The Early Edition: November 29, 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.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Proposed legislation that would protect special counsel Robert Mueller was blocked yesterday for a second time in the past month. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) alongside Sens. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) pushed – unsuccessfully– for the long-stalled legislation to be scheduled for a vote, with Flake questioning why his colleagues were not “up in arms” after President Trump sent a series of messages on Twitter slamming Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Trump yesterday appeared to accuse his own deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein of treason, posting a meme on Twitter showing an image of Rosenstein and a host of Trump critics behind bars. The image also included Mueller, former F.B.I. Director James Comey, former national intelligence director James Clapper and Trump’s former Democratic rival Hillary Clinton – with the picture overlaid with the words: “now that Russia collusion is a proven lie, when do the trials for treason begin?” Kyle Cheney reports at POLTICO.

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s alleged misrepresentations to Mueller’s investigators include comments about his personal business dealings and about his contacts with a former associate in Ukraine, according to people familiar with the matter. The relevant statements led the Mueller this week to take the unusual step of ending Manafort’s plea agreement, although the content of those statements do not appear to be central to the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Aruna Viswanatha and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal

Trump yesterday left open the possibility of pardoning Manafort, making comments in an interview with the New York Post. “It was never discussed, but I wouldn’t take it off the table … why would I take it off the table?” Trump told The Post, adding: Allan Smith reports at NBC.

Manafort yesterday waived his right to appear in court on Friday for a hearing set after his defense attorneys and Mueller said they were ready for sentencing. “I waive my right to appear because of the time involved in having the U.S. Marshal Service transport me to and from the courthouse,” Manafort stated in a new filing, Lydia Wheeler reports at the Hill.

Trump has told Mueller that he was not aware ahead of time of the June 2016 meting at Trump Tower involving the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and Russian government lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said yesterday. “Almost all the answers he gave are consistent with what he said publicly, and publicly he said he did not know about it,” Giuliani commented, Dara Bush, Kara Scannell and Evan Perez report at CNN.

A draft indictment from the Mueller investigation has revealed that the special counsel has evidence of possible coordination between Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, which published stolen emails damaging to Clinton. The outline court filing lodged against Republican activist Jerome Corsi – apparently leaked by Corsi’s attorneys late Tuesday – gives details of his communications with Trump campaign advisor Roger Stone in mid-2016 regarding the expected releases, AFP reports.

Trump threatened to declassify “devastating” documents next year if House Democrats move to launch probes into his administration. “If they want to play tough, I will do it … they will see how devastating those pages are,” the president said during his Oval Office interview with the New York Post, adding that by declassifying F.I.S.A. warrant applications and other confidential documents Mueller’s investigation he would expose efforts by the F.B.I., Department of Justice and the Clinton campaign to set him up, The Daily Beast reports.

Following the implosion of Manafort’s cooperation agreement – one of Trump’s legal team “casually” announced that Manafort’s lawyers had been briefing Trump’s about the Manafort’s sessions with Mueller all along. Harry Litman unpicks the “significant legal and political implications” of the development at the Washington Post.

“Manafort’s lawyers’ communications with … Trump’s lawyers are shocking and unprecedented … a brazen violation of criminal defense norms notable even in an investigation full of them,” Ken White comments at the New York Times,arguing that the strategy must indicate that Manafort is seeking a presidential pardon.

“It’s unlikely that “flipping” will go away any time soon [as] sometimes … a prosecutor has no choice but to strike a deal,” Carol C. Lam argues at NBC in the wake of the Manafort plea deal developments.

RUSSIA-UKRAINE RELATIONS

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko today urged N.A.T.O. to deploy naval ships to the Sea of Azov, in a proposal that has been sharply criticized by Russia as a provocation that could further escalate tensions between the two countries following Moscow’s seizure of three Ukrainian navy ships over the weekend. Making the comments in an interview in the German daily Bild, Poroshenko laid out his hope that the alliance would “relocate naval ships to the Sea of Azov in order to assist Ukraine and provide security” against the expansionist ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yuras Karmanau and Vladimir Isachenkov  report at the AP.

 N.A.T.O. responded to Poroshenko’s remarks by claiming that it already has a strong presence in the Black Sea region. Spokesperson Oana Lungescu claimed that N.A.T.O. ships routinely patrol and exercise in the area, noting that the alliance’s ships have spent 120 days there this year compared to 80 in 2017, the AP reports.

Two Ukrainian Azov Sea ports – Berdyansk and Mariupol – are now in effect under a Russian blockade, with vessels barred from leaving and entering, according to Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Volodymyr Omelyan. A total of 35 vessels had been prevented from carrying out normal operations and only vessels moving towards Russian ports on the Azov Sea were permitted entry, Omelyan claimed on Facebook, adding: “the goal is simple: by placing a blockade on Ukrainian ports on the Azov Sea, Russia hopes to drive Ukraine out of our own territory – territory that is ours in accordance with all relevant international laws,” the Guardian reports.

Russia is planning to move additional anti-aircraft missiles to Crimea amid the escalating altercation with Kiev. Top Russian Defense Ministry official Col. Vadim Astafyev told Interfax News Agency that Moscow will soon deploy three anti-aircraft missile systems on the Crimean peninsula, Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill.

 Putin yesterday shrugged off a threat from President Trump to cancel their scheduled meeting at the upcoming G20 summit in response to the weekend’s events. Reuters reports.

The U.S. has subsequently confirmed that the meeting will go ahead on Dec. 1. in any event. Reuters reports.

An analysis of how Russia-Ukraine tensions will “raise the stakes” in Trump and Putin’s upcoming summit is provided by Peter Baker at the New York Times.

“Sanctions are failing to produce the desired effect of a check on President Putin’s adventurism,” Roula Khalaf writes at the Financial Times, situating the weekend’s events within Putin’s unpredictable strategy toward the West.

“Nearly everything has gone [Putin’s] way,” Michael Hirsh argues at Foreign Policy, exploring the expansion of Moscow’s influence in Easter Europe.

An explainer on the growing dispute is provided at Al Jazeera.

YEMEN

Senators from both sides defied the Trump administration yesterday with a “stinging” vote to consider ending U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Apparently furious over being denied a C.I.A. briefing on the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the Senate voted 63 to 37 to bring to the floor a measure to limit presidential war powers in Yemen – although the vote does not necessarily indicate that the measure will ultimately be approved. Gardiner Harris, Eric Schmitt, Helene Cooper and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

The vote came despite two top Cabinet officials privately urging senators to quash the resolution. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefed senators behind closed doors, with Mattis – in prepared remarks released by the Pentagon – warning senators that moving forward with the resolution would undercut the administration’s ability to ameliorate Saudi Arabia’s behavior through negotiations, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Pompeo and Mattis also reportedly told senators that it was the White House’s decision not to send C.I.A. Director Gina Haspel to the Senate briefing on Saudi Arabia. “We were told during this briefing that it was the direction of the White Hose that she not attend,” Sen. Dick Durbin  (D-Ill.) told reporters after the briefing, adding: “I cannot recall a briefing on such a sensitive nature where we have been denied access to the intelligence agencies of the United States,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

At least five of the 37 Republican Senators who voted against the resolution received campaign contributions from pro-Saudi lobbying groups. Roy Blunt, John Boozman, Richard Burr, Mike Crapo and Tim Scott all reportedly received financial contributions from firms representing Saudi interests between 2016 and 2017, according to a recent investigation by the Centre for International Policy (C.I.P.,) Faisal Edroos reports at Al Jazeera.

U.N.-sponsored peace talks between Yemen’s warring parties are expected to start next week in Sweden, the U.K. envoy to Yemen said today. The U.N. is hoping to reconvene talks between the Saudi-backed government in exile led by Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the iran-aligned Houthi rebel group to agree a framework for peace and a transitional governing body; a previous round collapsed in September when the Houthis failed to attend, Reuters reports.

An analysis of “the other war in Yemen,” the battle for control of the conflict-riven nation’s Internet, is provided by Elias Groll at Foreign Policy.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING AND The G-20

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis commented yesterday that the U.S. has “no smoking gun” to prove that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Asked about reports that a C.I.A. assessment earlier this month concluded the crown prince had ordered Khashoggi’s murder, Mattis claimed: “we have no smoking gun the crown prince was involved … not the intelligence community or anyone else … there is no smoking gun,” though he added that the U.S. still expected those responsible for the killing to be held accountable, Reuters reports.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said yesterday that U.S. intelligence has no “direct reporting” showing that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s killing, telling reporters: “I do believe I have read every piece of intelligence, unless it’s come in in the last few hours … there is no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to the order to kill Khashoggi … and that’s all I can say in an unclassified setting.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Argentinian judge Ariel Lijo – reviewing a Human Rights Watch complaint against bin Salman – yesterday asked his country’s foreign ministry to seek information from Turkey, Yemen and the International Criminal Court. Lijo’s office confirmed the request just hours after bin Salman landed in Buenos Aires for the G-20 summit, Reuters reports.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres is willing to meet with bin Salman at the G-20, Guterres said yesterday, as he seeks out an end to the war in Yemen. “I think we are close to (creating) the conditions for the possibility for (Yemen) peace talks to start … and of course Saudi Arabia is absolutely crucial for that purpose, and I’m ready to discuss it with the crown prince or with any other Saudi officials because I believe it is a very important objective at the present moment,” Guterres told reporters, Reuters reports.

Guterres yesterday said that the upcoming G-20 meetings come at a crucial moment, commenting that “our world is obviously facing a crisis of cofidence … those left behind by globalization are losing trust in governments and institutions … inequality is pervasive and increasing, especially within nations … trade disputes are escalating … and an undercurrent of geopolitical tensions is adding further pressure to the global economy.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

An analysis of the pressures facing the Saudi crown prince as he makes his first appearance on the international stage following Khashoggi’s killing is provided by Andrew England and Benedict Mander at the Financial Times.

Updates on both the G-20 summit and the Khashoggi case are provided at Al Jazeera.

SYRIA

The Russian Defense Ministry claims that militants are preparing a chemical attack on the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces fighting in eastern Syria. The ministry said in a statement yesterday that it had learned from multiple intelligence sources that militants from the Islamic State group were lacing mortar rounds with chemical agents in preparation for the attack, the AP reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 185 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Nov.18. and Nov. 24. [Central Command]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Top diplomats united yesterday in support for Afghan President Ghani’s efforts to stabilize his war-torn nation, with officials from Russia, the U.S. and the European Union (E.U.) claiming that progress has been made with regards to launching peace talks with the Taliban. The statements came at a U.N.-backed conference in Geneva, at which President Ashraf Ghani said he wanted to “specifically recognize the commitment in blood and treasure that the U.S. has shown since 2001” in Afghanistan – also describing the U.S. as his nation’s “key ally” and lauding the Trump administration’s South Asia policy as a “game changer,” Jamey Keaten reports at the AP.

A federal grand jury yesterday charged two Iranian nationals for their involvement in an international hacking scheme in which the men used a sophisticated malware to extort victims for a ransom, Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

The Pentagon is allegedly considering keeping active-duty U.S. troops on the southwestern border into January, potentially extending the deployment intended to confront the caravan of asylum seekers from Central America, according to two Defense Department officials. Thomas Gibbons-Neff reports at the New York Times. 

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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).