The Early Edition: July 26, 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.

POMPEO TESTIMONY ON FOREIGN POLICY

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday for a hearing on White House foreign policy, primarily focused on the July 16 summit meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and developments since President Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore last month. Zachary Cohen reports at CNN.

Pompeo received an angry reception from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, who directed particular criticism at Trump’s approach to the Helsinki summit and the lack of details regarding agreements made between the president and Putin. Robbie Gramer reports at Foreign Policy.

Lawmakers are “filled with serious doubts about this White House and its conduct of American foreign policy,” the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said, adding: “from where we sit, it appears that in a ‘ready, fire, aim’ fashion, the White House is waking up every morning and making it up as they go.” John Hudson, Anne Gearan and Karoun Demirjian report at the Washington Post.

“I personally made clear to the Russians that there will be severe consequences for interference in our democratic process,” Pompeo said in his opening statement, addressing Trump’s controversial comments about Russian interefence at his news conference with Putin on July 16 and stressing the measures Trump has taken against Moscow for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. The AFP reports.

The United States will “never recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea,” Pompeo said in statement shortly before giving evidence to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, adding that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and attempted annexation undermined Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Al Jazeera reports.

“They spoke about Ukraine. They didn’t find much place to agree there,” Pompeo said of the Helsinki summit, adding that Trump “was strong in making sure that the world understood that the Minsk path is the right path forward” – referring to the European-backed process to end the conflict between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

“Our approach has been the same: to steadily raise the costs of aggression until Vladimir Putin chooses a less confrontational foreign policy,” Pompeo said, defending Trump’s decision to meet with the Russian president privately with only translators present. Jessica Donati reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“U.S. policy with respect to sanctions [against Russia] remains completely unchanged,” Pompeo said in response to lawmakers who expressed concern about Trump and Putin’s private meeting and the possibility that they discussed easing sanctions. Alexander Bolton reports at the Hill.

North Korea is continuing to produce fuel for nuclear bombs, Pompeo acknowledged, but defended the talks with Pyongyang and said the U.S. was engaged in “patient diplomacy” aimed at denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. David Brunnstrom reports at Reuters.

Corker criticized Trump’s repeated praise of Kim during Pompeo’s hearing, describing Kim as “one of the most ruthless leaders on the planet.” Stephanie Murray reports at POLITICO.

A fact-check of Pompeo’s claims about the Trump administration’s sanctions against Russia is provided by Linda Qiu at the New York Times.

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT

“The President believes that the next bilateral meeting with President Putin should take place after the Russia witch hunt is over, so we’ve agreed that it will be after the first of the year,” Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said in a statement yesterday, referring to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and using the phrase that has often been used by Trump in relation to the inquiry. Adam Edelman reports at NBC News.

Bolton’s statement postponing the meeting follows the widespread criticism of the Trump-Putin summit held on July 16 in Helsinki, during which the U.S. president appeared to cast doubt on the findings of the U.S. intelligence community regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election. The announcement reverses a statement by the White House shortly after the Helsinki summit which said the president had invited Putin to visit Washington in the fall, Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger suggested to Trump a strategy of establishing closer relations with Russia to contain China’s growing power and influence. Asawin Suebsaeng, Andrew Desiderio, Sam Stein and Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reveal at The Daily Beast, explaining that Kissinger’s “overall views seem to have made their way into explanations for Trump’s affinity for Putin” and his approach to the Helsinki summit.

It is unsurprising that the second Trump-Putin summit has been postponed, Arick Wierson and Ethan Bearman write at CNN.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

Senior administration officials have grown increasingly frustrated by national security adviser John Bolton’s efforts to simplify the decision-making process, with senior officials expressing concern about the lack of “principals committee” meetings – which are traditional key forums for Cabinet leaders to formulate policy options for the president. Nahal Toosi, Bryan Bender and Eliana Johnson report at POLITICO.

Trump met with the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Washington yesterday and was markedly softer in tone when talking about the E.U. and N.A.T.O. in comparison to his recent harsh criticisms of U.S. allies. Andrew Restuccia reports at POLITICO.

“America is bigger than the White House. Trump will not change that either. He can tweet as much as he wants,” the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a message on Twitter yesterday, explaining that the U.S. remains “our most important partner and ally outside the E.U.” Separately, in a speech in Tokyo, Maas called for a defense of multilateralism and suggested that “Germany and Japan can become the core of an alliance of the multilateralists,” Reuters reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

House conservatives took the first step last night toward removing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein from office, in a move marking a dramatic acceleration in the argument stemming from the lawmakers’ requests for information about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Sadie Gurman and Byron Tau report at the Wall Street Journal.

The group of 11 lawmakers led by Freedom Caucus leaders Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio.) have been threatening to file impeachment articles for months, claiming that Rosenstein is withholding documents from Congress and has mishandled the Mueller probe. “For nine months we’ve warned them consequences were coming, and for nine months we’ve heard the same excuses backed up by the same unacceptable conduct,” Meadows said in a statement, adding that “It’s time to find a new deputy attorney general who is serious about accountability and transparency,” Miles Parks reports at NPR.

“The D.O.J. is keeping information from Congress. Enough is enough. It’s time to hold Mr. Rosenstein accountable for blocking Congress’s constitutional oversight role,” Jordan said in a statement. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

“We’re tired of the Justice Department giving us the finger and not giving us the information we’re entitled to to do our constitutional duty,” Jordan said last night in a Fox News Channel appearance alongside Meadows, adding that “more importantly, the American people are sick of it … that’s why we filed the resolution.” Justice Department (D.O.J.) officials have characterized the pressure on Rosenstein as little more than a pretext to weaken Mueller’s investigation, claiming that they have provided the vast majority of information sought in subpoenas from two key House committees and are nearly done with providing all the outstanding information requested, Felicia Sonmez, Mike DeBonis and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

Impeaching Rosenstein would require the approval of a majority in the House and the backing of two-thirds of the Senate, which makes the plan difficult to execute, the BBC reports.

Senior Republican party members have signaled their opposition to impeaching Rosenstein. Earlier in July, chairman of the House Oversight committee Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said that he would not back the move, asking “for what? Impeach him for what?,” while House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), also opposed to Rosenstein’s impeachment, recently told reporters that the D.O.J “now coming into compliance” with congressional requests for information, Khadim Shubber reports at the Financial Times.

Meadows last night pointed out that any lawmaker can force the issue to the House floor without leadership support by offering the resolution as a “privileged motion,” with the result that the House must vote on it within two days. Meadows raised the issue in interview with Fox News host Laura Ingraham, adding that “certainly, we hope it doesn’t have to come to that,” Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill.

In the event, Meadows did not force the vote through, and with the House today leaving for a five-week recess today it remains unclear whether conservatives will attempt to push the issue when lawmakers return in September. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

The Rosenstein dispute comes in the context of a growing rift between Republicans and the D.O.J. and F.B.I., Olivia Beavers and Morgan Chalfant report at the Hill.

House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) still has not reviewed the predominantly unredacted application the F.B.I. used in securing a surveillance warrant on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page during the 2016 election, D.O.J. officials said yesterday. Nunes has reportedly had Gowdy review the documents on his behalf, Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Accused Russian agent Mariia Butina did not offer to trade sex for professional favors, her attorney claimed yesterday, rebutting a key plank of the D.O.J’s case that Butina formed part of the Kremlin’s operation to influence conservative American political leaders. “We have no idea what the government is talking about… we don’t believe it’s true,” Butina’s lawyer Robert Driscoll told federal Judge Tanya Chutkan at a hearing in Washington, Josh Meyer reports at POLITICO.

Trump is right to revoke the security clearances of six former intelligence service officials, Elliot Abrams comments at POLITICO Magazine, identifying three key arguments in Trump’s favour.

SYRIA

A series of suicide bombs and raids killed more than 220 people in southern Syria yesterday, with responsibility for the deadly assaults claimed by the Islamic State group and the attacks targeting the predominantly government-held southern province of Sweida. Islamic State group have retained a presence in the remote desert northeast of the province, AFP reports.

The violence began at dawn with a short-lived ground offensive in villages surrounding Sweida accompanied by waves of bombing in the city, where three militants detonated their suicide vests. Later in the day, a fourth suicide bomber sprayed the streets of the city with bullets before detonating his load, Louisa Loveluck reports at the Washington Post.

Pro-Syrian government forces were later reported to be engaged in gun battles with Islamic State group militants east of the city. Yesterday’s series of attacks was the deadliest on government-held territory in months, the BBC reports.

The attacks come as the Syrian government and its main ally Russia have intensified their offensive aiming to overcome rebels in the southwest of the country, capturing a series of villages across the provinces of Deraa and Quneitra and drawing near to the 1974 demilitarized zone with Israel. Al Jazeera reports.

White Helmets rescuers trapped in southern Syria said yesterday that they are in fear of being caught by the government, after pro-Damascus troops seized areas in which they were operating.  The volunteer rescue workers have failed to escape southern Syria in a complex international evacuation, and are considered staunch enemies by the Syrian administration, Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

Israeli jets and artillery yesterday attacked a site in Syria from which two rockets were launched, both thought to have landed in the Sea of Galilee near to beachgoers. According to the Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.,) the rockets were fired towards Israel after air sirens sounded in south of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Reuters reports.

There is a strong possibility that the Islamic State group was behind the rocket fire, but it is likely that the strikes were aimed at Syrian troops rather than Israel, according to an initial investigation. Israel’s air defense system did not launch any interceptor missiles to counter the rockets, and the I.D.F. is examining the deployment of its air defense systems in the north, Yaniv Kubovich and Noa Shipgel report at Haaretz.

The Islamic State group yesterday published photographs of what it claimed was the body of the Syrian pilot who Israel claimed it shot down Tuesday after his airplane crossed into the occupied Golan Heights, although Damascus claimed that the plane was struck as it launched offensives against rebels within Syria. The militant group posted four photos, one of which shows a mutilated body and smoldering pieces of metal, on its Nasher news agency site, Reuters reports.

Kurdish groups in Syria are attempting to forge ties with the Damascus administration as they seek to safeguard gains made through seven years of civil war, seemingly more prepared than previously to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and suspicious of their unpredictable U.S. ally. Talks between Syrian Kurds and Damascus have now begun on a return of state employees and repairs to the Tabqa dam, captured by the S.D.F. Kurdish group from Islamic State group last year with U.S. air power, Reuters reports.

The U.S. Treasury Department yesterday imposed sanctions against five groups and eight individuals with connections to Syria’s chemical weapons program. A department statement claimed that those targeted were central to a network that procured electronics for the Syrian agency developing the weapons, with Treasury undersecretary for terrorism Sigal Mandelker stating that “Syria’s horrific use of chemical weapons, including attacks against innocent women and children, remains deeply embedded in our minds,” Reuters reports.

Internal Pentagon emails indicate that the White House did not coordinate with or notify Defense Department officials before releasing a statement last year that the Syrian administration would “pay a heavy price” if it conducted another chemical weapons attack. “We woke up to the statement. [White House] did not coord with us or [Joint Chiefs of Staff] or [State Department] from what I can tell,” top Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White disclosed to Chief of Staff to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Kevin Sweeney, in an email obtained by BuzzFeed News, Elen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

While the U.S. remains Israel’s key ally, it no longer retains Kissinger-era degree of influence to prevent war between Israel and Syria, leaving Russia as the key broker in the region, Dov Zakheim reports at Foreign Policy.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 24 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between July 16 and July 22. [Central Command]

IRAN

“America should forget forever the idea of one-sided negotiations under the shadow of a threat,” the Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi was quoted as saying yesterday by the semi-official Tasnim news agency, responding to President Trump’s claim on Tuesday that he was ready “to make a real deal” with Tehran following U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Al Jazeera reports.

“As a soldier, it is my duty to respond to Trump’s threats. If he wants to use the language of threat, he should talk to me, not to the president [Hassan Rouhani],” the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IR.G.C.) Quds Force, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani said today, referring to Trump’s message on Twitter earlier this week which warned Rouhani to “never, ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.” Reuters reports.

“We are ready to confront you,” Soleimani also said, adding “you will start the war but we will end it.” The AP reports.

The Trump administration’s campaign of pressure against Iran has pushed Tehran closer to Russia and China, Dina Esfandiary and Ariane Tabatabai write at Foreign Policy, arguing that this relationship “means Trump’s stated goal of isolating Iran to pressure its regime to return to the negotiating table and craft a more favorable deal to the United States isn’t a viable policy.”

European leaders should admit that the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is “fatally flawed,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, adding that they should “focus their diplomacy on securing a pact that truly restricts Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.”

AFGHANISTAN

The State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asia, Ambassador Alice Wells, met this week with Taliban officials to discuss ways to advance the peace process and end the 17-year war in Afghanistan. Jessica Donati and Dion Nissenbaum report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Taliban killed three intelligence service officers in the capital Kabul today. The Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said the suicide bomber targeted an intelligence service convoy returning from a mission, Amir Shah reports at the AP.

The U.S. military is investigating an airstrike in northern Kunduz province last week. There were claims that as many as 14 civilians were killed in the attack, Reuters reports.

Around $15.5bn has been wasted over the past 11 years in the U.S. effort to rebuild Afghanistan, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (S.I.G.A.R.), with Special Inspector General John Sopko describing the figure as “likely … only a portion of the total waste, fraud, abuse and failed efforts.” Laura Strickler and Dan De Luce report at NBC News.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel today intercepted a rocket fired at southern Israel from Gaza, according to the Israel Defense Force (I.D.F), the interception following Israeli shelling of Palestinian Hamas militant group targets in the Strip yesterday, killing three Hamas militants. An I.D.F.  statement said that nine rocket launches were identified overnight, with one intercepted and the others landing in open fields, the AP reports.

The I.D.F claimed that last night’s shelling was in response to militants firing its soldiers in the area of the southern Gaza Strip. Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum said that “the resistance will not abandon its duty in defending its people and protect them and respond to [Israel’s] aggression,” though no militant group has claimed responsibility for shooting at Israeli troops last night, Reuters reports.

Alongside last night’s casualties from Israel’s shelling, one person was injured and is now in a critical condition, according to a Gaza Health Ministry spokesperson. Al Jazeera reports.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman convened an emergency security meeting at the military headquarters in Tel Aviv following the exchanges on the border. An I.D.F. spokesperson commented that  “the I.D.F. will act against any attempt to harm the sovereignty of the State of Israel and the security of its residents,” Yaniv Kubovich and Jack Khoury report at Haaretz.

Former U.S. legal official David Crane will lead a U.N. investigation into violence in Gaza, the United Nations announced yesterday. The U.N. Human Rights Council voted in May to set up the probe into the killings of at least 140 Palestinians since March in what the I.D.F. has called “border protection,” Reuters reports.

The U.N. announced yesterday that it had been forced to lay off more than 250 Palestinian employees and cut services in Gaza and the West Bank after the U.S. withdrew hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. Loveday Morris reports at the Washington Post.

YEMEN

The Iran-aligned Yemeni Houthi rebels yesterday caused “slight damage” to a Saudi oil tanker off Yemen’s western coast, Saudi television reported. The Saudi-led coalition has been fighting the Houthi rebels since 2015 and there have been fierce battles in recent months, including the strategic port city of Hodeidah, Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

Saudi Arabia has temporarily suspended all oil shipments through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait in response to the Houthi attack. Al Jazeera reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A man detonated an explosive device close to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing today. Matt Rivers, Ben Westcott and Steven Jiang report at CNN.

President Trump will chair a full meeting of the National Security Council (N.S.C.) on Friday, according to two White House officials, who say the focus will be on election security. The meeting follows shortly after Trump appeared to cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Nahal Toosi, Andrew Restuccia and Eric Geller report at POLITICO.

The repatriation of the remains of some U.S. servicemembers killed in the 1950-53 Korean will take place soon, according to the South Korean Yonhap news agency, with the first transfer to take place tomorrow. The AFP reports.

The White House banned the CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins from attending a presidential event yesterday because she asked “inappropriate questions” during Trump’s meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Brian Stelter reports at CNN.

Lawyers for accused lead 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheik Mohammed this week took aim at remarks the made by new C.I.A. Director Gina Haspel in her Senate confirmation hearings, asking the trial judge to either dismiss charges or remove the possibility of a death penalty because due to alleged unlawful influence. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

The U.S. pastor detained in Turkey on espionage charges was moved yesterday from jail to house arrest because of health concerns. The case of Andrew Brunson has increased tensions between U.S. and Turkey, the New York Times reports.

The National Security Agency’s (N.S.A.) inspector general issued a report yesterday criticizing the administration for insufficiently protecting data gathered from U.S. citizens. The semi-annual report issued to Congress highlights “many instances of non-compliance” by agency personnel, Josh Bowden reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration has released $195m funds in military aid to Egypt in recognition of “steps Egypt has taken over the last year in response to specific U.S. concerns,” a State Department spokesperson said yesterday. The funds had been withheld due to concerns over Egypt’s human rights record and its longstanding ties with North Korea – but it is not clear what steps Egypt has taken to address these, Jared Malsin reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said yesterday that officials have found no evidence to support the Islamic State group’s claim of responsibility for Sunday night’s mass shooting in Toronto that killed two people and wounded 13. Rob Gillies and Tamara Lush report at the AP.

South Sudan’s warring leaders have struck a deal to share power once again in the latest effort to end the five-year civil war, officials announced yesterday, days after the U.S. claimed that it was “skeptical” that the two men could find the way to peace. The AP reports. 

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).