The Early Edition: January 15, 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.

N.A.T.O

Senior administration officials have disclosed that President Trump expressed the wish to pull the U.S. out North Atlantic Treaty Organization (N.A.T.O.) several times last year, with the officials claiming that they remain concerned about the president’s intentions to do so – the revelations coming amidst growing anxiety around Trump’s efforts to keep secret his meetings with Russia President Vladimir Putin, and a 2017 investigation into whether the president acted against U.S. interests. The officials claim that they fear the president could return to his threat, as allied military spending continues to lag behind the goals the president has set previously, Julian E. Barnes and Helene Cooper report at the New York Times.

Such a withdrawal would have “effectively destroyed the military alliance … and fulfilled a dream of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” The Daily Beast reports. Supreme allied commander of N.A.T.O – retired Adm. James G. Stavridis has commented that such a U.S. pullout would be “a geopolitical mistake of epic proportion” and “the gift of the century for Putin.”

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump said yesterday that he never worked for Russia, marking his first direct denial of that allegation, after a media report suggested that the F.B.I. in 2017 investigated whether the president acted against U.S. interests. “Not only did I never work for Russia, I think it’s a disgrace that you even asked that question because it’s a whole big fat hoax,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House for a trip to Louisiana, Reuters reports.

Trump claimed that he does not know anything regarding what happened to the notes taken by an interpreter when he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin last summer in Helsinki or after other meetings with the Russian leader. The Washington Post had reported over the weekend that the president had taken at least one interpreter’s notes after a meeting with Putin, and had instructed a linguist not to brief anyone else in the administration about what the two leaders had discussed during their closed-door meeting, Philip Ewing reports at NPR.

Attorney general nominee William Barr will pledge this week to allow special counsel Robert Mueller to finish his probe into Russian electoral interference and suspected collusion by the Trump 2016 campaign, according to Barr’s written testimony submitted to the Senate. Barr will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing today and tomorrow, and it is expected that the Mueller investigation will take center stage, Marianne Levine and Daniel Sammuelsohn report at POLITICO.

Barr reportedly plans to tell Senators that it is “vitally important” that Mueller is allowed to complete his work. He also reportedly intends to testify that the public and Congress should be made aware of Mueller’s findings – in a move “seeking to allay concerns” among Democratic lawmakers that he would attempt to curtail or keep secret revelations emerging from Mueller’s investigation; Barr has attracted criticism since his nomination last month because of a series of published comments critical the Russia probe, Sadie Gurman and Peter Nicholas report at the Wall Street Journal.

Barr plans to say that he has known and respected Mueller as a colleague and friend for 30 years and that he has confidence that Mueller will handle the special counsel inquiry properly, the AP reports.

“The country needs a credible resolution of these issues,” Barr added in his written statement, pledging: “if confirmed, I will not permit partisan politics, personal interests, or any other improper consideration to interfere with this or any other investigation.” Barr’s written statement also included a “subtle caveat,” limiting assurances about the investigation to those issues under his control: “I can assure you that, where judgments are to be made by me, I will make those judgments based solely on the law and will let no personal, political, or other improper interests influence my decision,” Katie Benner reports at the New York Times.

Conservative writer and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi’s stepson – Andrew Stettner – has been summoned by Mueller to testify before a grand jury, according to Corsi. Mueller’s team has focused on emails from 2016 that Corsi deleted from his computer, including conversations with Trump associate and campaign adviser Roger Stone; during a Fox Business Network interview last night, Corsi revealed Stettner had recently received a subpoena, adding: “I think they think that Andrew was conspiring with me, as my computer expert, to destroy evidence… they’re looking for anything they can find,” The Daily Beast reports.

“The chaos is profound,” Michael D’Antonio comments at CNN, providing an analysis of the most recent Trump-Russia developments.

Barr’s tenure will be defined by the outcome of the Mueller probe, Khadim Shuber comments at the Financial Times, explaining that “Barr will have to judge whether redactions are justified to protect intelligence sources and grand jury material, which is prohibited by law from publication [and] he must also consider executive privilege — the idea that the executive branch cannot properly function unless certain internal communications are kept private.”

A close look at Barr’s claim that he will be committed to “transparency” for the Mueller investigation is provided by Kel McClanahan at Just Security, drawing attention to the nuances and caveats in Barr’s written testimony.

GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN AND BORDER WALL

President Donald Trump said yesterday that he has rejected a proposal from Republican ally Lindsey Graham (S.C.) that he temporarily reopen closed parts of the government to allow resumption of negotiations on a funding standoff. The federal government has been partially shut over the president’s demand that a spending bill include $5.7 billion to build a wall along U.S.-Mexico border; Democrats have refused further negotiations until government is reopened, Reuters reports.

The Pentagon is extending the mission of troops stationed the Southern border, reportedly shifting from a mandate to “harden” ports of entry to survelling the border and laying down wire. “D.O.D. is transitioning its support at the southwestern border from hardening ports of entry to mobile surveillance and detection, as well as concertina wire emplacement between ports of entry,” the Pentagon said in a statement, Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill.

The Pentagon has not yet determined how many additional active-duty troops will be required to carry out the additional work, according to an official familiar with the development. Robert Burns reports at the AP.

“For two years … Republicans had many opportunities to fund Trump’s wall both in part or in whole and they declined on every occasion,” Noah Rothman writes at NBC, arguing that “they should not be allowed to pretend that they have always been steadfast supporters of this project now that a Democratic majority in the House provides them with political cover.”

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

President Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump will take a leading role in the U.S.. search for a candidate to run the World Bank but is not a contender for the position, the White House announced yesterday. In a joint statement White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin disclosed that they had “asked Ms Trump to help manage the U.S. nomination process as she’s worked closely with the World Bank’s leadership for the past two years,” James Politi and Sam Flemming report at the Financial Times.

Attorney general nominee William Barr “knows something about firing an F.B.I. director … he’s one of the few people who have been involved in doing so,” Thomas J. Baker comments at the Wall Street Journal, in a riposte to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D- N.Y.) calls for Barr to withdraw on the basis of a 19-page memo Barr wrote last June, in which Barr argued that Trump cannot be prosecuted for obstruction of justice over the 2017 firing of former F.B.I. Director James Comey.

SYRIA

Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan and President Trump yesterday discussed the establishment of a secure zone in northern Syria cleared of militia groups, according to the Turkish presidency. In a phone conversation, the two leaders reportedly emphasized the need to complete a roadmap regarding Syria’s border town of Manbij, as well as the importance of ensuring that U.S. troops can pull out of the country without interference, Reuters reports.

The phone conversation followed escalating tension between the two N.A.T.O. allies over the weekend, with Trump threatening to “devastate” Turkey’s economy if its forces attacked the U.S.-backed Kurdish Y.P.G. militant fighting in Syria, Al Jazeera reports.

New U.N. envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen arrived in Damascus today in his first trip since being appointed. The “seasoned” Norwegian diplomat, who replaces Staffan de Mistura, is the fourth negotiator to have been appointed as special envoy to Syria since the civil war broke out in 2011; he has been seen entering a Damascus hotel and is expected to hold talks with senior officials, although no official program for his visit has been published, AFP reports.

Trump’s tendency to conduct foreign policy on Twitter loses the U.S. credibility, Frida Ghitis comments at POLITICO Magazine, focusing on recent Syria developments and the clash with Turkey over Kurdish forces there.

An explainer on where “the Kurds fit into Syria’s war” is provided at Reuters.

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

Congress is expected to make an “unprecedented” challenge to President’s Trump’s authority to take the U.S. into a war in the coming weeks, with a bipartisan measure calling for the end of U.S. military involvement in the Yemeni conflict. A measure to end U.S. refueling, logistical support, intelligence and special forces operations with the Saudi-led coalition was passed in the Senate last month but sunk by Republican leadership in the House; with the House now under Democratic control, plans are in motion to put forward identical measures in both chambers, Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

The warring parties in Yemen have refused to talk face-to-face during two meetings to discuss the U.N.-supervised redeployment of forces from the key port of Hodeidah, the U.N. announced yesterday. Lack of trust at the meeting was so severe that the Head of the monitoring team – retired Dutch Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert – had to shuttle between representatives of Yemen’s government in exile and Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in different rooms, according to U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric , Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Jordan has announced that it has agreed to host U.N-brokered negotiations between Yemen’s warring sides about a prisoner exchange. The AP reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The U.S. and North Korea plan to hold high-level talks in Washington this week to discuss a second summit meeting between their leaders, South Korean media reported today, with the two sides reportedly seeking an “interim” deal to revitalize stalled nuclear talks. Reuters reports.

South Korea no longer classifies the North as an “enemy,” though Pyongyang’s nuclear program still poses a security threat, according to Seoul’s biennial defense document published today. Hyung-Jin Kim reports at the AP.

Military analysts are increasingly concerned about the North Korea’s “advanced, underestimated and highly lethal” bioweapons program. Emily Baumgaertner and William J. Broad explain at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Iran has conducted one of at least two planned satellite launches despite criticism from the U.S., but the satellite reportedly failed to reach orbit. “The Payam satellite was successfully launched this morning with the Basir satellite carrier … but the satellite, unfortunately, failed to be placed in orbit in the final stage,” Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi told Iranian state television today, Al Jazeera reports.

A truck bomb near a heavily fortified complex in eastern Kabul yesterday killed four people and wounded scores of others, authorities said, with the Taliban claiming that five of its fighters carried out the attack. Craig Nelson reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and U.S. Undersecretary of State Andrea Thompson are set to meet today in Geneva to discuss the dispute over the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (I.N.F.) – the Cold War-era arms control treaty that Washington has threatened to abandon, the AP reports.

China today assertively defended a court’s decision to impose the death penalty on convicted Canadian drug smuggler Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, escalating a diplomatic spat that experts say has descended into a high-stakes game of “hostage politics,” AFP reports. 

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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).