The Early Edition: November 20, 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

President Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump sent hundreds of official emails last year using a personal account, according to people familiar with a White House examination of her correspondence – with several of the emails reportedly violating federal records rules. The discovery has caused anxiety amongst some of the president’s advisers who are concerned that Ms. Trump’s alleged conduct bears a close similarity to former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s; Clinton’s use of a personal server was a key plank of the 2016 Trump campaign in which he sought to paint his Democratic opponent as untrustworthy and dub her “Crooked Hillary, ” Carol D. Leonnig and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

White House ethics officials became aware of Trump’s use of personal email when reviewing emails gathered last fall by five Cabinet agencies in order to respond to a public records lawsuit. That review revealed that throughout much of 2017, Trump frequently discussed or relayed official White House business using a private email account with a domain that she shares with her husband and president Trump adviser Jared Kushner, David Smith reports at the Guardian.

“To address misinformation being peddled about Ms. Trump’s personal email … she did not create a private server in her house or office,” a spokesperson for Trump’s personal lawyer Abbe D. Lowell said in a statement, adding: “there was never classified information transmitted … the account was never transferred or housed at Trump Organization, no emails were ever deleted and the emails have been retained in the official account in conformity with records preservation laws and rules. When concerns were raised in the press 14 months ago, Ms. Trump reviewed and verified her email use with White House counsel and explained the issue to congressional leaders,” Maggie Haberman reports at the New York Times.

The White House U-turned yesterday in its attempt to kick CNN reporter Jim Acosta out of the West Wing, instead releasing new guidelines seeking to police press conference questions more strictly. The new rules, released by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, will require all reporters to “yield the floor” after a single question during news conferences unless they are granted a follow-up question by the president or another official taking questions – breaking those rules “may result in suspension or revocation of the journalist’s hard pass,” Jason Schwartz and Caitlin Oprysko report at POLITICO.

The White House sent Acosta and CNN a letter on Friday evening claiming it still planned to remove him – with a formal announcement to follow at 3pm Monday, despite a court order ruling that Acosta would not be kicked out of the press pool. However, when the deadline arrived, the administration backtracked, with Sanders and Deputy Chief of Staff Bill Shine co-signing a letter stating: “having received a formal reply from your counsel to our letter of November 16, we have made a final determination in this process: your hard pass is restored,” David K. Li reports at NBC.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

 President Trump is set to provide written responses to special counsel Robert Mueller’s slate of questions as early as today. Trump’s legal team has set an informal Thanksgiving deadline for the president to finalize his written responses on topics surrounding the Russian interference in the 2016 election – and Trump, scheduled to depart Washington, D.C. this afternoon for his South Florida Mar-a-lago club retreat, is allegedly almost ready to submit them, Eliana Johnson and Darren Samuelsohn report at POLITICO.

Trump’s decision to tap Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general almost two weeks ago has “no effect” on the ongoing legal challenge to Mueller’s authority, prosecutors working for the special counsel said in a court filing yesterday. Mueller’s team referenced Whitaker’s appointment in a supplemental brief filed in the case involving Andrew Miller – linked to longtime Trump ally Roger Stone, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Three Senate Democrats filed a lawsuit yesterday challenging Trump’s decision to tap Whitaker, with Senate Judiciary Committee members Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) bringing the latest challenge in the melee of litigation that has followed the interim appointment. The lawmakers argue in a 17-page complaint that Whitaker’s appointment violated the appointments clause of the constitution, which requires that principal federal officers be appointed only with the Senate’s advice and consent, Charlie Savage and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

The indictment of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange “doesn’t appear to be the product of Mueller’s investigation … but interest in Assange occupies a place of primacy in the Mueller investigation timeline,” Jack Shafer explains in an analysis at POLITICO Magazine.

RUSSIA: OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced yesterday that the Kremlin will retaliate if the U.S. follows through with its stated intention to withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (I.N.F.), according to Russian news agencies. Putin reportedly discussed possible Russian retaliation with top Russian Defense Ministry officials and added that the Kremlin was ready to discuss the I.N.F. treaty with Washington, Reuters reports.

The U.S. and other Western powers yesterday clashed with Russia over whether global chemical weapons watchdog Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.) could begin apportioning blame for poison gas and nerve agent attacks. At a “heated” session of the O.P.C.W. annual conference, tensions were sparked over a June decision that would enable the group to set up a new investigative team empowered name the perpetrators of chemical attacks; Russia and China said the widely-backed move should be reviewed to ensure it didn’t go beyond the organization’s mandate, prompting U.S. ambassador to the watchdog Kenneth Ward to characterize Moscow’s opposition to the move as “pungent hypocrisy,” Raf Casert reports at the AP.

U.S. security firm FireEye yesterday announced that a Russian hacker group is likely responsible for a phishing campaign that used emails to impersonate a U.S. State Department employee. FireEye researchers issued a blog post linking the phishing campaign to A.P.T.29 – the troll farm often referred to as “Cozy Bear” –adding that the hackers were targeting U.S. think tanks, the military, federal government and law enforcement, Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

U.S. and Russian space officials yesterday praised the joint work of their programs and said cooperation remains strong despite political tensions between Washington and Moscow. Vladimir Isachenkov reports at the AP.

Russian prosecutors yesterday announced new criminal charges against U.S.-born financier and human rights activist Bill Browder, with the new charges accusing Browder of forming a criminal group to embezzle funds in Russia and linking him to the death of his former lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian prison. Browder – who has mounted an international campaign to bring Magnitsky’s killers to justice – noted the timing of the announcement of the new charges against him and the likely appointment of Russian police officer Alexander Prokopchuk as president of Interpol, sending a message on Twitter stating: “on the eve of Interpol deciding whether a Russian official should be president of Interpol, the Russian prosecutor’s office holds a huge press conference about me and how they will chase me down anywhere in the world,” Nataliya Vasilyeva reports at the AP.

 “On Wednesday …all democratic and transparent nations should band together and use their influence to ensure that Interpol does not debase itself by effectively becoming an arm of the Russian mafia,” Browder writes in an Op-Ed at the Washington Post, also disclosing that he is “working with lawyers and other victims on an initiative to apply Interpol’s own rules to suspend Russia from using the Interpol system.”

An analysis of “Putin’s weaponization of Interpol” is provided by Kamran Bokhari at the Wall Street Journal, who notes that “of Interpol’s 192 members, 14 democracies account for 74% of the body’s funding … unless they use that financial leverage to change the body’s archaic processes at this year’s summit in Dubai, a much bigger price will be paid by Europe and the Western world.”

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

Senate intelligence committee member Ron Wyden (D-Oreg.) yesterday argued that U.S. intelligence officials should issue a public report on the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, following published media accounts suggesting that the C.I.A. believes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered the murder. Reuters reports.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir today characterized claims that the Crown Prince gave the order to kill Khashoggi as false. “We in the kingdom know that such allegations about the crown prince have no basis in truth and we categorically reject them, whether through leaks or not … they are leaks that have not been officially announced, and I have noticed that they are based on an assessment, not conclusive evidence,” al-Jubeir stated in an Arabic-language newspaper interview., Reuters reports.

Al-Jubeir also claimed Riyadh had received assurances from Ankara that when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the killing was ordered at the highest level of the Saudi leadership, “the crown prince was not the intended [target] of these comments.” Al Jazeera reports.

Amidst the fallout following Khashoggi’s death some members of the kingdom’s royal family are “agitating” to prevent the Crown Prince from becoming king, according to three sources close to the royal court. Reuters reports.

U.S. arms account for fewer than 20,000 US jobs a year – less than a twentieth of the employment boost President Trump previously claimedaccording to a new report. Trump repeatedly cited the importance of Saudi arms sales to the U.S. economy as a justification not to cut the supply of weapons in response to Khashoggi’s murder, Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

The U.S. “cannot force Mohammed bin Salman’s removal from power … but it is entirely possible to sanction and shun the Saudi leader while still doing business with his regime,” the Washington Post editorial board comments.

YEMEN

Fighting has broken out again in the Yemeni city of Hodeidah, despite both the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led military coalition and Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels agreeing to halt offensives in previous days. Coalition warplanes resumed air strikes yesterday following clashes between rebels and pro-government forces, the BBC reports.

 A proposed U.N. resolution circulated yesterday appeals to Yemen’s warring parties to re-launch negotiations to end the three-year conflict and take urgent steps to tackle the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The Security Council resolution also calls on Yemen’s internationally recognized government in exile and the Houthi rebels to agree to a cease-fire around Hodeidah, Edith M. Ledere reports at the AP.

SYRIA

The Syrian army announced yesterday that Islamic State group militants have been cleared from the Tulul al-Safa heights in southeastern Sweida province, where the group had been holding out for months against the campaign to defeat them. The area represented Islamic State’s last stronghold in southern Syria, Reuters reports.

U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura yesterday told the Security Council that it “may not” be possible to form an inclusive and legitimate constitutional committee in Syria, adding that credibility, balance, inclusion and international legitimacy remain the “litmus test” for the committee. The U.N. News Centre 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]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

President Trump has reportedly begun telling advisers that he may visit troops in a combat zone for the first time in his presidency, having faced criticism for his approach to military affairs and failure to visit service members deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq. Josh Dawsey and Paul Sonne report at the Washington Post.

An account of Trump’s “unlikely new feud” with retired Adm. William McRaven, who oversaw the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, is provided by Brett Samuels at the Hill. 

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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).