The Early Edition: July 31, 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

“Collusion is not a crime,” President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said in an interview on “Fox and Friends” yesterday morning, adding that “everything that’s been released so far finds the president absolutely innocent… he didn’t do anything wrong.” Adam Edelman reports at NBC.

Giuliani – a former federal prosecutor – repeated the assertion in a subsequent interview, telling CNN’s Alisyn Camerota that “you start analyzing the crime – the hacking is the crime. … The President didn’t hack.” Legal commentators have repeatedly stated that anyone found collaborating with Russia on the 2016 election could be charged with offences such as conspiracy, Maegan Vazquez reports at CNN.

Giuliani said that Trump is eager to give an interview in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, but that Mueller has yet to respond to an offer imposing conditions on the questions that could be asked. Giuliani told CNN  that the president’s legal team sent its proposal to Mueller 10 days ago and has yet to receive a response, Peter Nicholas reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“I am sure they are in bad faith about an interview at that point,” Giuliani added regarding the 10-day gap. Giuliani also refused to clarify Trump’s comments over the weekend that suggested Mueller is compromised by a conflict of interest, Louis Nelson reports at POLITICO.

Giuliani startled observers by alluding to claims that top Trump officials met at Trump Tower to plan for the much-discussed June 9, 2016 meeting days later with a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, but walked back on the comments four hours later in a second CNN interview where he stated “I am telling you the meeting didn’t take place, never happened.” Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

Giuliani’s evolving narrative seems to indicate the extent to which  Trump and his allies have been forced to recalibrate their public message, in the face of considerable evidence of contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign and Mueller working to determine the extent of Trump’s knowledge. Mark Mazzetti explains at the New York Times.

The trial of Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort is set to begin today. Manafort was charged by Mueller and faces 18 criminal counts including bank fraud. The BBC reports.

Federal prosecutors have promised the judge in Manafort’s trial that they will not elicit answers on Russian interference, but the questions of whether Manafort knew about Russian efforts to influence the election, and whether the threat of conviction could lead him to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation, are likely to loom over the trial. Sharon LaFraniere provides an analysis at the New York Times.

Manafort earned more than $60 million working for Russia-backed Ukrainian politicians, Mueller alleged in a new court filing yesterday. According to Mueller, government prosecutors expect to prove that Manafort earned the money and failed to report a significant percentage of it on his returns, Lydia Wheeler reports at the Hill.

Manafort yesterday gave up his attempt to challenge Mueller in a civil claim, withdrawing his appeal of a judge’s decision in April to throw out the suit. “It is hereby stipulated and agreed by and between the parties that the [case] be voluntarily dismissed,” the new court filing stated. Marshall Cohen reports at CNN.

House Republicans are planning to pursue an interview with former F.B.I. Director James Comey in September to discuss his decision-making during the 2016 presidential election. Conservatives are interested in questioning Comey regarding the F.B.I.’s handling of both the Russia probe and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s email server in 2016, Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

An acquittal for Manafort would deliver “severe legal and political blows” for the Mueller investigation, Darren Samuelsohn comments at POLITICO.

Italian lobbyist and former journalist Alan Friedman played a key role in bringing Manafort to trial, Jason Horowitz comments at the New York Times.

A guide to the key players in the Manafort trial is provided by Reuters.

SYRIA

The Syrian government yesterday regained control of the Yarmouk basin region in southwest of the country from Islamic State group-linked militants, with a government-affiliated outlet stating that the Syrian military secured the length of the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The AP reports.

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are close to capturing all of Syria’s southwest, making the advances with the support of Russian airstrikes. Reuters reports.

More than 30 women and children have been held hostage by Islamic State militants in southwestern Syria following a coordinated attack and abduction by the group in the city of Sweida last week, according to local media and the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The BBC reports.

Russia cannot force Iran out of Syria, the Russian ambassador Anatoly Viktorov said yesterday, explaining that Iran plays a “very, very important role in our common and joint effort to eliminate terrorists in Syria” and that Russia was only able to talk with Iranian partners “very frankly and openly.” The ambassador’s comments push back against Israeli demands that Iranian and Iranian-backed forces withdraw completely from Syria and, in particular, retreat from the area near the Golan Heights ceasefire line, Reuters reports.

Russia-, Iran- and Turkey-led talks on the war in Syria began yesterday in the Russian city of Sochi, taking place within the diplomatic framework agreed in the Kazakh capital of Astana and focusing on humanitarian issues, the remaining rebel-stronghold in Idlib province, “de-escalation” zones agreed by the parties, the return of Syrian refugees to the country, and efforts to write a new Syrian constitution. Al Jazeera reports.

The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said today that formal consultations on a constitutional committee for Syria will be held with Russia, Iran and Turkey in early September. Reuters reports.

Russia’s military has been using jamming devices to conduct electronic attacks against U.S. troops in Syria, according to U.S. military officials and analysts, with experts explaining that the attacks can impair communications equipment, navigation systems and aircraft. Lara Seligman reports at Foreign Policy.

Assad has made significant advances against rebels across the country, however key parts of the country remain outside his grasp and raise diplomatic obstacles due to the presence of other parties – including Turkish, U.S. and U.S.-backed Kurdish troops in the northern part of the country. Tom Perry provides an analysis at Reuters.

The “good-guy rebels” are some of the “biggest losers” as the war in Syria is winding down, Lindsey Snell writes at The Daily Beast, providing an analysis of the various factions and the change in power dynamics since the war began.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out nine airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between July 23 and July 29. [Central Command]

IRAN

“I would certainly meet with Iran if they wanted to meet. … No preconditions,” President Trump said yesterday at a joint news conference with the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, marking a stark shift in tone after recently threatening the regime with “consequences” and vowing to “crush” Iran’s economy. Jeremy Diamond and Nicole Gaouette report at CNN.

“Speaking to other people, especially when you’re talking about potentials of war and death and famine and lots of other things. You meet, there’s nothing wrong with meeting,” Trump said, the remarks evoking his approach to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and their summit meeting in Singapore last month, and his approach to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki this month. Anne Gearan, Karen DeYoung and Felicia Sonmez report at the Washington Post.

“We’ve said this before. The president wants to meet with folks to solve problems,” the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview with CNBC yesterday, but setting out preconditions for talks in spite of Trump’s comments, including: a commitment by the regime to change the way it treats its own people, reducing their “malign behavior,” and an acceptance that “it’s worthwhile to enter into a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation.” Morgan Gstalter reports at the Hill.

“With current America and these policies, there will definitely not be the possibility of dialogue and engagement, and the United States has shown that it is totally unreliable,” the Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi, said today. Michael D. Shear and Rick Gladstone report at the New York Times.

“Respecting the Iranian nation’s rights, reducing hostilities and returning to the nuclear deal are steps that can be taken to pave the bumpy road of talks between Iran and America,” Hamid Abutalebi, an aide to Rouhani, said in a message on Twitter today, referring to Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal in May and the U.S.’ reinstatement of sanctions against Tehran. Haaretz, DPA and Reuters report.

Senior White House advisers said there had been no internal planning for a potential meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and aides said they were “working a response” to Trump’s comments at the news conference. Michael C. Bender reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Rouhani must receive authorization from the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei before meeting with Trump, analysts have said. Demetri Sevastopulo and Najmeh Bozorgmehr report at the Financial Times.

“After the U.S. illegal withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the ball is in Europe’s court now,” Rouhani was quoted as saying today, calling on other signatories to salvage the agreement and stating that Iran “has never sought tension in the region and does not want any trouble in global waterways, but it will not easily give up on its rights to export oil.” Reuters reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Intelligence gathered by U.S. spy agencies shows activity at a North Korean factory and indicate that work is underway on at least one intercontinental ballistic missile (I.C.B.M.), according to officials familiar with the intelligence. Ellen Nakashima and Joby Warrick report at the Washington Post.

It is not clear how much work at the facility has progressed, according to one U.S. official. David Brunnstrom reports at Reuters.

The findings come a month after President Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and agreed to work towards denuclearization. The BBC reports.

Generals from the two Koreas met today at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone (D.M.Z.) to discuss easing tensions, with talks expected to focus on implementing the declaration signed between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in when they met in April. Bryan Harris reports at the Financial Times.

AFGHANISTAN

An attack in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province is ongoing, with gunmen storming a government department in the city of Jalalabad following an explosion near the city’s provincial hospital. There has been no immediate claim of responsibility, Al Jazeera reports.

The gunmen in Jalalabad have taken dozens of hostages and one attacker blew himself up at the gate of the government department. Ahmad Sultan and Abdul Qadir Sediqi report at Reuters.

At least 11 people were killed and over 30 wounded today when a bus traveling from Herat province to the capital hit a roadside bomb. No group has immediately claimed responsibility, but the Taliban has a strong presence in western Farah province where the attack took place. The AP reports.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

The U.S.’ use of a threatening language against Turkey is unacceptable and disrespectful, given the existing links between the two allies, the Turkish National Security Council said in a statement yesterday. Relations between the two nations have deteriorated dramatically over the trial of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, who was in custody for 21 months in a Turkish prison until he was transferred to house arrest last week, Reuters reports.

Trump’s threats of sanctions against a N.A.T.O. ally are unlikely to do the pastor any good, Julia Arciga comments at The Daily Beast.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY      

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) was hit with an unusual impersonation attempt by an individual hoping to get inside information on U.S. sanctions targeting Russia last November, according to emails and an audio recording. Shaheen is known for her outspoken criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Andrew Desiderio and Kevin Poulsen report at The Daily Beast.

The man who identified himself as Arturs Vaiders contacted Shaheen’s office purportedly to arrange a phone call between the senator and Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevičs. Before the phone call took place, however, Shaheen’s office contacted the Latvian embassy and learned that the outreach effort was inauthentic, although the impersonator made a follow-up phone call and sent another email, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The head of the U.S. Africa Command Gen. Thomas D. Waldhause said yesterday that the U.S. military in Africa has taken steps to increase the security of troops on the ground, including the addition of armed drones and armored vehicles. The move follows broad review in the wake of last year’s ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers and four of their Nigerien contemporaries, Carley Petesch reports at the AP.

A roadside bombing in the southern city of Aden today has wounded a prominent politician Ahmed Ali, his son and two other people, according to Yemeni officials.  Ali belongs to the Islah party –Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood –and no group has claimed the responsibility for the attack, Ahmed El-Haj reports at AP.

A car ran down a group of touring cyclists in the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan on the weekend, killing four people from the U.S., the Netherlands and Switzerland. Islamic State claimed responsibility yesterday for the attack, Andrew E. Kramer and Rukmini Callimachi report at the New York Times.

Militants detonated a car bomb at a military checkpoint today in southern Philippine island of Basilan, killing at least 10 people in an attack highlighting the continuing insurgent threat in the region. Felipe Villamor reports at the New York Times.

“Americans must at least take seriously the possibility that Mr. Trump diminished the U.S. commitment to European defense,” following Trump’s disparaging comments about Montenegro’s accession to N.A.T.O. in the wake of his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, former U.S attorney general Michael B. Mukasey comments at the Wall Street Journal.  

The U.S. “will not seek dominance in the Indo-Pacific, and will oppose any country that does,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday in a speech at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in which Pompeo called for deeper U.S. trade and investment in Asia. Pompeo called for the region to remain “free and open” – an implicit challenge to China’s strategy on the continent, Courtney McBride reports 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).