The Early Edition: September 25, 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

President Trump will meet Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein Thursday amid speculation that Rosenstein could be replaced. The development follows a New York Times article last week reporting that Rosenstein – who is overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election – had suggested wearing a wire to secretly record Trump in the White House, Demetri Sevastopulo and Kadhim Shubber report at the Financial Times.

“At the request of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein … he and President Trump had an extended conversation to discuss the recent news stories,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement, adding that “because the President is at the United Nations General Assembly and has a full schedule with leaders around the world, they will meet on Thursday when the President returns to Washington, D.C.” Rosenstein allegedly headed to the White House yesterday morning expecting to be fired, The Daily Beast reports.

“We’ll be determining what’s going on,” Trump said yesterday afternoon regarding Thursday’s meeting, adding that “we want to have transparency, we want to have openness … I look forward to meeting with him.” Jonathan Allen, Pete Williams, Nicolle Wallace and Julia Ainsley report at NBC.

Democrats in Congress and former federal prosecutors yesterday called on G.O.P. lawmakers to speak out in favor of protecting Mueller’s investigation, amidst rumors regarding Rosenstein’s removal. “Congress must take immediate steps,” commented Rep. Val Demings (Fl.), while U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York Preet Bharara sent a message on Twitter saying: “time to protect the Mueller investigation. Now,” Tom McCarthy, Martin Pengelly and Julian Borger report at the Guardian.

Former F.B.I. Deputy Director Andrew McCabe yesterday cautioned that Rosenstein’s departure – whether through resignation or dismissal – would put the Mueller probe at risk. “If the rumors of Deputy AG’s [sic.] Rosenstein’s departure are true, I am deeply concerned that it puts that investigation at risk,” McCabe said in a statement, adding: “there is nothing more important to the integrity of law enforcement and the rule of law than protecting the investigation of Special Counsel Mueller … I sacrificed personally and professionally to help put the investigation on a proper course and subsequently made every effort to protect it,” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Solicitor general Noel Francisco would serve as the Department of Justice (D.O.J) official overseeing the Russia investigation should Rosenstein be ousted. The supervisory role includes discussing budgets, approving indictments, deciding whether Mueller can venture into new territory and – if it were to cause to do so – deciding whether to fire Mueller, Ken Dilanian reports at NBC.

Rosenstein’s complex portfolio may complicate attempts to remove him from office. Two overlapping federal laws could come into play if Mr. Rosenstein steps down: 28 U.S.C. § 508 and the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, Jacob Gershman explains at the Wall Street Journal.

“The initial shock of Rosenstein is still being felt in Washington … the aftershocks the move sets off will be shaking our political system for the next … weeks and months,” Chris Cillizza comments in an overview of the developments at CNN.

An analysis of the likely effect of Rosenstein’s removal on the Mueller probe is provided by Darren Samuelsohn and Josh Gerstein at POLITICO.

KAVANAUGH CONFIRMATION

A third woman is expected to make public accusations of sexual misconduct against supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh this week, according to her high profile attorney Michael Avenatti, further intensifying the uncertainty surrounding Kavanaugh’s appointment. Avenatti has claimed that the woman has asked to testify at Thursday’s hearing at which the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to hear from California professor Christine Blasey Ford –the first of the three women to make public allegations regarding Kavanaugh, Joanna Walters reports at the Guardian.

Kavanaugh yesterday mounted an “aggressive” defense, pledging to fight the “smears” and stating that he will not withdraw his nomination. The judge – alongside his wife Ashley Estes Kavanaugh – gave a televised interview with Fox News’ Martha MacCallum in which he vowed to “defend my integrity, my lifelong record,” and claimed that he “never sexually assaulted anyone, in high school or otherwise,” Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Catie Edmondson report at the New York Times.

Kavanaugh has also written to Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Ia.) and ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), telling the lawmakers that he will “not be intimidated” by the fresh allegations. “The coordinated effort to destroy my good name will not drive me out … the vile threats of violence against my family will not drive me out … the last-minute character assassination will not succeed,” Kavanaugh writes, adding “these are smears, pure and simple … and they debase our public discourse … but they are also a threat to any man or woman who wishes to serve our country,” The Daily Beast reports.

President Trump – alongside other congressional Republicans –reaffirmed his support for Kavanaugh yesterday, telling reporters that the judge “is a fine man with an unblemished past … these are highly unsubstantiated statements from people represented by lawyers … Judge Kavanaugh is an outstanding person … and I am with him all the way.” Trump characterized the series of allegations as “one of the single most unfair, unjust things to happen to a candidate for anything … it is totally political,” Rebecca Shabad reports at NBC.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) took to the Senate floor yesterday to defend Kavanaugh, describing the allegations a “smear campaign” and promising a vote to confirm the judge “in the near future.” Natalie Andrews and Kristina Peterson report at the Wall Street Journal.

President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center Edward Whelan has offered his resignation, after having suggested that Blasey Ford was mistaken in accusing Kavanaugh and taking to Twitter to present a case implicating one of his classmates – a move he has subsequently described as “an appalling and inexcusable mistake of judgment.” The organization’s board did not accept the resignation, choosing to place Whelan – who is a friend of Kavanaugh’s – on leave instead, Matt Stevens reports at the New York Times.

The politicization of the Supreme Court confirmation process has “already has taken a toll on Americans’ perceptions of the Supreme Court,” Gerald  F. Seib comments at the Wall Street Journal, arguing that there is a crisis of confidence in the established institutions of democracy, and citing Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel to suggest that it is cities outside of Washington that “have become the places driving policy, economic and intellectual advances.”

“We need to seriously consider the ground rules that permit any president from precluding the F.B.I. from following up on logical investigative leads they deem pertinent,” Frank Figgliuzi argues at NBC, pointing at Trumps ability – and apparent unwillingness – to request that the bureau re-open its background inquiry into Kavanaugh “with one phone call.”

U.N. GENERAL ASSEMBLY

More than 130 heads of state and government are attending the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week, with “a burgeoning debate over two competing world views: national sovereignty and multilateralism” set to overshadow the proceedings. President Trump will address the General Assembly this morning and will lead a Security Council meeting tomorrow focusing on non-proliferation, with North Korea, Iran and Syria amongst topics for discussion, Farnaz Fassihi and Valentina Pop report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Security Council yesterday condemned the assault on an Iranian military parade over the weekend that killed dozens of people, describing the attack as “heinous and cowardly” in a statement. “The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest terms the heinous and cowardly terrorist attack that took place in the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Ahvaz, on 22 September,” the statement reads, adding that the attack “resulted in at least 24 people killed, including children, and 60 others injured,” Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said that he has no plans to meet President Trump while at the General Assembly, citing U.S. hostility toward Tehran and claiming that the Trump administration turned its back on diplomacy by withdrawing from the 2015 international nuclear deal, in an interview with NBC news yesterday. NBC reports.

Trump has used the General Assembly to adopt a noticeably softer tone towards North Korea, praising North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “terrific” one year after he “eviscerated” him from the same platform. Trump used his debut address to the General Assembly a year ago to threaten to “totally destroy” North Korea and disparaged Kim as “rocket man,” but yesterday Trump cited “tremendous progress” in averting Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests and described the present as  a “much different time,” AFP reports.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is set to call on the international community to follow Britain’s lead and take additional steps to clamp down on the use of chemical weapons, in a speech to the General Assembly tomorrow. Laura Hughes reports at the Financial Times.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the fringes of the General Assembly, an Israeli official announced yesterday. Reuters reports.

While Trump’s behavior at the General Assembly is set to dominate media attention – “the quietly growing influence of China” is proving another source of concern for many diplomats, with Beijing increasing its budget contributions and starting to assert its world view on the international organization.  Patrick Wintour explains at the Guardian.

An explainer on “what we’re looking out for at the U.N.” is provided by Michael Schwirtz and Rick Gladstone at the New York Times

A report on the issues that will dominate the debate at the General Assembly is provided by Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy.

SYRIA

The main jihadist group in northwest Syria – Tahrir al-Sham – will announce its stance on the Turkish-Russian deal for Idlib within the next few days, it announced yesterday. The group’s acceptance or rejection will likely prove “vital” to the success of the deal – which is set to create a demilitarized buffer zone in the rebel-held province, Reuters reports.

Moscow will reinforce Syria’s air defenses following the downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane last week by providing a modern S-300 system to the Syrian military within two weeks, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced yesterday. The Kremlin yesterday also accused Israeli pilots of “premeditated actions” over the downing of the Russian craft, cautioning that the incident will worsen relations between the two nations, Al Jazeera reports.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday that the provision of the S-300 system to “irresponsible players” would heighten dangers in the region, according to Netanyahu’s office. Reuters reports.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton warned yesterday that the supply of the missile defense system constituted “a substantial escalation.” Megan Keller reports at the Hill.

Bolton also claimed that U.S. troops would be staying in Syria so long as Iranian forces continue to operate there, in a move implying that the Trump administration has embraced an expanded mission in the war-torn country beyond the defeat of the Islamic State group. Paul Sonne and Missy Ryan report at the Washington Post.

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]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump announced yesterday that he expects to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “quite soon,” expressing optimism that the goal of striking a denuclearization deal on the Peninsula remains intact. Trump noted that Kim had sent him a letter requesting a second meeting, and commented “we’ll be doing that,” David Nakamura reports at the Washington Post.

“We are certainly in a better place than we were in 2017 because of the dialogue we have established between our two leaders,” C.I.A. Director Gina Haspel said of U.S.-North Korean relations yesterday, in a speech University of Louisville in Kentucky marking Haspel’s first since assuming the role.  Nancy A. Youssef and Dustin Volz report at the Wall Street Journal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Israeli soldiers shot dead 21-year old Palestinian Mohamed Abu Sadek yesterday during a protest near the Gaza border, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Al Jazeera reports.

At least 349 civilians have been killed in Yemeni rebel-held city of Hodeidah since June 13 when the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition launched an offensive to recapture the strategic port city, according to N.G.O. Save the Children. Al Jazeera reports.

A U.S. government investigation has found that Myanmar’s military conducted a “well-planned and coordinated” campaign of mass killings, gang rapes and other atrocities against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. The report could form the pretext for U.S. sanctions or other actions against the Myanmar administration, although it stopped short of describing the violence as constituting genocide or crimes against humanity, Reuters reports.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis yesterday dismissed Iran’s threats of revenge following Saturday’s attack at the military parade in southwestern Iran that left at least 24 people dead, claiming that it was “ludicrous” for Tehran to allege U.S. involvement, Reuters reports.

Guantánamo Bay detainee Abd al Hadi al Iraqi failed to show up at a hearing yesterday, stalling progress toward a war crimes trial following a setback in the detainee’s health. Iraqi is accused of commanding al-Qaida and Taliban forces in Afghanistan after 9/11, Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

Congress must take back its war-making authority ceded to the executive branch, comments Ken Buck at the Wall Street Journal, arguing that the U.S. needs a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (A.U.M.F.). 

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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).