The Early Edition: November 8, 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 TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned at President Trump’s request yesterday, ending a tenure that has been marred by “repeated public humiliations” and raising fresh questions as to the fate of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference. Trump announced the development in a series of messages on Twitter – thanking Sessions for his service, announcing that Sessions’ Chief of Staff Matthew Whitaker will take over as acting attorney general, and indicating that a permanent replacement will be nominated “at a later date,” Darren Samuelsohn and Caitlyn Oprysko report at POLITICO.

“I came to work at the Department of Justice every day determined to do my duty and serve my country,” Sessions wrote in his resignation letter, adding “I have done so to the best of my ability, working to support the fundamental legal processes that are the foundation of justice.” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Sessions made it clear that Trump had asked him to step down, writing he was submitting his resignation “at your request,” although one administration official claimed that it was White House Chief of Staff John Kelly who had called Sessions seeking the resignation letter. Aruna Viswanatha, Sadie Gurman and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein visited the White House for a “preplanned” meeting yesterday shortly after Sessions resigned, according Department of Justice (D.O.J.) spokesperson Sarah Flores. Rosenstein has until now had oversight of the Mueller probe– with Sessions recusing himself in March 2017 citing his active role in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

Whitaker will now take charge of the Mueller inquiry. Whitaker has previously questioned the scope of the investigation, writing in column for CNN last year that Mueller would be going too far if he examined the Trump family’s finances, echoing the president’s own characterization of the probe in saying: “this would raise serious concerns that the special counsel’s investigation was a mere witch hunt,” Peter Baker, Katie Benner and Michael D. Shear report at the New York Times.

Senior Republicans issued a series public warnings that Mueller must be allowed to continue his investigation. Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) cautioned: “it is imperative that the Administration not impede the Mueller investigation … Special Counsel Mueller must be allowed to complete his work without interference,” while Mitt Romney sent a message on Twitter stating: “it is imperative that the important work of the Justice Department continues, and that the Mueller investigation proceeds to its conclusion unimpeded.” Jon Swaine reports at the Guardian.

The firing of Sessions is a “blatant attempt” to undermine and end Mueller’s probe, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi commented yesterday. In a statement posted on Twitter, Pelosi called for Whitaker to recuse himself from any involvement in the probe, citing his “record of threats to undermine & weaken” it, adding that “Congress must take immediate action to protect the rule of law and integrity of the investigation,” Reuters reports.

“Whitaker’s appointment raises blaring alarms about the acceleration of obstruction of justice and a fundamental attack on the rule of law in our country,” Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen Ron Wyden (D-Oreg.) said in a statement, adding: “Congress must act right now to protect the special counsel’s investigation.” Adam Goldman and Edward Wong report at the New York Times.

“Given his previous comments advocating defunding and imposing limitations on the Mueller investigation … Whitaker should recuse himself from its oversight for the duration of his time as acting attorney general,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer commented in a statement. Reuters reports.

Sessions received a standing ovation as he left the D.O.J. D.C. headquarters for the last time yesterday evening. Around 150 colleagues greeted and applauded Sessions outside the building, The Daily Beast reports.

Trump renewed his attacks on Mueller and his investigation yesterday less than 24 hours after Democrats won control of the House. In a message on Twitter, the president claimed that “according to NBC News, Voters Nationwide Disapprove of the so-called Mueller Investigation (46%) more than they Approve (41%),” despite the fact that NBC News’ exit poll in fact shows 42 percent of voters nationwide approve of Mueller’s handling of the probe, while 45 percent disapprove; “you mean they are finally beginning to understand what a disgusting Witch Hunt, led by 17 Angry Democrats, is all about!” Trump continued, Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

The president yesterday threatened to adopt a “warlike posture” against Democrats if they take advantage of their control of the House to investigate his financial and political dealings. An hour before announcing Sessions’ firing, the president opened a postelection news conference with an apparent offer to work across party lines – but his conciliatory tone rapidly turned combative, with Trump angrily scolding reporters and the White House eventually suspending the credentials of CNN’s Jim Acosta of CNN, Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear report at the New York Times.

Trump once again made the claim that he could end the Mueller probe, telling reporters at the “sprawling” press conference that “I could fire everybody right now” … but I don’t want to stop it because politically I don’t like stopping it,” Trump added: “it’s a disgrace … it should have never been started because there was no crime,” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

U.S. progressive groups will stage hundreds of protests nationwide today to demand that Trump does not take steps to hinder the Mueller probe. The protest movements, operating under the banner “Nobody is Above the Law” and led by the activist group MoveOn, have appealed for people to gather in cities at 5 p.m. today in an effort to protect the Russia investigation, Reuters reports.

Top Democrats in the House are reportedly planning to invite Mueller to testify on Capitol Hill in televised hearings should Trump take action to fire him. “I think you could expect Democrats to take pieces of what they shut down and expose it publicly,” a senior aide familiar with Pelosi’s thinking told reporters, Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Forcing Sessions out may signal the end for the Mueller probe, Jonathan Allen writes in an analysis of yesterday’s events at NBC, noting however that “for Trump, there’s a new nightmare on the horizon: Hill opponents — with subpoena power.”

“Trump’s Wednesday Afternoon Massacre poses a serious … even existential … threat to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation” Elie Honig comments at CNN, suggesting that two big questions emerge from the development: “who takes over supervision of Mueller’s investigation, and what relevance could the President’s dismissal of Sessions have on potential obstruction of justice charges?”

A detailed account of Matthew Whitaker’s previous comments regarding the Mueller probe is provided by Carol D. Leonnig, Tom Hamburger, Sari Horwitz and Robert Costa at the Washington Post.

“The list of things the president and his people may have done … drawing the investigative attention of the Democrats … is long … the list of topics on the radar of the Oversight Committee is much longer than that,” the Economist comments in a breakdown of the Democrats’ strategy going forward.

“The Democratic victory in the U.S. House of Representatives could echo from Moscow to Beijing to Riyadh,” Tim Sullivan and Angela Charlton explain at the AP in an account of the international reaction to the midterm results.

An account of the ongoing partisan fallout in the wake of the midterms is provided by Carl Hulse at the New York Times.

Sessions “saw leading the Justice Department as his chance to make progress on issues he long advocated,” Sadie Gurman comments at the Wall Street Journal in an Op-Ed on Sessions’ priorities and style as Attorney General.

“What Trump wants and he needs and he gets from reporters like [Jim] Acosta are the lines of dialogue that allow him to play the abused when he’s usually the abuser,” Jack Shafer comments at POLITICO Magazine, following the spat between the president and journalist yesterday that led to revocation of Acosta’s credentials.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

President Trump yesterday claimed that his administration took election security seriously and accused the media of ignoring federal agencies’ efforts to safeguard the voting process from foreign interference. “Unlike the previous administration, we’ve done a lot of work on that issue,” Trump told reporters during his postelection White House press conference, adding “if you speak with the F.B.I., speak with the Department of Justice, speak to Homeland Security, we’ve spent a lot of time” on election security … it gets very little coverage in the papers.” Eric Geller reports at POLITICO.

The Mueller-indicted Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency is apparently proclaiming victory in the U.S. midterms, warning the “citizens of the United States of America” that “your intelligence agencies are powerless.” A statement attributed to the St. Petersburg-based organization suggested that “despite all their efforts, we have thousands of accounts registered on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit spreading political propaganda … these accounts work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to discredit anti-Russian candidates and support politicians more useful for us than for you;” it is not yet clear however whether the website is intended as “self-parody, a parody of U.S. perceptions of Russian information operations, or an earnest effort to terrify the … cast doubt on the midterm results,” Kevin Poulsen explains at The Daily Beast.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

The Kremlin announced yesterday that Russia and the United States have agreed not to hold a summit in Paris to avoid diverting attention from weekend events marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump expect to see each other briefly but will not hold a full-scale meeting during the Armistice Day events, according to Kremlin Foreign Affairs Adviser Yuri Ushakov, the AP reports.

Russia will consider any further U.S. sanctions over the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal to be criminal, the Kremlin announced yesterday. “We consider restrictions imposed by the United States against Russia illegal,” spokesperson Dmitry Peskov commented, following announcements on Tuesday from the State Department and the House Foreign Affairs Committee that a second round of sanctions would be imposed on Moscow, following its failure to comply with a series of requirements that would prove it has ended its chemical weapons program, Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said today that U.S. officials told Seoul that it was North Korea that canceled nuclear talks this week between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior North Korean official Kim Yong-chol. Kang provided no reason aside from “busy schedules” for the cancellation; some analysts, however, have pointed out that a last-minute cancellation could be geared at pressuring the U.S. to agree to a quick summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as the North thinks it can win major concessions from Trump that lower-level U.S. officials might try to block, Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the AP.

President Trump commented yesterday that he expects his second meeting with Kim will take place “sometime early next year.” Trump added: “we’re going to change it because of trips that are being made … we’re going to make it at another date … we’re very happy how it’s going with North Korea …we think it’s going fine … we’re in no rush … we’re in no hurry,” Elen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Troops from the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition pounded Iran-aligned Houthi rebel positions in Yemen’s port city of Hodeida with airstrikes and a ground assault yesterday, and coalition forces are now in control of a major road leading into the city, according to military officials and witnesses on both sides of the front line. Ahmed Al-Haj and Brian Rohan report at the AP.

A source in the Turkish attorney general’s office has said that the team investigating the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi found traces of hydrofluoric acid and other chemicals inside a well at the Saudi consul general’s home in Istanbul. The source claimed that the killers dissolved the journalist’s dismembered body in acid in one of the rooms at Consul General Mohammed al-Otaibi’s residence, Al Jazeera reports.

Iran can flourish under sanctions and will defeat the U.S. in the economic war it has launched, Deputy Head of the Revolutionary Guards – Brigadier General Hossein Salami – commented yesterday. “The enemy is trying to strike a blow against Iran through a soft war and an economic war but they will face a heavy defeat,” Salami was quoted as saying by the state news agency I.R.N.A., Reuters reports.

At least 14 Afghan army soldiers were killed in Takhar province after midnight today in the latest attack by Taliban militants, Al Jazeera 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]

The U.S. is attempting to prevent the transfer of A.I.-powered dual-use technologies to China, with such technologies carrying the potential to be adapted for weapons. An in-depth analysis of the concern around Beijing’s  ‘military-civil fusion’ is provided by Kathrin Hille and Richard Waters at the Financial Times.

“Europe cannot at a stroke break free of its dependence on the U.S. … [but] what Europeans should prepare for is a looser commitment,” Philip Stephens comments in an analysis of evolving transatlantic relations at the Financial Times. 

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).