The Early Edition: January 24, 2019

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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.

VENEZUELA

The new leader of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly – Juan Guaidó – yesterday took to the streets to declare himself the legitimate president of the country, marking the most direct challenge to Nicolás Maduro’s presidency to date. Ana Vanessa Herrero reports at the New York Times.

Violence flared across the country yesterday during significant anti-government demonstrations, with at least seven protesters killed in the escalating confrontation with Maduro, who faces growing accusations of undemocratic behavior by the U.S. and many other nations in the region. Guaidó told a thousands of demonstrators in the capital Caracas that assuming the presidency was only way to end the Maduro “dictatorship,” adding “we know that this will have consequences,” Joshua Goodman reports at the AP.

President Trump yesterday formally recognized Guaidó as the legitimate “interim president” of the country, while U.S. officials urged the Maduro administration to give up power peacefully. A senior Trump administration official cautioned that “all options are on the table” regarding punishing Maduro and his top aides, refusing to rule out U.S. military action – an option that Trump has previously floated, Nahal Toosi reports at POLITICO.

Major regional players – including Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Peru and Argentina – also gave their backing to Guaido’s self-proclamation as acting president, in a seemingly coordinated response. Russia, however, lashed out at Western countries, while Cuba and Turkey expressed “solidarity” with Maduro and Mexico extended “lukewarm” support to the current president, AFP reports.

Maduro responded by announcing that Venezuela is cutting off all diplomatic relations with the U.S., and ordered American diplomats in the country to leave within 72 hours, according to media reports. “Before the people and nations of the world, and as constitutional president … I’ve decided to break diplomatic and political relations with the imperialist U.S. government,” Maduro stated, adding that the U.S. was making a “grave mistake” by recognizing Guaidó as the interim president, Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

U.N. chief António Guterres today appealed for dialogue to avoid the Venezuelan political crisis spiraling out of control. “What we hope is that dialogue can be possible, and that we avoid an escalation that would lead to the kind of conflict that would be a disaster for the people of Venezuela and for the region,” Guterres said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, AFP reports.

Russia today warned that U.S. moves to recognise Guaidó as president could lead to further bloodshed. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement claiming that events in Venezuela are reaching a dangerous point and suggesting that Washington is showing a disregard for international law, Reuters reports.

An analysis of the dramatic developments in Venezuela is provided by Keith Johnson and Robbie Gramer at Foreign Policy.

An explainer on “what happens now after two men have claimed to be president?” is provided by Tom Phillips at the Guardian.

GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN AND BORDER WALL

President Trump has announced that he will not deliver his annual State of the Union speech until after the government shutdown is over. Having initially claimed that the speech should be “on time, on schedule, and very importantly, on location,” the president conceded overnight that he could not deliver on his pledge, acknowledging in a message on Twitter House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (R-Calif.) “prerogative” to ask him to delay. The BBC reports.

Pelosi responded saying she hoped Trump would support a bill passed by the House to fund the agencies affected by the shutdown, making the remarks in her own message on Twitter. Scott Horsley reports at NPR.

The president’s apparent capitulation came even as House Democratic leaders said they were prepared to give him a substantial sum of money for border security — perhaps even the $5.7 billion he has requested — but that such a sum could not be used for a wall and not until he agreed to reopen the government. The figure is roughly double what Democrats had previously approved, Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports at the New York Times.

The president’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner has reportedly thrust himself into the government shutdown negotiations, asserting that he is the person to end the stalemate. Josh Dawsey and Robert Costa explain at the Washington Post.

Initiating the shutdown may have been a political miscalculation, but Trump will likely bounce back from the fallout relatively unscathed, the Economist comments.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen yesterday moved to postpone his scheduled testimony before the House Oversight Committee, citing attacks by the president on his family. Cohen’s spokesperson Lanny Davis said in a statement that the testimony would be pushed back “due to ongoing threats against his family from President Trump and [the president’s current personal lawyer Rudy] Giuliani, as recently as this weekend, as well as Mr. Cohen’s continued cooperation with ongoing investigations, by advice of counsel,” adding “this is a time where Mr. Cohen had to put his family and their safety first,” Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Attorneys for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort announced yesterday that prosecutors working for special counsel Robert Mueller have unfairly accused Manafort of lying in his sessions with them after he pleaded guilty. Mueller’s team – investigating Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign – has accused Manafort of failing to abide by his pact to cooperate with investigators during 12 debriefings and two appearances before a grand jury, Pete Williams reports at NBC.

Mueller’s team also alleges that Manafort lied about a $125,000 payment he received in 2017 as well as his conversations with Kremlin-linked former associate Konstantin Kilimnki, his contacts with administration officials and an unspecified ongoing investigation. Manafort’s lawyers claimed in a court filing that a fair reading of the government’s contention “does not support the conclusion that Mr. Manafort intentionally provided false information,”and that when placed in context, much of the evidence presented by Mueller’s team “merely demonstrates a lack of consistency in Mr. Manafort’s recollection of certain facts and events.” Lydia Wheeler and Morgan Chalfant report at the Hill.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has expressed his “great satisfaction” after receiving a letter from President Trump, following the return of nuclear envoy Kim Yong-chol from meetings in Washington last week. Kim said that Pyongyang “will believe in the positive way of thinking of President Trump” and that the two powers together “will … advance step by step” toward the avowed goal of denuclearization, according to a statement from North Korea’s state media early today, Timothy W. Martin reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Kim ordered working-level preparations for the second North Korea-U.S. summit to be carried out well, the North’s state media reported. The White House announced last week that a second Trump-Kim summit would be held in late February but did not give more precise details, Al Jazeera reports.

Kim Yong-chol visited Washington last week and spoke with Trump for 90 minutes in the Oval – reportedly bringing with him a letter from Kim. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed in a short statement to reporters yesterday that “the President responded to Chairman Kim’s letter,” Steve Brusk and Kate Sullivan report at CNN.

SYRIA

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan met yesterday in Moscow and pledged to coordinate their actions more closely in Syria. “Cooperation between Russia and Turkey is a touchstone for Syrian peace and stability,” Erdogan commented at a joint press conference after three hours of talks, adding: “with our Russian friends we intend to strengthen our coordination even more,” AFP reports.

Putin claimed that the Russian and Turkish defensse ministers had already held talks on specific action that the two countries would take in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province and that the measures, which he did not describe, would now be implemented. “Unfortunately there are many problems there and we see them,” said Putin, standing alongside Erdogan, Reuters reports.

“The reality of U.S. troops leaving Syria is reverberating across the country,” Erin Banco comments at The Daily Beast, reporting that “sources that include top Kurdish and Arab commanders say Syria could experience not only a renewed effort by Israel to escalate tensions with Iranian assets in the country … but also reinvigorated operations by emboldened terrorist groups.”

Four Republican Senators are urging President Donald Trump to use the Guantánamo Bay detention center to hold fighters from the Islamic State group captured in Syria. Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.,) John Cornyn (Tex.,) Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) made the suggestion in a letter sent Tuesday to the president, claiming that while Islamic State prisoners could escape or be released in Syria, they would face “justice” at the detention center on the U.S. base in Cuba, the Miami Herald 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]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russia’s as-yet untested S-400 antiaircraft missile system “is changing the calculus of the U.S. and its allies in potential hot spots,” starting with its deployment in Syria. Thomas Grove provides an analysis at the Wall Street Journal.

An account of the ongoing Beijing-Washington dispute over the role of tech giant Huawei is provided by Dustin Volz and Josh Chin at the Wall Street Journal. The U.S. alleges that “Huawei’s very structure, with its close ties to the Chinese government and role as a supplier of key hardware in telecommunications, makes the company a potential tool for espionage and thus a security threat.”

The Department of Defense yesterday identified the U.S. soldier killed while fighting in Afghanistan Tuesday as Army Special Forces Staff Sgt. Joshua Z. Beale. Beale died “as a result of injuries sustained from enemy small arms fire during combat operations in Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan,” according to a Pentagon news release, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange yesterday launched a legal challenge against the Trump administration in an attempt to require U.S. prosecutors to unseal any secret charges against him. Assange’s legal team filed an urgent application to the Washington-based Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (I.A.C.H.R.) in an attempt to head off a possible extradition to the U.S., Owen Bowcott reports at the Guardian.

A plea to Democrats to prevent the president from blocking a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict is provided by Daniel Shapiro at Foreign Policy.

Technology able to counter rogue drones is improving. The Economist explains. 

Filed under:
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).