The Early Edition: September 17, 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.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort agreed on Friday to disclose all he knows to special counsel Robert Mueller, investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The agreement formed part of Manafort’s plea deal, with Manafort finally having caved in to prosecutors after vowing for months that he would prove his innocence to charges stemming from his work as a political consultant in Ukraine, Sharon LaFraniere and Kenneth P. Vogel report at the New York Times.

Manafort’s cooperation agreement requires him to be “fully debriefed,” provide relevant materials, “participate in undercover activities” and testify whenever requested by. Mueller’s office. Manafort is the first witness cooperating with Mueller who was also an attendee at the June 2016 Trump Tower meting – with the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and Russian government lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya – that has reportedly drawn the special counsel’s interest, Aruna Viswanatha reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Manafort’s plea deal has drawn attention to his former lobbying clients, with Manafort’s friends claiming that he may have valuable information about Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians, and the Western firms that assisted them – including the Podesta group, Mercury and the law firm Skadden. Kenneth P. Vogel explains at the New York Times.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Claif.) commented yesterday that Manafort’s plea deal sends a clear message to those caught up in issues of interest to Mueller’s investigation: “you better get to the special counsel and make your deal now.” In comments to NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Schiff said the special counsel’s track record indicates that “anyone who gets indicted by Bob Mueller goes down … the longer you wait to come clean, the worse deal you’re going to get, the more time you’re going to face,” Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

Top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) – along with Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) – is attempting to find three Republican colleagues on the panel to force a hearing on legislation that would protect Mueller’s investigation should President Trump seek to exert executive control. In a recent letter, the three lawmakers warned that “the need for this legislation is not hypothetical … news reports indicate that President Trump attempted more than once to fire Mr Mueller … absent our legislation, President Trump could seek to initiate a series of events that could lead to the arbitrary or premature termination of the Mueller investigation,” Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Member of House Intelligence Committee Tey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said last week that the Republican-controlled panel should release every interview transcript from its completed Russia investigation. “There is something that has not been released that I think would be beneficial for the public to see — and that would be all of the transcripts from all of the [House Intelligence Committee] interviews,” Gowdy said on Wednesday, adding that “there are no national security implications there … there are no sources and methods there,” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Three “prominent legal analysts” filed a petition on Friday asking a court to unseal the “Road Map” report that Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski used to send Congress the evidence he had gathered about President Richard Nixon’s misconduct. The move was intended to draw attention to the possibility that Mueller’s grand jury may be able to send a report about the evidence it has gathered directly to the House Judiciary Committee, rather than Mueller merely writing a report for his supervisor at the Department of Justice, Charlie Savage explains at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“Manafort’s cooperation could change everything,” Mimi Rocah and Elie Honig argue at The Daily Beast, describing the former campaign manager as an “existential threat” to the president

Manafort’s proximity to the inner circles of “Trump World” and his knowledge of the “weakness and strengths of other operators” make his cooperation particularly valuable to special counsel Robert Mueller. Jack Shafer comments at POLITICO Magazine.

Friday’s developments “provided a new window into the size and scope of Mueller’s investigation … underscoring the sheer legal firepower at the former F.B.I. director’s command.” Darren Samuelsohn provides an analysis at POLITICO.

Manafort’s decision to plead guilty rather than relying on a future pardon from the president “represents a realistic judgment on his part … not to mention vindication of Mr. Mueller’s strategy so far,” Noah Bookbinder, Barry Berke and Norman L. Eisen comment at the New York Times, arguing that the developments are ominous for the president.

The events of Friday mean that the president will struggle to contain the legal damage caused by Manafort by issuing a pardon; first, because Manafort is “already talking,” and second, because Mueller managed to get concessions from Manafort that limit the value of any pardon. Josh Gerstein explains at POLITICO.

“How many more guilty pleas and convictions will there be in Trumpworld before all this crime starts to look … organized?” The New York Times editorial board comments, noting that Manafort joins a growing list of Trump aides who have been who have pleaded guilty to federal offenses.

“Trump’s blame on cooperator testimony is misplaced,” Tim Heaphy comments at POLITICO, arguing that Manafort’s guilty verdict and recent plea agreement are “simply the product of a system that empowers prosecutors to use cooperator testimony as part of a larger body of proof … the system generally gets it right in this area.”

Various future scenarios arising from Manafort’s cooperation with the Mueller probe are outlined by Philip Ewing at NPR.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is set to visit Pyongyang tomorrow to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in an attempt to revive diplomacy after a difficult summer. The two leaders are expected to hold a three-day summit where they will discuss a declaration to formally end the Korean War – regarded by the North as an important indication that Washington is willing to end its “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang, Jonathan Cheng reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Moon said today that he will push for “irreversible … permanent peace” with the North, commenting that “I aim to have lots of heart-to-heart talks with Chairman Kim Jong-un … what I want to achieve is peace … not shaken by international politics.” However, Moon’s chief of staff Im Jong-seok downplayed the possibility that the summit will produce major progress in nuclear diplomacy, telling reporters that it is “difficult to have any optimistic outlook,” Hyung-Jin Kim reports at the AP.

Fresh doubts are surfacing regarding the efficacy of U.S.-led sanctions targeting the North Korean economy, aimed at forcing the country to end its atomic-weapons programs as denuclearization talks stall. A confidential U.N. report suggests that Pyongynag has managed to circumvent restrictions, with assistance from Russian and Chinese actors, leaving “the latest U.N. sanctions ineffective,” Ian Talley, Chun Han Wong and Tom Wright report at the Wall Street Journal.

Kim is tailoring his nuclear strategy to his interpretation of President Trump, according to current and former American intelligence officials, with Pyongyang “making nuclear fuel and building weapons as actively as ever,” but doing so in secret – thereby allowing Trump to “portray a denuclearization effort as on track.” David E. Sanger explains at the New York Times.

An analysis of whether this week’s talks between Moon and Kim cou;d pave the way for denuclearization on the Peninsula is provided by Eric Talmadge at the AP.

SYRIA

Thousands of people took to the streets across rebel-held northwestern Idlib province on Friday to protest against a potential offensive by government forces and their international allies. The demonstrations allegedly took place in more than two dozen towns and villages – the protests following the movement of Syrian government troops toward the province, Al Jazeera reports.

Turkey said on Friday that it is talking to all parties in the Syrian conflict to prevent an offensive on Idlib – ahead of formal talks between Russian and Turkish leaders, who support rival sides fighting in the war. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey had contacted foreign ministers of several countries and was in touch with “all actors in Syria,” also repeating Turkey’s call for targeted operations against jihadist militants– including the Tahrir al-Sham alliance – rather than an indiscriminate onslaught on the province, Reuters reports.

Syrian military air defenses downed several missiles fired by Israel in an act of “aggression” near Damascus airport yesterday, according to Syrian state media. An Israeli military spokesperson said Israel does not comment on foreign reports, Reuters reports.

An account of the rebel forces in Idlib ­province as they prepare for the likely onslaught by government forces in combination with their Russian allies and Iranian-aligned milita fighters is provided by Sarah El-Deeb at the AP.

“U.S.-Turkish cooperation is critical to avoiding a humanitarian catastrophe and new refugee crisis while eliminating an al-Qaeda safe haven,” Ilan Goldenberg and Nicholas A. Heras comment at Foreign Policy.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 16 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Sep. 3 and Sep. 9 [Central Command]

IRAN

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday launched an attack against former Secretary of State John Kerry, who disclosed last week that he had met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif “three or four times” since leaving office. Pompeo commented that “actively undermining U.S. policy as a former secretary of state is literally unheard-of,” Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

“I’ll leave the legal determinations to others,” Pompeo told a press briefing Friday, “but what Secretary Kerry has done is unseemly and unprecedented … this is a former secretary of State engaged with the world’s largest state sponsor of terror.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

“There’s nothing unusual .. let alone unseemly or inappropriate … about former diplomats meeting with foreign counterparts,” a spokesperson for Kerry responded to Pompeo’s comments, adding that “what is unseemly and unprecedented is for the podium of the State Department to be hijacked for political theatrics.” Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

Zarif yesterday accused Twitter of shutting down accounts of “real” Iranians, while allowing anti-government “bots” backed by the U.S. to continue engaging in “regime change propaganda.” “Hello @Jack … Twitter has shuttered accounts of real Iranians, [including] TV presenters & students, for supposedly being part of an ‘influence op,’” Zarif said in the message on Twitter – addressing Twitter C.E.O. Jack Dorsey, Al Jazeera reports.

The question of whether Kerry has violated the Logan Act of 1799, which outlaws freelance diplomacy, is considered by Seth Lipsky at the Wall Street Journal.

YEMEN

U.N. envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths arrived yesterday in the rebel-held capital Sanaa to continue peace efforts, without making any statement to the media. Griffiths’ visit comes as fresh outbreaks of violence and air strikes around the rebel-held Red Sea port city of Hodeidah killed 32 Houthi rebels, hospital and medical sources claimed yesterday, AFP reports.

Four of the casualties were killed by an air strike carried out by the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition on a radio station in Hodeidah, according residents and medical sources. Reuters reports.

Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi forces fighting against the coalition fired a missile over the Saudi border on Saturday, apparently targeting the Jizan Industrial City in southern Saudi Arabia, but Saudi air defense forces claimed that they intercepted and destroyed the projectile. Reuters reports.

Houthi rebels have signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.N. to airlift critically ill patients abroad for treatment, according to rebel sources. Al Jazeera reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The U.S. will not present its plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace any time soon, and is instead attempting to unilaterally change the terms of reference for any future proposal, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Saturday. “I don’t think they will ever introduce a plan,” Erekat said in an interview, adding that “the whole world is rejecting their ideas … they are already implementing their plan by changing the terms of reference,” Reuters reports.

Israeli soldiers killed three Palestinians and wounded at least 248 others taking part on Friday in weekly protests at the Gaza Strip border, according to Palestinian medical officials. One of the casualties was an 11-year-old boy, Reuters reports.

An Israeli settler has died after an alleged stabbing attack by a Palestinian individual who was then shot and wounded in the occupied West Bank. Al Jazeera reports.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) yesterday accused the Trump administration of rescinding visas for the family of Palestinian Ambassador Husam Zomlot, releasing a statement describing the move as “spiteful,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

AFGHANISTAN

The Afghan Taliban are seeking a major prisoner swap as the U.S. continues in its attempts to broker a peace settlement. Mushtaq Yusufzai, Dan De Luce, Linda Givetash and Abigail Williams report at NBC.

The Taliban launched multiple attacks on checkpoints as well as police and military bases across Afghanistan last night, killing at least 27 members of the security forces, Afghan officials said today. Rahim Faiez reports at the AP.

NOVICHOK POISONINGS

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said yesterday that the two men charged by the U.K. with the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia have nothing to do with Russian President Vladimir Putin or his administration. The U.K. has said that the duo of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov were Russian military intelligence officers almost certainly acting on orders from the upper echelons of the Russian state, but Petrov was adamant that “the fact is that neither Petrov nor Boshirov have nothing to do with Putin, and the Kremlin of course,” Reuters reports.

While at first glance last week’s televised interview with Petrov and Borishov “almost looks like a joke,” Moscow is in fact “playing a more subtle game than most people realize,” James Ball comments at CNN. Ball argues that the Kremlin is engaged in an attempt to sow sufficient division so as to convince those with the U.K. already sympathetic to Moscow that the official story of the Skripal poisoning is not true.

N.A.T.O.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Macedonia today – condemning Russian efforts to foster opposition to the upcoming vote on the country’s membership of N.A.T.O. .which Moscow has long opposed. Mattis told reporters that there is “no doubt” that Moscow has been funding pro-Russian groups in order to defeat the referendum on a name change which is a necessary pre-condition of N.A.T.O. membership, Lolita C. Baldor reports at the AP.

“We’re just looking at how do they shape their own future… not shaped by someone else,” Mattis told a small group of reporters en route to Skopje, adding that “we do not want to see Russia doing there what they have tried to do in so many other countries.” Reuters reports.

An analysis of the dynamics around the Macedonian referendum, including the “disinformation directed by Russian-backed groups trying to stoke fears and depress turnout,’ is provided by Mark Santora and Julian E. Barnes at the New York Times.

An account of N.A.T.O. secretary general Jens Stoltenberg’s efforts to court support in Washington last week, in the wake of President Trump’s criticism of the alliance earlier in the year, is provided by Julian E. Barnes at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

California Professor Christine Blasey Ford has identified herself as the writer of the confidential letter alleging that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her more than three decades ago – that has plunged Kavanaugh’s “all but certain” nomination into uncertainty. Emma Brown reports in an exclusive at the Washington Post.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ relationship with the president is under strain, and his future remains uncertain. Helene Cooper provides an analysis 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).