The Early Edition: August 24, 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 FALLOUT

President Trump has criticized Department of Justice (D.O.J) tactics following his former lawyer Michael Cohen’s acceptance of a plea bargain Tuesday, in which he implicated Trump in campaign expenditure offences. Trump singled out Attorney General Jeff Sessions for criticism, who hit back that the D.O.J. would not be “improperly influenced.” Peter Nicholas and Nicole Hong report at the Wall Street Journal.

“I’ve had many friends involved in this stuff … it’s called flipping, and it almost ought to be illegal,” Trump commented regarding the prosecutorial leniency afforded to defendants in exchange for information. Trump made the comments in an interview on Fox News yesterday, in which he also claimed that “Jeff Sessions never took control of the Justice Department and it’s a sort of an incredible thing,” Courtney Weaver and Josh Noble report at the Financial Times.

“[Sessions] took the job and then he said, ‘I’m going to recuse myself,’” Trump remarked in the Fox News interview, adding: “I said, ‘What kind of a man is this?’” Sessions recused himself from investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election in March, following revelations that he held two undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador in 2017, Katie Benner, Nicholas Fandos and Katie Rogers report at the New York Times.

“I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in,” Sessions hit back in a statement,” adding that “while I am Attorney General, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.” Sessions’ response has provoked speculation that Trump may be on course to fire Sessions, although some Republican lawmakers have reportedly offered the Attorney General their support. Reuters reports.

“I demand the highest standards, and where they are not met, I take action,” Sessions continued in his statement, adding: “however, no nation has a more talented, more dedicated group of law enforcement investigators and prosecutors than the U.S.” Carrie Johnson reports at NPR.

“Replacing [Sessions] before the election, to me, before would be a nonstarter,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters, although Graham added “the idea of having a new attorney general in the first term of President Trump’s administration, I think is very likely.” Caitlin Oprysko and Rebecca Morin report at POLITICO.

“I will tell you what, if I ever got impeached, I think the market would crash, I think everybody would be very poor,” Trump warned in his Fox News interview, adding that “I don’t know how you can impeach somebody who has done a great job.” Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani also addressed the specter of impeachment, telling Sky News reporters from a golf course in Scotland that “you would only impeach him for political reasons and the American people would revolt against that,” AFP reports.

Trump recently asked his legal team for advice on the possibility of pardoning his former campaign manager, Giuliani disclosed yesterday. According to Giuliani, Trump’s lawyers counseled the president against the idea of pardoning anyone linked to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and that Trump should hold off at least until Mueller has concluded his probe, Carol D. Leonnig and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

“The conversation came about because there had been several pardons and the press kept asking about pardons and I wanted to give one answer,” Giuliani explained in an interview with NBC News, commenting further that “I brought it up with the president in early June, latest mid-June, and he said there would be no pardons for anyone involved in the investigation during the pendency of the investigation … It was not Manafort specific, rather it was generic.” Hallie Jackson and Phil Helsel report at NBC.

Giuliani was hesitant to side with Trump on the subject of “flipping”, telling Fox News that “when it’s done right, it’s fine … it’s one of the tools prosecutors use … Then it gets tested by a jury. You can’t stop that.” Felicia Sonmez, Josh Dawsey and Ann E. Marimow report at the Washington Post.

Federal prosecutors reached an immunity deal with the American Media Inc. chairman David J. Pecker yesterday. Pecker is a key witness in the prosecutors’ longstanding investigation into “hush money” payments during the 2016 presidential race, made to two women who said they had extra-marital affairs with Donald J. Trump, Jim Rutenberg, Rebecca R. Ruiz and Ben Protess report at the New York Times.

An explainer on the relevant law affecting Cohen’s plea deal and the subsequent fallout is provided by Julie Bykowicz at the Wall Street Journal.

COHEN AND MANAFORT FALLOUT: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Trump’s position may still worsen, Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann claim in an analysis at NBC, citing the fact that “prosecutors say they have audio recordings, text messages and phone records about Cohen’s payments — and the intent behind them.”

“For Republicans … there is a last chance over these next two months to finally show some guts and principle by separating themselves from Trump,” David Ignatius argues at the Washington Post, claiming that the true consequences of Tuesday will likely be felt in the midterms elections.

The significance of long-time Trump friend David Pecker’s immunity deal is explained by Tom McCarthy at the Guardian. McCarthy cites Just Security Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman, who comments that “a lot might turn on when prosecutors granted immunity to Pecker and Howard,” when it comes to figuring out whether prosecutors’ interest in those two men means that they are investigating someone more senior than Cohen.

Various legal defenses remain available to both Trump and American Media, Pete Williams and Tom Winter write at NBC, with Trump able to say that his payment to adult film actress was not intended to influence his presidential bid but rather to save his marriage – and American Media able to claim that as news organization, it can make any arrangements it wants to publish or kill a story. “After Cohen’s confession,” the writers explain, “those defenses will be harder to make … [given that] Cohen said in court that he has evidence that the payments were made specifically to prevent damaging information from influencing the election.”

“No one should believe Democrats when they say that impeaching Donald Trump isn’t on their agenda … it’s their only agenda,” The Wall Street editorial board comments.

This week has been a sad one for the U.S. but a shameful one for the Republican Party, “whose members remain more dedicated to minimizing Mr Trump’s malfeasance than to the ideal that nobody, not even the president, is above the law,” the Economist comments in the leader of its most recent print edition.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

The Kremlin played down expectations for a meeting between White House national security adviser John Bolton and his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev in Geneva yesterday, with Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov commenting ahead of the meeting that “it will be a chance again to discuss all the questions on our agenda that are well-known and to try and find the issues where there will be at least some readiness on the part of our colleagues to hold dialogue … at the moment we are seeing a certain lack of such desire.” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Bolton claimed after the meeting that he and Patrushev had discussed nuclear nonproliferation, Iran, North Korea, arms control, and Middle East topics including Syria and Afghanistan. With regard to Iran’s role in Syria, Bolton told reporters that he had expressed the U.S. “priority of getting all Iranian forces out of Syria,” and that he and Patrushev had discussed “a number of ideas” about how this might be accomplished, the AP reports.

The White House is “very, very early in the process of considering” what it wants to do about the current arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia, Bolton added. The New Start agreement, which sets limits for both nation’s nuclear arsenals, expires in early 2021, Karen deYoung reports at the Washington Post.

Bolton claimed that he pressed top Russian officials about interference in the U.S. election process, telling reporters that “they didn’t respond at all.” Bolton vowed that he would raise the issue again in the series of meetings likely to follow: “I’m going to make sure that they understand how strongly we feel about this … [and] tell them how firm the position of the U.S. is that there is no election meddling.” Jamey Keaton reports at the AP.

Patrushev commented after the meeting that he and Bolton had broadly agreed to re-open communication lines between their respective foreign and defense ministries, also claiming he had invited Bolton and U.S. officials to Russia for future talks, but that no specific date had been agreed, according to R.I.A. news agency. Reuters reports.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a phone call yesterday that Washington’s “destructive” approach to relations with Moscow was inhibiting bilateral cooperation, according to Russia’s foreign ministry. Lavrov cited in particular the U.S.’ treatment of detained Russian intelligence agent Mariia Butina, Reuters reports.

UKRAINE

An outbreak of fighting in Ukraine’s rebel-controlled east killed four troops and left another seven wounded, officials said yesterday. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry claimed that the violence was initiated when rebels started to shell government troops with mortars, in an attempt to break through the front line in the east of Luhansk; however, rebels in the region have accused government troops of attacking first, launching an offensive in an effort to capture some ground near the village of Zhelobok, the AP reports.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has warned that his country’s reform process is in peril due to what he alleges is Russian electoral interference, ahead of his country going to the polls in November, making the comments in an interview with the Financial Times.

YEMEN

Airstrikes carried out by the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition in the Durayhimi district killed almost 30 people yesterday, including four women and 22 children, according to media controlled by the Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels. However, state media of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) – a principal member of the coalition– disputed the claim and alleged that the rebels themselves launched the attack, killing one child and injuring dozens. Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

The coalition fighting in Yemen has been sharply criticized by the N.G.O. Human Rights Watch, accusing the Saudi and U.A.E. governments of arriving at “dubious conclusions” in its post-air strike analysis and failing to properly investigate alleged war crimes. The group published its findings in a damning 90-page report released today, in which it accused the coalition’s investigative body, the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (J.I.A.T.) of “absolving coalition members of legal responsibility in the vast majority of attacks,” Al Jazeera reports.

A report on the widespread destitution caused by the ongoing conflict is provided by Shuaib Almosaw at the New York Times.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel announced yesterday that a Palestinian gunman shot dead by its forces on the Gaza Strip border this week was a nurse working for the N.G.O. Medecins Sans Frontières (M.S.F.) and that it was seeking an explanation from the aid group. Israel’s liaison office for Gaza – Cogat – identified the man as Hani Majdalawi and claimed that he was killed on Monday after shooting and throwing a grenade at Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) soldiers, Reuters reports.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday that he remains hopeful that the U.S. will recognize Israel’s claim over the occupied Golan Heights. “Would I give up on such a thing? No way,” Netanyahu commented, despite the fact that a few days ago U.S. national security adviser John Bolton told Reuters that the U.S. has not discussed the claim, Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis today proposed talks between E.U. and Israeli interior ministers, that would center on tensions over Iran and the Palestinian conflict as well as terrorism-related issues. “Lithuania will initiate discussion in E.U. home affairs council with Israeli public security minister,” Skvernelis told reporters, AFP reports.

An interview with U.N. Relief and Works Agency (U.N.R.W.A.) head Pierre Krähenbühl is provided by Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy. Krähenbühl warns that U.S. cuts to humanitarian aid in Gaza could destabilize the region.

AFGHANISTAN

The Afghan administration has not yet formally responded to Russia’s invitation to participate in peace talks on Afghanistan that will include the Taliban, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova was reported to have said yesterday. Russia has invited 12 countries – including the U.S. – to international peace talks in Moscow on Sept. 4; the U.S. has declined, and an Afghan foreign ministry official said Wednesday that Kabul would not take part, but Zakharova’s claims yesterday suggest that the Afghan response is not finalized, Reuters reports.

One year after President Trump announced a new strategy for Afghanistan – the U.S. has little to show for its efforts, Lara Seligman argues at Foreign Policy.

PAKISTAN

Pakistan has called for the U.S. to amend its “factually incorrect” account of a phone call between U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and new Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. The U.S. State Department readout of the call recorded that Pompeo wished Khan success and had also appealed to Khan to take “decisive action against all terrorists operating in Pakistan;” Pakistan’s ministry of foreign affairs has since claimed that “there was no mention at all in the conversation about terrorists operating in Pakistan … this should be immediately corrected,” Reuters reports.

Pakistan has announced that a roadside bomb killed one soldier and wounded another along the Afghan border yesterday in North Waziristan. Afghanistan and the United States have long appealed to the nation to do more to combat militants along the fluid border, the AP reports.

SYRIA

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]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Ford Motor Co.’s Vice President of International Governmental Affairs – Stephen Biegun – will take over nuclear talks with North Korea as the U.S.’ new special representative, making the announcement as talks with Pyongyang are widely regarded to have stalled. Pompeo said yesterday that Biegun will travel with him to North Korea next week, Jessica Donati reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Pompeo has no plans to meet with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un during next week’s visit, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said yesterday. Reuters reports.

North Korean state media has taken a markedly hostile approach to Japan in recent weeks, slamming Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration as a “cult” intent on derailing Pyongyang’s diplomatic efforts. Japan appears to have taken the place of the U.S. as the North’s perceived adversary of choice, with state media praising President Trump’s “will and decision,” in the wake of his June summit with Kim, Reuters reports.

Defense experts are anxious that the suspension of U.S.-South Korea military exercises may have dangerous consequences. Andrew McCormick and Lee Jeong-ho provide an analysis at the South China Morning Post.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Scientists at George Washington University have discovered that Russian internet trolls spread misinformation about vaccines on Twitter, in an attempt to cause division and distribute malicious content before and during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The researchers made the discovery while trying to improve social media communications for public health workers, Jessica Glenza reports at the Guardian.

Former U.S. intelligence contractor Reality Winner was sentenced yesterday to more than five years in prison, after pleading guilty to leaking classified information about Russian election meddling to a news outlet, Dustin Volz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. Democratic National Committee officials were mistaken in their claims that foreign hackers were looking to attack a party voter database, a D.N.C. source announced yesterday. Reuters reports.

Google announced yesterday that it had identified and shut down 39 YouTube channels linked to state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley urged member states yesterday to ensure Islamic State group suffers “an enduring defeat,” and claimed that the U.S. will intensify partnerships with countries fighting terrorism on occassions “when force is necessary,” Edit M. Lederer reports at the AP.

U.S. army commanders have recommended that Capt. Michael Perozeni –singled out in a Pentagon investigation for blame after the deadly ambush in Niger last October – is awarded a rare Silver Star. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Helene Cooper report at the New York Times. 

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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).