The Early Edition: December 11, 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

Federal prosecutors have reached a plea deal with alleged Russian agent Mariia Butina – the purported gun rights activist who has spent months in custody on charges of improperly pursuing Moscow’s agenda in the U.S.. Butina has reportedly agreed to plead guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to act as a Russian agent on American soil without registering as required with the Justice Department, Carrie Johnson reports at NPR.

The prosecution’s portrayal of Butina in court papers laid before the court is far “tamer” than the narrative the government advanced following her arrest in July, with the latest filings omitting the “most salacious” allegations that she used sex as a means of spycraft. Butina is instead characterized as a tool of the men who helped her to infiltrate the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) and the Republican Party – with prosecutors also backing off the assertion that Butina used a graduate program at American University in Washington as a cover to enter the U.S., Matthew Rosenberg reports at the New York Times.

President Trump yesterday sought to downplay the offence his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to earlier this month, arguing that the hush money payments that Cohen made on his behalf constituted a “simple private transaction” rather than a breach of campaign finance law. Trump sent a message on Twitter insisting that there is “no smocking [sic.] gun” emerging from last week’s closed door congressional testimony of former F.B.I. Director James Comey that would point to collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia, Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

A federal judge has scheduled a hearing today that marks another step toward deciding whether former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort should be declared in breach of his plea agreement after special counsel Robert Mueller – investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election – accused Manafort of lying about his contacts with White House officials. The hearing comes in lieu of the Wednesday deadline that Manafort’s attorneys faced to respond to the special counsel’s report laying Manafort’s alleged lies, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Trump is reportedly increasingly anxious that he could be impeached when Democrats take over the House, a source close to the president told C.N.N. yesterday, claiming that Trump regards impeachment as a “real possibility.” A separate source close to the White House disclosed that aides inside the West Wing believe “the only issue that may stick” in an impeachment process is the campaign finance violations tied to Cohen’s hush money payments – and that they do not think that Mueller’s probe into collusion with Russia would result in impeachment, Jim Acosta reports at CNN.

Several dozen former Democratic and Republican senators have appealed to the Senate to act as a “zealous guardian” of U.S. democracy as Mueller moves towards finalizing the Russia probe. In a letter that does not mention Trump by name, the bipartisan group urges that “partisanship or self-interest [do] not replace national interest,” also claiming that the U.S. is “entering a dangerous period” as the Mueller investigation moves toward its final stages, Demetri Sevastopulo reports at the Financial Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A chart of where and when people in Trump’s orbit were in contact with Russians is provided by Philip Bump at the Washington Post.

An analysis of former F.B.I. Director James Comey’s Congressional testimony Friday is provided by James Freeman at the Wall Street Journal, doubting the consistency of Comey’s evidence and noting: “wouldn’t a reasonable person make it his business to find out who paid whom if for no other reason than to make sure that as F.B.I. director he hadn’t been taken in by a partisan attack disguised as a national security case?”

“The president called all of this ‘a simple private transaction” …. I am tempted to ask what he’s been ‘smocking,’” Eugene Robinson writes at the Washington Post, contesting the president’s claim that Michael Cohen’s hush money payments on his behalf were merely technical violations “of the kind that every campaign inadvertently commits and is fined for.”

An analysis of what sentence Judge William Pauley might impose on Cohen tomorrow, and the implications of that sentence for the Mueller probe more broadly, is provided by Elie Honig at CNN, who comments that “Cohen’s future cooperation … will affect Mueller’s ability to penetrate into the heart of corruption in the Trump campaign and the White House.”

RUSSIA: OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Kremlin today rejected U.S. criticism of Russian military flights to Venezuela, saying it was inappropriate and wrong for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to condemn the flight of two nuclear-capable strategic bombers to Caracas. Two Russian T.U.-160 strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons landed in Venezuela yesterday in a “symbolic show of support” for the country’s government; Pompeo had sent a message on Twitter stating that “the Russian and Venezuelan people should see this for what it is: two corrupt governments squandering public funds, and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer,” Reuters reports.

Russia was the world’s second-largest arms producer in 2017, behind only the U.S., international researchers announced yesterday. In its annual list of top 100 arms producers, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (S.I.P.R.I.) stated that sales from Russian companies totaled $37.7 billion in 2017, knocking the U.K. from second place, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

An in-depth essay on how “a powerful Russian propaganda machine
chips away at Western notions of truth,”
focusing on the novichok nerve agent attacks carried out in the U.K., is provided by Joby Warrick and Anton Tojanovski at the Washington Post.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Google is shutting down its social network Google Plus sooner than expected in the aftermath of a new security breach affecting 52.5 million users. The social networking site had already been hit in early October by a security bug exposing the account information of 500,000 users, including their names, email addresses and occupations, prompting Google to plan the site’s closure by August 2019; however, in a blog post yesterday, the company wrote that it discovered a second bug that allowed the profile information of 52.5 million users to be viewable by developers, Jillian D’Onfro reports at NBC.

Cyber espionage group Seedworm is ramping up its malicious web activities, hitting a variety of targets including government organizations and telecommunications companies in recent months, security firm Symantec announced yesterday. Symantec researchers said the group had infiltrated more than 30 organizations since late September, with the targets mostly based in Pakistan and Turkey, but also in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Afghanistan and Jordan; companies based in Europe and the U.S. with links to the Middle East were also attacked, Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

White House officials “settled in” for a drawn out search for a new chief of staff yesterday, after top contenders Mick Mulvaney and Nick Ayers took themselves out of the running, with Mulvaney reportedly not interested in the post. Former deputy Trump campaign manager David Bossie – who has continued to advise the president – is reportedly in the president’s sights for the role, with Trump also considering former New Jersey Gov. and long-time ally Chris Christie according to people familiar with the matter, Rebecca Ballhaus and Peter Nicholas report at the Wall Street Journal.

An analysis of the fallout over the chief of staff position following Ayers’ announcement that he would not take up the role is provided by Katie Rogers, Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni at the New York Times, who write that Trump has been effectively left without a “Plan B.”

Incoming U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Heather Nauert “could find herself dealing with complex crisis management issues very early in her tenure,” Richard Gowan comments at POLITICO Magazine – cautioning that Nauert’s experience in the position could prove to be “bruising.”

U.S. MILITARY

A breakdown of the the top defense stories to watch in 2019 as Democrats take control of the House is provided by Rebecca Kheel at the Hill.

A Defense Department spokesperson announced yesterday that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford will serve the remainder of his term, despite President Trump announcing his successor – Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley –  ten months ahead of Dunford’s end date. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration yesterday doubled down on its position that transgender people can still serve in the military by not transitioning. Appearing before the D.C. Circuit Court to appeal one of the injunctions against the service ban, Department of Justice Attorney Brinton Lucas argued that if Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ policy were implemented, transgender troops technically would not be “discharged on the basis of their transgender status,” The Daily Beast reports.

The term “military requirements” in defense sector procurement invariably encourages program advocates to ask for maximum capabilities and in turn discourages sensible trade-offs. ​The formulation should be scrapped in favor of more accruate​ terms such as “target” or “goal,” C.S.I.S. senior adviser Mark Cancian writes at Defense 360 as part of the site’s “Bad Ideas in National Security” series.

YEMEN

A bipartisan pair of congressmen is making renewed efforts to force a vote on U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s civil war before the end of 2018, with the Senate poised to take similar action. Rep. Ro Khana (D-Calif.) has reintroduced a War Powers Resolution that would remove U.S. forces from conflict in Yemen, except to fight terrorism as permitted by the 2001 war authorization, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Yemen’s warring parties remain deadlocked over the future of the strategic Red Sea port of Hodeidah after the Yemeni government-in-exile reiterated its claim that it should re-take control of the city from the Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels. The parties are entering the sixth day of U.N.-brokered peace talks in the rural Swedish town of Rimbo, Al Jazeera reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Senior Israeli military officers are flying to Moscow today to update their Russian counterparts about an operation commenced last week to “expose and thwart” secret tunnels allegedly dug under Israel’s frontier with Lebanon by Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah. 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.25. and Dec. 1. [Central Command] 

About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Senior Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).