The Early Edition: November 15, 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

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) yesterday launched a vigorous defense of Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker’s appointment to the role, a day after the state of Maryland urged a federal judge to rule that his appointment violated the Constitution and a federal law. The D.O.J. claimed that the selection was entirely legal – with assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel Steven Engel claiming in a 20-page opinion that his office told the White House — ahead of Whitaker’s appointment — that the president “could designate a senior Department of Justice official, such as Whitaker, as acting attorney general,” Pete Williams reports at NBC.

Former New Jersey Gov. and longtime President Trump ally – Chris Christie– claimed yesterday that he has not been contacted by the White House about the possibility of being nominated for attorney general, despite being reportedly under serious consideration for the position following the ouster of Jeff Sessions. “No … I read the papers … I know the position’s open … no one needs to tell me, No,” Christie told reporters after an event in Atlantic City, Ryan Hutchins reports at POLITICO.

National security adviser Mira Ricardel has been dumped from her position in the White House, after first lady Melania Trump took the highly unusual step of issuing a statement publicly condemning Ricardel Tuesday. “Mira Ricardel will continue to support the president as she departs the White House to transition to a new role within the administration,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders commented yesterday, hours after Ricardel was seen packing her things, adding that “the president is grateful for Ms. Ricardel’s continued service to the American people and her steadfast pursuit of his national security priorities,” Katie Rogers reports at the New York Times.

An analysis of the “transoceanic personnel crisis that engulfed the National Security Council,” and led to the removal of Ricardel from her position is provided by Anne Gearan, Josh Dawsey and Emily Heil at the Washington Post.

President Trump announced yesterday that he will decide “shortly” on the fate on Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, whose removal he has been mulling. “I’m looking at things. I haven’t made a decision yet,” Trump remarked in an interview with the conservative website The Daily Caller, adding: “I will be making a decision on homeland shortly … I have not made decisions yet … I will be making changes on various things,” Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill.

More than two dozen House Democrats are demanding that Nielsen must resign “immediately.” In yesterday’s four-paragraph letter to Nielsen, 26 House Democrats write: “you are responsible for the unimaginable trauma of thousands of children across the United States … from the children torn from their parents at the border, to Dreamers facing exile from their home, and to the U.S. citizen children who face losing a parent to deportation; your actions continue to wreak havoc on communities across this nation,” Spencer Ackerman reports at The Daily Beast.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has placed a hold on Trump’s counterterrorism nominee Joseph Maguire. Maguire is Trump’s chosen candidate to be Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, but his nomination has “languished” in the Senate for months and Paul’s hold –not publicly announced –prevents the Senate from voting on the nomination unless Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) decides to dedicate days of Senate floor time to getting him around procedural hurdles, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

More than a dozen prominent conservative lawyers have joined together to caution that Trump is undermining the rule of law, ahead of the annual convention of the Federalist Society today. The group – “Checks and Balances” – was organized by conservative lawyer and husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway – George Conway, and also includes: former Pennsylvania Gov. and Bush-era Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge; former Bush-era acting attorney general Peter D. Keisler; prominent conservative law professors Jonathan H. Adler and Orin S. Kerr, and lawyer Lori S. Meyer, Adam Liptak reports at the New York Times.

U.S. CRIMINAL JUSTICE

 President Trump will support a criminal justice bill that could shorten sentences for some drug offenders and help prisoners adjust to life after release. “Americans across the political spectrum can unite around prison reform legislation that will reduce crime, while giving our fellow citizens a chance at redemption,” the president yesterday, announcing that the proposed legislation will provide incentives for prisoners to participate in training or rehabilitation programs, Ayesha Rascoe and Kelsey Snell report at NPR.

Criminal justice reform is a rare example of an area that lawmakers across the partisan divide can unite on, Shalia Dewan and Carl Hulse comment in an analysis of the developments at the New York Times.

 It is no coincidence that the introduction of the fresh legislation comes following the departure of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the New York Times editorial board comments, arguing that “if Democrats resist the temptation to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, they can seize this opening to make progress on an enduringly vexing challenge.”

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz) yesterday threatened to block judicial nominations in the Senate until Majority leader Mitch McConnell agrees to hold a vote on a measure to protect special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference the 2016 presidential election. The proposed Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act would make it harder for President Trump to undermine the probe; Flake issued yesterday’s threat after McConnell blocked the proposed Act from moving forward, Reuters reports.

Mueller is reportedly looking into whether former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone attempted to intimidate radio host Randy Credico – whom Stone has claimed served as a back channel to WikiLeaks. Prosecutors on Mueller’s team have been allegedly questioning witnesses about Stone’s interactions with and comments about Credico, Shelby Holliday and Aruna Viswanatha report at the Wall Street Journal.

A series of text messages between Stone and Credico suggest that Credico was providing regular updates to Stone on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s plans in the days before WikiLeaks released the hacked emails of then Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton. Anna Schecter reports at NBC.

Mueller has again pushed back the sentencing of former Trump campaign deputy Rick Gates because as longtime G.O.P. operative is still cooperating on “several ongoing investigations.” The delay, set down in a fresh one-page joint filing, puts Gates in a markedly different position to two other former Trump officials — Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort — both moving toward sentencing after also pleading guilty and cooperating with Mueller’s investigation, Darren Samuelsoh reports at POLITICO.

U.S.-EUROPEAN RELATIONS 

French President Emmanuel Macron responded yesterday evening to President Trump’s cutting personal attack Tuesday, stating during a T.V. interview that ““I do not do policy or diplomacy by tweets,” and adding: “at each important moment in our history we have been allies, and between allies there is respect and I do not want to hear the rest.” Earlier in the day, government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux had taken a sterner line on Trump’s tweets, telling reporters in a weekly briefing: “yesterday was Nov. 13, when we commemorate the murder of 130 citizens three years ago in Paris and St.-Denis … so I will reply in English: common decency would have been the appropriate thing,” Alissa J. Rubin reports at the New York Times.

Trump’s recent European trip serves as a warning that “we should focus less on his personal antics and inadequacies and focus more on his inability to formulate effective policies … even on issues where his instincts are in fact mostly correct,” Stephen M. Walt explains at Foreign Policy.  

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A prominent Palestinian human rights group claims that dozens of homes were damaged or destroyed in Israel’s two-day offensive in the Gaza Strip earlier this week. The Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) stated that the 160 targets hit comprised militant facilities such as training camps, weapons facilities or military command centers – but the Palestinian Center for Human Rights has announced that three houses and a six-story apartment building were amongst those destroyed. Live updates on the developments at the AP.

“Long-term peace between Israel and Hamas looks impossible … but the cease-fire and humanitarian respite that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has accepted are far better than another war,” the New York Times editorial board comments.

YEMEN

Both the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and Yemen’s “embattled” President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi have backed U.N. efforts to host negotiations with the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Sweden by the end of this year. An uneasy calm held in the strategic Red Sea port of Hodeidah today for the third consecutive day after nearly two weeks of intense fighting between the Houthi rebels, who control the city, and the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led pro-government coalition that includes the U.A.E., AFP reports.

House Republicans yesterday officially blocked a vote on a resolution that would end all U.S. military support to the coalition fighting in Yemen. The House approved 201-187 a rule for floor debate on an unrelated bill that remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list; included in the rule was a provision that stripping the Yemen resolution of its so-called privilege status, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

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]

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu yesterday called for an international investigation into the killing of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, reminding Saudi Arabia of Ankara’s determination to keep calling attention to the case. Saudi Arabia is expected this week to wrap up its own inquiry, David D. Kirkpatrick reports at the New York Times.

President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will likely meet again after New Year, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said today, while insisting that his administration would not repeat past failures where “promises are broken.” AFP reports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he discussed Washington’s plans to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (I.N.F.) arms treaty with Pence when the two met in Singapore today. Speaking to reporters at a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (A.S.E.A.N.), Putin claimed that he and Pence had also discussed relations with Iran, Reuters 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).