The Early Edition: November 14, 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

Maryland has asked a federal judge to bar Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker from serving in the position, with Maryland’s Attorney General and Democrat Brian Frosh filing papers yesterday arguing that President Trump bypassed the Constitution and federal law when tapping Whitaker to succeed Jeff Sessions last week. Experts say that the challenge could mark the first in a series of similar lawsuits, and that the potential raft of litigation could force the Trump administration to “decide whether defending Whitaker’s installation is worth a potential Supreme Court test of the president’s appointment powers,” Sadie Gurman and Jess Bravin report at the Wall Street Journal

“It is troubling, to say the least … that the president is attempting to fill a ‘vacancy’ he created himself with a ‘temporary’ appointment that might last for many months or years,” Frosh said, adding that this is “especially [the case] when, as there, the temporary appointee has not been confirmed by the Senate.” According to Frosh, federal law and the Constitution “protect the country against exactly what President Trump has attempted to do here — pluck an unqualified and unconfirmed partisan to be the nation’s chief law enforcement officer in order to protect himself rather than the rule of law,” Pete Williams reports at NBC.

Whitaker’s past business dealings are also under scrutiny. The AP reported yesterday that while in private business, Whitaker abandoned a taxpayer-funded apartment project and defaulted on a loan for nearly $700,000 related to the project, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is requesting that Whitaker and Sessions testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the wake of Sessions’ ouster and Whitaker’s appointment. In a letter sent to the committee’s Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) yesterday, Feinstein argued that: “the circumstances surrounding Attorney General Sessions’ departure raise serious questions, including whether the appointment is lawful and the possible impact on Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation,” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Incoming Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Jerrold Nadler intends to investigate Trump’s impact on the integrity of the Justice Department and the F.B.I., according to a letter sent Whitaker and F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray yesterday. “I write with growing concern over President Trump’s repeated attacks on the integrity of the Department of Justice and the F.B.I,” Nadler wrote, adding: “the president’s behavior appears to be motivated by an urge to shield himself, his family, and his business interests from the ongoing work of the department and the bureau;” Nadler gave Whitaker and Wray until Dec. 31 to respond to more than 100 letters House Democrats have already sent concerning Trump’s behavior towards U.S. law enforcement, Reuters reports.

 President Trump is “almost certain” to fire Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, according to three people close to the president, with Trump having talked about dismissing Nielsen ahead of his trip to Paris for a World War I commemoration. Nielsen has been a long-term target of the president’s displeasure due to his belief that she has not implemented his “zero tolerance” immigration policy effectively, but Nielsen’s removal is also seen within the White House as a way for Trump to push out chief of staff John Kelly without directly firing him, Maggie Haberman and Ron Nixon report at the New York Times.

First lady Melania Trump made an unusual intervention yesterday – openly calling for the ouster of national security adviser John Bolton’s deputy Mira Ricardel. “It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that [Ricardel] no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House,” the first lady’s spokesperson Stephanie Grisham said in a statement, Caitlin Oprysko and Daniel Lippman report at POLITICO

CNN has filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration after the White House suspended CNN Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta’s press credentials on Nov 7. CNN’s complaint, filed yesterday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, describes the move as “an unabashed attempt to censor the press and exclude reporters from the White House who challenge and dispute the President’s point of view,” Merrit Kennedy and David Folkenflik report at NPR.

The Court’s decision in the Acosta case could turn on whether U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly decides the attempt was “an attempt to squelch Mr. Acosta’s constitutionally protected political beliefs or a move to bring order to the press room,” Jacob Gershman comments at the Wall Street Journal.

 Trump’s denials that he knew about his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen’s “hush money” payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal are becoming increasingly hard to believe, Jessica Levinson comments at NBC, stressing that “for Trump to be criminally liable for campaign finance violations, he must have knowingly and willfully violated those laws.”

A “factbox” on the legality of the Whitaker appointment is provided by Jan Wolfe at Reuters.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

 President Trump’s legal team is reportedly nearing completion of written answers to questions posed by special counsel Robert Mueller that may be submitted as early as this week, according to a source familiar with the matter – who claimed that the president’s answers will pertain only to matters relating to Russian meddling in the 2016 election and will not touch on obstruction of justice. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has previously indicated that obstruction questions are off limits, Ken Dilanian and Hallie Jackson report at NBC.

Mueller is expected to issue more indictments in the coming days as acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker settles into his new role overseeing Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. “I’ve spoken with many sources with knowledge of the Special Counsel investigation, and we do expect new indictments to be coming as soon as today,” CBS correspondent Paula Reid commented yesterday, Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

“Trump’s move last week to install Whitaker as Mueller’s boss may already be backfiring,” Eliana Johnson and Darren Samuelsohn comment at POLITICO, in an analysis of the fallout since the appointment that has “put Whitaker in a difficult spot, trapped between setting off a political firestorm by clipping Mueller’s wings and angering a president intent on having him do just that.”

 U.S.-EUROPEAN RELATIONS

President Trump lambasted French President Emmanuel Macron over military spending and trade yesterday, two days after returning from a trip to Paris that “exposed the underlying tensions” between the two leaders. In a series of messages on Twitter, Trump claimed that “Emmanuel Macron suggests building its own army to protect Europe against the U.S., China and Russia … But it was Germany in World Wars One & Two – How did that work out for France? they were starting to learn German in Paris before the U.S. came along … pay for N.A.T.O. or not!” Rebecca Ballhaus and Stacy Meichtry report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump also defended himself against critics who had slated his decision to cancel a trip Saturday to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery; aides on the day had cited the rainy weather, claiming that it made it problematic for Trump to fly in his Marine One helicopter – a justification that provoked scathing criticism from a host of commentators including Winston Churchill’s grandson. Trump yesterday sent a message on Twitter stating: “by the way, when the helicopter couldn’t fly to the first cemetery in France because of almost zero visibility, I suggested driving … Secret Service said NO, too far from airport & big Paris shutdown … Speech next day at American Cemetary [sic.] in pouring rain! Little reported-Fake News!” Peter Baker reports at the New York Times.

Hours after Trump’s attacks on Macron – outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed her French counterpart’s calls for a “real European army.” In a speech before the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Merkel spoke forcefully about the European Union’s need for unity – and autonomy from the U.S. when defending its own interests, Katrin Bennhold and Steven Erlanger report at the New York Times.

Macron and Merkel’s “desire to build a European army is a reflection that the Continent has woken up to the reality that it needs to stand on its own two feet … instead of relying on the U.S. on security,” Benjamin Haddad comments at POLITICO Magazine, pointing out the irony in the president’s objections to the proposals given “that’s exactly what Trump has said he wants.”

An account of Trump’s “five days of fury” as he visited Europe for World War I Armistice commemorations is provided by Josh Dawsey and Philip Rucker at the Washington Post.

“The outcomes could be far worse when it is not Emmanuel Macron on the receiving end of Trump’s petulance but say … Kim Jong-un after the honeymoon with the North Korean regime goes sour,” Julian Borger argues at the Guardian, noting that in such circumstances there would be “nuclear missiles rather than cabernet sauvignon at stake.”

 ISRAEL-PALESTINE

An Egyptian-brokered ceasefire took effect in southern Israel this morning, putting an end to a short-lived but intense flare-up with Gaza. The truce, announced yesterday by Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip, came after nearly two days of heavy shelling from both sides that had appeared sufficient to push the conflict into full-blown war; Hamas Palestinian militant group – in control of the strip – claimed that they would abide by the ceasefire as long as Israel did the same – although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) did not comment, AFP reports.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced his resignation today in protest at the Gaza ceasefire that he described as a “capitulation to terror,” weakening Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative coalition government. “Were I to stay in office, I would not be able to look southern residents in the eye,” Lieberman said, adding that his resignation – which will go into effect 48 hours after he submits a formal letter to Netanyahu –will also have the effect of withdrawing his far-right Israel Beitenu party from the coalition, Reuters reports.

The U.S. yesterday condemned rocket and missile attacks from Gaza into Israel and claimed it stood with Israel as it defends itself. “We condemn in the strongest terms the rocket, missile and mortar attacks that are taking place from Gaza into Israel,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert commented at a news briefing, adding: “we call for the sustained halt of those attacks … we stand with Israel as Israel defends itself against these attacks … it is simply unacceptable to target civilians,” Reuters reports.

An account of the destruction endured by the civilians of Gaza during the latest escalation is provided by Al Jazeera.

“Israel is remarkably successful in keeping its citizens alive even when faced with combat-level salvos of missile,” Noga Tarnopolsky comments in an analysis of Israel’s “freakish” Iron Dome missile defense system at The Daily Beast.

An explainer on the latest Israel-Palestine flare-up is provided by Megan Specia at the New York Times.

YEMEN

An informal agreement to reduce hostilities between U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition forces and Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in and around Yemen’s Red Sea port city of Hodeidah has come into effect, military officials announced yesterday, in a move that could serve as an overture to peace talks to end the conflict that has spiraled into the world’s most severe humanitarian disaster. The officials said hostilities have ceased for the second consecutive day, with both sides respecting the truce – only three coalition airstrikes were carried out within the last 24 hours, targeting rebel positions outside the city, Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

The U.K. claims that the Saudi-led coalition has agreed to allow the rebels to evacuate their wounded out of Yemen. The development follows U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and Hunt’s Department has described the move as a “major development,” removing a key obstacle to peace talks for the war-torn country under U.N. auspices, the AP reports.

An analysis of “the hidden toll of American drones in Yemen” is provided by Al Jazeera.

SYRIA

A new investigative team being set up to apportion blame for poison gas and nerve agent attacks in Syria will be ready to start work early next year, Director-General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Fernando Arias stated yesterday. The AP reports.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said yesterday that hundreds of Iraqi Islamic State militants at Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria were trying to cross into Iraq, seeking to recapture territory they had once controlled on the Iraqi side, during Islamic State group’s self-styled caliphate extending from eastern Syria to northern Iraq from 2014 to 2017. Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 150 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Nov. 4. and Nov. 10. [Central Command]

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

The U.S. Senate may vote within weeks on legislation to punish Saudi Arabia over the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and its role in the war in Yemen. Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said the Senate could vote before the end of the year on a resolution seeking to cut off all assistance to Saudi Arabia, Al Jazeera reports.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton yesterday claimed that the audio recording of Khashoggi’s killing does not appear to implicate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the planning of the murder. “That’s not the conclusion that I think the people who heard it have come to,” Bolton told journalists in Singapore, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

 “There is nothing new here … [North Korea] has never signed any agreement … any negotiation that makes shutting down missile bases mandatory,” a spokesperson for South Korean President Moon Jae-in told a briefing yesterday in response to reports that over a dozen of the North’s missile testing sites had been identified by U.S. researchers using satellite images. Stella Kim and Alexander Smith report at NBC.

Bangladeshi plans to send Rohingya Muslim minority refugees back to Myanmar tomorrow have gathered momentum, Hannah Ellis-Petersen, Michael Safi and Shaikh Azizur Rahman report at the Guardian.

The Kremlin hit out today at the “unpredictability” of the U.S. under the Trump administration, adding that it is causing “deep global concern.” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov commented: “the fact that America has become unpredictable lately is no secret to anyone,” AFP reports.

The Pentagon’s new focus on threats from China and Russia “too often rests on questionable assumptions and weak analysis,” an independent bipartisan commission concluded in a “sharply critical” report issued today that challenges President Trump’s commitment to backing a strong military. Eric Schmitt reports at the New York Times.

The U.S. government has lost track of several released Guantánamo inmates, including one who has returned to a terrorist-held part of Syria, according to an investigation by McClatchy. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald. 

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).