

People are leaping to conclusions following the news that Mueller has impaneled a grand jury in his investigation into Trump-Russia collusion, including that this means that President Trump is about to be charged with committing a felony pursuant to the U.S. Constitution – but merely impaneling a grand jury, which has the power to issue an indictment, doesn’t mean that Mueller will ultimately seek an indictment, former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti cautions at POLITICO MAGAZINE.

IRAN

“We believe that the nuclear deal has been violated, and we will react appropriately,” Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said yesterday, claiming that new U.S. sanctions against Iran undermine the accord and that Trump wants to “destroy” the 2015 agreement. Erin Cunningham reports at the Washington Post.

“Some have sharply applied hostility [against Iran], like those who today are in office in the U.S.,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said yesterday, adding that Iran would press ahead with its ballistic missile program. NBC News reports.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani looks increasingly likely to acquiesce to hard-liners, dashing the hopes of reform-minded supporters, Thomas Erdbrink writes at the New York Times.

AFGHANISTAN

A suicide bombing targeting a military convoy in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul yesterday killed one N.A.T.O. soldier and three civilians, also injuring five soldiers and an interpreter, the Taliban claiming responsibility for the attack. BBC News reports.

Taliban gunmen attacked a local market in Afghanistan’s Helmand province today, killing at least 40 Taliban fighters before Afghan security forces were able to repel the attack, Al Jazeera reports.

The Trump administration lacks “successful policy and strategic guidance” on Afghanistan and is continuing the mistakes of previous administrations, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said yesterday, stating that he would submit an amendment in the annual defense policy bill if the White House fails to announce an Afghanistan strategy this month. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Top Trump administration officials have sought ways to convince Trump to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan, following reports of Trump’s reluctance from current and former administration officials and further complicating the upcoming Afghanistan strategy. Dion Nissenbaum reports at the Wall Street Journal.

NORTH KOREA

The U.S. ban on visiting North Korea is a “sordid” effort to limit human exchanges, North Korea said today, Christine Kim reporting at Reuters.

Air France is expanding its no-flyover zone around North Korea after North Korea’s latest ballistic missile launch landed close to a route being taken by Air France flight 293 from Tokyo to Paris on July 28, CNN’s James Griffiths reports.

North Korea’s ballistic missile tests will be a main topic of discussion at the A.S.E.A.N. summit in Manila starting Saturday, at which North Korea’s top diplomat Ri Yong Ho will be present, Jim Gomez and Teresa Cerojano report at the AP.

The U.S. is expected to press A.S.E.A.N. and other regional countries to take tougher action against North Korea at the summit, while chair the Philippines will seek an agreement among delegates on ways to engage with Pyongyang under pressure from the United States to isolate the belligerent nation, Reuters reports.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is contemplating a false choice on North Korea between war now and war later, whereas the real choice is between conducting a war of aggression and managing an unsteady peace. Joseph J. Collins writing at the Hill explores the “enormous” potential downsides of a preventative war with North Korea, including that China takes sides with Pyongyang against the U.S., as some officials including Sen. Graham begin to talk about it as a likely option.

SYRIA

Exchanged rocket and gunfire north of the Syrian city of Homs overnight tested the Russia-backed truce announced only hours beforehand, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, with a similar situation east of the capital Damscus. Reuters reports.

Major advances by al-Qaeda-linked militants in northwest Syria have thrown the West’s policy on the war into disarray, the State Department’s Syria envoy Michael Ratney warning that if Hayat Tahrir al Sham’s full control of Idlib province is attained “it will be difficult for the U.S. to convince other international parties to refrain from necessary military measures.” Kareem Shaheen reports at the Guardian.

An explosion targeting the office of an al-Qaeda affiliate the Hayat Tahrir al Sham in northern Syria has caused a number of casualties today, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the AP reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 21 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on Aug. 2. Separately, partner forces conducted six strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

DONALD TRUMP LEAKED CALLS

The leak of transcripts of President Trump’s phone calls with Mexico and Australia’s leaders was “disgraceful” and compromised Trump’s ability to have confidential conversations with his foreign counterparts and should be investigated by Congress, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Mark Warner (Va.) said yesterday, Sam Stein reporting The Daily Beast.

“This is beyond the pale,” former National Security Council official under Barack Obama Ned Price told the Hill’s Jonathan Easley after transcripts of Trump’s calls were leaked to the Washington Post, which printed them in their entirety, the latest of a torrent of leaks that has plagued the Trump administration from the outset, and even before the publishing of which Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his top lieutenants had scheduled a press conference for today to address their attempts to stem the tide of leaks from the “deep state.”

The Mexican border wall is the “least important thing,” President Trump told his Mexican counterpart Enrique Peña Nieto, according to the transcript of the call that took place on Jan. 27, Greg Miller reporting at the Washington Post.

“Putin was a pleasant call” but “this is ridiculous,” President Trump told Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull before terminating their first phone call on Jan, 28, according to the transcripts, Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill.

The transcripts reveal Mr. Trump’s approach with foreign leaders – flattering one moment, badgering the next, with how what is being discussed is connected to his campaign promises and how they will affect his domestic political standing always at the forefront of his mind, writes Peter Baker at the New York Times.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

The sale of 12 high-tech attack planes and other equipment to Nigeria to support it in its operations against terrorist organizations was approved by the State Department yesterday, the Pentagon confirmed, Rebecca Kheel reporting at the Hill.

Top-tier regional U.S. ally the U.A.E. is set to become an even closer partner under President Trump, whose “America First” doctrine translates into a more aggressive stance against Iran and a stepped-up campaign against al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, but the tiny nation could also become a headache for the U.S., U.A.E. and American interests diverging in a number of areas including Libya, while the association has exposed the U.S. to accusations of complicity in war crimes over its support for the U.A.E. and its Gulf allies in Yemen. Kareem Fahim and Missy Ryan write at the Washington Post.

President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy agenda simply stops at his nation’s borders, suggests Ishaan Tharoor writing at the Washington Post, providing two illustrations: the recent White House proposal to drastically cut legal immigration and the leaked transcripts of Trump’s conversations with his Mexican and Australian counterparts.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

Former national security adviser Susan Rice was given unfettered and ongoing access to classified information by current national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who also waived her “need-to-know” requirement on anything she viewed or received during her tenure, in an undated letter to Rice’s home in the last week of April, almost a month after it was disclosed that Rice was “unmasking” members of Trump’s transition team and other American citizens, Sara A. Carter reports at Circa.

British security researcher Marcus Hutchins who was credited with stopping the WannaCry ransomware attack by finding a hidden “kill switch” was arrested by the F.B.I. over alleged involvement in another malicious software targeting bank accounts, the Justice Department confirmed yesterday, Alex Hern and Sam Levin reporting at the Guardian.

The Russia sanctions legislation is extraordinary in that it does not include a national security waiver, observes Eli Lake at Bloomberg, explaining that there are a few reasons behind Congress’ decision to codify the kind of sanctions on Russia Trump campaigned against: the Russians themselves and their interference in last year’s presidential election, and Trump himself, but also the leakers – the “steady drumbeat” of leaked stories on the Trump-Russia investigations which boxed Trump in on Russia and forced him to capitulate.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn filed an amended federal financial disclosure report last night containing new details about his contacts with the Trump presidential transition, a company connected to an Iranian-American businessman, and a Virginia-based data firm that worked for the Trump campaign, Chad Day and Stephen Braun report at the AP.

Top officials at the State department were among 66 Trump administration nominees who were confirmed by the Senate yesterday, Senators saying that yet more nominees could be confirmed before it goes on its August break, Kate Davidson and Siobhan Hughes report at the Wall Street Journal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. military killed a high-level al-Shabaab commander in an airstrike in Somalia over the weekend, it confirmed today, Abdi Guled reporting at the AP.

The Islamic State was behind a failed plot to place a bomb on an Etihad Airways flight out of Sydney last month, Australian police confirming that two men had been charged with terrorism offenses, Rob Taylor reports at the Wall Street Journal.

India has been building up troops and repairing roads along its border with China amid an ongoing stand-off in a remote Himalayan frontier region close to Bhutan, China has warned, demanding an “immediate withdrawal.” Al Jazeera reports.

The Gulf countries have weaponized media organizations in the dispute between the Saudi-led bloc and Qatar, covering stories that include Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism to more trivial stories, with some Saudi journalists claiming that the media campaign is justified because it counters the Al Jazeera network. Ahmed Al Omran explains at the Financial Times.

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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.