The Early Edition: July 18, 2018

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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

“In a key sentence in my remarks I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t,’” President Trump said in prepared remarks to reporters, walking back on the comments he made at yesterday’s news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Finnish capital of Helsinki following their summit meeting. At the news conference, Trump contradicted the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, Kevin Liptak and Jeff Zeleny report at CNN.

“I thought that I made myself very clear, but having just reviewed the transcript … I realized that there is a need for some clarification,” President Trump explained, adding that “I have felt very strongly that while Russia’s actions had no impact at all on the outcome of the election, let me be totally clear in saying … that I accept our American intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place.” Dartunorro Clark reports at NBC News.

Trump said he has “full faith” in U.S. intelligence services and explained that he had meant to say “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia” who had interfered in the U.S. election. The U.S. president also claimed that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia and said that other countries could have been meddling too, Michael C. Bender, Rebecca Ballhaus and Peter Nicholas report at the Wall Street Journal.

A full transcript of Trump’s remarks to reporters yesterday is provided by the New York Times.

The president made the remarks after coming under intense pressure from advisers, allies and critics; however, he did not explain or withdraw many of the assertions he made at the Helsinki press conference, including his criticisms of the F.B.I. and Justice Department’s Russia investigations and his comments about Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denial of Russian involvement in the U.S. election. Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

Several Republican members of Congress expressed outrage at the president’s comments at the Helsinki conference, while other lawmakers and Trump allies welcomed the president’s clarification. Ashley Parker, Robert Costa and Felicia Sonmez report at the Washington Post.

The president’s clarification failed to mollify the Democrats who described Trump’s statement as political damage control and criticizing Trump for his statement, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) saying that the president “made a horrible statement” and that by saying “other people” could also have been responsible for election interference, he showed that he “couldn’t even bring himself to back off.” Roberta Rampton and Susan Heavey report at Reuters.

Some lawmakers have been exploring taking legislative action following the Helsinki summit. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said he was considering passing a resolution in support of the U.S. intelligence community and U.S. allies; several Republican and Democratic Senators have proposed increasing sanctions against Russia; and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has said he was willing to consider additional sanctions, John Whitesides and Susan Heavey report at Reuters.

The Russian Defense Ministry said yesterday that it was ready to implement “agreements on international security” reached by Trump and Putin at their meeting, however it is not clear whether any agreements were reached and spokespeople in Washington have said they are unaware of any deals. Missy Ryan and Carol Morello report at the Washington Post.

Senate Democrats sent a letter to Trump yesterday demanding details about his private meeting with Putin, explaining that the “Russian Ministry of Defense publicly stated [yesterday] that it is prepared to start implementing an agreement you apparently struck in Helsinki with President Putin, an agreement that neither Congress nor the American people have been informed about.” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next week for a public hearing on the Trump administration’s Russia policy following the Helsinki summit. Robbie Gramer and Amy MacKinnon report at Foreign Policy.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has signaled an openness to holding talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu for the first time since 2015. The possibility has emerged following the Helsinki summit, Phil Stewart reports at Reuters.

The Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has quietly but forcefully defended the intelligence community against attacks by President Trump and has drawn praise from current and former intelligence officers for insisting that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election and that Moscow poses a threat to America. Julian E. Barnes explains at the New York Times.

Trump told reporters yesterday that he discussed North Korea’s nuclear weapons program with Putin and that there was no need to rush efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Reuters reports.

The Trump-Putin meeting could have been worse, the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said yesterday, explaining it does not appear that Trump made significant concessions to Putin with regard to the annexation of Crimea or the war in Ukraine. Marcin Goclowski reports at Reuters.

Estonian authorities released a statement yesterday saying that Putin’s plane trespassed into N.A.T.O. airspace without clearance while en route to Helsinki. Andrew E. Kramer reports at the New York Times.

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT: OPINION & ANALYSIS

An overview of the backlash to Trump’s performance in Helsinki and his subsequent climb-down is provided by Matthew Nussbaum, Nancy Cook and Christopher Cadelago at POLITICO.

Trump’s remarks yesterday reversing claims at the Helsinki summit were welcome; however, the president “still doesn’t seem to understand the nature of the adversary known as Vladimir Putin whom he wants to make his friend,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes. The editorial board calls on Congress to formulate a “containment strategy” for both Putin and Trump.

Republican lawmakers “who are serious about defending American democracy and undoing the damage of Mr. Trump’s global submissiveness have the power to take action,” the New York Times editorial board writes, calling for legislative action and political courage.

The president “has crafted a method of apology that is equal parts retreat and doubling down,” Marc Fisher writes at the Washington Post, analyzing Trump’s remarks yesterday and providing an overview of his approach to apologies.

Trump and Putin may have made agreements on economic relations, Crimea, Syria, the new START nuclear weapons treaty and energy, Patrick Wintour explains at the Guardian, noting that the “absence of an agreed statement leaves secret the status and extent of any practical agreements reached either between the U.S. president and his Russian counterpart or in the later wider meeting between officials.”

TRUMP-RUSSIA

A U.S. grand jury returned an indictment against Russian woman Mariia Butina yesterday, also adding a charge accusing Butina of acting as a Russian government agent – a charge which carries a 10-year sentence. Butina, who studied at American University in Washington and is a founder of the pro-gun Russian group Right to Bear Arms, was charged on Monday with conspiracy to take actions on behalf of the Russian government, Reuters reports.

Butina’s visible online presence and her alleged passion for gun rights, President Trump and improved U.S.-Russian relations was a ruse, according to federal prosecutors, who allege that Butina’s social media persona was a cover for Butina to further Russia’s agenda within the Republican Party. Butina served for three years as part of a low-cost, low-risk influence operation run by senior Russian official Alexander Torshin and assisted by an unnamed American operative with Republican ties, Sharon LaFraniere, Matthew Rosenberg and Adam Goldman report at the New York Times.

Butina, 29-years old, is scheduled to appear today at a bail hearing in federal court in Washington. Butina allegedly focused her efforts on individuals associated with a gun-rights organization unnamed in the court papers but identifiable as the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) – which in turn has not returned phone calls and emails seeking comment, Julie Bykowicz and Del Quentin Wilber report at the Wall Street Journal.

“I know I had dinner with [Butina] along with another member, along with a visiting delegation to Russia, is that something we should be worried about?” queried Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). Rohrabacher added “it’s ridiculous … it’s stupid … she’s the assistant of some guy who is the head of the bank and is a member of their Parliament. That’s what we call a spy? That shows you how bogus this whole thing is,” Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Rep. Greg Meeks (D.-N.Y.) has said that he attended on an August 2015 trip to Russia organised by Rohrabacher, claiming that he went along as a Democratic “counterbalance” to Rohrabacher’s pro-Russian politics. Meeks has claimed that he was not familiar with Butina and did not know if she was involved in the Russian meetings on the trip, adding “my dialogue was 180 degrees different than the dialogue of Mr. Rohrabacher,” Jackie Kucinich and Spencer Ackerman report at The Daily Beast.

An analysis of how Butina was able to gain access to elite conservative circles, including the N.R.A and the Conservative Political Action Conference, is provided by Rosalind S. Helderman, Tom Hamburger, Shane Harris and Carol D. Leonnig at the Washington Post.

Butina’s U.S. associates may too be under threat, Jon Swaine and Lois Beckett write at the Guardian, charting Butina’s infiltration into the echelons of the conservative establishment.

Butina’s various public appearances at schools, universities and summer camp in South Dakota are explored by Eli Rosenberg at the Washington Post.

National Security Agency (N.S.A.) Director and head of U.S. Cyber Command Paul Nakasone has directed the two organizations to coordinate actions to counter potential Russian interference in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. Nakasone wants to improve coordinatation between N.S.A. intelligence-gathering on Russian cyber-activities and CyberCom’s plans to disrupt Kremlin operations, Ellen Nakashima reports at the Washington Post.

Special counsel Robert Mueller has asked a federal judge to grant immunity to five witnesses likely to testify against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, providing an insight into Mueller’s team’s strategy for the trial expected to begin next week. The five witnesses have refused to testify based on their right against self-incrimination, Aruna Viswanatha reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Mueller has requested that his immunity motions are sealed, and stay that way unless the witnesses testify, with Mueller citing the risk of “undue harassment” or “reputational harm” should the witnesses’ identities be disclosed. Tom Winter and Tracy Connor report at NBC.

It is unclear who the witnesses might be, but various individuals familiar with Manafort’s finances and his extravagant spending habits are expected to be among those called by the prosecution. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Manafort is charged with money laundering and lobbying violations related to his work for pro-Russia parties in Ukraine before joining the Trump campaign. Manafort has denied wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty last year – despite the fact that a former business associate Richard Gates pleaded guilty to similar charges – and was sent to jail last month for violating the terms of his bail, Josh Bowden reports at the Hill.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and retiring House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) have blocked a push from conservatives to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s probe into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Their comments on the issue have drawn criticism from conservative Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) who are leading the impeachment campaign, Rachel Bade and Kyle Cheney write at POLITICO.

Robert Mueller is doing his duty and must be allowed to continue, “because the idea of an America united by the rule of law is too important to lose” former F.B.I and C.I.A. Director William Webster argues at the New York Times.

Mueller’s indictment of officers from Russian intelligence agency G.R.U. is so comprehensive that it should represent a major humiliation for organization, but in Helsinki “the president missed Mueller’s brilliant pass and turned it into a major American own goal,” Thomas Rid comments at POLITICO Magazine.

Mueller’s recent indictment should not be regarded as merely a law-enforcement instrument, but rather an effective offensive in an ongoing information war, Mark Galleoti comments at Foreign Policy.

SYRIA

A deal was reached yesterday for the evacuation of two Shi’ite pro-regime towns Syrian towns al-Fuaa and Kafraya, enabling thousands to leave after three years of siege by Sunni rebel forces. Residents of the towns in northwestern Idlib province are all expected to leave under a major agreement reached between government ally Moscow and rebel backer Ankara, which also commits the Syrian government to release hundreds of prisoners. AFP reports.

Negotiators from al-Qaeda-linked rebel coalition Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were involved in the negotiations, with the resumption of talks aimed at averting a possible military campaign by the Syrian army and Iranian backed militias to end the siege, Reuters reports.

Buses arrived today in the two villages to evacuate some 7,000 residents, according to al-Manar T.V., run by Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah group. Syrian state T.V. reported that at least 88 buses had entered the two towns so far, along with Syrian Arab Red Crescent (S.A.R.C.) ambulances for sick residents, Reuters reports

Talks aimed at ceding the largest opposition stronghold in southwestern Syria to the government have failed, provoking an intense overnight bombing strike on the densely populated town of Nawa killing a dozen people and injuring over a hundred, activists and rescuers said today. U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the “frenzied” bombing campaign continued into today, with at least 350 missiles fired into Nawa and surrounding areas, the AP reports.

“It’s like doomsday,” commented one Nawa resident, adding there that there were “many corpses in the streets and everyone is unable to pull them.” Reuters reports.

Dozens of Syrians seeking refuge yesterday near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights were turned away by Israeli soldiers, according to a local journalist and video from Reuters. Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) troops ordered the Syrians to return to a nearby camp, Kareem Khadder and Tamara Qiblawi report at CNN.

“People from the refugee camps went very close to the border to ask for protection because the bombardment is very close to Quneitra,” said a source near the Golan Heights, adding “it’s a tragedy.” Kareem Shaheen reports at the Guardian.

The Syrian civilians approaching the border waved white flags at Israeli soldiers and demanded protection from the relentless airstrikes, the brief protest following a suspected Russian airstrike that hit a school in the village of Ain el-Tineh and leaving at least 10 people dead. Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

“I think that we have really done all that can be done,” Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Tel Aviv radio station 103 FM, adding that “we are not prepared to accept even one refugee. That’s not our job. There are lots of Arab countries, rich countries.” Reuters reports.

“Our militaries do get along very well, and they do coordinate in Syria and other places,” Trump claimed at the Helsinki summit, adding that “our militaries actually have gotten along probably better than our political leaders, for years.” Records of military collaboration between the U.S. and Russia in Syria, however, provide a mixed picture, Eric Schmitt and Thomas Gibbons-Neff explain at the New York Times.

Trump’s stance at the Helsinki summit was a clear indication that Putin will remain the kingmaker in Syria, and his position will not be challenged by the U.S. for now, Yury Barmin comments at Al Jazeera.

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]

IRAN

“We convinced the U.S. president [to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal] and I had to stand up against the whole world and come out against this agreement,” the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video clip that was filmed two weeks ago and was shown on Israeli television yesterday. Netanyahu also spoke about the Iranian regime, prompting an unidentified person off-screen to say, “it will disappear with the help of God,” to which Netanyahu responded “you said it. From your mouth to God.” Alexander Fulbright reports at The Times of Israel.

The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, told state T.V. today that Iran has increased its stockpile of uranium to between 900 and 950 tons. Iran pledged to boost enrichment capacity following Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement in May, with the aim to put pressure on the remaining signatories to preserve the deal, the AP reports.

Salehi also said that Iran has built a factory to build rotors for centrifuges, but said that the new factory did not in itself break the terms of the nuclear agreement. Reuters reports.

Iran’s lawsuit against the U.S. at the International Court of Justice (I.C.J.) for breaking the nuclear deal and reinstating sanctions is based on a treaty signed by the two countries before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran’s application to the I.C.J. also demands that the U.S. compensate Iran for financial damage already done. The State Department called the lawsuit “baseless” and vowed to “vigorously defend the United States before the I.C.J.” Rock Gladstone reports at the New York Times.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Fears of war between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have increased following recent developments, including a heavy exchange of fire between the two sides and Israel’s closing of the Keren Shalom cargo crossing to the Strip – partly in response to the launching of incendiary kites and balloons from the territory into southern Israel. The AFP reports.

“As events over the weekend demonstrate, the situation in Gaza is extremely precarious,” the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory, Jamie McGoldrick, said yesterday, adding “a dramatic deterioration” could result if Israel continues to impose additional restrictions on Gaza. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

South Korean authorities are investigating two illegal shipments of North Korean coal into South Korea last October, Seoul’s foreign ministry said today. The shipments raise questions about South Korea’s enforcement of international sanctions against North Korea, Song Jung-a reports at the Financial Times.

The repatriation of the remains of some U.S. service members killed during the 1950-53 Korean War is expected to take place in the coming weeks, a U.S. military official said yesterday, following Monday’s meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials at the North-South Korea border. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Senior National Security Council (N.S.C.) Director for intelligence programs Michael Barry is leaving the White House, according to two government officials, his departure adding to the list of vacant senior N.S.C. positions since the appointment of national security adviser John Bolton, Kate Brannen and Spencer Ackerman report at Just Security in conjunction with The Daily Beast.

Positive developments in democratization across West Africa are “competing with the volatile security situation,” around areas where terrorist groups remain active such as the Lake Chad Basin, Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel Mohamed Ibn Chambas told the Security Council yesterday. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Nearly 300 Malian civilians have been killed in fighting between rival militias this year, the U.N. human rights office said yesterday, as rising inter-communal violence threatens a presidential election due on July 29 hoped to end six years of political unrest, ethnic disputes and jihadist attacks. Reuters reports.

At least 15 Taliban militants were killed and five wounded yesterday by Islamic State group fighters in the northern Afghan province of Sar-e Pul, according to the provincial governor’s office. Reuters reports.

The Islamic State group has been conducting small-scale attacks in central Iraq, raising concerns that a new cycle of insurgency is starting again only seven months after the Iraqi government declared victory over the militants.  The U.S. military spokesperson in Baghdad, Col. Sean Ryan, has said that “they’re doing small-scale attacks because they don’t have large-scale abilities any more. But what they do have is the ability to scare the population. The fight is not over …,” Liz Sly and Mustafa Salim report at the Washington Post.

President Trump’s trip to Europe last week was an unmitigated disaster, President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (A.L.D.E.) in the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt writes at CNN.

Supporters of the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the statute that created the tribunal, praising the court’s role in punishing perpetrators of the atrocities and expressing concerns about the significant challenges and political attacks it faces. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Today’s times are “strange and uncertain,” former U.S. President Barack Obama said yesterday in Johannesburg, adding that “we see much of the world threatening to return to a more dangerous, more brutal, way of doing business.” Without naming President Trump, Obama used his highest-profile speech since leaving office to take aim at “strongman politics,” urging people around the world to respect human rights and other values now under threat, Andrew Meldrum  reports at the AP. 

Filed under:
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).