The Early Edition: January 17, 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

President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said yesterday that “collusion” could have taken place between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russian officials, but added that if it did occur Trump himself was not involved. “I never said there was no collusion between the campaign, or people in the campaign,” Giuliani said during an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo on his “Cuomo Prime Time” show, Brent D. Griffiths reports at POLITICO.

“There is not a single bit of evidence the president of the United States committed the only crime you could commit here … conspiring with the Russians to hack the [Democratic National Committee],” Giuliani said, adding “the president did not collude with the Russians.” Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

Giuliani shrugged off recent revelations that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had shared polling data with Kremlin-linked associate Konstantin Kilimnik, telling Cuomo: “[Manafort] was only there for six months or four months … the polling data was given to everybody … I mean he shouldn’t have given it to them … it’s wrong to give it to them.” Giuliani added that he and Trump had no idea that Manafort had shared polling data with Kilimnik until it was inadvertently revealed in a court document filed by Manafort’s lawyers, Julia Arciga reports at The Daily Beast.

Giuliani challenged special counsel Robert Mueller to provide evidence of wrongdoing by the President. “Let’s see if he’s got anything – I challenge him to show us some evidence that the President was involved in anything approaching criminal conduct,” Giuliani remarked, adding “if you want to do an ethics investigation fine, do an ethics investigation … but you don’t need a special prosecutor for that.” Caroline Kelly reports at CNN.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday ridiculed claims that Trump could have worked for Russia’s interests, labeling the accusations as “absurd” and “stupid.” Lavrov claimed that U.S. newspaper reports – regarding Trump’s withholding of details of his meetings with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and an F.B.I. investigation of whether he was working on Moscow’s behalf – reflected a decline in journalistic standards, also dismissing the prospect of releasing the minutes of the Trump-Putin meetings and claiming that to do so would defy the basic culture of diplomacy. Vladimir Isachenkov reports at the AP.

“This is stupid … what is there to comment?” Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov commented when asked to address whether Trump had or was working with Russia. Reuters reports.

Ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) are demanding access to interpreters present at all of Trump’s meetings with Putin since he took office. In a letter sent to the president yesterday, the pair state that “in light of the continuing level of secrecy shrouding your interactions with the Russian leader, we insist that the interpreters for these interactions, especially the individual who interpreted for your meeting with President Putin in Helsinki, be made immediately available for interviews with the relevant committees in Congress,” Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

Belarusian model Anastasia Vashukevich has been deported from Thailand. 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, Reuters reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Why do people assume that a Mueller report is coming, what do the current rules say about such a report, how does nominee for attorney general William Barr view the issue and could Trump block or edit a report to Congress? Michael S. Schmidt and Charlie Savage provide an analysis at the New York Times.

“Barr didn’t answer the key question of whether he’d make Mueller’s final report public,” Joshua Gelzer writes at Just Security, providing an analysis of Barr’s position based on what he did say and the relevant law.

“Warning lights should have been flashing early on during William P. Barr’s confirmation hearing on Tuesday” E.J. Dionne Jr comments at the Washington Post, arguing that Barr’s confirmation served as “one heck of a smokescreen” aimed at making Senators forget his June 8, 2018 memo advocating an expansive view of presidential authority.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

The U.S. has rejected Moscow’s offer to inspect a new Russian missile suspected of violating the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (I.N.F.,) and warned that it would suspend observance of the agreement on Feb. 2, giving six-month notice of a complete withdrawal. Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security – Andrea Thompson – confirmed the U.S. intention to withdraw after a meeting with a Russian delegation in Geneva, which both sides characterized as a failure, Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

“A static display of the system can’t tell me how far that missile is going to go,” Thompson said in a telephone interview from Brussels, where she was briefing U.S. allies. She added that Moscow’s ability to pick “the system and the missile and [control] the environment of the test” would also impede an objective assessment, Michael R. Gordon and Thomas Grove report at the Wall Street Journal.

The gap between Trump and his administration’s stance toward Russia is “unprecedented,” Michael McFaul comments at the Washington Post.

SYRIA

Several people including civilians and U.S. troops were killed yesterday in the northern Syrian town of Manjib after a suicide attack struck near a U.S.-led coalition patrol. The U.S. Department of Defense announced that four Americans – two soldiers, a Pentagon civilian and a contractor – were killed in the attack, Al Jazeera reports.

Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) has claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed a total of 16 people according to local groups, and comes following President Trump’s December decision that the U.S. withdraw forces from Syria. Daniella Cheslow and Francesca Paris report at NPR.

“We’ll stay in the region and we’ll stay in the fight to ensure that I.S.I.S. does not rear its ugly head again,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told a gathering in Washington of U.S. ambassadors stationed around the world just hours after the attack. “Thanks to the leadership of this commander-in-chief and the courage and sacrifice of our coalition partners, we’re now actually able to hand off the fight against I.S.I.S. in Syria to our coalition partners and we are bringing our troops home … the caliphate has crumbled and I.S.I.S. has been defeated,” AFP reports.

“President Trump and I condemn the terrorist attack in Syria that claimed American lives and our hearts are with the loved ones of the fallen,” Pence said in a statement, adding “we honor their memory and we will never forget their service and sacrifice.” In a separate statement, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders offered “our deepest sympathies and love” to the families of the troops who were killed,” though the president himself has yet to publicly address the soldiers’ deaths, Jordain Fabian reports at the Hill.

Yesterday’s violence has provoked renewed scrutiny of Trump’s withdrawal decision. Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) commented that Trump’s withdrawal announcement “set in motion enthusiasm by the enemy we’re fighting,” adding “I saw this in Iraq … and I’m now seeing it in Syria,” Eric Schmitt, Ben Hubbard and Rukmini Callimachi report at the New York Times.

The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) has said it will support efforts to establish a safe zone in northeastern Syria. The coalition of armed groups – backed by the U.S. and led by the Kurdish Y.P.G. – said the zone must be supported by “international guarantees…that would prevent foreign intervention,” in an apparent reference to proposed Turkish operations in the region, Al Jazeera 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]

SYRIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An analysis of the situation in northern Syria in the wake of yesterday’s attack is provided by Kimberly Dozier, Erin Banco and Roy Gutman at The Daily Beast

“Manbij … is a nexus of the interests and conflicts of the many players in Syria,” Karen DeYoung writes in an analysis at the Washington Post, explaining that while “the Islamic State was the one actor that appeared to have been eliminated from the contest … [yesterday’s] bombing showed that it is likely to remain a force to be reckoned with in Syria for the foreseeable future.”

Yesterday’s attack serves as “a vivid reminder of the confused and confusing state of U.S. policy in Syria,” Peter Bergen comments at CNN, arguing that the blame falls squarely at the feet of the president.

YEMEN                           

The U.N. Security Council yesterday unanimously voted in favor of deploying up to 75 observers to monitor the “fragile” ceasefire in Yemen’s key port city of Hodeidah – a ceasefire that went into effect late last month following U.N.-brokered talks in Sweden. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The U.K.-drafted resolution establishes a U.N. political mission to oversee implementation of the cease-fire and redeployment of forces agreement, giving a green light for the monitors to be deployed for an initial period of six months. Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Karen Pierce described the development as “an important moment for the U.N.,” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

CHINA

Federal prosecutors are pursuing a criminal investigation of Chinese tech giant Huawei for allegedly stealing trade secrets from U.S. business partners, including technology used by Huawei’s U.S. counterpart T-Mobile to test smartphones, according to people familiar with the matter. The sources added that the probe is reportedly at an advanced stage and could lead to an indictment in the near future, Dan Strumpf, Nicole Hong and Aruna Viswanatha report at the Wall Street Journal.

The investigation arises in part from civil lawsuits against Huawei, including a case in which a Seattle jury found Huawei liable for misappropriating robotic technology from T-Mobile’s Bellevue, Wash. laboratory, Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

“The real intent of the United States is to employ its state apparatus in every conceivable way to suppress and block out China’s high-tech companies,” said Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying at a regular news briefing today. Such an investigation would not only be “a violation of free and fair business competition but a violation rule of law,” Chunying added, Lily Kuo reports at the Guardian.

The U.S. State Department has called China’s imposition of the death sentence on Canadian alleged drug smuggler Robert Schellenberg “politically motivated.” Deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino issued a statement yesterday claiming that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland had spoken the previous day and “expressed their concerns about the arbitrary detentions and politically motivated sentencing of Canadian nationals,” Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. Department of Defense is increasingly worried that China’s growing military prowess could embolden Beijing to launch a full-out attack on Taiwan. Lara Seligman explains at Foreign Policy.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea’s top envoy Kim Jong-chol boarded a flight in Beijing for Washington today, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Kim are expected to meet tomorrow to discuss a second summit meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, with denuclearization talks between the two powers having stalled, Reuters reports.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told U.S. ambassadors yesterday that North Korea has failed to take any substantive steps to give up its nuclear weapons, even as Trump and Kim move toward a follow-up summit. “While the president has started a promising dialogue with Chairman Kim,” Pence told the gathering at the State Department, “we still await concrete steps by North Korea to dismantle the nuclear weapons that threaten our people and our allies in the region,” David E. Sanger reports at the New York Times.

MISSILE DEFENSE REVIEW

The Trump administration is seeking to expand the scope and sophistication of U.S. missile defenses on a scale not seen since former President Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative in a new strategy that Trump plans to roll out personally today alongside military leaders at the Pentagon. Paul Sconne reports at the Washington Post.

The “long-awaited” missile defense review recommends additional deployments of anti-missile systems at home, abroad and possibly in space, according to a senior administration official. The two-year review, ordered by the president just days after he took office, calls for a third suite of interceptors located on U.S. territory to defend against intercontinental ballistic missiles, also recommending additional study of the “controversial” idea of placing weapons in orbit to strike enemy missiles launched from Earth, Bryan Bender reports at POLITICO.

“A space-based layer of sensors is something we are looking at to help get early warning and tracking and discrimination of missiles when they are launched,” the official told reporters. However, the official stressed that the military was only examining the question of whether such a system could work, and that no decisions had been made so far. The BBC reports, with additional analysis provided by Jonathan Marcus.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Claif.) yesterday asked President Trump to scrap or delay his Jan. 29 State of the Union address amid the partial government shutdown, in an “extraordinary” request intensifying the partisan battle over Trump’s proposed border wall. In a letter to Trump, Pelosi cited security concerns as her reason for proposing that the president postpone the annual ritual of addressing a joint session of Congress in a prime time televised speech, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

Authoritarian and populist leaders face an “increasingly powerful human rights pushback,” according to an “influential” annual survey of global rights by N.G.O. Human Rights Watch. Peter Beaumont reports at the Guardian.

“What Happens if [U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Ruth Bader Ginsburg Remains Too Sick to Work?” Daniel Hemel provides an analysis at POLITICO Magazine. 

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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).