The Early Edition: July 19, 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 Trump yesterday offered further contradicting statements regarding his meeting on Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Finnish capital of Helsinki and comments he made at a news conference about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election – saying yesterday that he did not believe Russia is currently interfering in elections. The White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that Trump had been misunderstood and that the administration believes that the threat “still exists,” Mark Landler and Eileen Sullivan report at the New York Times.

Trump said he holds Putin responsible for election interference “because he’s in charge of the country,” explaining in an interview with CBS that, in his meeting with Putin, he was “very strong on the fact that we can’t have meddling, we can’t have any of that.” Edward Helmore reports at the Guardian.

“There’s never been a president as tough on Russia as I have been,” Trump claimed yesterday, highlighting sanctions imposed by his administration against Moscow. The AFP reports.

“Important verbal agreements” were reached at the Helsinki summit, the Russian ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov told reporters in Moscow yesterday, saying the agreements pertained to the new START nuclear treaty and the I.N.F. arms control treaty. The comments by Russian officials has left U.S. military officials scrambling for clarification on what Trump may have agreed with Putin, Karen DeYoung, Missy Ryan and Anton Troianovski report at the Washington Post.

Putin said today that his meeting with Trump in Helsinki was “successful” and that his meeting with Trump allowed them to start on “the path to positive change.” The AP reports.

Sanders said that Trump thought Putin’s proposal to allow Russian investigators to question U.S.-born investor Bill Browder, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and others was “an interesting idea” but “didn’t commit to anything,” however, later in the day the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert called the concept “absolutely absurd.” Browder – a prominent Kremlin critic – was mentioned by Putin during the joint news conference in Helsinki as someone Russian authorities would have an interest in questioning, Eleanor Mueller reports at POLITICO.

The White House’s consideration of Putin’s proposal to permit Russian officials to question McFaul is “beyond disgraceful,” one U.S. diplomat said, joining other current and former U.S. diplomats who have condemned the White House approach. Spencer Ackerman reports at The Daily Beast.

Democratic lawmakers have denounced the White House for suggesting it would consider allowing Russians to question U.S. citizens, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) saying that the Senate should take action and stop Trump from taking a decision on the matter. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT: OPINION & ANALYSIS

Trump’s attempts to soothe the fallout from his summit with Putin are testing credulity. Even though the president has now returned, his “presidency is still stuck in Helsinki, and the more the White House tries to get out of the mess, the deeper in it gets,” Stephen Collinson comments at CNN.

Trump may have succeeded in the “Art of the Deal,” where that equates to keeping everyone guessing, but it is time for the president to start listening to his own people – “that, in his first year, was the art of the win,” Daniel Henninger comments at the Wall Street Journal.

“There isn’t a lot of clean-up because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of spillage,” one European official has commented of the Trump-Putin summit, the comments indicating a growing view across Europe that the summit was “meaningless.” Elise Labott comments at CNN.

Putin and Trump did discuss one substantive policy issue at the Helsinki summit: increased anxieties in Israel as the Syrian regime and its allies including Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah militia group draw closer. Neri Zilber explains at The Daily Beast.

In the race to win Putin’s affections, Chinese President Xi Jinping is ahead of Trump, Yanan Wang comments at the AP.

A range of views from U.S. voters about the Trump-Putin summit is provided at the Guardian.

N.A.T.O.

“Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. … They may get aggressive, and congratulations you’re in World War III,” President Trump said yesterday in response to a question about U.S. membership of N.A.T.O. and obligations to defend any other member under attack. Trump’s remarks follow the contentious N.A.T.O. summit in Brussels last week during which he criticized the alliance, Alexander Smith reports at NBC News.

“He’s the strangest president in the history of the United States,” the former President of Parliament of Montenegro and current president of the opposition, Ranko Krivokapic, said in response, adding that “foreign policy is not his [Trump’s] big thing.” The BBC reports.

An explanation of Article 5 of the N.A.T.O. treaty and why the U.S. would need to defend Montenegro should it come under attack is provided by Ryan Browne at CNN.

Trump’s dismissal of Montenegro as not worth defending plays into Putin’s hands, the New York Times editorial board comments.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson ordered the detention of a Russian gun-rights activist Mariia Butina yesterday, eventually siding with federal prosecutors in ruling that Butina should be held without bond pending trial as she posed a flight risk. Butina has been accused of attempting to infiltrate a pro-gun rights organization in the United States and influence U.S’s foreign policy towards Russia, Del Quentin Wilber and Julie Bykowicz report at the Wall Street Journal.

Russian Embassy officials are set to meet Butina today, with the embassy claiming that consular officials will provide her with “all necessary help.” Moscow has attacked the arrest as “anti-Russian hysteria,” the AP reports.

Prosecutors told the court yesterday that Butina had contact details for “individuals identified as employees of the Russian F.S.B. [security bureau],” and that investigators had come across a handwritten note asking “how to respond to F.S.B. offer of employment?” Butina also allegedly entered into in a sham relationship with an American political operative, according to a court filing by the government, Jon Swaine reports at the Guardian.

Butina’s relationship with South Dakota-based conservative Paul Erickson does not constitute a strong tie to the U.S., court papers said, as Butina “appears to treat it as simply a necessary aspect of her activities.” The BBC reports.

“In papers seized by the F.B.I., Butina complained about living with U.S. Person 1 and expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with U.S. Person 1,” the court papers continued, also adding that “on at least one occasion, Butina offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization.” Josh Meyer and Eleanor Mueller report at POLITICO.

Butina and Erickson allegedly “visited a U-Haul truck rental facility” the day prior to her arrest, a detail providing an insight into the rationale for the timing of her arrest – the day before the high-profile Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki. Spencer Ackerman reports at The Daily Beast.

Prosecutors linked Butina to an unnamed wealthy Russian oligarch who allegedly has deep ties to the Kremlin’s presidential administration. The court heard that Butina repeatedly referred to the businessman as her “funder,” and met with him ahead of her first trip to the U.S. in 2014, Sharon LaFraniere and Adam Goldman report at the New York Times.

“She has been aware of a criminal investigation into her conduct for months and made no attempt to flee, nor has the government, which has her under surveillance the entire time, alleged that she has,” Butina’s attorney Robert Driscoll told the court, adding that “she is not an agent of the Russian government and she is innocent of the charges brought against her.” Khadim Shubber reports at the Financial Times.

A background to Butina’s path into politics is provided by Angela Charlton at the AP.

The prosecution of Butina exposes the “yawning gap between the world as it exists and the world as President Trump sees it,” Dana Milbank comments at the Washington Post, arguing that Trump’s claims of no collusion are unsustainable in light of the Butina case.

Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) are introducing a resolution supporting the intelligence community’s finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, the resolution coming days after Trump expressed disbelief about the alleged meddling by Moscow. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

House Republicans plan to vote today on a spending bill that would provide no new money for state election security grants, leading to an anger from Democrats amid the national controversy over Russian election interference. Erica Werner reports at the Washington Post.

Lawyers for the Democratic National Committee (D.N.C.) are accusing White House adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner of evading a court summons, the complaint forming the most recent incident in the D.N.C.’s lawsuit claiming Trump’s presidential campaign conspired with Russia in 2016 to the disadvantage of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Lorraine Woellert reports at  POLITICO.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson yesterday rejected a motion from attorneys representing former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort to exclude evidence gathered by investigators at Manafort’s Alexandria, Virginia residence during an F.B.I. raid last year. Jackson ruled that the government’s seizure of all electronic devices at the residence did not violate the Fourth Amendment restrictions against improper searches, and that  Mueller’s investigation was “sufficiently particularized and not overbroad,” John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Wife of a former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos – Simona Mangiante Papadopoulos – has said that she was questioned by lawmakers about her husband yesterday, describing her four-hour interview with Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee as “very professional.” George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty last year to lying to the F.B.I., Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray yesterday restated his belief that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election is not a witch hunt, telling NBC’s Lester Holt at the Aspen Security Forum that “I’ve been consistent. I get asked this a lot … I think [the investigation] is a professional investigation conducted by a man that I’ve known to be a straight shooter in all my interactions with him.” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

“Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and … it continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day,” Wray commented further, adding “it’s a threat that we need to take extremely seriously and respond to with fierce determination and focus.” Ryan Lucas reports at NPR.

Wray did not explicitly confirm whether he threatened to resign, stating “I’m a low-key, understated guy, but that should not be mistaken for what my spine is made out of. I’ll just leave it at that,” Julia Ainsley reports at NBC.

Trump has routinely denigrated intelligence about Russian election interference, and even his retraction under public pressure, he “expressed confidence in his intelligence briefers, not in the content of their findings.” David E. Sanger and Matthew Rosenberg comment at the New York Times.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

“It may take some time to get where we need to go. But all of this will be taking place against the backdrop of continued enforcement of existing sanctions,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a cabinet meeting yesterday, referring to efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and talks between North Korean and U.S. officials since the summit meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June. Roberta Rampton and David Brunnstrom report at Reuters.

“The positive change on the Korean Peninsula is now obvious” and the U.N, should consider easing sanctions on North Korea, Russian envoy to North Korea Alexander Matsegora said yesterday, according to the R.I.A. news agency. Reuters reports.

A summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the North Korean leader is “on the agenda,” Matsegora also said yesterday. Reuters reports.

Kim’s recent tour of industrial facilities and his criticism of officials is aimed at shifting the focus to North Korea’s economy and to seek to dispel suspicion from outsiders about denuclearization. Hyonhee Shin and Jeongmin Kim explain at Reuters.

SYRIA

Syrian rebels have agreed to negotiate surrender of the Quneitra province bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said today, explaining that the deal “provides for a ceasefire, the handover of heavy and medium weapons, and the return of government institutions to the area,” and adding that those who refuse the terms of the agreement wold be granted safe passage to opposition-held territory in northern Syria. The AFP reports.

The pro-Syrian government villages of Foua and Kfarya in the opposition-held northern Idlib province have been evacuated in accordance with a deal negotiated between government forces and rebels, according to state-run media. The loyalist Shi’ite villages had been besieged by rebels for more than three years, Al Jazeera reports.

The government is due to release a number of detained insurgents in exchange for the evacuation of the two villages, the AP reports.

The Pentagon has been weighing up what to do with the around 600 suspected Islamic State fighters detained by U.S.-backed forces in Syria. So far, about two dozen suspected fighters have been returned to their countries of origin, but there are issues over what to do with the rest, and there is the possibility that some may be transferred to the U.S. facility at Guantánamo Bay. Gordon Lubold reports at the Wall Street Journal.

An explanation of the dilemma posed by the suspected Islamic State prisoners in Syria is provided by Charlie Savage at the New York Times.

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

“Trump asked the Iranian delegation [at last year’s U.N. General Assembly] eight times to have a meeting with the president,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi said at a cabinet meeting reported in Iran’s state-run media, telling attendees that Iran rejected the requests. White House and State Department officials did not immediately respond to the assertion, Rick Gladstone reports at the New York Times.

“The upgrade and manufacture of 700 to 800 tanks has been planned,” Tasnim news agency quoted Iranian Deputy Defense Minister Reza Mozaffarinia as saying yesterday, with Mozaffarinia adding that  “annually there are 50 to 60 tanks manufactured and a sufficient budget has been allocated because the army and Revolutionary Guards have a great need.” Mozaffarinia did not specify the type of tanks he was referring to, Reuters reports.

Iran has described an Israeli assertion that Mosad intelligence agents stole secret Iranian documents on nuclear weapons last winter as “laughably absurd,” with the denial issued by Iran’s U.N. mission following articles in the New York Times and other publications detailing the Israeli mission and its purported findings. The New York Times reports.

“A U.S. delegation currently holding talks in India will be visiting Ankara on Friday regarding sanctions against Iran,” according to a Turkish foreign ministry official, who added that “the delegation will meet with related institutions, including from the foreign and finance ministries.” A U.S. embassy spokesman confirmed that the meetings will take place Friday and will focus on Iran sanctions, Reuters reports.

Prominent members of the Iranian-American community have been invited to a gathering Sunday with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Simi Valley, California, where it is expected Pompeo  will deliver a speech titled “Supporting Iranian Voices” and engage in a Q&A. The Trump government is looking to win the support of Iranian-Americans in the U.S. even as it attempts to put pressure on Tehran, Nahal Toosi reports at POLITICO.

Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal has served to bolster the role of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, simultaneously undermining country’s moderates led by Rouhani, who has had to align himself closer to the Guards to maintain power, Najmeh Bozorgmehr explains at the Financial Times.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel’s parliament today passed a controversial bill defining Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, and legislating that a “united Jerusalem” is the capital of Israel and that “the realization of the right to national self-determination is unique to the Jewish people.” Jonathan Lis and Noa Landau report at Haaretz.

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the bill’s passage as a “defining moment; Arab members of parliament and Palestinians reacted furiously however, describing the law as “racist” and legalized “apartheid.” The AFP reports.

YEMEN

The Iran-aligned Yemeni Houthi rebels yesterday claimed that they had attacked a Saudi oil refinery in Riyadh with a drone; however, the oil company, Aramco said a minor fire at the plant was due to an “operational incident.” Reuters reports.

The Houthis claimed they killed the prominent Yemeni military commander Brig. Gen. Mohamed Saleh al-Ahmar yesterday; however, the Yemeni government-run S.A.B.A. news agency said the commander died during a drill. Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The suspected perpetrators of the Novichok nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury are believed to have been identified by police, with a source with knowledge of the matter stating that the investigators “are sure” that the suspects are Russian. ITV News reports.

The remaining girls kidnapped by the Islamist Boko Haram group from the town of Chibok in Nigeria will not be returned, the top commander of the terror group has said. Bukola Adebyao reports at CNN.

Partially declassified transcripts of secret hearings at Guantánamo reveal consistent themes: discussion of C.I.A. overseas secret detention facilities, the treatment of detainees in Guantánamo and the implications of Bush-era interrogation techniques on future justice. Carol Rosenberg explains at the Miami Herald.

Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court Brett M. Kavanaugh has come under scrutiny for his role in former President George W. Bush’s torture policy and treatment of detainees, Kavanugh having served as associate White House counsel in the relevant period. Michael Kranish reports at the Washington Post.

The Philippines is at risk of breaching sanctions imposed by the U.S. if it goes forward with the purchase of grenade launchers from a blacklisted Russian firm, in a transaction that could put the Philippines’ longstanding security relationship with the U.S. under threat. Reuters reports.

President Trump’s military parade in D.C. is expected to cost nearly as much as the scrapped U.S.-South Korean military exercise that Trump described as “tremendously expensive,” according to three U.S. defense officials. Ryan Browne reports at CNN.

“A total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected U.S. Pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison. He has been held hostage far too long,” Trump commented in a message on Twitter yesterday, adding that “Erdogan should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father.” Trump’s message was in response to a Turkish court ruling earlier in the day that Brunson, who has been held prisoner in Turkey for nearly two years, will remain in jail until his trial reaches its conclusion, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Facebook announced yesterday that it would begin removing misinformation that could lead to violence. Sheera Frenkel 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).