The Early Edition: December 1, 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 ADMINISTRATION

A plan to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo has been devised by the White House, senior administration officials said yesterday, with Pompeo to be replaced by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) – who has signaled an intention to accept the role of C.I.A. Director if offered – however officials have said that Trump has not yet signed off on the plan which was devised by White House chief of staff John F. Kelly. Peter Baker, Maggie Haberman and Gardiner Harris report at the New York Times.

“He’s here – Rex is here,” Trump said yesterday in response to a question about Tillerson and whether he wants him to remain as secretary of state, Trump’s comments did not quell rumors about Tillerson’s departure and there have been numerous reports that the president has a poor relationship with the secretary of state. Michael C. Bender and Peter Nicholas report at the Wall Street Journal.

“He remains, as I have been told, committed to doing this job,” the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said yesterday, making the statement as part of a series of comments by administration officials that tried to downplay the rumors of Tillerson’s departure, separately Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters that he had spoken to Tillerson in a lengthy conversation and did not believe he was soon to be sacked. Anne Gearan and Carol Morello report at the Washington Post.

Kelly called the State Department to tell them that the “rumors” about a plan to oust Tillerson “are not true,” Nauert said yesterday, the BBC reports.

Nauert pointed out that Tillerson will be going on a tour of Europe next week and had a full week of engagements when asked about the secretary of state’s position, in response to a question about Tillerson’s authority and whether it has been undermined, Nauert responded that Tillerson “is someone whose feathers don’t get ruffled very easily.” Julian Borger and David Smith report at the Guardian.

“There’s nothing to it,” the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday in response to reports of Tillerson’s imminent departure. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The reports of Tillerson’s departure were disclosed as part of an attempt by the White House to publicly shame the secretary of state, according to a source familiar with the matter, adding that the shaming would be followed by waiting for Tillerson to “punch out.” Michelle Kosinski and Sara Murray report at CNN.

Several senior administration officials claimed that there would be further departures of senior White House aides and Cabinet members as Trump reaches his one-year anniversary in office, the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said yesterday that “there are no personnel announcements at this time.”  Michael C. Bender reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Diplomats frustrated with Tillerson’s leadership of the State Department have cautiously welcomed the prospect of Pompeo’s appointment, saying that despite his partisan persuasion, they hope that a better relationship with the president would be to the benefit of the department. Nahal Toosi explains at POLITICO.

Pompeo has certain qualities that Tillerson does not possess, however he would be still faced with similar problems regarding the president’s lack of regard for diplomacy and the reports of Pompeo’s potential appointment has drawn a mixed reaction from serving U.S. officials. Arshad Mohammed explains at Reuters.

Pompeo would bring a distinctly political voice to the role of secretary of state, having shown an ideological and politicized approach as C.I.A. director which has aligned with the president’s views on many issues, this would bring the benefit of a better relationship with the president, but would remove a voice of moderation on key foreign policy issues. Mark Landler writes at the New York Times.

Tillerson is arguably unsuited to his role and has presided over a chaotic and demoralizing period at the State Department, however if the personnel changes take place, it would potentially provide Trump with “two more loyal lieutenants” as Pompeo has been pointedly hawkish on key issues, such as on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and Cotton is “perhaps the hardest-line hawk in the Senate.” Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

The appointment of Cotton as C.I.A. Director “would cement his meteoric rise in Republican politics,” which has been achieved through an attempt to “co-opt and shape the president rather than rail against him.” Eliana Johnson and Ali Watkins observe at POLITICO.

Intelligence professionals have questioned Cotton’s credentials and have expressed objection to his characterization of waterboarding and torture, Spencer Ackerman explains at The Daily Beast.

Changes in personnel would “likely be seen as a signal of greater U.S. willingness to use force,” it remains unclear whether bringing in Pompeo and Cotton would lead to substantive policy changes, nevertheless “Pyongyang and Tehran should understand that Washington is recalculating its tolerance for risk.” David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post.

NORTH KOREA

“The Chinese Envoy, who just returned from North Korea, seems to have had no impact on Little Rocket Man,” Trump tweeted yesterday, referring to a recent visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s special envoy to Pyongyang and North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (I.C.B.M.) on Wednesday. Ashley Parker reports at the Washington Post.

The U.S.’s announcement last week of joint military drills with South Korea provoked North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to take “rash action,” the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed yesterday, accusing the U.S. of escalating tensions and calling for the U.S. to “first of all explain to us what they are trying to achieve.” Nathan Hodge reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson yesterday praised China for “doing a lot” but said they could do more to “restrain” the trade of oil with North Korea, Makini Brice and Andrew Osborn reporting at Reuters.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday that the U.S. would be “unrelenting” in its pursuit of diplomacy, adding that “our diplomats will speak from a position of strength because we do have military options.” Reuters reporting.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Trump urged Senate Republicans to try and conclude the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to several lawmakers and aides, including the Chairman of the committee Richard Burr (R-N.C.). The former Chairwoman of the committee Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that Trump’s requests were “inappropriate” and breached the separation of powers, Jonathan Martin, Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns report at the New York Times.

During testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, the Trump associate and founder of private military company Blackwater, Erik Prince, confirmed that he had met with a member of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle in the Seychelles in a secret Jan. 11 meeting. The meeting was brokered by the U.A.E. as part of an apparent attempt to set up backchannel communications between Trump and Russia, according to sources familiar with the interview, however Prince denied that he was representing the Trump transition team during the meeting, Karoun Demirjian reporting at the Washington Post.

A transcript of Prince’s interview is expected to be made public within the next three days, Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was evasive when testifying before the House Intelligence Committee in a closed hearing yesterday, according to Democratic lawmakers who attended, the ranking Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) said that he was troubled by Sessions’ refusal to answer critical questions relating to the Russia investigation. Patricia Zengerle and Sarah N. Lynch report at Reuters.

The opposition research firm Fusion G.P.S. would not run afoul of the First Amendment by revealing more of its clients and vendors, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon suggested yesterday, the firm commissioned the former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele to compile a controversial dossier that alleged links between Trump and Russia. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort reached a bail deal with prosecutors yesterday, Manafort and his co-defendant Rick Gates have had their movement restricted since special counsel Robert Mueller charged them as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the election. Spencer Hsu reports at the Washington Post.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A plan to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the U.S. Embassy to the city has been considered by the Trump administration, according to U.S. officials, such a move would likely provoke a strong reaction from Palestinians and potentially undermine peace negotiations. When asked about moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv, a White House spokesperson said that the “president has always said it is a matter of when, not if,” Felicia Schwartz, Andrew Ackerman and Rory Jones report at the Wall Street Journal.

“This is a premature report,” the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in response to rumors of the planned U.S. Embassy move, Andrew Restuccia and Eliana Johnson reporting at POLITICO.

An Israeli soldier was stabbed to death in southern Israel yesterday, hours after Israeli forces struck the Gaza Strip in retaliation for mortar fire. Ilan Ben Zion reports at the Financial Times.

The two sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should focus on incremental changes rather than a comprehensive solution, and the plan to for the division of the Jerusalem municipal area “is a good place to begin.” Peter Berkowitz writes at the Wall Street Journal.

YEMEN

Saudi Arabia intercepted a Houthi rebel missile fired toward the country from Yemen, the Saudi military said today, marking the second launch by the Houthi rebels in Yemen after they fired a ballistic missile on Nov. 4. Jamie Tarabay reports at CNN 

The Houthi ballistic missiles that were fired into Saudi Arabia this year appear to have been designed and manufactured by Iran, according to a confidential report by U.N. sanctions monitors to the Security Council on Nov. 24, the revelation likely strengthening the Trump administration’s attempts to punish Iran. Michelle Nichols reports at Reuters.

The Saudi-led coalition must “fully” wind down its blockade on Yemen to “avoid an atrocious humanitarian tragedy,” the U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said today, Tom Miles reporting at Reuters.

SYRIA

The U.S. is set to pull 400 Marines out of Syria following their successful support of coalition forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) in their operation to take the Islamic State-held city of Raqqa, the U.S. Central Command said in a statement yesterday.

“We’re not saying it’s not needed anymore but we’re saying it’s not needed in the volume we’ve had it,” the spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition Col. Ryan Dillon said yesterday in relation to troop deployments in Syria and the withdrawal of the Marines. Ben Kesling reporting at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.N.-backed peace talks on Syria have been extended until mid-December, the U.N. special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura said yesterday, emphasizing that the talks should have “no preconditions.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 11 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between November 24 and November 26. [Central Command]

U.S.-U.K. RELATIONS

“The fact that we work together does not mean that we are afraid to say we think the United States has got it wrong,” the British Prime Minister Theresa May said yesterday, responding to Trump’s sharing of content from the far-right, anti-Islam political group “Britain First” on his Twitter account. Jason Douglas and Jenny Gross report at the Wall Street Journal, noting the impact the president’s actions have had on the “special relationship.”

Trump’s visit is unlikely to be officially canceled, despite the outrage across the political spectrum in the U.K. at Trump’s actions, Amanda Erickson explains at the Washington Post.

The British government were “within their rights to tell the U.S. President to butt out,” and Trump should be aware that the U.K. remains the “indispensable ally to the U.S. in the political and economic affairs of the world,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

The U.K. should rescind its invitation to Trump for a state visit, Matthew D’Ancona writes at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. Defense Department was granted permission by the government of Niger to deploy armed drones from its capital, Pentagon officials said yesterday, the agreement was made through a memorandum of understanding and drone operations could begin within days. Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

Taliban militants in Pakistan killed at least nine people and wounded at least 30 in an attack in the city of Peshawar today, according to officials, Ismail Khan reporting at the New York Times.

The American citizen who apparently fought for the Islamic State group in Iraq and was captured by the U.S. in mid-September has been informed of his right to counsel, however the Department of Justice said yesterday that “due to his current situation, it was unknown when he would be able to have an attorney.” Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

Members of the Taliban in Afghanistan have defected to Islamic State group in the northern Jawzjan province, providing the Islamic State with a new foothold which has drawn the attention of U.S. forces. Matin Sahak and Girish Gupta report at Reuters.

The Defense Department has indefinitely postponed a planned policy banning the use of certain cluster bombs by 2019, the Pentagon spokesperson Tom Crossen saying in a statement yesterday that “cluster munitions remain a vital military capability.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

A package of secret proposals that would allow for private companies to run covert operations and rendition programs has been considered by the White House and the C.I.A., Aram Roston reveals at BuzzFeed News.

The Libyan Prime Minister Fayez el-Sarraj yesterday expressed hope that the U.N.-imposed arms embargo would be partially lifted, making the comments ahead of a meeting with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and a meeting today with President Trump. Reuters reports.

The Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab claimed that the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan personally intervened in a scheme allowing Iran to avoid U.S. and U.N. sanctions, Zarrab said in court testimony in New York yesterday. Jose Pagliery reports at CNN.

Trump has not nominated a single member to work on the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board which reviews the intelligence community, demonstrating the president’s ambivalence toward the intelligence community, Jenna McLaughlin writes at Foreign Policy.

The Trump administration and Saudi Arabia’s goal to curb Iran’s influence in the Middle East has been undermined by a lack of commonality on key issues, particularly how far they are willing to risk a civil war in Lebanon to clamp down on the Iran-backed Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah group. Yaroslav Trofimov writes at the Wall Street Journal. 

Filed under:
About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

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