The Early Edition: November 30, 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

New evidence from two separate fronts of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election has cast fresh doubts on President Trump’s version of events, signaling potential political and legal peril for the president who has been labeled in court documents as “Individual 1.” Carol D. Leonnig and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

Yesterday Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress when he insisted that Trump was not planning to build a Trump Tower in Moscow after January 2016, putting pressure on Trump’s repeated claims that he had no business interests in Russia. Jon Swaine and Victoria Bekiempis report at the Guardian.

If the Moscow project had in fact remained live through June 2016 it could have been a “significant factor” in the decision by various Trump aides and family members to attend the June 2016 “Trump Tower” meeting – a session involving the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and Russian government lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya – and one that has become a key focus of Mueller’s prosecutors and congressional investigators, Josh Gerstein reports at POLTICO.

In a separate development – a draft special counsel document revealed Tuesday indicates that prosecutors are closely scrutinizing Trump’s interactions with longtime adviser Roger Stone – with Stone having allegedly sought information about WikiLeaks’ plans to release hacked Democratic emails. Mueller is taking a look into a “series” of late-night phone calls between Trump and Stone, Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

After pleading guilty in a Manhattan courtroom yesterday morning – Cohen claimed that he made the false statements to Congress out of loyalty to the president and to align with Mr. Trump’s “political messaging.” Mark Mazzetti, Benjamin Weiser, Ben Protess and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

Trump yesterday told reporters at the White House that Cohen is lying, but the president maintained that even in the event that Cohen was telling the truth – “there would be nothing wrong if I did do it.” Trump claimed his pledge not to conclude new deals only applied after he had been elected and inaugurated and that he was perfectly within his rights to continue to run his businesses even as he pursued the presidency, Philip Ewing reports at NPR.

“Very simply … Michael Cohen is lying and he’s trying to get a reduced sentence for things that have nothing to do with me,” Trump commented, also calling Cohen a “weak person.” Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani added in a statement today: “Michael Cohen is a liar … it’s no surprise that Cohen lied to Congress … he’s a proven liar who is doing everything he can to get out of a long-term prison sentence for serious crimes of bank and tax fraud that had nothing to do with the Trump Organization,” Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

Following Cohen’s guilty plea – reports emerged that Trump’s company had planned to give Russian President Vladimir Putin a $50 million penthouse in Trump Tower Moscow during the 2016 campaign, according to sources cited by BuzzFeed News. Two law-enforcement officials told the outlet that Cohen had talked about the idea with a representative of Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov; Trump’s former business partner – real-estate developer Felix Sater – confirmed the plan, commenting: “In Russia, the oligarchs would bend over backwards to live in the same building as Vladimir Putin,” The Daily Beast reports.

Acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker was apparently notified in advance that Cohen would plead guilty yesterday. The notification could strain relations between Whitaker and Trump, Matt Zapotosky reports at the Washington Post.

Top Democrats yesterday “excoriated” the president after news emerged of Cohen’s guilty plea. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.,) sent a message on Twitter claiming that “there is a culture of corruption surrounding @realDonaldTrump and his administration … it is absolutely critical for Congress to protect the Mueller investigation and ensure the American people get the answers and justice they deserve,” Garrett Haake, Frank Thorp V, Alex Moe and Dartunorro Clark report at NBC.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said that Democrats will demand that protections for Mueller be included in a must-pass spending bill should G.O.P. leaders fail to bring the legislation to the floor. “The Congress must immediately pass legislation to preserve the Special Counsel investigation, which is identical to bipartisan legislation passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Pelosi said in a statement, Melanie Zanona reports at the Hill.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz) is undermining the Senate G.O.P.’s efforts to approve as many lifetime-appointed federal judges as possible in lame duck season. Flake has already frozen 21 judicial picks in committee and yesterday helped derail a nominee on the Senate floor – a strategy he has pledged to continue until he achieves a vote shielding Mueller from presidential interference. Burgess Everett and Elana Schor report at POLITICO.

TRUMP-RUSSIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Mueller is beginning to disclose the building blocks of a case that could imperil the presidency, Stephen Collinson comments at CNN.

“Cohen’s guilty plea demonstrates [that] the crimes are real,” the New York Times editorial board comments, suggesting that the development see Mueller’s focus shifting to “New York, the heart of the president’s business empire and the self-made myth that propels it” – in doing so crossing previous “red lines” set by the president.

An analysis of the legal peril that now may await Donald Trump Jr. is provided by Jon Swaine at the Guardian.

A summary of yesterday’s Trump-Russia developments and their implications is provided at the Economist.

The G-20

The Group of 20 (G-20) summit kicks off today in Buenos Aires, but the intended headline issues such as development, infrastructure and investment have been sidelined by contentious matters including the U.S.-China trade dispute to the conflict over Ukraine. The killing of Washington Post Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct .2 is also expected to “loom large” at the summit, Luis Andres Henao, Angela Charlton and Peter Orsi report at the AP.

Now landed in Argentina – President Trump will have to confront the rivalry between longtime U.S. allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia – a rift that has deepened since Khashoggi’s murder. Trump has made clear that his administration has no intention of compromising its close relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed over the issue, David Gauthier-Villars, Jessica Donati and Summer Said report at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump yesterday canceled a planned meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin set for the summit, citing Russia’s recent seizure of three Ukrainian naval ships. Trump has wavered in recent days as to whether he and Putin would meet, telling reporters before leaving for Buenos Aires that he would “probably” keep the appointment but soon after boarding Air Force One Trump sent out a pair of tweets calling off the meeting, Peter Nicholas reports at the Wall Street Journal.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump made the decision after a conversation aboard the plane with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, who spoke by phone from Brazil, Jonathan Allen reports at NBC.

The Kremlin regrets Trump’s decision to cancel the meeting, R.I.A. news agency cited Moscow spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying today, Reuters reports.

The Argentinian government had regarded the gathering as a “golden opportunity” to portray their nation as stable and prosperous, but when world leaders arrive today – “they will find a country reeling from a severe recession and rattled by a recent string of security incidents.” Daniel Politi explains at the New York Times.

Trump’s foreign counterparts at the G-20 will be “coldly calculating how long he can last,” in the context of the fresh developments emerging from the Mueller probe. Michael Hirsch comments at Foreign Policy.

Updates on the G-20 summit are provided at Al Jazeera.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

International leaders arriving at the G-20 yesterday confronted the “delicate question” Thursday of how to approach Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the figure who U.S. intelligence agencies and other Western officials have blamed for the killing of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. The summit meeting will provide the first test of the prince’s ability to retain his status as an international statesman after the assassination, Daniel Politi and David D. Kirkpatrick report at the New York Times.

Canada is imposing sanctions on 17 Saudi Arabian nationals suspected of being linked to Khashoggi’s murder. The list does not include bin Salman, Rob Gillies reports at the AP.

Updates on the Khashoggi case are provided at Al Jazeera.

RUSSIA-UKRAINE RELATIONS

Ukraine will not allow Russian men aged 16-60 into the country following the imposition of martial law, the country’s government announced today. Kiev stated that an exception would be made for “humanitarian cases” such as those travelling to funerals; Russia says it is not planning retaliatory measures, the BBC reports.

The Senate cleared a resolution last night condemning Russia’s “provocative actions” against Ukraine, after the weekend’s events that saw Moscow seize three Ukrainian ships in the Kerch strait. The Senate cleared the non-binding resolution brought in by Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) by unanimous consent, with Johnson commenting that Putin is “testing the West,” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

YEMEN

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres yesterday played down hopes for an imminent breakthrough on ending Yemen’s bloody conflict war, saying he hoped talks would start by the end of the year. The Iran-aligned Houthi rebels said earlier yesterday that they are ready to take part in negotiations that the U.N. earlier mooted for next week in Sweden, AFP reports; “I don’t want to raise too much expectations, but we are working hard in order to make sure that we can start meaningful peace talks still this year,” Guterres told reporters at the G-20 summit, AFP reports.

An in-depth account of the journalistic experience of the situation on the ground in Yemen is provided by Declan Walsh at the New York Times.

SYRIA

Syria’s air defenses faced down an aerial “aggression” over the country’s south late yesterday, shooting down several targets in the first such attack since Syria received a Russian air defense system last month, according to pro-government Syrian state T.V. The televised report said among the areas hit was the countryside of Kisweh – just south of Damascus and home to military bases, just south of Damascus; it was not immediately clear who was behind the attack, Albert Aji reports at the AP

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

The U.S. yesterday circulated a U.N. resolution condemning militant Islamic group Hamas, currently in control of the Gaza strip, “for repeatedly firing rockets into Israel and for inciting violence” that puts civilians at risk. The draft General Assembly resolution “demands that Hamas and other militant actors including Palestinian Islamic Jihad cease activity, including by using airborne incendiary devices,” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

North Korea has lashed out at the U.S. for its continuing attempts to pressure Pyongyang to improve its human rights record, even in the context of thawing relations between the two historic enemies. Diplomats and the state media have unleashed “blistering” attacks on Washington, after the United Nations’ human rights committee adopted a resolution this month condemning North Korea’s “longstanding and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights,” Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg reportedly asked if philanthropist George Soros was shorting the company’s stock – a revelation that will likely lead to new questions about her role in a misinformation effort by the social giant. The development is the latest stage in a crisis that has engulfed Facebook after the New York Times reported the organization had hired Republican-leaning public affairs consultancy Definers to spread misinformation about competitors and critics, Hannah Kuchler reports at the Financial Times.

The U.S. Army is investing millions of dollars in experimental exoskeleton technology to make soldiers stronger and more resilient, in a move experts claim is part of a broader push into advanced equipment to furnish a new generation of “super-soldiers.” 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).