The Early Edition: July 27, 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-RUSSIA

Trump knew in advance about the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower between his campaign officials and Russians, the president’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen claims, with sources saying that Cohen is willing to make that assertion to special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Jim Scuitto, Carl Bernstein and Marshall Cohen report at CNN.

Cohen claims he was present when Donald Trump Jr. told his father of the meeting that was arranged to obtain damaging information on presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The meeting involved Trump Jr., Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. The BBC reports.

“He cannot be believed,” Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said in response to Cohen’s claim, adding that if Mueller’s investigators rely on him, “it would destroy whatever case they have.” Reuters reports.

Experts have said Cohen’s assertions, if corroborated by Mueller’s team, could expose the president and his team to additional legal risk. Darren Samuelsohn, Quint Forgey and Andrew Restuccia report at POLITICO.

Natalia Veselnitskaya has closer ties to Russian government officials than she previously let on, according to emails, transcripts and legal documents reviewed by the Associated Press. Raphael Satter reveals at the AP.

Manafort’s legal team filed court papers yesterday asking U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III to exclude more than 50 pieces of evidence that prosecutors may introduce at trial, relating to Manafort’s work with associates – including Rick Gates – in Ukraine. Zoe Tillman and Chris Geidner report at BuzzFeed News.

The Democratic operative and former senior adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) presidential campaign, Tad Devine, is assisting Mueller in his prosecution of Manafort, according to Devine’s consulting firm. Devine worked with Manafort in 2010 to help elect Victor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine, Theodoric Meyer reports at POLITICO.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) yesterday expressed their opposition to attempts to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for his role in the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and his role overseeing Mueller’s Russia investigation. Articles of impeachment against Rosenstein were filed by 11 conservative lawmakers on Wednesday, Sadie Gurman and Natalie Andrews report at the Wall Street Journal.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced a bipartisan resolution yesterday stating that the “Senate unequivocally agrees with the conclusions” of the U.S. intelligence community that Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to influence the 2016 election and that U.S. elections “remain a target for Russia.” The resolution comes after President Trump cast doubt on the assessment when he met with Putin in Helsinki on July 16, Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

The accused Russian agent Mariia Butina forged links with senior members of the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) and influential Russians, with prosecutors alleging that her activities were directed by the senior Russian state banker and N.R.A. member Alexander Torshin. Butina was arrested this month and charged with illegally operating as a foreign agent, Jon Swaine reports at the Guardian.

Interviews and public documents indicate that the Rockefeller heir, George O’Neill Jr., was one of Butina’s contacts, and court papers show that Butina discussed holding “friendship” dinners to bring Russians and politically active Americans together. Aruna Viswanatha and Julie Bykowicz report at the Wall Street Journal.

Mueller’s investigators have begun analyzing Trump’s Twitter posts and public comments as part of an investigation into whether the president obstructed justice. Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

An overview of how Trump’s posts on Twitter and private actions could form the basis of an obstruction of justice case is provided by Michael S. Schmidt and Jasmine C. Lee at the New York Times.

The lawmakers who filed articles of impeachment against Rosenstein were motivated by the need “to make a huge, disruptive, polarizing political stink,” the New York Times editorial board writes, saying that the efforts will not have much practical impact but are a “tragic reminder of the bleak path down which the Republican Party has been slouching in recent years.”

SYRIA

Pro-government forces raised the Syrian flag in the largely destroyed city of Quneitra yesterday, recaptured from surrendering rebels as the government tightens its grip on the Syrian section of the occupied Golan Heights bordering Israel and Jordan. Reuters reports.

The Syrian government has started to issue death notices for political prisoners at an unprecedented rate, apparently in an effort to resolve the fate of thousands of missing Syrians. Human rights experts and other observers have claimed that the disclosures illustrate the growing confidence of President Bashar al-Assad’s administration as his forces seize final pockets of rebel-held territory, Louisa Loveluck and Zakaria Zakaria report at the Washington Post.

The documents seem to be the first public acknowledgment by the Assad regime that hundreds if not thousands of prisoners have died in state custody, though government officials have not commented publicly on or explained the new information. Ben Hubbard and Karam Shoumali report at the New York Times.

Human rights group Amnesty International has responded to the reports of the deaths, saying that the Syrian government must return the remains of scores of people killed. The AP reports.

Russia’s envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentyev yesterday urged Syrian refugees to return to their home nation where he said they faced no threat from Assad’s government nor the Syrian security apparatus, also claiming that as the Syrian government is not able to provide sufficient financial help to returnees, foreign donors should assist. The United Nations says that conditions for returns to Syria are not yet fulfilled, Reuters reports.

Assad said yesterday that Russian forces would be needed in Syria for more than just fighting terrorism, commenting in an interview that “Russian armed forces are needed for balance in our region, at least in the Middle East, until the global political balance changes … and this might not even happen, we do not know … so it is important and necessary” Reuters reports.

Several Syrian refugees currently in Jordan said yesterday that they will not return to Syria before the war has ended and their safety can be assured, also claiming that they do not trust Russia as a mediator due to its role supporting Assad in his campaign to recapture rebel strongholds. Fares Akram and Zeina Karam report at the AP.

Top Syrian Kurdish official Ilham Ahmed is in Damascus this week for talks with Syrian administration officials, leading a delegation including members of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in their first visit to the capital. The parties are expected predominantly to discuss matters of service provision in Kurdish-controlled areas, but there is reportedly no set agenda and the talks could widen to political and security matters – with the visit suggesting that Kurdish-led authorities could open channels to Assad as they seek to negotiate for their autonomy, Reuters reports

Syrian aid workers began distributing 50 tonnes of French aid to eastern Ghouta yesterday after Russia agreed to facilitate the delivery, marking the first Western humanitarian effort in a government-controlled area throughout the seven-year civil war. The delivery comes after an agreement was struck between French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow following talks in May, Reuters reports.

Senior members of the Syrian White Helmet rescue workers have appealed to the U.N. to save their colleagues, currently trapped in the southwest of the country by advancing pro-government forces. Founding member Majd Khalaf told reporters that “we want the U.N. or any international agency to remove the White Helmet volunteers from Deraa to Idlib so we can continue to work in the north of Syria,” the Guardian reports.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has strongly condemned Wednesday’s multiple bombings in the southwestern province of Sweida, in a series of attacks by Islamic State group militants that left at least 219 people dead. U.N. spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric commented that “[Guterres] is appalled by the utter disregard for human life displayed by I.S.I.L. [Islamic State group],” and added that “those responsible for the attacks must be held accountable,” the U.N. News Centre reports.

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

Trump will regret waging a war that would “destroy all that he owns,” commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (I.R.G.C.) Quds Force, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani said in a speech yesterday, apparently in a reference to U.S. influence in the region. Soleimani added that the Red Sea – the critical strategic passage linking the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean basin – was “no longer secure” with U.S. military assets positioned in the area. Erin Cunningham and Kareem Fahim report at the Washington Post.

“You threaten us with an action that is ‘unprecedented’ in the world … this is cabaret-style rhetoric … only a cabaret owner talks to the world this way,” Soleimani added. Rick Gladstone reports at the New York Times.

“I myself and the Quds forces can defeat you. There is no single night that we sleep without thinking of how to destroy you,” Soleimani challenged, adding “what the hell did you do with 110,000 forces between 2001 to 2018 [in the region]? Today, you are begging the Taliban [in Afghanistan] to talk to you.” Najmeh Bozorgmehr reports at the Financial Times.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Three Palestinian militants were killed by Israel Defense Force ( I.D.F.) tank shells as violence flared on the Israel-Gaza border on Wednesday, four days after a truce that had seemed to be firm. The I.D.F. have reported that an Israeli officer was also wounded by a Gaza sniper, Reuters reports.

The I.D.F. has claimed that a Palestinian injured three Israelis last night in a stabbing attack in the West Bank settlement of Adam, adding that the attacker was then “neutralized.” Some Israeli media reported that the attacker was armed with an axe, with one victim wounded in the neck and the others in their upper body, the AP reports.

One of the victims, 31, has died in hospital of his injuries, according to a hospital spokesperson, while another remains in a critical condition. The I.D.F. has said that troops will be sent to the nearby village of Kubar where the attacker is reported to have lived, while Palestinian militant group Hamas described the attack an act of heroism and revenge for the three fighters killed on Wednesday, the BBC reports.

The I.D.F. has detained four Palestinians today for questioning and set up security inspections at entrances to Kubar, with the attacker identified as Mohammed Tareq Dar Yousef, 17. Shlomo Mor reports at the AP.

Many Israelis seem content with their country’s strategic posture, and in the favorable climate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been able to enjoy remarkable success in pushing forward his policy prescriptions, Shalom Lipner comments at Foreign Policy.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The remains of 55 U.S. service members killed during the 1950-53 Korean War were transferred today by North Korea to the U.S. military at the Osan Air Base in South Korea. Jonathan Cheng and Andrew Jeong report at the Wall Street Journal.

“Today’s actions represent a significant first step to recommence the repatriation of remains from North Korea,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. Adam Taylor and Dan Lamothe report at the Washington Post.

The transfer of the remains was in accordance with a promise made by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to President Trump when the two men met in Singapore last month, also marking the first tangible result from the summit, which was focused on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Ahn Young-Joon, Kim Tong0Hyung and Lolita Baldor report at the AP.

“After so many years, this will be a great moment for so many families. Thank you to Kim Jong Un,” President Trump said in a message on Twitter. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

It is hoped that more transfers of remains will follow, the BBC reports.

North and South Korea have agreed to hold general-level military talks next week in the demilitarized zone separating the two countries, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. Reuters reports.

North Korean officials have expressed frustration about the delay to an official declaration ending the Korean War, according to Kim Hong-gul – the son of a former South Korean president and chairman of the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation – adding that Pyongyang has complained about U.N. sanctions. Lee Jeong-Ho reports at the South China Morning Post.

The reports this week that North Korea has started dismantling its Sohae Satellite Launching Station do not serve as evidence that it has undertaken activity aimed at “complete denuclearization,” Ankit Panda writes at The Daily Beast, arguing that the steps taken are merely “cosmetic.”

YEMEN

Iran-aligned Yemeni Houthi rebels yesterday claimed that they have launched “several strikes” targeting Abu Dhabi’s international airport in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), with the announcement on Yemen’s rebel-run Al-Masirah T.V. saying that the airport was targeted using drones. Abu Dhabi’s airport sent a message on Twitter saying that there was an “incident involving a supply vehicle in Terminal 1 airside area of the airport,” but added that the incident didn’t affect airport operations, the AP reports.

“Our attack on Abu Dhabi airport shows our forces are no paper tiger like our enemies claim,” Houthi spokesperson Ge. Abdullah al-Jafri told Al-Masirah TV on the phone, adding “they mocked us before, but let me make it clear that the next stage will be targeting the infrastructure of our enemies in Saudi and the U.A.E.” Al Jazeera reports.

The U.A.E. yesterday denied reports of the drone attacks, claiming that “operations at the airport are business as usual.” The U.A.E. is a key member of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the rebels in Yemen, Reuters reports.

U.A.E. Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash yesterday described Wednesday’s attack by Houthi rebels on two oil tankers in the Red Sea as “a totally irresponsible act,” adding that “the effect of it actually is much wider than the region… I think this is another example of why the Houthi takeover of the Yemeni government in Sanaa should end.” Gargash made the comments at a speech in London, saying more generally that “the only way forward is to get [the strategic port city of] Hodeidah … what we are planning to do is give diplomacy every possible chance to secure that,” Reuters reports.

Gargash told the audience that the U.A.E. is ready to deploy more troops across the Middle East to oppose its enemies as it believes it can no longer rely on Western allies like the U.S. and the U.K. – commenting that “in this current international system, it is no longer ‘write a check and someone is going to come and secure the stability in the region.’ You have to do some of the burden-sharing,” Reuters reports.

The Houthi attack on the two Saudi oil tankers may be an Iranian attempt to cause maximum impact at a key energy choke point, Keith Johnson comments at Foreign Policy.

An analysis of the effects of U.S.-backed airstrikes in Yemen in recent months is provided by Sudarsan Raghavan at the Washington Post.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Russia’s G.R.U. intelligence agency tried to hack the office of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, according to a forensic analysis. The G.R.U. was behind the Russian cyberattacks during the 2016 U.S. election, Andrew Desiderio and Kevin Poulsen report at The Daily Beast.

“While this attack was not successful, it is outrageous that they think they can get away with this. I will not be intimidated,” McCaskill said in a statement. The Russian Embassy in Washington has not immediately responded to a request for comment, David Ingram reports at NBC News.

“Foreign intelligence services — and threat actors working on their behalf — continue to represent the most persistent and pervasive cyber intelligence threat,” according to a report by the National Counterintelligence and Security Center released yesterday, which identifies China, Russia and Iran as “three of the most capable and active cyber actors.” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Indian authorities will investigate whether Facebook allowed the political research firm Cambridge Analytica to harvest the private user data of voters, a government minister said yesterday. Cambridge Analytica were hired by the Trump campaign and it is alleged that it targeted 87 million Facebook accounts to help him win the 2016 election, the AP reports.

N.A.T.O

A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation yesterday that would require President Trump to secure the approval of the Senate before withdrawing the U.S. from N.A.T.O. The bill proposed by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) would mean that Trump would have to obtain the support of two-thirds of the Senate if he intended to withdraw from the alliance or modify U.S. membership, and would also authorize the Senate Legal Counsel to challenge in court any attempt on the part of the administration to sidestep this process, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

“As the Constitution requires and this legislation reaffirms, any change proposed by this administration or future administrations regarding America’s standing in this alliance can be done only with the advice and consent of the Senate,” Gardner said in a statement. Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

A list of five “misunderstood facts” about N.A.T.O is unpicked by Stephen M. Walt at Foreign Policy.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

“The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson,” President Trump said in a message on Twitter yesterday, referring to Turkey’s detainment of the American pastor accused of aiding the attempted 2016 coup in Turkey; however, Trump’s Twitter post does not appear to be an official statement of administration policy. Julie Hirschfeld Davis reports at the New York Times.

The case of Brunson has strained relations between the U.S. and Turkey, and the Trump administration has lobbied Turkey on the issue for months. The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu responded to Trump’s comments by saying his country will “never tolerate threats from anybody,” Laura Koran reports at CNN.

President Trump thought he had reached a deal to free Brunson when he met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the N.A.T.O. summit earlier this month by arranging to trade a Turkish citizen on terrorism charges in Israel, but the deal seemingly fell apart this week. Carol D. Leonnig, Ashley Parker, Kareem Fahim and Karen DeYoung report at the Washington Post.

Trump’s threat on Twitter may have taken U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by surprise, according to two State Department sources. Pompeo has been involved in the negotiations to free Brunson, Andrea Mitchell, Dennis Romero and the AP report at NBC News.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Reporters have grown increasingly frustrated by the lack of transparency at the Pentagon and the lack of access to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other military officials. Jason Schwartz reports at POLITICO.

The $717 billion National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.) was passed easily in the House yesterday in a 359-54 vote, and sent to the Senate for a final vote expected as early as next week. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

An explosion yesterday hit the street housing the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, with the blast caused by a 26-year old man who set off a device made from fireworks that injured his hand. The man was detained and sent to a hospital, with no one else hurt in the incident, Chris Buckley and Austim Ramzy report at the New York Times.

The U.K. Home Office has temporarily suspended cooperation with U.S. authorities over the handover of two British militants allegedly linked to Islamic State group, until a judge reviews a decision that would allow the pair to be tried in the United States. Defense lawyers had written to the government this week after leaked documents indicated that U.K. officials were willing to hand over El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey without the usual assurances that the men would not be subject to the death penalty should they be convicted in a U.S. court. Danica Kirka and Nishat Ahmed report at the AP.

Former cricket star Imran Khan has swept to power in Pakistan following disputed elections, causing a major upheaval in the country’s political landscape. Khan has been a longstanding critic of the U.S., Saeed Shah and Bill Spindle report 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).