The Early Edition: August 20, 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

White House counsel Donald F. McGahn has cooperated in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, sharing detailed accounts about the episodes at the heart of the matter including those that investigators would not have learned of otherwise, according to a dozen current and former White House officials. McGhan gave at least three voluntary interviews with investigators totaling 30 hours over the past nine months, in which he reportedly described the president’s fury toward the investigation and the ways in which he ordered McGahn to respond to it, Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

President Trump’s legal team said yesterday that they were confident that McGahn had said nothing harmful to the president during interviews, but the account that McGahn’s lawyer has provided only a limited account of what McGahn told the investigators, according to two people close to the president. This discrepancy has provoked anxiety among the president’s advisers that McGahn’s statements could help serve as a key component for a damning report by the special counsel, Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

I allowed [McGahn] and all others to testify — I didn’t have to,” Trump claimed in a volley of messages on Twitter yesterday morning, adding “I have nothing to hide and have demanded transparency so that this rigged and disgusting witch hunt can come to a close.” Trump also referred to the New York Times’ depiction of Mr McGahn as that of “a John Dean type ‘RAT’” – a reference to the former White House counsel who secretly co-operated with the Watergate probe that ultimately led to then-president Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation, Katrina Manson reports at the Financial Times.

“Study the late Joseph McCarthy, because we are now in period with Mueller and his gang that make Joseph McCarthy look like a baby!” Trump wrote on Twitter, marking the first time that he has equated Mueller’s probe to McCarthyism, although he has previously drawn an analogy to the communist witch hunt when erroneously claiming that former President Barack Obama had tapped his phones in Trump Tower, Emily Cochrane reports at the New York Times.

There is a history of tension between Trump and McGahn: in one meeting with Mueller earlier this year, McGahn described how a furious Trump had tried to persuade him to publicly contest a January 2018 New York Times story claiming that Trump had ordered McGahn to fire Mueller. Annie Karni and Darren Samuelsohn report at POLITICO.

“Truth isn’t truth,” Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani told NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday, claiming that he will not permit Mueller to rush the president into an interview because investigators could try to catch the president in a lie based on their version of the facts. “When you tell me that [Trump] should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, that’s so silly … because it’s somebody’s version of the truth … not the truth,” Elise Viebeck reports at the Washington Post.

“I’m not going to be rushed into having him testify so can he can be trapped into perjury,” Giuliani added in conversation with host Chuck Todd. The BBC reports.

Ex-Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos should face at least one month in jail, Mueller said in a filing late Friday in which he claimed that Papadopoulos was unhelpful to his investigation and had damaged investigators’ efforts to detain a Russian intermediary. It was Papadopoulos’s meetings with a professor in London who told him about Russian “dirt” on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton that led to the launch of Mueller’s probe, Aruna Viswanatha reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“The defendant lied in order to conceal his contacts with Russians and Russian intermediaries during the campaign,” the filing claimed. The alleged deceit occurred early in the investigation “when key investigative decisions, including who to interview and when, were being made,” Mark Mazzetti and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

Belarusian model and escort Anastasia Vashukevich – a.k.a Nastya Rybka – claims that she no longer has evidence linking to Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Vashukevich, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of soliciting and conspiracy to solicit in advance of her upcoming trial in Thailand, had created world headlines when she was first detained because she claimed to have audio recordings of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska which provided evidence of Russian meddling; however, she has now told the Associated Press that she has turned over the recordings to Russian Deripaska, Kaweewit Kaewjinda reports at the AP.

Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) has stated that his panel looking into possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign is not ready to wrap up its investigation, telling the AP that “the worst thing we can do is to prematurely try to end” the probe. Burr added that “at some point somebody’s going to go back and do a review … and I’d love not to be the one that chaired the committee when somebody says, ‘well, boy, you missed this.’ So we’ve tried to be pretty thorough in how we’ve done it,” Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

Founder of the private security firm previously known as Blackwater – Erik Prince – has claimed that a meeting he had with an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin was merely “incidental,” and has denied the existence of any back-channel communications with Russia. Prince was not an official member of the Trump campaign or administration, but has informally advised Trump for several years and was a prominent supporter during the 2016 presidential election, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has said that he will ask the president to lift sanctions against top Russian officials so they are able to visit the U.S. later this year. Paul told Fox News’s Laura Ingraham that members of both bodies of the Russian legislature have “agreed to come to Washington in the fall for further meetings … that’s a good thing …” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

“All of the fools that are so focused on looking only at Russia should start also looking in another direction, China,” Trump stated in a message on Twitter Saturday, adding that “in the end, if we are smart, tough and well prepared, we will get along with everyone!” Jaqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

“Trump has a credibility problem, but so do the media,” comments the Wall Street Journal editorial board, claiming that readers should be hesitant to draw speedy conclusions from the disclosures surround McGahn’s cooperation with Mueller over the weekend.

Trump’s tweet referencing Joseph McCarthy was “far more a mirror on Trump than an indictment of Mueller,” Michael Kruse argues at POLITICO Magazine.

A fact-checker for Trump’s more than 250 assertions regarding the Russia investigation is provided by Linda Qiu at the New York Times.

SECURITY CLEARANCE REVOCATION

The White House has drafted more documents to revoke the security clearances of current and former officials who have been disparaging of President Trump, with the president reportedly prepared to sign “most, if not all” of the directives, according to one senior White House official. Trump last week followed through on his pledge to strip the security clearance of former C.I.A. Director John Brennan, Karen deYoung and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

At least 13 former senior intelligence officials slammed Trump’s decision to revoke Brennan’s clearance in a joint statement Friday, writing that “we all agree that the president’s action regarding John Brennan and the threats of similar action against other former officials has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances — and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech.” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Trump told reporters Friday that Department of Justice official Bruce Ohr is “a disgrace,” incorrectly claiming that Ohr played a part in launching special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference. “I suspect I’ll be taking it away very quickly,” Trump said of Ohr’s security clearance, Michael D. Shear, Katie Benner and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

Former C.I.A. director John Brennan said yesterday that he is willing to sue President Trump to prevent other current and former officials from having their security clearances revoked, claiming in an appearance on NBC News’s “Meet the Press” that “I am going to do whatever I can personally to try to prevent these abuses in the future, and if it means going to court, I will do that,” Felicia Sonmez and Carol Morello report at the Washington Post.

Brennan attempted to clarify earlier remarks surround Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, claiming that he didn’t mean that Trump had actually committed treason when he called the president’s press conference “nothing short of treason,” Jaqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said yesterday that he did not believe Brennan had misused his security clearance, but rather had “abused his privilege” by publicly accusing President Donald Trump “of treasonous behavior.” Johnson said that the response was appropriate “when you are an ex-C.I.A. director and you are going on all the cable news shows and acting as partisan as he has and accusing the president of the U.S. of treasonous behavior, high crimes and misdemeanors … last time I checked, treason was punishable by death.” Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

The revocation of Brennan’s security clearance escalates Trump’s row with the U.S. intelligence community from a “simmering feud into an all-out war,” Tom McCarthy comments in an analysis at the Guardian.

AFGHANISTAN

Afghan officials say government forces have freed 149 people abducted by the Taliban just hours earlier in the province of Kunduz Monday morning, although deputy spokesperson for the Interior Ministry Nasrat Rahimi has said that the militants are still holding 21 people hostage, following an ambush of a convoy of buses traveling in the Khan Abad district. Breaking news at the AP.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced yesterday afternoon that his government would offer a two-month cease-fire to the Taliban on the condition that the group responds positively. Ghani made the offer in a live televised address, calling on Taliban leaders to “welcome the wishes of Afghans for a long-lasting and real peace,” in a move defying expectations just days after the Taliaban launched a major offensive on the city of Ghazni, Pamela Constable reports at the Washington Post.

The proposed ceasefire would be effective from today, ahead of Muslim holy festival Eid al-Adha.  The Taliban have not responded directly to the offer but have released a statement saying that they plan to free “hundreds of prisoners” on the occasion of Eid, Al Jazeera reports.

“The United States welcomes the announcement by the Afghan government of a cease-fire conditioned on Taliban participation,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement, adding that the U.S. “supports President Ghani’s offer for comprehensive negotiations on a mutually agreed agenda.” Brent D. Griffiths reports at POLITICO.

“As of this hour, there is no safe way for civilians or humanitarian workers to enter into Ghazni,” U.N. Humanitarian agency (O.C.H.A.) spokesperson Jens Laerke said Friday, adding that hundreds of civilians are thought to have died since last Friday in the ensuing clashes between Taliban fighters and pro-Government forces. Laerke added that “we estimate that there are some 200-250 civilian casualties,” the U.N. News Centre reports.

There are two wars raging in Afghanistan simultaneously: “the war of blood and guts, and the war of truth and lies,” Rod Nordland explains in an analysis at the New York Times.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

The Trump administration has rejected an effort by Ankara to link the release of detained U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson with relief for a major Turkish bank facing billions of dollars in U.S. fines, with Washington claiming that other issues are off the table until the minister is freed, according to a senior White House official. The jailing of Brunson and the ensuing imposition of sanctions by the U.S. has triggered an escalating diplomatic row between the two N.A.T.O. allies, Michael C. Bender reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Gunshots were fired early today at the U.S. embassy in Ankara but caused no casualties, according to Turkish and American officials, amid growing tensions between the two countries. The Ankara governor’s office said that a total of six shots were fired, with three of the bullets hitting the iron gate and window wall, AFP reports.

SYRIA

There is to be no global reconstruction funding provided for Syria until a “credible and irreversible” political process led by the U.N. is underway, a U.S. State Department official said Friday. The State Department also announced that former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey will serve as a special adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Syria, overseeing talks on political transition. Reuters reports.

The U.K. government will terminate its funding for a scheme to support the Syrian opposition, deeming the programs too risky to operate as the final rebel-held areas face imminent attack from the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Jessica Elgot repots at the Guardian.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Saturday that everything must be done for Syrian refugees to return to their homeland, discussing the issue with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in talks outside of Berlin, Reuters reports.

The northwestern province of Idlib is likely Assad’s next target following his victories in the South, according to experts, although “other scenarios may unfold with regional players at hand.” Farah Najjar provides an analysis at Al Jazeera.

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]

IRAN

Iran today urged Europe to accelerate its attempts to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – an accord that has been under threat since President Trump withdrew the U.S. in May. “Europeans and other signatories of the deal have been trying to save the deal … but the process has been slow … it should be accelerated,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi said, adding that “Iran relies mainly on its own capabilities to overcome America’s new sanctions,” Reuters reports.

Iran will unveil a new fighter jet next week and continue to develop missile capabilities as a top priority, the country’s Defense Minister said Saturday, defying new U.S. sanctions aimed at curbing Tehran’s missile program. Iran’s navy also announced Saturday that it has installed a locally-built advanced defensive weapons system on one of its warships for the first time, as tensions with U.S. military intensify in the Gulf, Reuters reports.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has appointed Gen. Aziz Nasirzadeh as Iran’s new air force chief. Nasirzadeh is a former F-14 Tomcat pilot and veteran of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, the AP reports.

President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prime minister yesterday in Jerusalem to discuss Iran. Bolton was quoted by Israeli media as having told Netanyahu that Iranian ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs were “right at the top of the list” of issues for discussion, the AP reports.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said yesterday that the new U.S. “Iran Action Group” will attempt to overthrow the Iranian government but would fail. Zarif sent a message on Twitter, cautioning that the U.S. overthrew the government of democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh 65 years ago, “restoring the dictatorship & subjugating Iranians for the next 25 years … now an ‘Action Group’ dreams of doing the same through pressure, misinformation & demagoguery … never again.” Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

YEMEN

The bomb used by the Saudi-led coalition to carry out its fatal attack on a Yemeni schoolbus was sold as part of a U.S. State Department-sanctioned arms deal with Saudi Arabia, according to munitions experts. The weapon that killed dozens of children on Aug., 9 was a 500-pound (227 kilogram) laser-guided MK 82 bomb made by Lockheed Martin, one of the top U.S. defense contractors, Nima Elbagir, Salma Abdelaziz, Ryan Browne, Barbara Arvanitidis and Laura Smith-Spark report at CNN.

Separatists opened fire on a military academy graduation ceremony in the port city of Aden Saturday, killing a cadet and wounding at least two others, according to witnesses. The incident is the latest in a series of violent episodes in the southern city, the temporary headquarters of Yemen’s internationally recognized government in exile, Reuters reports.

Lebanese militant Hezbollah group has claimed that its leader Hassan Nasrallah met with a delegation from Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, to discuss the latest developments in Yemen’s civil war. Hezbollah is thought to provide training and support for the rebels, the AP reports.

The Houthi rebels fired a Badr-1 missile at the Saudi Arabian western province of Najran, targeting a “new Saudi army camp,” the Houthis’ Masirah TV said in a tweet today. Reuters reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel closed its only pedestrian crossing with the Gaza Strip yesterday in response to protests at the border fence; a move that comes amid a fragile Egypt-brokered truce and attempts at negotiating a long-term cease-fire. A spokesperson for the Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) said the Erez Crossing was closed in response to “violent protests” that took place Friday, and that exceptions will be made for humanitarian cases.  Felicia Schwartz and Dov Lieber report at the Wall Street Journal.

Israeli troops killed two Palestinians and wounded dozens of others taking part in the weekly Gaza border protests on Friday, according to medics. In a separate violent incident on Friday, Israeli police said they shot dead an Arab individual who attacked them with a knife after leaving the Al Asqua mosque complex; Palestinians said that after the incident, Israeli authorities barred worshippers from the mosque, Reuters reports.

President Trump told King Abdullah of Jordan in June that a one-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might lead to someone named “Mohammed” becoming Israeli Prime Minister, according to several sources briefed on the meeting. Trump’s remarks may suggest he views a one-state solution as a threat to the future of Israel as a Jewish state, Axios reports.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

The head of both the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) and U.S. Cyber Command – Gen. Paul Nakasone – reportedly told top Pentagon officials that he believes both bodies should remain under the same leader for at least two more years. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

The F.B.I. is investigating a cyberattack on the congressional campaign of defeated Democratic Californian candidate David Min, according to three people close to the campaign. Hackers successfully infiltrated Min’s election campaign computer, Reuters reports.

A report on European police agency Europol’s cyber campaign against Islamic State group – and its official news agenc Amaq – is provided by Joby Warrick at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The judge in the death-penalty trial of those accused of carrying out the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the U.S. has ruled that prosecutors may not rely on crucial F.B.I. interrogations conducted at Guantánamo in the wake of abuse at overseas C.I.A. “black sites.” Prosecutors had hoped to have F.B.I. agents describe what the suspects told them soon after their September 2006 transfers to Guantánamo in purportedly consensual interviews, Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

President Trump is expected to formally nominate Army Lt. Gen. Richard Clarke to lead U.S. Special Operations Command, succeeding Army Gen. Tony Thomas, who is due to retire next year. The move comes as part of a series of military promotions in coming months, Gordon Lubold and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. troops will stay in Iraq “as long as needed” to help stabilize regions previously controlled by Islamic State group, a spokesperson for the U.S.-led international coalition fighting the militants said yesterday. Reuters reports.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has died after a short illness, according to a statement published on his official Twitter account Saturday. The U.N. News Centre reports. 

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About the Author(s)

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).