The Early Edition: April 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.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

“If I think it’s a meeting that is not going to be fruitful, we’re not going to go. If the meeting, when I’m there, is not fruitful, I will respectfully leave …,” President Trump said yesterday of the upcoming planned summit talks with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, making the comments at a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Rebecca Ballhaus and Peter Nicholas report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump said that his administration has been working “very diligently” on the issue of three U.S. citizens detained in North Korea and that he would put pressure on Kim on the cases of the at least 13 Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korean spies in the 70s and 80s, which Abe welcomed as a “massively powerful” statement for the families of the abductees. David Nakamura and Anne Gearan report at the Washington Post.

Trump’s comments about the summit came after it was revealed that he had sent the C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo to meet with Kim earlier this month, the president lauded the meeting between Kim and Pompeo – who is Trump’s nominee to be his new Secretary of State – in a message on Twitter yesterday, saying that a “good relationship was formed.” Mark Landler reports at the New York Times.

“The North is expressing a will for complete denuclearization,” the South Korean President Moon Jae-in said today, explaining that he doesn’t think that “denuclearization has different meanings for South and North Korea.” Joyce Lee and Stephanie Nebehay report at Reuters.

An inter-Korean summit is set to take place on April 27 and South Korean officials have been laying the groundwork for Trump and Kim to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.

South Korean officials have been exploring means to achieve a peace treaty formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War, however a South Korean official noted that this would require coordination from other countries – likely referring to the fact that China, the U.S. and others were main combatants during the conflict. Andrew Jeong reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Senate Democrats offered Pompeo a mixture of tentative praise and criticism for his meeting with Kim, with some saying they were glad that preparations were being made for the upcoming Trump-Kim summit, but also expressing concern that preparations are being made through the C.I.A. rather than diplomatic channels. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Japan has been concerned about being sidelined by the U.S. on the approach to North Korea and on trade policy, experts and analysts have noted that Trump has not been approaching the upcoming summit with the alliance with Japan at the forefront of his mind. Motoko Rich explains at the New York Times.

Trump and Abe yesterday presented a united front on the approach to North Korea, however significant differences remain regarding trade policy. Courtney Weaver and Shawn Donnan explain at the Financial Times.

The possibility of Trump achieving a historic deal with Kim is explored by Graham Allison at POLITICO Magazine.

SYRIA

A team of investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.) have not yet been able to visit Douma due to gunfire on a U.N. security team. The town of Douma was the site of an alleged April 7 chemical weapons attack by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, leading the U.S., U.K. and France to launch strikes against suspected chemical weapons facilities on Saturday, Philip Issa and Michael Corder report at the AP.

U.S.-led strikes on three Syrian facilities have had only a limited impact on Assad’s ability to carry out chemical weapons attacks, according to four U.S. officials, explaining that intelligence indicates that there are stocks of chemical weapons at locations beyond the three sites. John Walcott and Phil Stewart report at Reuters.

“Reports that [Defense] Secretary Mattis urged the president to seek congressional approval before last week’s strike in Syria are categorically false,” the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement yesterday, responding to a New York Times report. Mattis also said yesterday that he had “no idea where that story came from,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

“I’m not as much concerned about this particular strike [on Syria] as about the implications of him doing it without Congress in the context of Iran or North Korea,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said yesterday, reflecting concerns expressed by many lawmakers that Saturday’s strikes means that the president has a broader authority to take military action in the future. Byron Tau reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The influence of the extremist al-Qaeda-linked Tahrir al-Sham alliance has been growing in Syria’s Idlib province, the militants have consolidated power in the area while the U.S. has focused on the fight against the Islamic State group. Sune Engel Rasmussen report at the Wall Street Journal.

Iran has been expanding its presence in Syria and the U.S. must have a plan to deal with a possible Iran-Israel confrontation, Dov Zakheim writes at Foreign Policy, explaining that Israel’s relationship with Russia has become increasingly tense and Israel has signaled to Russia that it will not constrain its operations against Iran in Syria.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 15 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between April 6 and April 12. [Central Command]

TRUMP-RUSSIA

“They’ve been saying I’m going to get rid of them for the last three months, four months, five months, and they’re still here,” President Trump said yesterday, referring to speculation that he would fire special counsel Robert Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Kevin Liptak reports at CNN.

Trump also said that the Russia investigation was a “very bad thing for our country” and reiterated that the investigation would not find “any collusion,” Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill.

Trump allies Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) met with Rosenstein this week to press him to release documents about law enforcement officials involved in the Russia investigation and the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, according to sources familiar with the matter, saying that the lawmakers warned Rosenstein that he could face impeachment or contempt of court proceedings if he did not hand over the materials. Robert Costa and Ellen Nakashima report at the Washington Post.

Trump allies have expressed concern that the president’s long-time personal lawyer Michael Cohen might decide to cooperate with federal prosecutors, Cohen has been under investigation for his business dealings and has also been a figure in Mueller’s Russia investigation. Darren Samuelsohn and Andrew Restuccia report at POLITICO.

Attorneys for the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort will argue at a hearing tomorrow that Mueller’s charges should be thrown out as the charges fall outside the special counsel’s remit and that Rosenstein’s order appointing Mueller was overly broad. Sarah N. Lynch reports at Reuters.

“Slippery [former F.B.I. Director] James Comey … was not fired because of the phony Russia investigation,” Trump said in a message on Twitter, contradicting his previous statement in May 2017 that “this Russia thing” was one of the key reasons he fired Comey. Jamiles Lartey reports at the Guardian.

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) is expected to subpoena the Justice Department soon for copies of the seven memos that Comey wrote last year about his interactions with Trump. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

LIBYA

French media have reported that the commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army (L.N.A.) Khalifa Haftar has been receiving hospital treatment near Paris, Haftar has often presented himself as the only figure capable of bringing stability to Libya. Al Jazeera reports.

There was a failed assassination attempt on the L.N.A.’s chief of staff yesterday, according to the L.N.A., compounding concerns about the future of Libya and the balance of power in the conflict-ridden country. Jared Malsin and Amira El Fekki report at the Wall Street Journal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Technical experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.) yesterday confirmed the findings of the U.K. in relation to the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The U.S. hopes to reach an agreement with the U.K., France and Germany that “fixes” what Trump perceives to be the “terrible flaws” in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood said today. Reuters reports.

The top C.I.A. lawyer John Rizzo revealed in a 2014 book that Trump’s nominee to be C.I.A. Director ran a secret black-site prison in Thailand, Rizzo maintains that his claim about Gina Haspel was correct then and is today. Spencer Ackerman reports at The Daily Beast.

The Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday announced that Turkey would hold a snap election on June 24, it is likely that Erdogan will win convincingly and maintain his grip on power amid ongoing Turkish military campaigns in Iraq and Syria. Kareem Shaheen reports at the Guardian.

Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez has been handpicked as the successor to Cuban President Raúl Castro in preparation for Castro’s resignation. Azam Ahmed reports 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