The Early Edition: June 4, 2018

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

TRUMP-KIM SUMMIT

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is planning to visit North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s state media reported yesterday, in what may be Kim’s first summit meeting with a foreign head of state in Pyongyang. Jonathan Cheng reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Assad was quoted as saying that he would meet Kim on Wednesday, the remarks allegedly made as Assad received the credentials of North Korean ambassador Mun Jong-nam. Assad added that he was sure that Mr Kim would “achieve the final victory and realize the reunification of Korea without fail,” the BBC reports.

The report gave no details on the timing of possible trip by Assad, who has rarely left Syria since the country’s conflict erupted over seven years ago. No immediate comment has been made by Syrian officials, Ben Murphy reports at the Washington Post.

“The optics are horrendous given that Kim Jong-un is trying to posture as a good guy,” commented Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Sue Mi Terry, who added that “hosting Assad, one of the worst butchers on the planet, as your first foreign leader visit is not a good P.R. move.” Mokoto Rich reports at the New York Times.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has invited Kim to meet at the Russian city of Vladivostok in September, R.I.A news agency reported today. Polina Ivanova reports at Reuters.

South Korea Defense Minister Song Young-moo said Saturday that the international community should give Kim the benefit of the doubt in the build-up to the proposed summit with President Trump, and that excessive skepticism as to his motives could disturb the diplomatic process. “Just because we have been tricked by North Korea in the past doesn’t guarantee that we will be tricked in the future,” Song commented at the Shangri-La national security summit, Jonathan Cheng reports at the Wall Street Journal.

North Korea’s top three military officials have been removed from their posts, according to a senior U.S. official. Analysts have commented today that the move could illustrate Kim’s desire to promote economic development and engage with the world. Josh Smith and John Walcott report at Reuters.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry commented that the wholesale reshuffle would be unusual if confirmed, and Ministry Spokesman Baik Tae-hyun remarked that “we will monitor related developments.” AFP reports.

U.S. officials believe the move may have been geared to silence dissent in the military about Kim’s stance on South Korea and the U.S., with Kim maneuvering to ensure that any deal struck with Trump does not attract opposition at home. Benjamin Haas reports at the Guardian.

Trump said that he no longer intends to use the term “maximum pressure” with regard to his North Korea strategy – Trump’s comments following a meeting in the Oval Office with North Korean top official Kim Yong-chol on Friday. Mark Landler and David E. Sanger report and provide analysis at the New York Times.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has warned that it will be “a bumpy road” toward nuclear talks later this month with North Korea, making the remarks at Shangri-La yesterday, and adding that “in this moment we are steadfastly committed to strengthening even further our defense cooperation as the best means for preserving the peace.” Mallory Shelbourne reports at the Hill.

“We will continue to implement all U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea,” Mattis said in his meeting with Japanese and South Korean counterparts, adding that “North Korea will receive relief only when it demonstrates verifiable and irreversible steps to denuclearization.” Idrees Ali reports at Reuters.

Some U.S. officials have been alarmed by Trump’s recent displays of warmth towards North Korea, in particular concerned that Trump is too readily handing propaganda victories to the North, with former State Department diplomat Christopher R. Hill commenting “no question this is speed dating.” David Nakamura reports at the Washington Post.

The Singaporean government announced today that it has designated a central region of the city state as a “special event area” from June 10 to 14, for the planned summit between Trump and Kim. Aradhana Aravindan and Dewey Sim report at Reuters.

The planning of the summit meeting between Trump and Kim will be a complex, detailed task, reports Motoko Rich at the New York Times, adding that “the two sides will be negotiating everything from the site of the meeting to which leader sits where at the table, who is allowed in the room with them, the number of meals and breaks, what to use in a toast between the two leaders…what gifts could be exchanged and who will pay for what.”

Speculation has escalated as to how North Korea will handle the bill for the proposed summit, after a Washington Post report cited two anonymous U.S. officials indicating that the Trump administration has been “seeking a discreet way” to help pay Kim’s hotel costs.  Eric Talmadge reports at the Washington Post.

Planners face the unprecedented challenge of merging Trump’s extrovert style with Kim’s reclusive, carefully guarded image, Nahal Toosi comments at POLTICO.

A primer for “everything you need to know about Trump’s big envelope from Kim Jong-un and the hope for world peace,” is provided by Avi Selk at the Washington Post.  

President Trump seems to be moving towards a weaker nuclear deal with North Korea than was previously in place with Iran, Nic Robertson comments at CNN.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The president “probably does” have the power to pardon himself, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said in an interview with ABC News yesterday, during which he discussed special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and whether the president obstructed justice. Morgan Winsor reports at ABC News.

The president has “very broad” constitutional powers but pardoning himself “would just be unthinkable” as it would “lead to probably an immediate impeachment,” Giuliani said in an interview with NBC News yesterday, also saying that Trump’s constitutional authority extended to ending Mueller’s investigation. Leigh Ann Caldwell reports at NBC News.

Trump would have to be impeached before he could be criminally prosecuted for any matter, Giuliani said yesterday, offering a hypothetical example that the president would have to be impeached before he could be prosecuted if he shot the former F.B.I. Director James Comey to end the Russia investigation. S.V. Date reports at the HuffPost Sunday.

Giuliani’s comments on the president’s constitutional authority came after a January letter sent by Trump’s lawyers to Mueller was published Saturday by the New York Times, and the president’s legal team argued that Trump “could, if he wished, terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon if he so desired” – arguments which Giuliani, who joined the legal team this April, said he largely agreed with. Aruna Viswanatha reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The 20-page confidential letter claims that the president cannot obstruct any aspect of the Russia investigation because of his unfettered authority over all federal investigations. The letter also argues that Trump cannot be compelled to testify and attempts to dissuade Mueller from subpoenaing the president, Michael S. Schmidt, Maggie Haberman, Charlie Savage and Matt Apuzzo report at the New York Times.

The letter to Mueller is provided by the New York Times.

“Listen, there’s no way that’ll happen, and the reason it won’t is because then it becomes a political problem,” the Trump ally and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said of the president’s ability to pardon himself, appearing on ABC shortly after Giuliani. Ashley Parker and Joel Achenbach report at the Washington Post.

Republican lawmakers expressed concern about the possibility of self-pardon following Giuliani’s comments, with the House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) wondering “why we’re walking through hypotheticals here in this process.” Mallory Shelbourne reports at the Hill.

“I think [if] the President decided he was going to pardon himself, I think that’s almost self-executing impeachment,” the former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara said yesterday, adding that he does not believe Giuliani’s assertion that Trump isn’t considering a self-pardon. Maegan Vazquez and Veronica Stracqualursi report at CNN.

Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski called on Mueller to avoid subpoenaing the president in an interview yesterday, saying that it can be avoided if Mueller and the White House “can work together and determine that the questions that will be asked will be relevant to an investigation to prove once and for all there was no collusion.” Jacqueline Klimas reports at POLITICO.

Rick Gerson, a close friend of the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, is a person of interest in the Mueller investigation due to his involvement in key meetings, including: a meeting between the Trump associate and founder of the Blackwater private military firm Erik Prince and top Russian and U.A.E. officials; and another meeting between the incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn, the chief political adviser Steve Bannon, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi and the U.A.E. ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Otaiba. Carol E. Lee and Julia Ainsley report at NBC News.

The understanding of presidential power in the 20-page memo “is radical and absolutist” and is likely to be “sharply rejected should it ever be proffered in court,” the former U.S. attorney and deputy assistant attorney general Harry Litman writes at the New York Times, offering counterpoints to the three pillars of defense submitted in the letter.

SYRIA

The Justice Department claimed that Trump’s airstrikes on Syrian facilities on April 13 did not require congressional approval, explaining in a memo released Friday that the president had “reasonably determined that the use of force would be in the national interest and that the anticipated hostilities would not rise to the level of a war in the constitutional sense.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The State Department has designated the Syrian Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (H.T.S.) alliance as a foreign terrorist organization. H.T.S. – which is an offshoot of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front – has been fighting with Western-backed forces and others in the northwestern Idlib province, Jessica Donati reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) have begun the next phase in their operation to defeat the “remnants” of the Islamic State group in northeastern Syria, U.S. Central Command announced in a statement yesterday.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 41 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between May 25 and May 31. [Central Command]

IRAN

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is traveling to Europe in an attempt to gain support from key allies for amending the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and forcing Iranian forces out of Syria. Caron Creighton reports at the Washington Post.

Netanyahu will hold talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin today, followed by a joint news conference, and then will continue on to Paris for meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron tomorrow and British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday. AFP reports.

The U.S.’ “illegal withdrawal” from the Iran nuclear deal and its “bullying methods to bring other governments in line” have discredited the rule of law in international arena, according to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Bozorgmehr Sharafedin reports at Reuters.

The comments were made in a letter from Zarif to his counterparts in which he urged “the remaining signatories and other trade partners” to “make up for Iran’s losses” caused by the U.S. exit if they hoped to save the deal – itself a result of “meticulous, sensitive and balanced multilateral talks.” Al Jazeera reports.

The head of U.N. nuclear watchdog Yukiya Amano has called for Iran to provide “timely and proactive cooperation” in the inspections that form part of the international nuclear deal. The AP reports.

Iran wants to remain in Syria to recoup its investment in the conflict, despite increasing Russian and Israeli pressure, Borzou Daragahi comments at Foreign Policy.

AFGHANISTAN

At least eight people have been killed in a suicide bombing on a gathering of Afghanistan’s top clerics in the capital of Kabul today, no one has immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. Qadir Sediqi report at Reuters.

The clerics had issued a fatwa against suicide bombings and called on the Taliban and other militants to agree on a ceasefire shortly before the attack, Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah report at the AP.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel carried out airstrikes against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip in response to projectiles being fired from Gaza at Israel, the Israeli military said Saturday. The confrontation following a de fact ceasefire reached by Israel and Palestinian militants last week, Reuters reports.

A Palestinian has been killed at the Israel-Gaza border today the Israeli military has said, stating that it opened fire on two Palestinians who were carrying an axe and attempting to breach the fence. The AP reports.

Thousands of Palestinians turned out to protest on Saturday following the killing of Gazan medical nurse Razan al-Najjar by Israeli sniper fire on Friday, her death coming after weeks of Palestinian protests at the Israel-Gaza border. Ian Lee and Dominique van Heerden report at CNN.

YEMEN

The Trump administration is considering an appeal from the U.A.E. for direct U.S. support in seizing Yemeni port Hodeidah from Iranian-backed Houthi fighters, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking for a quick assessment of the plea. Dion Nissenbaum reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.N. is making a final push to persuade the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen not to launch a deadly assault on Hodeidah and to allow time to strike a deal that would preserve the port’s role in distributing humanitarian aid. Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

SOUTH CHINA SEA

The Pentagon has been considering plans for a more assertive approach in the South China Sea by conducting longer and larger naval patrols in the disputed waters, according to U.S. officials and Western and Asian diplomats. The proposals come amid increased tensions and comments by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Saturday that China’s militarization of the South China Sea was now a “reality” for which Beijing would face unspecified consequences, Greg Torode and Idrees Ali reporting at Reuters.

The recent buildup of Chinese military activity in the South China Sea is a cause for concern, the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, welcoming bipartisan efforts to stand up to Beijing and stating that a “firmer stand to deter Chinese military expansionism is an essential start.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

“Fierce domestic political contest in the United States” is to blame for the delay to a proposed summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump, Putin said in remarks broadcast today. Reuters reports.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on China to “make a full public accounting of those killed, detained or missing” during Chinese crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 in a statement today. The AP reports.

The U.S.-led N.A.T.O. Saber Strike 18 military exercises began yesterday along N.A.T.O.’s eastern flank, the AP reports.

The new U.S. ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell said he wants to “empower other conservatives throughout Europe” in an interview with Breitbart, and also criticized Germany for insufficient military spending. Deutsche Welle reports.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau labeled Trump’s reasons for imposing tariffs of Canadian steel and aluminum “frankly insulting and unacceptable” in an interview with NBC News yesterday, expressing dismay that the Trump administration has relied on national security arguments to justify its decision. Al Jazeera reports.

The Saudi-led diplomatic isolation and blockade of Qatar will enter its second year tomorrow. Jon Gambrell provides an overview of the dispute at the AP. 

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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.