The Early Edition: December 4, 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

Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn pled guilty to lying to the F.B.I. on Friday and said that a senior Trump transition official told him to make contact with Russia. A brief by special counsel Robert Mueller alleged that Flynn “willfully and knowingly” made “materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements and representations to F.B.I. agents when interviewed in January, and also alleged that Flynn had lied about the nature of his phone calls with the former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December 2016 regarding further sanctions on Moscow and a U.N. Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlements. Jenna McLaughlin reports at Foreign Policy.

The “very senior transition official” referred to in the Flynn plea agreement is the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, according to a member of Trump’s transition team speaking on the condition of anonymity, the AP reports.

“I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies,” Trump tweeted at the weekend, the president’s message seemingly contradicted his previous assertions that he had fired Flynn in February because he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence over whether he had spoken to Kislyak about sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration. Maggie Haberman, Michael S. Schmidt and Michael D. Shear report at the New York Times.

Trump’s personal lawyer John Dowd said yesterday that Trump was aware in late January that Flynn had probably given F.B.I. agents an inaccurate account of his call with Kislyak and that this had been the same misleading account that Flynn had provided Vice President Pence, Dowd also confirmed that he had drafted Trump’s controversial tweet about firing Flynn. Carol D. Leonnig, John Wagner and Ellen Nakashima report at the Washington Post.

The Russian President Vladimir Putin had not been influenced by Flynn, the Kremlin said today, Reuters reports.

Legal experts were bemused and concerned by the tweet apparently composed by Dowd, with the tweet suggesting that Trump took part in the obstruction of justice, however Dowd said that the tweet was a “mistake” and that he was sorry to have misled people. The Guardian reports.

The F.B.I.’s reputation “is in Tatters – worst in History!” Trump tweeted yesterday, as part of a series of tweets directed at the F.B.I. accusing the agency of bias, the president’s comments drew condemnation from an array of figures. Trump also accused the former F.B.I. Director James Comey of lying about his role in the investigation into Flynn, Michael D. Shear reportS at the New York Times.

Emails between trop transition officials suggest that the Trump transition team were keen to improve relations with Russia and that Flynn was not a mere “rogue” actor, an email from transition adviser K.T. McFarland discussed how sanctions imposed by the Obama administration would make it harder for Trump to reach out to Moscow. Michael S. Schmidt, Sharon LaFraniere and Scott Shane report at the New York Times.

An National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) member discussed setting up a back-channel meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in an email to Trump campaign adviser Rick Dearborn in May last year, saying that he would try to make “first contact” during the N.R.A.’s annual convention. The N.R.A. member’s outreach followed a few days after a similar suggestion by an American advocate for Christian and veterans causes, and the meetings appear to involve Alexander Torshin – the deputy governor of the Russian central bank and a key figure in Putin’s political party, Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

Mueller removed a high-ranking F.B.I. agent from his team in the late summer due to his potential anti-Trump bias, Peter Strzok had previously been in charge of running the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. The revelation was seized on by the president who tweeted yesterday: “Now it all starts to make sense!” Del Quentin Wilber and Paul Sonne report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Flynn plea agreement includes the possibility of participation in “covert law enforcement activities” and this may prove to be an important issue as it could include wearing a concealed wire or the recording of telephone conversations with other potential suspects. Marcia Chambers and Charles Keiser set out the potential significance of the section eight of the deal at the Guardian.

“You tweet and comment regarding ongoing criminal investigation at your own peril,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned Trump, constituting one of the voices from an array of Democratic and Republican lawmakers expressing concern about the president’s comments. Roberta Rampton and Karen Freifeld report at Reuters.

The top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) said yesterday that Mueller may be constructing an obstruction of justice case that could implicate the president, Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

The five key takeaways from Flynn’s guilty plea are provided by Morgan Chalfant at the Hill.

The significance of Flynn’s guilty plea is analyzed by eleven legal experts at POLITICO Magazine.

The documents filed by Mueller provide a number of interesting insights, including Mueller’s intention to do away with extraneous issues such as Flynn’s connections to the Turkish government and that there are more revelations to come. Barbara McQuade provides an analysis at The Daily Beast.

A timeline setting out what is known about Flynn’s phone calls with Russia, and conversations regarding Obama-era sanctions on Moscow, are provided by Gregor Aisch, K.K. Rebecca Lai and Karen Yourish at the New York Times.

Flynn’s plea does not “shed more light on what happened during the 2016 presidential campaign,” Flynn may be cooperating with prosecutors and may have more information to divulge, however “it pays to wait for the evidence,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board argues.

The question is “who might now be swept up in the investigation?” The New York Times editorial board writes, saying that the plea struck by Mueller shows that Flynn is part of a larger cooperation deal that suggests he has valuable information to share and the “obvious candidate” to be considered in the probe is Kushner.

The plea reveals that Flynn was being guided by senior transition officials in his calls to Kislyak regarding Obama-era sanctions on Russia and the U.N. Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements, and as the investigation develops “it is of the utmost importance that Mr. Mueller be able to continue unimpeded in his work.” The Washington Post editorial board writes.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner failed to disclose his role in a foundation that funded an illegal Israeli settlement, the revelations come following indications that a senior adviser attempted to influence a U.N. Security Council vote condemning West Bank settlements. Chris Riotta reports at Newsweek.

Trump is expected to announce a plan on Wednesday that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but would not move the U.S. Embassy there for now, according to sources familiar with the matter, the move intended to strike a compromise between a pledge made by Trump during the presidential campaign and the need to maintain the peace progress. Mark Landler and Julie Hirschfeld Davis report at the New York Times.

Abbas warned against recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and other leaders have joined in condemning such a plan, the Arab League leader Ahmed Abul Gheit saying that “nothing justifies this act … it will not serve peace or stability, instead it will nourish fanaticism and violence,” and Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi saying that he had spoken to the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the dangerous consequences of recognizing Jerusalem. Peter Beaumont reports at the Guardian.

Kushner spoke at the “Saban” forum on the Middle East yesterday to discuss a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine, saying that he was “optimistic that there is a lot of hope for bringing a conclusion,” despite acknowledging the many obstacles to achieving the “ultimate deal.” Annie Karni reports at POLITICO.

Trump is “still looking at a lot of different facts” regarding the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Kushner said yesterday, adding that Trump would make the announcement when has made a decision. Reuters reports.

A peace deal between Israel and Palestine would be necessary to counter Iran’s expansionism and Islamist extremism, Kushner also said yesterday, saying that an agreement was essential to stability of the region. Karen DeYoung and Loveday Morris report at the Washington Post.

An insight into the debates within the Trump administration over recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is provided by Anne Gearan at the Washington Post.

A private meeting between the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has caused anxiety across the region, according to officials who have heard Abbas’s version of the meeting. Bin Salman advocated a plan that was more in favor of Israel than that which has been put forward by the U.S., and the reports of their discussion have led to some speculating that the Crown Prince has been trying to ingratiate himself with President Trump, consequently sowing suspicion about Trump’s efforts to negotiate a peace deal, Anne Barnard, David M. Halbfinger and Peter Baker report at the New York Times.

The issue of Jerusalem is the “most sensitive and volatile issue” in the Israel-Palestine negotiations and should be avoided, such a move would not be worth the trouble and would further complicate the peace process. Aaron David Miller writes at CNN.

NORTH KOREA

The U.S. and South Korea began five days of military exercises today, amid increased tension on the Korean Peninsula, however the U.S. military said the joint maneuvers were not in response to “any incident or provocation.” Andrew Jeong reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. and South Korea are “creating a situation that a nuclear war may break out any moment,” North Korean state media said today in response to the large-scale joint military exercises, Brad Lendon and Taehoon Lee report at CNN.

The U.S. is “in a race” to address the North Korea threat, the White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said yesterday, the BBC reports.

The U.S. should take the example of Israel if it seeks to stop North Korea’s aggression, looking particularly to Israel’s efforts to undermine the financial resources of its enemies. Nitsana Darshan-Leitner reports at the New York Times.

YEMEN

Unconfirmed reports have emerged that Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed in fighting today, Reuters reporting.

The alliance between supporters of Saleh and the Iran-backed Shi’ite Houthi rebels seems to have broken down, the two sides having taken aim at each other in street battles in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a over the past few days. The AP reports.

Saleh offered on Saturday to turn a “new page” in ties with the Saudi-led coalition if it stopped attacking Yemen, making the comments amid increased violence between Salah supporters and the Houthis. Reuters reports.

The Saudi-led coalition welcomed Saleh’s offer of talks, saying in a statement yesterday that the decision would free Yemen of “militias loyal to Iran.” The BBC reports.

The cause in the apparent breakdown in the alliance remains unclear, with some pointing at Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and other allies for turning Saleh against the Houthis. Ali Al-Mujahed and Kareem Fahim report at the Washington Post.

An analysis of the breakdown in the Houthi-Saleh alliance is provided by Faisal Edroos at Al Jazeera.

The U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres yesterday urged the parties to the conflict in Yemen to stop all ground and air assaults, Reuters reporting.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The Trump administration is scheduled to release its first national security strategy within the next few weeks, according the White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster the strategy would set out the administration’s terms for working with other nations. Julian E. Barnes and Gordon Lubold report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson refuted reports that he would be leaving his post and be replaced by C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo, saying on Saturday that “people need to get better sources.” Jeff Mason reports at Reuters.

Diplomats across the world have expressed concern about reports that Tillerson is set to leave the Trump administration, with some longing for stability in U.S. foreign policy and others worried about further unpredictability should he depart. Robin Emmott and Noah Barkin report at Reuters.

SYRIA

Syrian and Russia jets bombed the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area near the Syrian capital of Damascus, killing at least 27 people and injuring dozens, aid workers and the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said today. Suleiman Al-Khalidi reports at Reuters.

The politics of rebuilding Syria raises a plethora of issues, including whether the U.S. and the West should provide funds to reconstruct areas, thereby consolidating Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s power. Somini Sengupta provides an analysis at the New York Times.

IRAN

C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo sent a letter to Iran’s Maj. Gen Qassem Soleimani and Iranian leaders about Iran’s aggressive behavior in Iraq, Pompeo said at a panel on Saturday, saying that the letter communicated that the U.S. would hold him and Iran accountable “for any attacks on American interests in Iraq by forces that are under their control.” Reuters reporting.

 “The Islamic Republic of Iran will definitely not negotiate on defense and missile issues,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson Bahram Qassemi said today, responding to comments from French officials and the French President Emmanuel Macron on Iran’s ballistic missile program. Reuters reports.

PAKISTAN

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called on Pakistan to do more to combat terrorism, saying today during a visit to Pakistan that he wants to work with the U.S. to address the problems. Lolita C. Baldor reports at the AP.

The Pakistani government seems to be capitulating to hardline Muslim groups prompting questions about the long-term capability of the government to counter religious extremism. Pamela Constable explains at the Washington Post.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani stated that he would attend the annual summit of Gulf Arab heads of state this week, amid increased tensions in the Gulf following the diplomatic isolation of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Egypt and Bahrain in June. Reuters reports.

The dynamics behind the decision to isolate Qatar were to allow Saudi Arabia to “deflect attention from the simmering tension inside their own insular borders,” Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes at the New York Times.

It is unclear whether the Gulf Cooperation Council (G.C.C.) summit would help to resolve the Gulf crisis, Farah Najjar and Linah Alsaafin explain at Al Jazeera.  

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The death toll from October’s attack in Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu has risen to 512, according to the committee investigating the attack which has been blamed on the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab terrorist group. The AP reports.

National Security Agency (N.S.A.) employee Nghia Hoang Pho pled guilty to violating the Espionage Act on Friday, Pho took his work home and looked at sensitive files while using anti-virus software from the Russia-based cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab. Ellen Nakashima reports at the Washington Post.

The U.S. has withdrawn from negotiations on a voluntary pact to deal with migration, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley saying on Saturday that America’s immigration policies “must always be made by Americans and Americans alone.” Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

The leader of the Taliban’s “special forces” branch was killed last week by Afghan forces, according to Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, Reuters reporting.

The lawyers for Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker who has been confined to quarters after being found guilty of contempt of the war court at Guantánamo Bay have called for a federal judge to cancel his conviction, arguing in a court filing that the conviction – that arose out of the U.S.S. Cole case – could lead to a series of career-damaging or career-ending consequences. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

The French President Emmanuel Macron called for the demilitarization of Iraq on Saturday, particularly the Iran-backed Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.), Michel Rose and Ahmed Aboulenein report at Reuters.

The key takeaways from the trial of Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab are provided by Benjamin Weiser at the New York Times, Zarrab has been charged over a conspiracy to violate U.S. sanctions on Iran and the Turkish government has denounced the U.S. justice system for pursuing the case. 

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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