The Early Edition: March 1, 2018

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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

“Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] abuse. … Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!” Trump said in a message on Twitter yesterday, reprimanding his Attorney General for his approach to investigating alleged surveillance abuses by the F.B.I., which were raised in Rep. Devin Nunes’ (Calif.) controversial memo and cast doubt on the early stages of the Russia investigation. Sessions hit back at Trump’s comments, saying: “As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor,” Dan Merica, Laura Jarrett and Maegan Vazquez report at CNN.

Trump’s frustration stemmed from his desire for prosecutors to examine the F.B.I.’s alleged misuse of authority when they applied to surveil the former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, rather than the Inspector General Michael Horowitz, whom Trump called “an Obama guy” – despite the fact that the Inspector General’s office serves as an independent watchdog. Jonathan Landay and Sarah N. Lynch report at Reuters.

Special counsel Robert Mueller has been focusing on Trump’s private comments about Sessions last summer and his apparent determination to oust Sessions, according to people familiar with the matter, with Mueller seeking to establish whether Trump’s aim was part of an attempt to obstruct justice. Devlin Barrett, Josh Dawsey and Rosalind S. Helderman report at the Washington Post.

Mueller’s team have been asking witnesses whether Trump knew that WikiLeaks planned to publish emails stolen from the Democrats, according to people familiar with the matter. Lines of questioning have included the relationship between the Trump associate Roger Stone and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange; Trump’s public comments in July 2016 asking Russia to find emails deleted by Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State; and whether Trump knew that Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta’s email had been targeted, Katy Tur and Carol E. Lee report at NBC News.

A trial date of Sept. 17 has been set for the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort by the judge in Washington D.C., yesterday morning Manafort entered a formal “not guilty” plea to a revised indictment issued by Mueller, and Manafort may also face another trial in Alexandria, Virginia, based on the separate indictment issued in February. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Democratic Reps. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) have sent a letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis asking him about reports of a loan promised by Manafort to banker Stephen Calk in exchange for a job within the Trump administration and Calk’s hope to be appointed secretary of the Army. Manafort has been charged by Mueller as part of his Russia investigation and some of the loans were mentioned in an indictment filed by Mueller last week, Tom Winter and Tracy Connor report at NBC News.

Trump should use his presidential power “to declassify the F.I.S.A. court and F.B.I. documents so the public can judge,” this would be more fruitful than continuing to whine about Sessions, the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

RUSSIA

“The attempt at curbing Russia has failed,” the Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a speech today, announcing that Russia has developed and is testing intercontinental ballistic missiles (I.C.B.M.s), nuclear-powered cruise missiles, underwater drones and other weapons, and adding that the developments were as a consequence of the U.S. decision in 2001 to pull out of the 1972 antiballistic missile treaty signed with the Soviet Union. Andrew Roth reports at the Guardian.

Russian nuclear weapons have the ability to avoid missile defense systems, Putin claimed in his speech, adding that any attack on Russia or its allies would lead to an immediate response. Anton Troianovski reports at the Washington Post.

The Senate N.A.T.O. Observer Group was relaunched yesterday, Sen Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said that the decision would be “another opportunity for us in the Senate to show our support for the efforts to deter Russia and to make sure there’s support in the Senate for N.A.T.O.,” Rebecca Kheel reporting at the Hill.

Russia has been considering withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights and ceasing cooperation with the European Court of Human Rights, the R.I.A. news agency cited unnamed government sources as saying, Reuters reports.

SYRIA

“The airstrikes, shelling and ground offensives continue. There are even reports of yet another chlorine gas attack,” the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, said at a Security Council meeting yesterday, urging the member states to implement Resolution 2401, which was passed at the weekend and called for a 30-day Syria-wide ceasefire. The U.N. News Centre reports.

“More bombing. More fighting. More death. More destruction. … More, in other words, of the same,” the U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock also told the Security Council yesterday, speaking alongside Feltman and offering his report on the situation in the country and, in particular, the besieged rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus. Karen DeYoung reports at the Washington Post.

The continuing attacks by the government “demonstrates Syria’s complete and utter contempt for this council and the United Nations,” the U.S. representative to the U.N. Kelley Currie said yesterday at the Council meeting, highlighting the continued attacks on Eastern Ghouta and labeling the Russian-ordered daily “humanitarian pauses” in the enclave as “cynical, callous and in flagrant defiance of the demands of 2401.” Al Jazeera reports.

Western diplomats joined the U.S. in condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies for the failure to implement resolution 2401, the Russian ambassador to the U.N. Vassily Nebenzia responded that “demands to overnight, immediately halt hostilities attest to a failure to understand realities on the ground or a deliberate exploitation of human tragedy,” and he also blamed militants in Eastern Ghouta for using the humanitarian pauses on Tuesday and Wednesday to “stage an onslaught.” Edith M. Lederer provides an overview of yesterday’s contentious Security Council meeting at the AP.

Civilians in Eastern Ghouta have made numerous requests to be evacuated, the Russian Major-General Vladimir Zolotukhin said today according to the Tass news agency, which also cited Zolotukhin as saying that rebels were continuing to shell the humanitarian corridor. Reuters reports.

Scores of civilians have been killed in the northern Syrian enclave of Afrin which is controlled by Syrian Kurds, Amnesty International said yesterday, its report coming amid Turkey’s ongoing operation against the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. in the area, which began last month as Turkey believes the Y.P.G. to be an extension of the outlawed Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.). The BBC reports.

The U.S. has set up around 20 military bases in Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria, a Russian Security Council official said today, according to the R.I.A. news agency. Reuters reports.

The U.K. has urged the U.S. not to seek the death penalty against the two British Islamic State suspects who were recently captured in Syria, the British government has called for the men – who have been stripped of British citizenship – to be prosecuted in a civilian court and not be taken to the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. Adam Goldman, Eric Schmitt and Charlie Savage report at the New York Times.

A feature on the situation in Eastern Ghouta and the role of the Syrian Civil Defense team, also known as the White Helmets, is provided by Kareem Shaheen at the Guardian.

A map of who controls what territory in Syria is provided by Alia Chugtai at Al Jazeera.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 41 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between February 16 and February 22. [Central Command]

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The White House communications director Hope Hicks said yesterday that she will be resigning in the next few weeks, Hicks joined Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, has enjoyed significant influence within the administration and has a close relationship with the president. Rebecca Ballhaus and Peter Nicholas report at the Wall Street Journal.

Hicks’ resignation came a day after she testified before the House Intelligence Committee as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, during which she admitted to the panel that she occasionally told white lies for the president. Multiple aides said that her decision to leave was in no way related to her appearance before the committee, Maggie Haberman reports at the New York Times.

More than 30 aides have had their security clearance downgraded and will no longer have access to top-secret information in accordance with a new policy on interim clearances established by White House chief of staff John Kelly, two sources familiar with the matter have said. Margaret Talev and Jennifer Jacobs report at Bloomberg.

The president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his daughter Ivanka Trump should seriously consider leaving their formal White House roles in their own interests and those of the president. The news reports of the past week show that “the long knives are out for Mr. Kushner” and this could undermine his ability to shape policy portfolios, such as the Israel-Palestine peace plan, the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Pentagon has been planning for war with North Korea despite the tentative steps toward talks being taken by the Pyongyang regime and Washington. Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times on the classified military exercise that took place last week and the capabilities and missions that were considered.

The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said yesterday that the detention of Pakistani man Ammar al-Baluchi at Guantánamo Bay is arbitrary and has no legal basis, the report explained that al-Baluchi “has been subject to prolonged detention on discriminatory grounds and has not been afforded equality of arms.” Reuters reports.

U.S.-made cluster bombs have been used by the Egyptian armed forces during their counterterrorism operations in the Sinai Peninsula, Amnesty International said yesterday, its analysis was based on an official Egyptian military video released Feb. 21. The rights group issued a reminder that these weapons have been banned internationally, Rick Gladstone and Nour Youssef report at the New York Times.

The Taliban did not formerly respond to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s proposal for peace talks, but the Taliban chief spokesperson today responded to a piece by Barnett Rubin in the New Yorker, which called for talks, by saying “our country has been occupied … your view that we talk to them and accept their [the Afghan government’s] legitimacy is the same formula adopted by America to win the war.” Reuters reports.

Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Christ Murphy (D-Conn.) yesterday introduced a joint resolution forcing the Senate to vote on support for Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, the U.S. has not formally backed the Saudi coalition but has provided support in their campaign against the Houthi rebels and their aim to restore the exiled government of Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi to power. Lauren Gambino reports at the Guardian.

The Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri visited the Saudi King Salman and other top officials in Saudi Arabia yesterday, the meeting sought to mend relations after a bizarre set of circumstances late last year which saw Hariri resigning from the Saudi capital of Riyadh and then rescinding his decision. Marghareti Stancati reports at the Wall Street Journal. 

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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