The Early Edition: December 18, 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

Trump transition lawyers accused special counsel Robert Mueller’s team of obtaining unauthorized access to transition emails in a letter written by lawyer Kory Langhofer to Congressional leaders. A spokesperson for Mueller has denied the accusations, saying that the team have “secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process” when accessing documents as part of the Russia investigation, Evan Perez and Kevin Bohn report at CNN.

Trump denied that he is considering firing Mueller in remarks to reporters yesterday amid rising tensions between the White House and the special counsel’s investigation, Trump was also asked about the allegation that transition emails were obtained unlawfully, to which he replied that it was “quite sad to see” and his people were “very upset about it.” Julia Manchester reports at the Hill.

The allegations by Trump transition lawyers are the latest in a series of criticisms of the Mueller investigation and accusations of potential bias of Mueller’s team, it was recently revealed that an F.B.I. agent and lawyer, who had been involved in the probe, had called Trump an “idiot” and a “menace.” Aruna Viswanatha reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump aides dismissed rumors of Mueller’s firing, however one adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Trump appears to be considering a change in the Justice Department leadership, two advisers stated that the president had castigated Attorney General Jeff Sessions as “weak” and complained about Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosensenstein’s oversight of the Mueller investigation in recent discussions. Philip Rucker, Josh Dawsey and Sari Horwitz report at the Washington Post.

Trump’s lawyers and allies have increased their attacks on Mueller, revealing fractures in the image of cooperation that Trump’s team had portrayed for many months, however White House officials have tried to play down the significance of allegations made by Langhofer, saying that it was an issue for the transition team. Michael S. Schmidt reports at the New York Times.

The courts should resolve the complaint made by Trump transition lawyers, not Congress, the House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said yesterday, Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Michael McCaul (R-Texas) expressed concern that Trump has not issued an “outright condemnation” of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, saying yesterday that “Russia is not going to stop their bad behavior unless there are consequences to it.” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Trump has sought to undermine the credibility of the special counsel investigation and the attacks should be taken seriously, Mueller is unable to respond aggressively to criticisms by Trump’s team and he has been hampered by the lack of a strong congressional investigation to complement his work. Julian Zelizer writes at CNN.

NORTH KOREA

North Korea must “earn its way back” to talks through a “sustained cessation of … threating behavior,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday during a U.N. Security Council session, backtracking from his recent comments that the U.S. could engage in negotiations without preconditions. Tillerson also called for Russia and China to cut off their economic ties with the Pyongyang, Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (I.C.B.M.) has “not yet shown to be a capable threat against us right now,” the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters on Friday, adding that analysis on their most recent missile test is ongoing. Reuters reports.

An Australian citizen has been charged for alleged breaches of U.N. and Australian trade sanctions on North Korea, the Australian police said yesterday, adding that the deals that Chan Han Choi allegedly helped to broker could be valued in the millions. Rachel Pannett and Jonathan Cheng report at the Wall Street Journal.

Tillerson last week offered a few details of a U.S. military contingency plan to seize North Korea’s nuclear weapons should the Pyongyang regime collapse, saying that the Trump administration had provided assurances to China’s leadership that U.S. forces would quickly retreat after executing their plan. David E. Sanger provides an analysis of the secretary of state’s comments at the New York Times.

Russia hopes that the U.S. and North Korea will start a dialogue, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said today according to the state-run R.I.A. news agency, Reuters reporting.

The sanctions on North Korea ensure that hunger “remains a way of life” in the country and the U.S. and the international community are at fault for the situation, although the desire to stop Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons and missiles is understandable, North Korean citizens are paying the price for a strategy that is limited in its effectiveness. Kee B. Park writes at the New York Times.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Violent clashes on Friday between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli security forces led to the deaths of four Palestinians, the Israeli military stated that it had fired “selectively towards main instigators.” Loveday Morris and Hazem Balousha report at the Washington Post.

The Israeli military carried out airstrikes targeting a Palestinian Hamas training compound in the Gaza Strip, the military said today, saying that the strikes were in response to rockets fired from the Palestinian territory. The AP reports.

Turkey hopes to open an embassy in East Jerusalem, the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan said yesterday, making the comments after leading calls last week for the world to recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. Reuters reports.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to vote today on a draft resolution rejecting Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the resolution is likely to be vetoed by the U.S., Al Jazeera reports.

The Palestinian leadership may take the issue to the U.N. General Assembly if the U.S. exercises its veto at the Security Council, the Palestinian U.N. envoy said today. Reuters reports.

SYRIA

“We have to talk to everybody, we have to talk to Bashar al-Assad and his representatives,” the French President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview which aired yesterday, adding that the Syrian President would answer for his crimes at a later date. Elaine Ganley reports at the AP.

The military campaign against the Islamic State group in Syria should be completed by February, Macron also said in the interview, Reuters reporting.

Turkey will not allow the presence of the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia near its border, the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan said yesterday, calling the Y.P.G. “terrorists.” The AP reports.

Russia is set to launch its own efforts for a political resolution to the Syrian war in 2018 and the Russian initiative is likely to preserve Assad as president, however analysts have cast doubt on Russia’s ability to deliver lasting peace as Assad has shown himself to be intransigent and Iran’s role in the country and the region has the potential to complicate matters. Tom Perry provides an analysis at Reuters.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 14 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between December 8 and December 10. [Central Command]

AFGHANISTAN

Gunmen attacked a building near a training facility of Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency today, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, however details remain unclear. Reuters reports.

Taliban militants attacked police checkpoints and a N.A.T.O. convoy in a series of attacks in Afghanistan yesterday, according to officials. A provincial spokesperson stated that 11 Afghan police officers were killed in Helmand and a spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition said that there were no fatalities or injuries among coalition forces in the attack in Kandahar, Taimoor Shah and Mujib Mashal report at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked Trump during a phone call for U.S. intelligence that helped prevent terrorist bombings in St. Petersburg, Putin’s office said yesterday, James Marson reports at the New York Times.

President Trump is set to unveil a new national security strategy today which portrays China and Russia as direct competitors with the U.S. and present a challenge to American interests, according to Trump administration officials. Anne Gearan reports at the Washington Post.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for an attack on a church in Pakistan yesterday, which killed nine and wounded more than 50, according to officials. The AP reports.

U.S. Special Forces member Sgt. La David T. Johnson died in gunfire during the October ambush in Niger, according to anonymous U.S. officials, the account contradicts rumors that Johnson was captured alive or killed at close range. Lolita C. Baldor reports at the AP.

A Saudi-led coalition airstrike hit a wedding procession in Yemen yesterday, killing 10 women, according to witnesses and health officials. Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

The commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army Gen. Khalifa Haftar indicated that he may run in elections next year, his forces control parts of Libya and Haftar has dismissed the U.N.-backed Libyan government as obsolete. Ayman al-Warfalli reports at Reuters.

The Obama administration’s desire to secure a nuclear deal with Iran undermined the criminal investigation into networks of the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shii’te Hezbollah group, administration officials repeatedly created obstacles for investigators. Josh Meyer reveals details of the campaign at POLITICO.

The U.S. military has stepped up its cyber offensive against the Islamic State group, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command has endorsed the operations, saying that it can could destroy an adversary “on an epic scale” when combined with traditional military operations. Dan Lamothe reports at the Washington Post.

The International Criminal Court (I.C.C.)’s recent flurry activity demonstrates its powerlessness, the chief prosecutor’s announcements are an attempt to repair the I.C.C.’s reputation, however the I.C.C. would be better placed pursuing actions that have an impact, such as in Libya. Thierry Cruvellier writes at the New York Times. 

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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