The Early Edition: October 1, 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’s Supreme Court confirmation process moved past a potential Senate hurdle Friday — but then paused for an F.B.I. investigation into the allegations of sexual assault that have been leveled against him, forced by a “dramatic maneuver” from Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Flake announced his support for Kavanaugh Friday morning, but told the Judiciary Committee that “I think it would be proper to delay the floor vote for up to but not more than one week in order to let the F.B.I. do an investigation, limited in time and scope,” Elana Schor, Burgess Everett and John Bresnahan report at POLITICO.

Flake seemed to reach his position following an encounter with two sexual assault survivors at an elevator door. Footage and a transcript of the incident is provided at the New York Times.

Republicans on the Judiciary Committee pushed through Kavanaugh’s nomination to the full Senate with a favorable recommendation in an 11-to-10 vote but following Flake’s dramatic reversal, President Trump – ordered the F.B.I. on Friday to reopen a background investigation into Kavanaugh. Nicholas Fandos and Sheryl Gay Stolberg report at the New York Times.

Trump struck an optimistic note Saturday – characterizing the F.B.I. probe as a “blessing in disguise,” and appearing optimistic that the investigation will solve to absolve Kavanaugh of the accusations against him. “It will be a good thing,” the president commented, Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

The F.B.I. pushed on yesterday to complete its “abbreviated” investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh, although Democrats demanded more information about the scope of the probe, warning that its seeming constraints could render it a “farce.” As agents conducted their review, which involved interviews with four potential witnesses, a college professor in North Carolina became the latest in a raft of Kavanaugh’s former Yale classmates to accuse the judge of giving untruthful testimony by minimizing his alcohol consumption as a student, Michael D. Shear and Robin Pogrebin report at the New York Times.

The F.B.I.’s hands must not be tied in this investigation,” top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary panel Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif) wrote in a message on Twitter. Late yesterday, Feinstein asked White House counsel Don McGahn and the director of the F.B.I. to disclose a copy of the directive sent by the White House to the bureau detailing the scope of the investigation, Dustin Volz, Peter Nicholas and Kristina Peterson report at The Wall Street Journal.

“I’m very concerned about this because the White House should not be allowed to micromanage an F.B.I. investigation,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) commented on CNN’s “State of the Union,” appealing to her Republican colleagues to safeguard the investigation so it is just and comprehensive. Jacqueline Klimas reports at POLITICO.

 Trump hit back yesterday at suggestions that the administration is trying to “micromanage” the F.B.I. investigation, accusing opposition Democrats of being interested only in obstruction. “Wow! Just starting to hear the Democrats, who are only thinking Obstruct and Delay, are starting to put out the word that the ‘time’ and’ scope’ of F.B.I. looking into Judge Kavanaugh and witnesses is not enough,” the president wrote in a message on Twitter, adding: “Hello! For them, it will never be enough,” AFP reports.

The F.B.I. has apparently received no fresh instructions from the White House regarding how to proceed with its investigation, according to a senior U.S. official and another source familiar with the matter, who claim that the F.B.I.’s specific witness list remains unchanged. Although the bureau will investigate the accusations made against Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez – the list does not include Julie Swetnick, the third woman to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual assault, nor the former classmates who have contradicted Kavanaugh’s account of his college alcohol consumption. Ken Dilanian, Geoff Bennett and Kristen Welker report at NBC.

Swetnick’s high-profile lawyer Michael Avenatti has expressed surprise that the F.B.I. does not plan to interview his client. “We’ve been calling for an F.B.I. investigation for days now,” Avenatti commented, adding “she has submitted a sworn declaration under penalty of perjury detailing various allegations … she’s anxious to sit down with the F.B.I. to tell her story, to identity additional witnesses and information that she believes they should inquire into … and she’s ready and has been ready to do that,” Paul Steinhauser reports at The Daily Beast.

Ramirez has agreed to cooperate with the F.B.I. investigation, according to a statement issued by her attorney John Clune. “Out of respect for the integrity of the process, we will have no further comment at this time,” the statement said, Jason Breslow reports at NPR.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) yesterday defended Kavanaugh’s confrontational style on Thursday, which the nominee’s opponents have deemed unduly partisan and not appropriate for a Supreme Court justice. “The temperament I saw was a man who was innocent — who was rightly offended by being destroyed for a political purpose,” Graham said during an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” adding that Kavanaugh has been “hit by a truck,” Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

Graham called for another investigation into “what happened in this committee,” listing: “who betrayed Dr. Ford’s trust … who in Feinstein’s office recommended Katz as a lawyer, why did Ms. Ford not know that the committee was willing to go to California,” as necessary topics for such an investigation. Adam Edelman reports at NBC.

Sen. Feinstein’s office will be investigated to ascertain whether it leaked a confidential letter from Ford, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) claimed yesterday. “They have betrayed [Ford],” Cotton said on C.B.S.’ “Face the Nation,” adding that “she has been victimized by Democrats … on a search-and-destroy mission for Brett Kavanaugh,” Jacqueline Klimas reports at POLITICO.

An overview of the partisan battle over the Kavanaugh nomination and the scope of the current F.B.I. investigation is provide by Quint Forgey at POLITICO.

Republicans’ outside counsel Rachel Mitchell has stated that a “reasonable prosecutor” would not bring a case against Kavanaugh based on Ford’s sexual assault allegation given the evidence presented to the Judiciary Committee Thursday. In a five-page memorandum provided to G.O.P. Senators, Mitchell cites inconsistencies in Ford’s statements to the committee, The Washington Post, and her therapist about the alleged assault, also noting “a Senate confirmation hearing is not a trial, especially not a prosecution,” Ariane de Vogue reports at CNN.

KAVANAUGH CONFIRMATION: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A detailed account of the events that led to Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-Ariz.) ‘reversal’ is provided by Michael D. Shear, Nicholas Fandos and Michael S. Schmidt at the New York Times.

A breakdown of how the F.B.I. will likely conduct their investigation and the possible implications of its findings, is provided by Adam Goldman and Rebecca R. Ruiz at the New York Times.

“The F.B.I. may be blocked from doing its job properly … will it be able to provide a basis for judging the relative trustworthiness of the only two witnesses who appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week?” E.J. Dionne Jr. comments at the Washington Post, adding that “the good news is that the investigation offers time for one important reality to sink in: It is simply not true, as was so often claimed, that both witnesses were equally “believable.”

“It is better to give professionals seven days to find facts than have no professional investigation at all,” Former F.B.I. Director James Comey comments at the New York Times, arguing that the F.B.I. are well placed to investigate allegations relating to alleged events from decades ago.

Only once a full F.B.I. investigation has taken place “can Republicans demonstrate genuine care for the feelings of the alleged victims in these scenarios,” and only at that stage we can ”move forward with a semblance of integrity of the highest court in our land,” former Republican governor of New Jersey Christine Todd Whiteman comments at the Financial Times.

For Kavanaugh to be disqualified from the Supreme Court nomination “based on a false accusation of a crime … would be a violation of the fundamental right to fairness,” Alan M. Dershowitz cautions at the Wall Street Journal, arguing that Kavanaugh must “have the charges against him put to the test of clear and convincing evidence or some standard close to that.”

“If we want to protect the Supreme Court’s legitimacy … Kavanaugh should not be on it,” Jenifer Rubin argues at the Washington Post.

“Republicans know this may be their last, best opportunity to cement a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for a generation … they want to seize it despite evident political risk,” Carl Hulse writes in an analysis of the partisan fallout at the New York Times.

A fact-checker for Kavanaugh’s testimony Thursday is provided by Mike McIntire, Linda Qiu, Steve Eder and Kate Kelly at the New York Times.

A selection of legal experts comment on Thursday’s nomination hearing at POLITICO Magazine.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump says he and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “fell in love” after Kim wrote him “beautiful letters” and described the U.S. as having “a very good relationship” with North Korea. The comments, made at a political rally Saturday night in Wheeling, W.Va., came just hours after North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho told the U.N. General Assembly that denuclearization talks with the U.S. had reached an impasse, and that “without any trust in the U.S., there will be no confidence in our national security and under such circumstances, there is no way we will unilaterally disarm ourselves first,” Julie Bykowicz and Farnaz Fassihi report at the Wall Street Journal.

Troops from the two Koreas started to remove some of the land mines planted at their heavily fortified border today, according to Seoul officials, in the initial implementation of recent agreements aimed at easing military tensions between the two nations. South Korean army engineers with demining equipment were sent to the border village of Panmunjom and another frontline area called “Arrow Head Hill,” where the Koreas intend to conduct their first joint searches for soldiers killed during the 1950-53 Korean War, Hyung-Jin Kim reports at the AP.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said that recent military agreements will “end all hostile acts at the land … sea and sky between South and North Korea.” Moon launched a defense of the agreements in remarks today marking South Korea’s 70th Armed Forces Day, in which he also called for a stronger national defense, the AP reports.

Last week Pyongyang sent two rare Pungsans – Korean hunting dogs – to Moon, as a token of the growing friendship between the two countries. James Griffiths reports at CNN

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has praised peace efforts on the Korean Peninsula, issuing a statement expressing hope that recent positive developments will contribute to “an atmosphere conducive to advancing sustainable peace and complete and verifiable denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula in accordance with relevant Security Council resolutions.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

“Kim probably thinks you are less likely to take a hard line against his failure to take any actual steps toward denuclearization because you don’t want to admit that your love affair is rife with problems,” Samantha Vinograd warns Trump in her “Weekly Briefing” at CNN.

SYRIA

Syria’s “battle against terrorism is almost over,” Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told the U.N. General Assembly in New York Saturday, delivering a speech after taking the podium to “muted” applause. Moallem used his address to condemn international interference in Syria, deny Damascus’ use of chemical weapons and accuse the U.S.-led coalition fighting in the country of committing war crimes, Al Jazeera reports.

Moualem told the General Assembly that the country was ready for the voluntary return of refugees who fled during the more than seven-year conflict, Reuters reports.

Turkish-backed Syrian rebel group Failaq al-Sham said yesterday that it would not pull back its fighters from front-line positions in the contested northwestern province of Idlib, despite Russia and Turkey’s agreement this month to establish a demilitarized zone in the province in an attempt to prevent an offensive by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashir al-Assad. The group also stated that the condition for rebel groups to withdraw heavy weapons from the zone is meaningless since it has no such weapons there, Bassem Mroue reports at the AP.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday that Moscow has commenced delivery of a S-300 surface-to-air missile system to the regime in Syria, and warned Western powers of attempts to undermine U.N.-led efforts to end the seven-year conflict. Lavrov’s counterparts from the U.S., Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, the U.K. and Saudi Arabia appealed to U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura on Thursday to convene the constitutional committee and report back on progress by the end of October; Lavrov accused the group of trying to undermine the Astana efforts and applying pressure on de Mistura so that they could impose their own resolution of the conflict, Reuters reports.

The U.S. will pursue “a strategy of isolation” – including sanctions – should Assad delay a political process aimed at ending the country’s seven-year war, U.S. Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey told journalists Friday, adding that if Assad’s government fails to cooperate on rewriting the Syrian constitution as a prelude to elections, “we believe that then we can go after it the way we went after Iran before 2015 – with really tough international sanctions,” Reuters reports.

Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard launched six ballistic missiles early today toward eastern Syria, targeting militants it has blamed for an attack on a military parade in the Iranian city of Ahvaz last month, while also threatening regional adversaries. The Guard fired missiles with sufficient range to strike regional U.S. military bases and targets inside both Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. –nations that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has accused of backing the Sept. 22 Ahvaz attack, Nassser Karimi and Jon Gambrell report at the AP.

Security forces in the northern city of Raqqa city announced yesterday that they had uncovered an Islamic State group sleeper cell that was plotting series of large attacks across the devastated city – the former capital of the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate, Reuters reports.

 Syrian state media announced yesterday that the major Nassib border crossing with Jordan will reopen on Oct. 10, three years after the trade route was captured by rebels and shut down. Reuters reports.

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]

IRAN

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claimed in an interview aired yesterday that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made “all the wrong moves against Iran,” adding “what should I make of him? … I believe he has made major mistakes about our region … I mean, seriously, I believe the United States needs to review its policies with regard to our region.” Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

Zarif rejected claims from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the U.N. General Assembly last week that Iran is hiding a “secret atomic warehouse,” claiming that “the previous allegations that Netanyahu made have been investigated by the I.A.E.A. [International Atomic Energy Agency] and have been rejected,” and describing Netanyahu’s new accusations as “nonsense.” Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

“If America does anything wrong … their bases around Iran would not remain secure,” Tehran Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Mohammadali Movahedi Kermani was quoted as saying by the Mizan news agency. The comment is most likely in response to a new report from the State Department released Tuesday, focusing on the threat that Iran’s missile capabilities pose to allies in the region, Chris Mills Rodrigo reports at the Hill.

The U.S. on Friday announced the closure of its consulate in the Iraqi capital of Basra, relocating diplomatic personnel assigned there alleging increasing threats from Iran and Iran-backed armed groups. The decision has further escalated the tension between Washington and Tehran, with Iran rejecting what it has labeled U.S. “propaganda and false accusations,” Al Jazeera reports.

An account of the feeling on both sides of the growing Washington-Tehran rift is provided by Al Jazeera.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

At least seven Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli security forces on the Gaza-Israel border Friday, following calls from militant Hamas group for bigger protests amid growing frustrations over stalled cease-fire talks. A 12-year old boy, a 14-year-old boy and an 18-year-old man were amongst those killed, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, which said at least 506 people were injured, Dov Lieber reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The International Court of Justice (I.C.J.) on Friday said it has received a complaint from the “State of Palestine” against the U.S., alleging that the U.S. government’s placement of its Israeli embassy in Jerusalem violates an international treaty and that it should be removed. Reuters reports.

The Israeli and Palestinian leaders offered “diametrically different appraisals” of the protracted conflict between the parties at the U.N. General Assembly, with “no hints of compromise” in speeches by the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Rick Gladstone provides an analysis at the New York Times.

“My view of a potential agreement is that the Palestinians have all the powers to govern themselves … but none of the powers to threaten us,” Netanyahu has claimed in an interview with NPR, apparently diverging with President Trump’s newly articulated aspiration for a two-state solution. Serena McMahon explains at NPR.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S.-backed Saudi-led military coalition fighting against Yemen’s Houthi rebel movement prevented an attack by two explosives-laden remote controlled boats against Saudi Arabia’s Jizan port, Saudi state news agency S.P.A. reported yesterday. “The Royal Saudi Navy Forces detected the movement of two remote control explosive boats headed to the port of Jizan … they were intercepted and destroyed… which has led to minimal damage,” coalition spokesperson Colonel Turki al-Malki said in a statement, Reuters reports.

“Attacks have been launched against the basic principles of the Middle East peace process … the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [Iran nuclear deal] … commitments of the Word Trade Organization … climate agreements and many more,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the U.N. General Assembly on Friday, launching a broadside against the U.S.’ international conduct. Reuters reports.

Security talks between U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his Chinese counterpart Gen. Wei Fenghe have been canceled in the context of growing tension between Washington and Beijing. Although the Pentagon never officially announced Mattis’ trip to China, it had been working on the likelihood that Mattis would attend talks in Beijing this month known as the diplomatic and security dialogue, Gordon Lubold and Jeremy Page report at the Wall Street Journal.

Various explanations for why Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was not fired by President Trump last week, alongside other national security developments, are outlined by Philip Ewing at NPR. 

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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).