The Early Edition: February 19, 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.

NATIONAL EMERGENCY AND BORDER WALL

Sixteen states yesterday filed a federal lawsuit challenging President Trump’s national-emergency declaration to fund a wall along the Southern border, laying the ground for a battle with the administration with the potential to reach the Supreme Court. The complaint was filed in California’s Northern District and seeks judicial intervention to stop Trump’s order, Rebecca Davis O’Brien and Sadie Gurman report at the Wall Street Journal.

The suit accuses the president of “an unconstitutional and unlawful scheme,” and asserts that the states are trying “to protect their residents, natural resources, and economic interests from President Donald J. Trump’s flagrant disregard of fundamental separation of powers principles engrained in the United States Constitution.” The Department of Justice Department (D.O.J.) did not comment on the lawsuit last night, Amy Goldstein reports at the Washington Post.

The suit arises from steps Trump said he would take after lawmakers granted him only $1.375 billion for new border barriers, in legislation the president signed last week to avoid another government shutdown. The plaintiff states are California, New York, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon and Virginia: all have Democratic governors except Maryland, whose attorney general is a Democrat, Charlie Savage and Robert Pear report at the New York Times.

“The wall is about division — not just a barrier against outsiders … but an attempt to drive a wedge between Americans … too,” Paul Krugman comments at the New York Times, arguing that Trump’s wall differs from previous presidential flagship construction projects “and not just because it probably won’t actually get built.”

TRUMP-RUSSIA and the F.B.I.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein looks set to be stepping down from his position in about three weeks, according to Department of Justice (D.O.J.) officials, with the development coming just days after William Barr was confirmed by the Senate as the new attorney general. Rosenstein has been overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign, and had indicated in January that he would leave shortly after the arrival of a new attorney general but would stay long enough to ensure an orderly transition, Pete Williams and Doha Madani report at NBC.

D.O.J. officials said Rosenstein’s departure had no connection to recent comments by former F.B.I. Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who in an interview on “60 Minutes” Sunday confirmed a New York Times story that Rosenstein considered wearing a wire in meetings with the president; Rosenstein said both the Times story and McCabe’s account were “inaccurate and factually incorrect,” Reuters reports.

McCabe’s public comments in recent days about his dealings with Trump and his administration come in advance of today’s publication of McCabe’s new book “The Threat,” Isabel Dobrin reports at POLITICO.

President Trump said yesterday that Rosenstein’s reported discussions with McCabe’s about invoking the Constitution to remove him from office were part of an “illegal and treasonous” effort against him. According to McCabe, he and Rosenstein raised the possibility of removing the president in 2017 after Trump fired F.B.I. director James Comey; the two officials “look like they were planning a very illegal act, and got caught,” Trump said in a series of messages sent on Twitter, adding: “this was the illegal and treasonous ‘insurance policy’ in full action!” AFP reports.

Longtime Trump associate Roger Stone formally apologized yesterday for his controversial social media posts about federal district court Judge Amy Berman Jackson – overseeing his criminal trial in D.C. District Court – making the apology in a letter filed with the court. Stone was indicted in January by a grand jury on charges brought forward by Mueller; in the most recent controversy relating to Stone’s case – a photograph had been uploaded and then deleted from his Instagram account showing Jackson next to cross hairs, imitating the scope of a rifle, Kate Sullivan and Sara Murray report at CNN.

“Even if the lack of candor allegations were valid … we need to take notice of McCabe’s verifiable observations and accounts,” former F.B.I. assistant director for counterintelligence Frank Figliuzzi comments at NBC, cautioning that McCabe is “sounding an alarm and we need to listen.”

“The special counsel has begun to draw sharper lines between Russia … WikiLeaks … Roger Stone and the Trump campaign,” Jack Shafer writes in an analysis of the latest Mueller probe developments at POLITICO Magazine.

SYRIA

Hundreds of militants fighting for the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria (I.S.I.S.) are refusing to surrender in the Syrian village of Baghouz despite being surrounded by U.S.-backed Syrian forces. The militants in the village are surrounded by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) alliance but are reportedly refusing to capitulate and are requesting passage to the rebel-held northwestern Idlib province, the AP reports.

A twin bomb attack yesterday in the city of Idlib killed at least 15 people, including four children, with dozens of others were wounded, U.K.-based war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. The first blast was reportedly caused by an explosive device planted under a car in Qusour neighborhood during rush hour; a motorcycle bomb then exploded after ambulances arrived at the scene of the first blast, Al Jazeera reports.

Hundreds of foreign jihadist fighters held in Syria represent a “time bomb” and have the potential escape and threaten the West unless countries do more to take them back, the Kurdish-led, U.S.-backed authorities holding them said yesterday. S.D.F. Co-chair of foreign relations Abdulkarim Omar said authorities there were holding some 800 foreign fighters, with around 700 of the fighters’ wives and 1,500 of their children also in camps, Reuters reports.

European leaders have appeared reluctant to meet President Trump’s demands to take back captive I.S.I.S. fighters. Trump sent a message on Twitter on Saturday, stating: “the United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial … the Caliphate is ready to fall,” but the return of foreign fighters presents a “thorny issue for the legal systems” of those countries, Vanessa Romo explains at NPR.

Co-chair of the S.D.F. Ilham Ahmed has called for a small international observer force to be stationed on the Turkey-Syria border to protect Kurds from the threat of crimes against humanity committed by Turkish forces. Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 199 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Jan. 27 and Feb. 9. [Central Command]

YEMEN

The Yemeni government-in-exile and the Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels have agreed on the first stage of a mutual pullout of forces from the key port city of Hodeidah, the U.N. has announced. A U.N. statement late Sunday claimed the agreement came after two days of meetings in Hodeidah, stating that both sides “made important progress on planning for the redeployment of forces as envisaged in the Hodeida agreement,” Samy Magdy reports at the AP.

Supporters of a measure to stop U.S. backing of Saudi Arabia in Yemen are projecting victory in the coming weeks when the Senate takes up a House-passed resolution. The resolution only needs a simple majority for a procedural vote and subsequent final passage, and its proponents claim they now have added momentum as the administration’s “missteps” in handling the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi have increased anger at Saudi Arabia, Rebecca Kheel explains at the Hill.

VENEZUELA

President Trump yesterday urged Venezuela’s military to accept opposition leader Juan Guaidoó’s amnesty offer, or stand to “lose everything,” as the crisis over President Nicolás Maduro’s refusal to let humanitarian aid into the country intensified. Guaidó has given the Maduro government until Saturday to let shipments of predominantly U.S. aid into Venezuela, AFP reports.

“We’re here to proclaim that a new day is coming in Latin America … it’s coming,” Trump said during a speech at Florida International University in Miami, adding “the people of Venezuela are standing for freedom and democracy, and the United States of America are standing right by their side,” Jane C. Timm reports at NBC.

“We seek a peaceful transition of power … but all options are open,” Trump added. He appealed to all members of the Venezuelan military to permit the aid into the country, and advised them to accept Guaidó’s amnesty offer — threatening that if they do not they will find “no safe harbor, no easy exit, and no way out,” Annie Karni, Micholas Casey and Anatoly Kurmanaev report at the New York Times.

Seven stories and programs to get you up-to-date on the Venezuelan political crisis are listed at Al Jazeera.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The U.S. is considering opening a liaison office in North Korea, in a potential step toward normalizing relations while the two sides negotiate to limit Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile arsenal, according to a Trump administration official. The proposal comes as President Trump prepares to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un this month in Hanoi, Vietnam; the liaison office plan would allow North Korea to also open an office in the U.S., the official said, although it was not immediately clear to what extent the North supports the idea, Michael R. Gordon and Andrew Jeong report at the Wall Street Journal.

Former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong Ho has commented that Kim has no intention of giving up his nuclear weapons and sees the upcoming summit with Trump as a chance to cement his country’s status as a nuclear weapons state. Thae – who defected to the South in 2016 – said in a news conference in Seoul today that next week’s meeting in Vietnam will be a failure if Trump is unable to persuade Kim to declare he will abandon all of his nuclear facilities and weapons, the AP reports.

The U.S. has reportedly blocked an effort by North Korea to allow commercial air travel within its airspace at the International Civil Aviation Organization (I.C.A.O.) Several sources close to the effort have disclosed that the Trump administration pressured the U.N. agency to drop plans with North Korea to open a new air route that would travel through both North Korean and South Korean airspace, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The founder of Huawei Ren Zhengfei has said there is “no way the U.S. can crush” the Chinese tech giant, also describing the arrest of his daughter and Huawei C.F.O. Meng Wanzhou as politically motivated, making the comments in an exclusive interview with the BBC.

The Kremlin is taking steps to tighten its grip on the internet within Russia’s borders, as the nation’s legislature pushed forward legislation this week that would trial temporarily disconnecting Russia from the global internet, Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

The U.S. Air Force will reportedly pressure Congress to pass a tenant bill of rights for military service members so they have more freedom in breaking lease agreements or withholding rent in unsafe living situations, Owen Daugherty reports at the Hill.

President Donald Trump will today sign a directive to establish a new branch of the military dedicated to space. However, the branch will remain part of the U.S. Air Force – rather than being set up as a fully independent department – apparently in order to assuage concerns in Congress, Jaqueline Klimas reports at POLITICO.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will return to the Supreme Court bench today after undergoing lung surgery, Nina Totenberg reports at NPR. 

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About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

Assistant 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).