The Early Edition: September 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.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference – suggested last year that he could wear a wire to secretly record President Trump as a way of exposing the chaos at the heart of Trump’s administration, and he discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office, according to a set of memos linked to former Acting F.B.I. Director Andrew McCabe. Rosenstein reportedly made the suggestions in the spring of 2017 – in the aftermath of Trump’s firing of former F.B.I. Director James Comey – during the period in which Trump allegedly divulged classified information to Russians in the Oval Office, Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

“I never pursued or authorized recording the President and any suggestion that I have ever advocated for the removal of the President is absolutely false,” Rosenstein responded Friday in a statement. One individual allegedly present in the room when Rosenstein mentioned secret recordings has also claimed that Rosenstein was plainly sarcastic, according to an email the individual has provided to the Department of Justice (D.O.J.,) Aruna Viswanatha and Sadie Gurman report at the Wall Street Journal.

“The New York Times’ story is inaccurate and factually incorrect,” Rosenstein continued, adding that “I will not further comment on a story based on anonymous sources who are obviously biased against the department and are advancing their own personal agenda … but let me be clear about this: based on my personal dealings with the president, there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment.” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Former F.B.I. lawyer Lisa Page was allegedly present for Rosenstein’s comments on secret recordings and did not believe he was joking or being sarcastic, according to two people familiar with the incidents. Betsy Woodruff reports at The Daily Beast.

There is speculation that Rosenstein’s position may be in jeopardy. “If you can’t be on the team, if you’re not supporting this mission, then maybe you just ought to find something else to do,” commented U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Fox News Sunday – and when asked by the host Chris Wallace if Rosenstein’s alleged behavior would constitute “being on the team”, Pompeo replied: “not remotely,” Martin Pengelly reports at the Guardian.

Trump has backtracked on his plan to declassify documents relating to Mueller’s investigation, sending a series of messages on Twitter Friday in which he said that the inspector general of the Justice Department would “review these documents on an expedited basis.” The move has “defused” a developing conflict between the president and the D.O.J., which had been opposed to the disclosure of sensitive Russia-related material, Byron Tau and Sadie Gurman report at the Wall Street Journal.

Less than a week ago Trump ordered that law enforcement and intelligence agencies declassify and release the documents, which include text message correspondence concerning the Russia inquiry and other documents related to the surveillance of former Trump aide Carter Page. Michael D. Shear and Katie Benner report at the New York Times.

Trump claimed that he had met with D.O.J. officials about the documents, who according to the president had told him that releasing the material “may have a perceived negative impact on the Russia probe.” Trump added that “also, key Allies’ [sic] called to ask not to release,” without specifying the identities of the allies in question, Reuters reports.

“In the end I can always declassify if it proves necessary,” Trump claimed at the close of his Twitter announcement. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Ex-White House official K.T. McFarland has rowed back on a previous statement – telling investigators that former national security adviser Michael Flynn might indeed have referred to sanctions when they discussed his calls with a former Russian envoy Sergey Kislyak. Macfarland had previously stated that sanctions on Russia did not come up when she spoke in December 2016 with Flynn, who has since pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about his contacts with Russia and is now cooperating with Mueller’s probe, Reuters reports.

Mueller is investigating millions of dollars paid between two organizers of the June 2016 Trump Tower meting that involved president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and Russian government lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, The special counsel is apparently interested in looking at the legality of $3.3 million worth of payments between real estate developer and Russian billionaire Aras Agalarov and his longtime employee Irakly “Ike” Kaveladze; Agalarov has close ties to both Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

An associate of Trump ally Roger Stone – Jerome Corsi –  gave testimony Friday to a grand jury convened on behalf of Mueller’s probe, according to ABC News. Mueller is investigating Stone’s alleged contacts with whistleblowing organization Wikileaks, which U.S. intelligence agencies maintain was used by Russian operatives to release Hilary Clinton’s hacked emails online, Tal Axelroad reports at the Hill.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va) announced yesterday that that the wife of Justice Department official Bruce Ohr – Nellie Ohr –  is cooperating with the committee and will testify in October. Nellie Ohr worked during the 2016 presidential campaign for the opposition research firm Fusion G.P.S, which retained former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele to compile a dossier that contained salacious but unsubstantiated claims regarding the president, Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

Oligarch Konstantin Nikolaev – the backer for of detained Russian intelligence agent Mariia Butina – has served as a “discreet source” of funds for business ventures useful to the Russian military and security services, according to documents and interviews. Nikolaev has acknowledged underwriting Butina’s gun rights advocacy, but denies any involvement in a Russian influence operation and says his dealings with the Moscow administration are limited to routine business needs, Mike McIntire reports at the New York Times.

“It isn’t clear how much is true,” surrounding the Rosenstein allegations, the Wall Street Journal editorial board comments – arguing that Rosenstein should not be fired but that the F.B.I. documents must be declassified.

“Rosenstein is a dead man … but Trump is a dead man walking,” Jack Shafer comments at POLITICO Magazine.

An analysis of Rosenstein’s position since the surfacing the McCabe memos is provided by Philip Ewing at NPR.

KAVANAUGH CONFIRMATION

California Professor Christine Blasey Ford – who has accused Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault –has committed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday. Ford’s lawyers reached final agreement with committee representatives yesterday regarding Ford’s participation, although several questions remain unresolved, including whether Republicans will use an outside lawyer to question her, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

Kavanaugh’s prospects of being confirmed to the Supreme Court suffered another “major setback” last night, as a second woman – Deborah Ramirez ­– accused him of sexual assault decades ago. In a parallel development, well-known Democratic lawyer Michael Avenatti has claimed that he is representing “a woman with credible information” about Kavanaugh and his high school friend Mark Judge, Burgess Everett, Elana Schor and Natasha Korecki report at POLITICO.

“This alleged event from 35 years ago did not happen,” Kavanaugh responded to Ramirez’s allegation, adding “the people who knew me then know that this did not happen, and have said so … this is a smear, plain and simple,” Kelsey Snell and Brett Neely report at NPR.

The Supreme Court risks a crisis of legitimacy that looms “much larger than the mess of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation,” David Leonhardt comments at the New York Times.

U.N. GENERAL ASSEMBLY

President Trump claimed on Saturday that the U.N. has “tremendous potential” but has “not lived up to that potential,” previewing his message ahead of tomorrow’s U.N. General Assembly in New York. Making the claim in a video posted to Twitter, Trump claimed that “It’s always been surprising to me that more things aren’t resolved because you have all these countries getting together in one location, but it doesn’t seem to get there … I think it will,” Chris Mills Rodrigo reports at the Hill.

It is not saying multilateralism can’t work … but it’s saying sovereignty is a priority over all of that,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said in a preview of Trump’s address. Haley suggested that Trump will push his “America First” policy, claiming that “all of these things that we felt like were mandating things on the United States, those aren’t things we want to be involved in,” citing the Paris climate agreement that Trump withdrew from in 2017 and global talks on a migration pact that Washington quit before they commenced, Reuters reports.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has claimed that he had a “very constructive” dinner meeting with Trump at Trump Tower ahead of the U.N. General Assembly meeting, at which the two leaders reportedly discussed trade and military ties. Abe added: “we agreed to make the momentum created in the historic U.S.-North Korea summit in June even stronger and to continue to coordinate closely toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Scott Neuman reports at NPR.

The upcoming week of “marathon diplomacy” will be the first time that heads of states of the U.S., European nations and Iran gather at the General Assembly since Trump quit the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. European attendees reportedly plan to contest the U.S. position that the agreement has failed and that new sanctions must be imposed, Farnaz Fassihi and Michael R. Gordon report at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has indicated that Trump would be willing to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the General Assembly gathering, telling NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “I think the president’s been pretty clear about that. He’s happy to talk with folks at any time … if there’s a constructive dialogue to be had, let’s get after it.” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is expected to use the General Assembly to relay verbal commitments from North Korean leader Kim Jong -un to Trump –commitments that come on top of those stated in the joint declaration made by the two Koreas last week. On the back of these concessions, Moon is expected to push Trump for a peace declaration to end the Korean War, a long-held goal for the Pyongynag administration, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Trump’s advisers fear that the biggest risk at the U.N. General Assembly is that the president will appear overly enthusiastic about engagement with strongman adversaries. Mark Landler and David E. Sanger provide an analysis at the New York Times.

“The leaders of China, Russia and India will not be in New York this week,” Simon Tisdall notes at the Guardian, adding that “while Trump acts out and plays the fool, they will be busy taking responsibility for global leadership off America’s hands.”

IRAN

Iranian officials have blamed the U.S. and Gulf states for Saturday’s attack on a military parade in the southwestern city of Ahvaz that left 29 people dead, and accused the nations it held responsible for backing the Arab separatist ‘al-Ahvaziya’ armed group which has claimed responsibility for the killings. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has pledged to deliver a “crushing response,” while Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed that “this crime is a continuation of the plots of the regional states that are puppets of the U.S. and their goal is to create insecurity in our dear country,” Al Jazeera reports.

Islamic State group also claimed responsibility for the attack, providing no evidence for the claim. Reuters reports.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley rejected Iranian accusations, claiming that Rouhani has “got the Iranian people … protesting … every ounce of money that goes into Iran goes into his military … he has oppressed his people for a long time and he needs to look at his own base to figure out where that’s coming from,” Reuters reports.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry has summoned Western diplomats on the basis that they provided havens for the separatists claiming the attack, Nasser Karimi and Jon Gambrell report at the AP.

Rouhani has claimed that Trump will fail in his confrontation with Iran just as former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein did in 1980-88 war between the two Middle Eastern powers. “The same will happen to Trump … America will suffer the same fate as Saddam Hussein,” Rouhani said on Saturday in a speech broadcast live by state television, Al Jazeera reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Militant Palestinian Hamas group that controls the Gaza strip is intensifying protests at the border to signal its frustration at the impasse in the talks with Israel. In recent days, the group has organized more frequent protests, including one involving 10,000 people on Friday in which one person was killed and 41 injured, according to Gaza’s Ministry of Health, Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Israel yesterday set a deadline for the clearance of a Bedouin village in the occupied West Bank that is slated for destruction. Residents of Khan al-Ahmar have been told to clear their houses by Oct. 1., Reuters reports.

SYRIA

The Russian Defense Ministry yesterday again blamed Israel for the downing of a Russian plane by Syrian government forces and claimed that Israel appeared “ungrateful” for Moscow’s attempts to hold back Iran-backed fighters in Syria. “We believe that the Israeli Air Force and those who were making decisions about these actions are fully to blame for the tragedy that happened to the Russian Il-20 plane,” Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said in a statement, Nataliya Vasilyeva reports at the AP.

Russia and Turkey have reportedly agreed on borders of the demilitarized zone around the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, as part of a deal aimed at preventing a military assault and humanitarian crisis in the province. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made the announcement Friday, as his Turkish counterpart – Mevlut Cavusoglu – claimed that the two officials would meet Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in New York City next week to further discuss the situation in Syria, Al Jazeera reports.

Two militant groups rejected the Russia-Turkey deal for Idlib yesterday morning, with one of the groups claiming that the agreement aims to “bury the revolution.” The Horas al-Diin group – made up predominantly of al-Qaida fighters that broke away from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – described the plan as a “great conspiracy,” while the Ansar al-Din Front issued a statement calling on all insurgent groups in Idlib “during this critical period to overcome their differences because of the existential battle since our enemy does not differentiate between us,” the AP reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned yesterday that the U.S. would hold the responsible party accountable if chemical weapons are employed in Syria, “We’ll have to analyze once the activity takes place … we pray that it doesn’t … but we’ll do our intelligence, our forensics,” Pompeo told NBC’s “Meet the Press,” adding that with regards to military intervention, the administration isn’t ruling out “a single thing,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 66 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Sep. 10 and Sep. 16 [Central Command]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

China on Friday said it was “outraged” by U.S. sanctions leveled on one of its military organizations due to the purchase of fighter jets and missiles from Russia. Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the U.S. must cancel the sanctions immediately, Chris Mills Rodrigo reports at the Hill.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has claimed that the Trump administration has not been “successful” in its efforts to improve U.S.-Russia relations due to “malign” activities performed by Moscow. John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Saudi Arabia has been accused of attempting to close down a U.N.-backed war crimes investigation in Yemen. N.G.O. Human Rights Watch (H.R.W.) said Friday that Riyadh was making a “blatant attempt to avoid scrutiny” of its conduct in Yemen, where it is leading a U.S.-backed coalition against the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, Al Jazeera reports.

A Turkish judge could free detained U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson when he appears in court on Oct. 12—but only if the U.S. ceases putting pressure on Ankara to release him, according to Turkish officials.  David Gauthier-Villars and Dion Nissenbaum report at the Wall Street Journal.

Taliban militants killed so many Afghan security forces in 2016 that last year the Afghan and U.S. administrations decided to keep secret battlefield death tolls from the country. Rod Nordland explains the New York Times.

The commitments made by North Korea and the inter-Korean summit last week do not come close to the U.S.’ demands for full denuclearization, but do provide “a promising basis for a new round of talks,” the New York Times editorial board comments.

President Trump and national security adviser John Bolton’s plans to unfetter U.S. cyber-warfare capabilities could backfire and “ invite painful retaliation,” Elias Groll comments at Foreign Policy. 

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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).