The Early Edition: August 21, 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 Don McGahn is of the belief that he did not implicate President Trump in any legal wrongdoing, McGahn’s attorney has told the president’s legal team in recent days. McGhan participated in extensive interviews with special counsel Robert Mueller – currently investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election – and the assurances from McGhan’s lawyer comes as the president and his attorneys have attempted to push back against a suggestion in the New York Times that they have little insight into the content of those interviews. Carol D. Leonnig, Rosalind S. Helderman and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

An interview with Mueller may turn out to be a “perjury trap,” the president claimed in an interview with Reuters yesterday, explaining that he is reluctant to sit down with the special counsel, as “even if I’m telling the truth, that makes me a liar … that’s no good.” However, Trump also asserted his presidential authority over Mueller’s investigation, claiming that “I don’t have to stay out, as you know … I can go in and I could … do whatever … I could run it if I want,” Ben Jacobs reports at the Guardian.

Democrats are examining how Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh might rule in any legal case emerging from the Mueller probe. Kavanaugh yesterday met Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) – the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee – and today will meet with five Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.,) Natalie Andrews reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Will Bruce Ohr, whose family received big money for helping to create the phony, dirty and discredited Dossier, ever be fired from the Jeff Sessions ‘Justice’ Department?” Trump stated in a message on Twitter yesterday. Ohr – a Department of Justice official whose security clearance Trump has threatened to revoke –allegedly had contacts with former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who assisted in putting together a dossier containing unverified but potentially damaging allegations about the president, Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has responded to a public backlash after he claimed that “truth isn’t truth,” originally making the claim in comments to NBC host Chuck Todd. Attempting to clarify the remarks, Giuliani said in a message on Twitter that the statement had not been “a pontification on moral theology” but a reference to cases of “he said, she said,” Jane C. Timm reports at NBC.

Russia has accused the U.S. of subjecting detained Russian agent Mariia Butina to “borderline torture,” in an attempt to break her spirit. Butina was arrested in July and has been accused of infiltrating conservative U.S. organizations to further Moscow’s agenda, Reuters reports.

“By the way, the Russians are going to help me with Tom Wolf,” Republican candidate Scott Wagner joked during a speech to supporters, in a reference to his run to unseat incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf (D.) “If I have to use [former Trump campaign chairman] Paul Manafort, I will,” Wagner continued, in comments captured in an audio recording provided by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party to the Huffington Post, Morgan Gstalter reports at the Hill.

Federal prosecutors are preparing bank- and tax- fraud charges against Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen and could announce them by the end of the month, according people familiar with the issue. Should Cohen seek to avoid indictment through striking a deal, he may have to cooperate with any investigation selected by prosecutors, including Mueller’s Russia probe, Kara Scannell, Erica Orden and Caroline Kelly report at CNN.

McGahn’s cooperation with the Mueller investigation serves as “evidence that the president and his advisers have concluded … Trump has done nothing wrong and has nothing to hide,” former White House counsel Peter J. Wallison writes at the Wall Street Journal.

Giuliani’s Saturday appearance on “Meet the Press” was “an absolute disaster for the Trump White House,” Chris Cillizza comments at CNN.

An analysis of the weekend revelations regarding Don McGahn, with particular focus on Trump’s references to Nixon-era White House counsel John Dean and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, is provided by Z. Byron Wolf at CNN.

Following reports that Trump is obsessed with Dean and his role in the Watergate scandal, an explainer on the former White House counsel is provided by Laura M. Holson at the New York Times.

SECURITY CLEARANCE REVOCATION

President Trump yesterday escalated his row with former C.I.A. Director John Brennan, daring Brennan to follow up on his threats to sue over Trump’s revocation of his security clearance last week. Deriding Brennan as the “worst C.I.A. Director in our country’s history” and a “political hack,” Trump claimed that were Brennan to litigate, it would make it “very easy to get all of his records, texts, emails and documents to show not only the poor job he did, but how he was involved with the Mueller Rigged Witch Hunt … he won’t sue!” Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

More than 150 former officials yesterday signed a brief statement opposing the “actual or threatened removal of security clearances from former government officials.” The move comes after a statement from twelve former officials, including past C.I.A. directors, last Thursday described Trump’s decision to strip Brennan of his security clearance as “inappropriate and deeply regrettable,” Avery Anapol reports at the Hill.

“The abuse of the powers of public office to silence critics … punish political enemies is exactly what goes on in dictatorships in banana” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said from the Senate floor yesterday, adding that the presidents’ decision to revoke Brennan’s security clearance was a “gratuitous act of political retribution taken out of spite and malice.” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) is attempting to limit the president’s ability to revoke security clearances of his political critics, announcing yesterday that he had filed the proposal as an amendment to the sizeable Defense, Health and Human Services, Labor and Education funding bill currently being debated by the Senate. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Brennan’s allies are concerned that his “intemperance may be backfiring,” William McGurn comments at the Wall Street Journal.

An analysis of the journalistic response to Trump’s decision is provided by Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast.

RUSSIA

“The … president is hoping for the best and … wants to pull our bilateral ties out of the deep crisis they are in,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters yesterday, indicating that Russian President Vladimir Putin is hoping to mend relations between Moscow and Washington. The gesture comes despite U.S. sanctions on Russia expected to go into effect this week, although Peskov added that “at the same time nobody plans to go into mourning if our approach is not reciprocated by Washington,” Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is today set to call for E.U. sanctions on Russia, claiming that the organization should “ensure its sanctions against Russia are comprehensive” and should stand “shoulder to shoulder with the U.S.” – calls that are likely to meet resistance in Brussels. The imposition of U.S. sanctions follows the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the U.K. town of Salisbury in March, following exposure to the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok – and the death of British woman Dawn Sturgess in July after she came into contact with the same chemical, Henry Mance and Jim Brunsden report at the Financial Times.

Hunt will also call for N.A.T.O. to draw clearer red lines regarding Russia’s use of chemical weapons and incursions into foreign territory, following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

Russia is not planning to send weapons into space, and views this as an important fact that the U.S. should take into account, according to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. The Trump administration last week voiced suspicion over Russia’s pursuit of new space weapons, including the launch of a new inspector satellite, reportedly behaving in an “abnormal” way, Reuters reports.

Russia’s military in the country’s east were put on high alert yesterday ahead of significant war games, also involving China and Mongolia. According to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the war games – set for next month – will mark the most extensive show of power in nearly 40 years; Peskov has indicated that Putin will be able to attend, the AP reports.

Russia and Egypt have discussed ways to increase their military links and boost cooperation on anti-terrorism cooperation, the AP reports. Shoigu held talks yesterday with his Egyptian counterpart Mohamed Zaki, in which he claimed that Moscow strongly backs Egypt’s efforts to fight militants in the Sinai Peninsula.

Armed militants injured several policemen in attacks in three locations in the Russian republic of Chechnya yesterday, with Islamic State group claiming responsibility for the violence. Five militants were killed across the three attacks, AFP reports.

AFGHANISTAN

Afghan forces rescued nearly 150 people yesterday hours after the Taliban ambushed a convoy of buses and abducted passengers in northern Kunduz province. Officials have said that tribal elders are attempting to negotiate the release of the 21 captives still held by the militants, while a spokesperson for the governor in the province has said that the Taliban have demanded the national identifications of the prisoners in order to determine their fate, Amir Shah and Rahim Faiez report at the AP.

The Taliban fired a pair of rockets toward the presidential palace in Kabul today, as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was delivering his holiday message for the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha, according to Afghan police. The attacks prompted a fierce aerial response, with helicopter gunships bombing the house from where the rockets were purportedly launched, Amir Shah reports at the AP.

The Taliban have accepted a Russian invitation to travel to Moscow to participate in regional talks on the future of the country. According to people familiar with the decision, the talks – set for Sept. 4 – are likely to exclude the U.S., Jessica Donati reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Founder of the private security firm previously known as Blackwater – Erik Prince – is hopeful that new leadership in Trump’s national security team will realize his plan to replace the majority of U.S. troops in Afghanistan with private contractors. In an interview with The Hill, Prince cited U.S. national security adviser John Bolton’s comments Sunday about being “open to new ideas” as a signal that Bolton’s thinking may differ from now-retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

SYRIA

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday that Russia would assist Lebanon in returning refugees to Syria, also accusing the U.S. of impeding the repatriation process by refusing to assist in Syria’s reconstruction. Reuters reports.

Lavrov claimed that Moscow is examining why the U.N. cultural agency (U.N.E.S.C.O.) is delaying on the reconstruction of famous archaeological sites in the Syrian city of Palmyra, claiming that the U.N. Secretariat’s political department has explicitly prohibited any involvement in reconstruction pending a political settlement. Lavrov added that he argued against the move in a telephone conversation with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, Al Jazeera reports.

A report on the situation in the northern province of Idblib, slated to be the site of the civil war’s next showdown, is provided by Gul Tuysuz, Arwa Damon and Brice Laine at CNN.

The U.N. health agency (W.H.O.) has appealed for $11 million to provide medical care to parts of Aleppo, Hama, Idleb and Lattakia governorates. The U.N. News Centre reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 15 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Aug 13 and Aug. 19. [Central Command]

IRAQ

Military officials have raised concerns about the marked decline in the U.S.’ admission of Iraqi refugees who have assisted U.S. troops in battle. The Pentagon is reportedly anxious that failure to provide a safe haven to Iraqis, many of whom interpreted and carried out other crucial tasks for U.S. troops serving in Iraq, will serve to harm national security, Reuters reports.

A U.S. service member was killed and three others were wounded yesterday in a helicopter crash in Iraq, according to the Pentagon. The cause of the crash is being investigated, but Pentagon spokesperson Army Col. Rob Manning has said there are no indications that it was caused by hostile fire, Lolita C. Baldor reports at the AP.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

“I think it’s very sad what Turkey is doing,” President Trump said yesterday in a reference to the continued detention of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson. Brunson’s detention has led to a growing rift between the two N.A.T.O. allies and the imposition of U.S. sanctions, with Trump adding yesterday that “I think they’re making a terrible mistake … there will be no concessions,” the BBC reports

Turkish police have detained two men following yesterday’s shooting at the U.S. embassy in the Turkish capital. The Ankara governor’s office has named the suspects as Ahmet Celikten, 39, and Osman Gundas, 38, adding they have both confessed, Zeynep Bilginsoy reports at the AP.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

U.S. negotiators have confronted North Korean officials over “suspected” secret nuclear facilities, according to commentary in North Korean state news outlet Rodong Sinmun. The media coverage described the accusations from the Trump administration as “fiction,” and claimed that they were “derailing dialogue” between the two countries, Edward Wong reports at the New York Times.

Family members from the two Koreas met yesterday for the first time since the peninsula was torn apart by war nearly 70 years ago. The reunions taking place over three days will allow the family members to spend about 11 hours together, mostly under supervision by North Korean agents, AFP reports.

Small steps – not grand gestures – could break the impasse on North Korean denuclearization, the New York Times editorial board comments, arguing that both Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “will have to show more political will, courage and creativity than they have so far.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Beijing has protested to Washington yesterday over Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s tour of N.A.S.A’s mission control complex, taken during a stopover in the U.S. over the weekend. Lawrence Chung reports at the South China Morning Post.

Two Iranian men were indicted yesterday for allegedly spying for Tehran in the U.S., including carrying out surveillance at a Jewish facility and gathering information on supporters of the militant Iranian opposition Mujahideen-e Khalq, according to the Department of Justice. Reuters reports.

Veteran Israeli journalist and peace activist Uri Avnery has died at 94, after suffering a stroke. Avnery pushed for the creation of a Palestinian state and provoked controversy by meeting former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the early 1980s, the BBC reports.

Outgoing U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein yesterday warned that the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members wield too much power, cautioning that the imbalance must be remedied avert potential “collapse” of the world body “at great cost to the international community.” Jamey Keaten reports at the AP. 

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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).