The Early Edition: February 6, 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.

STATE OF THE UNION

President Trump attempted to convey a message of bipartisan unity in his State of the Union Address last night, but indicated that he would continue to push for his “hard-line” immigration policies. In a nationally televised speech. Trump presented himself as a leader who could work across party lines even as he pressed lawmakers to build the long-promised border wall on the southern border rejected by Congressional Democrats, Peter Baker reports at the New York Times.

“This is a smart … strategic … see-through steel barrier—not just a simple concrete wall,” Trump said of his promised wall, adding “it will be deployed in the areas identified by border agents as having the greatest need.” Should Congress fail to act, “I’ll get it built” in any event, the president vowed, Rebecca Ballhaus and Peter Nicholas report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump lashed out against what he described as “ridiculous partisan investigations,” as House Democrats prepare a range of probes into his administration. “An economic miracle is taking place in the U.S. and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump said, adding: “if there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation … it just doesn’t work that way;” Trump did not specifically mention special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Trump announced that he will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un this month, revealing that he would hold the second meeting with Kim in Vietnam on Feb. 27-28 following their landmark summit last year. Trump proclaimed that his election had prevented war with North Korea: “if I had not been elected president of the U.S., we would right now . . . be in a major war with North Korea with potentially millions of people killed … much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong-un is a good one,” Demetri Sevastopulo and Courtney Weaver report at the Financial Times.

The president claimed that his administration had accelerated talks for a political settlement in Afghanistan, and would be able to reduce U.S. troops there as negotiations advance to end America’s longest war. “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump said, also claiming that U.S. troops had nearly defeated Islamic State group militants in Syria and it was time to bring soldiers home, Reuters reports.

Trump also took aim at Iran – calling the country “the world’s leading state sponsor of terror” and accusing its leaders of doing “bad, bad things.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded in a message posted on Twitter today, claiming “U.S. hostility has led it to support dictators, butchers & extremists who’ve only brought ruin to our region,” also contesting Trump’s accusations that Iran has assisted in the coordination of anti-Semitic attacks, The Daily Beast reports.

Democrats yesterday rejected Trump’s calls for bipartisanship, with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) predicting Trump was going to just take his annual break from “364 days of the year dividing us and sowing a state of disunion.” Michael Scherer provides an account of the Democratic response at the Washington Post.

STATE OF THE UNION: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An account of the most “evocative” moments from the president’s Address last night is provided by Miles Parks at NPR.

If Trump truly cared about bipartisan cooperation “he would have committed not to declare a phony state of emergency in order to build his wall against congressional wishes,” the Washington Post editorial board writes.

The State of the Union took place with “Mueller’s investigation grinding inexorably forward” in the background, and though “the state of the union is strong … the same cannot be said for the state of Mr Trump’s presidency,” the Economist notes.

Trump’s State of the Union was the speech of a president losing his grip on power, Edward Luce comments at the Financial Times, predicting that “Trump will bill the [2020 presidential] election as a battle between him and a socialist” and the election “will take place against the backdrop of a missing wall.”

The “dizzying and even disorienting” nature of Trump’s State of Union was a deliberate strategy aiming to reconnect Trump the candidate and Trump the president, John F. Harris argues at POLITICO, commenting that “Trump recognizes the potential damage he incurred by offering to “own” the federal government shutdown and that being seen as the leader of an unpopular establishment party sacrifices the insurgent and outsider nature of his own brand.”

A fact-checker for last night’s speech is provided at the New York Times.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

U.S. envoy to North Korea Stephen Biegun arrived in Pyongyang today, aiming to sort out “crucial details” for a nuclear summit meeting in Vietnam between President Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, scheduled for three week’s time. Biegun reportedly arrived around the time that Trump announced during his State of the Union Address that he and Kim will meet for the second time on Feb. 27-28, Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

South Korea welcomed Trump’s announcement of the upcoming meeting with Kim, expressing hope today that the leaders can build on their first meeting to make “more specific and substantial progress” this time round. The presidential Blue House also noted important symbolism of Vietnam as the choice of venue: “Vietnam and the U.S. used to point guns and knives at each other but have now become friends,” presidential spokesperson Kim Eui-keum told a news conference, adding “we expect Vietnam to be a perfectly suitable backdrop to a new history to be written between North Korea and the U.S.” Simon Denver and Min Joo Kim report at the Washington Post.

North Korea is reportedly working to protect its nuclear and missile stockpiles from military strikes, according to U.N. monitors. The monitors sent a confidential report to a 15-member U.N. Security Council sanctions committee, in which they claim that they had “found evidence of a consistent trend on the part of [North Korea] to disperse its assembly, storage and testing location,” Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

The panel of experts that compiled the report was established following several U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at pressuring Pyongyang into ceasing nuclear tests and missile launches. Richard Roth reports at CNN.

VENEZUELA

Pope Francis yesterday expressed a potential willingness to mediate a peaceful resolution to the political fallout in Venezuela if he were asked to do so by both President Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó. “We are always willing,” said Francis on the papal plane returning to Rome from Abu Dhabi, on his return from the first-ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula, acknowledging that Maduro had sent him a letter which he said he has yet to read, Jason Horowitz reports at the New York Times.

Venezuela’s opposition-dominated congress yesterday said it will hold new elections as soon as possible within a year — once Maduro is ousted from power. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello also threatened to hold early legislative elections that could empty Congress of its opposition representatives, accusing the opposition of taking direction from the U.S.; “we won’t skip a beat,” Cabello said, adding “we have no doubt that the imperialism governs the Venezuelan right wing,” Scott Smith reports at the AP.

The U.S. has sent food and medicine to Colombia’s border with Venezuela, U.S. officials announced yesterday, although it is still unclear how the aid will get past the objections of Maduro, who has previously blocked shipments. A senior U.S. administration official said it was up to Guaidó to decide when and how to move the supplies into the country, adding “we will seek to help him to do so by whatever means possible,” Reuters reports.

It is by backing Guaidó that “governments throughout the Americas and the world will make clear that democracy and the people’s will prevail over demagoguery and repression,” Irwin Cotler and Brandon Silver argue at Foreign Policy.

N.A.T.O.

President Trump is expected to visit the U.K. in December, after N.A.T.O. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that leaders of the military alliance would meet there for a summit. “I am pleased to announce that allies have agreed that the next meeting of N.A.T.O. heads of state and government will take place in London in December 2019,” Stoltenberg said in a statement, adding: “we are grateful to the United Kingdom for agreeing to host this meeting in N.A.T.O.’s 70th anniversary year… the U.K. was one of the alliance’s 12 founding members and continues to play a key role in the alliance, making essential contributions to our shared security,” the Press Association reports.

Macedonia today took a substantial step toward becoming the 30th member of N.A.T.O. In a move that marked the end of a longstanding dispute with Greece over the country’s name, Stoltenberg and Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov led an “accession protocol” signing ceremony at the alliance’s Brussels headquarters; “this is a historic occasion,” Stoltenberg told N.A.T.O. country envoys, adding “we have waited for you to join our family for a long time,” Lorne Cook and Konstantin Testorides report a the AP.

An analysis of the implications of Macedonia’s name-change and its progress toward N.A.T.O. membership is provided by Una Hajdari at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Federal prosecutors in recent weeks have been interviewing witnesses about the flow of foreign money to three powerful law and lobbying firms recruited seven years ago by Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort. Manafort allegedly brought the firms on board to improve the image of the Russia-aligned president of Ukraine Viktor F. Yanukovych; Manafort has already pleaded guilty to various charges related to his lucrative work on behalf of Yanukovych, Kenneth P. Vogen explains at the New York Times.

Head of the House Judiciary Committee Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) is scheduling a markup of acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker’s subpoena ahead of his slated appearance on Capitol Hill, claiming the pre-emptive move is motivated by an “abundance of caution.” Nadler has taken other steps to prevent Whitaker from avoiding answering particular questions centering around the Mueller probe by sending him a series of questions in advance; Nadler stated in a letter late last month said that Whitaker should consult with the White House on those questions because the committee “will not accept your declining to answer any question on the theory that the President may want to invoke his privileges in the future,” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russia announced yesterday that it is planning to develop two new land-based missile launch systems in response to President Trump’s announcement last week that the U.S. will pull out of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (I.N.F.) Moscow reportedly intends to develop the systems by 2021 in order to counter U.S. developments in its missile capabilities, Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

Iran has warned Israel of a “firm and appropriate” response if it continues attacking targets in Syria. Israel has repeatedly attacked Iranian targets in Syria; in a meeting yesterday with Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moalem in Tehran, Secretary of Iran’s National Security Council Ali Shamkhani said the Israeli attacks violated Syria’s territorial integrity and were “unacceptable,” 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]

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo late yesterday in an apparent bid to reassert his authority, as Washington accelerates its negotiations with the Taliban militants and separate talks unfold in Moscow without the involvement of the Afghan government. Rahim Faiez reports at the AP.

U.N. Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths told the country’s warring parties yesterday that rapid implementation of a prisoner swap deal would help advance efforts at a political settlement. Griffiths said the task of finalizing a list of the thousands of prisoners should be completed by the end of three days of talks in Amman between representatives from the Saudi-backed government and the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels, Reuters reports.

What does Trump do during his “executive time?” Michael D’Antonio provides an analysis at CNN. 

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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).