The Early Edition: June 28, 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.

The SUPREME COURT

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy announced yesterday that he will retire this summer, having served as a critical swing vote on the starkly polarized court for nearly three decades. Kennedy embraced liberal views on gay rights, abortion and the death penalty but helped conservatives reduce voting rights, prevent gun control measures and un-fetter campaign spending by corporations, Michael D. Shear reports at the New York Times.

The fight over Kennedy’s replacement looks to be a rallying cry for base voters of both political parties ahead of this fall’s midterm elections, with strategists claiming that the nomination battle is likely to clarify the choices for voters in Senate races across the country. Philip Rucker and Anne Gearan report at the Washington Post.

“It has been the greatest honor and privilege to serve our nation in the federal judiciary for 43 years, 30 of those years on the Supreme Court,” Kennedy said in a statement released in the last day of the Court’s term, adding that his final day will be July 31. Robert Barnes reports at the Washington Post.

President Trump and Senate Republicans intend to move rapidly to install Kennedy’s replacement on the Supreme Court, with Trump commenting yesterday that efforts will start “immediately,” kick-starting an election-year fight over a decision likely to shape the court for a generation. Seung Min Kim and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

“The Senate stands ready to fulfill its constitutional role by offering advice and consent on President Trump’s nominee to fill this vacancy,” Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) commented, adding that “we will vote to confirm Justice Kennedy’s successor this fall.” Carle Hulse reports at the New York Times.

The resignation serves as a capstone for McConnell, who has spent the past eighteen months pushing 42 of Trump’s judicial nominees through the Senate, including one Supreme Court justice and 21 appeals court judges. Sean Sullivan reports at the Washington Post.

Democrats are demanding that McConnell delays confirmation proceedings during an election year, citing his refusal to consider an Obama nominee in 2016. Linda Qiu reports at the New York Times, explaining that McConnell did not explicitly set a precedent for refusing to consider court nominees in all election years, as Democrats say now.

“Millions of people are just months away from determining the senators who should vote to confirm or reject the president’s nominee,” commented Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), adding that “their voices deserve to be heard now … as Leader McConnell thought they deserved to be heard then.”

Republican Senate candidates lashed out at Democratic incumbents after the retirement announcement yesterday, arguing that the Democrats have blocked the progress of conservative judges backed by Trump and their constituents. James Arkin reports at POLITICO.

“I’m very honored that he chose to do it during my term in office,” Trump said of Kennedy during a 70-minute speech at a rally in Fargo, North Dakota, “because he felt confident for me to make the right choice and carry on his great legacy.” Katie Rogers reports at the New York Times.

“Justice Kennedy’s retirement makes the issue of Senate control one of the most important issues of our time,” Trump told the crowd in Fargo, adding that “we have to hold the House and maybe even increase it and I think we’ll be able to do it … the travel ban ruling underscores just how critical it is to confirm judges who will support our constitution.” Tom McCarthy reports at the Guardian.

“We have to pick one that’s going to be there for 40 years, 45 years,” Trump remarked at the rally, later praising Kennedy as “a great justice of the Supreme Court” and telling reporters, “hopefully we are going to pick somebody who will be as outstanding.” The BBC reports.

The summer and fall will likely be consumed by the fight over the proposed replacement, and inject a raft of high-stakes issues into the campaign, including Roe v. Wade, gay rights, voting rights and the rights of workers. Jonathan Martin, Jeremy W. Peters and Elizabeth Dias report at the New York Times.

Kennedy’s upcoming departure and replacement raises questions about his legal legacy. Joan Biskupic provides an analysis at CNN.

“Top legal thinkers” debate Kennedy’s legacy, with opinions from 17 commentators at POLITICO Magazine.

Although predictable, Kennedy’s resignation is crushing, and sends a message to Americans looking to the court for the vindication their rights and protections: they should turn to the ballot box. The New York Times Editorial Board comments.

Kennedy’s decision to step down was in the best interests of the Supreme Court as well as his own legacy, the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board comments.

The Democratic Party lacks the votes and the mechanisms to stop Kennedy’s replacement from being confirmed, “and they know it,” Andrew Desidero and Sam Stein comment at The Daily Beast.

A list of the seven judges considered to be Trump’s front-runners for the Supreme Court vacancy is provided by Felicia Sonmez, Devlin Barrett, Amber Phillips and Robert Barnes at the Washington Post.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

The White House and the Kremlin are today set to announce the date and location of a summit meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladi­mir ­Putin, with the proposed talks indicating a growing rapprochement between the two nations. Anton Troianovski and Philp Rucker report at the Washington Post.

The summit will be held in the Finnish capital city of Helsinki, Fox News reported this morning, citing an unidentified source and without elaboration. Doina Chiacu reports at Reuters.

Moscow indicated today that top diplomats from both sides are likely to meet to set the stage for a summit between the two leaders, with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov set to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo within two weeks. Ryabkov commented through Russian news agencies that Moscow has already made a proposal regarding the specifics of the meeting and is waiting for Washington’s answer, the AP reports.

The announcements come after U.S. national security adviser John Bolton held a series of meetings yesterday in Moscow with Russian officials including Putin himself. Bolton said that an announcement on the time and place of a Trump-Putin summit would be made simultaneously in Washington and Moscow today, with the summit expected to take place somewhere outside of Russia while Trump is in Europe in mid-July, Anton Troianovski reports at the Washington Post.

Putin told Bolton yesterday that he hopes for a full restoration of relations between Moscow and Washington, describing bilateral relations as “not in the best shape.” Denis Pinchuk reports at Reuters.

“Direct contact between Trump and Putin is in the U.S. national interest,” Bolton remarked, adding that “there are a wide range of issues, despite the differences between us, where both President Trump and President Putin think they may be able to find constructive solutions.” Al Jazeera reports.

Bolton indicated that Trump will raise the “full range of issues” with Putin at an upcoming summit, adding that there was not “anything unusual” about such a meeting taking place. Andrew Osborn reports at Reuters.

“A lot of people have said over time that a meeting between the two would somehow prove some nexus between the Trump campaign and President Putin, and that’s complete nonsense,” Bolton commented after emerging from a preparatory meeting with Putin. Kathrin Hille reports at the Financial Times.

“We did indeed talk about Russian interference in the elections and I expect it will be a subject of conversation between the two presidents as well,” Bolton added. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Trump said yesterday that he will “most likely” meet with Putin, adding that “I said it from Day One: Getting along with Russia and China and with everybody is a very good thing … It’s good for the world, it’s good for the U.S. It’s good for everybody.” Peter Nicholas, James Marson and Anatoly Kurmanaev report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump told reporters that he would discuss the war in Syria and the situation in Ukraine with Putin, mentioning Helsinki as a potential venue. The BBC reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated yesterday that Trump believes that Russia should be part of discussions affecting global foreign policy issues. When asked whether Russia should be part of the G-7 group, Pompeo said Trump should speak for himself, although he added that, “the president deeply believes that having Russia be part of these important geostrategic conversations is inevitable, and there’s a long history of that,” Lesley Wroughton reports at Reuters.

European officials have expressed concerns that a Trump-Putin summit could overshadow or undermine the 11-12 July N.A.T.O. meeting – particularly if that gathering ends in acrimony similar to that seen at the recent G-7 talks in Canada. Mark Landler and Andrew E. Kramer report at the New York Times.

U.S. troops in Eastern Europe serve as a buffer against Russian military might, Eric Schmidtt reports in an analysis at the New York Times.

CHINA

“Our stance is steadfast and clear-cut when it comes to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Chinese President Xi Jinping told U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis yesterday when they met in Beijing, adding that his country would not give “any inch of territory” in the Pacific Ocean. Xi’s comments come amid increasing U.S.-China tensions over issues such as the disputed South China Sea, alleged Chinese laser attacks on U.S. warplanes, and U.S. support for Taiwan. Steven Jiang reports at CNN.

“I’m here to keep our relationship on the right trajectory,” Mattis told Xi yesterday, seeking to defuse tensions in the U.S.-China relationship. Missy Ryan and Simon Denyer report at the Washington Post.

Disagreements over the South China Sea hindered Mattis and Xi’s attempt to find common ground, with a senior U.S. defense official saying China had changed “the facts on the ground” in recent months and the two countries do not appear able to reach a compromise on this issue. Gordon Lubold and Jeremy Page report at the Wall Street Journal.

SYRIA

“Let us be aware of what this would mean, if the southwest sees a full-scale battle-to-the end: it could be like eastern Aleppo and eastern Ghouta combined together,” the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told the Security Council yesterday, referring to the largescale civilian suffering as a consequence of devastating assaults in Aleppo and eastern Ghouta and the ongoing pro-Syrian government offensive on rebel-held territory in Deraa province. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The pro-Syrian government forces offensive on Deraa would put more than 750,000 lives at risk, Mistura warned. After Mistura’s briefing, the U.S. deputy ambassador to the U.N. Jonathan Cohen dismissed Russian claims that it was pursuing attempts to reduce the violence in the designated “de-escalation” zone and accused Russia of giving the Syrian regime direct support for the new offensive, Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

Syria’s U.N. ambassador Bashar al-Ja’afari accused Mistura of overstepping his mandate with his comments on Deraa and said the special envoy had failed to recognize the Syrian government’s fight against terrorism. Tom Miles reports at Reuters.

Syrian government forces backed by Russia intensified their offensive on Deraa yesterday in spite of the U.S., Russia and Jordan ceasefire agreement reached last year that was intended to avoid a confrontation that could escalate tensions between competing foreign parties – notably Iran and Israel. Raja Abdulrahim and Dov Lieber report at the Wall Street Journal.

Air strikes on Deraa province have killed at least 46 people, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said today. Reuters reports.

Overnight air raids by Syrian government forces hit rebel-held towns in Deraa and forced hospitals to close. The Trump administration has told Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) rebels in the area that they should not expect U.S. intervention against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s offensive, Tom Perry reports at Reuters.

Humanitarian groups have issued urgent calls for action to prevent civilian casualties in Deraa, warning of the impact of the offensive on civilians and children. The AFP reports.

At least nine people were killed yesterday by a double bombing in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region, which was taken by Turkey-backed rebel groups in March from the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia. Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 35 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between June 18 and June 24. [Central Command]

IRAN

The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has sent a letter to the signatories of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to set out his country’s expectations following U.S. withdrawal from the accord, the presidential chief of staff said yesterday. The letter follows protests in the capital about the state of the economy and a vow by Rouhani not to buckle under U.S. pressure, Aresu Eqbali reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“The people of Iran are tired of the corruption, injustice, and incompetence from their leaders,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement yesterday, referring to protests in Iran and condemning “the government’s same futile tactics of suppression, imprisonment of protestors, and the denial of Iranians’ frustrations.” Julia Manchester reports at the Hill.

The U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Rosemary A. DiCarlo, yesterday gave the Security Council an update on the nuclear agreement, informing members on the status of implementation of various provisions in the deal and also providing an assessment of ballistic-missile related provisions and Iran’s support for the Yemeni Houthi rebels. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Iran has reopened a nuclear plant, the Iranian atomic energy agency said yesterday. The plant had been inactive since 2009, Reuters reports.

LIBYA

The former Libyan militia leader Ahmed Abu Khattala was yesterday sentenced to 22 years in prison by a U.S. federal judge for his role in the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya. Adam Goldman reports at the New York Times.

“We call for all armed actors to cease hostilities and withdraw immediately from oil installations [in Libya] without conditions before further damage occurs,” the U.S., France, Britain and Italy said in a joint statement yesterday, responding to an announcement by forces loyal to Gen. Khalifa Haftar of the self-styled Libyan National Army (L.N.A.) on Monday that they would hand over oil ports to rivals to the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli. Reuters reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

“We’ve been pretty unambiguous in our conversations [with North Korea] about what we mean when we say complete denuclearization,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee yesterday, adding that there has been “a modest amount” of backsliding from China on implementing sanctions against Pyongyang. Patrica Zengerle reports at Reuters.

The South Korean Unification Ministry said it could not confirm the report by the 38 North monitoring group that North Korea has been making rapid improvements to its Yongbyon nuclear plant, stating that it was watching the situation “closely.” Zachary Cohen reports at CNN.

“U.S. commitment to the Republic of Korea remains ironclad,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis assured South Korea today. Phil Stewart and Hyonhee Shin report at Reuters.

Sanctions against North Korea should remain in place until Pyongyang takes concrete and irreversible steps toward denuclearization, Mattis and his South Korean counterpart Song Young-moo said today. Reuters reports.

Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) yesterday introduced a bill laying out “a stringent oversight framework to support principles diplomacy to achieve denuclearization” of North Korea. Rebeca Kheel reports at the Hill.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska loaned £10m to Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, according to a search warrant application that was unsealed yesterday. The application was granted as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Reuters reports.

The F.B.I. agent Peter Strzok appeared before the House investigators in a closed-door session to defend himself against allegations of anti-Trump bias. Strzok worked on the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and the investigation into Russia interference, Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to use the defense authorization bill to force the White House to draw up a clear cyber deterrence policy, with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) remarking: “let’s not sugarcoat it: Washington is dangerously unserious about cybersecurity … we’re decades into the era of cyberwar and we’re still playing catch-up.” Derek Hawkins reports at the Washington Post.

A new report has cautioned that Beijing is ready to turn cultural centers into data-collection centers as the controversial Confucius Institutes intensify a partnership with Chinese tech and telecom giant Z.T.E., already perceived by U.S. lawmakers as a conduit for Chinese surveillance. Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reports at The Daily Beast.

N.A.T.O. SUMMIT

President Trump has sent a sharply worded letters to specific N.A.T.O  members that have not met defense spending thresholds, with the letters following a general template but including additional language tailored to each recipient.“[It is] increasingly difficult to justify to American citizens why some countries do not share N.A.T.O.’s collective security,” Trump wrote, adding that “I, therefore, expect to see a strong recommitment by [country] to meet the goals to which we all agreed,” Robbie Gramer reports at Foreign Policy.

A decision by Trump to cut back U.S. involvement in the N.A.T.O. alliance at the upcoming N.A.T.O. summit may cause an irreconcilable rift between the president and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, with Pentagon officials expressing concern about the situation and that Mattis may leave his post. Barbara Starr reports at CNN.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The international community yesterday voted to extend the mandate of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.) to include assigning responsibility for chemical weapons attacks. The vote was passed despite strong opposition from Russia, the AFP reports.

The U.K. was aware that the U.S. and others were mistreating detainees after the 9/11 attacks and continued to supply intelligence to allies despite knowing or suspecting mistreatment, according to a report by the U.K.’s Intelligence and Security Committee released today. The BBC reports.

“Every time the poisonous viper Mike Pence opens his mouth, I feel stronger,” the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said yesterday, criticizing the Vice President and accusing the U.S. government of seeking to overthrow him. Reuters reports.

A U.N. report released yesterday found that over 10,000 children were killed or maimed in armed conflicts last year, with key countries failing to protect children including in Yemen, Syria, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Satoshi Sugiyama reports at the New York Times.

China and Russia have announced a desire to cut more than 200 jobs related to human rights and the prevention of sexual abuse from the U.N.’s peacekeeping missions, according to diplomats and budget-negotiation documents. The move apparently seeks to exploit U.S. aims to lower spending at the U.N., at a time when the U.S. is seeking to distance itself from the organization, Rick Gladstone reports at the New York Times. 

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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).