The Early Edition: August 14, 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

The F.B.I. has fired agent Peter Strzok, who attracted attention following the disclosure of text messages he sent that were critical of Donald Trump during the 2016 election. The messages had the potential to undermine investigators’ work on two politically charged probes and made Strzok a target for the president’s attacks on the Justice Department, Sadie Gurman and Del Quentin Wilber report at the Wall Street Journal.

Strzok has faced a barrage of attacks from Trump and Republicans after an internal investigation from the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) revealed that he had sent the messages to then-FBI lawyer Lisa Page. Republican critics have claimed that the correspondence provides clear evidence of anti-Trump bias, and argue that the pair’s disdain may have influenced the F.B.I.’s investigations into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and the beginnings of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election interference. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Strzok is the third high-ranking person to be dismissed from the Bureau during the Trump administration, alongside former Director James Comey. During his F.B.I. career, Strzok was promoted to deputy assistant director, although after Justice Department internal investigators found the text messages, Strzok was reassigned from Mueller’s investigation, Reuters reports.

Strzok’s lawyer Aitan Goelman said that F.B.I. Deputy Director David L. Bowdich ordered the firing Friday, despite the fact that the Director of the F.B.I.’s Office of Professional Responsibility Candice M. Will. had decided that Strzok  should face only a demotion and a 60-day suspension. Goelman claimed that the move undercuts the F.B.I.’s repeated guarantees that Strzok would be put through the normal disciplinary process, Matt Zapotosky reports at the Washington Post.

“The decision to fire Special Agent Strzok is not only a departure from typical Bureau practice,” Goelman said in a statement yesterday, “but also contradicts Director [Christopher] Wray’s testimony to Congress and his assurances that the F.B.I. intended to follow its regular process in this and all personnel matters…This decision should be deeply troubling to all Americans … a lengthy investigation and multiple rounds of congressional testimony failed to produce a shred of evidence that Special Agent Strzok’s personal views ever affected his work.”  The BBC reports.

“In fact, in his decades of service, Special Agent Strzok has proved himself to be one of the country’s top counterintelligence officers,” Goelman continued, adding that there could only be “one conclusion: the decision to terminate was taken in response to political pressure, and to punish Special Agent Strzok for political speech protected by the First Amendment, not on a fair and independent examination of the facts.” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

“Agent Peter Strzok was just fired from the F.B.I. – finally,” President Trump said in a message on Twitter, adding “The list of bad players in the F.B.I. & D.O.J. gets longer & longer. Based on the fact that Strzok was in charge of the Witch Hunt, will it be dropped? It is a total Hoax. No Collusion, No Obstruction – I just fight back!” Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt reports at the New York Times.

Chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and fierce critic of the F.B.I. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said yesterday that the bureau made the “right decision,” adding that “Peter Strzok was fired from the F.B.I. because of what his own written words plainly showed: he was willing to use his official F.B.I. position to try and stop President Trump from getting elected,” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

A GoFundMe page for former Strzok has raised more than $120,000 in the hours since his firing was announced yesterday. The campaign, which is seeking to raise $150,000, says the money will go to a trust to cover Strzok’s “hefty — and growing” legal fees and loss of income, Avery Anapol reports at the Hill.

U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich yesterday upheld the constitutionality of Mueller’s appointment as special counsel, in the latest setback to legal challenges of his investigation. Friedrich – a Trump appointee – issued a 41-page opinion affirming the special counsel’s authority to prosecute Russian company Concord Management and Consulting LLC, accused of participating in a conspiracy to hack the computers of Democratic bodies, Byron Tau reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Prosecutors allege that Concord is controlled by Evgeny Prigozhin, a businessman identified by Russian media as being close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and who U.S. officials have claimed has extensive ties to Russia’s military and political establishment. The company is one of three organizations, along with 13 Russian individuals, indicted by Mueller’s office, Reuters reports.

Lawyers for Concord Management and Consulting had argued that Mueller’s appointment is unconstitutional as he does not qualify as either a “principal officer” or “inferior officer” under the Appointments Clause of the U.S. Constitution; Concord’s case was that Mueller was not appointed by the president to be a “principal officer” and there was “no statutory authorization” allowing Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint Mueller as an inferior officer. Friedrich struck down that argument yesterday, writing “the Special Counsel is an inferior officer because he is directed and supervised by the Acting Attorney General,” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Although Friedrich upheld the constitutionality of Mueller’s investigation, she did find that no laws “explicitly authorize” his appointment. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said yesterday that he believes Mueller will respond to Trump’s legal team on the terms of a possible presidential interview this week, adding that he does not want the Russia investigation to influence the upcoming midterm elections. “I think he will give us a decision this week on our counterproposal,” Giuliani stated during an interview on Fox News, adding that “we are coming down to his looking really bad by interfering in the election …. I think he has to get it over with by the beginning — or early September,” Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

Mueller appears to be intensifying his focus on Trump’s longtime adviser Roger Stone in his investigation, provoking speculation that Stone is likely a target in the probe. Stone has long been faced with public scrutiny as a result of his links to WikiLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 – the hacking persona that Mueller’s team now alleges was a front for Russian intelligence officers, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

“There is no circumstance in which I intend to be pressured in order to testify against the president,” Stone said yesterday during an appearance on CNN’s ‘Outfront,’ adding “first of all, I have nothing that I could say about him that would be negative … secondarily, I’m just not going to do that.” Stone said that he would not rule out cooperating with Mueller, but stressed that there would be no circumstance under which I would testify against the president,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

U.S. prosecutors yesterday rested their case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort after 10 days of testimony alleging bank- and tax- fraud, with Manafort’s defense set to decide today if it will call any witnesses. Manafort’s trial is the first to arise from Mueller’s investigation, although the charges do not relate to Russian electoral interference, Reuters reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA OPINION AND ANALYSIS

President Trump will need to stop tweeting and start acting if he is to save his presidency, William McGurn comments at the Wall Street Journal.

The possibility of the Trump camp preparing its own report to counter whatever Mueller releases will only heighten the impression that the president has reason to fear the truth. “To help dispel that impression, he should answer Mr. Mueller’s questions, and soon,” the Washington Post editorial board argues.

Trump’s critics should resist the impulse to bemoan Strzok’s firing, as “arguably no one apart from President Trump himself has done more damage to the Russia investigation than Strzok,” Aaron Blake comments at the Washington Post.

Strzok’s firing completes Trump’s purge of the senior F.B.I. leadership who helped launch the Comey investigation, and provides a clear answer to those who wondered whether “Trump would allow the bureau to do its job without political interference from the White House,” Bradley P. Moss writes at POLITICO Magazine.

Mueller’s silence during the midterms means that voters will likely have to make up their own minds about how seriously to take the possibility of Trump’s collusion with Russia, Quinta Jurecic comments at the New York Times.

Little-known lawyer Andrey Pavlov is at the center of an intricate web of connections between Western fixers, Russian oligarchs, Russian President Vladimir Putin and even Trump himself, James Ball explains at The Daily Beast.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly traveled to Egypt in May for talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi about a possible long-term ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the Palestinian Hamas militant group. There has been no immediate confirmation of the visit from officials which was reported by Israeli television yesterday, the AFP reports.

According to the report, Netanyahu and Sissi discussed an Egyptian plan that would include restoring the Palestinian Authority to power in Gaza, a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the easing of the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza and redevelopment of the territory. Noa Landau and Amos Harel report at Haaretz.

Israel’s Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon today confirmed that Netanyahu and Sissi met in May, Reuters reports.

SYRIA

A U.N. report released yesterday said that around 20,000 to 30,000 Islamic State group fighters remain in Iraq and Syria, despite the group’s military defeat in 2017. The militants are still active in small pockets of territory in Syria and the report warns that the group “is still able to mount attacks. It does not fully control any territory in Iraq, but it remains active through sleeper cells.” Al Jazeera reports.

A “covert version” of Islamic State’s “core” will survive in Syria and Iraq, according to the U.N. report. It also said that al-Qaeda’s global network “continues to show resilience” and its leader, Ayman al-Zawahari has been “projecting his authority more effectively than he could previously,” including in Syria, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

At least 134 people were killed over the weekend in northern Syria, according to the U.N., with the U.N. deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq explaining yesterday that 17 children were killed in an explosion at a weapons depot in the town of Sarmada in Idlib province, and incidents in other parts of northern Syria over the last 36 hours killed another 28 children. The AP reports.

The U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces’ (S.D.F.) political wing has met with Syrian government officials last week for a second round of talks aimed at securing Kurdish autonomy in territory it has captured in northern and eastern Syria. Reuters reports.

The Russian military will help U.N. peacekeepers secure the area along the frontier between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Lt. Gen. Sergei Kuralenko said today, explaining that Russian military police have set up four checkpoints in the area and have plans to increase the number to eight. The AP reports.

The return of refugees to Syria is a top priority for President Bashar al-Assad’s government, with the Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad saying that “the Syrian government will facilitate their return by all means” and that foreign assistance, without preconditions, would be welcome. Dmitry Kozlov and Sergei Grits report at the AP.

The U.N. children’s agency (Unicef) issued a statement condemning the killing of children in northern Syria, explaining that the “war on children in Syria is putting at least one million children at risk in [northern] Idlib [province] alone.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 12 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Aug 6 and Aug. 12. [Central Command]

YEMEN

The International Committee of the Red Cross (I.C.R.C.) said today that 40 children were killed in the Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a school bus in Yemen’s rebel-held northern Saada province on Thursday, adding that 56 children were among the 79 wounded in the strike. The AFP reports.

Saudi Arabia initially defended the airstrike as “legitimate,” but later said it would investigate “collateral damage.” The U.A.E. Foreign Affairs Minister Anwar Gargash appeared to justify the use of force in comments yesterday, saying that “war is not something that can actually be a clean operation,” the BBC reports.

A senior U.S. general “pressed the Saudis to devote the resources and oversight required to do a thorough and complete investigation and release the results to the public,” the Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich said in a statement yesterday, not identifying the officer. The U.S. has been a key backer to the Saudi-led coalition and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Sunday that he had “dispatched a three-star general into Riyadh to look into what happened” in the strike that hit the school bus in Saada. Missy Ryan reports at the Washington Post.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made no mention of the airstrike in Saada when he spoke with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman yesterday, according to the State Department readout of their phone call. Zachary Cohen reports at CNN.

AFGHANISTAN

Afghan forces backed by the U.S. military today regained control over large parts of the provincial capital of Ghazni after the Taliban launched a large-scale assault late last week, with a defense ministry spokesperson saying that government forces “will soon have complete control over the city.” Abdul Qadar Sediqi and Hamid Shalizi report at Reuters.

The Taliban launched an assault on a base in Afghanistan’s northern Faryab province, killing 17 soldiers, according to officials. The attack took place as Afghan forces continued fighting Taliban insurgents in Ghazni, Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah report at the AP.

Afghan officials have offered conflicting assessments of the situation in Ghazni, and the massive attack by the Taliban has undermined the prospects that the insurgents and the government will agree a ceasefire to coincide with next week’s Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. Craig Nelson, Habib Khan Totakhil and Ehsanullah Amiri report at the Wall Street Journal.

Around 100 Afghan security forces have been killed in battle for the strategic city of Ghazni, the Defense Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami said yesterday, adding that between 20 to 30 civilians have been killed in the fighting. Ahmed Mengli reports at NBC News.

The assault on Ghazni represents a “stunning display of Taliban tenacity that belies the official Afghan and American narrative of progress in the war and the possibility for peace talks,” Mujib Mashal explains at the New York Times, providing an overview of the significance of the attack.

IRAN

“THERE WILL BE NO WAR, NOR WILL WE NEGOTIATE WITH THE U.S.,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei tweeted in all caps reminiscent of President Trump yesterday, later claiming that “even if we ever—impossible as it is—negotiated with the U.S., it would never ever be with the current U.S. administration,” Asa Finch reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Khamenei claimed that the U.S. played a “poor game” when it came to negotiations, in an official speech that preceded the tweets, adding that “they talk about a spirit of war to frighten the cowards.” Nada Altaher and Sheena McKenzie report at CNN.

“Recently, American officials have been talking blatantly about Iran … [and] are exaggerating about possibility of a war with Iran,” Khamenei said during the speech, concluding: “there will be no war … we have never started a war and they will not confront Iran militarily.” Reuters reports.

“Negotiations with the U.S. would definitely harm us and they are forbidden,” Khamenei said, adding that the U.S. has shown that it cannot not be trusted, and further that “negotiation with the bullying and very eager government of the U.S. means giving it an instrument through which it can add to its hostility.” The AP reports.

Khamenei’s comments come two weeks after Trump said he was willing to meet Iranian leaders “without preconditions,” even as he increased pressure on Tehran in the lead-up to the imposition of sanctions, following Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Najmeh Bozorgmehr reports at the Financial Times.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif echoed Khamenei’s comments, saying in an interview with Al Jazeera: “we have no problem with dialogue but is Mr Trump really serious about talks? … if he is serious about talks without preconditions, well the secretary of state [Mike Pompeo] put some conditions for talks two hours after Trump’s comments – impossible conditions.” Zarif added that “the first question is, if they themselves have reached an agreement inside the U.S. about talks with or without preconditions?” Al Jazeera reports.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi yesterday contradicted his recent reluctant commitment to stick to renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran, claiming that his government only committed to not using dollars in transactions with Tehran. Abadi made the comments at news conference in Baghdad on the same day that it was reported that Iran had cancelled his upcoming visit, Al Jazeera reports.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

President Trump has blocked the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey amid deteriorating relations between the two N.A.T.O. allies over a number of issues, including Turkey’s detention of the U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson and U.S. tariff increases. Lara Seligman reports at Foreign Policy.

New U.S. sanctions against Turkey and Russia are illegitimate and a way for the U.S. to gain an unfair competitive advantage in global trade, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said today. Reuters reports.

An explanation of Brunson’s position within the diplomatic spat between U.S. and Turkey is provided by Harriet Sherwood at the Guardian.

An overview of the issues causing division between the U.S. and Turkey is provided by Colin Dwyer and Larry Kaplow at NPR.

Turkey should be expelled from N.A.T.O. as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pursued policies that are anathema to Western interests. Bernard-Henri Lévy writes at the Wall Street Journal.

“It should be clear by now that there is no strategic relationship” between the U.S. and Turkey, and the Trump administration has been the first to recognize that the interests of the two countries do not align. Steven A. Cook writes at Foreign Policy.

NATIONAL DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION ACT

President Trump signed the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.) into law yesterday: a defense-spending bill that has received widespread bipartisan backing in its efforts to counter Chinese aggression and support U.S. military personnel. Trump praised the branch as an “unstoppable force,” while carrying out the signing at the Army’s Fort Drum post in upstate New York yesterday, Vivian Salama reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Hopefully we’ll be so strong we’ll never have to use it. But if we ever did nobody has a chance,” Trump told his audience. The bill will introduce thousands of new recruits to active duty, reserve and National Guard units and replace dilapidating tanks, planes, ships and helicopters with more advanced technology, the Guardian reports.

In a 25-minute address Trump took credit for the legislation, which represents a $16 billion increase in authorized funding for the Pentagon over the current year. The president failed to mention McCain (R-Ariz.), who has championed most of the priorities contained in the legislation, Anne Gearan, Paul Sonne and David Nakamura report at the Washington Post.

“Since President Trump would not do it, let us here on ‘The Lead’ congratulate Sen. John McCain and his family, and thank him for his service to the country,” CNN’s Jack Tapper commented on his show yesterday, Avery Anapol reports at the Hill.

China today condemned adverse measures in the new legislation, claiming that the Act exaggerates antagonism and that Beijing will take a detailed look at those aspects that strengthen the role of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States –

a panel that reviews foreign investment proposals. Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A car crash outside the Houses of Parliament in London is being treated as a terrorist incident. Jamie Grierson, Vikram Dodd and Sarah Marsh report at the Guardian.

U.S. and Western intelligence agencies have assessed that Russian officials were “pleased” with the summit meeting held between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Finnish capital of Helsinki last month, according to two intelligence sources with knowledge of the matter. Jim Sciutto and Jenna McLaughlin report at CNN.

North Korea has been demanding that the U.S. declare a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War, and South Korea is in favor; however, Washington is not ready to agree a peace declaration. Edward Wong explains the Trump administration’s reluctance to take such a step at the New York Times.

Russia has been strengthening its position in Africa through arms deals, investments, military cooperation and “instructors” for armed forces in the continent. The AFP explains.

A feature on U.S. and western military presence in Niger to combat Islamist militants, and the Nigerien attempts to suppress dissent, is provided by Ruth Maclean and Omar Hama Saley at the Guardian. 

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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).