The Early Edition: July 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-PUTIN SUMMIT

“President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial” of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, President Trump said at an extraordinary news conference yesterday following their summit meeting in the Finnish capital of Helsinki. Trump, standing alongside the Russian President, questioned the assessment of the U.S. intelligence agencies which concluded that Moscow had interfered in the election and attacked special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling as “ridiculous” and a “witch hunt,” Julie Hirschfeld Davis reports at the New York Times.

Putin said that they discussed inviting Mueller’s investigators to Russia to question the 12 Russian intelligence officers charged on Friday for allegedly hacking the Democratic National Committee’s (D.N.C.) computer servers during the election – which Trump called an “incredible offer” – and said later in an interview with Fox News that “it’s quite clear to me that this [Mueller’s investigation] is used in the internal political struggle.” Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump refused to hold Russia accountable for any aspects of the deteriorating U.S.-Russia relationship during the news conference and praised Putin as a “good competitor.” The Russian President denied that Moscow interfered in the U.S. election but conceded that he wanted Trump to win the presidency, Matthew Nussbaum reports at POLITICO.

“Do you really believe that someone acting from the Russian territory could have influenced the United States and influenced the choice of millions of Americans? This is utterly ridiculous,” Putin said in the Fox News interview, also defending the revelations from the D.N.C. hack and stating that “an apology should be made to the public at large instead of looking for the party at fault.” Felicia Sonmez reports at the Washington Post.

“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy,” the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in a statement after the Helsinki news conference, adding that the U.S. intelligence community would continue “to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence” assessments. Reuters reports.

Many Republicans rebuked President Trump for his comments at the Helsinki news conference, with many of their criticisms echoing comments by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) who said in statement that “there is no question that Russia interfered in our election … The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia.” Jessica Taylor reports at NPR.

Democrats were also outraged by the president’s comments and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) demanded action, including increased sanctions on Russia; for Trump’s national security team and members of the intelligence agencies and the Department of Justice to appear before Congress; and for Trump to put pressure on Putin to extradite the 12 Russian intelligence officers charged on Friday. Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Nicholas Fandos and Thomas Kaplan reports at the New York Times.

“Millions of Americans will continue to wonder if the only possible explanation for this dangerous behavior is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump,” Schumer said yesterday. The House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) made similar comments, saying that the Helsinki press conferences “proves the Russians have something on the president, personally, financially or politically,” Jordain Carney reporting at the Hill.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz) said yesterday that he is working on a resolution to “hold Russia to account” and to counter Trump’s comments during the press conference in Helsinki. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

“We just see the ungrounded accusations – why is it done this way? Why should our relationship be made worse by this?” Putin said in the Fox News interview in response to a question about the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury in March, claiming that focus on the case was being driven by domestic political considerations in Britain – in much the same way as the “accusations of meddling in the election process in America.” The AFP reports.

“Russia and the United States will work jointly” to help ensure Israel’s security, Trump said at the news conference, while Putin said that conditions were in place for effective cooperation on Syria. The AP and Haaretz report.

Trump ignored most of the briefing materials provided to him by staffers for the summit meeting, according to one source familiar with the discussions, who said the president’s comments were “very much counter to the plan,” and there were signs ahead of the meeting that the president was willing disregard his own advisers. Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Carol D. Leonnig report at the Washington Post.

Putin said that he “reassured President Trump” that Russia stands ready to extend the New START nuclear treaty that caps deployable nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles and expires in 2021, explaining in his interview with Fox News that “we have to agree on specifics at first, because we have some questions to our America partners” including their compliance with the treaty. Reuters reports.

Many in Europe have expressed concern about Trump’s comments about his intelligence agencies and the possible implications for European security and the transatlantic relationship. Michael Birnbaum reports at the Washington Post.

Russian media presented the Trump-Putin summit as a step toward improving the U.S.-Russia relationship. Angela Charlton and Jim Heintz report at the AP.

Russian officials praised the summit as a success, with the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov describing the talks as “better than super.” Nathan Hodge reports at CNN.

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT: OPINION & ANALYSIS

The events of the summit are hard to fathom, and Trump – once again showing himself to be out of his depth – is getting the U.S. into deep trouble, the New York Times Editorial Board comments.

The President has returned to the U.S. from his international tour with his reputation diminished, comments the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board, arguing that “by going soft on Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump will paradoxically find it even harder to make deals with the Russian.”

In accepting the reasoning of a hostile foreign leader over the findings of the U.S.’ own intelligence agencies, Trump departed from all conceptions of normal presidential conduct, Mark Landler argues at the New York Times.

Trump’s siding with Putin’s denial of election interference is significant, and may serve to validate claims that the President prizes his own interests above those of the U.S., Stephen Collinson argues at CNN.  

There is now overwhelming evidence to show that Trump has indulged in treasonous behavior, Thomas L. Friedman argues at the New York Times.

The summit marks a major victory for Russian officials, who gleefully saw their leader exploit Trump’s lack of preparation, Andrea Mitchell writes at NBC.

Putin made full use of his K.G.B. training to fool Trump, taking advantage of the President’s lack of attention to detail, Anna Nemtsova and Christopher Dickey comment at The Daily Beast.

Forging a fresh relationship with Russia appears to be as much of an “idée fixe” for Trump as diplomacy to Iran was for President Obama, who never entirely appreciated that the U.S. political system limits the ability of presidents to bring about diplomatic revolutions when faced with resistance from congress, Walter Russell Mead comments at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s “slavish and toadying performance” at the summit, suggests that the president is just as compromised as might have been feared, Michelle Goldberg comments at the New York Times.

The Helsinki served as an indication to U.S.’ allies and foes around the existing world that the world order has been upended, Christopher Cadelago comments at POLITICO.

Trump’s conduct has opened the door for further Russian aggression toward the U.S., Germany and the U.K., and has left the future of N.A.T.O in doubt, Edward Luce comments at the Financial Times

Five takeaways from the summit are identified by Niall Stanage at the Hill.

A roundup of questionable assertions made by both presidents is provided by Salvador Rizzo and Meg Kelly at the Washington Post.

An analysis of the non-verbal cues at the summit is provided by Ken Thomas and Jonathan Lemire at the AP.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

A Russian woman who attempted to arrange a secret meeting between Trump and Putin during the 2016 presidential campaign was charged yesterday and accused of colluding with Americans in a Russian attempt to influence U.S. politics. Court records show that Mariia Butina made connections through the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.), the National Prayer Breakfast and other religious organizations to try to direct the Republican Party toward more pro-Russia policies, Matt Apuzzo, Katie Benner and Sharon LaFraniere report at the New York Times.

Butina was ordered held without bail pending a hearing on Wednesday, with prosecutors moving rapidly on the charges as they feared Butina was about to leave the Washington area, according to a person familiar with the matter. Aruna Viswanatha and  Del Quentin Wilber report at the Wall Street Journal.

Butina is “not an agent,” her attorney Robert Driscoll said in a statement released yesterday, claiming that she is an international relations student “who is seeking to use her degree to pursue a career in business”. The charges against Butina are not related to the Mueller probe that is examining alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, the BBC reports.

Only Butina was named directly in the criminal complaint, but the document appears to reference associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin and long-time N.R.A. supporter Alexander Torshin. Authorities have been investigating whether Butina and Torshin, gun enthusiasts who attended N.R.A. events together, used N.R.A. entities not required to disclose their funding sources as “back channels” to funnel money to the Trump campaign. Josh Meyer and Darren Samuelsohn report at POLITICO.

“They would question officials, including the officers of law enforcement and intelligence services of the U.S., who we believe have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said at yesterday’s summit with Trump in Helsinki, hinting at the reciprocal action expected should Russia invite Mueller to interview those indicted by grand jury last week. Putin cited Browder as an example of one such investigation – a move suggesting that Putin was involved in the planning of the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting at which Browder was discussed, Philip Bump reports at the Washington Post.

The Mueller probe has “driven a wedge between us and Russia,” Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity in his first one-on-one interview since his meeting with Putin in Helsinki, claiming that “maybe we’ve just knocked down that wedge.” Trump added that “it’s a phony witch hunt, rigged deal,” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Russian company Concord Management and Consulting – accused of funding a massive online operation to influence the 2016 presidential election – claimed yesterday that it had broken no federal laws, arguing that it had merely supported political free speech and that the fraud charge leveled against it by special counsel Robert Mueller should be thrown out. Tom Jackman reports at the Washington Post.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) yesterday called on the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) to review allegations against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The allegations suggest that Rosenstein threatened to subpoena phone records and documents from a House Intelligence Committee staffer; threats that one aide has described as “downright chilling,” Juliegrace Brufke reports at the Hill.

Butina’s arrest is the closest the authorities have come to alleging collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia directly, Betsy Woodruff comments at The Daily Beast.

A transcript of the “the speech Trump should give” regarding alleged Russian interference and the Mueller probe is drafted by William McGurn at the Wall Street Journal.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The U.S. military is expecting to repatriate the remains of up to 55 service members killed during the Korean War, a U.S. official announced today, with the repatriations likely to occur next week or the week after. Adam Taylor reports at the Washington Post.

The two Koreas have entirely restored a military communications hotline that connects the two nations on the Yellow Sea side, in a move aimed at easing military tension and building trust across the border. The restoration comes as a follow-up to the agreement reached between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in at their landmark summit in April, Song Jung-a reports at the Financial Times.

Kim Jong-un has slated local officials over a delayed construction project, state media reported today, the comments marking Kim’s second rebuke over the economy in recent weeks.  The comments come at a time when Pyongyang is engaged in negotiations with Washington over denuclearization, though little material progress has been made, Hyung-Jin Kim reports at the AP.

Kim is sending a domestic and external signal that the North is focusing on its own economy after the Singapore summit with President Trump, one Professor of North Korean studies has suggested. AFP reports.

SYRIA

Dozens of Syrians approached the frontier of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights today, in an apparent attempt to seek sanctuary from a Russian-backed Syrian army offensive. The Syrians were turned back at the border by Israeli army soldiers, with one officer telling the crowd “go back before something bad happens … if you want us to be able to help you, go back … get a move on.” Reuters reports.

At least 10 civilians were killed in a Russian airstrike on a school serving as a shelter in southwest Syria near the Israeli frontier, according to a Syrian search and rescue team. The school building in the village of Ain el-Tineh was allegedly being used to shelter families who have been forced to flee their homes, the AP reports.

Pro-government Syrian forces clashed with rebels over a reconnaissance point near the Israeli border yesterday, according to U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. State media reported that government forces seized the hill of Tell al-Ha, but the Observatory claimed that an al-Qaeda linked faction fighting alongside rebels ambushed government troops, forcing them to retreat and killing twelve, the AP reports.

The strategic hilltop is the highest ground in Deraa province and has been heavily bombed by Russian and Syrian army air raids since Sunday, having fallen into rebel hands in October 2014.  Al Jazeera reports.

Although President Trump may buy into official Russian-Syrian plans for the forced repatriation of refugees in Syria, horrors await those refugees who return, Sulome Anderson explains at The Daily Beast.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 14 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between July 9 and July 15. [Central Command]

AFGHANISTAN

At least 54 civilians and security personnel have been released from a Taliban prison in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, a provincial official said today. The development comes after Trump administration officials said yesterday that the U.S. would be open to holding direct talks with the Taliban, the AP reports.

Gen. John Nicholson said his comments about U.S. willingness to negotiate directly with the Taliban were “mischaracterized,” the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan saying that the “United States is not a substitute for the Afghan people or the Afghan government.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The Afghan government plans to announce a second ceasefire with the Taliban around the time of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha in late August, with the aim being to kickstart efforts to find a resolution to the 17-year war. Craig Nelson, Jessica Donati and Habib Khan Totakhil report at the Wall Street Journal.

IRAN

“They are having big protests all over the country, probably as big as they have ever had before. And battles happened since I terminated that deal, so we will see,” President Trump said yesterday, connecting his decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May with the unrest taking place in Iran. The AFP reports.

The French, British and German governments – who are signatories to the 2015 deal – have told Iran that they are exploring means to open a financial channel to keep the agreement alive following U.S. withdrawal and sanctions being leveled against Iran by the Trump administration. Laurence Norman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Iran yesterday filed a complaint to the International Court of Justice (I.C.J.) “to hold U.S. accountable for its unlawful re-imposition of unilateral sanctions,” the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in a message on Twitter yesterday, referring to sanctions that have been reinstated since the U.S. withdrew from the nuclear agreement. Al Jazeera reports.

Iranian security forces have arrested four suspected Islamic State group operatives who were planning attacks, the Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said today according to the Tasnim news agency. Reuters reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel today placed new restrictions on its only cargo crossing with the Gaza Strip in response to attacks by the Palestinian Hamas militant group, including the use of incendiary kites and balloons which have been flown from Gaza into Israeli territory. Aron Heller reports at the AP.

The Israeli military and Hamas exchanged fire yesterday, with the Israeli Defense Forces (I.D.F.) saying in a statement that it had hit targets near where incendiary balloons were being launched at Israel. Yaniv Kubovich, Almog Ben Zikri and Jack Khoury report at Haaretz.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Heavy fighting between Yemeni pro-government forces and Shi’ite rebels has killed more than 30 civilians including women and children in the last two weeks, according to Yemeni officials and witnesses. Government forces have been attempting to capture Houthi rebel-held areas along the western coast, while the allied Saudi-led coalition has been targeting the rebels with airstrikes, Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

The crime of aggression will come into force today giving the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) greater power to hold those responsible for initiating conflicts, although only 35 countries have so far ratified the amendment bringing it into force and the new offence cannot be enforced retrospectively. Owen Bowcott reports at the Guardian.

The U.S. and Japan have extended their nuclear accord, with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono telling reporters that Japan must “reduce the large amount of plutonium” in its stockpiles to eliminate Washington’s concerns. Mari Yamaguchi reports at the AP.

U.S. arms makers attending the Farnborough Airshow in the U.K. yesterday praised the U.S. administration’s push to sell more weapons abroad and said they expected European defense spending to increase in the coming years. Reuters reports.

The U.S. State Department said yesterday that it is working with Turkey on the possible sale of a Raytheon Co Patriot missile defence system, to prevent the purchase of a Russian-made S-400 system. Reuters reports.

Dozens of soldiers were feared dead after an attack by Boko Haram extremist group on a military base in remote northeast Nigeria, security sources said yesterday. Jihadists overran the base in Jilli village on Saturday evening, a day after a separate attack on troops in adjacent Borno state, AFP reports.

“The status quo in Libya cannot be sustained,” U.N. Special Envoy Ghassan Salamé told the U.N. Security Council yesterday, citing an upturn in violence in addition to “frustrations with regards to the distribution of wealth and the endemic plundering of resources,” U.N. News Centre reports.

The confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court is likely to buttress the court’s support for the constitutional separation of powers, Peter J. Wallison comments at the Wall Street Journal. 

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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).