The Early Edition: September 28, 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.

KAVANAUGH CONFIRMATION

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and California Professor Christine Blasey Ford – who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct – testified for more than eight hours in an intense Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday that “highlighted and exposed many of the nation’s raw divisions.” The hearing exposed the high stakes of the Supreme Court confirmation process, with Republicans hoping to secure a confirmation that will shift the political balance of the U.S.’ highest court, and Democrats pushing for a thorough F.B.I. investigation into Ford’s allegations – with the November midterm elections “hovering over the proceedings,” Janet Hook, Kristina Peterson and Natalie Andrews report at the Wall Street Journal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has indicated that G.O.P. lawmakers are pushing ahead with the vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation today as planned, having met last night behind closed doors to plot their course. “The committee is going to vote in the morning, and we’ll go forward,” McConnell said, Alex Seitz-Wald reports at NPR.

Today’s vote could result in a recommendation that Kavanaugh should be confirmed or rejected – or in no recommendation at all. Following the committee vote, the full Senate debates the nomination and votes on it – an event that could happen in the coming week, the BBC reports.

Sens. Roy Blunt (R.-Mo.) and. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) have indicated that the Republican plan following the committee vote is for a procedural vote on the Senate floor tomorrow at noon. Senate Republicans could potentially bring Kavanaugh’s nomination to the floor even if the committee does not approve of it, although such a move would be “unorthodox,” Eli Watkins reports at CNN.

Kavanaugh’s future now most likely rests with a handful of undecided Republican senators: Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) — and one Democrat, Joe Manchin III (W.Va.). Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

Yesterday’s fraught hearing saw Ford claim she was “one hundred percent” certain that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulting her when both were teenagers and Kavanaugh angrily protesting his innocence, lambasting Democrats for advancing what he claimed were false charges to “blow me up and take me down.” “You may defeat me in the final vote, but you’ll never get me to quit … never,” the nominee told the committee, Robert Barnes, Seung Min Kim and Elise Viebeck report at the Washington Post.

“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense,” Ford said of Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge in her account of the alleged assault. Kavanaugh’s testimony provided a stark contrast, with the judge claiming that “this whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record, revenge on behalf of the Clintons, and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups,” Kristina Peterson, Natalie Andrews and Andrew Duehren report at the Wall Street Journal.

“I just wanted to tell you the first thing that struck me from your statement this morning was that you were terrified,” Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell told Ford after she had finished her opening remarks, adding “I just wanted to let you know, I’m very sorry … that’s not right. I know this is stressful.” Mitchell was chosen to serve as a surrogate questioner for Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and struck a measured tone as she quizzed Ford, Jacob Gersham reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Mark Judge was conspicuously absent from the proceedings. “Would you want him to be here as a witness?” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) asked Kavanaugh, who replied that Judge had provided a statement. Alex Leary and Siobhan Hughes report at the Wall Street Journal.

“Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him … his testimony was powerful, honest, and riveting,” commented President Trump in a message on Twitter, adding “the Senate must vote!” Trump initially watched the proceedings from Air Force One, with the president reportedly unhappy about the approach taken by Mitchell – but later ebullient at Kavanaugh’s combative performance, which some aides have likened to Trump’s own style, Annie Karni and Andrew Restuccia report at POLITICO.

The American Bar Association (A.B.A.) has called on the Senate Judiciary Committee to postpone its vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation. In a letter released last night, A.B.A. President Robert Carlson said the “Senate’s constitutional duty of advise and consent on federal judicial nominees” requires an F.B.I. investigation into Ford’s allegations, adding “each appointment to our nation’s highest court (as with all others) is simply too important to rush to a vote … deciding to proceed without conducting additional investigation would not only have a lasting impact on the Senate’s reputation, but it will also negatively affect the great trust necessary for the American people to have in the Supreme Court,” The Daily Beast reports.

Former President George W. Bush is allegedly still standing by Kavanaugh after yesterday’s hearing. Daniel Lippman reports at POLITICO.

“Brett Kavanaugh is going for a seat … where he is going to have that seat on the Supreme Court for the rest of his life … and if he is going to have that seat legitimately, all of these things should be investigated,” Julie Swetnick – the third woman to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct – said in an interview with John Heilemann on Showtimes’ “The Circus.” “From what I experienced firsthand, I don’t think he belongs on the Supreme Court,” Swetnick added, Adam Edelman reports at NBC.

Transcripts of the key exchanges from yesterday’s hearing are provided by the Wall Street Journal.

KAVANAUGH CONFIRMATION: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Yesterday’s hearing marked a historical event in which the political fault-lines of the past three decades were distilled, John F. Harris comments at POLITICO.

Kavanaugh yesterday launched into “partisan attack mode,” Michael Kranish, Emma Brown and Tom Hamburger write in an analysis at the Washington Post.

“Republicans want to believe Kavanaugh … they want to give him the benefit of the doubt. … and he did everything humanly possible to give them permission to vote to confirm him,” Matt Lewis comments at The Daily Beast, arguing that Kavanaugh has likely edged the nomination.

Blasey Ford’s testimony was believable whereas Kavanaugh was not, the New York Times editorial board comments, arguing that “there is no reason the committee needs to hold this vote before the F.B.I. can do a proper investigation.”

An analysis of what President Trump would have seen – and not seen – on his Twitter feed during yesterday’s hearing, is provided by Reis Thebault at the Washington Post.

A selection of key takeaways from yesterday’s hearing is compiled by Catie Edmonson at the New York Times.

U.N. GENERAL ASSEMBLY

The Foreign Ministers of China and Russia will today take the podium at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Neither nation sent their heads of state to the Assembly; both have been accused of meddling in U.S. elections, with the allegation against China coming from President Trump in a move that “stunned” the Assembly on Wednesday, Jennifer Peltz and Frank Jordans report at the AP.

China yesterday defended its decision to publish a supplement to a U.S. newspaper which Trump had attacked as constituting electoral interference. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has hit back that the supplement to the Des Moines Register published Sunday was lawful and commonplace, Jane Perlez reports at the New York Times.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday told a Security Council session on North Korea that “final, fully-verified denuclearization” is essential. Pompeo, chairing the session, added that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Trump “share a common, personal understanding of what must take place” to transform relations between the two countries, the U.N. News Centre reports.

Pompeo announced plans to travel to Pyongyang in October to set up a further summit meeting Trump and Kim. However, the U.S. has said that while it will work to push diplomatic efforts forward, international sanctions must remain in place to ensure Pyongyang’s continued cooperation, Jessica Donati reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Any negotiation is a two-way street … steps by the D.P.R.K. [North Korea] towards gradual disarmament should be followed by the easing of sanctions,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Security Council, with both China and Russia critical of U.S. attempts to tighten U.N. sanctions on the North. “Further increase of sanctions goes beyond cutting off financing of banned missile and nuclear programs, and is in fact a threat to North Korean citizens and would bring extreme socio-economic and humanitarian suffering,” Lavrov added, Reuters reports.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the U.N. yesterday that his intelligence agents discovered a “secret atomic warehouse” in downtown Tehran, effectively issuing a direct challenge to the Iranian government to open the facility to inspectors and prove it is not in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal. “Today, I am disclosing for the first time that Iran has another secret facility in Tehran … a secret atomic warehouse for storing massive amounts of equipment and material from Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program,” Netanyahu said from the podium, David E. Sanger and Megan Specia report at the New York Times.

Iranian Foreign Minister denounced Netanyahu’s allegations as an “obscene charge,” Iranian state-run I.R.N.A. news agency reported today. Zarif also referred to Netanyahu as a “liar who would not stop lying,” Amir Vahdat reports at the AP.

“Nobody backed the United States … putting America into a unique historical and political isolation,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani commented 0n his return to Tehran from the General Assembly. Naseer Karimi reports at the AP.

The Palestinians will no longer accept the U.S. as the sole mediator in the Middle East peace process, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas told the General Assembly yesterday, calling out Trump’s “biased” administration for undermining a two-state solution. “This administration has reneged on all previous U.S. commitments, and has undermined the two-state solution, and has revealed its false claims of concern about the humanitarian conditions of the Palestinian people,” Abbas said, criticizing in particular Trump’s decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, his order to close the Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) office in Washington and to cut off aid funding, AFP reports.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman expressed indifference to President Trump’s backing of a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Wednesday. Lieberman commented that a Palestinian state “simply doesn’t interest me,” adding that the Israeli interest is “a safe Jewish state … everything else interests us less,” the AP reports.

The U.N. Human Rights Council voted yesterday to set up a body to prepare evidence of human rights abuses in Myanmar, including possible genocide, for any future prosecution. The 47-member Council voted by 35 votes to three, with seven abstentions, supporting a resolution brought by the European Union (E.U.) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Reuters reports.

Live updates from the U.N. General Assembly in New York are provided by Al Jazeera.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – responsible for overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference – have postponed until next week yesterday’s “highly anticipated” meeting that may decide Rosenstein’s continuing appointment. In a statement, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Trump and Rosenstein did not want to distract from yesterday’s Senate hearing on judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

The House Intelligence Committee will vote today on whether to release publicly a substantial selection of transcripts of private interviews from its now-closed investigation into Russian interference. Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has scheduled a business meeting for 9 a.m. for the committee to vote on releasing the documents, which include interviews with prominent members of the Trump campaign and the president’s family, including: Trump’s former top political adviser Steve Bannon; his son-in-law Jared Kushner; his former personal attorney Michael Cohen; his longtime ally Roger Stone; and his son Donald Trump Jr., Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Former F.B.I. general counsel Jim Baker is slated to meet with congressional investigators next week as part of a joint probe examining the decision-making of the bureau and the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) during the 2016 election. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

SYRIA

Iran’s Supreme National Security Council member Ali Shamkhani yesterday threatened Israel with “reactions that would cause sorrow and penitence” should it “continue to attack” Iranian and government forces in Syria, making the remarks during a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev. The AP reports.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has announced that Israel’s Quneitra border crossing with Syria is reopening for U.N. personnel and will resume operating as before the civil war broke out, having visited the crossing yesterday. The AP reports.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser John Bolton are at odds over the correct role for U.S. troops in Syria. Lara Seligman explains at Foreign Policy.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 78 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Sep. 17 and Sep. 23 [Central Command]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have requested an intelligence briefing on President Trump’s accusations that China has attempted to interfere in the upcoming midterm elections. Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) commented that “we have requested to be briefed on what he was referring to … we expect that we will, before we recess, have the opportunity to ask just what he is talking about,” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

The Kremlin yesterday cast doubt on photographs that appear to identify a suspect in the U.K. Novichok poisoning case as a Russian G.R.U. intelligence agency officer, claiming that “many people look alike.” U.K. Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said yesterday that he had raised the poisonings with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Reuters reports.

Russia’s G.R.U. agency has secretly developed new malware that is virtually impossible to eradicate, allowing hackers to return time after time – serving as proof that the hacker group known as Fancy Bear “may be even more dangerous than previously thought,” according to European security company E.S.E.T. Kevin Poulsen explains at The Daily Beast.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards today told Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) to respect Tehran’s “red lines” or face retaliation, as the U.S. and its Gulf allies step up pressure on Tehran to limit its regional influence. Iran accuses Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. of backing five gunmen who attacked a military parade in Iran on Sept. 22, killing 25 people including 12 members of the elite Guards, Reuters reports.

The U.S. military’s F-35B joint strike fighter conducted its first-ever airstrike yesterday in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. Marine Corps and three U.S. defense officials, Ryan Browne and Barbara Starr report at CNN.

More than 1,100 civilians have been killed in U.S.-led strikes against Islamic State group targets in Iraq and Syria since operations began in 2014, the U.S. military announced yesterday. Reuters reports.

The U.S. has found itself in the midst of a tragedy in Yemen “but…is hardly an innocent bystander,” Steven A. Cook comments at Foreign Policy, noting that there is a now a vacuum whereby “U.S. allies no longer call Washington before they take action in the region.” 

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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).