The Early Edition: January 3, 2019

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.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

President Trump held a sprawling and unfocused Cabinet meeting yesterday, with topics including the departure of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria, the proposed border wall with Mexico, and the government shutdown. Anne Gearan reports at the Washington Post.

Trump claimed that he had “essentially” fired Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in December because he was unhappy with his performance, asking reporters at the Cabinet meeting: “What’s he done for me? How has he done in Afghanistan? … I’m not happy with what he’s done in Afghanistan, and I shouldn’t be happy.” Maggie Haberman reports at the New York Times.

Trump told the new acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to no longer publicly release inspector general reports on U.S. military operations, saying during the Cabinet meeting that it is “insane” that everyone, including U.S.’ enemies, can read the watchdog findings. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

“Remember China, China, China,” Shanahan told colleagues at the Pentagon on his first full day as acting Defense Secretary, according to a U.S. defense official. Shanahan also said during the Cabinet meeting that the Defense Department has been working “closely” with Homeland Security to help secure the U.S.’ southern border, Ryan Browne reports at CNN.

A new dynamic was revealed at yesterday’s Cabinet meeting: “A president with strong opinions about ending America’s wars, and a man at the helm of the Pentagon who may bow to his wishes,” Lara Seligman comments at Foreign Policy on Shanahan’s role in Trump’s Pentagon.

Trump gave a bizarre account of the fall of the Soviet Union, and the history of Russia and Afghanistan during the Cabinet meeting, claiming that “the reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia.” Aaron Blake provides a breakdown of the president’s falsehoods at the Washington Post.

Trump’s new acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney can be more successful than his predecessors by sticking to the basics, Chris Wipple writes at the POLITICO Magazine.

SYRIA

President Trump described Syria as a land of “sand and death” during a Cabinet meeting yesterday and reiterated that the 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country would be withdrawing, but that this would happen “over a period of time.” The AFP reports.

“We’re getting out and we’re getting out smart,” Trump explained, adding” “I never said I’m getting out tomorrow.” Trump also expressed dissatisfaction that the Syrian Kurds have been selling oil to Iran, but that he wanted to “protect the Kurds, nevertheless.” Al Jazeera reports.

“Iran is pulling people out of Syria, but they can frankly do whatever they want there,” Trump said yesterday, but then pointed to Iran’s activities in Yemen and Syria and asked “how do you stop these people?” Amir Tibon reports at Haaretz.

Trump’s plans for withdrawing 2,000 troops from Syria and around half of the troops stationed in Afghanistan lacks transparency, the Washington Post editorial board writes, arguing that the president “owes those soldiers, and the country as a whole, a better explanation.”

Lebanon has been presenting itself as a “logistics hub” for Syria’s reconstruction in a bid to attract investment from China, Chloe Cornish and Archie Zhang explain at the Financial Times.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 208 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Dec. 9 and Dec. 15. [Central Command]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump told reporters yesterday that he would likely have a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the “not-too-distant future,” making the comments after receiving a “great” letter from Kim and hearing Kim’s New Year address in which the North Korean leader vowed to work towards denuclearization, but warned that he may take a “new path” if the U.S. continues to maintain sanctions and pressure against the country. Jeff Mason and David Brunnstrom report at Reuters.

North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy – Jo Song-gil – has disappeared, according to South Korea’s spy agency, which made the announcement following unconfirmed reports that the top diplomat has sought asylum. If confirmed, the defection would mark a blow to Kim’s regime, the BBC reports.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

The U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Jon Huntsman, yesterday visited U.S. citizen Paul Whelan who has been detained in Russia since Dec. 28 on charges of espionage. Whelan’s family said that the American was in Russia for a wedding and innocent of the charges. Ann M. Simmons, Ben Kesling and Courtney McBride report at the Wall Street Journal.

“We’ve made clear to the Russians our expectations that we will learn more about the charges, come to understand what he’s accused of,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a news conference in Brazil yesterday, adding that the U.S. would demand Whelan’s immediate return “if the detention is not appropriate.” Alan Yuhas reports at the New York Times.

Whelan is being held at the notorious Lefortovo Prison in Moscow and some former spies believe that he was arrested as revenge for the U.S. detaining the Russian activist Maria Butina, who pleaded guilty last month to conspiracy to act as a foreign agent and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors. Anna Nemtsova explains at The Daily Beast.

A breakdown of what is known about Whelan and his detention is provided by Nicole Chavez at CNN.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump “doesn’t remember” how long discussions continued about building a Trump Tower in Moscow, the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said yesterday, adding: “as far as he’s concerned, it could be anywhere up to November of 2016.” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Confirmation hearings for Attorney General nominee William Barr will be held on Jan. 15 and 16, the Senate Judiciary Committee said yesterday, but did not provide further details. Democrats have blasted Barr’s nomination because of his criticisms of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Reuters reports.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

Saudi Arabia’s state media today reported that 11 suspected killers of the U.S. resident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi have attended their first court hearing, with the Saudi attorney general demanding the death penalty for five of the suspects. Al Jazeera reports.

House Republicans have allowed President Trump to avoid making a declaration that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was “responsible” for Khashoggi’s killing by not bringing forward a vote before the 115th Congress officially ends at noon today. Andrew Desiderio explains at The Daily Beast.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

China has advanced its position as a leading space power after successfully landing a rover on the far side of the moon. Matt Rivers, Helen Regan and Steven Jiang report at CNN.

Taliban fighters today killed eight police officers in the provincial capital of Afghanistan’s northern Baghlan province, the AP reports.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday spoke to officials in Colombia and Brazil about the situation in Venezuela and pledged U.S. support for their countries, prompting the Venezuelan foreign ministry to issue a statement reprimanding Pompeo for having an “interventionist attitude.” The AP reports.

Saudi Arabia yesterday issued a statement denying that it had distributed U.S.-made weapons to Sudanese soldiers fighting for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The statement follows a New York Times report last week, which also claimed that Sudanese recruits included child soldiers. David D. Kirkpatrick reports at the New York Times.

A U.S. delegation is meeting with Turkish officials to discuss Turkey’s extradition request for the Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Turkey claim was the mastermind behind the failed 2016 coup in Ankara. The AP reports.

The expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank has accelerated since President Trump took office, according to data gathered by the anti-settlement monitoring group Peace Now. Josef Federman reports at the AP.

Court documents reveal that former C.I.A. officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee – who has been accused of spying for China – had an accomplice. Tom Winter and Ken Dilanian report at NBC News.

The Al-Shabaab-claimed attack on a U.N. compound in Somalia may be a violation of international humanitarian law, the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said yesterday, condemning the attack on Tuesday which injured two U.N. personnel and one contractor. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Taiwan has been forging closer ties with India to resist pressure from China, which has been taking an increasingly aggressive approach to unifying China and Taiwan. Edward White reports at the Finanical Times. 

Filed under:
About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK