The Early Edition: August 27, 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.

JOHN MCCAIN

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) died at his home in Arizona Saturday, having suffered from a malignant brain tumor discovered last year.  McCain was formerly a naval aviator and was detained as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, eventually rising to be a Republican congressman and Arizonan senator as well as two-time candidate for the presidency, Robert D. MacFaddon reports at the New York Times.

“I got into some real donnybrook fights with John McCain over policy,” former C.I.A. Director John Brennan told “Real Time with Bill Maher” the night before McCain’s death, adding that “I never once questioned his integrity and his interest in doing what is best for this country.” Brennan, whose security clearance has been stripped by the President Trump, called for a “reckoning” within the G.O.P. over Trump’s criticism of the intelligence community, citing McCain as the only Republican willing to stand up to the President, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

McCain’s death leaves a foreign policy void, Gordon Lubold comments at the Wall Street Journal, adding that Congress will have to do without its most vocal advocate for the “robust, U.S.-led internationalism that has defined the country’s security relations since World War II.”

A Republican Party more in the mold of John McCain  would “stop cowing to Trump and stand up for American national security,”  and would “investigate Russian cyberattacks and the possibility … that the president of the United States might be vulnerable to Russian extortion,”  David Leonhardt argues at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen has attracted renewed scrutiny from lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee, with some claiming that they want Cohen to testify a second time in the panel’s Russia investigation. Cohen, who pleaded guilty last week to campaign finance violations and other crimes, is regarded as a key witness in the committee’s inquiry into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Moscow, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Attorney for Cohen – Lanny Davis –  has backed away from assertions that Cohen has information on Trump’s knowledge of Russian influence campaigns. Davis gave an interview this weekend in which he claimed he could no longer be certain of his former claim: that Cohen has material of interest to prosecutors concerning Trump’s awareness of the Moscow’s attempts to undermine former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Tom Hamburger and Rosalind S. Helderman report at the Washington Post.

The president should be more concerned about federal prosecutors within the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York than about Mueller’s probe, retired Harvard Law School professor and informal Trump adviser Alan Dershowitz claimed during an appearance on ABC News’s “This Week” yesterday. “I think he has constitutional defenses to the investigation being conducted by Mueller,” Dershowitz said, adding that “there are no constitutional defenses to what the Southern District is investigating,” Felicia Somnez reports at the Washington Post.

President Trump launched a fresh attack on Attorney General Jeff Sessions Saturday, commenting in a message on Twitter that Sessions is permitting special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election proceed while allowing “real corruption” to go “untouched.” The president also retweeted a quote from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who told Fox News that the relationship between the president and the attorney general “is not working” and that “what’s going on is unsustainable,” Peter Nicholas reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) yesterday warned that a decision to fire Sessions would be a “big mistake” , expressing his concern in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Sessions’ termination “would be the first domino to fall” in the Justice Department’s investigation. Zachary Warmbrodt reports at POLITICO.

A little-known case brought by attorney and author Stuart McKeever – regarding the apparent murder of Columbia University professor Jesus Galindez six decades ago –could prevent Mueller from publishing any information about the Trump campaign and collusion with Russia obtained through a Washington grand jury. Josh Gerstein explains at POLITICO.

Mueller’s team has reduced its time estimate for the upcoming trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, indicating that the prosecution case could be completed in as little as two weeks. Manafort’s previous trial, the first to arise from Mueller’s investigation (though unrelated to alleged Russian collusion in itself,) concluded last week with Manafort convicted on eight felony charges, Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Top Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) – have asked to see all notes and documents relating to Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month in Helsinki, making the request in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.  The two senior lawmakers want access to documents including classified cables and notes from Trump’s interpreter, citing concerns the president may be hiding certain commitments he gave Putin, Robbie Gramer writes at Foreign Policy.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump cancelled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned trip to North Korea Friday, just days before Pompeo was set to arrive in the country for the next round of high-level diplomatic talks. The cancellation marks the first public indication of the president’s frustration over negotiations that have largely stalled since his June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, although Trump left open the possibility of Pompeo making a visit “in the near future,” John Hudson, David Nakamura and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

The cancellation has dashed South Korean hopes of denuclearization on the Peninsula, with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha expressing her regrets at the change of plans after speaking to Pompeo on the phone Saturday. Kang’s office said that both allies have agreed to maintain “momentum for dialogue” with the North, Choe Sang-Hun writes at the New York Times.

North Korea’s main newspaper yesterday accused the U.S. of staging military drills to prepare an invasion while simultaneously pursuing dialogue with “a smile on its face,” citing “extremely provocative and dangerous” U.S. troop movements in the region. The U.S. military dismissed the accusation – published in state outlet Rodong Sinmun – as “far fetched,” Simon Denyer reports at the Washington Post.

An analysis of whether China is acting to undercut denuclearization attempts on the Korean Peninsula is provided by Jane Perlez at the New York Times.

SYRIA

Iran and Syria have signed a deal for military cooperation, Tasnim news agency reported today. Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami traveled to Damascus yesterday for a two-day visit, meeting his Syrian counterpart Ali Abdullah Ayyoub in addition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and high-ranking military officials, Reuters reports.

Hatami reportedly promised Iranian “presence, participation and assistance” in Syria’s post-war reconstruction, with the two sides agreeing that “no third party will be influential in this issue.” Al Jazeera reports.

The Syrian regime must not go unpunished, argues Sara Afshar at the Guardian, citing the publication of photographs showing the corpses of over 6,700 people murdered in detention by the Assad regime.

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]

AFGHANISTAN

A U.S. air-strike over the weekend killed senior Islamic State group commander Abu Sayeed Orakzai in eastern Afghanistan, Afghan and U.S. officials announced today. The AP reports.

Aghan President Ashraf Ghani’s national security adviser Hanif Atmar abruptly resigned Saturday amid reports that Ghani is in the process of firing his entire war cabinet. Ghani has appointed current ambassador to the U.S. Hamdullah Mohib as Atmar’s replacement, Fatima Faizi and Rob Nordland report at the New York Times.

YEMEN

The U.N. announced Friday that a an airstrike carried out by the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition the previous day killed at least 22 children and four women in Yemen as they fled an area of violence, asserting with no qualification the coalition’s responsibility for the attack, which struck a pro-rebel district near the strategic red sea port city of Hodeidah. Rick Gladstone reports at the New York Times.

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels fired two Zelzal-1 missiles toward Saudi Arabian provinces yesterday, the Houthis’ Masirah T.V. announced. Reuters reports.

IRAN

Iran has appealed to the U.N.’s highest court today  in an attempt to have U.S. sanctions lifted, following President Trump’s decision to re-impose them earlier this year after the U.S.’ withdrawal from the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Mike Corder reports at the AP.

Iran has full control of the Gulf, and the U.S. Navy does not belong there, head of the navy division of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards – Gen. Alireza Tangsiri – commented today, according to Tasnim news agency. Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

 C.I.A. sources in Russia have reportedly gone quiet in the run up to November’s midterm elections, leaving intelligence agencies largely in the dark about Moscow’s intentions to interfere. U.S. officials do not believe the sources have been compromised or killed, but rather that they have gone to ground in the context of more aggressive counterintelligence efforts by the Putin administration, Julian E. Barnes and Matthew Rosenberg report at the New York Times.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be forging closer links with Russia as relations with the U.S. further deteriorate over the detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson. Zeynep Bilginsoy provides an analysis at the AP.

An update of recent developments in the South China Sea is provided by Christopher Bodeen 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).