The Early Edition: August 13, 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

Associate of U.S. President Trump’s longtime adviser Roger Stone – Andrew Miller – was found in contempt Friday, after refusing to appear as a witness before a grand jury convened as part of U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Reuters reports.

“I have never seen anything so Rigged in my life,” Trump said in a message on Twitter Saturday, adding “our A.G. [Attorney General Jeff Sessions] is scared stiff and Missing in Action.” The tweet came in the wake of reports about meetings between Justice Department official Bruce Ohr and former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele – who assisted in putting together a dossier containing unverified but potentially damaging allegations about the president, Maggie Haberman reports at the New York Times.

“The big story that the Fake News Media refuses to report is lowlife Christopher Steele’s many meetings with Deputy A.G. Bruce Ohr and his beautiful wife, Nelly,” the president continued – in a series of tweets he sent during an extended stay at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey – that saw him step up his attacks on the F.B.I., Justice Department and Sessions. The president claimed that “it was Fusion G.P.S. that hired Steele to write the phony & discredited Dossier, paid for by Crooked Hillary & the D.N.C.,” Brent D. Griffiths reports at POLITICO.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has claimed that the president can survive a “negative” report from Mueller and his legal team are prepared to contest its conclusions. Giuliani said the president is open to sitting down to an interview with Mueller under limited conditions although, in a new development, added that Trump would not do so after Sept. 1 as such a move could interfere with the midterm elections, Peter Nicholas reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Giuliani said Saturday that Trump did not have a conversation last year with former F.B.I. Director James B. Comey about closing the investigation into the fired national security adviser Michael T. Flynn – an account contradicting a memo Comey wrote at the time. In December 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about his conversations with a Russian ambassador, becoming the first senior White House official to strike a deal to cooperate with Mueller’s probe, Maggie Haberman reports at the New York Times.

Giuliani’s remarks came as part of his broader case that Mueller is setting a “perjury trap,” through favoring Comey’s account of events over the president’s, which according to Giuliani could in turn incriminate the president if his testimony does not match Comey’s.” Victoria Guida reports at POLITICO.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D.) said Sunday that U.S. lawmakers should consider whether to impeach Trump for “bear-hugging” Russian President Vladimir Putin as the foreign leader tries to undermine U.S. democracy. “If President Clinton or President Obama had gone to Helsinki and done what President Trump had done, you would already have impeachment hearings going on,” McAuliffe claimed on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Victoria Guida reports at POLITICO.

Republican activist Peter Smith – who told reporters that he sought to obtain 2016 Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s personal emails deleted from her private email server – made several cash withdrawals around the time of those efforts categorized as “suspicious: by his bank Northern Trust. BuzzFeed News has reported that the bank received a subpoena from the F.B.I. on behalf of Mueller’s investigation to look into the transactions made by Smith, John Bowden reports at the Hill. .

With three weeks until the midterms Mueller may be running into “time trouble,” Philip Ewing comments at NPR, explaining that Mueller is anxious to avoid criticism that he might improperly influence the elections.

Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. is set to be a key player in the president’s mid-term strategy that targets the president’s most ardent supporters, and Trump Jr.’s position “in the crosshairs of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III may be more of a benefit than a drawback,” Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker comment at the Washington Post

The more than 20 witnesses and hundreds of exhibits in the bank- and tax- fraud trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort have served to erode the notion advanced by Trump that the Mueller probe is a “witch hunt,” Sharon LaFraniere, Kenneth P. Vogel and Maggie Haberman comment at the New York Times.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed new U.S. sanctions against Russia in a phone call on Friday, and Pompeo “reiterated that the United States seeks an improved relationship with Russia and agreed to future dialogue,” according to State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Lavrov expressed Russia’s “categorical disagreement” with the U.S. sanctions, which were imposed in response to Moscow’s role in the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury. Lavrov told Pompeo that there is no proof that his country was involved in any way, Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has not yet ordered retaliatory sanctions against the U.S., the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said today, explaining that the U.S. sanctions have not been introduced and “there’s no clear information on what these restrictions will be.” Reuters reports.

A newly released State Department cable reveals U.S. suspicions that Russian hackers targeted Swedish news sites in 2016, which also warned that Russia was seeking to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and that it was engaged in a campaign to destabilize the N.A.T.O. alliance. Kevin Collier and Jason Leopold report at BuzzFeed News.

The new U.S. sanctions show that the U.S. “is not prepared to condone Russia’s aggression or meddling” in spite of the seemingly friendly relationship between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the New York Times editorial board writes.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

A summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will be held in September in Pyongyang, the two countries announced today, marking the third meeting between Moon and Kim and following an agreement to improve bilateral relations made by the leaders in April in the truce village of Panmunjom. Simon Denyer and Min Joo Kim report at the Washington Post.

A precise date for the summit was not set out in the joint statement issued by representatives of the two Koreas. The AFP reports.

Talks between North Korea and the U.S. have reached an impasse, with North Korea demanding that the U.S. declare an official end to the 1950-53 Korean War before it provides a list detailing its nuclear arsenal. The standoff undermines the chance of progress being made on denuclearization and officials say that South Korea has quietly backed North Korea’s position and is in favor of a peace declaration. David E. Sanger and William J. Broad explain at the New York Times.

SYRIA

At least 39 people were killed on Sunday by an explosion at a weapons depot in the Syrian town of Sarmada in rebel-held northwestern Idlib province and near the border with Turkey, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (S.O.H.R.), adding that it was not yet clear what caused the explosion. The AFP reports.

The number killed by the explosion in Sarmada has risen to 69, including 17 children, S.O.H.R. said today. Reuters reports.

A Syria summit “is planned in the upcoming future” between the leaders of Russia, France, Turkey and Germany, the Russian Foreign Ministry said today. Reuters reports.

Turkey has stepped up diplomatic and military efforts in Idlib to avoid a “catastrophe” like those seen in other parts of Syria, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday, adding that preparations to create more safe zones in Syria have been finalized. Reuters reports.

A Syrian “National Army” comprising around 35,000 fighters is being established with the help of Turkey, which is seeking to unite the rebel factions and help them secure and govern territory in Idlib province. Khalil Ashawi reports at Reuters.

“We – China and its military – wish to develop our relations with the Syrian Army. As for participating in the Idlib operation, it requires a political decision,” the China’s Ambassador to Syria Qi Qianjin said last week, suggesting that China is willing to change its decades-long policy and get involved in the Middle East. Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian explains at The Daily Beast.

Russia has increased its humanitarian aid operations in Syria in a bid to win hearts and minds. Kathrin Hille, Andrew England and Asser Khattab explain at the Financial Times.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 20 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between July 30 and Aug. 5. [Central Command]

YEMEN

Talks between Yemen’s warring parties next month will center on a transitional governance deal and disarmament, U.N. special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths said in comments published Saturday. “Primarily, we are trying to reach an agreement between the Yemeni government and Ansarullah [Houthi rebels] on the issues essential to ending the war and on a national unity government in which everyone participates,” Griffiths told the Arabic-language Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, Reuters reports.

Detainees in a network of secret prisons set up by the U.A.E. across southern Yemen have been exposed to a host of brutal interrogation techniques including physical and psychological torture, according to a report obtained by Al Jazeera. The report, provided by Yemeni military figures who worked with the U.S-backed Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemen’s Houthi rebels – described scenes of sexual abuse by Emirati army officials and their Yemeni counterparts, Al Jazeera reports.

An in-depth report of the airstrike that hit a schoolbus in northern Yemen Thursday killing 51 people, including footage of the children in the moments before the missile struck, is provided by Nima Elbagir and Salma Abdelaziz at CNN.

A report on the domestic and international response to Thursday’s attack is provided by Saphora Smith at NPR.

AFGHANISTAN

Fighting has continued today between the Taliban and Afghan government forces in the provincial capital of Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan after the Taliban launched a large-scale assault on the strategic city on Friday. The U.S. has sent military advisers to support Afghan forces, Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah report at the AP.

The assault on Ghazni has killed more than 150 people, according to a local member of Parliament, who said that the Taliban insurgents have taken control of key buildings in the city. Joshua Berlinger and Masoud Popalzai report at CNN.

Afghan Special Forces have been deployed to Ghazni to try to counter the Taliban assault. People escaping the city have described widespread destruction and bloodshed. Hamid Shalizi and Rupam Jain report at Reuters.

The Taliban’s political chief Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai led a delegation to Uzbekistan to meet senior Uzbeki Foreign Ministry officials, according to officials from both sides, with a Taliban political office spokesperson saying that discussions included the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, reconciliation and Uzbek-funded development projects. Kathy Gannon reports at the AP.

Preliminary talks between Taliban representatives and senior U.S. State Department official Alice Wells in Qatar in July were “very helpful,” a Taliban official has said, adding: “once the breakthrough is started it will be stunning for all.” Memphis Barker and Sami Yousafzai report at the Guardian.

U.S. and Afghani investigators have reached starkly different conclusions about the identity of victims killed by a U.S. airstrike last week, with the Afghan investigation finding that nearly all of the 17 victims were Afghan police officers and the American investigation finding that no Afghan security force members were killed. Farooq Jan Mangal and Rod Nordland report at the New York Times.

A suicide attacker detonated explosives today near the office of Afghanistan’s election commission in Kabul, where dozens of protesters had gathered in support of a disqualified parliamentary candidate, according to officials. At least one police official was killed and one officer was wounded in the attack, Reuters reports.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday that the U.S. gave Turkey a deadline until last Wednesday to release American pastor Andrew Brunson. The case of Brunson, who has spent almost 20 months in jail, is at the center of a growing row between the two N.A.T.O. allies. Reuters reports.

The Trump administration threatened to impose additional sanctions on Turkey if it did not meet the deadline, Erdogan claimed, in a speech to supporters in the Black Sea coastal city of Trabzon. Megan Keller reports at the Hill.

“I want them to know that we will not surrender … we will keep producing and we will keep increasing exports,” Erdogan said, adding “we will not give in… if you come at us with your dollars then we will find other ways to do business… The U.S. is sacrificing its 81-million-strong ally Turkey for a pastor with links with terrorists.” Euan MacKirdy reports at CNN.

Erdogan said the U.S. would pay a price for challenging Turkey over “petty calculations,” denouncing Washington for declaring “economic war on the entire world” and holding countries “for ransom through sanction threats.” The Turkish leader described dollars, euros and gold as “the bullets, cannonballs and missiles of the economic war being waged against our country,” Al Jazeera reports.

“Washington must give up the misguided notion that our relationship can be asymmetrical and come to terms with the fact that Turkey has alternatives,” Erdogan wrote in a New York Times editorial Friday, warning that “failure to reverse this trend of unilateralism and disrespect will require us to start looking for new friends and allies.”

Turkey has done enough to repair its ties with the U.S., Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said today, adding that Washington had acted contrary to their alliance regarding fundamental security issues. Cavusoglu, making the comments during a speech to ambassadors in Ankara, also said the U.S. should learn that it will not achieve any results by threatening Turkey, Reuters reports.

Erdogan’s rejection of U.S. demands to release Brunson immediately has enhanced his reputation at home as a forceful leader, but the financial cost of the decision has started to bite. David Gauthier-Villars explains at the Wall Street Journal.

Although Erdogan’s stance may not cost him a political hit at home, Trump too may gain more by refusing to compromise – in a dispute where the power balance is tipped toward the U.S., Ishaan Tharoor argues at the Washington Post.

An analysis of the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and Turkey is provided by Rick Gladstone and Megan Specia at the New York Times.

IRAN

Iran’s military carried out its first ballistic missile test of 2018 late last week, in a move interpreted by U.S. officials as a show of defiance toward the Trump administration after the president’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May. The launch is Iran’s first since March 2017, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

U.S. ambassador to London Woody Johnson is urging the U.K. to back President Trump in pulling out of the nuclear deal, arguing that a united front is the best way to persuade Tehran to change its course. Johnson wrote in the Sunday Telegraph: “we are asking global Britain to use its considerable diplomatic power and influence and join us as we lead a concerted global effort towards a genuinely comprehensive agreement,” the AP reports.

Johnson criticized Tehran for backing “proxy wars and malign activities” instead of investing in its economy. He also argued that Iran needs to make tangible and sustained changes to behave like a ‘normal’ country; “until then,” Johnson wrote, “America is turning up the pressure and we want the UK by our side,” Reuters reports.

Johnson’s comments come days after U.K. Middle East minister Alistair Burt stated that Britain would not join the U.S. in sanctioning Iran, although Burt did claim that the U.K. remains open to conversations with the U.S. to discuss mutual concerns regarding Iran. Megan Keller reports at the Hill.

Iran has cancelled a visit by Iraq’s prime minister Haider al-Abadi this week, after al-Abadi said that while he was opposed to renewed U.S. sanctions on Tehran he had no choice but to abide by them, an Iraqi official said Sunday. Abadi will visit still visit Turkey tomorrow as planned, Qassim Abdul-Zahra reports at the AP.

Iranian experts claim that the U.S. must deliver confidence-building measures if it wants the Iranian administration to open its doors to negotiations, Ted Regencia explains at Al Jazeera.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Palestinian fishing boats sailed toward the maritime border with Israel on Saturday to challenge the blockade of Gaza, drawing warning shots from the Israeli navy, according to the organizers of the fleet. The incident took place amid efforts by the U.N. and Egypt to negotiate a long-term ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian militant Hamas group, who control the Gaza Strip, Reuters reports.

The Trump administration is seeking to withhold up to $200m in relief to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, according to three diplomatic sources, who say that Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decided on the cuts in a high-level meeting last week and believe it will pressure the Palestinians to accept the administration’s Middle East peace plan. Colum Lynch reveals at Foreign Policy.

UNITED NATIONS

President Trump’s comments on the media are “very close to incitement to violence” and could “quite easily lead to harm being inflicted on journalists,” the outgoing U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has said. Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

The former President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, has been officially appointed as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and will start in her role on Sept. 1. The U.N. News Centre reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Newly released top-secret cables show the brutal interrogation techniques used at a secret C.I.A. prison in Thailand when Gina Haspel, now Director of the C.I.A., oversaw the base. The new cables describe the waterboarding of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, accused of being the mastermind behind the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, as well as the use of other torture techniques. Julian E. Barnes and Scott Shane report at the New York Times.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis offered his support for the Trump administration’s proposed “Space Force” and defended the reversal of his position from last year when he expressed doubt as to the need of a new branch of the U.S. military. Robert Burns reports at the AP.

The White House has accused Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former aide to Trump, of showing “blatant disregard” for national security for recording her own firing in the Situation Room in December. The incident has raised questions about the security of the Situation Room, Gideon Resnick reports at The Daily Beast. 

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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).