The Early Edition: December 19, 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

Former Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn’s sentencing for lying to the F.B.I. was unexpectedly delayed yesterday after a “dramatic” court hearing that saw U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan lambast Flynn, and suggest that he complete his cooperation that had triggered a request for leniency from prosecutors. Byron Tau and Aruna Viswanatha report at the Wall Street Journal.

Sullivan left no doubt that he viewed Flynn’s crimes as serious enough to warrant prison time despite prosecutors’ recommendations two weeks ago. Flynn – one of the president’s first associates to be caught up in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election interference and other matters – pleaded guilty a year ago to having made false statements to the F.B.I. about his links with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. Sergey I. Kislyak before Trump took office, Sharon LaFraniere and Adam Goldman report at the New York Times.

President Trump wished Flynn “good luck” just hours before the sentencing, which under federal guidelines could have landed Flynn in prison for up to six months, sending a message on Twitter stating “”will be interesting to see what he has to say, despite tremendous pressure being put on him, about Russian Collusion in our great and, obviously, highly successful political campaign … There was no Collusion!” However, the hearing took an apparently “disastrous” turn for Flynn as Sullivan issued a severe condemnation of his conduct: “I am going to be frank with you … this is a very serious offense … a high-ranking senior official of the government making false statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation while on the physical premises of the White House,” Tom McCarthy and Stephanie Kirchgaessner report at the Guardian.

“Arguably, you sold your country out,” the judge told Flynn, pointing to the U.S. flag behind his bench and telling the former veteran that he had undermined it. Sullivan spent a full eight minutes reading aloud an inventory of Flynn’s lies — describing his “disgust” at Flynn’s conduct, Carol D. Leonnig and Rosalind S. Helderman report at the Washington Post.

Flynn attorney Robert Kelner said his client would accept Sullivan’s offer to postpone sentencing so they can “eke” out every ounce of cooperation benefit; “I’m not promising anything,” Sullivan replied. Darren Samuelssohn and Matthew Choi report at POLITICO.

Former F.B.I. Director James Comey yesterday defended the bureau’s contacts with Flynn in his final interview this week with Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and Judiciary. Comey was pressed in particular on whether officials at the F.B.I. strayed from the agency’s norms and practices when they interviewed Flynn last year, according to a 173-page transcript of Monday’s hearing released yesterday, Olivia Beavers and Jaqueline Thomsen report at the Hill.

Trump yesterday leveled fresh allegations of misconduct at the F.B.I. following the discovery of thousands of missing text messages from the telephones of former bureau officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, claiming without evidence that the recently uncovered messages had been “illegally deleted” and describing the development as the “biggest outrage yet” in the course of the Russia investigations. A report from the Justice Department’s (D.O.J.) internal watchdog last week revealed that investigators had recovered about 19,000 text messages on the officials’ F.B.I.-issued cellphones; “biggest outrage yet in the long, winding and highly conflicted Mueller Witch Hunt is the fact that 19,000 demanded Text messages between Peter Strzok and his F.B.I. lover, Lisa Page, were purposely & illegally deleted,” Trump responded in a message on Twitter, Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

A newly obtained document indicates that Trump signed a letter of intent to push forward with negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Russia, despite his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani claiming Sunday that such a document was never signed. CNN’s Chris Cuomo obtained a copy of the signed letter of intent paving the way for negotiations regarding Trump condominiums, a hotel and commercial property in the heart of Moscow; when asked on Sunday about the letter, Giuliani had told CNN’s Dana Bash that “no one signed it,” Kate Sullivan reports at CNN.

An updated list of substantive documents in cases related to the Russia investigation is provided at Just Security.

TRUMP-RUSSIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“The niceties” between President Trump and Michael Flynn “have sparked a fair amount of speculation about what both [their] actual endgames may be,” Asawin Suebsaeng and Erin Banco comment at The Daily Beast, contrasting the president’s approach to Flynn with his “nuclear” stance against his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen

Judge Emmet Sullivan’s “ bold stand” in yesterday’s hearing “was worthy of another on the same court who … nearly half a century ago … was accused of overstepping his bounds during the Watergate cases,” Dana Milbank argues at the Washington Post, pointing out that “higher courts, and history, ultimately vindicated John Sirica’s belief that he shouldn’t be ‘sitting on the bench like a nincompoop and watching the parade go by.’”

The most “salient impediment” to indicting Trump is a D.O.J memo issued by the Office of Legal Counsel (O.L.C.,) Glenn Kirschner comments at NBC, taking the position that the memo should be set aside – as it “contemplates a president who was elected freely and fairly … yet evidence is mounting that Trump committed felonious campaign finance violations during the 2016 campaign.”

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Social media giant Facebook is “scrambling” to reassure civil rights groups after two reports prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee detailed how a Russian troll farm used the platform to try and suppress black voter turnout in the 2016 elections. The company released a “long-promised” update on an internal civil rights audit yesterday as the N.A.A.C.P. called for a boycott of the network and black lawmakers demanded answers from Facebook’s leaders; “we know we need to do more,” Facebook C.O.O. Sheryl Sandburg wrote in a blog post, adding “the civil rights audit is deeply important to me,” Harper Neidig reports at the Hill.

The special arrangements between Facebook and other tech companies for the sharing of users’ personal data have been exposed in in hundreds of pages of Facebook documents obtained by The New York Times. The internal documents suggest that the social network gave Microsoft, Amazon, Spotify and others far more intrusive access to the data than previously thought, Gabriel J.X. Dance, Michael LaForgia and Nicholas Confessore report at the New York Times.

President Trump yesterday launched a broadside against U.S. tech giants, accusing them of having a liberal bias, and claiming Twitter was making it more difficult to follow his own account. “Facebook, Twitter and Google are so biased toward the Dems it is ridiculous!” Trump claimed in a message on Twitter, adding “Twitter, in fact, has made it much more difficult for people to join @realDonaldTrump …they have removed many names & greatly slowed the level and speed of increase … They have acknowledged-done NOTHING!” AFP reports.

RUSSIA: OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday rejected the U.S. claim that Russia developed a new cruise missile in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (I.N.F.,) arguing that Moscow has no need for such a weapon because it already has similar missiles on its ships and aircraft. Washington warned this month it would withdraw from the I.N.F. in 60 days if Russia did not return to full compliance, Vladimir Isachenkov reports at the AP.

“Yes, it is true … there are certain problems with this agreement (the treaty) [as] other countries that possess intermediate and short range missiles are not part of it,” Putin told top military officials at a Defense Ministry meeting yesterday, adding: “what is stopping (us) from starting talks on them joining the current agreement or starting to discuss parameters for a new accord?” Reuters reports.

“The relationship between Moscow and Ankara remains close despite a number of harmful incidents.” Andrew Wilks explains at Al Jazeera.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

The U.S. State Department has approved a possible $3.5 billion sale of Patriot air and missile defense systems to Turkey, the Pentagon announced yesterday after notifying Congress of the certification. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency said the State Department had approved the sale of 80 Patriot guidance-enhanced missiles and 60 other missiles to Ankara, Reuters reports.

Ex-business partner of former U.S. national security adviser Michael Flynn – Bijan Rafiekian – yesterday pleaded not guilty to charges that he covertly lobbied for Turkey to discredit and extradite U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused by Ankara of launching the failed coup of 2016. Reuters reports.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) has lent its support behind Saudi Arabia’s rebuke of the U.S. Senate, following last week’s passing of a resolution last week blaming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the AP reports.

Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said yesterday that bin Salman must drop the “thuggish nature in which he has been acting,” also telling the Washington Examiner’s Tom Rogan that bin Salman has been “careless at times;” Haley added that “first and foremost, [bin Salman] owes us some accountability for what happened to Khashoggi … without question,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

A clandestine U.S.-backed initiative to forge closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel is facing setbacks following the implication of bin Salman in Khashoggi’s killing. Felicia Schwartz, Margherita Stancati and Summer Said report at the Wall Street Journal.

YEMEN

The U.N.-brokered ceasefire in the key Yemeni red sea port of Hodeidah will collapse if rebel violations persist and the U.N. does not intervene, the Saudi-led coalition claimed today. U.N. observers are due to arrive in the city later today to chair monitoring teams made up of Yemeni government and Iran-aligned Houthi rebel representatives – tasked with overseeing the implementation of the ceasefire that took effect yesterday. “A total of 21 violations since ceasefire commencement have come to our notice,” a coalition source told reporters, AFP reports.

The warring parties are blaming each other for breaches of the truce, with the Houthi rebels accusing coalition forces of shelling several sites in the city including areas east of the airport. Reuters reports.

Both sides in the Yemeni conflict have sent children into combat in violation of international human rights conventions, with the rebels believed to have recruited many more than the coalition — “often forcibly.” Maggie Michael provides an analysis at the AP.

SYRIA

The main international players in Syria yesterday failed to agree on the makeup of a U.N.-sponsored constitutional committee for the country, but Russia, Iran and Turkey all called for the body to convene early next year to commence a viable peace process. In a joint statement read out by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after the trio met the U.N. Syria peace envoy Staffan de Mistura in Geneva, the parties said that the new initiative should be guided “by a sense of compromise and constructive engagement,” Al Jazeera reports.

“In close consultation with the Secretary-General … I believe that there is an extra mile to go in the marathon effort to ensure the necessary package for a credible … balanced and inclusive constitutional committee,” de Mistura commented. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Islamic State group militants have executed nearly 700 prisoners in nearly two months in eastern Syria, U.K.-based monitor The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced today. Reuters 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]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley yesterday commented on Washington’s forthcoming Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, claiming “it is much longer [than previous versions]” and takes advantage of new technology. Making comments at a U.N. Security Council meeting, Haley shared no material details of President Trump’s promised “deal of the century,” but did say that the plan “contains much more thoughtful detail” and “recognizes that realities on the ground in the Middle East have changed in powerful and important ways,” Al Jazeera reports.

A specially appointed federal panel of judges yesterday dismissed all 83 ethics complaints brought against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh regarding his conduct at his confirmation hearings, concluding that although the complaints “are serious,” there is no existing authority allowing lower court judges to investigate or discipline justices of the highest U.S. Court. Nina Totenberg reports at NPR. 

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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).