The Early Edition: January 14, 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.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The weekend saw fresh allegations regarding President Trump’s relationship with Moscow, with Greg Miller reporting at the Washington Post that the president has “gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin … including on at least one occasion taking possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instructing the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials.” The 2017 meeting in question took place in Hamburg and was also attended by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; U.S. officials reportedly learned of Trump’s actions when a White House adviser and a senior State Department official sought information from the interpreter beyond the readout shared by Tillerson.

Trump dismissed the story as “ridiculous,” refuting the account in a telephone interview late Saturday with Fox News. When asked why not release details of the nearly two-hour conversation he had with Putin in Helsinki last year, Trump said: “I would, I don’t with care … I mean, I had a conversation like every president does. You sit with the president of various countries… we were talking about Israel and securing Israel and lots of other things … I’m not keeping anything under wraps, I couldn’t care less. I mean, it’s so ridiculous,” AFP reports.

The Trump administration formally rejected the Washington Post report, claiming that Tillerson in 2017 “gave a fulsome readout of the meeting immediately afterwards to other US officials in a private setting, as well as a readout to the press.” Al Jazeera reports.

In the days after Trump fired former F.B.I. Director James Comey – law enforcement officials allegedly grew so concerned by Trump’s behavior that they commenced investigations into whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against U.S. interests, Adam Goldman, Michael S. Schmidt and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times in a distinct development, writing that “the inquiry carried explosive implications … counterintelligence investigators had to consider whether the president’s own actions constituted a possible threat to national security.”

The president responded to the report Saturday morning, launching a volley of “false claims” on Twitter over a two-hour span. Without citing evidence, the president accused former Democratic rival Hillary Clinton of breaking the law by lying to the F.B.I., also claiming that Comey was best friends with special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion by the Trump campaign; Trump also claimed that Mueller is employing a team of Democrats bent on ending his presidency, Nicholas Fandos and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

The developments have served as ammunition in the Democrats’ burgeoning investigations of Trump’s presidency and have laid the ground for a possible clash between the White House and Congress. Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) appealed to Republican colleagues yesterday to support his effort to obtain notes or testimony from the interpreter in one of the private meetings between Trump and Putin, sending a  message on Twitter stating: “will they join us now? shouldn’t we find out whether our president is really putting ‘America first?’” Julian E. Barnes and Matthew Rosenberg report at the New York Times.

Three top Democrats yesterday issued a warning to Trump cautioning that he cannot “discourage, intimidate, or otherwise pressure” witnesses, in response to the president’s Saturday comments about his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen. “The integrity of our process to serve as an independent check on the Executive Branch must be respected by everyone, including the President,” Schiff, Chair of the House Oversight Committee Elijah Cummings (Md.) and Chair of the Judiciary Committee Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) said in a joint statement, adding: “the President should make no statement or take any action to obstruct Congress’ independent oversight and investigative efforts, including by seeking to discourage any witness from testifying in response to a duly authorized request from Congress,” Allan Smith reports at NBC.

Lawmakers will need “ironclad, rock-bottom assurances” from attorney general nominee William Barr that he will oversee Mueller’s investigation fairly, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said yesterday, telling ABC “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos: “I’m worried about it … I mean, clearly he’s a good lawyer, no question, but when it comes to this delicate political situation — the power of the presidency, whether this investigation is warranted — Bill Barr had better give us some ironclad, rock-bottom assurances in terms of his independence and his willingness to step back and let Mueller finish his job.” Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

“Why is [Trump] so chummy with Vladimir Putin … this man who is a former K.G.B. agent, never been a friend to the U.S. … invaded our allies … threatens us around the world, and tries his damnedest to undermine our elections?” Durbin added regarding the fresh revelations over the weekend surrounding Trump’s meetings with Putin. Allan Smith reports at NBC.

A U.S. intelligence report has conclude that Russian agent Mariia Butina’s efforts to infiltrate the National Rifle Association (N.R.A) were endorsed by the Kremlin. Betsy Woodruff reports at The Daily Beast.

New revelations about former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s interactions with Russian associate Konstantin Kilimnik give us some sense of “how extensively the special counsel [Robert Mueller has mapped interactions between Trump associates and Russians in his 20-month-long investigation.” Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger provide an analysis at the Washington Post.

A series of “18 reasons why Trump could be a Russian asset” are laid out by Max Boot at the Washington Post.

GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN AND BORDER WALL

The partial government shutdown became the longest in modern U.S. history yesterday as the stalemate over funding for President Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border stretched into its 23rd day. Kristina Peterson, Michael C. Bender and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Trump ally Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) yesterday claimed that he had urged the president to temporarily reopen government in order to kickstart fresh negotiations. Graham said that if talks still failed to agree the funding, the White House could still go down the path of declaring a national emergency, the BBC reports.

Other top Republican lawmakers yesterday warned against Trump declaring a national emergency to secure funds for the border wall, with Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee Ron Johnson telling CNN that he would “hate” to see Trump invoke emergency powers for a wall, adding: “if we do that, it’s going to go to court and the wall won’t get built.” AFP reports.

Trump reportedly lambasted his acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney for proposing a shutdown compromise during a bipartisan meeting with congressional leaders on Jan. 4. According to one source, Mulvaney jumped in to suggest “that if Dems weren’t OK with $5.7 [billion] and the president wasn’t OK with $1.3 [the Democratic offer] … he was trying to say we should find a middle ground;” Trump reportedly was unhappy with the statement, telling Mulvaney that “you just f**ked it all up, Mick,” Jonathan Swan reports at Axios.

An explainer on how Trump’s opponents could use the courts to prevent the president going ahead with a border wall is provided by Jess Bravin at the Wall Street Journal.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION MIDDLE EAST POLICY

The Trump administration expects Saudi Arabia to hold “every single person” responsible for the murder of Washington Post Jamal Khashoggi accountable, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said today after talks with senior Saudi officials that also focused on Middle Eastern crises and countering threats from Iran. Pompeo, making comments to reporters at the end of a trip to Riyadh, said he had raised the Khashoggi case in his meetings with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in addition to other human rights concerns, Matthew Lee reports at the AP.

Pompeo and bin Salman allegedly agreed on the importance of de-escalation in military operations in Yemen amid the U.N.’s efforts to end the conflict. “On #Yemen, agreed on need for continued de-escalation and adherence to Sweden agreements, especially cease-fire and redeployment in #Hudaydah,” the U.S. embassy in Riyadh claimed in a message on Twitter following today’s meeting, Al Jazeera reports.

Pompeo will cut short the rest of his Middle East trip to attend a family funeral, according to a State Department spokesperson. He will return home after meetings in Oman instead of travelling on to Kuwait as planned, Reuters reports.

“I am struck by what is not included in Mr. Pompeo’s itinerary: the brave women activists of Saudi Arabia … who are being held in the kingdom’s prisons for seeking rights and dignity,” Alia al-Hathloul writes in an Op-Ed at the New York Times, explaining that “Pompeo’s apathy is personal for me because one of the women detained, Loujain al-Hathloul, is my sister.”

SYRIA

President Trump yesterday warned Turkey of economic devastation if it attacks Kurdish forces in the wake of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, while also appealing to Kurds in the country not to “provoke” Ankara. “Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds,” Trump claimed in a message sent on Twitter, also calling for the establishment of a 20-mile ‘safe zone’; in a further message, Trump described the withdrawal from Syria as “long overdue” but claimed the U.S would still hit “the little remaining [Islamic Stage group] territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions … will attack again from existing nearby base if it reforms,” the Guardian reports.

“Russia, Iran and Syria have been the biggest beneficiaries of the long term U.S. policy of destroying ISIS in Syria – natural enemies,” Trump continued in his series of Twitter messages, adding: “we also benefit but it is now time to bring our troops back home … Stop the ENDLESS WARS!” Trump’s tweets follow threats from Ankara to commence a new cross-border operation against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (Y.P.G.,) Kate Sullivan and Liz Stark report at CNN.

Turkey today vowed to keep up the fight against the Y.P.G., which it views as terrorists. Spokesperson for Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan – Ibrahim Kalin – issued a message on Twitter warning Trump that “terrorists can’t be your partners & allies … Turkey expects the U.S. to honor our strategic partnership and doesn’t want it to be shadowed by terrorist propaganda,” later adding that it was “a fatal mistake to equate Syrian Kurds with the P.K.K. [blacklisted as a terrorist organization by Ankara and the U.S.]” AFP reports.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu today also pushed back against Trump’s threats, saying nothing could be achieved by threatening Ankara economically and strategic partners should not communicate over social media. Cavusoglu added that Trump’s latest tweets on Syria were related to domestic politics, Reuters reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had claimed over the weekend to be “optimistic” that an agreement could be reached with Ankara that will protect Syrian Kurdish groups while allowing Ankara to “defend their country from terrorists” following the U.S. withdrawal from Syria. “We are confident we can achieve an outcome that achieves both of those,” Pompeo told journalists on Saturday in Abu Dhabi, Al Jazeera reports.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Israel carried out strikes on Iranian weapons in Syria over the weekend, in a “rare” public confirmation of such attacks. “Just in the last 36 hours the air force attacked Iranian warehouses containing Iranian weapons in the Damascus international airport,” Netanyahu said yesterday at the start of a cabinet meeting, adding “the accumulation of recent attacks shows that we’re more determined than ever to act against Iran in Syria, just as we promised,” Al Jazeera reports.

The head of the media office for the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) has said that the S.D.F. is attacking one of Islamic State group’s (I.S.I.S.) last major strongholds near the Iraqi border, also claiming that I.S.I.S. are “living the final moments and realize that this battle is the battle to eliminate them.” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Gulf Arab nations are queuing up to reopen their embassies in Syria, seemingly concerned about “leaving the country at the heart of the Arab world to regional rivals Iran and Turkey and missing out on lucrative post-war reconstructive projects.” Zeina Karam explains at the AP.

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]

IRAN

President Trump’s National Security Council asked the Pentagon to provide the White House with military options to strike Iran last year, provoking concern at the Pentagon and State Department, according to current and former U.S. officials. The request from national security advisor John Bolton allegedly came after militants fired three mortars into Baghdad’s diplomatic quarter in early September – an attack that harmed no one but that “triggered unusual alarm in Washington,” Dion Nissenbaum reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Pentagon reportedly complied with Bolton’s request, although it is unclear whether a serious plan was developed or whether President Trump was aware of the request. “We continue to review the status of our personnel following attempted attacks on our embassy in Baghdad and our Basra consulate, and we will consider a full range of options to preserve their safety and our interests,” National Security Council spokesperson Garrett Marquis told the Wall Street Journal, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Iranian authorities yesterday summoned Warsaw’s top diplomat in the country and called off a Polish film festival, apparently angered by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement that Poland will host an international conference on Iran in mid-February, Nasser Karimi reports at the AP.

Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi reportedly said yesterday that Tehran has launched “preliminary activities for designing” uranium fuel with a purity of 20 percent, in a move that would be at odds with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. “Preliminary activities for designing modern 20 percent [enriched uranium] fuel have begun,” Salehi said in televised remarks, Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen threatened yesterday to launch further drone attacks after last week’s deadly attack on a Yemeni government military parade, stoking tension between the warring parties amid U.N. peace efforts. Houthi spokesperson Yahya Sarea claimed Thursday’s drone strike on a military base in Lahaj province was a “legitimate operation against aggression,” adding that the rebels are building a stockpile locally manufactured drones, Reuters reports.

Israel claims that it has completely dismantled a series of tunnels under its border with Lebanon, which it claims were dug by the Iran-backed Lebanese militant Hezbollah group. Spokesperson for the Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) Jonathan Conricus said that the I.D.F. would now end its operation to find and destroy the tunnels that it said the armed group wanted to use to conduct cross border attacks, adding “according to our intelligence and our assessment of the situation there are no longer any cross-border attack tunnels from Lebanon into Israel,” Al Jazeera reports.

At least five members of the Afghan security forces were killed after a checkpoint was attacked by insurgents in the southern province of Kandahar, according to a provincial official. The AP reports.

China today appealed to the international community to end “fabrications” about tech giant Huawei, after an official in Poland said his country could limit the use of the Chinese organization’s products by public entities following the arrest of a Huawei employee on spying allegations. Reuters reports.

The U.N. Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for the naming dispute between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (F.Y.R.O.M.) – Matthew Nimetz – has welcomed the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia parliament’s decision to ratify an agreement on a new name for the country, following a dispute that has lasted some 28 years. The U.N. News Centre reports. 

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).