The Early Edition: January 10, 2019

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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.

GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN AND BORDER WALL

President Trump yesterday walked out of a White House meeting with congressional leaders after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that she would not be prepared to fund a border wall even if the president consented to reopening government – the developments marking an intensification of the dispute that has led to the closure of large portions of the government for 19 days. Nicholas Fandos, Michael Tackett and Julie Hirschfeld Davis report at the New York Times.

Democrats emerged from the meeting in the White House Situation Room declaring that the president had thrown a “temper tantrum” and slammed his hands on the table before leaving with a sudden “bye-bye.” Republicans disputed the hand slam, blaming Democratic obstinacy for the stalemate. The BBC reports.

Trump offered a contrasting picture of the meeting which he described as “a total waste of time,” sending a message on Twitter stating: “I asked what is going to happen in 30 days if I quickly open things up, are you going to approve Border Security which includes a Wall or Steel Barrier? Nancy said, NO. I said bye-bye, nothing else works!” Sabrina Siddiqui and Lauren Gambino report at the Guardian.

While the two sides remain at an impasse – some 800,000 federal employees are expected to miss their first paycheck since the shutdown started on Dec. 22., due tomorrow. “The president seems to be insensitive to that … he thinks maybe they could just ask their father for more money … but they can’t,” Pelosi commented, Susan Davis, Kelsey Snell and Scott Horsley report at NPR.

An increasingly likely option is that President Trump will declare a national emergency over border security and try to use Pentagon funds to pay for construction of a wall or other barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border, according to White House Officials. Should the administration take that route, House Democrats – now holding a majority in the chamber –have vowed to immediately challenge the action in court. Rebecca Ballhaus, Kristina Peterson and Natalie Andrews report at the Wall Street Journal.

Ahead of yesterday’s meeting, Trump had claimed that he has the “absolute right” to declare a national emergency and force the construction of a border wall, but said he would still prefer to reach a wall-funding deal with lawmakers. “My threshold [for declaring a national emergency] will be if I can’t make a deal with people that are unreasonable,” Trump told reporters, Matthew Choi reports at POLITICO.

Trump also claimed hat his party was unified in its demands for border security. “The Republicans are totally unified … a couple talked about strategy … but they’re with us all the way,” the president commented, Reuters reports.

However, the president is reportedly “facing mounting skepticism” from Republicans who would be affected the most by the border wall proposals. Top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) said earlier this week that he opposes an emergency declaration to build the wall, while Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex) – whose district includes 820 miles along the border – has repeatedly spoken out and voted against the policy, Matt Viser explains at the Washington Post.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador yesterday downplayed questions regarding Trump’s Oval Office address Tuesday, in which the president had claimed that a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is necessary to keep out drugs and criminals. “When a new president takes office, almost as soon as they take power, they’re already thinking about reelection, and their opponents are doing the same,” López Obrador commented at a news conference, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN AND BORDER WALL: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An account of yesterday’s developments is provided by Stephen Collinson at CNN, who notes that “while the President is in an apparently weak position, he is running through a repertoire of power plays to somehow reshape the nation’s thinking on the wall and to force the Democrats to cave.”

An analysis of whether the president can use emergency powers to fulfill his campaign promise to build a southern wall is provided at the Economist.

Although there is “ample” legal precedent for declaring a state of emergency – “reallocating military funds for building the border fence… is trickier,” Rich Lowry cautions at POLITICO Magazine, writing that to “rely on statutes enabling the president to spend on construction to support the use of the armed forces or construction essential to the national defense” would be “tenuous.”

“If the president does invoke emergency powers to circumvent Congress … it would be an extraordinary violation of constitutional norms — and establish a precedent for presidents who fail to win approval for funding a policy goal,” Charlie Savage comments at the New York Times, explaining that nevertheless such a route may be the only politically feasible way to end the government shutdown.

Trump’s proposed wall is not a mere physical barrier but rather “ a symbol of hate and racism,” with the president aiming “to exploit the anxiety and resentment of voters in an increasingly multicultural, multiethnic society,” Jorge Ramos comments at the New York Times.

Democrats must compromise on border security, Karl Rove argues at the Wall Street Journal, writing that the party appears “more eager to use immigration as a political weapon than to resolve the policy issue” and that if Democrats “believe their own messaging, they have a moral obligation not only to stop spending money on border barriers, but also to remove existing ones.”

A “history of U.S. border apprehensions,” is presented through a series of graphics at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference– is reportedly planning to leave the Department of Justice (D.O.J.,) according to a source familiar with his thinking, with Rosenstein’s planned departure to swiftly follow the confirmation of the president’s nominee for Attorney General – William Barr. The source claimed that Rosenstein is not being forced out, and that he has conveyed his thinking to the White House; the development may provide the strongest indicator to date that Mueller’s investigation is close to wrapping up, Laura Jarrett and Eva Perez report at CNN.

A source close to Rosenstein claimed that he intends to stay on until Mueller’s investigative and prosecutorial work is done, with the implication that Rosenstein would remain in post until early March, according to the source. The source said once Mueller’s work is done, the special counsel’s report to the D.O.J. would follow a few weeks later, with Rosenstein likely gone by that stage; other sources claimed there is no such fixed timeline, Pete Williams and Allan Smith report at NBC.

President Trump’s legal team has told special Mueller that the president will not answer any more questions relating to the probe, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani told reporters yesterday. Reuters reports.

An expanded White House legal team is reportedly preparing to prevent President Trump’s confidential discussions with top advisers from being disclosed to House Democratic investigators and revealed in Mueller’s report, paving the way for a potential clash. The strategy to assert the president’s executive privilege on both fronts is allegedly being developed under newly appointed White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who has hired 17 lawyers in recent weeks to assist in the plan, Carol D. Leonnig writes at the Washington Post.

“While concerns about the lengths to which Trump will go to protect himself and his inner circle from accountability are well-founded … there are important limits to the pardon power,” Sam Berger writes at Just Security, providing an analysis of the four major legal limitations that Trump will face should he attempt to pardon himself.

SYRIA

The principal jihadist alliance in Syria’s northwestern Idlib region reached a deal today, ending days of violent clashes with rival rebels and extending its influence over the rebel-held enclave. The pact brings an immediate ceasefire between Al Quaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (H.T.S.) and the rival Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (N.L.F.), according to the militants’ website Ebaa, AFP reports.

Rusian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar yesterday held a phone call to discuss the situation in Syria, with Akar reiterating Turkey’s earlier statement that it would not hesitate to act against Syrian Kurdish fighters. The Russian defense ministry said in a brief readout of the phone call that the two ministers discussed the situation in Idlib and other regional security issues, the AP reports.

Concerns that Turkish President Reccep Tayip Erdogan “has sympathies for the jihadis or that he might turn a blind eye to them while cracking down on America’s Kurdish allies [in Syria]” are misplaced, Selim Sazak comments at Foreign Policy, arguing that “the notion that Erdogan is ideologically sympathetic to the Islamic States reveals an ignorance of Turkey’s domestic politics.”

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 469 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Dec. 16 and Dec. 29. [Central Command]

YEMEN

A drone attack carried out today by the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen has killed at least five Yemeni soldiers and wounded several senior officers from the Yemeni army, according to a government official and a Houthi spokesperson. The attack was carried out on a military parade at the al-Anad military base and wounded at least 20 military personnel including head of Yemen’s Intelligence Service Mohammad Saleh Tamah and the governor of Lahij province Ahmed al-Turki, Al Jazeera reports.

U.N. Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths yesterday told the Security Council that “the difficult part” of reaching a lasting political settlement in the country “is still ahead of us,” urging the Council to support the “speedy implementation” of the fragile ceasefire agreed in and around the crucial port city of Hodeidah at breakthrough talks in Sweden last month. Griffiths told Council members that he was “under no illusion that these are very sensitive and challenging days” for both the Government coalition, and opposition Houthi leaders, “and for Yemen as a whole,” the U.N. News Centre reports.

IRAN

Iran will continue with its aerospace program despite warnings of more economic and political isolation by the U.S., Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said yesterday, adding there was no international law prohibiting the plan. Al Jazeera reports.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned yesterday that the U.S. faces “unprecedented” defeat because of sanctions it has leveled on Tehran under President Trump, adding that “the sanctions do put pressure on the country and the people,” Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

Tehran has confirmed media reports that U.S. Navy veteran Michael R. White is being detained in an Iranian prison. “An American Citizen, named Michael White was arrested a while ago in the city of Mashhad,” the spokesperson for the country’s ministry of foreign affairs said, adding that “[White’s] arrest was communicated early through Interests Section of The Islamic Republic of Iran to the U.S. government,” Sasha Ingber reports at NPR.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly told North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that Beijing backs the North Korean leader’s proposed second summit with President Trump and hopes the two sides “meet each other halfway,” state media reported today. The two allies held two days of talks in Beijing this week, seen as a “strategy session” as Kim prepares for his follow-up summit with Trump to kick-start stalled denuclearization talks, AFP reports.

Kim allegedly told Xi that the North would “continue sticking to the stance of denuclearization” and “make efforts for the second summit … to achieve results”, according to Chinese state media, Justin McCurry and Lily Kuo report at the Guardian.

Kim’s China visit shows Trump that the U.S. president is “not the only game in town,” Alexander Smith explains in an analysis at NBC.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday made a surprise visit to Iraq, where officials implored him to maintain a U.S. troop presence in the country and sought U.S. reassurances after the Trump administration announced plans to withdraw troops from elsewhere in the region. Isabel Coles and Courtney McBride report at the Wall Street Journal.

Former commander of Guantánamo Navy base Navy Capt. John “J.R.” Nettleton is under arrest, accused of covering up an affair and fight he had with a base worker who soon afterward was found drowned in the bay, according to an indictment obtained by McClatchy. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald. 

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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).