The Early Edition: August 6, 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 acknowledged yesterday that a meeting between his son Donald Trump Jr. and Russian government lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya in June 2016 at Trump Tower was an attempt “to get information on” Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, but the president defended the encounter as “totally legal.” Both Trumps have repeatedly denied that the president had advance knowledge of the meeting, Reid J. Epstein reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The meeting is a subject of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Although “collusion” is not explicitly mentioned in U.S. criminal statutes, Mueller is investigating whether anyone associated with Trump coordinated with Moscow, which could result in criminal charges if they entered into a conspiracy to break the law, Ashley Parker and Rosalind S. Helderman report at the Washington Post.

“Fake News reporting, a complete fabrication, that I am concerned about the meeting my wonderful son, Donald, had in Trump Tower,” Trump stated in a message on Twitter yesterday, adding that “this was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics – and it went nowhere. I did not know about it!” Michael D. Shear and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

Trump Jr. has previously claimed that the meeting was primarily aimed at lobbying against the 2012 Magnitsky sanctions law, which provoked Moscow to block U.S. citizens from adopting Russian orphans. This was despite the disclosure of emails indicating that Trump Jr. was keen on the meeting because of the offer of potentially damaging information on Clinton, Reuters reports.

U.S. media reported that Trump had been involved in the initial statement issued by Trump Jr. regarding the focus on the adoption issue; a version of events initially denied by Trump’s team who later confirmed that he had in fact dictated his son’s statement. The BBC reports.

Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow admitted yesterday that he made a mistake last year in saying that Trump was not involved in crafting the initial, misleading statement, commenting on ABC’s “This Week” that “I had bad information at that time … I’ve talked about that before. That happens when you have cases like this.” Brent D. Griffiths reports at POLITICO.

“The question is: how would it be illegal?” Sekulow added, implying that no laws prohibit campaign aides from meeting with foreign agents. Emma Bowman reports at NPR.

Chief Judge Beryl Howell has issued a 92-page opinion rejecting an attempt by former associate of Trump confidante Roger Stone – Andrew Miller – to quash a subpoena to testify in Mueller’s probe. The opinion firmly expresses the view that the “scope of the Special Counsel’s power falls well within the boundaries the Constitution permits,” Laura Jarrett reports at CNN.

Heavily redacted documents running to 71 pages have been released relating to the F.B.I.’ relationship with Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer responsible for compiling compiled the Trump-Russia dossier. The documents offer little information because of the redactions, but they do suggest that Steele was told to stop gathering intelligence on behalf of the F.B.I. in November 2016, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

The woman famously known as the “Manhattan Madam,” – Kristin Davis – met with Mueller’s team for a voluntary interview Wednesday, with investigators apparently interested in her ties to Stone, whom she has known for a decade. The investigators have apparently expressed interest in having Davis testify before a grand jury ­– an indication that prosecutors are still aiming to build a case against Stone, M.J. Lee and Sara Murray report at CNN.

An analysis of Trump’s conflicting statements regarding the Trump Tower meeting is provided by Chris Cillizza at CNN, arguing that “his son and the entire Trump operation have struggled to tell the full truth – or even close – a bunch of times now in relation to the Russia investigation.”

Trump’s tweets yesterday provide Mueller with “evidence of a clear attempt to mislead the public and obscure the truth,” Aaron Blake comments at the Washington Post.

An analysis of accused Russian agent Mariia Butina’s “peculiar bid for Russian influence” amongst conservative U.S. groups is provided by Matthew Rosenberg, Mike McIntire, Michael LaForgia, Andrew E. Kramer and Elizabeth Dias at the New York Times.

RUSSIAN ELECTION INTERFERENCE

Top U.S. officials are devising new sanctions to target state-sponsored hackers attacking critical infrastructure. The drive for explicit action comes in the wake of successful penetration of U.S. utilities by Russian agents last year, Rebecca Smith reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said yesterday that she is worried about the prospect of the upcoming midterm elections coming under digital assault, telling NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “I’m very concerned that you could have a hack that finally went through.” Klobuchar expressed further disquiet as to the president’s stance: “you’ve got the president undermining this on national TV still after his security people … go in front of the world and … say this is happening, he says that night at a rally in Pennsylvania that it’s a hoax,” Martin Martishak reports at POLITICO.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) yesterday indicated that he is willing to alter the proposed bipartisan DETER Act in order to get it passed. The proposed bill, backed by Rubio and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), would bar foreign governments from purchasing advertisements to influence U.S. elections and would also give the director of national intelligence the power to deploy “national security tools” including sanctions should Moscow interfere in a future election, Martin Martishak reports at POLITICO.

Democrat candidate Tabitha Isner has claimed that her campaign website faced more than 1,400 hacking attempts, predominantly coming from Russia. Isner is challenging Rep. Martha Roby (R.) for her Alabama House seat, Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea has taken a series of steps toward denuclearization but this has not been matched by corresponding U.S. measures, the North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho said Saturday at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (A.S.E.A.N.) summit, stating that the U.S. has not changed its stance toward sanctions against North Korea and has not declared an end to the 1950-53 Korean War. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

“Confidence will not be built and implementing the joint statement itself will face difficulties,” Ri said in his statement, referring to the agreement signed by President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un when they met in Singapore on June 12. Jessica Donati reports at the Wall Street Journal.

A U.S. diplomat handed Ri a letter written by Trump for Kim at the sidelines of the A.S.E.A.N. summit, according to the State department spokesperson Heather Nauert. Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday played down the sparring between North Korea and U.S. at the A.S.E.A.N. summit, saying Ri “made very clear of their continued commitment to denuclearize” and asked reporters to “compare the anger, frankly, over years and years, and hatred, as spewed by the North Koreans; his comments were different.” David Brunnstrom reports at Reuters.

“The ultimate timeline for denuclearization will be set by Chairman Kim,” Pompeo said on Friday, stating that “we are confident that [Kim] remains committed to denuclearization.” Lin Xueling reports at Channel NewsAsia.

The Trump administration is not “starry-eyed” about the prospect of North Korea completely giving up its nuclear stockpile, the national security adviser John Bolton said yesterday, but adding that President Trump has been giving Pyongyang “a master class of how to hold the door open for somebody.” Martin Matishak reports at POLITICO.

North Korea “has not stopped its nuclear and missile programs and continued to defy [U.N.] Security Council resolutions,” a confidential report by a U.N. panel of experts has said. Michelle Nichols reports at Reuters.

North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper today called for the U.S. to stop imposing sanctions against the country; meanwhile, South Korea said it was examining nine cases of possible sanctions violations by North Korea. Hyonhee Shin reports at Reuters.

“We are asking North Korea to speed up its denuclearization process,” the South Korean presidential spokesperson Kim Eui-kyeom said yesterday, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

“The prospect of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization looks further way now than it was before [Trump and Kim met in] Singapore,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

IRAN

The U.S. will fully enforce sanctions against Iran as it is “an important part of our efforts to push back against Iranian malign activity,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday, referring to the first round of financial sanctions due to be imposed today. The sanctions are being reinstated following U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and further sanctions relating to Iran’s oil exports are scheduled for November, Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

Iran acquired five new commercial aircraft yesterday ahead of the U.S. reinstatement of sanctions, perhaps marking the last benefit Iran will see under the nuclear deal – which lifted international sanctions in exchange for limits and strict monitoring of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Amir Vahdat and Jon Gambrell report at the AP.

“Iran, and it’s [sic] economy is going very bad, and fast! I will meet, or not meet, it doesn’t matter – it is up to them!” President Trump said in a message on Twitter on Saturday, making the comments ahead of the reinstatement of sanctions and reports of protests being held across the country. Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

It would “require enormous change” in Iran before the Trump administration reverses its position on sanctions, Pompeo said yesterday. Scott Neuman reports at NPR.

Today’s return of U.S sanctions against Iran takes place against a backdrop of protests across Iran in relation to economic issues, political discontent and the ongoing currency crisis. The AFP reports.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) carried out naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz last week, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency. The I.R.G.C. drills took place amid escalating tension regarding Iran’s oil exports and Iranian threats that it would shut down the Strait of Hormuz – disrupting all regional oil exports – in response to U.S. sanctions. Kelly McCleary, Barbara Starr and Nic Robertson report at CNN.

SYRIA

The chief of the Russian military’s General Staff Valery Gerasimov sent a letter to the U.S. in July proposing cooperation between the two countries on rebuilding Syria and facilitating refugee returns, according to a U.S. government memo. Arshad Mohammed and Phil Stewart report at Reuters.

Russia’s defense ministry confirmed at the weekend that Gerasimov sent the letter, explaining that a proposal “was also made to coordinate humanitarian de-mining … and other priority humanitarian issues.” Al Jazeera reports.

Syrian government forces yesterday bombed Islamic State militant-controlled territory near Syria’s southern Sweida province, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, with the head of the war monitor saying that the forces are advancing and a “major military reinforcement [of regime troops] is massing” in the area. The AFP reports.

A hostage taken by Islamic State militants from the government-held city of Sweida last week has been executed, according to local media and a war monitor. Over 200 people were killed in the jihadist group attack and dozens were taken hostage, Reuters reports.

The director of the Syrian research center accused by Western countries of being part of a chemical weapons program was killed by a car bomb on Saturday, according to a Syrian government newspaper. The al-Qaeda-linked Tahrir al-Sham rebel group has claimed responsibility for the attack on Aziz Asber, Reuters 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]

YEMEN

At least 80 people on both sides have been killed over the past two days in heavy fighting between pro-Yemeni government forces and Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in the province of Hodeidah, according to Yemeni officials and witnesses, with the escalation in fighting coming as government forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition attempt to recapture the strategic port city of Hodeidah – which is a key entry point for food and humanitarian supplies. Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

Yemen has become the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” the European Union said in a statement on Saturday, adding that last week’s airstrikes in Hodeidah that killed at least 55 people and believed to have been carried out by the Saudi-led coalition were a “tragic reminder that in Yemen the international humanitarian law … continues to be broken on a daily basis.” Al Jazeera reports.

An investigation has revealed details of secret deals between the U.S.-backed coalition and al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen. Maggie Michael reports at the AP.

An overview of the origins and activities of al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (A.Q.A.P.), is provided by the AP.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has been pushing to put a stop to the work of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (U.N.R.W.A.), according to internal emails sent by Kushner – who has been working on the Trump administration’s Israel-Palestine peace plan – to administration officials and allies in Congress. Kushner raised the issue with Jordanian officials in a visit to the region in June and called on Jordan to strip the refugee status of the more than 2 million Palestinians registered in its country. Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer reveal at the Foreign Policy.

Arab officials have told the U.S. that a new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan must be delayed until tensions between Israel and the Palestinian militant Hamas group have eased, with Arab diplomats expressing concern that the Trump administration’s proposal will be too favorable to Israel and not concede enough to the Palestinians. Mehul Srivastava, Andrew England and Katrina Manson report at the Financial Times.

A Palestinian was killed and at least 220 were wounded at protests along the Israel-Gaza border on Friday, the violence taking place amid efforts by the U.N. and Egypt to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Nidal al-Mughrabi reports at Reuters.

The Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman posted a video yesterday of an Israeli sea obstacle to prevent attacks from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, publishing the video as reports emerged that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had convened a Security Cabinet meeting to discuss a U.N. and Egypt-brokered truce between Israel and Hamas. The AP reports.

A brief statement following the Israeli Security Cabinet meeting revealed little with regard to the ceasefire proposals put forward by the U.N. and Egypt. Maayan Lubell and Nidal al-Mughrabi report at Reuters.

An Israeli Cabinet Minister said today that the Security Cabinet’s discussion of a ceasefire deal with Hamas involved a proposal to ease some restrictions on Gaza; however, the comments fall far short of Hamas demands to significantly ease the blockade of Gaza, suggesting that the chances of an agreement being reached are slim. The AP reports.

AFGHANISTAN

Islamic State group fighters who surrendered to Afghan forces this week in the northern province of Jawzjan may be granted amnesty, according to officials, despite accusations of atrocities including rape and murder. Roughly 150 Islamic State fighters including two senior commanders gave themselves over after being driven from their strongholds, Reuters reports.

“Provide us with personal security as well as stay loyal to the commitments made between us so it prepares the ground for others who fight against the government to join the peace process,” surrendered Islamic State commander Maulavi Habib ul-Rahman said Thursday. An analysis of the so-called “peace process” and the relationship between the Afghan regime and Islamic state group is provided by Najim Rahim and Rod Nordland at the New York Times.

A Taliban suicide bomber killed three N.A.T.O. service members in eastern Afghanistan yesterday in an attack that also wounded a U.S. soldier and two Afghan troops, according to N.A.T.O. The Czech military has confirmed that the three killed were Czech service members, the AP reports.

Islamic State group claimed responsibility Saturday for Friday’s suicide bombing on a Shi’ite Muslim mosque in eastern Paktia province that left 39 people dead and wounded at least 80 others. Reuters reports.

“This attack targeting civilians has no possible justification,” U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (U.N.A.M.A.) chief Tadamichi Yamamoto commented on the attack at the mosque, stressing that “such attacks directed against congregations and places of worship are serious violations of international law that may amount to war crimes.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Turkey to free detained U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson Friday, declaring “the clock had run out.” Pompeo discussed the case – which has led the U.S. to impose sanctions on Turkey with Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on the sidelines of the A.S.E.A.N. conference in Singapore after previously pressing the issue at least three times over the telephone, Richard C. Paddock reports at the New York Times.

“I had a constructive conversation with my counterpart yesterday,” Pompeo told reporters Saturday, adding that “I made clear that it is well past time that pastor Brunson be free and permitted to return to the U.S., and that the others being held by Turkey also similarly be freed as well …I am hopeful that in the coming days that we will see that occur.” Al Jazeera reports.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Saturday that he was ordering reciprocal sanctions against two American officials, escalating the diplomatic dispute between the two N.A.T.O. allies. “Those who think that they can make Turkey take a step back with ridiculous sanctions have never known this country or this nation,” Erdogan commented in a speech Ankara, adding that “we have never bowed our heads to such pressure and will never do so,” Carlotta Gall reports at the New York Times.

“We will freeze the American justice and interior ministers’ assets in Turkey, if there are any,” Erdogan stated, adding that “Trump has been duped. We know this game. Mr. Trump needs to spoil the game.” Ayla Jean Yackley reports at the Financial Times.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

Action-movie actor Steven Seagal has been tapped by Russian officials as the special representative to improve relations between the U.S. and Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry announced the appointment on Facebook, claiming that Seagal’s mission will include promoting “relations between Russia and the United States in the humanitarian field, including cooperation in culture, arts, public and youth exchanges,” Melissa Gomez reports at the New York Times.

U.S. senator Rand Paul has said that he invited Russian senators to Washington for talks when he met Russian members of parliament in Moscow today, according to R.I.A. news agency. Reuters reports.

VENEZUELA

Six people have been arrested after an apparent attempt Saturday to assassinate Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in the capital of Caracas, according to the country’s interior minister. Several drones armed with explosives flew toward Maduro during a speech at a military parade, in an attack which Maduro has subsequently blamed on outgoing Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and far-right elements within Venezuela, Marilia Broccheto, Jonny Hallam, Joe Sterling and Stefano Pozzebon report at CNN.

Opposition leaders have criticized Maduro for broadly leveling blame at his political opponents for the attack without offering any evidence, and have captioned that Maduro may use the incident as a pretext for further suppressing those critical of his administration, the AP reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s associate Rick Gates looks set to take center stage in Manafort’s bank- and tax-fraud trial this week, with Gates – who has already pleaded guilty to charges arising from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation – set to give testimony against Manafort as early as today. Devlin Barrett comments at the Washington Post.

Egyptian troops and security forces have killed at least 52 suspected Islamist militants in recent days, the Egyptian army commented in a statement yesterday, as the administration continues a drive to crush Islamic State group in the region. Reuters reports.

Islamist al-Shabab militants targeted Somali forces in a suicide attack in the capital yesterday, killing three soldiers. Al Jazeera reports. 

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).