The Early Edition: August 2, 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

“This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further,” President Trump stated in a message on Twitter yesterday, making the comments as negotiations continued between his legal team and special counsel Robert Mueller over the terms of a possible interview. Mueller is investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Michael C. Bender and Sadie Gurman report at the Wall Street Journal.

“Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!” Trump continued, the series of tweets causing alarm amongst Democrat and some Republican lawmakers, as the president stepped up his attack on the probe and described the prosecution of his former campaign manager Paul Manafort as a “HOAX.” Carol D. Leonnig, John Wagner and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

“Looking back on history, who was treated worse, Alfonse Capone, legendary mob boss, killer and ‘Public Enemy Number One,’ or Paul Manafort?” Trump continued, describing Manafort as “political operative & Reagan/Dole darling, now serving solitary confinement — although convicted of nothing? Where is the Russian Collusion?”  Demetri Sevastopulo reports at the Financial Times.

“I think it’s highly inappropriate and intemperate,” commented Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), adding “it would be far better if the president just refrained from commenting and Mr. Mueller proceeds with his investigation.” Top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), described the tweets “an attempt to obstruct justice hiding in plain sight,” Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill.

“It’s not a call to action,” Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani commented, adding that Trump’s tweets merely indicated sentiments that the President had expressed before. Mr. Mueller, appointed last year to oversee the government’s Russia investigation, Mueller is already looking into some of the president’s previous tweets to determine whether they reflect an intent and pattern of conduct meant to obstruct his inquiry, but Guiliani dismissed the concerns, calling them a “bizarre and novel theory of obstruction by tweet,” Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Eileen Sullivan and Katie Benner report at the New York Times.

“I think it’s very well-established the president uses tweets to express his opinion,” Giuliani added, arguing that “he very carefully used the word ‘should’.” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also sought to minimize the significance of the tweet, telling reporters that “it’s not an order, it’s the president’s opinion,” Tom McCarthy reports at the Guardian.

Trump is pushing his lawyers to try once again to reach an agreement with Mueller’s office about sitting down for an interview, disregarding their advice that he should not answer investigators’ questions, three people briefed on the matter said yesterday. Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

Mueller indicated this week that he is willing to reduce the number of questions his investigators would pose to Trump in an interview, making the offer in a letter on Monday indicating that various questions about potential obstruction of justice could be reduced to writing rather than asked in person. Carol D. Leonnig reports at the Washington Post.

“We’re in the process of responding to their proposal,” Giuliani said after an event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire yesterday. He added that “[Muller’s team] should render their report. Put up – I mean I guess if we were playing poker [you would say] ‘Put up or shut up.’ What do you got?” Maegan Vazquez, Evan Perez and Gloria Borger report at CNN.

Manafort’s team of experienced prosecutors have found a ripe target in lobbyists taking millions of dollars from foreign governments, making use of their broad remit to investigate not only Russian election interference but any related crimes arising. Mark Mazzetti and Katie Benner provide an analysis at the New York Times.

The Senate yesterday approved a resolution allowing its Intelligence Committee to share documents with the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) and lawyers for alleged Russian agent Mariia Butina, who testified before the panel earlier this year. Chairman and Vice chairman of the committee Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) commented that the resolution allows for the committee to release a transcript of its interview with Butina to both DOJ and her legal team, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Trump’s latest tweets have served to provide Mueller with yet more potential evidence for an obstruction of justice case, Aaron Blake comments at the Washington Post.

Rather than firing Mueller –  a move that would play into Democrat hands and almost certainly lead to impeachment – Trump should start declassifying and releasing documents related to the F.B.I. and Justice probes going back to 2016, the Wall Street editorial board comments.

The U.S. has played right into Butina’s hands, Alex Finley comments at POLITICO Magazine, arguing that there has been no downside for Russia in her getting caught.

MANAFORT TRIAL

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is racing through its tax- and bank-fraud case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, with prosecutors predicting they might close their case as soon as next week. Under sustained pressure from U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis to keep questions relevant and concise, prosecutors examined eight witnesses yesterday all of whom were vendors, Josh Gerstein and Darren Samuelsohn report at POLITICO.

The eight vendors gave the court detailed accounts of the Manafort’s lavish spending, which included the purchase of his daughter’s $1.9 million home in cash, alongside some of the most expensive suits in the world, but Judge Ellis rebuked prosecutors for placing too much emphasis on Manafort’s wealth rather than evidence of his alleged offences. Rachel Weiner, Justin Jouvenal, Rosalind S. Helderman and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

“Enough is enough,” Judge Ellis said angrily at one point, adding that “we don’t convict people because they have a lot of money and throw it around … the government is not going to prosecute people for wearing nice clothes.” In offering vivid details about Manafort’s lavish lifestyle, however, the prosecutors had a clear tactic: to paint Manafort as a man driven by greed, adept at lies and wily enough to cover his tracks, Sharon LaFraniere and Emily Cochrane report at the New York Times.

Two of the witnesses testified that invoices purporting to bill a company tied to Manafort appeared to be fake, marking the first time that prosecutors from Mueller’s office have disclosed the invoices, which contained spelling and address errors, missing information and in one instance, contained information about services that were never rendered. Reuters reports.

Live updates for today’s hearing are provided by Rachel Weiner, Rosalind S. Helderman, Justin Jouvenal and Matt Zapotosky at the Washington Post.

The White House is trying to put as much distance as possible between Trump and Manafort, even if the president doesn’t always stick to that strategy, Christopher Cadelago comments at POLITICO.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY      

“We demand that Russia and all other malign actors immediately cease this reckless behavior,” State Department spokesperson said in a statement yesterday in response to Facebook’s announcement Tuesday that it had closed more than two dozen “inauthentic” accounts and pages waging a disinformation campaign ahead of the midterm elections. Nauert added that “as President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Secretary Pompeo have said repeatedly, the United States will not tolerate foreign, including Russian, attempts to subvert our democratic processes and institutions,” Judah Taylor reports at POLITICO.

The U.S. has done little to protect itself from efforts to influence voters in the upcoming midterm elections, two years after Russia interfered in the presidential elections, according to lawmakers and independent analysts. While voting systems may be more secure against hackers, Russian efforts to manipulate U.S. voters through misleading social media posts are likely to have grown more sophisticated and harder to detect, Ellen Nakashima and Craig Timberg report at the Washington Post. .

“Foreign operatives … almost by design slip between our free speech guarantees and our legal authorities,” Top Democrat on the House Information Committee Mark Warner (D-Va.) commented. Ben Poken reports at NBC.

Senate Republicans voted down a bid yesterday to direct an extra $250 million toward election security in advance of this year’s midterms, despite the heightened warnings from intelligence officials. The 50-47 vote fell far short of the needed 60 votes to include the amendment proposed by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), Karoun Demirjian reports at the Washington Post.

Having announced the closure of 32 accounts yesterday, Facebook faces the enormous ongoing challenge of identifying coordinated, possibly state-backed attempts to sway public opinion. Kevin Roose provides an analysis at the New York Times.

The U.S. has closed its doors to Chinese telecommunications Huawei over fears that the company is stealing data and performing surveillance for Beijing, but Huawei is establishing a position for itself in Central Europe – applying for a security clearance in the Czech Republic. Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian explains at The Daily Beast.

NATIONAL DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION ACT

The Senate voted 87-10 to pass the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.), sending the compromise $717bn defense policy bill to President Trump to sign. The bill includes $616.9bn for the base Pentagon budget, $21.9bn for nuclear weapons programs and an extra $69bn to fund U.S. war efforts, Connor O’Brien reports at POLITICO.

The N.D.A.A. contains strict provisions aimed at countering Chinese influence operations, economic practices and its increasing militarism in the South China Sea. A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington said the law’s passage “will severely undermine the mutual trust between China and the U.S.” and called on the U.S. to “discard the outdated Cold War and zero-sum mentality.” Kate O’Keefe and Siobhan Hughes report at the Wall Street Journal.

IRAN

U.S. officials expect Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) will soon conduct major naval exercises in the Persian Gulf, possibly demonstrating Iran’s ability to shut off the Strait of Hormuz oil shipping route. Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne report at CNN.

The possible Iranian naval drills come amid increased tensions between the U.S. and Iran, including U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May and the reinstatement of sanctions, U.S. efforts to cut Iran’s oil exports, and Iranian threats to disrupt all regional oil exports. Phil Stewart reports at Reuters.

“If Iran will try to block the straits of Bab al-Mandeb, I am certain that it will find itself confronting an international coalition … [which] will also include all of Israel’s military branches,” the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday, warning Iran not to close off the straits that link the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. Iran has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz but has not threatened to block Bab al-Mandeb, Reuters reports.

The threats traded between President Trump and Iranian leaders “fizzled out,” however, there is no room for complacency as tensions and power dynamics in the region mean that there is a danger of “a new regional conflict spinning out of the vortex of the Syrian civil war.” David Gardner writes at the Financial Times.

SYRIA

Iranian forces have withdrawn from a so-called “de-escalation zone” in southern Syria “in order not to irritate the leadership of Israel,” the Russian presidential envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, said yesterday, referring to Israeli concerns about the presence of Iranian and Iranian-backed troops near the frontier with Israel and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Kathrin Hille and Mehul Srivastava report at the Financial Times.

U.N. peacekeepers have returned to the frontier between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights for the first time in years, Russia said today. The AP reports.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) are preparing their final offensive against the Islamic State group, with the deputy commander for strategy and support for the U.S.-led campaign, British Army Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney, stating that they expect the fight to dislodge the militants from the city of Hajin in eastern Syria will be difficult. Lara Seligman reports at Foreign Policy.

Amnesty International today accused Turkish forces of “turning a blind eye” to violations carried out by their Syrian rebel allies in the northern Afrin region. Turkey and its allies seized control of Afrin from the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia earlier this year as Turkey deems the Y.P.G. to be an extension of the Turkey-based separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.), the AFP 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]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced today that he would halt fuel supplies through the Kerem Shalom crossing to the Gaza Strip because of the “continued terror of flaming balloons and friction on the border,” referring to the flying of incendiary balloons and kites from the militant Palestinian Hamas group-controlled territory into southern Israel. The AP reports.

The closure of the crossing comes amid a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza. Al Jazeera reports.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

The U.S. Treasury Department announced yesterday that it would impose sanctions against two top Turkish officials in response to Turkey’s refusal to free American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been held in the country for nearly two years and has been accused of orchestrating the failed 2016 coup in Ankara. Michael C. Bender and Dion Nissenbaum report at the Wall Street Journal.

“Pastor Brunson’s unjust detention and continued prosecution by Turkish officials is simply unacceptable,” the Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement, adding that “President Trump has made it abundantly clear that the United States expects Turkey to release him immediately.” Colin Dwyer reports at NPR.

Turkey warned yesterday that it would respond to U.S. sanctions “without delay.” Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

The row over Brunson comes amid deteriorating U.S.-Turkey relations, including Turkey’s anger over U.S.’ refusal to extradite the American-based cleric Fethullah Gülen and its support for Kurdish forces in Syria. Adam Goldman and Gardiner Harris report at the New York Times.

U.S.-Turkey relations have reached a new low, the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, arguing that Turkey is an unreliable N.A.T.O. partner and the U.S. had to respond to Turkey’s decision to take Brunson hostage.

AFGHANISTAN

More than 200 Islamic State fighters surrendered to Afghan government forces yesterday to avoid capture by the Taliban, who launched an assault against them in the northern Jawzjan province. Najim Rahim and Rod Nordland report at the New York Times.

Militants in the Afghan capital of Kabul have killed three foreign workers today, increasing concerns about the security of expatriates in Afghanistan. Reuters reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The remains of U.S. service members killed during the 1950-53 Korean War arrived in Hawaii yesterday for analysis and identification. North Korea handed over the remains as part of an agreement reached between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un when they met in June for a summit, Audrey McAvoy and Kim Yong-ho report at the AP.

“Thank you to Chairman Kim Jong Un for keeping your word & starting the process of sending home the remains of our great and beloved missing fallen!” President Trump said in a message on Twitter, adding “thank you for your nice letter – I look forward to seeing you soon!” but did not explain what letter he was referring to. Josh Smith and Soyoung Kim report at Reuters.

Vice President Mike Pence attended the ceremony marking the return of the remains yesterday, and said the repatriation showed “tangible progress” toward easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

It may take years before the remains of troops are identified, Dave Philipps explains at the New York Times.

There should be a push toward establishing a peace mechanism for the Korean Peninsula, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said today, adding that this would be in conjunction with efforts to achieve denuclearization. Reuters reports.

A.S.E.A.N.

China and other Southeast Asian nations have agreed on a working text for a code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea, with officials from both sides today lauding the development as a “milestone.” A number of the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (A.S.E.A.N.) and China have overlapping claims to islands in the sea, and discussions have gone on for years regarding a pact to prevent an escalation of disputes, Reuters reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov will not meet on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (A.S.E.A.N.) this week, the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement yesterday. Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson intervened in the summer of 2017 to stop a secret Saudi-led and U.A.E.-backed plan to invade Qatar, according to one member of the U.S. intelligence community and two former State Department officials. Alex Emmons reveals at The Intercept.

A bipartisan group of Senators met privately with N.A.T.O. and European diplomats yesterday to “reassures these countries of our commitment to N.A.T.O. and our commitment to their security,” according to Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.). The session was held after repeated criticisms of the alliance by President Trump, Alan Fram reports at the AP.

The nuclear policy hawk Tim Morrison to join the National Security Council (N.S.C.) upon invitation from Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton. Spencer Ackerman reports at The Daily Beast.

The U.S.-backed army of Cameroon has been carrying out atrocities against civilians in the region where Boko Haram jihadists operate. Philip Obaji Jr. reports at The Daily Beast.

The U.S. Africa Command is preparing to scale-back missions on the continent and reduce troop levels, according to plans submitted by Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser. Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt to the New York Times. 

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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).