The Early Edition: December 3, 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 G-20

The Group of 20 (G-20) summit over the weekend saw leaders “paper over” international disagreements on trade, climate and human rights, with President Trump and other leaders distracted by domestic and logistical issues. Despite fears that the president’s conduct could bring chaos to the Buenos Aires gathering, Trump was reportedly subdued – calling off a press conference at the end of the summit because he said that he wanted to respect the passing of former President George H.W. Bush, Valentina Pop and Alex Leary report at the Wall Street Journal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump held a brief meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit Friday, according to Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov. Ushakov also claimed that he met with U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, adding that Russia and the U.S. are ready to continue contact, though he was unsure of when Putin and Trump might meet next, Reuters reports.

Ushakov cited next summer’s G-20 summit as an opportunity for a future meeting between the two leaders, although he added “it seems to me that it’s very important for us and for them to find a way of meeting before then,” Megan Keller reports at the Hill.

The White House characterized the Trump-Putin meeting as an “informal” conversation, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issuing a statement Saturday stating: “as is typical at multilateral events, President Trump and the First Lady had a number of informal conversations with world leaders at the dinner last night, including President Putin.” The development comes following Trump’s previous cancellation of a formal meeting with Putin – allegedly over Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian ships and detention of their sailors, Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

Russian officials Friday cast doubt on Trump’s official reason for the cancellation, claiming that the “U.S. domestic political situation” was the true motivation for Trump’s decision, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman exchanged a high-five and laughed together Friday as they took neighboring seats at the summit’s plenary session. Putin’s friendly behavior toward bin Salman contrasted with that of other leaders at in Buenos Aires, amid suspicions of the Crown Prince’s involvement in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2, Reuters reports.

Trump and bin Salman “exchanged pleasantries” at the G-20, according to a White House official, though Trump later said: “we had no discussion. We might, but we had none,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May urged Saudi bin Salman to hold those responsible for Khashoggi’s murder to account and said he should take action to prevent the recurrence of such incidents, May’s office announced Friday, Reuters reports.

French President Emmauel Macron met bin Salaman at the sidelines of the summit, reportedly conveying a “very firm” message to the crown prince over Khashoggi’s killing – apparently insisting on international experts being part of the investigation into the murder. In a “cryptic” exchange between the pair – caught on video and shared by the English-language Saudi Gazette – the crown prince can be heard telling the French leader not to worry, to which Macron replies: “I am worried,” adding “you never listen to me,” Al Jazeera reports.

The Russian media “roasted” Trump for his original decision to cancel his formal meeting with Putin. Julia Davis reports at The Daily Beast.

An analysis of bin Salman’s reception by world leaders at the G-20 is provided by Daniel Politi and David D. Kirkpatrick at the New York Times.

A recap of the summit’s events – with a focus on the role of President Trump is provided by Ishaan Tharor at the Washington Post.

The high-five between Putin and bin Salman was a “deadly serious” moment, Julian Zelizer comments at CNN, arguing that “as these two leaders laugh it up – and are in the process of thawing tensions between their nations … there is a total absence of moral leadership from America’s President.”

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

The C.I.A. has evidence that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman communicated repeatedly with key aide Saud al-Qahtani around the time that a team believed to have been under that Qahtani’s command assassinated Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The exchanges form a key plank of the intelligence that helped solidify the C.I.A.’s assessment that the crown prince ordered the assassination, with former C.I.A. official Bruce Ridel commenting of the intercepts that: “this is the smoking gun, or at least the smoking phone call … there is only one thing they could possibly be talking about … this shows that the crown prince was witting of premeditated murder,” Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doubled down Saturday on the U.S.’ support for the kingdom, declining to comment on the C.I.A. assessment of the crown prince’s involvement in the killing. In an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the G20 summit, Pompeo claimed that “I have read every piece of intelligence that’s in the possession of the United States government … and when it is done, when you complete that analysis, there’s no direct evidence linking [the crown prince] to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi … that is a accurate statement, it is an important statement, and it is a statement that we are making publicly today,” Veronica Stracqualursi reports at CNN.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Saturday at the G-20 summit that Turkey did not want to damage the Saudi royal family, and that solving the Khashoggi killing would be in the royal family’s interest, adding: “we have never seen this as a political issue … we want to make sure that the murder is revealed in all aspects and that the perpetrators are tried.” Reuters reports.

Correspondence between Khashoggi and Saudi activist-in-exile Omar Abdulaziz indicate the extent to which Khashogi was troubled by bin Salman’s conduct. In one of over 400 WhatsApp messages obtained by CNN, Khashoggi writes: “the more victims he eats, the more he wants … I will not be surprised if the oppression will reach even those who are cheering him on,” Nina dos Santos and Michael Kaplan report at CNN.

An analysis of whether the crown prince can survive the ongoing fallout from the Khashoggi case is provided by Jackie Northam at NPR.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen “remained in close and regular contact with White House-based staff and legal counsel” to Trump while preparing false statements to Congress about his links with Russia, Cohen’s lawyers said in a filing to a Manhattan federal judge late Friday. Cohen has been cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign, Reuters reports.

In a filing seeking a lenient sentence, Cohen’s attorneys claim that his false statement to Congress — which Cohen pleaded guilty to on Thursday — was based on Trump and his team’s attempts to “portray contact with Russian representatives” by Trump, his campaign or his company “as having effectively terminated before the Iowa caucuses of February 1, 2016,” Kyle Cheney and Darren Samuelsohn report at POLITICO.

Cohen’s lawyers said Cohen’s decision to cooperate with investigators reflected his “personal resolve … notwithstanding past errors … to re-point his internal compass true north toward a productive … ethical and thoroughly law abiding life,” asking the judge to impose no prison time on Cohen at his scheduled sentencing later this month, Rebecca Davis O’Brien and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump Friday defended his former pursuit of a business deal in Russia – describing his efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow “very legal & very cool.” Sending a message on Twitter from Buenos Aires, Trump wrote: “Oh, I get it! I am a very good developer, happily living my life, when I see our Country going in the wrong direction (to put it mildly) … against all odds, I decide to run for President & continue to run my business-very legal & very cool, talked about it on the campaign trail,” Morgan Gstalter reports at the Hill.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis confirmed Saturday that the U.S. government has concluded Russia attempted to interfere with the U.S. midterm elections last month. “[Russian President Vladmir Putin] tried again to muck around in our elections this last month, and we are seeing a continued effort on those lines,” Mattis said during an interview with Fox News, Lara Seligman reports at Foreign Policy

RUSSIA-UKRAINE RELATIONS

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Kiev is ready to hold talks with Moscow in the “Normandy format” to de-escalate the burgeoning conflict between the two countries in the Kerch Strait. Poroshenko’s remark came yesterday – a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin mooted the possibility of four-way talks between Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany – the four countries forming the “Normandy Four,” set up to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine involving Russian-backed rebels, Al Jazeera reports.

Putin claimed that he had briefed President Trump on the Ukraine crisis Saturday as he came under pressure over Moscow’s assertive foreign policy at the G-20 summit in Argentina. “We spoke standing up … I replied to his questions about the incident in the Black Sea,” Putin told reporters at the end of the summit, AFP reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump has said he will likely hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un early in 2020, and that three locations are being considered. Returning from the G-20 summit, the president told reporters aboard Air Force One that a second summit may happen in “January or February,” Hallie Jackson and Saphora Smith report at NBC.

“The message is that President Trump has very favorable views toward Chairman Kim and he likes him,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in told reporters aboard a flight from Argentina to New Zealand, reporting back on conversations with Trump at the G-20 summit in which Trump reportedly asked him to pass on the message, Reuters reports.

SYRIA

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told Russian President Vladimir Putin Saturday he should hold another summit to discuss the situation in Syria’s Idlib province where the two nations are trying to establish a sustainable demilitarized zone.Erdoğan reportedly made the suggestion during a meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit, Reuters reports.

The U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State group says it carried out air raids in Syria killing Abu al Umarayn – a senior leader involved in the killing of U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig and other prisoners. Spokesperson Col. Sean Ryan said yesterday that coalition forces carried out “precision strikes” against al Umarayn, as well as several other members of the group in Syria’s Badiyah Desert, Al Jazeera 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

George Bush – the 41st president of the U.S. and the father of the 43rd – died Friday night at his home in Houston, aged 94. Adam Nagourney provides an obituary of the “most successful one-term president” 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).