The Early Edition: December 13, 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

President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison yesterday, after denouncing his former boss and explaining: “I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds.” Cohen gave an “emotional” apology to the court for his involvement a scheme to buy the silence of two women who said they had affairs with Trump to protect his chances before the 2016 election; Cohen claimed that his blind loyalty to then-candidate Trump led him to ignore “my own inner voice and my moral compass,” Benjamin Weiser and William K. Rashbaum report at the New York Times.

Cohen’s sentence is not as substantial as the four-plus years that federal prosecutors in New York had wanted, but it nonetheless is notable as the biggest punishment to date stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller’s “sprawling” investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. In addition to the prison time, scheduled to begin with his surrender to federal authorities on March 6, Cohen will have to forfeit $500,000 in assets and pay $1.393 million in restitution to the I.R.S, Laura Nahmias and Darren Samuelsohn report at POLTICO.

“I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the day that I accepted the offer to work for a real estate mogul whose business acumen that I deeply admired,” Cohen told the court, in a reference to the president. “I know now, in fact, there is little to be admired … I take full responsibility for each act that I pled guilty to … the personal ones to me and those involving the president of the U.S.” Tom McCarthy and Eric Durkin report at the Guardian.

Cohen’s lawyers have requested that their client is detained at the Otisville federal correctional institution, about 80 miles north of the Manhattan courthouse where Cohen was sentenced. David K. Li reports at NBC.

Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis has claimed that Trump knew Cohen lied to Congress ahead of time, telling Bloomberg Radio’s “Sound On” that “Trump and the White House knew that Michael Cohen would be testifying falsely to Congress and did not tell him not to.” Davis added: “there will come a time after Mr. Mueller is done with his work that Michael Cohen will be sitting in front of a microphone before a congressional committee and what he has to say about the truth will be judged by the members of Congress listening and then will be up to people to decide whether he has got the facts or not,” John Bowden reports at the Hill.

In a court document released yesterday tabloid publisher American Media Inc., admitted to coordinating a hush-money payment with Trump’s 2016 campaign, rowing back on two years of denials. The confession came as part of an immunity agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office in New York, made public shortly after Cohen’s sentencing; legal experts say that the development could spell legal peril for the president, Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

“He’s a liar,” the president reportedly told associates after the Cohen sentencing, having watched the televised coverage of the proceedings from the residence of the White. Jeff Zeleny reports at CNN.

Alleged Russian agent Mariia Butina has reportedly been offering investigators information on her one-time boyfriend – G.O.P. political operative Paul Ericks –as she prepares to make her guilty plea official tomorrow, according to a person familiar with the matter. Butina initially pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent after prosecutors accused her of infiltrating political groups like the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) to advance Moscow’s interests, Marshall Cohen and Sarah Murray report at CNN.

A roundup of “what you need to know about another wild week in the Russia investigation” is provided by Philip Ewing at NPR.

TRUMP-RUSSIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Cohen’s “tale reads like the American dream as told by a Russian novelist.” An account of how Cohen came to be Trump’s personal lawyer – and how the events leading up to his prison sentence unfolded – is provided at the Economist.

“Cohen’s time in the public eye is not over,” John Q. Barrett writes at the Washington Post, explaining that now that the criminal justice system is done with Cohen, Congress can gather the information that he supplied to Mueller’s office regarding his “lies to Congress, President Trump, his possible crimes, Trump business activities, contacts with Russians during the Trump presidential campaign, and other topics … without impairing criminal law enforcement.”

“A full and truthful accounting would make clear that Cohen was a bullying creep driven by greed and ambition long before he went to work for Trump and became a fixer who could not fix anything,” Michael Daly writes at The Daily Beast, suggesting that Cohen cannot pin all the blame on the president.

“The constitutional debate [around impeaching Trump] is an unfortunate distraction from a more important question,” Just Security editor Marty Lederman comments at the New York Times, arguing that “we’d be wise to shift our attention from the unlikely possibility of a trial to the much more important matter of what the Mueller investigation might tell us about Mr. Trump’s relationships with Russia and whether they compromise his ability to protect and defend the nation.” Lederman provides an in-depth follow-up at Just Security, outlining why – as a matter of law – it would nonetheless be constitutional to indict Trump while he is in office.

IRAN

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday said the U.S. would form and lead a coalition of countries to oppose Iran’s ballistic missiles in an effort to restrain the program and its development. While attending a U.N. Security Council semi-annual meeting on Iran, Pompeo claimed that the council should not lift an arms embargo on Tehran as scheduled in 2020, and should instead tighten up inspection and surveillance activities in “ports and high seas” to block Iran from weapon transfers; “our goodwill gestures have been futile correctives to the Iranian regime’s reckless missile activity—and all other destructive behaviors,” Pompeo said, Farnaz Fassihi reports at the Wall Street Journal.

U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Rosemary di Carlo has claimed there remains “staunch support” among Member States for the 2016 Iran nuclear deal, tempered by concerns over some of Tehran’s other activities, which the nation “should carefully consider and address” according to the latest report on the deal from the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, the U.N. News Centre reports.

YEMEN                                                                       

The Republican-controlled Senate yesterday dealt a “significant” blow to President Trump by voting to advance a resolution ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, in the aftermath of Washington Post columnists Jamal Khashoggi’s killing on Oct 2. The legislation would require Trump to withdraw any troops in or “affecting” Yemen within 30 days; the president has threatened to veto the bill if it reaches his desk, Jordain Carney and Rebecca Kheel report at the Hill.

U.N. mediators rushed to broker a truce between representatives of the Yemeni government-in-exile and the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels yesterday. The weeklong U.N. talks in the rural Swedish town of Rimbo are due to conclude today; Taiz – the southwestern city controlled by the government and surrounded by the rebels – is reportedly no longer under discussion at the talks, while intense discussions continue regarding Sanaa airport and de-escalation of violence in the rebel-held port of Hodeidah, AFP reports.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday declined to answer directly whether he believes Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s denials of involvement in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, repudiating part of the reported findings of the C.I.A. on the matter – telling “Fox & Friends” that some of the agency’s findings in the case are “inaccurate.” Anne Gearan reports at the Washington Post.

C.I.A. Director Gina Haspel yesterday gave a classified briefing to leaders of the House of Representatives on what the agency knows about Khashoggi’s murder. Al Jazeera reports.

SYRIA

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said yesterday that Ankara will launch a military operation east of the Euphrates river in northern Syria within a “few days.” The operation could give rise to increased tensions with the U.S. which has troops stationed in the area currently controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces Washington is backing, “we will start the operation to clear the east of the Euphrates from separatist terrorists in a few days … our target is never U.S. soldiers,” Erdogan claimed in a televized live address, Al Jazeera reports.

The Pentagon announced in response that unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party would be “unacceptable,” Reuters

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 251 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Dec 2. and Dec. 8. [Central Command]

CHINA-NORTH AMERICA RELATIONS

Top U.S. security officials yesterday issued a “stark” warning about Beijing’s espionage attempts, describing China as one of the “most significant” international threats to the U.S. economy and national security. In the course of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, federal representatives from the F.B.I., Department of Justice (D.O.J.), and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) claimed that while Russia remains the threat currently looming in the public consciousness, China represents the genuine long-term threat to watch – with F.B.I. Assistant Director of the Counterintelligence Division Bill Priestap commenting  “[China] is the most severe counterintelligence threat facing our country today,” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

A second Canadian has been detained in China on accusations of harming national security, as tension continues between China, Canada and the U.S. It was confirmed today that businessman Michael Spavor had been detained in addition to former diplomat Michael Kovrig; Canada has drawn Chinese protests after it arrested Huawei C.F.O. Meng Wanzhou at the request of the U.S., the BBC reports.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland yesterday warned the U.S. not to politicize extradition cases, a day after President Trump claimed he could intervene in Meng’s case, Reuters reports.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) yesterday described Trump’s suggestion of intervention as “very disturbing,” Tim Starks and Alexander Panetta report at POLITICO.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Israeli forces killed two Palestinian individuals overnight in the occupied West Bank after attacks claimed the lives of three Israelis, including a baby, raising anxieties of renewed violence today. In a separate assault, an attacker stabbed two Israeli border police in Jerusalem’s Old City before being shot dead, in events heralding the “most turbulent” 24 hours in the West Bank and Jerusalem in months, AFP reports.

N.A.T.O remains the best defense against Russian aggression, Former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison comments at the Financial Times, writing: “through all of Russia’s malign activity, I have personally witnessed the solidarity and resilience of the entire N.A.T.O. alliance. The mutual commitment we have demonstrated since 1949 signals our unwavering resolve.” 

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About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

Associate 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).