The Early Edition: July 30, 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

President Trump reiterated Friday that he had no prior knowledge of the June 2016 meeting between his eldest son Donald Trump Jr. and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya at Trump Tower, apparently held after Veselnitskaya promised Trump Jr. that she could provide damaging information about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The president’s denial comes as his former lawyer Michael Cohen appears poised to tell special counsel Robert Mueller, investigating alleged Russian collusion into the 2016 presidential election, that he was present when Trump Jr. informed his father about the meeting before it took place, Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“I did NOT know of the meeting with my son, Don jr,” Trump commented in a message on Twitter after a CNN report cited Cohen’s account of the meeting, adding “sounds to me like someone is trying to make up stories in order to get himself out of an unrelated jam (Taxi cabs maybe?). He even retained Bill and Crooked Hillary’s lawyer. Gee, I wonder if they helped him make the choice!” Reuters reports.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani claimed yesterday that of roughly 180 secret recordings seized from Cohen by investigators, only one features Trump. If true, Giuliani’s claim – made on CBS’s “Face the Nation” – would dampen hopes among the president’s opponents of finding evidence incriminating him, Jon Swaine reports at the Guardian.

“It seems to me [Cohen’s] default position is to lie,” Giuliani commented later on “Fox News Sunday,” adding that “he’s a bad liar because he lies in contradiction to tapes and he lies in contradiction to what I just said is probably supported by anywhere from two to five witnesses.” Of the alleged conversation regarding the Trump Tower meeting, Giuliani questioned: “if he taped everything else, why the heck didn’t he tape this? It’s not on tape,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Giuliani walked back comments he made in a May interview in which he called Cohen an “honest, honorable lawyer,” telling “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace: “Here’s what happened: I found out, as everyone did, that he was surreptitiously recording his clients, which is a disbarrable offense … obviously, if I knew that, I never would have said he was a reputable lawyer; I’d have said he was a scoundrel.” Daniel Beavers reports at POLITICO.

Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis has released a statement to multiple news organizations saying that Giuliani is “confused” about the tapes, stating that “he expressly waived attorney client privilege last week and repeatedly and inaccurately — as proven by the tape — talked and talked about the recording, forfeiting all confidentiality.” The comments came after the two sides ended their joint defense agreement to share information, Brent D. Griffiths reports at POLITICO.

“There is no Collusion!” Trump exclaimed in a message on Twitter yesterday, adding that “the Robert Mueller Rigged Witch Hunt, headed now by 17 (increased from 13, including an Obama White House lawyer) Angry Democrats, was started by a fraudulent Dossier, paid for by Crooked Hillary and the D.N.C. Therefore, the Witch Hunt is an illegal Scam!” Yesterday’s tweets represent Trump’s most explicit attempt to discredit any findings of the Mueller investigation to date, following clear signals that his previous assaults on the probe have been effective in rallying the support of Republican voters, Stephen Collinson reports at CNN.

Mueller submitted a list of 35 potential witnesses on Friday for the trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, due to begin this week in Virginia. The list includes Manafort’s longtime business associate Richard Gates, who pleaded guilty in February and has been cooperating in Mueller’s probe, alongside bankers and accountants likely to testify regarding charges of bank and tax fraud. Reuters reports.

The outcome of the trial could be crucial determining how Mueller’s 14-month long investigation into Russian collusion is perceived by the pubic, with a conviction having the potential to provide Mueller with momentum at a time when some Republicans have alleged that he is leading a partisan inquiry. Aruna Viswanatha reports at the Wall Street Journal.

An explainer of the charges in the Manafort trial, the implications for Mueller’s Russia investigation and what is at stake for the president, is provided by Sharon LaFraniere and Emily Baumgaertner at the New York Times.

Manafort’s decision to take his chances in court rather than cooperate with Mueller has surprised many observers, Jon Swaine reports at the Guardian, adding that there is growing speculation about whom Manafort may be protecting with his silence.

Accused Russian agent Mariia Butina met in January with the longtime head of a Moscow-affiliated Russian Cultural Centre, suspected by authorities to be a front for recruiting young American spies. Authorities believe the meeting with director Oleg Zhiganov serves as one of several pieces of evidence that Butina presented a flight risk, but Butina’s lawyer Robert Driscoll has said that “as far as I know, they went out to dinner that one time … and she might have known him from events at the embassy,” Josh Meyer reports at POLITICO.

Although Giuliani has now called Cohen “the kind of witness who can really destroy a whole case,” Cohen is in fact exactly the kind of cooperating witness that Giuliani would have embraced when he was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Dany Cevallos comments at NBC.

Should Cohen choose to become a cooperating witness for Mueller’s investigation, “he will salvage a tiny bit of honor from a life of dishonor…” Charles M. Blow argues at the New York Times.

The links between Putin, Trump, and the American conservative movement may seem bizarre, but are in fact logical given that “Putin’s Russia is creating a new Reactionary International built around nationalism, a critique of modernity and a disdain for liberal democracy,” E.J. Dionne Jr. comments at the Washington Post. Dionne Jr. goes on to argue that “friends of democracy everywhere need to stand in solidarity and resist this backward-looking drift to autocracy.”

An in-depth interview with chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence Rep. David Nunes (R-Calif.), including discussion of his views on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential investigation, is provided by Kimberley A. Strassel at the Wall Street Journal.

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT

Russian President Vladimir Putin invited President Trump on Friday for a follow-up visit to Moscow in the fall, the invitation coming just two days after the White House postponed plans to invite Putin to Washington. Putin praised Trump as a leader “who seeks to keep his promises,” and indicated that he is ready to meet either in Washington or Moscow, Andrew Higgins reports at the New York Times.

“President Trump looks forward to having President Putin to Washington after the first of the year, and he is open to visiting Moscow upon receiving a formal invitation,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said of the invitation in a statement. Reuters reports.

“There is no recognizable strategy in [President Trump’s] approach to Russia,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has commented, adding that “the problem with Helsinki is that nobody knows what was discussed or even agreed.” John Bowden reports at the Hill.

SYRIA

Pro-Syrian government forces yesterday advanced on Islamic State group territory in the southwestern Deraa province, continuing their offensive near the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in spite of threats to hostages seized last week by Islamic State militants in nearby Sweida city. Reuters reports.

The Kurdish and Arab Syrian Democratic Council (S.D.C.) – the political wing of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces – held preliminary talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s governments on Saturday and, according to the S.D.C., agreed to coordinate to form committees and chart a “roadmap” to work toward a “democratic, decentralized Syria.” Al Jazeera reports.

There has been no immediate confirmation from the Assad government about the plan agreed with the S.D.C., and the talks follow significant battlefield gains by the Assad government and by the Kurdish-led S.D.F. Reuters reports.

Assad’s call for refugees to return to Syria is an attempt to use them as a bargaining chip to secure foreign aid and to ease sanctions against his regime, according to Western diplomats and analysts. Russia has also called on the U.S. and the European Union to facilitate refugee returns, including a proposal submitted by Moscow after the July 16 summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sune Engel Rasmussen, Nazih Osseiran and Lorenzo Tugnoli report at the Wall Street Journal.

An arrangement between the Syrian and Lebanese governments saw the return of hundreds of Syrian refugees on Saturday, with the Lebanese security chief Abbas Ibrahim saying, “the coming period will witness the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Lebanon.” Reuters reports.

A feature on Iran’s recruitment of Afghan Shi’ite men to fight for Assad’s government in Syria is provided by Pamela Constable at the Washington Post.

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

An Australian news report claiming that the U.S. is preparing military action against Iran is “fiction,” the U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday, with the Australian Prime Minister also calling the report by ABC News “speculation.” Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration has been encouraging the creation of an “Arab N.A.T.O.” to confront Iran’s activities in the region, according to U.S. and Arab officials, calling for stronger cooperation between the Sunni Muslim countries on missile defense, military training, counter-terrorism and other economic and political issues. A provisional summit of the group – which may be called the Middle East Strategic Alliance (M.E.S.A.) – is scheduled for Washington on Oct. 12-13, Yara Bayoumy, Jonathan Landy and Warren Strobel report at Reuters.

The alliance “will serve as a bulwark against Iranian aggression, terrorism, extremism, and will bring stability to the Middle East,” a spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council said, confirming that the White House has been working on the concept with regional partners for several months, but adding that plans may not be finalized by mid-October. Al Jazeera reports.

Iran’s currency crisis has deepened ahead of the first round of U.S. banking sanctions due to be reinstated against the country on Aug. 7, following U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The U.S. has also called on all countries to halt all oil imports from Iran by Nov. 4, Al Jazeera reports.

An attack by the Iran-aligned Yemeni Houthi rebels on a Saudi tanker last week occurred amid increased tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which could have wider implications for the Middle East and the global oil market. Amos Harel provides an analysis at Haaretz.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Egypt has put forward a plan to reconcile the rival Palestinian factions to help relieve the humanitarian crisis in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and to establish a lasting ceasefire with Israel, while the United Nations has been engaging in diplomacy to build trust between Hamas and Fatah, which runs the West Bank. The chief Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) negotiator Saeb Erekat said that there was hope that a “comprehensive agreement with timelines and dates” could be achieved, Felicia Schwartz and Dov Lieber report at the Wall Street Journal.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has told the Trump administration that Arab leaders would not support their Israeli-Palestinian peace plan if it does not include East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state – a view that supports Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s position on the matter. King Salman’s stated stance on the Middle East peace plan follows reports that his son, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been urging Abbas to support the U.S. plan and Saudi officials have denied there is any policy divergence between the King and his son. Stephen Kalin reports at Reuters.

King Salman reassured Arab leaders that Saudi Arabia was still committed to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and granted $80m to the Palestinian Authority to support it in the face of Trump’s decision to cut U.S. aid to the Palestinians. Jordanian and Egyptian officials have also been calling on the Trump administration to produce a Middle East plan that is fair to the Palestinians, Amir Tibon reports at Haaretz.

“The resistance continues until the occupation is removed,” the Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi said upon release from an Israeli jail yesterday after serving an eight-month sentence. Tamimi was arrested and charged after being filmed slapping and kicking two Israeli soldiers outside her home in the West Bank and her case has attracted international attention, Oliver Holmes reports at the Guardian.

“Ahed Tamimi is a role model and an example of the popular Palestinian struggle for liberty and independence,” President Abbas said after meeting with her at his office in Ramallah, while the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised “her bravery and determination to fight.” Yotam Berger and Jack Khoury report at Haaretz.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Washington is urging patience on North Korea amid last week’s flurry of developments that offered conflicting signals concerning U.S.’ diplomatic progress. President Trump praised the North’s return of service members’ remains from the Korean War Friday, while his administration were keen to draw attention to the start of the destruction of a missile engine testing site by Pyongyang, but news reports citing U.S. intelligence have suggested North Korea is now working to conceal production facilities, Rebecca Kheel and Morgan Chalfant report at the Hill.

“North Korea’s obsession with a formal treaty will come with demands for withdrawal of the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea and an end to the U.S.-Korean alliance” – a fact that is known by U.S. and South Korean military personnel, Donald Kirk explains at The Daily Beast.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s series of publicized trips to remote factories and farms – marking a shift from his previous visits to military sites – are designed to reflect a new focus on economic development, “as sanctions weigh on his country and state control over economic activity erodes,” Jonathan Cheng explains in an analysis at the Wall Street Journal.

YEMEN

Heavy fighting in the strategic port city of Hodeidah between the Iran-aligned Yemeni Houthi rebels and government forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition has left dozens dead from both sides, Yemeni officials and witnesses said yesterday. The coalition launched a campaign to retake rebel-held Hodeidah in June, Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

“We could be one airstrike away from an unstoppable [cholera] endemic,” the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen, Lise Grande, said yesterday, warning of the implications of fierce fighting in Hodeidah for civilians in the city and across the country. The U.N. News Centre reports.

A senior Yeeni intelligence officer was killed today in the southern port city of Aden, Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY     

State-sponsored Russian hackers have been focusing on disrupting U.S. power plants, according to intelligence officials and technology company executives, who say they have seen little activity directed at major American political figures or state voter registration systems. David E. Sanger reports at the New York Times.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) yesterday warned of “widespread” Russian hacking attempts against Senators, making the comments after it was revealed that Sen. Claire McCaskill’s (D-Mo.) office was targeted by Russian hackers. CBS News reports.

Federal air marshals have been monitoring U.S. air passengers under the previously undisclosed “Quiet Skies” program, identifying what may be deemed to be suspicious behavior and raising questions about privacy. Missy Ryan and Ashley Halsey III report at the Washington Post.

A U.K. parliamentary committee has criticized Facebook for providing “disingenuous answers” and being obstructionist in response to the committee’s investigation into “fake news” on the internet and whether Russia created propaganda accounts to influence the British referendum on leaving the European Union. David D. Kirkpatrick reports at the New York Times.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ended his silence Saturday on the escalating diplomatic dispute involving detained U.S. pastor Andrew Craig Brunson, saying that his administration would not back down and was willing to “go its own way” if the U.S. imposes sanctions over Brunson’s imprisonment. Brunson, who is being tried on espionage and terror-related charges, was arrested in December 2016 and jailed until his release last week into home detention, Cinar Kiper reports at the AP.

“We will not take a step back when faced with sanctions … they should not forget that they will lose a sincere partner,” Erdogan was quoted as saying by T.R.T. Haber media outlet. Diplomats have been working to settle the issue behind the scenes, with U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in talks Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu Saturday, Reuters reports.

“The change of attitude is Trump’s problem, not mine,” Erdogan told journalists during a visit to South Africa, describing U.S. threats of sanctions as “psychological warfare”. There were reports Friday that Erdogan had struck a bargain with Trump trading the release of Brunson for the release of Turkish woman Ebru Ozkan imprisoned in Israel, but these were dismissed by Erdogan who claimed that Turkey had “never made Pastor Brunson a bargaining chip,” AFP reports.

“The relationship can be saved and improved provided that the U.S. administration takes Turkey’s security concerns seriously,” Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin wrote in a column in pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper Saturday. Kalin added that “President Trump may have good intentions for relations with President Erdogan and Turkey … this will certainly be reciprocated when the relationship is based on mutual respect and shared interest,” Reuters reports.

Turkey will resort to international arbitration if the U.S. blocks the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Ankara, Erdogan was quoted as saying by broadcaster Haberturk yesterday. Reuters reports.

AFGHANISTAN

U.S. diplomats held face-to-face talks with representatives of the Afghan Taliban in the Qatari capital of Doha last week, according to two senior Taliban officials, although a State Department spokesperson did not respond to questions about whether the talks took place. Taimoor Shah and Rod Nordland report at the New York Times.

Talks between the U.S. and the Taliban in Doha to discuss a possible ceasefire ended with “very positive signals,” according to people with knowledge of the talks, with a Taliban official saying there saying there was an agreement to “meet again soon and resolve the Afghan conflict through dialogue.” Jibran Ahmad and Abdul Qadir Sediqi report at Reuters.

Despite the rising toll in civilian deaths and the Taliban’s continued grip on key territory, U.S. officials have found cause for optimism, pointing to the recent three-day ceasefire between the Taliban and the Afghan government as encouraging signs that peace talks may materialize in the future. Dion Nissenbaum reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Trump administration has been encouraging the withdrawal of U.S.-backed Afghan troops from certain parts of the country as a plank of a previously undisclosed part of the Trump administration’s year-old Afghanistan war strategy. The retreat changes the focus to protecting cities and more densely-populated areas, but effectively grants the Taliban control of vast swathes of territory, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Helene Cooper report at the New York Times.

Extremists attacked a school for midwives in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province yesterday, killing two and wounding 11. The Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid denied the group was behind the attack, Zabihullah Ghazi and Rod Nordland report at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Trump yesterday threatened to “shut down” government over funding for his border wall and changes to the immigration system, making the comment in a message on Twitter ahead of a September spending deadline. Eli Watkins reports at CNN.

Trump accused newspapers of being unpatriotic in a series of messages on Twitter yesterday, responding to the New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger’s account of their private meeting on July 20. Mark Landler reports at the New York Times.

Preferential treatment for former officials does not improve national security, but serves to create a caste system, Sean Bigley comments at the Wall Street Journal, arguing that rather than “punitively revoking” the clearances of former Bush and Obama-era aids, “the president should simply order an end to the preferential treatment they have been afforded and allow their clearances to lapse.”

The U.S. began arming drones for deployment in Niger earlier this year, the U.S. Africa Command acknowledged yesterday, saying that the addition of striking capabilities was implemented in cooperation with the Nigerien government. Carley Petesch reports at the AP.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has failed to implement traditional processes in an unorthodox White House during the past 12 months, according to a dozen people in and outside the administration, though virtually all concede the West Wing runs better than before. Eliana Johnson explains at POLITICO.

Today’s election in Zimbabwe provides an opportunity for Washington “to come down on the side of accountability and constitutional rule,” Michael Miller comments at Foreign Policy.

The commander in charge of Guantánamo prison operations – Rear Adm. John Ring –said Friday that he has received no orders to prepare for new detainees, raising a question as to whether the base will expand despite President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to detain more terror suspects there. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has warned that the organization is facing an unprecedented shortage of funding for its core budget and will need to make critical cuts unless member states settle their debts, making the warning in in letters sent to member states and staff. Peter Beaumont reports at the Guardian. 

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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).