The Early Edition: December 10, 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.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump could face impeachment and even jail time if hush money payments reported by his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen are proven to amount to campaign finance violations, Democratic lawmakers said yesterday. Court filings on Friday – in a number of cases arising from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election – have led to renewed focus on topics potentially damaging for the president, including whether he gave orders for six-figure payments to two women during his campaign to keep quiet about affairs, Reuters reports.

Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York gave weight to Cohen’s earlier assertion that he had paid off women to silence their allegations of affairs with Trump “in coordination with and at the direction of” the president. Allan Smith reports at NBC.

The Manhattan prosecutors said that while Cohen deserves credit for his assistance to investigators he should receive a “substantial” prison sentence of 51 to 63 months, citing shortcomings in his discussions with law enforcement and the severity of his crimes. Cohen is set to be sentenced Wednesday by a federal judge in Manhattan, having pleaded guilty in August to eight counts including campaign-finance violations and tax fraud – as well an additional charge brought by Mueller’s office last month regarding lying to Congress about Trump’s involvement in a plan to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, Nicole Hong, Rebecca Davis O’Brien and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

In addition to implicating Trump in the payments to the two women – Cohen has allegedly told prosecutors that Trump Organization’s Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg was involved in discussions about them, according to an anonymous sources briefed on the matter, who say that this claim is now a focus of Mueller’s inquiry. Ben Protess, William K. Rashbaum and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

“My takeaway is there’s a very real prospect that on the day Donald Trump leaves office … the Justice Department may indict him,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) commented yesterday on C.B.S.’ “Face the Nation,” adding that Trump “may be the first president in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time.” Martin Matishak reports at POLITICO.

Trump on Saturday renewed his call to end the Mueller probe, describing the investigation as a “witch hunt.” In his second statement of the day regarding the investigation, Trump sent a message on Twitter stating “time for the Witch Hunt to END!” with the tweet also quoting television host and Trump ally Geraldo Rivera dismissing any claim of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia as “collusion illusion,” Reuters reports.

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort lied to federal investigators about his contacts with Trump administration officials and his dealings with a Russian linked to Moscow’s intelligence services, Mueller’s office announced Friday. Manafort also lied about a $125,000 payment made through a political action committee to cover a debt he owed, Mueller’s prosecutors alleged in a partly redacted court filing explaining why they withdrew last week from a plea agreement they had reached with Manafort in September. Adam Goldman and Sharon LaFraniere report at the New York Times.

The F.B.I. opened investigations of four Americans in July 2016 regarding whether they assisted in Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, former F.B.I. Director James Comey said in remarks released on Saturday. In a closed-door hearing held on Friday by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight Committee, Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe reportedly asked Comey whether the F.B.I. had “any evidence” of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia at the time that agents briefed Trump as a candidate in 2016 about foreign intelligence threats; Comey did not identify the people being investigated but said Trump was not among them, Reuters reports.

Comey reasserted yesterday that the president had appealed to him for leniency toward former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was under scrutiny early in the Trump administration for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian associates. “Obviously it’s evidence of obstruction of justice” that needed to be investigated further, Comey said, adding “how to handle that was something we struggled with,” Mike Memoli reports at NBC.

“All of us should use every breath we have to make sure the lying stops on Jan. 20. 2021,” Comey told a “cheering crowd” last night during an interview with M.S.N.B.C. host Nicolle Wallace. Despite his avowed status as non-partisan, Comey told his audience that the Democrats “have to win … they have to win.” The Daily Beast reports.

Conservative author and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi yesterday filed a lawsuit against Mueller, alleging that Mueller illegally surveilled him as part of the Russia probe. In the document filed in the District Court for the District of Columbia, Corsi also claims that Mueller’s office leaked confidential information surrounding Corsi’s testimony before the special counsel’s grand jury, Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

TRUMP-RUSSIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Russians interacted with at least 14 Trump associate during the campaign and presidential transition, according to public records and interviews. Rosalind S. Helderman, Tom Hamburger and Carol D. Leonnig explain at the Washington Post.

An analysis of Michael Cohen’s “brazen and risky legal strategy” for his dealings with Mueller’s prosecutors and its implications going forward is provided by Benjamin Weiser at the New York Times.

The consequences of Trump associates’ lies are piling up at the president’s door, Jack Shafer comments at POLITICO Magazine, noting that “after a year and a half of build-up, Mueller has now sketched out the framework of interlacing business collusion and political collusion by Trump with the Russians … if Trump has any pardons in stock, he might want to save them for himself.”

A breakdown of the recent Trump-Russia developments, and options for where they might lead, is provided by Philip Ewing at NPR – leaving open the question of whether the “end is in sight” for the Mueller probe.

Mueller should “wrap up his probe and let America get on with the political debate over its meaning for … Trump’s Presidency,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, arguing that “the country deserves an account of what Mr. Mueller knows, not more factual dribs and drabs in sentencing memos.”

Eight major takeaways from Friday’s Cohen and Manafort court filings are explored by Ryan Goodman and Andy Wright at Just Security.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Chief of staff to the Vice-President – Nick Ayers – has announced that he will not take up the offer to be White House chief of staff, stating he would rather move home to Georgia. President Trump had announced Saturday that his chief of staff John Kelly would leave by the end of this year, but Ayers – reportedly Trump’s first choice as Kelly’s replacement – sent a message on Twitter yesterday stating that that he and his family would also be exiting Washington; the president claimed said he was “interviewing some really great people for the position,” Tim Walker reports at the Guardian.

Trump announced Saturday that he would nominate Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley to become the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The four-star general is being nominated to succeed current Gen. Joseph Dunford, whose second term as the nation’s highest-ranking uniformed officer will end next summer, Jesse Byrnes reports at the Hill.

Trump has selected State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert for the role of U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. An analysis of what that choice means for the nature of the office is provided by Peter Baker and Michael M. Grynbaum at the New York Times.

“Does Heather Nauert have what it takes?” Michael Hirsh explores the question in an Op-Ed at Foreign Policy.

YEMEN

The U.S. wants to continue support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s conflict and will remain engaged in efforts to combat Iranian influence and Islamist militancy in the war-torn country, a State Department official commented yesterday. Reuters reports.

Yemen’s government in exile would not rule out an offensive on the key Red Sea port of Hodeidah if the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels refuse to withdraw, sparking immediate criticism from the rebels as the warring parties met for U.N.-brokered talks in the rural Swedish town of Rimbo on Friday. Government representatives, rebel spokespeople and U.N. envoy to the country Martin Griffiths have all claimed the talks are not aimed at finding a political solution to the conflict, and both Yemeni parties have threatened to leave the talks if certain demands are not met, AFP reports.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s final words were “I can’t breathe,” according to a source briefed on the investigation into Khashoggi’s murder by a Saudi kill squad on Oct 2. Nic Robertson reports at CNN.

Saudi Arabia has ruled out extraditing two of its former officials against whom Turkey has issued arrest warrants in connection with Khashoggi’s killing. “We don’t extradite our citizens,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in a press conference in Riyadh yesterday, Al Jazeera reports.

Since the early months of the Trump administration – the president’s Middle East Adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner has allegedly been having private conversations with Saudi crown prince Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including offering bin Salman advice on how to “weather the storm” after Khashoggi’s death, Avery Anapol reports at the Hill.

SYRIA

The U.S. and the U.K. have accused the Syrian administration and its Russian allies of fabricating a story accusing rebel fighters of a chemical attack. The U.S. State Department said the purpose of the fabrication – which alleged that shells carrying chlorine gas injured about 100 people in the government-held city of Aleppo last month” – was to “undermine confidence” in the ceasefire in Idlib province, the BBC reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 185 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Nov.25. and Dec. 1. [Central Command]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is unlikely to visit Seoul in the final three weeks of this year, South Korean TV channel Y.T.N. said today, citing an unidentified official from the South Korean Blue House. There had been speculation about whether Kim would visit Seoul before the end of the year after he and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to the trip during their September summit in Pyongyang, Reuters reports.

President Trump is demanding that South Korea increase its funding for American troops deployed on the peninsula. The ensuing standoff puts a key U.S. alliance under pressure and could weaken U.S. standing with Seoul as it pursues rapprochement with Pyongyang, George Lubold and Andrew Jeong write at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

An analysis of how and why the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (I.N.F.) is unraveling, and the broader implications for international security, is provided by David E. Sanger and William J. Broad at the New York Times.

“The administration is right to confront the issue [of Russia’s I.N.F. violations] but not to just walk away,” the Washington Post editorial board comments.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

China has summoned the U.S. ambassador in Beijing to demand the cancellation of an arrest warrant for Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, in the latest sign that her detention is damaging Washington Beijing relations. Tom Hancock, Kathrin Hille and Demetri Sevastopulo report at the Financial Times.

President Trump is reportedly calling for the Pentagon to increase its budget request for next year to $750 billion – “significantly” more than he had previously desired and $12 billion more than top military officials have been pushing for. Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill. 

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).