The Early Edition: February 13, 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

The threat of another government shutdown grew less likely yesterday as lawmakers lent support to a “fragile” border security compromise and President Trump projected that federal agencies would stay open. The president, however, did not publicly endorse the bipartisan deal, which includes a small fraction of the funds that he has sought for his long-promised border wall, indicating that he might accept the deal while still taking other steps to fund the wall, Erica Werner, Sean Sullivan, Damian Paletta and John Wagner report at the Washington Post.

“Am I happy [with the deal] at first glance? … the answer is no … I’m not … I’m not happy,” Trump told reporters around midday at the White House, as he met with Cabinet members, adding “I’ll have to study it.” Nonetheless, Trump predicted, “I don’t think you’re going to see a shutdown. … If you did have it, it’s the Democrats’ fault,” Domenico Montaro and Jessica Taylor report at NPR.

Trump appeared to soften his tone on the deal later yesterday. “I want to thank all Republicans for the work you have done in dealing with the Radical Left on Border Security,” the president stated in a message on Twitter last night, adding, “not an easy task, but the Wall is being built and will be a great achievement and contributor toward life and safety within our Country!” Isaac Stanley-Becker reports at the Washington Post.

The “tentative” deal agreed Monday night would allocate $1.38 billion for 55 miles of physical barriers—including bollard fencing and levee walls, but not concrete walls—along the Rio Grande Valley of the Southern border, according to congressional aides. That marks a far lower funding level than the $5.7 billion Trump had originally sought for a border wall, Rebecca Ballhaus and Kristina Peterson report at the Wall Street Journal.

“It will be harder for Trump to paint Democrats as radicals … after Republicans struck the border-security deal with them,” Jonathan Allen comments at NBC in an analysis of the border wall developments.

Trump’s pledge to build a border wall without the support of Congress exemplifies the president’s approach to executive power, “reconciling multiple, converging strands of Trump’s presidency, political brand, willingness to shatter the norms of his office, and personality,” Stephen Collinson comments at CNN.

A look at what has actually been constructed on the U.S.-Mexico border in the past year is provided by Denise Lu in a series of graphics at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

An encounter on Aug. 2, 2016 between Russian intelligence-linked associate Konstantin Kilimnik and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, as well as Manafort’s deputy Rick Gates, has emerged in recent days as a potential keystone in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. Prosecutors believe Manafort and Kilimnik may have exchanged key information relevant to Russia and Trump’s presidential bid at that meeting, Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger explain at the Washington Post.

Top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee Mark Warner (Va.) yesterday broke with committee Chair Richard Burr’s (R-N.C.) assessment that the panel had not found evidence of collusion based on its findings thus far. “Respectfully, I disagree,” Warner said, adding ”I’m not going to get into any conclusions I’ve reached because my basis of this has been that I’m not going to reach any conclusion until we finish the investigation … and we still have a number of the key witnesses to come back,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair and Trump ally Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is holding off on bipartisan legislation that would protect Mueller. “If I see a reason to do it I will, but I think we’re OK right now,” Graham said in a brief interview yesterday, adding that he is not worried about the president, Marianne Levine reports at POLITICO.

Incoming attorney general William Barr may attempt to immunize the president from impeachment by preventing Congress from reviewing Mueller’s findings. David R. Lurie provides an analysis at The Daily Beast.

VENEZUELA

Russia said yesterday it is ready to facilitate the start of dialogue between the Venezuelan government of President Nicolás Maduro and opposition led by Juan Guaidó, but warned the U.S. against intervening in the country’s internal affairs. “We have been maintaining very important contacts with the government of this country and stand ready to provide a kind service in order to facilitate the process of finding ways out of the situation,” T.A.S.S. news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying, Reuters reports.

Maduro has called Trump a white supremacist and claimed that the Ku Klux Klan “rules the White House.” In an interview published yesterday, the incumbent commented: “it’s a political war, of the U.S. empire, of the interests of the extreme right that today is governing, of the Ku Klux Klan, that rules the White House, to take over Venezuela,” adding: “they hate us, they belittle us, because they only believe in their own interests …. they are warmongering in order to take over Venezuela,” Aris Folley reports at the Hill.

Guaidó has set Feb. 23 as the deadline for humanitarian aid to enter the country. Speaking before huge crowds yesterday, the leader of the opposition and self-declared president claimed he is mobilizing caravans to bring the sorely needed food and medicine from across the border in Colombia, also announcing a second collection of aid across the border in Brazil, Kerry Sanders, Erika Angulo and Carmen Sesin report at NBC.

ARMS CONTROLS

N.A.T.O. secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg yesterday warned that the alliance will respond to what it insists are Russia’s violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (I.N.F.,) but will not station more nuclear missiles in Europe. Stoltenberg urged Russia to return to compliance with the I.N.F. treaty that Washington started pulling out of on Feb. 2, with the U.S. insisting that a missile system Russia calls the Novator 9M729 breaches the pact’s range requirements, Lorne Cook reports at the AP.

Gerrman Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partners – center-left Social Democrats (S.D.F.) – are reconsidering their support for a longstanding arrangement putting Germany under the U.S. nuclear shield, in a development that could further undermine the country’s strained relationship with the Trump administration. The S.D.F. have appointed a commission to re-evaluate their positions on strategic, foreign and security policy, including the merits of “nuclear sharing:” a Cold War-era accord under which German warplanes would be used to launch U.S. nuclear weapons in case of a Russian attack on Europe; the deliberations reportedly came partly as a result of Trump’s withdrawal from the I.N.F. Bojan Pancevski reports at the Wall Street Journal.

An Op-Ed on the impact on U.S. soldiers of serving near dangerous nuclear tests is provided by Morgan Knibbe at the New York Times.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

South Korea’s presidential Blue House pushed back today against comments by President Trum suggesting Seoul had agreed to pay out $500 million more towards maintaining U.S. troops in the South. Trump had said at a cabinet meeting in Washington yesterday that Seoul had agreed to pay $500 million more as part of an agreement sharing the cost of keeping roughly 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea; Blue House spokesperson Kim Eui-kyeom today commented that the figure “shouldn’t be taken as a fait accompli,” Reuters reports.

Commander of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula Gen. Robert Abrams said yesterday that he regards a second summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a “positive sign,” although he added that says there has been “little to no verifiable change” in Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities. “The reduction in tension on the peninsula, it’s palpable,” Abrams said, noting thay it has been 440 days since North Korea’s last missile or nuclear test and stating that “my personal opinion is the announcement of a second summit of President Trump and the supreme leader, Kim, is a positive sign of continued dialogue … because it certainly beats the alternative of what we were living with in 2017,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Abrams commented that the North’s “conventional and asymmetric capabilities” continue to put the US, South Korea and allies at risk, rendering it is necessary for the U.S. military to “maintain a postured and ready force to deter any possible aggressive actions.” Zachary Cohen, Kylie Atwood and Ryan Browne report at CNN.

U.S.-RUSSIA-CHINA RELATIONS

The Pentagon yesterday unveiled a new artificial intelligence strategy aimed at and competing with Russian and Chinese technological advancements. “Other nations, particularly China and Russia, are making significant investments in A.I. for military purposes,” the strategy finds, also stating that “these investments threaten to erode our technological and operational advantages and destabilize the free and open international order … the U.S., together with its allies and partners, must adopt AI to maintain its strategic position, prevail on future battlefields, and safeguard this order, ” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday referred to the 30th anniversary of the demise of communism to appeal to countries in Central and Eastern Europe to resist Chinese and Russian influence. While speaking on a five-nation tour of Europe, Pompeo claimed that China and Russia pose twin threats to the democratic and economic gains made since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, claiming also that post-communist countries are particularly vulnerable to Chinese and Russian predatory investment and political meddling, Matthew Lee reports at the AP.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch said yesterday that he is satisfied with the Trump administration’s probe into the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, even as several of his Republican members complain vehemently that the administration has not complied with a law requiring them to make a determination in the killing. The Magnitsky Act required the administration to respond to a bipartisan request asking it to come to a conclusion but the White House last week declined to meet the deadline to reply, Burgess Everett reports at POLITICO.

“The murder of Jamal Khashoggi demolished the myth of a reforming crown prince running Saudi Arabia,” legal scholar Abdullah Alaoudh writes at the New York Times, claiming that “the world needs to raise its voice to support the Saudis actually fighting for reform — people like Salman Alodah, my father, for whom the Saudi attorney general has sought the death penalty. ”

YEMEN

The House could vote as soon as today on a resolution that would cut off U.S. military support to the Saudi-led coalition in neighboring Yemen– a measure is expected to easily pass the chamber controlled by Democrats. “I also am hopeful the president may sign it … I know it’s uphill still,” lead House Sponsor Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) stated in a phone interview yesterday with reporters, adding “you can’t be for withdrawal in Afghanistan and withdrawal in Syria and then say we need to escalate the war in Yemen … it just doesn’t make sense,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

An update and analysis on the progress of the War Powers Resolution and the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act of 2019 is provided by Senior Editor Tess Bridgeman at Just Security. The former measure “directs the President to remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen;” the latter aims to “ to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of U.S. resident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi … and the Saudi-led coalition for its role in the devastating conflict in Yemen.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

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]

“[Jim] Mattis was the best Secretary of Defense Trump could have had,” Peter Feaver argues in an Op-Ed at Foreign Policy. 

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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).