The Early Edition: January 18, 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 has postponed use of a military plane for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to travel to Afghanistan, marking a further escalation in the dispute surrounding the partial government shutdown that has lasted nearly four weeks. A day after Pelosi urged the president to delay his State of the Union address, Trump issued a letter denying the aircraft as Pelosi prepared for her scheduled departure yesterday, Rebecca Ballhaus, Natalie Andrews and Peter Nicholas report at the Wall Street Journal.

“Due to the shutdown … I am sorry to inform you that your trip to Brussels, Egypt and Afghanistan has been postponed,” the president wrote. “In light of the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay, I am sure you would agree that postponing this public relations event is totally appropriate,” the letter continued, adding “it would be better if you were in Washington negotiating with me and joining the Strong Border Security movement … if you would like to make your journey flying commercial, that would certainly be your prerogative.” Sabrina Siddiqui reports at the Guardian.

A U.S. Air Force bus loaded with lawmakers including Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.,) Stephen Lynch ( D-Mass.,) Elaine Luria (D-Va.,) and Mark Takano (D-Calif.,) was held in place near the Capitol and returned to the building to let passengers off about 3 p.m. yesterday, Jonathan Allen, Allan Smith and Dartunorro Clark report at NBC.

“The purpose of the trip was to express appreciation & thanks to our men & women in uniform for their service & dedication … & to obtain critical national security & intelligence briefings from those on the front lines,” Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff Drew Hammill said in a message on Twitter. Reuters reports.

“One sophomoric response does not deserve another,” Trump ally and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) commented in a message on Twitter yesterday, adding “Speaker Pelosi’s threat to cancel the State of the Union is very irresponsible and blatantly political … President Trump denying Speaker Pelosi military travel to visit our troops in Afghanistan, our allies in Egypt and N.A.T.O. is also inappropriate,” Matthew Choi reports at POLITICO.

The State Department has ordered its employees to return to work next week, saying it has found money to cover a half-month in salary, in an “unexpected yet temporary move” amidst the growing political acrimony. Damian Paletta and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

A series of depositions to explore Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email account as Secretary of State have been put on hold due to the partial government shutdown, despite having been authorized by a federal judge. U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth yesterday granted a request from Department of Justice lawyers to pause the discovery process and that all related deadlines be extended for as long as the standoff continues. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

“Troops on the ground viewed the Pelosi trip as a chance to gain an inroad with someone … especially the highest ranking member of the House … in the U.S. government who could see the need to keep U.S. troops in the country,” Erin Banco, Sam Stein and Lachlan Markay explain at The Daily Beast, providing an analysis of the implications of the cancellation of Pelosi’s trip.

“While it appears trivial … the confrontation is effectively the first battle in an era-defining duel that could decide the fate of the Trump presidency,” Stephen Collinson comments at CNN.

The true crisis at the Southern border is not guns or crime but a “humanitarian challenge,” Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.) writes in an Op-Ed at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump directed his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter have told reporters at Buzzfeed. Trump also allegedly backed a plan – initiated by Cohen – to visit Russia during the presidential campaign, in order to meet President Vladimir Putin personally and kick-start the tower negotiations; “make it happen,” the Trump allegedly told Cohen, Kate Sullivan reports at CNN.

Cohen pleaded guilty in November to lying about the deal in testimony and in a two-page statement to the Senate and House intelligence committees. Special counsel Robert Mueller, investigating Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign, noted that Cohen’s false claim that the project ended in January 2016 was an attempt to “minimize links between the Moscow Project and Individual 1” — widely understood to be Trump — “in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigations,” Jason Leopold reports at Buzzfeed.

Leading Democrats weighed in yesterday to claim that the allegations if proven would amount to obstruction of justice, pledging to further investigate the matter. “If the President directed [Michael] Cohen to lie to Congress, that is obstruction of justice. Period. Full stop,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) commented in a message on Twitter, Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

In a separate development Cohen claimed yesterday that Trump knew about his attempts to rig polls in the president’s favor. “What I did was at the direction of and for the sole benefit of [Mr. Trump],” Cohen wrote in a message on Twitter, adding “I truly regret my blind loyalty to a man who doesn’t deserve it,” Michael Rothfeld, Rob Barry and Joe Palazzolo report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani yesterday backtracked from a “surprising” assertion he had made a night earlier regarding possible collusion between Trump campaign aides and Russia during the 2016 campaign. “There was no collusion by President Trump in any way, shape or form,” Giuliani said in a statement, adding “likewise, I have no knowledge of any collusion by any of the thousands of people who worked on the campaign … the only knowledge I have in this regard is the collusion of the Clinton campaign with Russia which has so far been ignored,” Eileen Sullivan and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

On Wednesday Giuliani had told CNN “I never said there was no collusion between the campaign or between people in the campaign.” Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) claimed on Wednesday that he will oppose Trump’s attorney general nominee William Barr, saying he is not convinced that Barr will protect Mueller’s Russia probe or provide Congress with a full report on Mueller’s findings. “We do not have the kind of strong and clear commitments to the report being issued and there being no interference in the investigation that are needed, particularly now, with President Trump treating the Justice Department as he has,” Schumer told reporters following a private meeting with Barr, Reuters reports.

Other Senate Democrats also remain “largely skeptical” of Barr’s appointment. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) claimed that she remains troubled over Barr’s statement that he would reject ethics officials’ guidance on recusing from the Mueller probe if he disagreed with their advice; “I have real concerns about his ability to follow the advice of the career people in terms of any issue that might arise related to the Mueller investigation,” Harris said in an interview after Barr’s confirmation hearing, Marianne Levine reports at POLITICO.

Belarusian model Anastasia Vashukevich was detained at a Moscow airport yesterday on prostitution allegations, having been deported from Thailand earlier in the day, according to Russian police. 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 – though no evidence has emerged of the recordings , Anton Troianovski and Rosalind S.Helderman report at the Washington Post.

“The [Mueller] investigation is wrapping up,” wife of Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker – Marci Whitaker – has written in an email to Slate Editor Mark Joseph Stern. Stern and Dahlia Lithwick published an article Monday noting that Matthew Whitaker was arguably appointed in violation of the Constitution and detailing various other claims about his professional conduct; Marci Whitaker responded in an email Wednesday that made “several noteworthy assertions about her husband’s work, the Mueller probe, and the government shutdown,” Stern reports at Slate.

Law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom—which worked for the Ukrainian government alongside former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort—has settled with the Department of Justice (D.O.J.,) agreeing to pay over $4.6 million and register as a foreign agent, according to a D.O.J. release. As part of the settlement deal, the firm has acknowledged that a partner misled prosecutors about the extent of its work for Ukraine: “a partner then at Skadden made false and misleading statements to the F.A.R.A. Unit, which led it to conclude in 2013 that the firm was not obligated to register under F.A.R.A.,” prosecutors noted. The Daily Beast reports.

“Since joining the Trump legal team last year … Giuliani has met with Mueller and his staff … but he has spent relatively little time on actual legal affairs,” Jack Shafer comments at POLITICO Magazine, characterizing Giuliani as Trump’s nonstop chaff-generator, throwing immense mattresses of noise in the sky to deaden the sound of Mueller’s deliberate approach.”

“Is Bill Barr a Justice Department “company man” … or is he a wolf in sheep’s clothing?” Tess Bridgeman and Andy ask at Just Security, setting out the series of questions looming over the confirmation hearings for Trump’s “enigmatic” attorney general nominee.

RUSSIA

Chair of Russia’s upper house defense and security committee Viktor Bondarev commented yesterday that the new U.S. Missile Defense Review would contribute to an escalation in global tensions, according to Interfax news agency. Reuters reports.

“Moscow’s existing nuclear systems are more than adequate for its needs,” Rowan Allport comments at Foreign Policy, arguing that “instead, enhanced conventional capabilities would offer the greatest potential reward— and the biggest threat to the West” and consequently, the U.S. “should think carefully before terminating the I.N.F. Treaty and falling into a potential Kremlin trap.”

N.A.T.O.

President Trump said yesterday that the U.S. is fully committed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (N.A.T.O.,) although he repeated his insistence that other alliance members make a greater financial contribution for their own security. “We will be with N.A.T.O. 100 percent, but as I told the countries, you have to step up and you have to pay,” Trump said in a speech at the Pentagon, AFP reports.

Trump’s comments follow revelations that Trump last year spoke to senior officials about pulling the U.S. from the key western security alliance, first reported in the New York Times earlier this week. Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

A bipartisan group of senators yesterday reintroduced a bill that would prevent President Trump from withdrawing from N.A.T.O. without Senate approval. The bill, introduced by four Democrats and four Republicans, would require two-thirds approval from the Senate for a president to suspend, terminate or withdraw the United States from the alliance; “President Trump’s repeated threats to withdraw from N.A.T.O. are dangerous,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) commented in a statement announcing the bill’s reintroduction, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Top North Korean diplomat and former spy chief Kim Yong-chol arrived in Washington yesterday for expected talks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a possible meeting with President Trump aimed a laying the ground for a second U.S.-North Korea summit. Kim is due to meet Pompeo and could also visit the White House today, according to a person familiar with the plan, Reuters reports.

Little progress has been made on North Korean denuclearization since Trump’s Singapore summit with leader Kim Jong-un last July, but the envoy’s Washington visit comes amidst a “flurry” of diplomatic activity, with Kim Jong-un having visited Beijing earlier this month for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the BBC reports.

SYRIA

Syrian activists are reporting intense airstrikes on the last area held by the Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) in the country’s east, where the militants’ control has been diminishing over the past weeks. U.K.-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported yesterday that the airstrikes hit the 5.8 square mile area controlled by I.S.I.S. in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, after U.S.-backed Kurdish-led fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) scored gains in recent weeks, the AP reports.

The airstrikes come a day after a suicide attack carried by I.S.I.S. insurgents killed 19 people, including four Americans, in the northern town of Manbij. The U.S. government believes the Islamic State militant group is likely responsible for Wednesday’s attack, although it has not reached a firm conclusion, two U.S. government sources said yesterday, Reuters reports.

I.S.I.S. is reverting to the guerrilla-style tactics it employed in its early days to strike targets, as it stands to lose the last portion of territory under its control. Raja Abdulrahim provides an analysis at the Wall Street Journal.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said that his country’s military will remain involved in Syria this year regardless of the U.S. intention to withdraw its troops from the country. In his New Year speech to the armed forces in Toulouse, Macron said yesterday that President Trump’s decision “must not make us deviate from our goal: eradicating Daesh [Islamic State group],” the AP reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 575 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Dec. 30 and Jan. 12. [Central Command]

YEMEN

Head of the U.N. Yemen mission Dutch Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert was leaving a meeting with Yemeni government representatives today when a U.N.-marked armored vehicle in his convoy was hit with one round of small arms fire. U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters that “we do not have information as to the source of the fire,” adding that Cammaert was not in the vehicle that was hit and he and his team returned to their base safely, the AP reports.

Yemen’s warring parties hope to deliver final lists of prisoners under an exchange agreement to the U.N., following talks in Amman yesterday, according a government delegate. The U.N. is pushing for the swap and a peace deal in the main port city of Hodeidah to pave the way for a second round of talks to end the nearly four-year conflict; despite progress on the prisoner swap, the U.N. has struggled to implement a troop withdrawal from Hodeidah, Reuters reports.

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels are holding dozens of women without trial and often torturing the detainees and blackmailing their families, according to activists and a human rights lawyer. The allegations were first raised over the weekend by the Yemen Organization for Combating Human Trafficking, whose founder Nabil Fadel claims to have received information from families, former female detainees and other sources that Houthis have been rounding up women over allegations of prostitution and collaboration with the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition, Al Jazeera reports.

MISSILE DEFENSE REVIEW

President Trump yesterday vowed to boost the U.S.’ missile defense systems, partly through investing in technology to protect against the growing threat of hypersonic weapons and cruise missiles. Speaking at the Pentagon, Trump unveiled the Missile Defense Review – the “long-awaited” analysis of the defensive network of U.S. interceptors designed to shoot down an incoming ballistic missile, AFP reports.

“The president’s enthusiastic endorsement of new technologies to detect and intercept incoming missiles stands in sharp contrast to his demand … for a decidedly low-tech barrier … on the southwestern border,” David E. Sanger and William J. Broad write in an account of yesterday’s unveiling at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The death of Staff Sgt. Alex Conrad puts into “sharp relief” the cost of the U.S.’s long fight against the al-Shabaab militant group in Somalia, Michael M. Phillips writes in an analysis at the Wall Street Journal. 

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).