The Early Edition: March 19, 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

President Trump issued a tirade of tweets over the weekend attacking special counsel Robert Mueller and calling the investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and Russia a “witch hunt,” he also attacked the former F.B.I. deputy director Andrew McCabe, who was fired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday. Julia Manchester reports at the Hill.

“The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime,” Trump said in one of his tweets, his personal attacks on the special counsel having prompted warnings from lawmakers and Trump allies not to take steps to remove Mueller. Louise Radnofsky, Rebecca Ballhaus and Aruna Viswanatha report at the Wall Street Journal.

“The White House yet again confirms that the president is not considering or discussing the firing of the special counsel, Robert Mueller,” the White House lawyer Ty Cobb in a statement late yesterday, reiterating the position in light of the president’s comments and remarks on Saturday by Trump’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, calling for the Justice Department to end the investigation. Peter Baker reports at the New York Times.

Trump attacked former F.B.I. Director James Comey and McCabe in tweets yesterday, both of whom have been subjected to the president’s ire in relation to the Russia investigation, and, according to two sources, McCabe, like Comey, made contemporaneous notes of his conversations with the president – which could be helpful to Mueller’s investigators and whether the president sought to obstruct justice. Philip Rucker reports at the Washington Post.

McCabe has handed over the notes of his conversations to Mueller, according to a source close to McCabe, and the decision to fire the former F.B.I. deputy director has raised speculation that it was motivated by an attempt to undermine the Mueller investigation. Aruna Viswanatha, Rebecca Ballhaus and Del Quentin Wilber report at the Wall Street Journal.

“I think it’s very important he [Mueller] be allowed to do his job without interference,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said yesterday, reflecting the warnings of other congressional Republicans, but not proposing any action that should be taken should the president seek to oust the special counsel. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

The president’s weekend diatribe is a sign of things to come, according to multiple aides and sources close to Trump, noting the president may continue his confrontational tone in spite of warnings not to personally attack Mueller. Andrew Desiderio, Asawin Suebsaeng and Lachlan Markay report at The Daily Beast.

Sessions did not express any objections to the Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadapoulos’ proposal to reach out to Russia during a campaign meeting in March 2016, according to three sources, who have said that they have spoken to F.B.I. agents or congressional investigators about their accounts of the meeting. Karen Freifeld, Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball report at Reuters.

The president should have acted with restraint and allowed the dismissal of McCabe speak for itself, rather than ranting on Twitter about the situation. The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, saying the president and his antagonists’ response reflect the “current madness of American politics” and that facts no longer seem to matter.

A fact-check of Trump’s weekend tweets is provided by Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post.

Trump looks close to firing Mueller, Chris Cillizza writes at CNN, providing an overview of the president’s comments over the weekend.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

The data research firm Cambridge Analytica harvested the private information of more than 50 million users without their permission, using the information to promote Trump’s presidential campaign and the “Brexit”campaign in the U.K., an investigation by the New York Times and The Observer of London has revealed, drawing on interviews with former employees of the firm, including the whistleblower, Christopher Wylie. Matthew Rosenberg, Nicholas Confessore and Carole Cadwalladr report at the New York Times.

Cambridge Analytica began harvesting the data in early 2014 and Facebook knew of their activities by late 2015, according to Wylie and documents seen by the Observer, which reveals the scale of the data-gathering by the firm which was headed by the then-Trump key adviser Steve Bannon and owned by the Republican donor Robert Mercer. Carole Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison report at The Observer.

A detailed feature on the investigation into the data breach and how Cambridge Analytica used personal information gathered from Facebook to influence political campaigns is provided by Carole Cadwalladr at The Observer, which includes her discussions with Wylie.

American and British lawmakers have called for greater scrutiny of Facebook after the revelations, Facebook did not inform those users whose data had been harvested and may have fallen foul of laws in Britain and in many U.S. states. Matthew Rosenberg and Sheera Frankel report at the New York Times.

The Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey (D) yesterday an investigation into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, Luis Sanchez reports at the Hill.

“Suspended by Facebook. For blowing the whistle. On something they have known privately for two years,” Wylie tweeted yesterday, explaining that he had been banned from the platform following the revelations over the weekend. On Friday, Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica from its platform ahead of the reports being published by The New York Times and The Observer, Donie O’Sullivan and Sherisse Pham report at CNN.

SYRIA

Turkish forces and their Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) rebel allies have seized control of the northern Syrian city of Afrin from Kurdish Y.P.G. militias, Turkey began a campaign in the Afrin region in January as it deems the Y.P.G. to be an extension of the outlawed Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.). Sune Engel Rasmussen and Erdem Aydin report at the Wall Street Journal.

Turkey’s Afrin offensive has strained its ties with the U.S., the U.S. have been partners with the Y.P.G. in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State group and Turkey’s gains mark a significant blow to the Kurds in Syria. Erin Cunningham and Zakaria Zakaria report at the Washington Post.

There have been reports of looting by Turkish troops and the F.S.A. in Afrin, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, today criticized Turkey’s for its actions and for escalating tensions. Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

“Our forces everywhere in Afrin will be an ongoing nightmare for them [Turkish forces and their allies],” Y.P.G. officials have said, vowing to wage guerrilla war. Martin Chulov reports at the Guardian.

The Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Syrian troops in Eastern Ghouta enclave yesterday, the territory is the last major rebel-held area near the capital Damascus and appears close to being captured by pro-Syrian government forces. Yesterday, the main rebel group in the southern part of the enclave said that it was negotiating a ceasefire and the protection of civilians with a U.N. delegation. Lisa Barrington and Suleiman Al-Khalidi report at Reuters.

The lack of a U.S. plan to stop the Assad regime from using chemical weapons undermines America’s credibility, numerous threats have been made by senior Trump administration officials that there must be consequences, but no action has been taken. Josh Rogin writes at the Washington Post, suggesting measures that the U.S. could take.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 23 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between March 9 and March 15. [Central Command]

RUSSIA

The Russian President Vladimir Putin was re-elected by a landslide yesterday, there were numerous reports of electoral fraud and Putin faced little competition. His is set to govern for another six years, Yuliya Talmazan reports at NBC News.

“We have evidence that Russia has been investigating delivery of nerve agents and has been creating and stockpiling Novichok,” the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the BBC yesterday, referring to the attack on the former Russia spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury earlier this month. Jason Douglas reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Russia does not have such [nerve] agents. We destroyed all chemical weapons under the supervision of international organizations,” Putin said yesterday, speaking after winning his fourth election and adding that Russia had been falsely accused of Skripal’s attempted murder and that Moscow was ready to cooperate with the U.K. in its investigations. Reuters reports.

The Skripal affair has shone a spotlight on Russia’s secret military laboratories, Joby Warrick explains at the Washington Post.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

U.S. officials and former South Korean government officials are set to hold unofficial talks with a North Korean official in Finland, according to Seoul’s foreign ministry, which declined to say when the meeting would take place and who would attend, but the discussions mark an increase in diplomatic activity before a potential leaders’ summit between Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Andrew Jeong reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Senior U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials discussed the North Korean nuclear crisis at the weekend, South Korea’s presidential Blue House said today, which included top national security advisers. Joyce Lee reports at Reuters.

Sweden is helping to negotiate the release of three U.S. citizens detained in North Korea, according to sources with knowledge of the matter. Susannah Cullinane and Julia Jones report at CNN.

The South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha warned yesterday that threatened U.S. steel tariffs would be “unhelpful,” explaining that the “timing is bad, the measures if bad for the U.S. and Korea going together on the North Korean nuclear issue.” Michael Peel reports at the Financial Times.

An explanation of the diplomatic activity that has taken place since Trump accepted Kim’s invitation for talks is provided by Euan McKirdy at CNN.

SAUDI ARABIA

Senior State Department and Pentagon officials have been taking efforts to stop a bipartisan effort to halt U.S. military support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, the efforts are taking place ahead the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the White House tomorrow. Eric Schmitt and Thomas Gibbons-Neff report at the New York Times.

An interview with the Saudi Crown Prince, which covers Saudi Arabia’s foreign and domestic policy agenda, is provided by Norah O’Donnell at CBS News.

A feature on the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen and the problems trying to find a way to end the conflict, is provided by Dion Nissenbaum at the Wall Street Journal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Senate Foreign Relations committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) yesterday said that Trump looks likely to pull the U.S. out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Martin Pengelly reports at the Guardian.

The Islamic State group was behind the abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls in the town of Dapchi last month and they have copied the tactics of the Islamist Boko Haram extremist group. Joe Parkinson, Drew Hinshaw and Gbenga Akingbule report at the Wall Street Journal.

The number of civilians killed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes has increased by more than 200 percent over the previous year, however the media has largely ignored the expanding use of drones and airstrikes. Margaret Sullivan explains at the Washington Post. 

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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