The Early Edition: November 7, 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.

The MIDTERMS

Democrats claimed control of the House late yesterday while Republicans have increased their majority in the Senate – delivering a split verdict in the first plebiscite on the Trumps presidency. The “most … consequential” midterms in the modern era served to underscore the nation’s profound polarization, with Democrats claiming victories in suburban areas that propelled Trump to victory just two years ago – but the referendum fell short of delivering the “blue wave” anticipated by some, Philip Rucker, Matt Viser, Anne Gearan and David A. Fahrenthold report at the Washington Post.

An array of diverse candidates including many women and first-time contenders ended the Republicans’ eight-year grip on the House majority. Republicans, however, built on their one-seat majority in the chamber by winning Democratic seats in Indiana, North Dakota and Missouri while resisting Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s heavily publicized and well-funded challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns report at the New York Times.

The White House declared victory in the midterms even as projections came through suggesting a Democratic takeover of the House. “Tremendous success tonight … thank you to all” President Trump stated in a message on Twitter once it became clear Republicans would retain control over the Senate, Jonathan Allen, Hallie Jackson and Kristen Welker report at NBC.

The outcome in the House could leave Trump open to an “onslaught” of investigations beginning next year, with some Democrats raising the possibility of impeachment. Senate Republicans stand to be Trump’s “bulwark” on Capitol Hill, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also set to prioritize the confirming of federal judges – a task carried out by the Senate alone. Sean Sullivan reports at the Washington Post.

“We feel good about where we are in the Senate … but if Democrats take the House they shouldn’t waste time investigating,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had told Fox News in the run-up to the results, adding that “they should focus on what the people have put them there to do.” Matt Wilstein reports at The Daily Beast.

“No amount of prattle about the “expectations game” or historical averages can diminish the reality that [House Democratic leader] Nancy Pelosi is poised to retake the speaker’s gavel and the vast appropriations and investigatory power this gives the opposition party to check a hostile executive,” John F. Harris and Charlie Mahtesian comment at POLITICO Magazine, noting however that there is “scant evidence of a mandate for a scorched-earth pursuit of Trump.”

“The new House may press far more deeply into [Trump’s] personal and political affairs … demanding the tax returns he has kept secret … delving deeper into any ties with Russia and exploring any conflicts of interest,” Peter Baker writes in an analysis of the upcoming “partisan war” at the New York Times.

The Democrats should not rush to launch “investigations … accusatory hearings or impeachment proceedings” in their opening days controlling the House, and should rather clear “[special counsel] Robert S. Mueller III’s way as he finishes his careful review of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign,” Ronald A. Kain argues at the Washington Post. “Putting investigations front and center,” Kain claims, “would also send a loud — and damaging — message to the millions of Americans who went to the polls to elect Democrats to deliver on kitchen-table issues: health care and jobs, incomes and opportunity, fair treatment for all.”

The midterms sent a “welcome message” to the international community that “large numbers of Americans are apparently as opposed to the president’s policies and style as many people abroad are,” Michael Hirsch comments at Foreign Policy, noting that a Democrat-led House will likely open hearings quickly regarding U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia in Yemen and other secret wars.

Interactive updates on the midterm results in the House and Senate are provided at the New York Times.

CYBERSECURITY AND the MIDTERMS

U.S. security officials and social media firms stated yesterday that they detected a limited amount of deliberate disinformation targeting the midterms but that they had not observed any significant cyberattacks aiming to directly compromise election infrastructure. Anxieties about a potentially “calamitous” attack from Russia or elsewhere were diffused even as government agencies including the F.B.I. and Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) remained on alert, Dustin Volz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“We’ve not seen, or we’re not aware, of any successful cybersecurity-related compromises of election infrastructure,” a D.H.S. official told reporters on a press call this morning, shortly after midnight. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstien Nielsen made similar remarks earlier yesterday, claiming that there had been “no indication of compromise to our nation’s election infrastructure that would prevent voting, change vote counts, or distrust the ability to tally votes;” however, it remains possible that an attack could emerge in the coming days, Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

A Kremlin-backed group of internet trolls that interfered in the 2016 presidential election did appear to be engaged in an attempt to influence U.S. voters using Facebook days ahead of the midterms, the social media giant said last night. Just hours after most of the polls had closed, Facebook claimed that it had blocked more than 100 Facebook and Instagram accounts “due to concerns that they were linked to the Russia-based Internet Research Agency,” with Facebook’s Head of Cybersecurity Policy Nathaniel Gleicher adding that “this is a timely reminder that these bad actors won’t give up — and why it’s so important we work with the U.S. government and other technology companies to stay ahead,” Sheera Frenkel and Mike Isaac report at the New York Times.

“We cannot react to some abstract cybersecurity analysts because we do not know who they are and whether they understand anything about cybersecurity,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said yesterday, in response to the allegations of attempted Russian interference, Reuters reports.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY: OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Russian government has approved regulations that would identify users by their cellphone numbers. The measures signed yesterday by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev are part of Moscow’s attempts to clamp down on smartphone messenger services, such as Telegram, that authorities allege are used by criminals and terrorists, the AP reports.

The foreign ministers of Russia and Spain claim that they have agreed to establish a joint cybersecurity group to prevent the malicious spreading of misinformation from damaging relations between the two nations. Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell stated he welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s proposal for a collaborative effort “to gauge the extent of the problem and analyze it to prevent it from becoming a source of friction,” while Lavrov said yesterday in Madrid that he had discussed with Borrell how “some Russian mass media go beyond the limits of their professional activity and create inadmissible interference in other countries’ issues,” the AP reports.

Former consulting firm Cambridge Analytica violated U.K. law when it used improperly harvested Facebook data to aid Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, and would face a substantial fine if it were not already insolvent, the U.K’s top data protection watchdog– the Information Commissioner’s Office – found in its report published yesterday. Adam Satariano and Nicholas Confessore report at the New York Times.

U.S. whistle-blower and former government contractor Edward Snowden yesterday urged Israelis to be on guard against far-reaching government and private surveillance. Delivering a speech from a video-link in Moscow, Snowden highlighted Israel’s hi-tech capabilities and warned that accepting too much government surveillance – premised on security reasons – would pose serious privacy risks, Al Jazeera reports.

Cyberwar is governed by various (unspoken) rules, Miguel Alberto N. Gomez writes at Foreign Policy in a response to an earlier article by Tarah Wheeler. Gomez argues that although “Wheeler correctly presents cyberspace as a vulnerable domain that continues to lack a set of norms that regulates aggressive tendencies … [state actors] are acutely aware of the consequences of overly aggressive cyberoperations and therefore actively attempt to limit the impact of their activities by either narrowing the scope of their operations or resorting to techniques that do minimal damage and are easily contained.”

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet briefly in Paris amid the upcoming Armistice Day celebrations, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said yesterday, seeming to contradict Trump’s earlier comments that that he would probably not meet with Putin in the French capital. “We haven’t set anything up yet … we don’t know that that’s going to be the right place … I’m going to be in Paris for other reasons, but we will be meeting at the G-20 and probably will have meetings after that,” Trump had told reporters Monday, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Russia faces fresh U.S. sanctions after failing to take steps to prove it has ended its chemical weapons program in the wake of the novichok nerve agent attack in the U.K. in March. Under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination (C.B.W.) Act, Moscow was then told it had 90 days to take “remedial measures” including a formal renunciation of chemical and biological weapon use and facilitating international inspectors; State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert released a statement yesterday claiming “we could not certify that the Russian Federation met the conditions required,” Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

Nauert added that the State Department is “consulting with Congress regarding next steps” as is legally required. Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce  (R-Calif.) commented that the administration has not given Congress details on what the sanctions will entail or a timeline on when they would be imposed, criticizing the lack of detail as “unacceptable.” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

A Russian fighter jet made “two close passes” as it crossed paths with a U.S. EP-3 Aries reconnaissance plane, according to the U.S. Navy, releasing a video of what it characterized as an unsafe and irresponsible encounter. The Russian military claims the Su-27 “escorted” the spy plane away over neutral waters in the Black Sea, but the U.S. says the fighter crossed directly in front of the spy plane, Bill Chappell reports at NPR.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Two individuals associated with former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone reportedly testified recently before a grand jury hearing regarding their ties to Stone, as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Russian billionaire and president of A.S. Monaco Dmitri Rybolovlev was detained yesterday in Monaco and questioned related to an ongoing corruption probe. Rybolovlev purchased a mansion in Florida from Trump in 2008 for $95 million, in a business deal that has been investigated by Mueller, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

IRAN

“If a company evades our sanctions regime and secretly continues sanctionable commerce in the Islamic Republic [of Iran] … the U.S. will levy severe … swift penalties on it … including potential sanctions,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday. The administration faces a “host” of nations reluctant to back the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran, with administration officials recently travelling to 32 countries in an attempt to coax compliance, Ian Talley writes in an analysis at the Wall Street Journal.

Pompeo has granted an exception to various U.S. sanctions that will allow the Indian-led development of an Iranian port that will form part of a new transportation corridor designed to boost Afghanistan’s economy, a State Department spokesperson announced yesterday. The exception will also reportedly permit the construction of a railway line from Chabahar port to Afghanistan, and for shipments to the war-torn country of non-sanctionable goods such as food and medicines, Reuters reports.

“The J.C.P.O.A. [2015 Iran nuclear deal] and the sanctions are not just about Iran but about a transformative process in the international community whereby you have either international law … or you have … the imposition [of] American policy versus the rest of the world,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minsiter Seyed M Kazem Sajjadpour said during a talk at U.K. think-tank Chatham House yesterday. Al Jazeera reports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has discussed U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran with his security council, Russian news agencies reported yesterday, citing Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov who reportedly described the sanctions as “illegitimate.” Reuters reports.

An explainer on U.S. sanctions on Iran is provided by Rick Gladstone at the New York Times, seeking to clarify: what did the U.S. do Monday; what does Trump want from Iran; what does Iran say; why did the U.S. grant exceptions on Iran’s oil exports; have the oil sanctions affected prices; why are European allies angry; are Iran’s leaders worried; and, is Iran’s economy at risk of collapse?

SYRIA

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday that joint patrols by U.S. forces and a Kurdish-led militia group in northern Syria are “unacceptable.” The U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) conducted two joint patrols last week after Turkish artillery shelled Kurdish positions in northeastern Syria; Turkey considers the Kurdish Y.P.G. militia that forms the bulk of the S.D.F. as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency within Turkey, the AP reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 100 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Oct. 28 and Nov. 3. [Central Command]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

High-level nuclear talks between U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart Kim Yong-chol have been called off, in a setback to the diplomatic process that will lower hopes for progress on denuclearization. In a brief statement issued today, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert stated (without giving reasons) that Pompeo’s planned meeting with Kim – scheduled for tomorrow in New York – had been postponed indefinitely and that the two sides will reconvene at a later date “when our respective schedules permit,” Andrew Jeong reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Both the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-aligned Houthi rebel movement fighting in Yemen have stepped up operations, with more than 100 airstrikes hitting civilian neighborhoods in the strategic port sea city of Hodeidah in the past five days. Bethan McKernan provides an analysis at the Guardian.

The Taliban killed eight policemen and wounded three in an attack on two checkpoints in western Farah province last night, according to Afghan official, who claimed that the attack took place on the outskirts of the provincial capital, triggering an hour-long battle in which the Taliban were beaten back. The Taliban did not immediately comment the attack, the AP reports.

Representatives from roughly a dozen countries launched a broadside at China for its treatment of minority Muslims at a U.N. human-rights panel in Geneva yesterday. Australia opened the criticisms, calling on Beijing to “cease the arbitrary detention of Uighurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang;” Chinese delegation leader Le Yucheng reiterated a recent government explanation that its network of camps in the region are in fact vocational schools, Josh Chin reports at the Wall Street Journal.

 Alleged al-Qaida Commander Abd al Hadi al Iraqi – recovering from five spine surgeries at Guantánamo Bay – made it to court yesterday morning, lasting just 30 minutes in open session before suffering an episode of back spasms which prompted the military judge to recess abruptly and the military to escort al-Iraqi away in an ambulance. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

Islamic State group left more than 200 mass graves in Iraq, the U.N. announced yesterday. Sune Engel Rasmussen reports at the Wall Street Journal.

An analysis of the role of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the fallout surrounding the murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi is provided by Carlotta Gall at the New York Times, who notes that “the tactics … Erdogan has used against the Saudis are much the same ones he has perfected against political enemies at home.” 

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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).