The Early Edition: May 17, 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

The Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee broke with the House panel’s position and backed the conclusion that Russia tried to boost Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, their finding, which was made public yesterday, supports the assessment by U.S. intelligence and the committee is expected to release a more detailed evaluation in the coming weeks that also addresses the issue of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Byron Tau, Rebecca Ballhaus and Erica Orden report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said that special counsel Robert Mueller has made assurances that he would not indict the president if he found wrongdoing in his investigation of links between the Trump campaign and Russia. Mueller’s position would adhere to the Justice Department’s view on the possibility of prosecuting a sitting president, however Mueller’s office has not yet provided clarity about Giuliani’s comments, Michael S. Schmidt, Maggie Haberman and Charlie Savage report at the New York Times.

Further details of the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr., other campaign officials and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and other Kremlin-linked individuals were revealed yesterday following the Senate Judiciary Committee’s release of transcripts of interviews as part of its investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 U.S. election. Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

The transcripts from the interviews with the Senate Intelligence Committee provide fresh evidence of coordination between Trump campaign officials and Russians with ties to President Vladimir Putin. Jonathan Landay and Karen Freifeld report at Reuters, explaining the circumstances surrounding the Trump Tower meeting, which was set up by the publicist Rob Goldstone to try and get “dirt” on then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Donald Trump Jr. told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he does not remember discussing the Trump Tower meeting with his father, according to the transcript of his testimony, explaining that he “wouldn’t have wasted his time with it.” Tracy Connor, Tom Winter, Sarah Fitzpatrick and Ken Dilanian report at NBC News, also providing key excerpts from Goldstone’s interview and explaining Goldstone’s connections to the Russian oligarch Aras Agalarov.

The president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner became “agitated” and “infuriate[d]” at the Trump Tower meeting when Veselnitskaya did not provide the promised dirt on Hillary Clinton, according to Goldstone’s testimony. Adam Rawnsley reports at The Daily Beast.

The transcripts reveal the efforts of the Trump Organization’s chief legal officer to establish a clear account of what happened at the Trump Tower meeting. Jeremy Diamond and Kara Scannell report at CNN.

Trump Jr.’s attorney Alan Furtefas took efforts to harmonize the Trump Tower attendees’ account of the meeting. Elana Schor, Kyle Cheney and Eli Okun explain at POLITICO.

Mueller has issued subpoenas to the Republican consultant Jason Sullivan for documents and testimony. Sullivan worked for a super PAC run by the Trump associate and longtime adviser Roger Stone, Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

A breakdown of the key points raised by the release of the transcripts is provided by Philip Ewing at NPR.

An analysis of the Trump Tower transcripts is provided by Jeremy Herb and Marshall Cohen at CNN, noting that questions about the meeting still remain unanswered.

A feature on the origins of the F.B.I. investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia is provided by Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman and Nicholas Fandos at the New York Times.

An overview of the focus of the Mueller investigation is provided by Rosalind S. Helderman, Tom Hamburger, Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky and Chiqui Esteban at the Washington Post.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Protests at the Israel-Gaza border have calmed over the past two days, 60 Palestinians were killed at the border on Monday by Israeli gunfire and there have been reports that Egyptian officials have put pressure on the militant Palestinian Hamas group to try and restore order. Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams report at Reuters.

Guatemala opened its embassy in Jerusalem yesterday, coming two days after the U.S. opened its embassy in the contested city, which took place against the backdrop of increased violence on the Israel-Gaza border. Ruth Eglash reports at the Washington Post.

The Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi warned yesterday that the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would cause “some instability in the region,” but avoided directly criticizing the U.S., with which it is a close ally. Reuters reports.

Hamas and Egypt have been working to prevent an armed conflict with Israel, the head of Hamas’s Gaza branch, Yehya Sinwar, said yesterday, claiming that they agreed that the marches must be peaceful. Jack Khoury reports at Haaretz.

A senior Hamas official said yesterday that 50 of those killed by Israeli gunfire on Monday were Hamas members, prompting the spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces (I.D.F.) Lt. Jonathan Conricus to refer to the clip and state that “this was not peaceful protest.” Ian Lee and Salma Abdelaziz report at CNN.

The United Nations has “collapsed” and is “finished,” the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan said yesterday, admonishing the international community for its lack of response to Israel and the killings in Gaza. Al Jazeera reports.

“Israel should be taken to the International Criminal Court,” the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said today in an interview with state television, adding that Turkey was considering the legal steps that can be taken against Israel. The Hürriyet Daily News reports.

The Israeli military carried out airstrikes on Hamas positions in Gaza overnight, according to the Israeli army. Haaretz reports.

A senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) has called for “new international engagement” on a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, adding that, in the current circumstances, the possibility of a two-state solution is “very much in doubt.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

An explanation of why Latin American countries have followed the U.S.’ footsteps in announcing plans to move their embassies to Jerusalem is provided by Rick Noack at the Washington Post.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump is still planning to hold a summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, U.S. officials said, brushing off yesterday’s harsh comments from Pyongyang diplomat Kim Kye-Gwan that appear to have taken the Trump administration by surprise. Michael R. Gordon, Nancy A. Youssef and Jonathan Cheng report at the Wall Street Journal.

“We’ll have to see,” Trump said of the status of the summit yesterday, but indicated that he still planned to demand that the North surrender its entire nuclear program. Mark Landler reports at the New York Times.

“The President is all over this today,” said White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley yesterday, while Trump’s aides worked to determine whether the overnight warnings from North Korea might be fatal to the anticipated summit. Kevin Liptak reports at CNN.

“The president is ready if the meeting takes place,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, telling Fox News that “if it doesn’t, we’ll continue the maximum pressure campaign that’s been ongoing,” also commenting that that the North Korean remarks were “not something that is out of the ordinary in these types of operations.” Al Jazeera reports.

Trump’s muted response was in marked contrast to his exaltation over North Korea’s release of three Americans three days ago, and cancellation of the summit would deal a major blow to what would be the biggest diplomatic achievement of Trump’s presidency. Josh Smith, Christine Kim, Tim Kelly, Philip Wen, Christian Shepherd, David Brunnstrom, Phillip Stewart, Tim Ahmann, Matt Spetalnick, Lesley Wroughton and Doina Chiacu and Michelle Nichols report at Reuters.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said yesterday that the odds are still in favor of going ahead with a June summit, despite having been singled out for criticism by Pyongyang, claiming in an interview with Fox News that “we are trying to be both optimistic and realistic at the same time [and] we are going to do everything we can to come to a successful meeting, but we are not going to back away from the objective of that meeting, which is complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea.” Matt Spetalnick and Susan Heavey report at Reuters.

The joint U.S.-South Korean drills might have served as a “convenient excuse for Kim Jong-un to cancel the summit with Trump if he’s getting cold feet about going to Singapore,” according to analyst Dan Pinkston. Other analysts have suggested that Tuesday night’s tough rhetoric from North Korea should be seen as pushback against the triumphalist rhetoric from Washington, Bryan Harris reports at the Financial Times.

South Korea claimed today that it would seek to mediate between the United States and North Korea, with a Blue House official claiming that the administration hopes to “sufficiently convey [to the United States] what we’ve discerned about North Korea’s position and attitude… and sufficiently convey the United States’ position to North Korea, thereby helping to bridge the gap between their positions.” Joyce Lee reports at Reuters.

Top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi said yesterday that North Korea’s measures to ease tension on the Peninsula should be acknowledged and all other parties – the U.S. in particular – should cherish the opportunity for peace. Michael Martina reports at Reuters.

Trump’s critics fear his determination to declare victory where his predecessors failed in concluding a deal with North Korea will override the substance of the negotiations, with former U.S. intelligence analyst Bruce Klingner claiming that no matter what Trump agrees to with Kim, the president will declare it “the best deal in the world.” David Nakamura provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

The head the Comprehensive nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization (C.T.B.T.O.) Lassina Zerbo yesterday claimed that the body stands ready to verify North Korea’s closure of its test site but it has yet to be asked and the process would take weeks rather than days. Francois Murphy reports at Reuters.

North Korea’s fear of meeting the same fate as Libya has long factored into North Korea’s thinking about its own weapons program, and the 2003 deal between Col. Muammar Gaddafi and George W. Bush has always loomed large in Pyongyang. Megan Specia and David E. Sanger comment at the New York Times.

The North’s sincerity that has always been in question, and the latest disturbance in the process serves as reminder that Kim is probably untrustworthy and belligerent, comments the Economist.

Trump’s bluster about a Nobel Prize makes it more difficult to leave the table, while Kim’s maneuvering ahead of the summit suggests he is confident he can resist immediate denuclearization, argues the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

The Trump administration should think hard about how it publicly portrays the upcoming summit, Adam Taylor comments at the Washington Post.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s deliberate blurring of the U.S. negotiating position is in contrast to Bolton’s lack of ambiguity, Julian Borger comments at the Guardian.

Bolton himself may serve as the biggest barrier to the conclusion of a deal with North Korea, Michael Crowley and Eliana Johnson argue at POLITICO.

IRAN

European firms have started holding back investment and abandoning commitments in Iran, responding to the U.S.’ decision last week to reimpose broad sanctions on Tehran, with French oil giant Total S.A. claiming yesterday that it had halted work on an Iranian natural-gas project and warning that it may have to withdraw altogether from its plan to invest $1 billion in the field. Benoit Faucon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

French President Emmanuel Macron said today that Europe would try to protect its companies doing business with Iran from U.S. sanctions, reimposed following the U.S.’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, but indicated that business giants like Total would make their own independent choices. Alastair Macdonald and Robert-Jan Bartunek report at Reuters.

The U.S. and E.U. are heading for a showdown over how to handle the role of Belgium-based Swift network, following Trump’s decision to re-impose sanctions on Iran, with questions outstanding as to whether the E.U. will co-operate with any U.S. requests for the severing of connections to Iranian banks, whether Swift will find itself caught in the crossfire of a transatlantic dispute over sanctions, analysts say. Sam Fleming, Philip Stafford and Jim Brunsden report at the Financial Times.

Despite European efforts to salvage the Iran nuclear deal, Iran itself is unlikely to find the motivation to stay in the deal with the U.S. absent, Marwan Kabalan comments at Al Jazeera.

SYRIA

U.N. envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura warned yesterday about escalating clashes between regional and international forces over Syria, telling the Security Council that recent events indicate “a troubling trajectory”. The AP reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 53 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between May 4 and May 10. [Central Command]

AFGHANISTAN

Taliban fighters have continued fighting Afghan troops in the province of Farah, highlighting the ongoing security challenges faced by the Kabul government and the obstacles to the U.S. achieving its goals in Afghanistan. Storay Karimi and Mohammad Stanekzai report at Reuters.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (S.I.G.A.R.) has claimed that it was provided with inaccurate figures about the declining number of Afghan security forces by the U.S. military, leading it to provide excessively negative reports of an 11 percent drop in its report to Congress last month. Pamela Constable reports at the Washington Post.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

The Facebook founder and C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg plans to appear before members of the European Parliament for a meeting on the social media giant’s use of personal data, which comes amid the scandal surrounding the political research firm Cambridge Analytica and the revelation that it harvested the data of tens of millions of Facebook users. Prashant S. Rao, Sheera Frenkel and Milan Schreuer report at the New York Times.

Cambridge Analytica sought to discourage or suppress voting, the whistleblower Christopher Wylie told Congress yesterday, also stating that Trump’s former top political adviser Stephen Bannon sought to wage “cultural warfare” in the U.S. and engaged the parent company of Cambridge Analytica to do this. Donie O’Sullivan and Drew Griffin report at CNN.

There are reasonable grounds to suspect that Cambridge Analytica “may have been an intelligence target of Russian security services,” Wylie also said yesterday, explaining in written testimony that the firm used Russian researchers and shared data with companies linked to Russian intelligence. The AFP reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen solicited at least $1m in payment from the Qatari government in 2016 in exchange for influence and advice about the incoming Trump administration, according to sources familiar with the matter. Karen DeYoung, Josh Dawsey and Rosalind S. Helderman report at the Washington Post.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said yesterday that he would oppose the nomination of Gina Haspel to be C.I.A. Director, explaining that his questions about Haspel’s role “in the destruction of videotapes” during the interrogation of an al-Qaeda suspect, and her wider role in brutal interrogation techniques, “have not been adequately answered.” The Senate Intelligence Committee advanced Haspel’s nomination earlier this week and a full Senate vote could happen as soon as today, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Amnesty International warned today that “the worst is yet to come” if the war between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels in Yemen reaches urban areas, tens of thousands have fled the port city of Hodeidah due to coalition advances. Reuters reports.

The leader and deputy of the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah group have been sanctioned by the U.S. and Gulf allies. The Treasury Secretary Steven Mncuhin said that the targeting ensured that the U.S. and its allies “collectively rejected the false distinction between a so-called ‘Political Wing’ and Hezbollah’s global terrorist plotting,” Reuters reports.

A 23-minute video used to brief members of Congress on the ambush in Niger last October provides fresh insight into how the incident unfolded, indicating that Sgt. La David Johnson was separated from his unit, tried to get to a safe position but was outrun and killed. Barbara Starr reports at CNN.

European Council President Donald Tusk yesterday launched a series of stinging comments on Donald Trump, sending a message on Twitter claiming that “With friends like that, who needs enemies?” and in comments to reporters, criticizing “the capricious assertiveness of the American administration” over issues including Iran, Gaza and North Korea. Michael Birnbaum reports at the Washington Post.

The former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressed his concern about a “growing crisis in ethics and integrity” in a speech to graduates yesterday, appearing to offer an implicit rebuke of President Trump. Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO. 

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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

Robbie Stern

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK.