The Early Edition: January 16, 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

Nominee for attorney general William Barr assured senators at his confirmation hearing yesterday that he would permit special counsel Robert Mueller to complete his investigation into Russian electoral interference and collusion with the Trump campaign, claiming that he would resist any pressure from the president to use law enforcement for political purposes. Barr pointed to his age and background as factors militating against any threats to independence, stating: “I am in a position in life where I can provide the leadership necessary to protect the independence and reputation of the [Department of Justice,]” Charlie Savage, Nicholas Fandos and Katie Benner report at the New York Times.

“I will not be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong — by anybody, whether it be editorial boards or Congress or the president,” Barr said, adding “I’m going to do what I think is right.” Senators in both parties sought assurances that Barr could bring stability to D.O.J. rocked by political turbulence, and deal with a president who publicly insulted his former attorney general Jeff Sessions over his recusal from oversight of the -Mueller’s investigation, Sadie Gurman and Byron Tau report at the Wall Street Journal.

“I don’t believe Mr Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt,” Barr told senators, in a remark contradicting Trump’s own characterization of the probe. The nominee also told senators he had been a personal friend of Mr Mueller for 30 years, the BBC reports.

Barr told senators that Mueller’s report is required to be confidential but he will attempt to make as much of it public as possible. “What I’m saying is, my objective and goal is to get as much as I can of the information to Congress and the public,” Barr said, Reuters reports.

Top Democrat on the panel Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told Barr that anyone filling the position of attorney general must be capable of telling the president “no.” Meanwhile, Chair of the Judiciary Committee Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) began the opening round of questions with queries about former F.B.I. officials Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, F.I.S.A. applications, D.O.J. official Bruce Ohr and the dossier compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele dossier, as well the recent New York Times report that the F.B.I. had opened up a counterintelligence investigation of the president, Rebecca Shabad reports at NBC.

A roundup of “key moments” from Barr’s confirmation hearing is provided by Matthew Choi at POLITICO.

Prosecutors working for Mueller have “intensively” scrutinized Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s activities following the 2016 election and have indicated they have extensive details (not yet made public) about Manafort’s interactions with former Russian aide Konstantin Kilimnik and others, according to a court filing yesterday. Spencer S. Hsu reports at the Washington Post.

Manafort was working through “mystery intermediaries” in January 2017 in order to get people appointed in Trump’s new administration, according to the filing. Manafort described the hiring effort to his longtime deputy Rick Gates, who in turn revealed the secretive outreach to Mueller’s team after pleading guilty and agreeing to cooperate with the investigators, Darren Samuelssohn reports at POLITICO.

Gates is still cooperating in “several ongoing investigations,” Mueller’s office said yesterday, requesting a delay in his sentencing. Rich Shapiro reports at NBC.

Belarusian model Anastasia Vashukevich pleaded guilty yesterday in Thailand to charges linked to a “sex training” seminar, laying the ground for her deportation. Vashukevich became embroiled in the Trump-Russia developments last year when she claimed that she had ­recorded meetings between ­Russian metals magnate Oleg Deripaska and unspecified Americans in 2016 to discuss Russian interference in the U.S. election, Anton Troianovski, Rosalind S. Helderman and Shibani Mahtani report at the Washington Post.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has dismissed claims that Mueller is looking into a 2017 meeting he attended along with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and foreign officials, yesterday describing the Daily Beast article as a “fake news story.” Nunes added: “it’s always another day, they do another fake news story … I don’t even know what they’re talking … the fact that I’m holding meetings with ambassadors—you can have at it, because I do it every day,” The Daily Beast reports.

Following reports that Trump has tried to keep secret the details of his meetings with Russia President Vladimir Putin, an analysis of five occasions Putin and Trump have met is provided by Peter Baker at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

The existing relationship between nominee for attorney general William Barr and special counsel Robert Mueller “is both a source of reassurance to Democrats worried about Barr’s attitude toward Mueller’s probe and a reminder of the small size of Washington’s legal and law enforcement worlds,” Darren Samuelssohn writes in an analysis at POLTICO.

“It was William P. Barr’s confirmation … but it was Robert S. Mueller III’s affirmation hearing,” Dana Milbank comments at the Washington Post, arguing that Barr is unlikely to sully his reputation by burying the Mueller report.

Trump is surrounded by leakers, Marc A. Thiessen comments at the Washington Post, arguing that “the fact that he has responded to these serial leaks by restricting access to his interactions with Putin is not evidence that Trump is a Russian spy; it is evidence that there are people around him who have no compunction about breaking the law and harming national security by leaking what he says to the media.”

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS AND N.A.T.O.

Talks have made no progress in resolving the U.S.’ intention to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (I.N.F.,) U.S. and Russian diplomats said yesterday. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov met in Geneva with U.S. Undersecretary of State Andrea Thompson about the dispute over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; Ryabkov commented after the meeting that “on the whole, we are forced to state that there is no progress … the U.S. position is frozen in its uncompromising and peremptory demands,” the AP reports.

Russia is ready to work to save the I.N.F. and hopes Washington will take a responsible approach to arms control treaties, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov commented today, Reuters reports.

Lavrov claimed today that Russia caught detained former U.S. marine Paul Whelan “red-handed” while he was carrying out illegal activities in his Moscow hotel room. Whelan’s family claim that he is innocent and that he was in Moscow to attend a wedding; he faces up to 20 years in jail if found guilty of espionage, Reuters reports.

Lavrov commented that Moscow is alarmed by U.S. talk of a possible U.S. military strategy for Venezuela, accusing Washington of leaning on the opposition in the South American country in order to block talks with the government. Reuters reports.

The Republican-led U.S. Senate voted yesterday to advance a resolution disapproving of a Trump administration plan to ease sanctions on Russian companies tied to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, clearing the way for debate and a vote on the plan. Reuters reports.

Congressional Republicans are weighing in to defend N.A.T.O. following yesterday’s New York Times report that President Trump has repeatedly suggested U.S. withdrawal from the military alliance. Lawmakers on both sides yesterday voiced their “strong support” for the alliance when asked about Trump’s reported desire to leave the organization; “N.A.T.O. is one of the great accomplishments of the last century,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) commented, adding that to this day it is “almost uniquely successful at keeping the peace,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

“Trump is aiding and abetting the nuclear-armed enemies of America … by doing everything he can to tear apart the alliances built to oppose and contain the blatant ambitions of Russia, China and North Korea,” Donald Kirk and Christopher Dickey write at The Daily Beast, claiming that the president wants U.S. troops to act as guns for hire.

“The news just keeps on getting better for Vladimir Putin,” Stephen Collinson comments at CNN, pointing to political breakdowns on both sides of the Atlantic and Trump’s antipathy toward N.A.T.O.

SYRIA

The new U.N. newly Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen arrived in Damascus yesterday for a three-day visit – his first to the country. Upon his arrival, Pedersen spoke to reporters saying he is looking forward to substantial and productive talks with Syrian officials including Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, Al Jazeera reports.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims that he responded positively to President Trump’s call for a “safe zone” along Turkey’s border with Kurdish-held Syria, with the leaders having spoken by telephone after Trump threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” if it attacked the U.S.-backed Kurdish Y.P.G. militia group on the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Erdogan told his Justice and Development (A.K.) Party yesterday that he had been “saddened by some messages from Mr Trump’s social media account,” adding “we immediately acted and we discussed those issues with him on the phone again last night … it was a positive conversation,” the BBC reports.

As many as fifteen displaced Syrian children – thirteen of them aged under one – have died in recent weeks due to cold weather and inadequate medical care, according to the U.N. The BBC reports.

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

The U.N. Security Council is due to vote today to approve the deployment of up to 75 observers to Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah for six months to monitor a ceasefire and redeployment of forces by the warring parties, according to diplomats. Following a week of U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Sweden last month, the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels and U.S. and Saudi-backed Yemen government reached the deal on the port city, Reuters reports.

The World Food Program delivered emergency food and vouchers for over 9.5 million people in Yemen last month, just short of its 10 million monthly target in the famine-threatened country, a spokesperson announced yesterday, Reuters reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE                                                                  

Palestine will launch its bid to become a full member of the U.N., Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said yesterday, with the bid going ahead despite the U.S.’ pledge to veto the Palestine’s membership plans. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday assumed the chair for the so-called Group of 77 – the biggest U.N. bloc of developing countries – in a development that “significantly” raises Palestine’s international standing, Al Jazeera reports.

Israel’s new military chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi took office yesterday, pledging to lead a “lethal, efficient and innovative army” into the future. Kochavi’s inauguration comes shortly after the military’s announcement that it has successfully completed its operation to destroy a network of cross-border tunnels dug by Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militant group, Aron Heller reports at the AP.

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict” is a misleading concept, Matti Friedman comments at the New York Times, writing that on the ground, “there isn’t an Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the way that many outsiders seem to think, and this perception gap is worth spelling out.” Freidman writes that “the scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.”

IRAN

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday repeated his allegation that Iran’s space program could help it develop a missile capable of carrying a nuclear weapon to the mainland U.S., following Iran’s failed attempt to send a satellite-carrying rocket into space. Nasser Karimi and Jon Gambrell report at the AP.

German police have arrested a 50-year-old Afghan-German man suspected of passing military secrets to Iran. The BBC reports.

U.S. national security advisor John Bolton is taking the right approach toward Iran, Ray Takeyh comments at POLITICO Magazine.

CHINA

The U.S. and the U.K. have carried out their first joint naval drills in the disputed South China Sea since China built island bases there, the two navies announced today, as Washington assistance help from allies to maintain pressure on Beijing. Reuters reports.

China is in possession of some of world’s most advanced weapon systems, the Pentagon has warned in a new assessment. AFP reports.

The “reclusive” founder of Chinese tech giant Huawei has denied allegations that company spies for the Beijing, also praising President Trump as a “great president” and dismissing Washington’s accusations that Huawei is a threat to US national security. Charles Riley reports at CNN.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A roundup of coverage on the U.S. Government shutdown and the fallout surrounding President Trump’s proposed border wall is provided at the Economist.

Lawmakers have reached a deal with acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker for him to publicly testify before Congress in February, Head of the House Judiciary Committee Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) announced yesterday. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

The Afghan Taliban issued a statement yesterday threatening to end contact with the U.S. even as Washington’s peace envoy makes another trip to the region in pursuit of a negotiated end to the country’s protracted war. The AP reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Middle East speech last week in fact served to highlight the similarities between the Trump and Obama administrations’ approaches in the region. Rhoula Khalaf comments at the Financial Times. 

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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).