The Early Edition: June 5, 2018

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

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Trump called special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation “totally unconstitutional” in a message on Twitter yesterday, referring to Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and whether the president obstructed justice. Trump also added that he has the “absolute right” to pardon himself of federal crimes, but would not need to because he has “done nothing wrong,” Vivian Salama and Jess Bravin report at the Wall Street Journal.

Legal scholars have disputed Trump’s broad assertion of his pardon power and the president’s comments have prompted Republican and Democratic senators to express concern and to reiterate their support for Mueller’s investigation. Michael D. Shear reports at the New York Times.

“If I were president of the United States and I had a lawyer that told me I could pardon myself, I think I would hire a new lawyer,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said yesterday, adding his voice to the chorus of Republican lawmakers warning Trump against trying to pardon himself. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Mueller’s team have accused Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort of witness tampering in court documents yesterday. The prosecutors allege that Manafort – who has pleaded not guilty to fraud and bank-related charged relating to his lobbying work for a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party and former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych – tried to contact two witnesses, both members of a firm of former senior European officials informally named “Hapsburg group,” by phone and through encrypted messaging applications. Spencer S. Hsu, Rosalind S. Helderman, Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

The court filing alleges that Manafort and Person A “repeatedly” contacted two witnesses identified as Person D1 and Person D2 as part of an effort to “secure materially false testimony” relating to Ukraine lobbying work and Yanukovych. Scott Neuman reports at NPR.

The two witnesses had helped Manafort with lobbying and public relations efforts in the U.S. and Europe, and Manafort attempted to use them to influence the Hapsburg group through allegedly illegal contacts in the days after Manafort faced a new set of criminal charges in February. Katelyn Polantz reports at CNN.

The description of one of the witnesses in the court filing, Person A, appears to match Konstantin Kilimnik: a longtime business associate of Manafort’s in Ukraine who is believed to have connections to Russian intelligence services. Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

The prosecutors have asked the judge in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. to revoke Manafort’s bail in light of the allegations of witness tampering. Tom Winter and Alex Johnson report at NBC News.

The recently published 20-page memo delivered by Trump’s legal team to Mueller acknowledged that the president dictated the misleading statement about the controversial Trump Tower meeting in June 2016, contradicting public remarks made by the president’s legal team and the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders for almost a year. Matt Apuzzo reports at the New York Times.

The White House yesterday declined to explain the changing account of the statement relating to the Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Trump campaign officials and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

“I swear to God, it was a mistake,” Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said of the revelation that the president dictated the statement about the Trump Tower meeting, stating that the president and his legal team did not lie about the situation. Eli Watkins reports at CNN.

Mueller’s team has been investigating Joel Zamel and his company Wikistrat, which, according to internal company documents, has received the majority of its revenue from clients that were foreign governments. Ken Klippenstein reports at The Daily Beast.

“It has long been clear that Mr. Trump confuses the role and powers of the president with those of a king,” the New York Times editorial board writes, responding to Trump’s assertion of his power to self-pardon and arguing that his remarks are part of an effort to “pre-emptively place the blame” for any losses suffered by the Republicans at the upcoming midterm elections.

TRUMP-KIM SUMMIT

Top senators in both parties signaled yesterday that Congress will not merely sit back and watch as President Trump prepares for next week’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, with Democrats laying out a tough set of demands regarding any future nuclear deal and Republicans also indicating that they would want oversight of any pact should the talks get that far. Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

North Korea’s announcement that Kim is planning to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad yesterday was met with silence from Trump, despite Syria and North Korea’s shared history of nuclear proliferation. David E. Sanger and Mark Landler report at the New York Times.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Sunday that the roughly 28,000 U.S. troops based in South Korea are “not going anywhere,” adding that “it’s not even a subject of the discussions” and that countries such as Canada “are even putting people in…to show…that we’re all standing together.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The White House said yesterday that its policy of tough sanctions on North Korea has not changed, despite Trump’s assertion following last week’s talks that he no longer wanted to use the phrase “maximum pressure” with regard to the U.S.’ North Korea strategy. White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that “we have sanctions on, they are very powerful and we would not take those sanctions off unless North Korea denuclearized,” Steve Holland and Patricia Zengerle report at Reuters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has commented that nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea should not be a “one-way road,” adding in remarks made yesterday that Washington should be prepared to reward Pyongyang if it suspends nuclear and missile tests. The AP reports.

The head of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog (International Atomic Energy Agency) Yukiya Amano has asserted that the agency could resume work in North Korea “promptly” to verify any possible agreement between Washington and Pyongyang, informing reporters in Vienna that “we will be able to resume our verification activities at short notice, within weeks, not months, once [governing] board authorization is given.” The AP reports.

South Korean officials are playing down the possibility of an inter-Korean peace declaration, following President Donald Trump’s suggestion he may be able to declare an end to the Korean War at next week’s U.S.-North Korea summit. Seoul declined to comment yesterday, but officials behind the scenes cautioned against an overly optimistic approach, Andrew Jeong reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Acceding to Kim’s request that all 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea should be withdrawn would be a mistake, comments Michael O’Hanlon at the Wall Street Journal, although it may make sense to scale back the size of the force.

It’s in the interests of all U.S. politicians for nuclear talks with North Korea to succeed, “because the alternative — a military crisis with a nuclear-armed Kim Jong Un – is too awful to contemplate,” Bill Scher argues at POLITICO Magazine.

A presidential summit is seldom the right forum for nuclear diplomacy – though a nuclear deal may be ratified in such a setting, it should be negotiated in advance by experts with sufficient time and knowledge. William Lloyd Stearman comments at the Wall Street Journal.

Kim may have legitimate concerns that he will be overthrown at home during talks in Singapore next week, Donald Kirk comments at The Daily Beast.

SYRIA

Human rights group Amnesty International said today that attacks by the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State group in the Syrian city of Raqqa last year may have broken international law by endangering the lives of civilians. Angus McDowall reports at Reuters.

The U.S. and Turkey agreed yesterday on a strategy for the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters from the northern Syrian city of Manbij, as a stepping stone toward resolving an intense dispute between the two nations. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reportedly “endorsed a road map” to “ensure security and stability in Manbij,” Carlotta Gall reports in the New York Times.

The roadmap agreed between the U.S. and Turkey provides that Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia members will be stripped of their weapons when withdrawing from Manbij, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said today. Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay report at Reuters.

The Y.P.G. announced today that its military advisers would leave Manbij, stating that its fighting forces had withdrawn from the city in November 2016, but its military advisors had remained to work with the Manbij Military Council. Lisa Barrington reports at Reuters.

The U.S is snubbing a session of the U.N.’s main disarmament body in response to Syria’s taking up of the rotating presidency. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood justified the decision as a rejoinder to Syria’s “repeated attempts” to use its presidency to “normalize the regime and its unacceptable and dangerous behavior.” The AP reports.

Top Israeli Cabinet Minister Yoav Gallant yesterday said that although Assad is a “monster” he is not Israel’s primary concern, adding that the despite the fact the Syrian President is the region’s “greatest murderer” since World War II, “this is a worldwide problem and not Israel’s problem.” The AP reports.

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

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei yesterday ordered officials to accelerate preparations for advanced nuclear enrichment within the limits of the 2015 nuclear deal, commenting in a speech that “the Iranian nation and its government will not tolerate to be both subject to sanctions and have its nuclear program restricted and imprisoned.” Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Michael Peel report at the Financial Times.

“Our enemies will never be able to halt our nuclear progress…It is their bad dream and will not happen,” Khamenei remarked in the televised speech, adding that while “some Europeans are talking about limiting our defensive missile program. I am telling the Europeans: ‘limiting our missile work is a dream that will never come true.’” Parisa Hafezi reports at Reuters.

The Iranian Atomic Energy Organization is poised to hand a letter to the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog (International Atomic Energy Agency), with Atomic Energy Organization spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi commenting that “Iran will announce [in the letter] that the process of increasing the capacity to produce… UF6 [uranium hexafluoride]… will start on Tuesday.” The BBC reports.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to persuade German Chancellor Angela Merkel to drop her support for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in the first talks of his European tour yesterday, with Merkel remarking yesterday that although Germany supports Israel’s right to security, this will not be best achieved through the scrapping of the 2015 agreement. Oliver Holmes and Patrick Wintour report at the Guardian.

Iran wants to “conduct a religious campaign in largely Sunni Syria but try to convert Sunnis,” Netanyahu said at a joint press conference with Merkel, adding that “this will inflame another religious war – this time a religious war inside Syria and the consequences will be many, many more refugees and you know where exactly they will come.” Merkel commented that “we have the same goal that Iran must never get a nuclear weapon and the difference between us is how to do that.” AFP reports.

“#Israel is a malignant cancerous tumor in the West Asian region that has to be removed and eradicated: it is possible and it will happen,” Khamenei’s office claimed in a message on Twitter that drew criticism from Netanyahu and Merkel. The AP reports.

AFGHANISTAN

The U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has condemned yesterday’s suicide bombing attack on senior clerics in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack in Kabul. The AP reports.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani condemned the bombing and also backed the fatwa against suicide attacks issued by the clerics shortly before their gathering in Kabul. Reuters reports.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said yesterday that Doha’s plan to buy Russian-made S-400 air defense systems is a “sovereign” decision and reports that Saudi Arabia has threatened to take military action should the weapons be acquired violates “international law and international norms.” The increased tensions come amid the ongoing dispute between Qatar and a Saudi-led bloc, Al Jazeera reports.

“Qatar has been subjected to a reckless and ill-considered blockade imposed by four countries: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt,” Foreign Minister al-Thani writes at the New York Times, lamenting the consequences of Qatar’s isolation and calling for a restoration of Gulf unity.

The blockade of Qatar has now entered its second year. Sultan Barakat provides an overview at Al Jazeera of the crisis and its implications for the Gulf Cooperation Council (G.C.C.) and regional power dynamics.

The Saudi-led bloc sought to undermine Qatar, but has in fact empowered the Gulf state. Hassan Hassan writes at Foreign Policy.

U.S.-GERMANY RELATIONS

Germany said yesterday that it has asked the new U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell to clarify his comments about “empowering” European conservatives, following an interview with far-right website Breitbart where Grenell applauded what he described as a “groundswell of conservative policies” linked to “the failed policies of the left.” German politicians and media have deemed Grenell’s comments to be unusually interventionist for a diplomat, AFP reports.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) criticized Grenell in strong terms yesterday, claiming that “an ambassador’s most critical responsibility is to advance our national interests by developing relationships and trust with their host country. They should not meddle in local or regional politics by backing political parties, candidates or causes,” and expressing the view that Grenell should be recalled if he makes similar statements in the future. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

CYBSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

The lack of senior cybersecurity officials in the Trump administration risks leaving the U.S. more vulnerable to digital warfare and less prepared for cyber-attacks, according to lawmakers and experts concerned about the direction of travel under White House national security adviser John Bolton. Eric Geller reports at POLITICO.

The Pentagon has been conducting research into developing artificial intelligence-driven systems to help anticipate potential nuclear strikes against the United States. Phil Stewart reveals at Reuters.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for Venezuela to be suspended from the Organization of American States (O.A.S.) at the 48th session of the O.A.S. General Assembly in Washington yesterday, telling representatives of the 35 member countries that the undermining of democracy and constitutional order in Venezuela and its failure live up to its O.A.S. responsibilities warranted such action. Rafael Bernal reports at the Hill.

A U.S. airstrike killed 27 al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab extremists in northern Somalia, the U.S. Africa Command said in a statement yesterday. The AP reports.

Former Defense Intelligence Agency case officer Ron Rockwell Hansen was arrested on Saturday for allegedly spying against the U.S. for China. Mike Ives reports at the New York Times.

The U.N. Yemen mediator Martin Griffiths has held talks with the rebel Houthi movement to discuss a proposal for the Hodeidah port to be placed under U.N. supervision in order to avoid a possible offensive by the Saudi-led coalition, according to Yemeni political sources. Mohamed Mokhashef reports at Reuters.

The Islamic State group claimed it was behind an attack in southwest Pakistan today, which killed three security officers and wounded two. The AP reports. 

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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.