The Early Edition: February 20, 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

President Trump has publicly criticized the investigations into possible collusion between his campaign and Russia more than 1,100 times since his inauguration. Larry Buchanan and Karen Yourish provide the new analysis at the New York Times, counting instances of condemnation from Trump’s Twitter page, official speeches, rallies, media interviews and press events.

The White House yesterday selected No. 2 official at the Transportation Department Jeffrey Rosen to be deputy attorney general. If confirmed by the Senate, Rosen will replace Rod Rosenstein, responsible for oversight of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign; however, it is likely that Rosen will not oversee Mueller as attorney general William Barr has given no indication that he will recuse himself, despite having written an unsolicited memo to Department of Justice (D.O.J.) and White House officials last year criticizing one of the probe’s key planks, Sadie Gurman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Former acting F.B.I. Director Andrew McCabe stated yesterday that it is possible that President Trump is a Russian asset. “Do you still believe the President could be a Russian asset?” asked CNN host Anderson Cooper during an interview with McCabe on “Anderson Cooper 360;” McCabe replied: “I think it’s possible … I think that’s why we started our investigation, and I’m really anxious to see where Mueller concludes that,” Kate Sullivan and Laura Jarrett report at CNN.

“Fusing the strands reveals an extraordinary story of a president who has attacked the law enforcement apparatus of his own government like no other president in history … and who has turned the effort into an obsession,” Mark Mazzetti, Magggie Haberman, Nicholas Fandos and Michael S. Schmidt write in an in-depth analysis at the New York Times on Trump’s “public war” waged against the Mueller probe. “Interviews with dozens of current and former government officials and others close to Mr. Trump … as well as a review of confidential White House documents,” the authors claim, “reveal numerous unreported episodes in a two-year drama.”

An analysis of why a life sentence for former Trump campaign Paul Manafort may be beneficial for Mueller is provided former assistant special Watergate prosecutor Nick Akerman at NBC.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump has said that he wants North Korea to end its nuclear program but is in no rush for Pyongyang to do so, making the comments almost a week before his second summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi. Speaking to reporters at a White House event yesterday, Trump said that if North Korea did not conduct any nuclear tests, then he was not under pressure to achieve one of his stated foreign policy goals – convincing the country to abandon nuclear weapons; “I have no pressing time schedule,” the president said, adding that the upcoming meeting is “very exciting,” Al Jazeera reports.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in told Trump in a call yesterday that his country is willing to open economic engagement with North Korea as a “concession” if it will hasten Pyongyang’s denuclearization, according to Moon’s office. Reuters reports.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Trump administration sought to push through the transfer of U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in potential violation of the law,new report from the House Oversight and Reform Committee alleges. Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings’ (D-Md.) staff issued an “interim staff” report yesterday, citing “multiple whistleblowers” who raised ethical and legal concerns about the process, and asserting: “they have warned about political appointees ignoring directives from top ethics advisers at the White House who repeatedly and unsuccessfully ordered senior Trump administration officials to halt their efforts,” Tm Mak reports at NPR.

A consulting firm once linked to former national security adviser Michael Flynn was the body attempting to push the president to endorse the transfer, according to the report. The consultants from the firm IP3 International, which organized a White House meeting between the president and nuclear industry executives last week, were reportedly involved in pushing a “Middle East Marshall Plan” in the early days of the Trump administration that raised concerns about Flynn’s conflicts of interest, Zak Colman reports at POLITICO.

IRAN

An Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander has claimed that the suicide bomber who carried out last week’s attack on the elite military force was a Pakistani national. In remarks carried by state T.V., Gen. Mohammad Pakpour yesterday identified the bomber as Hafiz Mohammad Ali and said a second Pakistani national was involved, adding that “first clue” came from a woman arrested over the weekend, the AP reports.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated today that relations with the U.S. have rarely been as bad as they are currently, and that sanctions imposed by the Trump administration targeting Tehran’s oil and banking sectors amount to “a terrorist act.” “The struggle between Iran and America is currently at a maximum … America has employed all its power against us,” Rouhani was quoted as saying in a cabinet meeting by the state broadcaster I.R.I.B., Reuters reports.

A series of key takeaways from the judgment on preliminary objections in Iran’s suit at the I.C.J. is provided by Chimène Keitner at Just Security.

SYRIA

U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces have said that several jihadists and dozens of civilians fled the Islamic State (I.S.I.S.) group’s last slice of territory in Syria yesterday, and cautioned that remaining fighters should surrender or face death. Supported by air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) have trapped the jihadists in a segment of the village of Baghhouz covering less a fifth of a square mile; “dozens of civilians and some fighters have handed themselves over,” S.D.F. spokesperson Adnan Afrin told reporters at the nearby Al-Omar oil field, AFP reports.

The U.N. has expressed concern about the fate of some 200 families allegedly trapped in Islamic State group-held segment. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet commented that the families are being prevented from leaving by I.S.I.S militants whilst being subjected to the intense coalition bombardment; last night dozens of lorries reportedly arrived on the outskirts of the I.S.I.S. enclave in preparation to evacuate civilians, the BBC reports.

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]

TURKEY

The Turkish police yesterday launched raids to detain 324 people suspected of having links to an outlawed group believed to be responsible for a failed 2016 coup, Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency reported. The order was made by prosecutors in Turkey’s three biggest provinces of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, and arises from multiple investigations into followers of U.S.-based Muslim preacher Fetullah Gulen, who Ankara accuses of ordering the coup, Al Jazeera reports.

It is impossible for Turkey to accept the U.S. offer on purchasing Patriot defense systems in its current form, the Chair of Turkey’s Defense Industry Directorate Ismail Demir said today, adding that talks on the issue continue. Demir added that two Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets would be delivered to Turkey next month, despite warnings from U.S. officials that Turkey’s purchase of a Russian S-400 defense systems will jeopardize Ankara’s purchase of the F-35 jets and possibly result in U.S. sanctions, Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Cuba yesterday denied that it has security forces in Venezuela and claimed that U.S. claims to the contrary were part of an orchestrated campaign of lies setting the ground for military intervention in the Latin American country. “Our government categorically and energetically rejects this slander,” Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said at a Havana press conference, adding all of the some 20,000 Cubans in Venezuela were civilians, predominantly health professionals, Reuters reports.

Russian-backed hackers are able to enter and then move through their victims’ networks significantly quicker than actors from any other major nations, according to a new report by security firm CrowdStrike released yesterday. The report found that it takes Russian actors less than 19 minutes to move within a network that they have compromised – considerably less time than the next fastest-moving hackers in North Korea, who generally take about two hours and 20 minutes to make a follow-up move within a victim’s system, Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

Parties should avoid a hasty peace settlement in Afghanistan, Mariam Safi and Muqaddesa Yourish comment in an Op-Ed at the New York Times. The authors argue that “peace is the demand of every Afghan, but the desperation to end the bloodshed would not be accepted at the cost of their nascent democracy, human rights, women’s rights, free media or their vibrant civil society.”

Congressional lawmakers must find bipartisan approaches to foreign policy crises, Jeremy Suri writes at Foreign Policy, writing that as “the leaders of both parties support firmer policies toward Russia, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Syria, and Afghanistan … [they] must work together to elucidate the real facts of foreign policy and persuade voters —especially traditional Republicans and moderate Democrats — to focus on these crucial matters of national security.” 

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).