The Early Edition: February 7, 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

Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has announced a “sweeping” new investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election that will also look at President Trump’s personal finances and possible links between the president’s associates and Moscow. Schiff said he and fellow congressional investigators would be chasing “credible reports of money laundering and financial compromise related to the business interests of President Trump, his family and his associates,” Courtney Weaver reports at the Financial Times.

Trump lashed out against Democratic investigations into his affairs during his State of the Union Address Tuesday, describing the probes as “ridiculous” and “presidential harassment.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in turn accused the president of delivering an “all-out threat” to lawmakers sworn to provide a check and balance on his power; “Presidents should not bring threats to the floor of the House … it’s not investigation; it’s oversight … it’s our congressional responsibility, and if we didn’t do it, we would be delinquent in our duties,” she commented, Mike DeBonis and Seung Min Kim report at the Washington Post.

The House Intelligence Committee yesterday suddenly moved to postpone the closed-door testimony of Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen until later this month. “In the interests of the investigation, Michael Cohen’s testimony has been postponed until February 28th,” Schiff said in a brief statement yesterday morning; Cohen had been scheduled to testify before the committee tomorrow as part of its newly revived probe into Russian election interference, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) yesterday announced charges against longtime Republican fundraiser Paul Erickson, who worked with his Russian girlfriend and convicted agent Mariia Butina to try to establish back-channel ties between Moscow and the Trump presidential campaign. Erickson was a key part of Butina’s outreach to Trump’s campaign and other conservative political organizations, with Butina since having pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a clandestine foreign agent. Carrie Johnson reports at NPR.

Prosecutor Scott Meisler has left special counsel Robert Mueller’s team and returned to the D.O.J. as news reports indicate that the investigation could be nearing its conclusion. Mueller is investigating Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign – spokesperson Peter Carr commented that “Scott Meisler concluded his detail with the Special Counsel’s Office in December 2018 and returned to the Criminal Division but continues to represent the office on specific pending matters that were assigned to him during his detail,” John Bowden reports at the Hill.

“Trump’s threat … that investigations conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the newly Democratic House will jeopardize ‘peace and legislation’ will not insulate him from criminal probes and congressional inquiries,” former counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee Michael Conway comments at NBC, pointing out the similarities with “Richard Nixon [who] made similar pronouncements just 45 years ago, when he denounced the then-ongoing Watergate investigation in his own State of the Union address.”

SYRIA

President Trump yesterday boasted that the Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) will soon lose all their territory in Syria. Addressing officials from more than 70 countries in Washington, Trump claimed that U.S.-led troops and their Kurdish allies in the region had “liberated virtually all of the territory” from the militants who once controlled a vast stretch of Syria and Iraq in a self-styled caliphate: “it should be formally announced some time next week that we will have 100 percent of the caliphate,” Trump added, AFP reports.

“In liberated areas across Syria and Iraq … sleeper cells are carrying out assassinations … setting up flying checkpoints and distributing fliers as they lay the groundwork for an insurgency that could gain strength as U.S. forces withdraw,” Sarah El Deeb writes in an analysis of I.S.I.S.’ potential to regroup at the AP.

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was not wrong to object to the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, head of the Pentagon’s special operations Owen West said yesterday. West is the latest official to voice concern abut Trump’s plan to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, and said that while U.S. troops do not need to be “co-located” with partner forces to keep pressure on I.S.I.S., “militarily, we will be less effective,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Work toward implementing an agreement between Turkey and the U.S. over the Syrian town of Manbij has accelerated in recent days, Turkish Foreign Mevlut Cavusoglu told a press conference in Washington yesterday. “The process in Manbij has sped up despite the weather conditions but the road map should have been completed by now and the reason it hasn’t been is the United States,” Cavusoglu commented, Reuters reports.

Pentagon spokesperson for Detainee Policy Navy Cmdr. Candice Tresch has said that Guantánamo Bay detention remains an alternative to repatriation of captives now held by the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.). It is the job of U.S. government policy “to encourage countries of citizenship to take responsibility for their F.T.F.s [foreign terrorist fighters] through prosecution, rehabilitation programs, or other measures that sufficiently prevent detainees from re-engaging in terrorism,” Tresch commented, Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

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]

IRAN

Senior Iranian figures stated yesterday that Syria was a top foreign policy priority and U.S. troops should withdraw as promised by President Trump. “Whether they want to or not, the Americans must leave Syria,” a senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – Ali Akbar Velayati – was reported as saying, Reuters reports.

Iraq’s most senior Shia religious scholar Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani yesterday joined a wave of criticism aimed at President Trump’s claim that U.S. troops should stay in Iraq to keep an eye on neighbouring Iran. Al-Sistani said Iraq aspires to have “good and balanced relations” with all of its neighbors “based on mutual interests and without intervention in internal affairs,” Al Jazeera reports.

Tehran appears to have attempted a second satellite launch despite U.S. criticism that its space program helps the country develop ballistic missiles, satellite images released today by the Colorado-based company DigitalGlobe suggest. Iran did not immediately acknowledge conducting such a launch, but the images takken yesterday appear to show words written in Farsi in large characters on the launch pad, stating “Iranian-made” and “40 years,” in a possible reference to the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Jon Gambrell reports at the AP.

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban yesterday hailed unprecedented talks with Afghan politicians as “very successful,” despite disagreements over women’s rights and the group’s demand for an Islamic constitution in the country. The two-day gathering in Moscow saw Taliban leaders stand shoulder-to-shoulder with former president Hamid Karzai, who declared the talks a “big achievement” that would help push toward “peace, stability and an Afghanistan free of foreign forces,” Andrew Higgins and Mujib Mashal report at the New York Times.

The U.S. has not agreed on any timeline to pull its troops from Afghanistan, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said yesterday, adding that it would look at potential changes to its military presence “as conditions allow.” The spokesperson said in a statement that “we have not agreed to any timeline for a possible drawdown of troops and are not going to get into any other specific details of diplomatic conversations,” Reuters reports.

YEMEN

Congress inched closer to a major foreign-policy rebuke of President Trump yesterday as the House Foreign Affairs Committee advanced a bill to stymie U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. The panel’s Democrats sent a War Powers resolution to the House floor, where it is likely to pass overwhelmingly in the coming days; “more than 14 million Yemenis … are on the brink of famine, and at least 85,000 children have already died from hunger and disease as a result of the war,” the Bill’s lead sponsor Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) declared after the vote, adding “let’s end American complicity in the atrocities in Yemen.” Andrew Desidero reports at POLITICO.

“Lawmakers should evaluate the concrete steps needed to mitigate civilian harm and inoculate the U.S. from being implicated in the ‘next Yemen,’” Daniel R. Mahanty and Melissa Dalton write at Just Security, in an analysis of how Congress should strengthen oversight over U.S. security partnerships abroad.

VENEZUELA

Venezuela’s opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó will name a new board for the country’s U.S.-based Citgo Petroleum Corp., Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) announced yesterday, in an attempt to starve the government of President Nicolas Maduro of income from the country’s oil. The U.S.-based refinery, owned by state oil giant Petróleos de Venezuela SA. Citgo, is being forced to consider the possibility of bankruptcy and other contingency plans in the fight for control of Venezuela’s assets, Jessica Donati, Ian Talley and Andrew Scurria report at the Wall Street Journal.

Maduro’s opponents are “hastily” putting together plans with U.S. officials to open a “humanitarian corridor” to deliver badly needed food and medicine to Venezuelans. An account of the aid effort is provided by Joshua Goodman and Christine Armario at the AP.

It was a former mayor of a Caracas borough – Leopaldo López – who reportedly helped engineer Guaidó’s rise, Joe Parkin Daniels, Tom Phillips and Sabrina Siddiqui write at the Guardian, in an analysis exploring López’s ambitions for the presidency.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Trump administration has jettisoned its efforts to appoint the career diplomat Francisco “Paco” Palmieri as the next U.S. ambassador to Honduras, caving in to pressure from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.,) who is seeking to promote a more hardline approach to U.S. policy in Latin America, according to congressional sources. Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer explain at Foreign Policy.

The U.S. Army is reportedly developing a more intensive fitness test tailored to combat situations, following complaints from commanders of insufficient troop readiness.Top Army officials claimed that the existing physical fitness tests employed by the military branch during basic training do not prepare soldiers adequately for the physical challenges they may encounter on the battlefield, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

“Trump cherry-picked foreign crises to call attention to and described a disturbing set of double standards in how we approach various nations,” John Kirby and Samantha Vinograd comment on Trump’s State of the Union address at CNN, arguing that the president’s approach “indicates that there is no consistent, analytic approach to foreign policy issues that matter deeply to American national security.” 

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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).