The Early Edition: May 21, 2018

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Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute

TRUMP-RUSSIA

A U.S. intelligence source worked as a secret informant for the F.B.I. as part of the bureau’s investigation into Russian interference in Trump’s presidential campaign. According to people familiar with the matter, the source had interactions with Trump advisers – including Carter Page and George Papadopoulos – and has also provided information to special counsel Robert Mueller as part of Mueller’s Russia probe, Robert Costa, Carol D. Leonnig, Tom Hamburger and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

The Justice Department yesterday asked its inspector general to assess whether there was impropriety during the F.B.I. counterintelligence investigation following a series of messages sent by the president on Twitter railing against the Russia probe and special counsel Robert Mueller, which included a demand for the Department to look into whether law enforcement officials were motivated by “political purposes.” Rebecca Ballhaus, Peter Nicholas and Sadie Gurman report at the Wall Street Journal.

“If anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action,” the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a statement when announcing his request for the inspector general to conduct an investigation. The inspector general’s investigation has now expanded from its original remit, which was focused on the Justice Department’s decision to obtain a warrant to surveil Page, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said yesterday that Mueller hopes to finish his investigation by September and that prolonging the probe would risk improper influence on the upcoming midterm elections. Mueller’s office has not commented on the remarks but, according to Giuliani, the date was conditional on Trump participating in an interview with the special counsel, Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Harberman report at the New York Times.

Giuliani said in an interview yesterday that Trump would be unlikely to sit down for an interview with Mueller unless he had access to information about the F.B.I. source, he also explained that Mueller provided him a timeline of the investigation within the context of a discussion of a potential interview with the president. Dana Bash and Eli Watkins report at CNN.

Trump aides and allies met with the U.A.E. political adviser George Nader and Israeli social media specialist Joel Zamel at Trump Tower in August 2016, and according to several sources with knowledge of the matter, the meeting was intended to cultivate relations, with Nader telling Donald Trump Jr. that the Crown Princes of Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. were keen to help his father. Nader is cooperating with Mueller’s investigation and the revelations suggest that countries other than Russia may have assisted the Trump presidential campaign, Mark Mazzetti, Ronen Bergman and David D. Kirkpatrick report at the New York Times.

Trump Jr.’s attorney Alan Futerfas said nothing came of the August meeting, explaining that “prior to the 2016 election, Donald Trump Jr. recalls a meeting with [the founder of the private military firm Blackwater] Erik Prince, George Nader and another individual who may be Joel Zamel,” but that the president’s son was “not interested” in the social media platform or marketing strategy that was proposed. Reuters reports.

The president lashed out at the New York Times on Twitter yesterday for its story on Nader and Zamel, saying in a message that it was a “long & boring story indicating that the World’s most expensive Witch Hunt has found nothing on Russia & me so now they are looking at the rest of the World!” Edward Helmore and agencies report at the Guardian.

The New York-based investment management firm Columbus Nova has received attention due to a donation by its Kremlin-linked chief executive Andrew Intrater to a fundraising event for Trump’s reelection and for the Republican National Committee, which was made upon invitation of Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen. Rosalind S. Helderman, Michael Kranish and Steven Mufson report at the Washington Post.

Cohen met with Qatar’s minister of economy and commerce last month shortly before the F.B.I. raided Cohen’s property, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter. It is not clear what was discussed at the meeting; however, a recent report claimed that Cohen approached the Qatari official Ahmed al-Rumaihi for cash in exchange for access at a meeting in December 2016, Elias Groll and Sharon Weinberger report at Foreign Policy.

Trump’s associate and longtime adviser Roger Stone said yesterday that he was “prepared” to be indicted by Mueller, but emphasized that he believed the special counsel’s team had not found any evidence “whatsoever of Russian collusion” and so may “conjure of some extraneous crime pertaining to my business, or maybe not even pertaining to the 2016 election.” Kailani Koenig reports at NBC News.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump has been pressing his aides as to the wisdom of pursuing the proposed summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and is said to be increasingly concerned the attempts to strike a deal could turn into a political embarrassment. David E. Singer reports at the New York Times.

Trump spoke at the weekend to South Korean President Moon Jae-in and sought Moon’s interpretation of North Korea’s shift to a harder-line position last week, according to a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the conversation. David Nakamura and Carol D. Leonnig report at the Washington Post.

“The two leaders will work closely and unwaveringly for the successful hosting of the North Korea- U.S. summit set on June 12, including the upcoming South Korea-U.S. summit,” said a South Korean presidential official yesterday. Mallory Shelbourne reports at the Hill.

Moon is due to meet Trump in Washington on Wednesday and the two leaders will discuss security assurances and economic incentives for denuclearizing North Korea, with Moon hoping to advise Trump on the proposed June 12 summit. Choe Sang-hun reports at the New York Times.

The North’s decision to break off a high-level meeting with the South last week has put pressure on Moon’s role as an intermediary between Pyongyang and Washington, and has raised questions about Moon’s assertion that Kim genuinely intends to do away with his nuclear weapons. Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the Washington Post, providing a breakdown of the challenges Kim poses for Trump and Moon.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) commented Sunday that if Kim didn’t show up to the summit “that puts us back on the path to conflict,” adding that “President Trump told me three days ago that he wants to end this in a win-win way… He thinks that’s possible.” James Griffiths reports at CNN.

A spokesman for North Korea’s Red Cross Society demanded on Saturday that Seoul should send back a dozen North Korean female restaurant workers working in the South back to their home “without delay” to indicate willingness to improve the inter-Korean relations. Jeongmin Kim and Christine Kim report at Reuters.

Foreign journalists will be permitted to attend the formal the closing of North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site ahead of the proposed June summit but the public display on Mount Mantap will likely be heavy on spectacle and light on substance, comments Eric Talmadge at the Washington Post.

While at first glance North Korea’s pledge to close the test site appears to be a positive first step, it may in fact indicate that Pyongyang believes its nuclear program has made sufficient progress and that further testing is no longer needed. Catherine Dill comments at the BBC.

Several commentators and those within the U.S. administration have been surprised by the savviness demonstrated by Kim over the last few months, with one senior research fellow commenting that “He’s certainly better at playing to world media than his father or grandfather.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Kim’s already doing a victory lap, comments Samantha Vinograd at CNN, who points to the facts that the Trump administration has backed down from demanding full denuclearization and that North Korea are now looking to extract concessions ahead of the June 12 summit.

The Trump administration should not follow security adviser John Bolton’s advice to pursue the “Libya model” and Bolton’s decision to bring up the 2003 disarmament deal was “dangerously insensitive and misconceived,” comments Michael Pembroke at Al Jazeera.

The records of North Korean undercover agent Ri Jong Choi reveal how he helped export goods worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from Malaysia to a North Korean company linked to Pyongyang’s military. Alastair Gale and Tom Wright provide in-depth analysis at the Wall Street Journal.

IRAN

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will set out the Trump administration’s strategy for Iran today, which will include an attempt to build a global coalition to pressure Iran into negotiations on a “new security architecture” that addresses issues beyond the nuclear program. Nicole Gaouette and Laura Koran report at CNN.

Pompeo’s speech comes a few weeks after Trump announced that he would withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which has caused consternation among European allies and threatened the future of the agreement that lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program. Brandon Conradis reports at the Hill.

The ability for European countries to avoid U.S. sanctions on Iran remains a formidable task and challenges the efforts of the European Union (E.U.) to preserve the deal. Emre Peker explains at the Wall Street Journal.

A State Department official yesterday expressed hope shared interests with the E.U. could form a “foundation to continue to work together moving forward” on issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, its activities in the Middle East and its ballistic missiles program. Reuters reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas remains in the West Bank hospital where he was rushed yesterday with a fever, with a lawmaker in Israel’s parliament today announcing that Abbas’s condition has seen a “clear improvement.” The AP reports.

Paraguay today opened its Israel embassy in Jerusalem, becoming the second country after Guatemala to follow the U.S. in doing so. Jeffrey Heller reports at Reuters.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is working to build links with U.S. Christian evangelists, following the appearance of pastor Robert Jeffress at the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem last week. David D. Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Dias and David M. Halbfinger report at the New York Times.

Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan has seized on the deaths of at least 60 people in Gaza last week to position himself as a leader among Muslim states, calling a large political rally in support of Palestinians on Friday where he told the crowd that “as Muslims we do not and cannot do anything other than denounce.” Carlotta Gall reports at the New York Times.

“There is no difference at all between the persecution inflicted on the Jews in Europe 75 years ago and the brutality faced by our brothers in Gaza,” Erdoğan commented at the rally, stating further that “the children of people who were tortured in concentration camps in every way during World War II unfortunately today resort to methods against innocent Palestinians that are in no way inferior to those of the Nazis.” Haaretz, DPA and Reuters report.

The Israeli administration and media’s efforts to deflect scrutiny depend in large part on the promotion of simplified, dumbed-down messages, comments  Halim Shebaya at Al Jazeera, highlighting the misleading conflation of Lebanon with Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah group and Gaza with the militant Palestinian Hamas group.

President Trump is following his ideological instincts in the Middle East, comments Joe Scarborough in Washington Post, cautioning that this mirrors the behavior of former administrations and that “if the past few weeks are any indication, the United States is once again on the wrong track.”

“After U.S. Embassy Move, What Actually Changes For Israelis And Palestinians?” questions Gail Austin at NPR, commenting that demands have stayed the same, impasses between the different sides have been highlighted and the U.S.’ role in future peace talks appears to be shifting.

“There can be no such thing as a peaceful protest in Gaza, only gatherings organized, sanctioned and funded by Hamas,” I.D.F. spokesman Ronen Manelis remarks in the Wall Street Journal, stating further that  “calling this a protest isn’t fake news, just fake”.

SYRIA

The Syrian military today resumed their operation against the Islamic State group in southern Damascus, according to Syrian state media, which quoted an unnamed military official as saying that there had been a truce in place last night to allow civilians to evacuate the area. The AP reports.

Islamic State group fighters were transferred out of the southern Damascus enclave overnight, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which comes after weeks of heavy bombardment by the Syrian army. The AFP reports.

The Syrian government has been carrying out military operations for weeks to recapture the Islamic State group enclave in Damascus, if taken it would give the government full control of the capital and its surroundings. Reuters reports.  

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 66 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between May 11 and May 17. [Central Command]

SOUTH CHINA SEA

China revealed on Friday that it landed a heavy bomber on a disputed island in the South China Sea, highlighting China’s steady militarization, which came a month after its largest ever show of military force in the disputed waters. Bethlehem Feleke reports at CNN.

“The United States remain committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Christopher Logan said in response, saying that reports of Chinese militarization “only serves to raise tensions and destabilize the region.” Reuters reports.

“We are taking the appropriate diplomatic action to protect our claims and will continue to do so in the future,” the Department of Foreign Affairs in the Philippines said in a statement, reacting to China’s militarization in the waters which sees conflicting claims by China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Manuel Mogato reports at Reuters.

YEMEN

The Saudi-led coalition said today that it intercepted a missile fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebels over the southern Saudi city of Jazan, Reuters reports.

House of Representatives lawmakers have been taking steps to curtail U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, with Representatives introducing amendments to National Defense Authorization Act to limit the U.S.’ role. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A Taliban attack in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province has killed at least five people today who were part of a team demining the area. The AP reports.

N.A.T.O. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has expressed concerns about U.S.-Europe relations, noting differences on trade, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, climate change and other areas but stating that the parties could move past some of these issues because of their shared interest in countering Russian expansionism in Eastern Europe. Robbie Gramer reports at Foreign Policy.

The Islamic State group yesterday claimed responsibility for an attack on a church in Russia’s Chechnya republic but did not offer any evidence to support the claim. Reuters reports.

The Facebook founder and C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg will meet with the European parliament today to discuss privacy and the misuse of user data. The meeting will be broadcast publicly on the web, the AP reports.

Republican leaders have been taking steps to push through judicial nominations due to concerns that the party may lose control of the Senate in the upcoming midterm elections. Nina Totenberg explains at NPR. 

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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 - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).