The Early Edition: March 14, 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.

TILLERSON IS FIRED

“Mike Pompeo, Director of the C.I.A., will become our new Secretary of State. … Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service!” Trump said in a message on Twitter yesterday, marking the first that Tillerson had heard of the president’s decision. Michael C. Bender and Felicia Schwartz report at the Wall Street Journal.

Tillerson said yesterday that he would leave office at the end of March and has been delegating all of his responsibilities to State Department’s No. 2 official, Reuters reports.

Trump also announced via Twitter that Gina Haspel would replace Pompeo as C.I.A. Director, Pompeo and Haspel must be confirmed by the Senate before assuming their positions and both have come under fire for their stance toward the use of torture. David Smith reports at the Guardian.

“We were not really thinking the same; with Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process,” Trump explained to reporters, in further explanations of the situation, administration officials said that Tillerson’s removal was motivated by Trump’s decision to meet with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, with a senior official saying “the president wanted to make sure to have his new team in place in advance of the upcoming talks and various ongoing trade negotiations.” Katrina Manson and Sam Fleming report at the Financial Times.

Tillerson did not thank Trump or praise his policies in his parting statement, instead he focused on Russia and the work needed to respond to Moscow’s “troubling behavior and actions.” Trump told reporters yesterday that he had fired Tillerson based on a lack of personal “chemistry” and disagreements on certain policies, such as the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the BBC reports.

“I’ll now return to life as a private citizen, as a proud American, proud of the opportunity I’ve had to serve my country,” Tillerson said in his statement, also thanking his colleagues at the State Department and praising the State Department for its achievements, in particular the efforts to put pressure on North Korea. Jessica Donati reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump wanted to fire Tillerson on Friday but was persuaded to hold off by the White House chief of staff John Kelly, who wanted Tillerson to be back from his trip to Africa before being ousted, Kelly had also tried to warn Tillerson that he was about to be fired, but the Secretary of State failed to understand Kelly’s indication about Trump’s decision. Ashley Parker, Philip Rucker, Josh Dawsey and Carol D. Leonnig explain at the Washington Post, providing an overview of the strained relationship between Tillerson and the president.

Tillerson’s replacement is much more closely aligned to the president’s worldview, particularly on Iran and North Korea, and there had been months of speculation that Tillerson would be fired due to their poor personal relationship and clashes on foreign policy issues. Mark Landler, Maggie Haberman and Gardiner Harris report at the New York Times.

“Personally, I feel that this situation that has developed is unfortunate,” the Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kano told reporters today, expressing regret about Tillerson’s departure, whom he described as “frank” and “trustworthy” and someone that he thought Japan could work with to deal with the threat posed by North Korea. Linda Sieg and Hyonhee Shin report at Reuters.

State Department officials have welcomed Tillerson’s departure, his tenure saw low morale in the department as he tried to restructure the organization. Some employees have also expressed optimism that Pompeo’s better relationship with Trump would mean that the department would have more influence in the administration, Nahal Toosi explains at POLITICO.

Haspel oversaw a C.I.A. secret prison in Thailand that used brutal interrogation techniques, the techniques were eventually condemned by lawmakers, human rights activists and others, and there has been speculation she would face some difficulties during the confirmation process. Adam Goldman reports at the New York Times.

“Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the C.I.A.’s interrogation program during the confirmation process,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement yesterday, other Republicans have also said that questions must be answered, but that Haspel has expertise and the interrogation techniques that were used at the time were authorized. Jeremy Herb and Manu Raju report at CNN.

“I know Gina personally and she has the right skill set, experience and judgement to lead one of our nation’s most critical agencies,” the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said yesterday, offering full support for Haspel’s nomination. Reuters reports.

TILLERSON IS FIRED: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Tillerson’s departure and Pompeo’s appointment comes ahead of key foreign policy tests, including a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by May and a self-imposed May 12 deadline whether to keep the U.S. in the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. On both issues, Pompeo appears to be more hawkish than Tillerson and more in tune with Trump’s instincts, Michael R. Gordon and Nancy A. Youssef explain at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s decision to fire Tillerson has thrown the future of the Iran nuclear deal into doubt and caused concern in Europe, Patrick Wintour explains at the Guardian.

“The Iran nuclear deal might have died Tuesday,” Michael Crowley writes at POLITICO Magazine, outlining Pompeo’s approach to Iran but saying that there is a possibility that the deal could survive beyond the May deadline.

There is a danger that Pompeo is too aligned with Trump and would not act as a bulwark against some of his instincts, unlike Tillerson, who was more restrained and traditional in his approach. David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post.

Tillerson had a good relationship with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, now that Tillerson has gone, Mattis may become more influential on the president as he is no longer encumbered by the Secretary of State, with whom Trump had a poor relationship. Wesly Morgan and Jacqueline Klimas explain at POLITICO.

Tillerson’s tenure at the State Department was lackluster and his replacement offers dynamism and an opportunity to reinvigorate the department, Hugh Hewitt writes at the Washington Post, arguing that ousting Tillerson was necessary for national security.

Pompeo “shares more of the President’s views and is likely to carry more clout with Mr. Trump and foreign leaders,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, noting that Tillerson left many positions unfilled at the State Department and had disagreed with the president on too many issues.

Tillerson’s ousting is the latest in a string of departures from the Trump administration and it appears that Trump is seeking to build a Cabinet based on personal loyalty. Stephen Collinson provides an analysis at CNN.

Gina Haspel has been a key figure in the use of torture at the C.I.A., her nomination by Trump gives reason for unease, the New York Times editorial board writes.

Pompeo may be a better manager at the State Department, however his appointment should be cause for serious concern due to his foreign policy instincts. Michael Tomasky writes at The Daily Beast.

RUSSIA

The deadline for Russia to respond to British Prime Minister Theresa May’s demand for an explanation about the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal has passed, May is preparing to propose a range of reprisals and Trump gave his support to the Prime Minister yesterday in a call, saying that he is “with the U.K. all the way.” Patrick Wintour, Anushka Asthana and Andrew Roth report at the Guardian.

 “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be,” Trump told reporters yesterday about the attack on Skripal in the English city of Salisbury. Earlier this week, May said that it was “highly likely” that Moscow was responsible for the attempted murder with a nerve agent, Blake Paterson reports at POLITICO.

The U.K. has called for an urgent U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss the nerve agent attack, the BBC reports.

The possible options that the U.K. could take in response to the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, are set out by Richard Pérez-Peña at the New York Times.

SYRIA

Around 200 people were evacuated yesterday from the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus, the area has been under intense bombardment by pro-Syrian government forces. Nour Alakraa and Nazih Osseiran report at the Wall Street Journal.

It appears to be only a matter of time before the Syrian government completely captures Eastern Ghouta, their offensive has intensified in recent weeks despite of calls for a ceasefire. Liz Sly reports at the Washington Post.

Turkish forces said yesterday that they had encircled the northern Syrian city of Afrin during their campaign against the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia. The BBC reports.

Pro-Syrian government forces today shelled Turkish positions in the Afrin region in response to a Turkish airstrike that killed five of their fighters, according to a pro-Assad commander. Reuters reports.

Rival militant groups have forced the Syrian branch of the al-Qaeda into retreat in various parts of Syria, including in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo. Bassem Mroue reports at the AP.

Democrats in the Senate yesterday questioned the lack of ambassadors in the Middle East and the impact that this would have for diplomacy, particularly as the conflict in Syria continues. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 20 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between March 2 and March 8. [Central Command]

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee yesterday released a memo arguing that the Republican-led investigation was being closed down prematurely and said that they would draft their own report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, making the announcement after the Republicans said Monday that they had produced a draft report. Byron Tau reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Only Putin knows for sure what he was trying to do,” Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Tex.) – who oversees the panel’s Russia investigation – said yesterday, seemingly softening a key finding that was put forth in the one-page summary of Republican’s forthcoming report, which contradicted the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference and the intention to boost the Trump campaign. Betsy Woodruff reports at The Daily Beast.

“We’re going to do our best to continue our work,” the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) said yesterday, vowing to keep investigating Russian interference. Patricia Zengerle reports at Reuters.

“There is significant evidence and much of it in the public domain on the issue of collusion,” Schiff also said yesterday, criticizing the House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and other Republicans on the panel for shutting down the investigation. Olivia Beavers and Katie Bo Williams report at the Hill.

The former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort “faces the very real possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison,” U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III in Alexandria, Virginia, wrote in an order made public yesterday. Manafort was charged by special counsel Robert Mueller with money-laundering and failing to register as a foreign agent when he worked on a project in Ukraine, Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

The F.B.I. have tried to meet with the Belarussian self-styled “sex coaches” detained in Thailand who claim to have evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to a senior Thai official. One of the Belarussians claims to be the former mistress of the Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, who was a former business associate of Manafort. Ivan Watson and Kocha Olarn report at CNN.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga left open the possibility of talks between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a press conference yesterday, saying that issues that would top the agenda include the Japanese citizens who have been kidnapped by North Korean agents. Kaori Kaneko and Linda Sieg report at Reuters.

Japan has been “scrambling to remain diplomatically relevant” as Trump has decided to meet directly with Kim, analysts have said that Abe was probably disappointed that the close relationship he had built with Trump did not lead to him being kept in the loop. Motoko Rich explains at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The White House yesterday hosted a meeting on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza but no representatives of the Palestinian Authority were present, the Palestinians boycotted the meeting due to Trump’s December decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv. James Oliphant reports at Reuters.

Relations between Iraq’s central government and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional government are slowly improving, tensions reached a boiling point when the Iraqi Kurds decided to hold an independence referendum in September last year and the Baghdad government responded harshly. Isabel Coles and Ali Nabhan report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte today said that his country would withdraw from the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) because of “baseless, unprecedented and outrageous attacks” by U.N. officials and an attempt by the U.C.C. prosecutor to seek jurisdiction over him “in violation of due process and presumption of innocence.” Karen Lema and Martin Petty report at Reuters. 

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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