The Early Edition: February 11, 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

Negotiations over a bipartisan deal for border-security funding have stalled, according to aides familiar with the talks and other officials, raising the possibility of another government shutdown at the end of this week. The difficulty in reaching a settlement has heightened prospects that President Trump will declare a national emergency and seek to divert funds into constructing a wall along the Southern border, Stephen Collinson reports at CNN.

Trump’s interim chief of staff Mick Mulvaney yesterday said the possibility of a second government shutdown could not be ruled out. “Is a shutdown entirely off the table? … the answer is ‘no,’” Mulvaney said on NBC, adding that a presidential emergency declaration to build the border wall is “absolutely on the table,” Kate Davidson and Kristina Peterson report at the Wall Street Journal.

The President is holding a rally in El Paso tonight that is likely to focus on his demands for more border security. Yesterday, he referred to the border wall disagreement in a series of messages sent on Twitter, stating: “I don’t think the Dems on the Border Committee are being allowed by their leaders to make a deal … they are offering very little money for the desperately needed Border Wall & now, out of the blue, want a cap on convicted violent felons to be held in detention!” Erica Warner, Damian Paletta and Seugn min Kim report at the Washington Post.

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California is expected to withdraw nearly 400 of his state’s National Guard troops today from deployment along the border with Mexico and assign them to other duties, according his aides. The step represents a “sharp rebuke” of Trump’s continued warnings that undocumented migrants present a national security risk to the U.S., and follows a similar move by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico last week, Jose A. Del Real reports at the New York Times.

The Pentagon cannot afford to have money diverted for a border wall, Mackenzie Eaglen and Rick Berger comment at the Wall Street Journal, arguing “a bipartisan compromise could stave off this misuse of executive authority, protect the military and create more leverage and space for negotiators to finish their work.”

If Trump declares an emergency to build the wall … Congress can block him,” Tamara Keith comments at NPR in an analysis focusing on the 2005 Joint Resolution On National Emergency.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) lambasted acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker for his behavior during an antagonistic House Judiciary Committee hearing Friday.  “Mr attorney general, we are not joking here … and your humor is not acceptable,” Jackson Lee stated, with the “tense” exchange sparked as Whitaker was asked a series of yes-or-no questions about his role at the Justice Department and oversight of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Whitaker shocked committee members after he told Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) that his time for questioning had run out. Former senior F.B.I. official Chuck Rosenberg described Whitaker’s testimony as “disgraceful,” commenting “I’ve testified many times in Congress … sometimes the questions are good and thoughtful, sometimes they’re compound and incomprehensible, but you have to answer every one with a degree of civility and dignity, and that was sorely lacking,” Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

Mueller reportedly continues to pursue a theory that people in Trump’s orbit were discussing deals to end a dispute over Russia’s incursions into Ukraine – and possibly give Moscow relief from economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies – during the same period that Moscow was taking steps to bolster Trump’s candidacy. The theory was offered by lead prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, during a discussion of contacts between former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and longtime Russian associate Konstantin Kilimnik, alleged to have links to the Russian intelligence, Sharon LaFraniere, Kenneth P. Vogel and Scott Shane report at the New York Times.

SYRIA

U.S.-backed Kurdish-led fighters in Syria claim they are meeting fierce resistance in the last enclave held by Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) militants near the Iraqi border, with a battle yesterday inside the village of Baghouz continuing for hours while coalition air strikes and artillery fire pounded I.S.I.S. positions. On Saturday, after a pause of more than a week to allow around 20,000 civilians to leave the area, Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) spokesperson Mustafa Bali said the U.S.-backed group was launching the “final battle to crush [I.S.I.S.,]” the BBC reports.

“The clashes are ferocious naturally because the terrorist group is defending its last stronghold,” Bali said. S.D.F. forces claim they captured 41 positions held by I.S.I.S. and destroyed fortifications in the push to seize the group’s last enclave in eastern Syria over the weekend, Al Jazeera reports.

Top U.S. commander in the Middle East Gen. Joseph Votel has stated that the U.S. military is pulling equipment out of Syria in preparation for a troop withdrawal, temporarily moving additional security and logistics forces into Syria to prepare for the eventual withdrawal of the more than 2,000 U.S. troops fighting in the country. Votel told reporters yesterday: “I think we are right on track where we wanted to be…we are less focused on a specific timeline than we are doing this in a very effective manner,” Gordon Lubold reports at the Wall Street Journal.

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]

AFGHANISTAN

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan today to meet with U.S. commanders and Afghan leaders amid the push for peace with the Taliban militant group. Shanahan said he has no orders to reduce the U.S. troop presence, despite the fact that officials say that that is at the top of the Taliban’s list of demands in exploratory peace negotiations, the AP reports.

“It would be better for Afghanistan if we could get a peace agreement before the election,” U.S. envoy for Afghanistan negotiations Zalmay Khalilzad said Friday at the U.S. Institute for Peace, in his first public address since his appointment to the envoy position. Khalizad added: “if there is no progress on the peace track, elections will take place, and we are doing what we can to support the preparations for credible elections,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

President Trump refused to provide Congress a report Friday determining who killed Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, defying a demand by lawmakers keen on establishing whether the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the killing. Trump effectively bypassed a legal deadline as his administration argued that Congress could not impose its will on the president; “consistent with the previous administration’s position and the constitutional separation of powers, the president maintains his discretion to decline to act on congressional committee requests when appropriate,” the Trump administration responded in a statement, Peter Baker and Eric Schmidtt report at the New York Times.

Saudi Arabia does not need a U.N.-led probe or an international investigation into Khashoggi’s murder due to its “competent legal system,” Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Abdel al-Jubeir told Face the Nation yesterday. Dismissing the findings of U.N. Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard, al-Jubeir claimed that “the crown prince had nothing to do with this .. there was no order given to murder Jamal Khashoggi and the whole country is shocked by this … it was a mistake … it was committed by officials of the Saudi government acting outside their scope of authority … the king ordered an investigation,” Al Jazeera reports.

“All who rue Mr. Khashoggi’s fate should demand that Saudi Arabia cease the repression of those Saudis in whose name he spoke out,” the New York Times editorial board comments.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un once again this month in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, the White House said Friday. “My representatives have just left North Korea after a very productive meeting and an agreed upon time and date for the second Summit with Kim Jong Un,” Trump wrote in a message posted on Twitter, adding “it will take place in Hanoi, Vietnam, on February 27 & 28 … I look forward to seeing Chairman Kim & advancing the cause of peace!” Maggie Haberman and Peter Baker report at the New York Times.

U.S. and South Korean officials signed a short-term agreement yesterday to increase the South’s contribution toward the upkeep of the 28,500 U.S. troops on the Peninsula, after a previous deal lapsed with President Trump calling for the South to pay more. The new deal must still be approved by South Korea’s parliament, but it would boost Seoul’s contribution to 1.03 trillion won from 960 billion won in 2018. Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. has warned of the growing influence of Chinese tech giant Huawei in central and eastern Europe as it launches a diplomatic effort to curb Beijing’s ambitions in the region. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to visit Hungary, Slovakia and Poland this week, in a indication of Washington’s fears over inroads made by Beijing through business deals and infrastructure investment, Aime Williams, James Shotter, Monika Pronczuk and Michael Peel report at the Financial Times.

Iran-backed Lebanese militant Hezbollah group “has a long and sordid history in Venezuela,” Colin P. Clarke writes at Foreign Policy, doubting that regime change would rid the country of the group’s influence.

Why is Guantánamo Bay prison shopping for a new three-cell handicapped-accessible compound? Carol Rosenberg explains the prison’s “multiple contingencies” at the Miami Herald.

The F.B.I.’s International Human Rights Unit – which leads on investigating individuals within the U.S. who have been accused of committing international crimes – may be shut down imminently. Executive Editor Beth Van Schaack explains the significance of the potential closure at Just Security. 

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About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).