The Early Edition: December 14, 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 yesterday attempted to distance himself from his former personal lawyer and longtime “fixer” Michael Cohen, who was sentenced on Wednesday for a series of offences including some that prosecutors allege the president directed Cohen to commit, in a prosecution stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference. Trump claimed that he never directed Cohen to violate the law, although he did not explicitly deny ordering Cohen to organize hush-money payments during the 2016 presidential campaign, Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump asserted that his former lawyer had pleaded guilty to embarrass him and to receive a reduced prison term, sending a series of morning messages on Twitter claiming that: “he was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law … it is called ‘advice of counsel,’ and a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made … that is why they get paid. Despite that many campaign finance lawyers have strongly stated that I did nothing wrong with respect to campaign finance laws, if they even apply, because this was not campaign finance … Cohen was guilty on many charges unrelated to me, but he plead to two campaign charges which were not criminal and of which he probably was not those charges were just agreed to by him in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence…” Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

“They put that on to embarrass me,” Trump said of the hush-money payments in an interview with Fox News later yesterday, adding “they’re not criminal charges” – despite the fact that a federal judge had accepted Cohen’s guilty pleas and sentenced him in respect of campaign finance violations. Doubling down on his chosen line of defense, the president claimed: “what happened is either Cohen or the prosecutors, in order to embarrass me, said listen: I’m making this deal for reduced time and everything else … do me a favor and put these two charges on,” Jonathan Allen and Allan Smith report at NBC.

Russian gun rights activist Mariia Butina yesterday pleaded guilty to acting as an agent of the Russian government. The plea leaves Butina as the first Russian national convicted for covert attempts to influence U.S. policy during the 2016 election, although her case was not handled by the Mueller probe. As part of her deal, Butina has agreed to cooperate with investigators – cooperation that could shed light on Moscow’s efforts to gain a foothold in conservative U.S. politics, Kyle Cheney reports at POLTICIO.

Butina’s lawyer Robert Driscoll estimates that she could face up to six months in prison, according to Reuters. She is being held at an adult detention center in Virginia, with a sentencing hearing set for 12 February, the BBC reports.

Prosecutors reportedly will ask for a lighter sentence for Butina, who has been detained since July, but said she is “very likely” to be deported on release, Adam Rawnsley reports at The Daily Beast.

Special counsel Robert Mueller “is setting a curious pattern as he squeezes cooperation and guilty pleas out of suspects in his investigation,” Devlin Barrett writes in analysis at the Washington Post, arguing that the developments indicate that Mueller is entering the final stages of the probe.

The situation could deteriorate further for the president, Lisa Lerer comments at the New York Times, citing the fact that “various Democratic politicians want to investigate the president’s financial deals, his business ties to Russia, his handling of Saudi Arabia and North Korea, his efforts to undercut the special counsel investigation, his children’s business and political affairs, and a long list of agencies and cabinet secretaries.”

“About the only possible check on Mr. Mueller is a judge who is wise to the tricks of prosecutors and investigators,” Kimberley A. Strassel comments at the Wall Street Journal, citing as an example Judge Emmet Sullivan – assigned to the case of former national security adviser Michael Flynn – and arguing that Sullivan has “done the nation a favor by using his Brady order to hold prosecutors to some account and allow the country a glimpse at how federal law enforcement operates.”

RUSSIA: OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russia is apparently ready to discuss mutual inspections with the U.S. in order to save the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (I.N.F.,) R.I.A. news agency cited Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs as saying today. Last week, Washington announced Russia must scrap its 9M729 nuclear-capable cruise missiles and launchers or modify the weapons’ range to return to compliance to the accord; “if the U.S. really wants to come to some kind of agreement with us, then we need to sit down at the negotiating table in an inter-agency format and agree on everything in detail … we are ready for this,” foreign ministry official Vladimir Yermakov was quoted as saying, Reuters reports.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said yesterday there are no plans to reschedule a meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, citing Moscow’s seizure of Ukrainian ships and their crews in the Kerch Strait. “I don’t see circumstances in the foreseeable future where such a meeting could take place until the ships and crews are released,” Bolton told reporters at the Heritage Foundation yesterday morning, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

“The West must realize that a rogue Kremlin only respects force,” Anders Åslund comments at Just Security, in an analysis of Moscow’s violations of international law that concludes: “if Russia no longer respects any international treaty, the West must not shy away …. N.A.T.O. countries should send ships to accompany Ukrainian naval ships to ensure their rightful passage into the Sea of Azov.”

YEMEN

The Senate voted yesterday to end U.S. military assistance for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, in “the strongest show of bipartisan defiance” against President Trump’s backing of the kingdom over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The 56-to-41 vote marked a unusual move by the Senate to limit presidential war powers, sending an explicit message of disapproval for a conflict that has dragged on for nearly four years, killed thousands and created the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

Yemen’s warring parties agreed yesterday to a ceasefire for the strategic Red Sea city of Hodeidah and its surrounding governorate, marking a significant breakthrough that could herald a beginning of an end to the conflict, as U.N.-brokered peace talks wrap up in the rural Swedish town of Rimbo. U.N. Secretary-General António Gutteres announced yesterday that the Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels have agreed to withdraw from the western city and additionally relinquish control of three of its ports – Hodeidah, Saleef and Ras Isa – which will fall under the control of “local forces” who will in turn send the ports’ revenues to the country’s Central Bank, Al Jazeera reports.

The Houthis have also agreed in principle on a role for the U.N. at Sanaa airport, a spokesperson for the movement announced yesterday. A U.N. role would include carrying out safety and inspection checks at the capital’s airport, Reuters reports.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

The Senate passed a resolution yesterday naming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as “responsible” for the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The resolution, headed by outgoing Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is nonbinding, but it puts the Senate’s position on the crown prince on record; “unanimously, the U.S. Senate has said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi …that is a strong statement … I think it speaks to the values that we hold dear. … I’m glad the Senate is speaking with once voice unanimously toward this end,” Corker commented shortly after the vote. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

“The Senate’s vote shows that Mr. Trump cannot protect the kingdom from the consequences of the crown prince’s criminal acts,” The Washington Post editorial board comments.

SYRIA

Kurdish-led forces seized Islamic State group’s primary Syrian hub of Hajin today, marking a milestone in the significant and expensive U.S.-backed operation to eradicate the militants from the east of the country. Hajin was the largest settlement in what is the last pocket of territory controlled by Islamic State group, according to U.K.-based war monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, AFP reports.

Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdoğan announced today that Turkish forces will enter the Syrian town of Manbij if the U.S. does not remove Y.P.G Kurdish fighters, and will additionally target Kurdish-controlled areas further east. Reuters reports.

Although the overall intensity of violence in Syria has decreased, civilians continue to be killed by air and ground-based strikes, U.N. Under -Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock told the Security Council yesterday, during a briefing on the current situation in the country, the U.N. News Centre reports.

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]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Two Israeli soldiers were shot dead by a Palestinian at a bus stop in the occupied West Bank yesterday, the Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) said, sparking military raids in the city of Ramallah which saw a Palestinian killed. In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to ‘legalize’ thousands of settlements homes thought to be unlawfully-built even by the Israeli administration, AFP reports.

Palestinian media reported today that scores of Palestinians, including two legislators, were arrested across the West Bank in the course of the night raids. The I.D.F. announced that it had arrested 40 people and alleged 37 of them are linked to Hamas militant group, Al Jazeera reports.

An account of the destruction of suspected Hezbollah tunnels on the Israel-Lebanon frontier yesterday is provided by Sarah El Deeb at the AP.

AFGHANISTAN

U.S.-backed Afghan forces are targeting the Taliban field commanders seen as presenting major impediments to possible peace talks, as military pressure on the insurgents is ramped up, according to security officials. Reuters reports.

A roundup of significant security incidents confirmed by New York Times reporters throughout Afghanistan for Dec. 7-13 is provided by Fahim Abed at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are looking into whether President Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee misspent some of the record $107 million it raised from donations, according to people familiar with the matter. The criminal probe is reportedly also investigating whether some of the committee’s most significant donors gave cash in exchange for access to the incoming Trump administration, policy concessions or to sway official administration positions, Rebecca Davis O’Brien, Rebecca Ballhaus and Aruna Viswanatha report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner is on the short-list of potential candidates to be the next White House chief of staff, U.S. media reported yesterday. AFP reports. 

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).