The Early Edition: August 22, 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.

COHEN AND MANAFORT PROSECUTIONS

President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen has told prosecutors that Trump directed him to arrange payments to two women during the 2016 campaign, to keep the women from speaking publicly about affairs. Cohen acknowledged the illegal payments while entering guilty pleas – for breaking campaign finance laws and a raft other charges, William K. Rashbaum, Maggie Haberman, Ben Protess and Jim Rutenberg report at the New York Times.

At nearly the same moment as Cohen pleaded guilty – former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was convicted by a a jury in Alexandria, Va., with Manafort found guilty on eight of the 18 tax- and bank-fraud charges leveled against him. Manafort’s conviction concludes the first criminal trial to arise from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, although Manafort was not indicted on charges directly related to Russia, Renae Merle reports at the Washington Post.

Cohen told the federal court in Manhattan yesterday that he had made two payments “for the purpose of influencing the election,” detailing how he paid $130,000 to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and coordinated a $150,000 payment by the publisher of the National Enquirer to former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Cohen said that he had acted at the direction of “the candidate,” Nicole Hong, Rebecca Ballhaus, Rebecca Davis O’Brien and Joe Palazzolo report at the Wall Street Journal.

Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis said that his client had opted “to put his family and country first and tell the truth about Donald Trump.” Davis directly cited the role played by the president, claiming that “today, [Cohen] stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election … if those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?” Demetri Sevastopulo, Courtney Weaver and Lindsay Fortado report at the Financial Times.

“Michael Cohen has information that would be of interest to Mr. Mueller in his probe of a conspiracy to corrupt American democracy,” Davis told CNN’s Don Lemon last night, adding that “there is no doubt that Donald Trump committed a crime and, more than that, a cover-up of the crime … because he did not want to write the check to Stormy Daniels.” David Cohen reports at POLITICO.

Cohen’s admission represents a major potential blow for Trump, who has previously denied knowledge of the payments. Josh Gerstein, Laura Nahmias and Josh Meyer report at POLITICO.

“There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr. Cohen,” Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani responded in a statement, adding that “it is clear that, as the prosecutor noted, Mr. Cohen’s actions reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time.” Reuters reports.

Cohen’s sentencing has been set for Dec. 12, with Cohen having been released on bail of $500,000. The BBC reports.

A detailed account of Cohen’s court hearing in New York is provided by Erin Durkin at the Guardian.

Manafort was convicted of five counts of tax fraud, two counts of bank fraud and one count of failure to disclose a foreign bank account, with the jury unable to reach a verdict on the remaining 10 counts, and judge T. S. Ellis III declaring a mistrial on those charges. The verdict comes as a victory for Mueller, whose prosecutors relied on extensive evidence indicating that Manafort hid millions of dollars in foreign accounts to evade taxes and repeatedly misled banks to obtain millions of dollars in loans, Sharon LaFraniere reports at the New York Times.

Manafort could in theory face up to 80 years in prison, given the maximum sentences for each count. However, legal experts have suggested that Manafort – currently in federal custody – is more likely to face between eight and 10 years. Aruna Viswanatha, Sadie Gurman and Julie Bykowicz report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump yesterday attempted to distance himself from Manafort’s conviction. “I feel very badly for Paul Manafort,” the president told reporters last night as he arrived in West Virginia for a rally, adding that “it does not involve me … It has nothing to do with Russian collusion, we continue the witch hunt,” Reuters reports.

“Fake news and the Russian witch hunt … we’ve got a whole big combination,” Trump told supporters at the West Virginia rally, querying: “where is the collusion? You know they’re still looking for collusion. Where is the collusion? Find some collusion. We want to find the collusion.” Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill.

“Any attempt by the President to pardon Mr. Manafort or interfere in the investigation into his campaign would be a gross abuse of power and require immediate action by Congress,” commented top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee Mark Warner (Va.) in a statement. Reuters reports.

Republican officials have been hesitant to criticize Trump after Cohen’s guilty plea and Manafort’s conviction, with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wys.) saying in a statement that “we are aware of Mr Cohen’s guilty plea to these serious charges … we will need more information than is currently available at this point.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) emphasized that both cases had nothing to do with Russia, claiming that “the American legal system is working its will,” Ben Jacobs reports at the Guardian.

A guide to the evolving stories told by Trump’s allies regarding the Stormy Daniels payments is provided by Theodoric Meyer at POLITICO.

COHEN AND MANAFORT PROSECUTIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“Only a complete fantasist” could claim that the Mueller investigation is a “hoax”, “scam” or “rigged witch hunt,” in light of yesterday’s developments, The New York Times editorial board comments.

Manafort’s conviction and Cohen’s guilty plea provide “a damaging commentary on the shady operators Donald Trump associated with in his private and political life,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board comments, arguing that it is unclear whether the developments pose a fatal threat to Trump’s Presidency.

Congress must open investigations into Trump’s role in the crime Cohen has admitted to, the Washington Post editorial board argues.

Yesterday’s developments will have two principal effects, Gerald F. Seib writes at the Wall Street Journal. First, Republicans in Congress will have to decide whether the Manafort and Cohen court proceedings affect their willingness to protect the president; second, “the Cohen charge now figures to be wrapped into whatever report Mr. Mueller prepares at the end of his investigation … at which point the question will become whether prosecutors have uncovered any actions that could result in impeachment”.

Cohen’s guilty plea could provoke calls for impeachment hearings but probably will not have any legal consequences for the president while he is in office, Rosalind S. Helderman, Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett write in an analysis at the Washington Post.

Yesterday’s events serve to vindicate Mueller’s investigation, Tom McCarthy comments at the Guardian.

“A dark day for Trump … the darkest day for the presidency since Watergate,” Jonathan Allen comments at NBC, questioning whether the Trump administration will feel the consequences at the effects at the ballot box.

Six takeaways from “Manafort’s And Cohen’s Big Day” are provided by Domenico Montenaro at NPR.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Democratic lawmakers have reportedly drafted a wide-ranging contingency plan in the event that special counsel Robert Mueller is fired or President Trump takes other measures to quash Mueller’s Russia probe– such as firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein or pardoning key witnesses. Josh Lederman and Mike Memoli report at NBC.

Mueller yesterday sought to postpone a sentencing hearing for Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn. “Due to the status of the investigation, the Special Counsel’s Office does not believe that this matter is ready to be scheduled for a sentencing hearing at this time,” special counsel prosecutors wrote in a joint court filing with Flynn’s defense team. Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

In the wake of ongoing revelations surrounding Russian cyberattacks, “everything [Trump] does regarding Russia will be viewed with suspicion – not only by Democrats, but by the segment of the Republican Party that doesn’t trust Russia, or Trump,” Frida Ghitis argues at CNN.

“The White House counsel remains a government — not a defense — lawyer,” comments former White House counsel Bob Bauer at the Washington Post, explaining that it is for the current holder of the position – Don McGahn –to decide where his duty to America overtakes his duty to Trump.

A breakdown of “everyone charged in the Russia Investigation so far” is provided at the New York Times.

RUSSIA

The U.S. has imposed new sanctions against Russia, intensifying U.S. diplomatic pressure on Moscow even as the White House tries to fend off pressure by lawmakers to deploy more stringent measures to undermine the Russian economy. In two separate actions yesterday, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted a number firms and individuals it has accused of violating bans on energy trade with North Korea and breaking U.S. laws against cooperation with Russia’s intelligence branch, Ian Talley and Courtney McBride report at the Wall Street Journal.

The “action against these deceptive actors is critical to ensure that the public is aware of the tactics undertaken by designated parties and that these actors remain blocked from the U.S. financial system,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Members of Congress yesterday called for further action against the Russian “menace,” including the introduction of new sanctions legislation “from hell” to punish Russia for its annexation of Crimea, involvement in Syria’s civil war and cyber-attacks seeking to influence U.S. elections. Reuters reports.

We of course welcome statements that affirm a readiness to cooperate, but we would welcome even more some kind of concrete actions,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said yesterday, referring to comments made by Trump on Monday indicating that he would consider lifting sanctions against Russia if it were to do something positive for the U.S. Reuters reports.

The Russian G.R.U. military intelligence unit appears to be targeting conservative U.S. think tanks that have drifted away from the Trump administration and are seeking continued sanctions against Moscow. Microsoft Corporation announced yesterday that in recent weeks it has detected and seized websites created by hackers linked to the G.R.U. – the organization linked with interference in the 2016 presidential election, David E. Sanger and Sheera Frankel report at the New York Times.

President and Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft Brad Smith said yesterday that there is no evidence that the hacking attacks were successful, adding that the hackers are targeting “everyone across the political spectrum.” Smith also said in an interview with MSNBC that the company had “no doubt” that the “Fancy Bear” Russian hacking group behind the attack was the same one that targeted “every major presidential candidate last spring in France,” Reuters reports.

Russia denied the allegations from Microsoft, claiming it has fallen victim to a “witch hunt.” The Russian defense ministry stated: “it is regrettable that a large international company, which has been working in the Russian market for a long time, quite actively and successfully has to take part in a witch-hunt that has engulfed Washington,” Reuters reports

“Congress is going to act; you might as well know that,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in response to the revelations surrounding renewed Russian cyberattacks. Menendez, making comments in a meeting of the Banking Committee, which oversees sanctions law, added that “I’d rather it act in a way that has your insights about what would be helpful, but if you fail to provide insights then we will provide you with a law that ultimately takes place without your insights,” Nicholas Fandos and Catie Edmonson report at the New York Times.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday accused Britain of attempting to impose its hostile Russia policy on the E.U. and the U.S., following calls from U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt for more stringent international sanctions on Moscow. Reuters reports.

Moscow will commence deliveries of an S-400 missile system to Turkey in 2019 – a year earlier than previously announced. The move comes amid a growing diplomatic rift between Turkey and its Western N.A.T.O. allies including the U.S., Al Jazeera reports.

Serbia’s air force has received two Russian MiG-29 fighter jets, as part of an arms deal that could raise tensions in the Balkans and increase Moscow’s influence in the region, Al Jazeera reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

“The continuation and further development of the D.P.R.K.’s [North Korea’s] nuclear program and related statements by the D.P.R.K. are a cause for grave concerns,” the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) noted in its annual report this week, finding that the country has continued to upgrade some of its nuclear facilities and has shown no sign of closing critical parts of its nuclear infrastructure. The finding comes despite the agreement struck between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at their Singapore summit in June, Laurence Norman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

South Korea’s defence ministry has said it plans to cut back on guard posts and equipment along the demilitariszd zone (D.M.Z.) on its border with North Korea, as part of ongoing attempts to reduce tension and build trust between the two Koreas. “I have some concerns about what that means militarily for the ability to defend along the Military Demarcation Line,” U.S. Gen. Vincent Brooks told reporters today, although he added that the risk is of “a reasonable degree” and that Seoul’s decision represents a good opportunity to reduce tensions, Reuters reports.

SYRIA

The U.S., U.K. and France yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, issuing a statement describing the Aug. 21, 2012 sarin nerve gas attack that killed hundreds of people as “horrific,” and attributing blame to the Syrian regme. Edit M. Lederer reports at the AP.

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]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) says that it is investigating two killings of Palestinian teen protesters along the Gaza border. Military Advocate General Maj. Gen. Sharon Afek, announced yesterday that he instructed military police to look into the deadly shootings of Abed al-Nabi in March and Otman Hales in July, claiming that the probe comes “following a suspicion that the shooting in these incidents was not in accordance with standard operating procedures,” the AP reports.

Palestinian militant Hamas group leader Ismail Haniya has claimed that an end to Israel’s 10-year blockade of Gaza is “around the corner,” as talk of a possible truce deal accelerates. Egypt-brokered, indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas – which controls the Gaza strip – have reportedly included discussion regarding easing the blockade, Al Jazeera reports.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Facebook announced yesterday that it had identified multiple new influence campaigns aimed at misleading people around the world, with the social media giant finding and removing 652 fake accounts, pages and groups attempting to sow misinformation. The malign activity originated in Iran and Russia, Facebook claimed, with the fake accounts, pages and groups aiming at people in Latin America, U.K. and the Middle East, Sheera Frenkel and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

“Security is not something you ever fully solve,” said the Facebook C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg, in a call with reporters, adding that “we have to constantly keep improving to stay ahead.” Olivia Solon reports at the Guardian.

“I’ve been saying for months that there’s no way the problem of social media manipulation is limited to a single troll farm in St. Petersburg,” commented Top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence committee Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), adding that “while I’m encouraged to see Facebook taking steps to rid their platforms of these bad actors, there’s clearly more work to be done.” Ali Breland and Michael Burke report at the Hill.

Top officials at the F.B.I. and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have contested claims from Sen. Bill Nelson  (D-Fla.) that Russians have “penetrated” some of Florida’s election systems. D.H.S. Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and F.B.I Director Christopher Wray sent a letter Monday to Florida election officials claiming that the two agencies have not observed the activity alleged by Nelson, Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

President Trump’s Aug. 15 decision to reverse classified guidelines governing the U.S.’ use of cyberattacks is not the right way to update U.S. cyberstrategy, Patrick Barry comments at Foreign Policy.

SECURITY CLEARANCE REVOCATION

President Trump yesterday suggested that former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is “being nice” so he can keep his security clearance. “Even James Clapper has admonished [former C.I.A. Director] John Brennan for having gone totally off the rails,” Trump claimed in a message on Twitter, adding that “maybe Clapper is being nice to me so he doesn’t lose his Security Clearance for lying to Congress!” Aris Folley reports at the Hill.

“Just because a Democrat or a Republican revoked someone’s clearance doesn’t mean it’s a partisan issue,” Kel McClanahan argues at POLITICO Magazine.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Afghan military killed four of the nine insurgents who yesterday launched mortar attacks on the presidential palace and diplomatic district of Kabul, according to two officials. The mortar attacks came as Afghani President Ashraf Ghani was delivering a speech marking the beginning of Muslim holy festival Eid al-Adha, Reuters reports.

Tehran yesterday unveiled what it described as its most advanced domestically-produced jet fighter, highlighting the capabilities of its military amidst escalating tensions with the U.S. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sat in the front seat of the plane during its unveiling, claiming in a televised speech that the fighter would assist in Iran’s defense should the country come under attack, Aresu Eqbali and Asa Fitch report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. is confident that top al Qaeda bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri has been killed, although the relevant evidence is not conclusive. Asiri is believed to have been the mastermind behind the failed bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner in 2009, Reuters 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).