The Early Edition: February 4, 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 said yesterday that he is not sure if he wants special counsel Robert Mueller’s report to be made public. Mueller is investigating Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign; when asked by “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan whether he would have a problem with the report being released publicly, the president responded: “that’s totally up to the attorney general … I don’t know … it depends … I have no idea what it’s going to say,” Katie Rogers reports at the New York Times.

“So far this thing’s been a total witch hunt,” Trump continued in his C.B.S. interview, adding “it doesn’t implicate me in any way … there was no collusion … there was no obstruction … there was no nothing … doesn’t implicate me in any way, but I think it’s a disgrace.” Trump’s nominee for attorney general William Barr said at his confirmation hearing last month that while special counsel regulations require Mueller to submit a report to the Department of Justice (D.O.J.,) the material eventually released to the public might simply be a report from the attorney general on Mueller’s conclusions, Allan Smith reports at NBC.

Trump claimed during the course of the interview that he has not considered the possibility of a pardon his longtime associate Roger Stone. “First of all, Roger Stone didn’t work on the campaign, except way, way at the beginning long before we’re talking about,” Trump told Brennan, adding “Roger is somebody that I’ve always liked, but a lot of people like Roger, some people probably don’t like Roger, but Roger Stone’s somebody I’ve always liked;” Stone last week pleaded not guilty to seven charges stemming from special Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said Friday she is considering imposing a gag order on Stone. Jackson cited a number of “extrajudicial statements by the defendant” and noted that “this is a criminal proceeding and not a public relations campaign,” adding that if she does impose such an order, Stone would still be free to talk to the media about issues unrelated to the case, Reuters reports.

Trump’s assertion that deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein privately gave him assurances that he is not under scrutiny has “raised new questions” about how the D.O.J. is conducting its inquiries. Trump made the comment Thursday in an interview with The New York Times; spokespeople for the D.O.J., the U.S.’ attorney in Manhattan and Mueller all declined to comment on Friday on Trump’s statements, Katie Benner writes in an analysis at the New York Times.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

The Trump administration announced Friday that it was suspending the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (I.N.F.,) following five years of “heated” discussions over accusations by the U.S. that Moscow is violating the accord. The move has the potential to incite a new arms race, not only with Russia but with China which has never been a signatory to the pact, David. E. Sanger and William J. Broad report at the New York Times.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Saturday that his country would suspend its involvement in the agreement in a move he described as a “tit-for-tat response,” also accusing Washington of breaching the agreement. “Our American partners have announced the suspension of their participation in the treaty, so we will suspend as well,” Putin said in a televised meeting with his defense and foreign ministers, ordering the officials not to initiate any talks on disarmament, Ann M. Simmons and James Marson report at the Wall Street Journal.

Withdrawal from the I.N.F. could have the effect of eroding other arms control agreements. Robbie Gramer and Lara Seligman explain at Foreign Policy.

BORDER SECURITY

The Pentagon is sending 3,750 additional U.S. forces to the southern border, with the deployment slated to last for three months in order support border agents, the Department of Defense announced yesterday. The deployment will raise the total number of active-duty forces supporting Customs and Border Protection agents there to about 4,350, according to the Department, The Daily Beast reports.

President Trump intensified his attacks on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) Friday, saying “she’s very bad for our country” and “doesn’t mind human trafficking” due to her continued opposition to the president’s she long-promised border wall. Reuters reports.

VENEZUELA

Venezuela’s incumbent president Nicolás Maduro has warned President Trump he will leave the White House “stained with blood,” if he insists on pursuing what Maduro described as a “dirty” imperialist conspiracy to overthrow him. “Stop .. stop, Trump! Hold it right there! You are making mistakes that will leave your hands covered in blood and you will leave the presidency stained with blood,” Maduro cautioned during a “combative” interview with the Spanish journalist Jordi Évole, adding “why would you want a repeat of Vietnam?” Tom Phillips reports at the Guardian.

Trump has stated that military intervention in Venezuela remains “an option.” During his interview with C.B.S. yesterday, the president said of military intervention: “certainly, it’s something that’s on the – it’s an option,” adding “I’ve turned it down because we’re very far along in the process… so, I think the process is playing out,” Reuters reports.

Opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó has called on more members of the military to abandon the country’s socialist government, following the defection of high-ranking general Gen. Francisco Yanez. In a video broadcast on Youtube Saturday, Yanez described Maduro as a dictator and referred to Guaidó as his president, Manuel Rueda and Fabiola Sanchez report at the AP

Several European Union nations today recognized Guaidó as interim leader after Maduro rejected an ultimatum to call snap elections. Russia criticized the move by countries including the U.K., France and Spain, labeling it as European “interference” and claiming it was an attempt “to legitimize usurped power,” AFP reports.

Trump is right to back Guaidó, but “Washington should learn from its mistakes and remember that while it has the power to help the opposition succeed in its risky bid … it can also make matters much worse by overplaying its hand,” Frida Ghitis argues at CNN.

YEMEN

Representatives of Yemen’s warring parties have met on a ship in the Red Sea to discuss the stalled truce agreement for the contested port city of Hodeidah.

Retired Dutch Gen. Patrick Cammaert chaired the meeting on board a U.N. vessel off the Yemeni coast yesterday after the Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels refused to hold talks in government-held areas; the discussions will continue today, a U.N. statement said, also describing the meeting as “cordial and constructive,” Al Jazeera reports.

Cammaert has “warned the parties about the fragility of the ceasefire” and “urged them to instruct their commanders on the ground to refrain from any further violations that would jeopardize the Stockholm Agreement and the broader peace process for Yemen,” the statement continued. Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

Pope Francis has arrived in the U.A.E., for the first ever visit by a pontiff to the Arabian peninsula. The U.A.E. has played a significant role in the Yemeni conflict, fighting against the Houthi movement as part of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition; ahead of his departure, the Pope expressed concern about the conflict, stating: “the population [in Yemen] is exhausted by the lengthy conflict and a great many children are suffering from hunger, but cannot access food depots,” the BBC reports.

SYRIA

The U.S.-led coalition fighting in Syria struck a Syrian army position Saturday, according to Syrian state media.  The reports, citing a military source, claimed that coalition jets attacked a Syrian army position near the battlefront against the Islamic State group, with the attack resulting in damage as well as injuries to two soldiers, Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

President Trump reaffirmed his determination to pull U.S. troops out of “endless wars” in Syria and Afghanistan in his interview yesterday with C.B.S. The president did indicate, however, that troops would stay in Iraq to “watch” Iran. AFP reports.

Iraqi President Barham Salih today stated that Trump had not asked Iraq’s permission for such an arrangement. Al Jazeera reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 645 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Jan. 13 and Jan. 26. [Central Command]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Israel has announced that it has started reinforcing its border fence with the Gaza Strip, building a galvanized steel barrier 20 feet high that will run the length of territory. Israel’s Defense Ministry issued a statement yesterday claiming it had commenced construction of an above-ground barrier that complements a subterranean wall aimed at thwarting Hamas attack tunnels beneath the border; the construction comes after months of mass protests by Palestinians in Gaza along the border that have seen nearly 190 Palestinians killed by Israeli fire, the AP reports.

The U.N. investigation into the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi has departed from Turkey. U.N. Special Rapporteur on Executions Agnes Callamard stated that she “was a bit disappointed” with the information she obtained following a week of talks with Turkish ministers, intelligence chiefs and Istanbul’s top prosecutor, Al Jazeera reports.

President Trump said yesterday he has no plans to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, potentially “assuaging worries” in Seoul as his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un draws near. In his interview yesterday with C.B.S., Trump stated: “I have no plans, I’ve never even discussed removing them,” although he repeated his gripe that maintaining what he said are 40,000 U.S. forces in South Korea is “very expensive” (although the actual number is about 28,500,) Warren P. Strobel and Timothy W. Martin report at the Wall Street Journal.

“Don’t fear the deep state … it’s the shallow state that will destroy us,” Shalom Lipner argues in an Op-Ed at Foreign Policy, writing that “Trump got it backward when he insisted recently that ‘the buck stops with everybody’ … it stops with commanders in chief, who act cowardly when they blame subordinates for their own shortcomings.” 

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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).