The Early Edition: August 1, 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, but that doesn’t matter because there was No Collusion (except by Crooked Hillary and the Democrats)!” President Trump said yesterday in a message on Twitter, taking up his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s line of attack against special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Stephanie Murray reports at POLITICO.

Undisclosed bank transactions totaling nearly $300,000 offer a detailed look at how accused Russian agent Mariia Butina and South Dakota conservative consultant Paul Erikson financed what prosecutors allege was a Russian campaign to influence U.S. politics. Anti-fraud investigators at Wells Fargo flagged the transactions as “suspicious,” and counterintelligence officers now say that the duo’s banking activity could provide information about the Kremlin’s attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Jason Leopold reports at BuzzFeed News.

Butina’s attempts to influence U.S. businessman Maurice “Hank” Greenberg – the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and former C.E.O. of insurance and financial services giant A.I.G. – to invest money in Russian banks, suggest that she had a broader agenda and may have been doing other work for the Kremlin, Betsy Woodruff reports at The Daily Beast.

Mueller has referred three investigations into possible illicit foreign lobbying by Washington insiders to federal prosecutors in New York, who are already dealing with the case against President Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen. The cases involve former White house counsel Gregory B. Craig, former Republican Rep. Vin Weber, and Democrat super lobbyist Tony Podesta – and all three cases are linked to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, Matthew Rosenberg, Kenneth P. Vogel and Katie Benner report at the New York Times.

Rudy Giuliani is proving a less perfect fit as Trump’s attorney than thought previously, and he is taking a risk by “disregarding some basic safety rules for criminal defense attorneys when talking to the media,” Danny Cevallos comments at NBC.

MANAFORT TRIAL

“This case is about taxes and trust…and Mr. Manafort placing his trust in the wrong person— [his associate] Rick Gates, ” said Thomas Zehnle – attorney for former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort – in his opening statement at Manafort’s trial yesterday. Manafort was charged last year by special counsel Robert Mueller, and Gates, Manafort’s longstanding deputy, pleaded guilty earlier this year to conspiracy and is cooperating with Mueller’s probe. Aruna Viswanatha and Del Quentin Wilber report at the Wall Street Journal.

Manafort is charged with bank and tax fraud charges. Prosecutors allege he failed to pay taxes on millions he made from his work for a Russia-friendly Ukrainian political party and then lied to obtain loans when the cash stopped coming in. Rachel Weiner, Justin Jouvenal, Rosalind S. Helderman and Matt Zapotosky report at the Washington Post.

The trial is the first stemming from charges brought by Mueller in his investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Although the charges against Manafort involve neither President Trump nor allegations of collusion with Russia, the trial serves as the first courtroom test of Mueller’s work, Sharon LaFraniere and Emily Baumgaertner report at the New York Times.

The trial in Alexandria, Virginia got off to a rapid start yesterday, with a jury of six men and six women impaneled, opening statements delivered and the first witness Tad Devine – former campaign manager for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders– being called.   Rachel Weiner, Justin Jouvenal, Rosalind S. Helderman and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

Manafort “lied” and placed himself “above the law” prosecutors alleged in their opening, telling the jury how Manafort tried to hide tens of millions of dollars of income in 30 foreign bank accounts across three different countries. Prosecutors said that the money was used to fund a lifestyle of properties, cars, clothing and other items, including a $21,000 watch and a $15,000 jacket made from an ostrich, the BBC reports.

“Gates had his hand in the cookie jar,” Zehnle responded during his 30-minute opening in which he accused Gates of embezzling from his former boss Manafort. Zehnle argued that Manafort put Gates in charges of his business and personal finances while he traveling around the world working on lucrative consulting contracts; Gates exploited the situation, “lining his own pockets” in so doing, Lydia Wheeler reports at the Hill.

Zehnle described Manafort as a “talented political consultant and a good man” who had openly co-operated with the F.B.I. when questioned about his Ukraine activities in 2014. Kadhum Shubber reports at the Financial Times.

Devine told the court that he had worked with Manafort on “probably hundreds” of television ads tied to Ukrainian political campaigns, including one proposal for the 2010 election there based on the opening montage from the television show “Mad Men.” Devine also gave evidence concerning his regular interactions with Manafort associates including Gates, who helped arrange his travels in Ukraine, Josh Gerstein and Darren Samuelsohn report at POLITICO.

The political consulting work that earned Manafort $60 million in Ukraine is expected to take the spotlight today as the criminal trial reaches its second day. The first witness to be questioned is political consultant Daniel Rabin, who produced TV ads for Manafort in Ukraine, and prosecutors have indicated that their second witness will be an F.B.I. agent, whose name has not yet been disclosed. Reuters reports.

A reminder of the “six things you need to know” about Manafort’s trial is provided by Rachel Weiner at the Washington Post.

Manafort’s trial “has plenty to do with the president and plenty of potential to hurt him,” even if the word “collusion” and President Trump are unlikely to be mentioned explicitly during the trial, Frank Bruni comments at the New York Times.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY      

Facebook has said it discovered a new group of accounts that engaged in coordinated political agitation and misinformation efforts ahead of upcoming midterm elections this November. The social media company stated yesterday that it has removed 32 pages and accounts from its main service and Instagram photo-sharing app created between March 2017 and May of this year, Robert McMillan and Deepa Seetharaman report at the Wall Street Journal.

Facebook could not definitively link the campaign to Russia, but company officials have said that some of the tools and techniques used by the accounts were similar to those used by the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency that was at the center of an indictment this year alleging interference in the 2016 presidential election. Nicholas Fandos and Kevin Roose report at the New York Times.

One deleted post called for protesters to occupy the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) agency, but there is evidence that the post and corresponding event was not shared by Hispanic groups, or liberal activists who have been critical of I.C.E. The racial rhetoric of the deleted pages is strongly reminiscent of Internet Research Agency “troll farm” posts, and ostensibly aimed to sow discord amongst U.S. voters along racial or ethnic lines, Ben Collins and Ben Popken report at NBC.

The suspect accounts had also run about 150 ads on Facebook and Instagram, costing a total of $11,000 (£8,300), and Facebook said that 290,000 accounts followed at least one of the pages involved. The BBC reports.

“It’s clear whoever set up these accounts went to much greater lengths to obscure their identities than the Internet Research Agency did in the run up to the 2016 presidential election,” Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg stated in a call with reporters. Olivia Solon reports at the Guardian.

Democrats were quick to point the finger at Russia following the Facebook revelations, with top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Mark Warner  (Va.) commenting that the news serves as “further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation,” and House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) adding that the disclosure “demonstrates what we’ve long feared: that malicious foreign actors bearing the hallmarks of previously identified Russian influence campaigns continue to abuse and weaponize social media platforms to influence the U.S. electorate.” Republican lawmakers were more hesitant to tie the operations directly to Russia, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

“I think part of this a very good news story, because this is showing that Facebook is taking this very seriously, so they should be commended for what they did today,” Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said yesterday on Fox News’s “The Daily Briefing,” adding that she has no reason to believe Russians are not behind a coordinated 2018 midterms disinformation campaign. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

“We applaud efforts by our private sector partners to combat an array of threats that occur in cyberspace, including malign influence,” National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said in a statement several hours after Facebook’s announcement yesterday, seemingly unwilling to call out Russia by name. Christopher Cadelago reports at POLITICO.

“While other nations possessed the capability, Russia meddled in our 2016 election,” Vice President Mike Pence stated in his first significant speech on cybersecurity yesterday, in which he pledged that the Trump administration would intensify efforts to deter cyberattacks against U.S. democracy. Pence added “that is the unambiguous judgment of our intelligence community, and as the president said, we ‘accept the intelligence community’s conclusion,’” Dustin Volz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Russia’s goal was to sow discord and division and to weaken the American people’s faith in our democracy” Pence stated, adding that “while no actual votes were changed, any attempt to interfere in our elections is an affront to our democracy and it will not be allowed.” Trump provoked considerable scrutiny earlier in July when he said alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin that he saw no reason why Russia would be responsible for the plot, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

“The American people demand and deserve the strongest possible defense and we will give it to them,” Pence promised, arguing that Trump “inherited” the current “cyber crisis” from former President Barack Obama. Tim Starks reports at POLITICO.

A bipartisan group of senators yesterday introduced legislation to bolster U.S. election infrastructure in the context of increasing scrutiny over the U.S.’ capability to avert foreign cyberattacks. Sens. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) launched two bills aimed at improving cybercrime prevention, Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Pyongyang has continued to work on its missile and weapons programs even after President Trump declared his June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un a success. Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

“What we are going on is the commitment that Chairman Kim made to our president, that is the commitment to denuclearize and that is something we anticipate he will hold up his end of the bargain,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters yesterday. Nauert left open the possibility of follow-up denuclearization talks between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean officials on the fringes of southeast Asian meetings in Singapore at the weekend, Reuters reports.

“We will be in some of the same meetings as North Korean officials. I certainly can’t preclude any interaction taking place, but we have no meetings on the schedule,” Nauert added. Reuters reports.

Rare general-level talks between the two Koreas ended without agreement yesterday, but top delegates said the two sides had a meaningful discussion on relaxing the decades-long military standoff on the Peninsula. Experts claim it remains uncertain whether the North and South can reach any breakthrough agreement – as the South, in close consultation with the U.S. must link any expansion of relations to progress in North Korea’s denuclearization, Hyung-Jin Kim reports at the AP.

The remains of U.S. servicemen handed over by North Korea will arrive in Hawaii today in 55 boxes, and the U.S. military will embark on a painstaking identification process that experts said could take from three days to two decades to complete. Daphne Psaledakis explains at Reuters.

The boxes handed over appear to hold human remains from the 1950-1953 Korean War and are likely American, according to an initial forensic analysis, a U.S. official said today. “There is no reason to doubt that they do relate to Korean War losses,” the Director of Analysis for the U.S. Defense P.O.W./M.I.A. Accounting Agency (D.P.A.A.) – John Byrd – told reporters at Osan air base in South Korea where the boxes were loaded onto a C-17 transport plane, Reuters reports.

“This is a great first step in terms of bringing a bunch of fallen Americans home,” commented D.P.A.A. Deputy Director Rear Adm. Jon Kreitz, adding that “we look forward to potentially pursuing [remains recovery] operations in North Korea in the future and we’re very hopeful. Again, this is just a great first step in building some confidence and building a relationship.” Paula Hancocks, Yoonjung Seo and Joshua Berlinger report at CNN.

North Korea handed over the boxes with just a single military dog tag and no other information that might help U.S. forensics experts determine their individual identities, according to one U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, the AP reports.

Vice President Mike Pence is to fly to Hawaii for what the military calls an “honorable carry ceremony” marking the arrival of the remains on U.S. soil. Kim Yong-Ho, Hyung-Jin Kim and Robert Burns report at the AP.

A fact-checker for the various claims made by the Trump administration regarding relations with Pyongyang following the June summit in Singapore is provided by David Welna at NPR.

SYRIA

Iranian forces have withdrawn heavy equipment and weapons in Syria to a distance of 85km (53 miles) from the Golan Heights ceasefire line, the Russian presidential envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, was quoted as saying today by TASS news agency. Israeli officials have been calling for Iranian and Iranian-backed forces to retreat from the area near to the border of Israel and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Reuters reports.

Syria’s envoy to the U.N. yesterday condemned the presence of Turkish troops in northern Syria at Russia-, Iran-, Turkey-led talks in the Russian city of Sochi, calling the Turkish influence an “occupation.” Separately, Lavrentyev dismissed speculation about an imminent large-scale offensive on the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib as “rumors,” the AP reports.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (O.C.H.R.) yesterday condemned last week’s attacks on civilians in Syria’s southwestern Sweida province, denouncing the bombings and raids by Islamic State group militants that killed over 200 people. The U.N. News Centre reports.

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 have a feeling they’ll be talking to us pretty soon. And maybe not, and that’s OK too,” President Trump said yesterday at a rally in Tampa, Florida, referring to his comment on Monday that he would be willing to meet with Iran “any time” and without preconditions. The president’s remarks follow his decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May and to reinstate sanctions against the country, the AFP reports.

Iranian politicians have dismissed Trump’s call for talks, with the Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson, Bahram Ghassemi, saying that “sanctions and pressures are the exact opposite of dialogue” and the deputy speaker of Iranian parliament, Ali Motahari, saying negotiations “would be a humiliation” following U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. Al Jazeera reports.

“U.S. can only blame itself for pulling out and leaving the table… Threats, sanctions and P.R. stunts won’t work,” the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a message on Twitter yesterday. Separately, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.), Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, was quoted as saying: “Mr. Trump! Iran is not North Korea to accept your offer for a meeting. Even U.S. presidents after you will not see that day,” Bozorgmehr Sharafedin reports at Reuters.

Talks could only take place if the U.S. returns to the 2015 nuclear deal and respects the Iranian nation’s rights, an adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Hamid Aboutalebi, said in a message on Twitter. The BBC reports.

Senior Trump administration officials told the Israeli government yesterday that there has been no change in U.S. policy on Iran, despite Trump’s remarks about willingness to meet with Iran’s leadership, according to an Israeli government official. Noa Landau reports at Haaretz.

The English High Court has advanced the process for relatives of 9/11 victims to make a claim on Iranian assets in Britain. The relatives want the High Court to enforce a U.S. court’s 2012 decision which found evidence that Iran provided “material support and resources to al-Qaeda for acts of terrorism,” prompting an Iranian official to respond that “such allegations against Iran are aimed at diverting attentions from regional countries that were involved in the 9/11 attacks.” Jonathan Saul and Parisa Hafezi report at Reuters.

The Trump administration has embarked on a campaign of pressure against Iran but has not articulated an end goal or a means to de-escalate tensions, raising concerns among experts about the increasing risk of confrontation. Phil Stewart provides an analysis at Reuters.

AFGHANISTAN

Militants killed at least 15 people when they attacked an Afghan government building in Jalalabad yesterday, according to a provincial official. The Taliban has denied involvement and no group has immediately claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing and gunfire, the AFP reports.

The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (U.N.A.M.A.) has expressed outrage at the attack in Jalalabad, stating that “these attacks deliberately targeting civilians are abhorrent” and adding that all parties to the conflict must “at all times uphold their obligations to protect civilians.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

The attack in Jalalabad took place as 11 people were killed by roadside bomb in Afghanistan’s Farah province. Emma Graham-Harrison and Akhtar Mohammad Makoii report at the Guardian.

More than 150 Islamic State fighters surrendered to Afghan government forces today, with the head of the provincial council in northern Jawzjan province stating that the militants surrendered in the face of a Taliban assault. The AP reports.

Last week’s talks in Qatar between Taliban representatives and a U.S. delegation led by a senior diplomat could mark a major breakthrough in efforts to end the 17-year Afghanistan war. Pamela Constable provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

YEMEN

Yemen is already “on the brink of starvation or ultimately famine, and the tipping point for that could happen very quickly,” the head of the Oxfam America aid agency, Abby Maxman, said yesterday, warning that the shutting down of Red Sea ports controlled by the Iran-aligned Yemeni Houthi rebels would have “massive” humanitarian implications. There is an ongoing offensive by Yemeni government forces, supported by the Saudi-led coalition, on the rebel-held strategic port city of Hodeidah – which is a key entry point for food and supplies. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The Houthis announced today that they would unilaterally halt naval military operations for a “limited time period” to support efforts to find a political solution to the Yemeni conflict. The statement follows Saudi Arabia’s suspension of oil exports through the Red Sea after the Houthis attacked crude oil tankers last week, Reuters reports.

Airstrikes on water facilities in Hodeidah could lead to another cholera outbreak in Yemen, the U.N. children’s agency (U.N.I.C.E.F.) warned today. The AP reports.

The U.N. panel monitoring sanctions against Yemen “believes that Iran might now be willing to play a constructive role in finding a peaceful solution for Yemen,” according to an excerpt of a report the panel sent to the U.N. Security Council and obtained by the Associated Press yesterday. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

A Turkish court yesterday rejected U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson’s appeal to end his house arrest, also refusing to lift a travel ban that prevents Brunson from leaving Turkey, ruling there was no change in the “strong criminal suspicion” against him. Brunson was arrested in December 2016 on espionage and terror-related charges, and is at the center of a growing diplomatic dispute between N.A.T.O. allies Turkey and the U.S., the AP reports.

Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan said today that threatening language coming from the U.S. will not benefit anyone, claiming that Turkey would not make compromises regarding the independence of the judiciary and that the “evangelist, zionist mentality” displayed by the U.S. was unacceptable. He added that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu would hold talks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the sidelines of the A.S.E.A.N. meeting in Singapore later this week, Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly told senior aides earlier this week that he had accepted the president’s offer to stay in his role through 2020, according to three senior administration officials. There have been months of speculation about Kelly’s position and that he has been considering leaving the White House, Mark Landler and Katie Rogers report at the New York Times.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said today that it is trying to set up a meeting between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Singapore on the sidelines of an ASEAN meeting this week. Reuters reports.

The U.S. State Department and the Treasury Department are at loggerheads over Trump administration policy toward Myanmar and how to punish those responsible for atrocities carried out against the Rohingya Muslim minority. Nahal Toosi reports at POLITICO.

The Pentagon has been taking steps to establish a Space Force, pressing ahead with plans to establish the force ordered by President Trump despite not receiving full approval from Congress. Marcus Weisgerber reveals at Defense One.

Requests by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee for documents relating to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have led to a stalemate in the Senate. Elana Schor reports at POLITICO. 

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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).