The Early Edition: October 9, 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

The Senate voted Saturday to confirm judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, securing a conservative majority on the highest U.S. court in a major victory for President Trump and the G.O.P. The narrow vote saw Kavanaugh confirmed by a 50-48 margin –the closest Supreme Court nomination since the battle over Clarence Thomas in 1991, John Bresnahan and Burgess Everett report at POLITICO.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W-Va.) was the lone Democrat to cross the aisle and vote “yes” with Republicans, while Sen. Lisa Murkowkski (R-Alaska) who opposed Kavanaugh voted “present,” effectively “pairing” her vote with Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), a Kavanaugh backer who was absent. Kavanaugh was sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts and retired Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy later Saturday, Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports at the New York Times.

“I applaud and congratulate the U.S. Senate for confirming our GREAT NOMINEE, Judge Brett Kavanaugh … to the United States Supreme Court,” Trump wrote in a message on Twitter, adding “later today, I will sign his Commission of Appointment, and he will be officially sworn in … very exciting!” Reuters reports.

At a packed swearing-in ceremony at the White House yesterday Trump made the “baseless” claim that Kavanaugh had been “proven innocent” of the allegations of sexual assault that clouded his nomination, telling the East Room: “on behalf of our nation, I want to apologize to Brett and the entire Kavanaugh family for the terrible pain and suffering you have been forced to endure … those who step forward to serve our country deserve a fair and dignified evaluation, not a campaign of political and personal destruction based on lies and deception … what happened to the Kavanaugh family violates every notion of fairness, decency, and due process,” David Smith reports at the Guardian.

“The Supreme Court is an institution of law … it is not a partisan or political institution,” Kavanaugh said during his address at the swearing-in, adding “the justices do not sit on opposite sides of an aisle … we do not caucus in separate rooms … the Supreme Court is a team of nine, and I will always be a team player on the team of nine.” Kavanaugh has reportedly got off to a swift start, hiring four women to serve as his Supreme Court clerks and studying the briefs for the first cases on deck, Carrie Johnson reports at POLITICO.

House Democrats will open an investigation into accusations of sexual misconduct and perjury against Kavanaugh if they win control of the House in November, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) – in line to be the chairman of the Judiciary Committee – said Friday. Nadler said that there was evidence that Senate Republicans and the F.B.I. had overseen a “whitewash” investigation of the allegations and that the legitimacy of the Supreme Court was on the line, Nicholas Fandos and Sheryl Gay Stolberg report at the New York Times.

KAVANAUGH CONFIRMATION: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A breakdown of how every Senator voted in Kavanaugh’s confirmation is provided by Annie Daniel, Jasmine C. Lee and Sara Simon at the New York Times.

Will Kavanaugh be able to maintain complete impartiality and objectivity on the Supreme Court bench?  Danny Cevallos provides an analysis at NBC.

The fallout over Kavanaugh’s nomination “inflicted collateral damage on the court … leaving it injured and diminished,” Adam Liptak argues at the New York Times.

A profile of Kavanaugh and the issues flowing from his appointment to the Supreme Court is provided by William Conlon at NPR.

U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday met China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi in Beijing, with the two officials reportedly agreeing that China and the U.S. must expand political cooperation. The exchange struck a notably softer tone than an earlier meeting between Pompeo and Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi, Reuters reports.

Wang blamed the U.S. for rising tensions over trade and for taking harmful action in Taiwan, reportedly telling Pompeo that “we believe this has been a direct attack on our mutual trust, and has cast a shadow on China-U.S. relations … we demand that the U.S. side stop this kind of mistaken action.” Pompeo reportedly responded: “the issues that you characterized, we have a fundamental disagreement … we have great concerns about the actions that China has taken, and I look forward to having the opportunity to discuss each of those today because this is an incredibly important relationship,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

The tense exchange followed a major speech last week by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, in which he outlined a shift in U.S. strategy from engagement to confrontation with China, accusing Beijing of undermining American interests including through interference in U.S. elections. Jeremy Page and Michael R. Gordon report at the Wall Street Journal.

China yesterday evaded questions about a report that its spies inserted chips into computer equipment, allowing them to hack into U.S. companies and government agencies. Beijing spokesperson Lu Kang yesterday responded to reporters’ questions by directing them to statements by the equipment supplier and customers including Apple and Amazon – companies who have denied any knowledge the equipment had been altered, the AP reports.

The Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) had said Saturday that it has “no reason” to doubt multiple companies that said their equipment was unaffected in the hacking scheme, despite a Bloomberg report to the contrary. “The Department of Homeland Security is aware of the media reports of a technology supply chain compromise … like our partners in the UK, the National Cyber Security Centre, at this time we have no reason to doubt the statements from the companies named in the story,” D.H.S press secretary Tyler Houlton said in a statement, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Mike Pence’s speech last week effectively launched Cold War II, Walter Russell Mead comments at the Wall Street Journal, characterizing last week’s events as  “the biggest shift in U.S.-China relations since Henry Kissinger’s 1971 visit to Beijing.”

Pence’s speech “may come to be seen as an inflection point in the complex trajectory of relations between Washington and Beijing, although “the U.S. and China still are in an economic embrace that gives both sides ample reason to coexist peacefully,” Gerald F. Seib comments at the Wall Street Journal

Washington is stepping up development finance to offer countries an alternative to Chinese investment, Keith Johnson explains at Foreign Policy.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed Sunday to allow inspectors into a the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site – which the North claimed it blew up in May in a show of its commitment to denuclearization. Pompeo described his few hours in Pyongyang as a “good trip,” although there was no mention of the first step toward denuclearization: an inventory from the North of all its nuclear weapons, its production and storage sites, its missiles and missile launchers, Choe San-Hung and David E. Sanger report at the New York Times.

“We made significant progress … we’ll continue to make significant progress and we are further along in making that progress than any administration in an awfully long time,” Pompeo told a small group of reporters in the South Korean capital of Seoul later on Sunday. Pompeo claimed that he and Kim had come close to finalizing a date and venue for the next Kim-Trump summit, with Trump also sending a message on Twitter soon after Pompeo’s departure from the North, claiming that “I look forward to seeing Chairman Kim again, in the near future,” the AP reports.

A declaration to end the 1950-53 Korea War could be a “slippery slope” to querying the necessity for the U.S. troop presence in South Korea, Deputy Head of the U.N. Command Canadian Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre – overseeing the Korean armistice – commented Friday ahead of Pompeo’s visit. Reuters reports

Experts on the North are skeptical about the concessions offered by Kim over the weekend. Alexander Smith explains at NBC.

“The diplomatic atmospherics look good … and the bonhomie is nice … but there still isn’t much progress toward denuclearization,” The Wall Street Journal editorial board comments following Pompeo’s most recent trip to the North.

The Kremlin says it is working on arrangements for hosting Kim in Moscow. Spokesperson for the Russian President Vladimir Putin – Dmitry Peskov – commented yesterday that Putin had extended an invitation to Kim last month to visit Russia, and that Moscow is working on the details of where and when that meeting could happen, the AP reports.

RUSSIA

 Russia yesterday challenged the U.S. claim that it has fulfilled its obligations under the 2010 New START nuclear arms deal, in a fresh argument that could provoke further tensions between Moscow and Washington. The Russian Foreign Ministry said it “can’t confirm” the latest U.S. State Department data indicating that the U.S. has complied with the thresholds set by the treaty, which limits each nation to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers, Vladimir Isachenkov reports at the AP.

The second suspect in the Novichok nerve agent poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal is a trained military doctor in Russia’s G.R.U. intelligence agency, according to investigative news organizations Bellingcat and The Insider, which have named the second man as Dr Alexander Mishkin. The U.K. government declined to confirm or deny the claims, although as with the naming of first suspect Anatoliy Chepiga two weeks ago, the details published yesterday evening are not being disputed by British intelligence, David Bond reports at the Financial Times.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov commented yesterday that four Russians detained and expelled by the Netherlands in April on suspicion of spying were on a “routine” trip, adding that Moscow did not receive a Dutch complaint at the time of the incident. The comments, made at a joint news conference after talks with Lavrov’s Italian counterpart in Moscow, follow announcements by Dutch authorities last week that they had disrupted an attempt in April by Russian intelligence agents to hack the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.), AFP reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump said yesterday that he has no plans to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, whose future at the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) seemed unclear last month following reports that Rosenstein had discussed wiretapping the president early in his tenure. The President claimed that the two men had had a “good talk” while traveling together on Air Force One to an event in Florida, Devlin Barrett and John Wagner report at the Washington Post.

Top Trump campaign official Rick Gates requested proposals in 2016 from an Israeli company to create fake online identities, use social media manipulation and gather intelligence to help defeat both Republican primary race opponents and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, according to interviews and copies of the proposals. The campaign’s interest in the work began as Moscow escalated its effort to aid Trump, and although the Israeli company’s pitches were narrower than Moscow’s interference campaign and appear unconnected – the documents suggest that Gates aide saw the promise of a disruption effort to influence voters Trump’s favor, Mark Mazzetti, Ronen Bergman, David D. Kirkpatrick and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

 JAMAL KHASHOGGI DISAPPEARANCE  

The State Department confirmed yesterday that it has spoken with Saudi Arabia’s government regarding the disappearance of Saudi Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi last week and has petitioned the kingdom to launch an inquiry into his whereabouts. Khashoggi vanished after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week; U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that “the United States is concerned by his disappearance … State Department senior officials have spoken with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia through diplomatic channels about this matter.” Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) yesterday warned of the impact on the U.S.-Saudi alliance if allegations are confirmed that the kingdom killed the prominent journalist, claiming in a message on Twitter that “if there was any truth to the allegations of wrongdoing by the Saudi government it would be devastating to the US-Saudi relationship and there will be a heavy price to be paid –economically and otherwise,” AFP reports.

Washington should explore retaliatory measures that would have a real impact on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Will Inboden comments at Foreign Policy.

SYRIA

Ankara-backed National Liberation Front (N.L.F.) rebel group announced Saturday that it has begun withdrawing heavy arms from the demilitarized zone in northwestern Syria as part of the deal struck between Russia and Turkey. A spokesperson told AFP news agency “we began to withdraw our heavy weapons from the demilitarized zone to rear positions,” although the rebels have said the withdrawal from the planned buffer zone will last several days, Al Jazeera reports.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that he will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin soon to discuss security coordination over Syria, amid tensions between Israel and Moscow over Israel’s air operations. Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 64 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Sep. 24 and Sep. 30 [Central Command]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli military (I.D.F.) has announced that forces are in pursuit of a Palestinian attacker who shot and killed two Israelis at a West Bank factory Sunday. The I.D.F. says troops are in the suspect Ashraf Na’alwa’s hometown of Shweika today, with several Palestinians have been arrested for questioning, the AP reports.

The I.D.F. killed three Palestinians including a child at a border protest in Gaza Friday, according to Palestinian officials. The I.D.F. claimed it was defending against members of the crowd who were throwing grenades and explosives at its soldiers, Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. yesterday urged the International Court of Justice to throw out a suit filed by Iran seeking to recover around $2 billion worth of frozen assets the U.S. Supreme Court awarded to victims of a 1983 bombing in Lebanon and other attacks linked to Tehran. Mike Corder reports at the AP.

At least 10 policemen were killed in clashes with Taliban fighters in the central Afghan province of Wardak on Sunday, according to officials. Al Jazeera reports.

An airstrike by the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen killed four civilians working at a bee farm in the Red Sea city of Hodeida yesterday, according to Yemeni officials, Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

Disappeared Interpol President Meng Hongwei has resigned, with statement from the international police agency claiming that it received notice of Meng’s resignation Sunday “with immediate effect.” The announcement came just hours after Chinese authorities confirmed that Meng is suspected of having committed offenses and is under investigation by the country’s national Supervisory Commission, Harriet Agnew and Hudson Lockett report at the Financial 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).