The Early Edition: November 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.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is unlikely to recuse himself from oversight of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference, according to associates. Whitaker publicly criticized the Mueller probe before arriving at the Department of Justice last year to take up the role of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff – a stance that prompted Democratic calls for Whitaker’s recusal yesterday, Sadie Gurman and Aruna Viswanatha report at the Wall Street Journal.

Whitaker claimed last year that there was “no evidence of collusion” between Russia and President Trump’s 2016 campaign — “his most direct pushback” against Mueller’s investigation. Whitaker made the comments on “The Chris Stigall Show“ on June 14, 2017, remarking: “I also think, you know, we have another hearing in front of Congress where there is no evidence of collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign,” in a reference to Sessions‘ hearing in front of Congress about an undisclosed meeting with former Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

Congressional Democrats yesterday demanded emergency hearings in the House of Representatives to investigate Trump’s ouster of Sessions Wednesday, characterizing the move as an attempt to undermine the Mueller probe. House Judiciary Committee Democrats issued a letter claiming that the move placed the country “in the throes of a constitutional crisis,” demanding action from the panel’s Republican chairman Bob Goodlatte and calling for bipartisan legislation to protect Mueller from any effort to hinder the probe. Reuters reports.

“On this particular question of what led up to his firing or what information he may have in terms of obstruction to justice … I think that will be of interest to not only our committee but the Judiciary Committee and others as well,” likely incoming leader of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told reporters yesterday. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Democratic National Committee (D.N.C.) Chairman Tom Perez yesterday commented that Sessions’ ouster “doesn’t pass the smell test,” commenting that both parties need to support Mueller’s completion of the Russia probe. Perez called Whitaker an “acknowledged partisan,” citing his past criticisms of the investigation, Lisa Hagen reports at the Hill.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi convened a conference call yesterday to discuss Sessions’ ouster with their entire caucus, including dozens of incoming freshmen. According to sources familiar with the planning, the call was intended to express the depth of the “crisis moment,” Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) reportedly plan to ask for a floor vote on legislation to shield Mueller from a firing when the upper chamber returns to session next week, Flake announced yesterday. The bipartisan legislation cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee in April but has seen no floor action in the context of skepticism from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as to whether Mueller’s Russia investigation faces any genuine threat from the president, Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

A U.S. Justice Department attorney yesterday spelled out the circumstances under which Mueller could be fired in a court case that took on new significance in light of Sessions’ ouster. The case – argued on Mueller’s behalf by Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben – was opened months ago as a challenge to the legality of Mueller’s appointment and his authority, Reuters reports.

Thousands protested across the country yesterday to demand that Trump does not impede the Mueller probe, Al Jazeera reports.

 Whitaker in 2014 expressed the view that the courts “are supposed to be the inferior branch,” criticizing the Supreme Court’s power to review legislative and executive acts and declare them unconstitutional. Charlie Savage reports at the New York Times.

An account of Whitaker’s political progression and anti-Democrat leanings is provided by Betsy Woodruff, Asawin Suebsaeng, Erin Banco, Maxwell Tani and Will Sommer at The Daily Beast.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been exploring possible positions with Fox News and other businesses amid indications that he will leave the Trump Cabinet, while facing investigations into his ethics, according to people knowledgeable about the discussions. The development comes just a day after Trump told reporters that an update on Zinke’s fate may come “in about a week,” as the president embarks on “what could be a dramatic post-election house-clearing” of Cabinet officials, Ben Lefebvre and Eliana Johnson report at POLITICO.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

 Appointing Whitaker “was at least within the power that Congress has given [the president],” Just Security Editor-in-chief Steve Vladeck explains in an analysis at NBC, adding that “nevertheless, these developments ought to reignite concerns over the fate and future of the Mueller probe” and advocating the introduction of bipartisan legislation shielding the special counsel.

“A principal officer must be confirmed by the Senate … [that] means that Mr. Trump’s installation of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general […] after forcing the resignation of Jeff Sessions is unconstitutional,” Neal K. Katyal and George T. Conway III argue at the New York Times, suggesting that any action Whitaker takes in the role will consequently be illegal.

Democrats should not wait in order to run a fresh Russia investigation in January, Max Bergmann comments at The Daily Beast, arguing that “instead, they must demand now that Whitaker grant the Mueller investigation full independence, effectively ‘making Mueller his own boss.’”

“Matthew Whitaker is a crackpot,” Ruth Marcus writes in an Op-Ed at the Washington Post, citing Whitaker’s comments on Marbury v. Madison as an indication of the acting Attorney General’s “lunacy.”

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions does not regret his recusal from the Russia probe, and claims that he is “confident” that Mueller’s Russia will be handled “appropriately and with justification.” Judith Miller reports on Sessions’ “only interview as he was leaving the Justice Department Wednesday” at the Wall Street Journal.

TRUMP-RUSSIA: OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russian individual Konstantin Kilimnik  – alleged to have ties to Moscow’s intelligence services – will face renewed scrutiny from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian 2016 election interference, according to former federal prosecutors. Kilimnik has already been charged by Mueller with witness tampering, and was also caught up in former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s apparent plans in 2016 to use his position to settle multimillion-dollar debts claimed by ex-client Oleg Deripaska – an oligarch close to Russian president Vladimir Putin, Peter Stone reports at the Guardian.

President Trump and his legal team are planning to meet next week to decide whether to submit any of their written responses to Mueller about what Trump might have known about Russian hacking during the 2016 campaign, according to Trump’s personal lawyer Rudi Giuliani. Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

The U.S. imposed sanctions on three Russian and Ukrainian individuals it claimed were linked to human rights abuses in Crimea yesterday, in moves designed to prevent what Treasury Department officials allege were efforts by the Kremlin to normalize relations with the Ukrainian enclave. The U.S. additionally imposed sanctions on nine entities it said were involved in attempts to integrate Crimea into Russia, Michael R. Gordon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The results of the midterms represent a disastrous development for Moscow, Amy McKinnon and Robbie Gramer comment at Foreign Policy, explaining that “the Kremlin can expect more sanctions and more investigations from a Democratic House.”

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev yesterday commented that urgent efforts must be taken to prevent a new arms race. The AP reports.

The SUPREME COURT

An account of Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s formal welcoming session yesterday is provided by Mark Landler at the New York Times.

“The Trump administration’s treatment of the Supreme Court as a wholly owned subsidiary is one of the most compelling dramas now unfolding in Washington,” Linda Greenhouse comments at the New York Times, detailing the administration’s attempts to “enlist the justices in keeping the public from learning how the decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.”

CHINA

U.S. and Chinese naval forces are playing a “game of chicken” in the South China Sea, with one expert claiming: “it is only a matter of time before a clash occurs.” Jane Perlez and Steven Lee Myers explain at the New York Times.

U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad commented yesterday that a “frank” exchange of views can be expected in top-level diplomatic and security talks between the U.S. and China taking place today, with the discussion set to touch on issues such as human rights and the South China Sea. Reuters reports.

Senior National Security Agency official Rob Joyce said yesterday that he believes China is violating a 2015 agreement signed with the U.S. geared toward ending cyber economic espionage. Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

YEMEN

Plans for peace talks on Yemen have stalled again, as the U.N. announced that special envoy Martin Griffiths would convene negotiations by the end of the year — rather than within the one-month time frame he previously had outlined. “There’s always different challenges to bringing the parties together … what we’re trying to do is clear up any issues so that we can get a successful round of talks as soon as possible,” U.N. spokesperson Farhan Haq commented, Farnaz Fassihi reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Trump administration is considering designating Yemen’s Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels a terrorist organization, as part of a campaign to end the country’s civil war and put pressure on Tehran, according to people familiar with the discussions. Missy Ryan reports at the Washington Post.

“If U.S. lawmakers had spoken up and taken action on Yemen years ago … thousands of Yemeni civilians who since then have been killed by airstrikes or starvation would still be alive today … and perhaps [murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi would be too,” Radhya Almutawakel and Abdulrasheed Alfaq comment at Foreign Policy.

SYRIA

The Syrian army has freed 19 Druze minority women and children held as hostage since July by Islamic State group militants, according to Syrian state media. The captives were reportedly rescued when troops launched an operation north-east of the desert city of Palmyra, having been among 30 people kidnapped by Islamic State group in the southern province of Sweida on July 25, the BBC 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]

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

Hackers impersonating journalists including murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi reportedly attempted to deliver malicious software to prominent Saudi dissident Ali AlAhmed with the intention of tricking Washington D.C. resident AlAlhmed into clicking a link to a web page containing malware. John Bowden reports at the Hill.

 “In extreme cases like those of Khashoggi and [poisoned former Russian spy Sergei] Skripal … Western democracies should say enough is enough … and impose sanctions that raise the price of such killings,” Gary Schmidtt argues at the Wall Street Journal, noting that “Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman … designed the plots not only to eliminate their direct targets, but also to send a fearsome signal to other current and potential dissidents.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley commented that it was North Korea that canceled this week’s talks between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior North Korean official Kim Yong-chol, but added that a meeting between the two nations’ leaders is still set for after Jan. 1. “I don’t think there was some major issue” for the postponement, Haley remarked, adding “I have talked with the administration and basically what we’re looking at is they postponed it because they weren’t ready,” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

At least 12 people were killed in a shooting late Wednesday at Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Authorities said the gunman –Ian D. Long (28) – was found dead at the scene after being confronted by officers who had stormed the bar, Jose A. Del Real, Jennifer Medina and Tim Arango report at the New York Times.

Between 480,000-507,000 people were killed in the U.S.’ “war on terror” in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq in the wake of 9/11 attacks, according to a report by the Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Al Jazeera reports. 

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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).