The Early Edition: May 3, 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

Trump’s legal team has replaced the White House lawyer Ty Cobb with the Republican defense attorney Emmet Flood, Cobb announced yesterday that he would leave his post at the end of the month amid an overhaul of the president’s legal team dealing with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, and whether the president obstructed justice by interfering with the probe. Robert Costa, Carol D. Leonnig and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

“Emmet Flood will be joining the White House Staff to represent the President and the administration against the Russia witch hunt,” the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said yesterday when announcing the changes to Trump’s legal team. Dartunorro Clark and Nichole Wallace report at NBC News.

Flood helped President Bill Clinton during his impeachment process, Flood’s appointment, along with comments made by other members of Trump’s legal team, indicates a shift to a more aggressive approach to the Mueller investigation. Darren Samuelsohn and Josh Gerstein report at POLITICO.

Trump strongly criticized the Justice Department in a message on Twitter yesterday, wading in to the dispute between conservative House Republicans and the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein over access to documents relating to Mueller’s investigation and other matters. Nicholas Fandos and Adam Goldman report at the New York Times.

Ukraine’s chief prosecutor has effectively frozen its investigation into the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort for his work with a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine. According to some lawmakers, the Ukrainian government halted its investigations having noted Trump’s attitude towards Mueller’s investigation and during plans for Ukraine country to buy U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank missiles. Andrew E. Kramer reports at the New York Times.

“It’s clear they [Mueller’s team] are still really focused on Russia collusion,” the former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo said yesterday, who was also interviewed by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday as part of their Russian investigation. Manu Raju reports at CNN.

Flood’s appointment is likely to bring greater cohesion to Trump’s legal team and is expected to be more combative than Cobb. Betsy Woodruff explains at The Daily Beast.

“What should concern Mr. Trump’s team is how the questions zero in on Mr. Trump’s criminal liability,” the Just Security editor Renato Mariotti writes at the New York Times, providing an analysis of the list of over 40 questions that Mueller could ask the president in an interview.

Trump would be justified in firing Rosenstein, under Rosenstein’s watch Mueller’s probe has broadened beyond scope and the special counsel has been pursuing problematic inquiries. Rich Lowry writes at POLITICO Magazine.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

“[The North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un said achieving the denuclearization of the peninsula is the firm position of the North Korean side,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement today, following a visit by China’s top diplomat Wang Yi to Pyongyang. Ben Blanchard reports at Reuters.

“We are committed to the permanent, verifiable, irreversible dismantling of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction program and to do so without delay,” the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday during his swearing-in ceremony at the State Department. Lesley Wroughton reports at Reuters.

“For more than 60 years the people of North Korea have faced egregious human rights violations in virtually every aspect of life,” the State Department said yesterday, issuing a highly critical statement days after President Trump praised Kim’s “honorable” intentions in the lead up to their potential summit meeting. Zachary Cohen reports at CNN.

North Korea made a decision two months ago to free three U.S. citizens detained in the country and their release is “imminent,” according to an official with knowledge of the matter. President Trump alluded to the possibility of their release in a message on Twitter yesterday, Will Ripley and Joshua Berlinger report at CNN.

North Korea yesterday dismissed what it claimed were U.S. allegations at a meeting on Monday that Pyongyang had hacked a U.N. database on sanctions, two diplomats familiar with the meeting said the U.S. did not speak about hacking during the session and a spokesperson for the U.S. Mission said that “the quotes and comments attributed to the U.S. delegation are entirely false.” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The top commander of U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Harry Harris is expected to be nominated to be the new ambassador to South Korea and is likely to pay an important role in the upcoming planned meeting between Kim and Trump. David Nakamura and John Hudson provide an analysis of Adm. Harris and Trump’s foreign policy team’s approach to North Korea at the Washington Post.

IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL

If the U.S. were to pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal it would mean that Iran would “be ready to go back to the previous situation,” the Iranian diplomat Hamid Baeidinejad said in an interview yesterday ahead of Trump’s self-imposed May 12 deadline whether to reinstate sanctions on Iran, adding that this could mean “enriching uranium, it could be redefining our cooperation with the [International Atomic Energy Agency] agency, and some other activities that are under consideration.” Azadeh Moshiri reports at CNN.

“We should not scrap it unless we have a good alternative,” the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said yesterday, urging President Trump not to withdraw from the deal and making the comments a few days after the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that Iran had covertly pursued nuclear weapons. The BBC reports.

Netanyahu has advanced his agenda against Iran this past week through his presentation on Iran’s nuclear program, the widely believed to be Israeli military strikes on Syrian airbases with heavy Iranian presence, and a change in Israeli law that has granted the Prime Minister greater powers to wage war or carry out military operations.  David M. Halbfinger explains at the New York Times.

U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 agreement would hand hardliners in Iran a victory and undermine the efforts of moderate and reformist politicians within the country. Saeed Kamali Dehghan writes at the Guardian.

European leaders will have demonstrated their strategic irrelevance should Trump tear up the Iran deal, in fact they will have become the U.S. president’s “enablers” having aligned themselves with Trump administration claims that the deal is flawed. Stephen M. Walt writes at Foreign Policy.

GUANTÁNAMO BAY

The Saudi citizen Ahmed al-Darbi has been transferred out of the prison in Guantánamo Bay to detention in Saudi Arabia, the Pentagon announced yesterday, marking the first transfer since Trump became president. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

Darbi pleaded guilty to war crimes in 2014 and has been at Guantánamo since August 2002, according to documents made public by WikiLeaks. Missy Ryan reports at the Washington Post.

Saudi Arabia today confirmed Darbi’s arrival, Abdullah Al-Shihri reports at the AP.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis “has provided the White House with an updated policy governing the criteria for transfer of individuals” to Guantánamo Bay, the Pentagon spokesperson Cmdr. Sarah Higgins said yesterday, declining to elaborate further on the policy. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

SYRIA

Rebels in the southern part of Syria’s capital of Damascus have begun leaving the area as part of an agreement with the Syrian government, buses began transporting the rebels to northern Syria yesterday and opposition fighters between the cities of Hama and Homs have also agreed to surrender. However, there have been reports that some of the rebels near Homs have rejected the deal and continue fighting, Reuters reports.

An airstrike destroyed a hospital in Syria’s opposition-held Hama province yesterday, according to a medical charity and the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The AP reports.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.) has decided to exhume bodies of some of the victims of the suspected chemical weapons attack in the town of Douma on April 7, the decision coming after the investigators’ access to the site was repeatedly delayed. David Bon reports at the Financial Times.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 26 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between April 20 and April 26. [Central Command]

LIBYA

At least 12 people were killed yesterday by an Islamic State group suicide bombing on the offices of Libya’s electoral commission, according to the terrorist group, two of its fighters had been sent to “target the apostate ballot stations,” indicating that the group intends to disrupt Libya’s ability to hold elections this year. Sudarsan Raghavan reports at the Washington Post.

A lawsuit alleging torture was filed in France against the commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army (L.N.A.) Khalifa Haftar, a lawyer for the plaintiff said yesterday. Reuters reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A speech by the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas earlier this week has drawn widespread condemnation due to his use of anti-Semitic slurs and tropes. Siobhán O’Grady reports at the Washington Post.

“Once a Holocaust denier, always a Holocaust denier,” the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a message on Twitter yesterday, calling on the international community “to condemn the grave antisemitism” of Abbas. Oliver Holmes and agencies report at the Guardian.

“By succumbing to such dark, corrosive instincts he [Abbas] showed that it is time for him to leave office,” the New York Times editorial board writes, condemning the Palestinian leader for his remarks and stating that the Palestinians need a leader “who might have a better chance of achieving Palestinian independence and enabling both peoples to live in peace.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The political research firm Cambridge Analytica has stopped its operations and begun insolvency proceedings, the firm played a role in Trump’s presidential campaign and has been caught in a scandal following revelations that it harvested the data of millions of Facebook users. Olivia Solon and Oliver Laughland report at the Guardian.

China has installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three outposts in the South China Sea, according to sources with knowledge of U.S. intelligence assessments, adding further tensions in the disputed waters. Amanda Macias reports at CNBC.

The White House is expecting a close vote on Gina Haspel’s nomination to be the new C.I.A. Director. The director of legislative affairs Marc Short said yesterday that he hoped some Democrats would be “courageous enough” to support Haspel, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Nigeria has tightened its security arrangements in the northern part of the country following Tuesday’s double suicide attack on a mosque in Mubi, which is believed to have been carried out by the Boko Haram extremist group. Emmanuel Akinwotu and Aurelien Breeden report at the New York Times.

The recent bombings in Afghanistan underscore the never-ending nature of the conflict and the country’s“chronic insecurity,” Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post, noting that the U.S. “looks no closer to finding a way out.” 

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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