The Early Edition: September 6, 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.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

An anonymous senior Trump official has claimed that members of the administration are working to frustrate elements of the president’s agenda, in an attempt to protect the country from his “worst inclinations.” The author, writing in a New York Times editorial, said that the president’s “amorality” paves the way for ill-informed and reckless decisions, the BBC reports.

Cabinet members exchanged “early whispers” regarding invoking the 25th Amendment to remove the president from office, according to the author, who claims that the officials instead took the decision to contain the president from within rather than trigger a constitutional crisis. Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

The publication of the Op-Ed comes soon after the release of excerpts from journalist Bob Woodward’s book “Fear” Tuesday, which contained explosive revelations regarding the chaos at the heart of the Trump administration, Reuters reports.

Trump reportedly erupted with “volcanic” anger after reading the Op-Ed, with Chief of Staff John Kelly and other aides seen rushing to the press office in an attempt to formulate a response. A hunt for the author of the offending article was quickly initiated, Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

“TREASON?” was Trump’s one-word response in a message on Twitter last night. In a follow up message, he insisted: “If the GUTLESS anonymous person does indeed exist, the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once!” Ben Jacobs reports at the Guardian.

A “gutless, anonymous source” was responsible for the Op-Ed, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement, adding that “the individual behind this piece has chosen to deceive, rather than support, the duly elected president of the United States … he is not putting country first, but putting himself and his ego ahead of the will of the American people … this coward should do the right thing and resign.” Michael C. Bender reports at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has denied writing the editorial, the AP reports.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry commented yesterday that the U.S. faces “a genuine constitutional crisis” in the light of the Woodward revelations and the Op-Ed, adding that “we have a presidency which is off the rails.” Kerry told Anderson Cooper on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” that “we have a President who is not capable of doing the job, who clearly has these temper tantrums, doesn’t know enough to be making many of the decisions he makes,” Kate Sullivan reports at CNN.

Trump yesterday denied reports that he is seeking to replace Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, telling reporters that he is “very happy” with the Pentagon chief. The president’s response follows a Washington Post article released earlier yesterday which suggests that the administration has been considering possible replacements for Mattis for weeks, Elen Mitchell reports a the Hill.

“He’ll stay right there … we’re very happy with him … we’re having a lot of victories,” Trump said of Mattis. Reuters reports.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Despite Trump’s defense of Mattis yesterday, Woodward’s account “adds urgency to a question that has been building across Washington in recent months … how long will Trump remain comfortable with a Pentagon chief with a reputation for keeping him in check?” Missy Ryan and Dan Lamothe provide an analysis at the Washington Post.

An account of the Twitter response in the aftermath of the anonymous editorial, and the rush to identify its author, is provided by Taylor Telford at the Washington Post.

An analysis of the response within journalistic circles is provided by Michael Calderone and Jason Schwartz at POLITICO.

The anonymous Op-Ed and the Woodward revelations – taken together – “describe an administration in quiet revolt against its most powerful figure.” Lauren Gambino comments at the Guardian.

“Like most anonymous quotes and tracts, this one is a PR stunt,” Eric Wemple comments at the Washington Post, arguing that the anonymous editorial recycles old news.

The significance of the Op-Ed is that it breaks with Washington tradition: “the accepted way for a government whistleblower to undermine an administration is to leak information to the press … pilfer documents … or make themselves visible and resign in protest,” Jack Shafer writers at POLITICO Magazine.

“It’s hard to find a parallel in Western political history for a leader to survive such a knifing,” Stephen Collinson comments at CNN, adding that “Trump has long defied predictions of his own demise and survived the kind of blows that would paralyze other presidents.”

A breakdown of the key points from the Op-Ed is provided by the Guardian.

Trump will have difficulty impugning Woodward’s credentials, the Washington Post editorial board comments, arguing that “Fear” serves to fill in the details of what we already knew of the president’s administration.

The main takeaway from the Woodward revelations is that “Trump is still extraordinarily weak,” Ross Douthat comments at the New York Times, aruing that “some of that weakness is invisible because we simply take it for granted … some of the weakness shows up in his attempts to play the tough guy … [and] some of the weakness is implicit in Trump’s attempts to reassert himself against restraints imposed by his allies or advisers.”

A breakdown of the “most explosive quotes” from Woodward’s book is provided at the BBC.

The best way to oppose Trump is to deprive the president of media attention, rather than “ scoop up every morsel of palace intrigue from inside this ‘crazytown,’” Mike McCurry comments at POLITICO.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump’s most senior congressional allies are calling on the president to release huge numbers of classified documents connected to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Republican Reps Mark Meadows (N.C.), Jim Jordan (Ohio), Matt Gaetz (Fl.) and Lee Zeldin (N.Y.) are appealing to the president to declassify additional portions of the application the F.B.I. submitted to surveil former Trump campaign aide Carter Page in 2016, following the release of a heavily redacted version last month, Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Author and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi has been subpoenaed as part of Mueller’s investigation, following contact with long-time Trump adviser Roger Stone, Corsi’s lawyers said yesterday. Investigators appear focussed on Stone’s links with WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, Reuters reports.

Corsi has worked for Infowars – the conspiracy site run by Alex Jones, and was involved in the promotion of the “birther” misinformation campaign that claimed that former President Obama was born outside the U.S. Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

Corsi will fully comply with the Mueller team’s subpoena, according to his attorney David Gray. NBC reports.

“I hold [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions in the highest regard,” Vice President Mike Pence said at a G.O.P. lunch yesterday, adding “I appreciate his service to the nation.” Pence’s praise contrasts with the Trump’s frequent criticism of Sessions, who stoked the president’s anger by recusing himself from investigations into Russian interference in March 2017 following revelations that he held two undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador, Adam Edelman and Leigh Ann Caldwell report at NBC.

A newly released list of people “associated with” the upcoming trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort indicates just how widely the trial could impact on Washington’s law and lobbying establishment. None of the names on the list come as a great surprise, but some point to undisclosed aspects of the Mueller probe, Josh Gerstein, Theodoric Meyer and Marianne Levine report at POLITICO.

Prosecutors have not said whether they are using the guilty plea of Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to widen their investigation further into the Trump Organization. Mueller’s office and the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan (which prosecuted Cohen) have not indicated whether or not they are interested in information from Cohen regarding Trump’s political, business or personal affairs, Maggie Haberman reports at the New York Times.

KAVANAUGH CONFIRMATION

President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh was evasive on the question of whether a sitting president can be subpoenaed or whether a president can fire prosecutors investigating them during yesterday’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The two issues could be potentially significant in the context of special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

“I’m not going to answer hypothetical questions of that sort,” Judge Kavanaugh said, emphasizing his view that to do so would be inappropriate. Michael D. Shear, Adam Liptak and Sheryl Gay Stolberg report at the New York Times.

“I’m not sure I know everyone who works at that law firm,” Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh responded yesterday when asked by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) whether he had ever discussed Mueller’s probe with a lawyer at Kasowitz Benson & Torres, Trump’s longtime law firm. “How can you not remember whether you’ve had a conversation about Robert Mueller or his investigation with anyone at that law firm?” Harris pushed back, suggesting that Kavanaugh was “thinking of someone and you don’t want to tell us,” Elana Schor reports at POITICO.

Judge Kavanuagh highlighted his 2012 opinion in the case of Osama bin Laden’s Yemeni driver as evidence of his independence as a judge at yesterday’s hearing, telling Senators that “you’ll never have a nominee who’s ruled for a more unpopular defeat.” The AP reports.

The key moments from the second day of Judge Kavanuagh’s confirmation hearings are provided by Jackie Kucinich and Andrew Desiderio at The Daily Beast.

NOVICHOK POISONINGS

The two agents sent to southwest England in March to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal were active officers in Russia’s military intelligence G.R.U. unit, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said yesterday, after prosecutors charged the men of attempted murder. Richard Pérez-Peña and Ellen Barry report at the New York Times.

British authorities said that the two men flew from Moscow to London using Russian passports two days before the attack, smuggling the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok into the U.K. in a perfume bottle. Police added that the two men applied the poison to Skripal’s door and flew back to Russia just hours later, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Britain summoned Russia’s charge d’affaires in London yesterday following the charging decision. Reuters reports.

U.K. Security Minister Ben Wallace said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “ultimately responsible” for the attack, adding that “ultimately he does [have responsibility] in so far as he is the president of the Russian Federation and it is his government that controls, funds and directs the military intelligence, the G.R.U., via his ministry of defence.” AFP reports.

The U.K. will seek to accelerate diplomatic pressure on the Kremlin by outlining its case against Moscow at the U.N. Security Council – where Russia is a member, Pippa Crerar reports at the Guardian.

The U.K. Ambassador to Russia Laurie Bristow held talks with Russian Foreign Ministry official Igor Neverov yesterday to discuss the matter, Interfax news agency cited the ministry as saying. Reuters reports.

Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said yesterday that it was hard to understand what the U.K. was trying to signal to Moscow by identifying the two men it has charged. Reuters reports.

A detailed account of how the two Russian agents carried out their attack is provided by Nico Hines at The Daily Beast.

An analysis of the U.K. intelligence investigations that led to yesterday’s charging decisions is provided by Ellen Barry at the New York Times.

The emerging intelligence surrounding the Novichok poisonings underscores the importance of U.S. sanctions on Moscow, the Wall Street Journal editorial board comments.

A guide to the Russian G.R.U. intelligence unit is provided at the AP.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The two Koreas have set Sept. 18-20 as the dates for a summit meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the North’s state K.C.N.A. news agency said today, adding that Kim reaffirmed his commitment to denuclearize the Peninsula and “turn it into the cradle of peace.” Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

The third summit meeting between Kim and Moon follows a visit by South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong and a delegation to Pyongyang yesterday, where he met with Kim and held “in-depth and wide-ranging discussions.” Chung said today that Kim is “unequivocally committed to denuclearization” but feels frustrated that the international community has not recognized the practical steps he has taken and doubts his true motives. Jonathan Cheng and Dasl Yoon report at the Wall Street Journal.

Kim demanded that the pre-emptive steps he has taken to achieve denuclearization be met with corresponding “goodwill measures,” Chung explained, adding that the North Korean leader still has faith in President Trump in spite of diplomatic setbacks since they met in Singapore in June. Hyung-Hin Kim, Kim Tong-Hyung and Foster Klug report at the AP.

“He wanted to end some 70 years of animosity between North Korea and the United States and achieve denuclearization within President Trump’s first term,” Chung said of his discussion with Kim, which would represent the North Korean leader’s first commitment to some sort of timetable for denuclearization. Youkyung Lee and Jihye Lee report at Bloomberg News.

“The outcome of the special delegation’s visit was really good; it accomplished much more than what was expected,” Moon told reporters today, explaining that “it gave us high expectations” on the improvement of bilateral relations and the future of talks between the U.S. and North Korea on denuclearization.The AP reports.

North Korea has been preparing a military parade for the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding, and there are questions regarding the attendees and whether they will display missiles they claim can strike the U.S. mainland. Eric Talmadge explains at the AP.

SYRIA

Russia’s actions in the northern rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib are in line with multilateral agreements and Russia will “continue to destroy terrorists until their final and complete liquidation,” the foreign ministry said in a statement yesterday. Reuters reports.

The presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran will meet tomorrow in Tehran to avert a potentially catastrophic offensive by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces on Idlib – which is the last major rebel-held stronghold in the country and is home to around three million people. Russia and Iran are key backers of Assad, while Turkey supports some of the rebels, Zeina Karam reports at the AP.

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) rebels have expressed hope that Turkey will intervene with Russia to prevent a large-scale assault on Idlib, with an F.S.A. commander warning that “we realize the extent of vengeance and massacres that will befall us if they get our heads. They will slaughter us.” Rebels from the F.S.A. and the al-Qaeda-linked Tahrir al-Sham alliance (H.T.S.) have now put aside their disputes and have united against Assad, according to a rebel official in Syria, Suleime Al-Khalidi reports at Reuters.

The 10 elected members of the U.N. Security Council yesterday urged for parties to the Syria conflict to find a peaceful solution in Idlib, warning that a full-scale offensive in Idlib would lead to “a humanitarian catastrophe.” The Council is scheduled to meet tomorrow to discuss the situation, the AP reports.

“That cannot be a slaughter. If it’s a slaughter, the world is going to get very, very angry. And the United States is going to get angry too,” President Trump warned yesterday of the possible assault on Idlib, telling reporters: “I am watching that very closely.” Jeremy Diamond reports at the CNN.

President Trump yesterday denied he had discussed assassinating Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after the regime carried out a chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017. The assertion about Trump’s order to kill Assad was included in the journalists Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” the BBC reports.

“No, that was never even contemplated, nor would it be contemplated and it should not have been written about in the book,” Trump said yesterday during a meeting with the emir of Kuwait. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Russia is keen on talks with Turkey, France and Germany to discuss the conflict in Syria, the Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said yesterday, adding that it appears that all sides have agreed to hold the talks in Istanbul and an appropriate date is yet to be arranged. Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 30 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Aug. 27 and Sep. 2. [Central Command]

IRAN

The Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has criticized President Trump for planning to chair a U.N. Security Council to “abuse” Iran and blame his country “for horrors U.S. clients have unleashed across the M.E. [Middle East],” in a message on Twitter yesterday, responding to Tuesday’s announcement by U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley who said that Trump would chair the session during the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting to highlight Iran’s “violations of international law.” Al Jazeera reports.

Iran has not indicated whether it would speak at the Security Council meeting chaired by Trump on Sept. 26, with Iran’s U.N. Mission calling the meeting a “further attempt by the U.S. to divert attention away from Israeli brutalities and to remove the issue from the council agenda.” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

“Iran is in turmoil right now … they’re in total turmoil,” Trump said yesterday, adding that he was open to talks with Tehran about relations and Iran’s nuclear program, “but it doesn’t matter one way or the other.” Reuters reports.

Iran and the U.S. are headed for war “if the two countries don’t get off their current path,” Kaveh Afrasiabi and Nader Entessar write at the New York Times, calling for President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to use the upcoming U.N. General Assembly as an opportunity to meet.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The indirect talks of a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas group who control the Gaza Strip could also include the possibility of opening more routes for goods to cross into the territory, according to two western diplomats briefed on the discussions. Mehul Srivastava and Heba Saleh report at the Financial Times.

“I personally cannot imagine a situation in which the Golan Heights will be returned to Syria … I frankly cannot imagine a situation in which the Golan Heights is not part of Israel forever,” the U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman said in remarks published today, referring to the territory captured by Israel from Syrian in the 1967 war. Reuters reports.

Paraguay announced yesterday that it has reversed its decision on the location of its embassy in Israel, moving it out of Jerusalem and back to Tel Aviv. Paraguay followed the U.S. and Guatemala in opening an embassy in Jerusalem in May despite widespread opposition from the international community. Pedro Servin reports at the AP.

Israel will close its embassy in Paraguay and recall its ambassador in response to the announcement, according to the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Jack Khoury and Reuters report at Haaretz.

Palestinian authorities hailed Paraguay’s decision and the Foreign Affairs Minister Riyad al-Maliki said they would “immediately” open an embassy in Paraguay’s capital of Asuncion. The AFP reports.

YEMEN

Thousands of Yemeni people gathered in the Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebel stronghold of Saada yesterday, calling for the prosecution of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition for an air attack in August that killed dozens of people including 40 children on a bus. The coalition accepted on Saturday that the attack was unjustified and vowed to hold accountable anyone who contributed to the error, having initially claimed that the strike was legitimate and accused the Houthis of using children as human shields, Reuters reports.

U.N. envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths said yesterday that he hopes that Yemenis can gain a “flickering signal of hope” from peace talks set to resume in Geneva following a two-year pause. Griffiths is preparing to start three days of “consultations,” with envoys attending from Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and the Houthi rebels, Jamie Keaten reports at the AP.

“We need to discover … what the parties are prepared to do and what they are prepared to prioritize,” Griffiths told reporters, adding that priorities needed to be worked out “both in terms of substance, which will come in a later round, and in terms of these confidence building measures,” Reuters reports.

“This is a Yemeni-Yemeni discussion, it’s not for other countries to determine,” Griffiths added. Al Jazeera reports.

The Houthi movement said yesterday that its delegation was being prevented from flying to attend the peace talks, with the group’s al-Masiran T.V. network reporting that the U.N. was unable to secure required authorizations from the coalition, which controls Yemeni airspace. Reuters reports

Yemeni security forces have dispersed hundreds of protesters demonstrating in western Hadramawt province against the government and the Saudi-led coalition over the warring country’s deteriorating economy, wounding at least seven of the protestors. Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP

Saudi Arabia says 26 of its civilians were wounded yesterday by shrapnel from a missile shot down after it was fired across the border by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The AP reports.

AFGHANISTAN

A double bombing attack in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul yesterday killed 20 people, with the Islamic State group claiming responsibility for the explosions in a predominantly Shi’ite neighborhood. Ehsan Popalzai and Bard Wilkinson report at CNN.

An Afghan policeman killed at least eight fellow officers in northeastern Takhar province today and fled to join the Taliban. Reuters reports.

PAKISTAN

There is a “lot more discussion to be had” to improve relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday after meeting with newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad, which did not produce any concrete agreements. Saeed Shah and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

“I’m hopeful that the foundation that we laid today will set the conditions for continued success,” Pompeo told reporters – with Pompeo’s counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi saying that the meetings had been “positive” and that the two sides agreed that in Afghanistan “there is no military solution, we will have to go towards a political solution.” The AFP reports.

LIBYA

“The status quo in Libya is untenable,” U.N. envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame told the U.N. Security Council yesterday, explaining that the country lurched from one emergency to another in recent weeks – and cautioning that as Islamic State group expands its operations, Libya could become a safe haven for terrorist groups. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Heavy fighting in the Libyan capital Tripoli has come to a halt after the U.N. announced a cease-fire between warring militias, Libyan authorities announced yesterday following more than a week of violence. The conflict – between militias loyal to the U.N.-backed government and an armed group from a neighbouring town – have killed at least 63 people, the AP reports.

Libya plans to reopen Matiga airport – the country’s only functioning airport in Tripoli – within two days. Reuters reports.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Top Facebook and Twitter executives appeared before senators yesterday and answered questions about foreign election interference. Google declined an invitation by the Senate Intelligence Committee to attend, Deepa Seetharaman, Dustin Volz and John D. McKinnon report at the Wall Street Journal.

Republican senators accused Twitter of being biased against conservatives at yesterday’s hearing, Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel report at the New York Times.

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) and state attorney generals will meet on Sept. 25 to discuss whether social media companies are “intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms,” D.O.J. spokesperson Devin O’Malley said yesterday. Patricia Zengerle reports at Reuters.

The House yesterday passed legislation requiring the president to label foreign individuals or entities who have assisted nation states in carrying out cyber attacks against the U.S., Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

The “nonchalance” demonstrated by Twitter and Facebook executives yesterday risks inviting government intervention, the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said yesterday that there were no ongoing preparations for a future meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin following their one-to-one Helsinki summit in July. “We don’t have any information about the preparation of such a meeting,” Ushakov told journalists, Reuters reports. Reuters reports.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State of State Mike Pompeo met with top Indian officials today to discuss strategic and security topics, Tim Sullivan reports at the AP, providing an overview of U.S.-India relations.

Nicaragua’s civil unrest poses a threat to the region and it “travels down a familiar path. It is a path that Syria has taken. It is a path that Venezuela has taken,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said yesterday, warning that human rights violations could lead to large-scale displacement. Reuters reports.

The U.S. yesterday designated the Mali’s Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (J.N.I.M.) as a foreign terrorist organization. The al-Qaeda affiliate has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks and kidnapping since it was formed, the U.S. State Department said in a statement, Reuters reports. 

About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK

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).