The Early Edition: August 23, 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 has angrily proclaimed his innocence after the convictions of his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen and campaign manager Paul Manafort Tuesday sent shockwaves through the political establishment. Trump in particular targeted Cohen, sending a message on Twitter accusing him of making up “stories in order to get a ‘deal’ from federal prosecutors,” David Smith and Erin Durkin report at the Guardian.

“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family” Trump said in the same message, contrasting Cohen with Manafort who he suggested had been treated unfairly: “’justice’; took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to ‘break,’” the BBC reports.

“If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” Trump lashed out in another message on Twitter. Trump’s attempts to discredit his former lawyer follow Cohen’s disclosure Tuesday – as part of a plea deal with prosecutors – that the president directed him to pay “hush money” to two women so that their allegations about extra-marital affairs with Trump would not harm his presidential bid, Rebecca Ballhaus and Janet Hook report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump claimed yesterday that he only knew of the payments to the women “later on,” although he did not specify exactly when he became aware of the transfers. “[Reimbursements to Cohen] weren’t taken out of campaign finance … that’s the big thing … that’s a much bigger thing,” Trump claimed during an interview on Fox News, adding: “did they come out of the campaign? They didn’t come out of the campaign, they came from me…” Kevin Liptak and Jeremy Diamond report at CNN.

“As the president has said … we’ve stated many times … he did nothing wrong,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a White House briefing in response to Tuesday’s convictions, adding that “there are no charges against him … just because Michael Cohen made a plea deal doesn’t mean that implicates the president on anything.” Reuters reports.

Cohen’s own lawyer Lanny Davis has claimed that he believes his client has information that would be of interest to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, suggesting that such information is directly relevant to the subject of Mueller’s probe: Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. Davis told MSNBC that Cohen has ‘”information … regarding both knowledge of a conspiracy to corrupt American democracy by the Russians and the failure to report that knowledge to the F.B.I.,” additionally telling CNN that Cohen “has knowledge that would be of interest to the special counsel about whether Donald Trump knew ahead of time about the hacking of emails,” Al Jazeera reports.

Sanders hit back against suggestions that Trump is planning to pardon Manafort, telling reporters that “I am not aware of any conversations regarding that at all.” However, after speaking with Trump in an interview expected to air in full today, “Fox & Friends,” anchor Ainsley Earhardt told Fox News Colleague Sean Hannity last night that “[Trump] mentioned pardoning Manafort .. I think he feels bad for Manafort … they were friends,” Rebecca Morin and Quint Forgey report at POLITICO.

“The answer is definitively no,” Davis said when asked whether his client Cohen would seek a pardon from the president, during an appearance on CNN yesterday morning. “His answer would be ‘no, I do not want a pardon from this man … under no circumstances,’” Davis added, explaining that Cohen had adopted his current stance “since he came to the judgment after Mr. Trump’s election to the presidency of the United States that his suitability is a serious risk to our country … and certainly after Helsinki, creates serious questions about his loyalty to our country,” Stephanie Murray reports at POLITICO.

Davis offered his praise for Mueller, describing the special counsel during his CNN interview as a “great man.” John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Investigators in New York yesterday issued a subpoena to Cohen for documents related to the Donald J. Trump Foundation, in an escalation of the Cuomo administration’s investigation into whether the Trump’s charity violated tax laws. After receiving the subpoena, Cohen reportedly called the investigators in the state Tax Department to ask when they were able to talk, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation, Vivian Wang reports at the New York Times.

Leading Senate Republicans have appeared to be unruffled by the developments. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) commented that “eight years ago to 10 years ago, Trump was not what I consider to be a pillar of virtue … I think he has changed a lot of his life once he was elected … I think Trump is a much better person today than he was then,” Carl Hulse reports at the New York Times.

Senior Republicans have warned that it would be an error for the President to pardon Manafort, with prominent moderate Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) claiming “it would be an enormous mistake and misuse of his power to pardon,” and Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) cautioning that pardoning Manafort “would be a mistake.” Alexander Bolton and Jordain Carney report at the Hill.

Democrats moved yesterday to highlight the corruption in the Trump administration, urging members to stay on-message –avoiding the topic of impeachment and rather offering to provide a check and balance on the president. House Democratic leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) distributed a public letter to her colleagues claiming that that Washington has “become a cesspool of self-enrichment, secret money and ethical blindness” and that House Republicans were offering only a “blind eye to the corruption and criminality at the heart of President Trump’s inner circle,” Jonathan Martin and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

An explainer on the Cohen and Manafort convictions, summarising developments since Tuesday, is provided by Andrew R. Chow and Gabe Gohn at the New York Times.

COHEN AND MANAFORT PROSECUTIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

The President’s narrative of “winning” has been destroyed by Tuesday’s events, Renato Mariotti comments at POLITICO Magazine.

Following Tuesday’s events Republican lawmakers need to “remind themselves of their constitutional responsibilities,” the New York Times editorial board comments, arguing that G.O.P. members must erect some basic guardrails to ensure that … this president does not wake up one morning and decide to drive American democracy off a cliff.”

“If Republicans don’t put some moral distance between themselves and Trump, there will soon be nothing left to salvage,” Dana Milbank comments at the Washington Post.

Tuesday’s events will strengthen the Democrats’ argument that their party is a necessary check on the president, but they should be careful not to “overplay their hand,” Karl Rove comments at The Wall Street Journal.

The campaign finance violation alleged by Cohen might “be precisely the sort of offense that the drafters of the Constitution meant to cover in granting Congress the power to impeach and remove a president,” Adam Liptak argues at the New York Times.

Commentators should be wary of describing Trump’s payments as “illegal,” as in spite of Cohen’s plea bargain, “hush-money payments” to lovers are not really campaign expenditures, argues former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission Bradley Smith at the Washington Post.

Trump’s long silence surrounding Cohen “suggested even he understands the reality of his legal jeopardy,” Michael Kruse comments at POLITICO Magazine, arguing that Cohen’s attacks on Trump have a different significance to those of his other opponents.

Cohen’s accusations mean that Trump’s claims of “no collusion” are now unsustainable, Z. Byron Wolf comments at CNN.

Trump has a number of legal escape routes from the allegations that may arise from Tuesday’s events, and his critics should not yet write him off, Paul Callan argues at CNN.

Tuesday’s events indicate the dangers of forging links with Trump, “whose long, long train wreck of a life is full of broken, victimized, and traumatized people,” Rick Wilson comments at The Daily Beast.

Trump “can and should” rely on the 1997 opinion In re Sealed Case to avoid being subpoenaed by special counsel Robert Mueller, “who knows that losing a subpoena court fight would prolong and delegitimize his investigation,” David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey argue at the Wall Street Journal.

An analysis of the steps leading to Cohen’s guilty plea is provided by Rebecca Davis O’Brien, Nicole Hong and Joe Palazzolo at the Wall Street Journal.

A in-depth look at the reaction to the events within Trump’s close circle is provided by Hallie Jackson, Kristen Welker, Geoff Bennett and Jonathan Allen at NBC.

An explainer on the potential fates awaiting Manafort and Cohen is provided by Sarah Mervosh and Matt Stevens at the New York Times.

RUSSIA

The U.S. and Russia are expected to agree to resume dialogue on nuclear arms when security officials from both nations meet in Geneva today. The scheduled meeting between U.S. national security adviser John Boltonand his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev serves as a follow-up to the Helsinki summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in July, the details of which still remain hazy, Julian Borger and Andrew Roth report at the Guardian.

“The worsening of bilateral relations is continuing,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters today ahead of the Geneva meeting, adding that “we need to identify some kind of areas for cooperation and also to understand if there are any such areas and whether our counterpart (the U.S.) has a desire for this.” Reuters reports.

U.S. sanctions are “counterproductive and senseless, especially against such country as Russia,” Putin commented today, adding that Moscow hopes that Washington will come to the same view and engage in constructive cooperation. However, Putin added that he viewed his one-one-one meeting with Trump as “positive,” and that while “no one expected that all disputed issues could be settled during a two-hour meeting … a direct conversation and exchange of opinions are always useful,” Vladimir Isachenkov reports at the AP.

N.A.T.O. is moving its military infrastructure closer to the Russian border and Russia needs to bolster its own infrastructure in response, Putin said yesterday after talks with Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinisto. Reuters reports.

“N.A.T.O.’s actions are defensive, proportionate and fully in line with our international commitments,” the alliance’s spokesperson Oana Lungescu said in an email to Reuters responding to Putin’s claims. Lungescu added that “N.A.T.O.. has deployed 4,000 troops to the eastern part of the Alliance – to deter any possible aggression … these troops cannot compare to the divisions deployed by Russia … in contrast, Russia has troops in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova against the wishes of their governments,” Reuters reports.

Islamic State group’s media arm released a video yesterday of four boys it claims were behind multiple attacks in the Russian region of Chechnya Tuesday, claimed by the militant group and carried out on police targets. Four of the assailants were shot dead during the attacks while a fifth was hospitalized after detonating his explosives, Reuters reports.

The latest false sites apparently created by the Russian “Fancy Bear” hacking group were aimed at conservative think tanks publicly critical of Russia: an indication that the group could be expanding its attacks to go after any potential enemies in the U.S. Jaqueline Thomsen explains at the Hill.

Lawmakers still have no idea what the Trump and Putin discussed in Helsinki, “and they have little hope of ever finding out,” Andrew Desiderio comments at The Daily Beast.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Satellite photos from last week indicate Pyongyang halted its dismantling work at a missile engine test site in the first part of August, according to monitor 38 North monitoring group – despite North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s pledges to President Trump at their June summit. Reuters reports.

South Korea announced yesterday that it would continue with its plan to open a diplomatic “liaison office” in the North this year, despite concerns that it was too quickly making overtures to a Pyongyang administration that has wavered in its avowed commitment to denuclearization. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

Washington will have to make a significant concession to secure denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, but is showing little willingness to do so, David C. Kang comments at the New York Times.

SYRIA

Kurdish U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces group is being pressed by the Syrian administration to cede control of its territories to Damascus. The group assisted the U.S. in the fight against Islamic State group and controls much of northern and eastern Syria, but with U.S. commitment to the Syrian conflict appearing to waver – the group faces a choice between negotiating with or fighting the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, Raja Abdulrahim reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The leader of Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate – Abu Mohammed al-Golani – has vowed to fight on in northwestern Idlib province, in the face of a possible government offensive. Golani’s rare public statement comes as Assad’s forces are sending reinforcements into areas around the province, Bassem Mroue reports at the AP.

“Just so there’s no confusion here … if the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons we will respond very strongly and they really ought to think about this a long time,” U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said during a press conference in Jerusalem yesterday, making the comments in advance of any possible offensive in Idlib by the Assad regime. Al Jazeera reports.

The Russian defense ministry said yesterday that over 63,000 Russian troops have fought in Syria, including 434 generals and about 90 percent of Russian combat pilots. The Russian military has used the operation to test some of its most advanced weapons – including jets and cruise missiles – with Moscow’s intervention helping to turn the tide of war in favour of the Assad regime. The AP 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]

AFGHNANISTAN

“Our leaders have accepted Russia’s invitation to participate in Russia-led peace talks,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid announced yesterday. Moscow has invited several countries to talks in September, but the Taliban’s acceptance comes hours after Washington and the Afghan administration refused to attend. Reuters reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to promote U.S. ambassador to Kabul and Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad as his special envoy on Afghanistan, according to two U.S. officials. The move will serve as the the latest signal to the Taliban that the U.S. is serious about talks to end the conflict in the country, Reuters reports.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

Lawyer for detained pastor U.S. Andrew Brunson – Ismail Cem Halavurt – has said that he plans to appeal to the Turkish constitutional court to seek Brunson’s release, after his submissions were rejected by a lower court last week. Brunson is at the center of a diplomatic row between N.A.T.O. allies the U.S. and Turkey, Reuters reports.

“There is rule of law in Turkey and the Andrew Brunson case is a legal issue,” the spokesperson for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday, criticizing the U.S. for what he said was disregard for Turkey’s legal process, citing Washington’s comments and demands in the ongoing case. Reuters reports.

IRAN

The Trump administration is looking to increase pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear program, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said yesterday, commenting that “we’re not just going to stop at where the sanctions were in 2015 … our goal, our objective really is essentially we’d like to say no waivers to the sanctions.” Bolton’s comments follow the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May, Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Increasing defensive capabilities will remain the main strategy of the armed forces,” Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) said yesterday in a statement carried by Tasnim news agency, adding that the country’s “missile programme has turned into the main challenge of the enemies of the Iranian nation, especially the United States, the Zionist regime [of Israel] and the Saudi rulers…” Reuters reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said yesterday that there is no timetable for releasing the Trump administration’s much-awaited Middle East peace plan, telling reporters in Jerusalem that while a “lot of progress” has been made, he could not say what the plan entailed or when it might be publicized. White House officials have long promised the most significant package ever proposed for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although Palestinian officials have already indicated that they they consider any such plan a non-starter, the AP reports.

U.N. Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo told the Security Council that its meeting yesterday was taking place “in the wake of yet another series of violent escalations that threatened to plunge Gaza into war,” calling on Israel to ensure that desperately needed humanitarian supplies for the Gaza Strip are not “held hostage to political and security developments.”  Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Israel has approved plans to build more than 1,000 illegal settlement homes in the occupied West Bank. The administration announced that the plans had been approved by a defense ministry committee, while the N.G.O. Peace Now reported that nearly 400 of the homes have received final approval for construction to begin, Al Jazeera reports.

Israel’s central bank today criticized a government plan to increase defence spending, saying it would come at the expense of civilian spending and serve to increase the state’s debt burden, Reuters reports.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

The Democratic National Committee said yesterday that it has been alerted to an attempted hack of its voter database this week and that it had notified law enforcement. The effort to target the Democratic Party’s voter file – Votebuilder – was unsuccessful, and the identities of the culprits remain unclear, Sheera Frenkel and Jonathan Martin report at the New York Times.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee raised concerns yesterday about the election voting systems provided by one of the largest vendors in the U.S – Election Systems & Software (ES&S) – questioning whether the company is taking sufficient steps to safeguard against hackers. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

“Can Facebook, or anybody, solve the Internet’s misinformation problem?” Farhad Manjoo queries in an analysis at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Islamic State group has released a new audio recording – purportedly of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – his first in almost a year. Baghdadi, whose whereabouts and fate remain unknown, is heard urging followers to “persevere” and continue fighting the group’s adversaries, the AP reports.

President Trump has officially tapped Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie to become the next leader of U.S. Central Command, the Pentagon announced yesterday. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Sen. Jeff Flake  (R-Ariz.) is supporting an effort to restrain Trump’s ability to revoke security clearances as revenge against his critics, the attempt taking the shape of an amendment proposed by Mark Warner (D-Va.), Jordain Carney reports at the Hill. 

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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).