The Early Edition: November 21, 2018

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING  

President Trump yesterday declared his strong support for the “great ally” Saudi Arabia, effectively disregarding the C.I.A.’s conclusion that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In a statement that aides claim the president dictated himself, Trump said of the crown prince that “maybe he did or maybe he didn’t” know of Khashoggi’s murder, and claimed that while intelligence would continue to “assess” information, the U.S. “may never know all the facts surrounding the murder,” Josh Dawsey, Shane Harris and Karen DeYoung report at the Washington Post.

 “The world is a very dangerous place!” Trump began his statement, before launching into a critique of Iran’s actions in the Middle East, blaming Tehran for killing Americans, backing terrorist organizations and orchestrating a “bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen.” Trump claimed that punishing the kingdom would jeopardize $110 billion in military sales to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and other military contractors, as well as $340 billion in other investments – numbers that economists and military analysts have said are “so exaggerated as to be fanciful,” Mark Landler reports at the New York Times.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday stepped in to defend Trump’s support for the kingdom. Pompeo, appearing after a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Washington, told a news conference that “as the president said today, the U.S. will continue to have a relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia … this is a long, historic commitment and one that is absolutely vital to Americans’ national security,” Reuters reports.

“This White House statement is a stunning window into President Trump’s autocratic tendencies … his limited grasp of world affairs … and his weakness on the world stage,” Top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee Jack Reed (R.I.) said in a statement, adding “it is shocking to see President Trump continue to act as an accomplice to a clear cover up by Saudi leadership.” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif mocked Trump’s statement, posting a message on Twitter late yesterday stating: “Mr. Trump bizarrely devotes the FIRST paragraph of his shameful statement on Saudi atrocities to accuse IRAN of every sort of malfeasance he can think of … perhaps we’re also responsible for the California fires, because we didn’t help rake the forests – just like the Finns do?” – a reference to Trump’s visit to the scene of California’s Camp Fire on Saturday where he had claimed that Finland had managed to avoid similar fires by spending “a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things” to clear forest floors, Al Jazeera reports.

The bipartisan leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is demanding a definitive determination from Trump about whether bin Salman of Saudi Arabia ordered Khashoggi’s killing. The panel chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) yesterday sent a letter specifically asking whether the administration believed that the crown prince was involved in Khashoggi’s murder; despite the uncertainty professed in Trump’s published statement, the president can be required under the Magnitsky Act to make a conclusive determination about human rights violations by global leaders, Burgess Everett reports at POLITICO.

“It will be hard to get a deal to fund the government without doing something that will send a clear message” to Saudi leadership, Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) – co-authoring pending legislation that would impose a blanket ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia — commented yesterday. Graham added that “when it comes to the crown prince, it is not wise to look away,” also describing bin Salman as “a wrecking ball” on the international stage, Karoun Demirjian and Tom Hamburger report at the Washington Post.

“The President indicates that Saudi Arabia is the lesser two evils compared to Iran and so the U.S. won’t punish Saudi Arabia for the brutal killing and dismemberment of a dissident journalist in their consulate … I disagree,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) – who has otherwise been closely aligned with Trump on foreign affairs this year – commented in a message on Twitter, characterizing the president’s remarks as “Saudi Arabia First.” Alexander Bolton reports at the Hill.

Turkey is not satisfied with the level of cooperation it is receiving from the kingdom over Khashoggi’s killing and may seek a formal U.N. inquiry if coordination with Riyadh comes to an impasse, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said yesterday. “Until now … we have accepted Saudi Arabia’s offers for cooperation with us without hesitation …however, looking at the cooperation now, since we can’t find answers to the questions I just listed … this cooperation is not at the level we want,” Cavusoglu commented, Reuters reports.

Saudi women’s rights activists arrested in a government crackdown this year have faced sexual harassment and torture during interrogation, according to N.G.O. Amnesty International. “Only a few weeks after the ruthless killing of Jamal Khashoggi, these shocking reports of torture, sexual harassment and other forms of ill-treatment, if verified, expose further outrageous human rights violations by the Saudi authorities,” Amnesty’s Middle East research director Lynn Maalouf commented, Al Jazeera reports.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An analysis of Trump’s statement yesterday and his ostensible decision to once again ignore the assessments of his intelligence community is provided by Michael Hirsh at Foreign Policy.

A topic-by-topic breakdown of Trump’s statement is provided at the BBC.

Trump “confirmed the harshest caricatures drawn by America’s most cynical critics on Tuesday when he portrayed its central objectives in the world as panting after money and narrow self-interest,” the New York Times editorial board comments.

“By refusing to break with Saudi strongman Mohammed bin Salman… Trump effectively told global despots that if they side with him — Washington will turn a blind eye to actions that infringe traditional US values” Stephen Collinson comments at CNN, arguing that yesterday’s statement exposes the brutality underpinning the administration’s “America First” policy.

 An in-depth look at the relationship between Trump administration and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – a man who “promised in effect to be the one-stop shop for Middle East solutions,” is provided by Christopher Dickey at The Daily Beast.

INTERPOL

Interpol has elected South Korean Kim Jong-yang of South Korea as its next president after a successful late push by western countries including the U.S. aiming to defeat Moscow’s candidate – police major-general Alexander Prokopchuk. The vote took place at Interpol’s annual general assembly in Dubai, the contest sparking a battle over alleged authoritarian abuse of the global police body, Michael Peel and Henry Foy report at the Financial Times.

“We strongly endorse Kim … who is serving as its acting president,” U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo told reporters at the State Department, adding “we encourage all nations and organizations that are part of Interpol and that respect the rule of law to choose a leader of credibility and integrity that reflects one of the world’s most critical law enforcement bodies. We believe Mr. Kim will be just that,” Reuters reports.

“This is probably a certain kind of interference in the electoral process of an international organization,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov had said of efforts by four U.S. senators, who had issued a statement urging President Trump to Prokopchuk’s candidacy, ahead of today’s outcome. Reuters reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

 President Trump’s legal team submitted the president’s written answers to special counsel Robert Mueller’s questions yesterday, according to Trump attorneys Jay Sekulow and Rudy Giuliani. Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election; in a statement published yesterday, Trump’s lawyers claimed: “it has been our position from the outset that much of what has been asked raised serious constitutional issues and was beyond the scope of a legitimate inquiry … this remains our position today … the President has nonetheless provided unprecedented cooperation.” Allan Smith reports at NBC.

Mueller is far from done with Trump, Darren Samuelsohn writes at POLITICO, noting that “the special counsel still wants to question the president over his actions while in the White House — Tuesday’s answers only covered Russian hacking during the 2016 election,” and explaining that the dispute is one that could lead to an eventual Supreme Court ruling and perhaps a Democratic attempt to launch impeachment proceedings.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The House Oversight Committee will conduct an investigation into Ivanka Trump’s use of a private email account to conduct official government business, the panel’s senior Democrat and likely incoming chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) announced yesterday. “We need [the emails] to ensure that Ivanka Trump, [Ivanka Trump’s husband and senior Trump advisor] Jared Kushner, and other officials are complying with federal records laws and there is a complete record of the activities of this Administration,” Cummings said in a statement, Vivian Salama reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The president weighed in to defend his daughter’s email use, telling reporters as he departed the White House for Mar-a-Lago that “early on and for a little period of time, Ivanka did some emails … they weren’t classified like Hillary Clinton … they weren’t deleted like Hillary Clinton … you’re talking about all fake news.” Daniel Barnes reports at NBC.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) yesterday sent a letter requesting that the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) Inspector General Michael Horowitz investigate communications between Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker and the White House. Schumer cited news reports of Whitaker’s close relationship with President Trump during his former role as chief of staff to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, writing that “I am particularly concerned about whether Mr. Whitaker may have shared with the White House, or could share in his new role, confidential grand jury or investigative information from the Special Counsel investigation or any criminal investigation,” Marianne Levine reports at POLITICO.

An account of the three ongoing legal challenges to Whitaker’s appointment is provided at the Economist.

The revelations surrounding Ivanka Trump’s email use are unlikely to alarm Trump supporters, but “it is vital to know, for example, whether Ivanka sent messages containing classified information – vulnerable to foreign hackers – or that related to potential conflicts of interest between her political and business interests,” David Smith comments at the Guardian.

YEMEN

The U.N. envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths faces his “sternest test” today as he flies into the rebel-held capital Sanaa for talks on averting all-out fighting around the strategic port of Hodeidah and the widespread famine that has descended on the conflict-riven country. AFP reports.

An estimated 85,000 children under five-years old may have died of hunger and disease since the outbreak of the country’s civil war in 2015, N.G.O. Save the Children announced today. The AP reports.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), both acting as part of the U.S.-backed coalition fighting Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, have pledged $500 million in aid to assist the millions at risk of starvation. The AP reports.

SYRIA

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu yesterday told his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar that Moscow and Ankara need to take swift decisions to support the demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib Province. Moscow earlier this month accused rebels in the insurgent-held region of attempting to wreck a Russian-Turkish initiative to create a demilitarized zone there, Reuters reports.

Iraq launched air strikes on Islamic State group targets inside Syria yesterday, destroying two buildings housing 40 fighters and weapons, according to the Iraqi military. 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]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A suicide bomber yesterday detonated his explosives up in a Kabul banqueting hall where Islamic religious scholars had gathered, killing more than 50 people, according to three Afghan government officials. Reuters reports.

The U.S. has told South Korea it should not improve ties with the North faster than Pyongyang takes steps to give up its nuclear weapons, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated yesterday. Reuters reports.

Facebook’s outgoing head of public policy Elliot Schrage has said that he is responsible for hiring G.O.P.-linked consulting firm Definers to smear Facebook’s critics, The Daily Beast reports.

Military judge Air Force Col. Vance Spath – acting in what was to be Guantánamo’s first death-penalty trial – spent more than half his tenure on the war court bench seeking civilian employment as an immigration judge, according to documents obtained by McClatchy. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

Nearly four times as many Sunni Islamic militants are operating around the world today as on Sept. 11, 2001, despite nearly twenty years of American-led campaigns to combat Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group, according to a new independent study. Eric Schmitt reports at the New York Times. 

Filed under:
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).