The Early Edition: October 19, 2018

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI DISAPPEARANCE

President Donald Trump shifted his tone on Khashoggi on Thursday, acknowledging that the Saudi journalist and Virginia resident is most likely dead and that Saudi Arabia could have played a role in his killing. Asked what the consequences could be, the president said, “Well, it’ll have to be very severe. I mean, it’s bad, bad stuff,” report Maggie Haberman, Mark Landler, Michael S. Schmidt and Eric Schmitt for the New York Times.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the White House Thursday to give Saudi Arabia “a few more days” to wrap up its investigation into the alleged murder of the Saudi journalist and resident of Virginia, report Erin Cunningham and John Wagner for The Washington Post.

A Turkish official said that while in Turkey, Pompeo listened to an alleged audio recording of Khashoggi’s murder. The same official said Pompeo was also given a transcript of the recording, but the State Department denies either happened, report Ian Pannell and Engin Bas for ABC News.

The Turkish foreign minister denies sharing the audio with Pompeo. Mevlut Cavusoglu, quoted in the state-run Anadolu Agency on Friday, said Turkey hadn’t shared any audio recordings with U.S. officials, reports The Daily Beast.

A saudi intelligence officer and former diplomat in London who has close ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is emerging as a key figure in Khashoggi’s apparent assassination. Security camera images that purport to show Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb’s movements around Istanbul on Oct. 2, the day Khashoggi disappeared, were published by Sabah, a Turkish newspaper on Thursday. Four of the suspects identified by Turkish intelligence belong to the security team that travels with MBS around the world, report Tim Lister, Gul Tuysuz and Laura Smith-Spark for CNN.

The Saudis are considering blaming a different top intelligence officer who also has close ties to MBS. The emerging Saudi plan is to name Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, a high-ranking adviser to the crown prince who previously served as the spokesman for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, as the culprit.

“The Saudi rulers are expected to say that Mr. Assiri received verbal authorization from Prince Mohammed to capture Mr. Khashoggi for an interrogation in Saudi Arabia, but either misunderstood his instructions or overstepped that authorization and took the dissident’s life, according to the two of the people familiar with the Saudi plans,” report David D. Kirkpatrick and Ben Hubbard for the New York Times.

A congressional inquiry is needed to understand what U.S. intelligence agencies knew about the threats to Khashoggi’s life. Such an inquiry, “should look, too, for any hint that U.S. intelligence about MBS, as the crown prince is known, has been skewed by the Trump White House for political reasons,” writes David Ignatius for the Washington Post.

In Saudi Arabia, the media is working to defend the government, spreading rumors about Khashoggi’s fiancée and suggesting the 15 men identified by Turkey as suspects were really tourists, reports the Financial Times.

In the United States, conservative Republicans allied with Trump are mounting their own whisper campaign against Khashoggi. Through the spreading of conspiracy theories and suggesting Khashoggi had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Trump’s political and media allies are working to protect the president from criticism of how he’s responded to the Saudi journalist’s murder, report Robert Costa and Karoun Demirjian for the Washington Post.

Twitter suspended a network of suspected Twitter bots on Thursday that were pushing pro-Saudi Arabia talking points about Khashoggi’s disappearance. A Twitter employee told NBC News that “the accounts are being pulled down for violating rules about spam, and referred to it as a routine spam operation takedown,” report for Ben Collins and Shoshana Wodinsky for NBC News.  

The geopolitical fallout of Khashoggi’s disappearance is already reshaping the power balance in the Middle East. “The biggest geopolitical blow so far has been to the stability of the strategic alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. This means a setback for Saudi plans to lead the Middle East, and for U.S.-Saudi efforts to contain Iran. Israel’s strategic interests have also been hurt as a result,” reports Yaroslav Trofimov for the Wall Street Journal.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is not going to Riyadh. After several other business executives and high-profile attendees pulled out of an investment summit, nicknamed “Davos in the Desert,” in Saudi Arabia next week, Mnuchin announced on Twitter Thursday that he has decided not to attend as well, reports POLITICO.

ICYMI: Jamal Khashoggi’s prescient last column was printed Thursday. Khashoggi’s editor, Karen Attiah, received the op-ed from Khashoggi’s assistant the day after he disappeared, but held off on publishing it with the hope that he was still alive.

About Arab governments’ continued attempts to silence the media, Khashoggi wrote, “These actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community. Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence.” For the Washington Post.

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban claimed credit for an attack on a high-level meeting in Kandahar on Thursday that left one of southern Afghanistan’s most powerful government figures dead. Gen. Austin Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, was in attendance at the meeting but managed to escape unharmed when bodyguards for the governor of southern Kandahar province opened fire on the meeting. The gunmen killed General Abdul Raziq, the province’s chief of police, as well as the governor of Kandahar and the head of the province’s National Directorate of Security. Three U.S. personnel were reportedly wounded.

“The assassination of Raziq is a major blow to the Afghan government and may significantly impact the security situation in Kandahar and throughout the south,” reports Bill Roggio for Long War Journal.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was caught off guard by U.S. talks with the Taliban. Last week, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad met with Taliban representatives in Qatar, but Ghani only heard about the meeting through news reports and from a Taliban statement, not directly from American officials, Mujib Mashal reports for the New York Times.

Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections are taking place Saturday amidst threats of violence from the Taliban and the Islamic State. “For the first time since a U.S.-led invasion forced the Taliban from power in 2001, elections won’t be held across Afghanistan. Residents of an entire province won’t go to the polls because the country’s security forces can’t protect polling stations there,” report Craig Nelson and Ehsanullah Amiri for the Wall Street Journal.

RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

Emmet Flood, who’s representing President Donald Trump in the Russia investigation, will temporarily take on the duties of White House general counsel. Don McGahn’s final day as White House counsel was Wednesday and his successor, Pat Cipollone, is waiting for his background investigation to be completed before assuming the role, the AP reports.

House Democrats are worried that Republicans are stepping up efforts to undermine the Russia investigation in anticipation of losing their majority in the midterm elections. This includes questioning Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein next week on Capitol Hill, “ a move forced almost entirely by Trump congressional allies agitating against him,” report Kyle Cheney and Rachael Bade for POLITICO.

The Russian billionaire behind the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting created a new American shell company a month beforehand while preparing to move almost $20 million into the United States. Aras Agalarov’s “previously unreported shell company is another example of intriguing financial activity around the time of the Trump Tower meeting,” report Jon Swaine and Scott Stedman for The Guardian.

Infighting and discontent have taken hold at the Justice Department under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. As Sessions implemented Trump’s hard-line conservative agenda, he ignored dissent, “at times putting the Trump administration on track to lose in court and prompting high-level departures,” reports Katie Benner for the New York Times.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The State Department announced it’s merging its primary diplomatic mission to the Palestinians, the American General Consulate in Jerusalem, with the American embassy, which moved to Jerusalem in May.

“While the move was described by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as an ‘efficiency’ move, it comes with significant symbolic constraints, since U.S. policy towards the Palestinians will now be directed out of the embassy to Israel,” reports Amir Tibon for Haaretz.

SYRIA

The leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Turkey will meet in Istanbul on October 27 to discuss developments in the war in Syria, reports Judith Mischke for POLITICO.

IMMIGRATION

A large caravan of migrants traveling north entered Guatemala, with participants saying they are fleeing gang violence and seeking better lives and opportunity for their families. “The caravan — as many as 4,000 people by some estimates — has prompted a flurry of tweets from President Trump, who on Thursday threatened military action at the southwestern border of the United States if Mexico failed to halt the group,” report Daniele Volpe and Kirk Semple for the New York Times.

John Kelly and John Bolton got into a screaming match yesterday. The fight was apparently over the Department of Homeland Security’s handling of increased border crossings, with Bolton criticizing DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen job performance, which set Kelly off, report  Kaitlan Collins and Jeff Zeleny for CNN.

Migrant children are staying longer in U.S. government custody than before. “The average stay for unaccompanied minors who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, most illegally, is now 59 days. That is up from 56 in June and 41 last year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is caring for about 13,000 newly arrived immigrant children” reports Alicia A. Caldwell for the Wall Street Journal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Trump praised a Republican congressman’s assault of a reporter last year while campaigning for him Thursday night in Montana. Speaking about Greg Gianforte, Trump said, “Any guy that can do a body slam… he’s my guy,” reports the BBC.

Britain released a radical Islamist preacher on Friday under strict controls on his travels and use of the Internet. Anjem Choudary was freed after “serving half of his five-and-a-half year sentence for inspiring Britons to join the Islamic State terrorist group,” reports Ceylan Yeginsu for the New York Times.

As part of his escalating trade war with China, Trump is pulling out of a 144-year-old postal treaty. The agreement helps standardize postal rules among the 192 countries who are party to the treaty. The U.S. tried to revise the treaty last month, but other countries were not willing to, prompting the Trump administration to withdraw, reports Bob Bryan for Business Insider.

The Heritage Foundation’s closed-door “training academy” for recent law school graduates is raising more than a few eyebrows and drawing concern in the legal community. A few hours after the program was reported on by the New York Times, Heritage announced it was suspending the “Federal Clerkship Training Academy.”

“Legal experts said the effort by Heritage to train and influence law clerks raised serious ethical questions and could undermine the duties the clerks have to the justice system and to the judges they will serve,” reports Adam Liptak for the New York Times.  

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council; previously senior reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).