The Early Edition: January 11, 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 considered the possibility that he could declare a national emergency so that he can bypass Congress to get funding for his proposed border wall – a central promise of his 2016 election campaign. Facing the prospect within days of the longest U.S. government shutdown in history, Trump publicly ruminated during a trip to the Texas border about taking steps to declare an emergency, Reuters reports.

“If we don’t make a deal with Congress … most likely I will [declare a national emergency] … I would actually say I would,” the president told Fox News’ Sean Hannity in an interview at the southern border aired last night. “I can’t imagine any reason why not,” Trump said, adding “we are going to see what happens over the next few days,” Burgess Everett, Heather Caygle, Rebecca Morin and John Bresnahan report at POLITICO.

“They say a wall is medieval … so is a wheel,” Trump said of his critics, during a roundtable with law enforcement officials near the U.S.-Mexico line in McAllen, Texas, adding: “a wheel works and a wall works.” Trump spent the session listening to praise from participants, including Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.,) and presentations from law enforcement officers who drew on seized drugs, guns and cash to illustrate their arguments regarding dangerous contraband being smuggled across the border, Jonathan Allen reports at NBC.

Earlier yesterday Trump disputed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) account of their heated meeting Wednesday, insisting that he had not slammed his fists on the table after hearing Democrats would not support funding for a border wall. “Cryin Chuck told his favorite lie when he used his standard sound bite that I ‘slammed the table & walked out of the room’ … he had a temper tantrum,” Trump claimed in a message on Twitter, adding “because I knew he would say that, and after [House Speaker] Nancy [Pelosi] said no to proper Border Security, I politely said bye-bye and left, no slamming!” Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

“I find China, frankly, in many ways to be far more honorable than Cryin’ Chuck and Nancy … I really do,” Trump told reporters outside the White House, adding “I think that China is actually much easier to deal with than the opposition party.” Matthew Choi reports at POLITICO.

White House officials are reportedly divided over whether Trump should declare a national emergency to obtain funding and end the partial government shutdown, but are exploring options for how the president might divert funding for the border wall if he decides to do so. The White House has allegedly asked the Army Corps of Engineers to examine potentially syphoning money from other projects to pay for the wall, with the administration also exploring whether the Department of Homeland Security could request the funds from the Pentagon, Michael C. Bender, Kristina Peterson and Peter Nicholas report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump advisers including his son-in-law and senior adviser – Jared Kushner –have reportedly urged the president to attempt to find other approaches as alternatives to declaring a national emergency. Michael Tackett and Julie Hirschfeld Davis report at the New York Times.

“It is time for President Trump to use emergency powers to fund the construction of a border wall/barrier… I hope it works,” Trump loyalist Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) commented in a statement. Graham’s decision to throw his support behind the president follows remarks earlier this week when he told reporters that declaring a national emergency at the Mexican border should be a “ last resort” and is not the “preferred route,” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

The F.B.I. Agents Association yesterday released a petition describing the shutdown as a matter of national security, appealing to leaders in Washington to reopen the government. “On Friday, January 11, 2019, F.B.I. Agents will not be paid due to the partial government shutdown, but we will continue our work protecting our nation,” the petition states, adding “we urge our elected representatives to fund the Department of Justice (‘D.O.J.’) and the F.B.I. because financial security is a matter of national security,” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Senior Border Patrol officials are reportedly taking up Trump’s call for more miles of border barrier, pushing back against congressional Democrats who argue that additional fencing is unnecessary. John Burnett explains at NPR.

An account of how some Texan landowners are reluctant to give up their private land to facilitate the border wall is provided by Katie Zezima and Mark Berman at the Washington Post.

GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN AND BORDER WALL: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An explainer on the president’s ability to declare a national emergency and whether this could be harnessed to fund a border wall is provided by Adam Gabbatt at the Guardian.

“The Obama-era fights over executive power foreshadowed in some ways the current standoff over President Trump’s insistence on building a wall on the southern border,” Peter Nicholas writes at the Wall Street Journal, drawing links between the current and previous administrations.

“The rise of Mr. Trump has reminded everyone of the potential danger from unchecked power,” the Washington Post editorial board writes, commenting that Trump’s assertion that he might sidestep Congress has exposed the worrying drift of power toward the executive that has taken place over several years.

“Trump is trying to look tough, but his actions betray nervousness … fear,” Frida Ghitis comments at CNN, situating the government shutdown and border wall fallout in the broader context of the Mueller probe and ongoing foreign policy disputes.           

A series of scenarios for how the government shutdown and border wall dispute might play out are floated at Reuters.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Special Counsel Robert Mueller – investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election – and other federal prosecutors have been questioning witnesses about a number of Ukrainian lawmakers and business figures who attended President Trump’s inauguration events and allegedly promoted “peace plans” that would have the effect of easing U.S. sanctions against Russia. At least a dozen Ukrainian political and business figures allegedly attended the events, also attending meetings with Republican lawmakers and Trump allies, Kenneth P. Vogel, Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti and Juliia Mendel report at the New York Times.

Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen will testify in Congress on Feburary 7, lawmakers said yesterday, posing a potential new threat to the president. The development follows Cohen being sentenced to 3 years in prison for multiple campaign violation offences in December; “I look forward to having the privilege of being afforded a platform with which to give a full and credible account of the events which have transpired,” Cohen said in a statement, AFP reports.

Mueller’s team reportedly met last year with a pollster for the 2016 Trump campaign Tony Fabrizio, according to CNN journalists – who claim to have seen Fabrizio leave the special counsel’s office in February 2018. Sara Murray and Katelyn Polantz report at CNN.

The president claimed yesterday that he did not know that his former presidential campaign chairman Paul Manafort shared polling data with business partner Konstantin Kilimnik, who prosecutors say had ties to Russian intelligence. “No, I didn’t know anything about it,” the president told reporters at the White House, Reuters reports.

“If the data Manafort shared with Kilimnik was used to materially guide spending by Russian nationals to influence the 2016 presidential election … then the Trump campaign seemingly received an “in-kind contribution” from the Russian nationals in the form of “coordinated expenditures” Paul Seamus Ryan explains at Just Security, providing a legal analysis of how the data sharing may have constituted an federal campaign violation offence.

SYRIA

The U.S.-led coalition fighting against the IsIamic State group has started the process of withdrawing from Syria, according to its spokesperson. The coalition “has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria … out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troop movements,” Col. Sean Ryan said today, Ben Hubbard reports at the New York Times.

U.K.-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the coalition had already started reducing its presence at Rmeilan airfield in the notheastern province of Hasakeh, with the monitor’s head Rami Abdel Rahman announcing: “on Thursday, some American forces withdrew from the Rmeilan military base in Hasakeh province,” Al Jazeera reports.

Turkey’s intended military operation against the U.S.-backed Y.P.G. Kurdish militia in Syria does not depend on U.S. withdrawal from the region, Ankara said yesterday, in an indication that Turkey remains undeterred by U.S. efforts to safeguard its local allies. Reuters reports.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee emerged yesterday from a closed-door briefing on the U.S. administration’s Syria policy with outstanding questions regarding the president’s plan for a withdrawal. “I think there’s got to be some level of conditions with this withdrawal … if it’s just purely time-based, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) commented, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

“We urge the president to continue prioritizing justice for the Americans lost in Syria and not lose sight of the momentous opportunity that lies ahead of him,” Member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Diane Foley write at the Washington Post, drawing attention to the vulnerability of U.S.’ allies in Syria to Islamic State group violence.

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]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel will not be able to deliver to Croatia a dozen used F-16 fighter jets which Croatia opted to buy last year, Croatia’s Defense Minister Damir Krsticevic said yesterday. “Israel has officially informed us that it cannot get an approval from the U.S. for delivery of the planes to Croatia,” Krsticevic told reporters after a meeting with an Israeli delegation in Zagreb, Reuters reports.

A scheduled Jan. 15 s meeting between Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been called off due to Lavrov’s busy schedule, Palestinian officials said yesterday – amid “new friction” between the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza and the Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank. Reuters reports.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION MIDDLE EAST POLICY

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday laid out his vision for for America’s role in the Middle East, telling a university audience in Cairo that “the age of self-inflicted American shame is over” and that the U.S. would pursue a more activist policy, despite President Trump’s decision in December to pull troops out of Syria. Pompeo painted a picture of a Middle East thrown into chaos by former President Barack Obama, and claimed that the situation could only be salvaged through crushing Iran, vowing to “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria, Declan Walsh and David E. Sanger report at the New York Times.

“In falsely seeing ourselves as a force for what ails the Middle East … we were timid about asserting ourselves when the times – and our partners – demanded it,” Pompeo said during the speech. Pompeo’s critical comments on the Obama administration have in turn prompted critiques of the Trump administration’s strategy for the region, Daniella Cheslow writes at NPR.

“Beyond his fondness for autocrats … Trump’s policy in the region is a muddle, and his top diplomat offered little clarity,” the Economist comments.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.N. rights investigator Tomas Ojea Quintana said today that negotiations on North Korea’s denuclearization must also include its “abysmal” human rights situation. The AP reports.

Russia may hand over 24 Ukrainian navy sailors seized off the coast of Crimea as part of a prisoner swap deal with Ukraine later this year, pro-Kremlin Izvestia newspaper cited a high-ranking Russian diplomatic source as saying today. Reuters reports.

Yesterday’s deadly drone attack by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels illustrates how the war-torn country has become “one of the world’s top battlefields” for drones. Jon Gambrell provides an analysis at the AP.

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International has reiterated its call for an international probe into the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, making the appeal outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Tuesday – marking the 100th day since Khashoggi was murdered there. Al Jazeera reports.

Iran’s Next Supreme Leader Is Dead.” Kevjn Lim explains the complexities surrounding leading candidate Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi at Foreign Policy.

The White House is ramping up for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s possible death or departure from the Supreme Court — an event that would trigger the second confirmation battle of President Trump’s tenure. Eliana Johnson and Gaby Orr provide an analysis at POLITICO. 

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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).