The Early Edition: February 21, 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

Newly confirmed Attorney General William Barr is preparing to announce as early as next week the conclusion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign, apparently planning to submit a summary of Mueller’s confidential report to Congress soon after the announcement, according to people familiar with the plans. The preparatory steps provide “the clearest indication yet” that Mueller is starting to wrap up his probe that has lasted the best part of two years, Evan Perez, Laura Jarrett and Katelyn Polantz report at CNN.

President Trump said yesterday that it will be up to Barr to release Mueller’s report. “That’ll be totally up to the new attorney general,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office when asked if the report should be released while the president is in Vietnam next week meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, adding that Barr is “a tremendous man, a tremendous person who really respects this country and respects the Justice Department,” Dartunorro Clark reports at NBC.

U.S. District Judge William Pauley III has granted the request of Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen – to delay the date he is scheduled to report to prison by 60 days, meaning that Cohen will not go to jail until early May. Cohen’s attorneys had asked for the 60-day delay, citing his need to recover from recent shoulder surgery and prepare for anticipated congressional testimony before three committees later this month, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Cohen is set to appear on Capitol Hill next week to give “highly anticipated testimony” in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The hearing was originally scheduled for earlier in February but was delayed after Cohen cited “threats” from the president and his current personal attorney Rudy Giuliani; “I am pleased to announce that Michael Cohen’s public testimony before the oversight committee is back on, despite efforts by some to intimidate his family members and prevent him from appearing,” Chair Elijah Cummings (D-Md.,) announced in a statement yesterday, Arnei Seipel reports at NPR.

“A key question here is whether the committees can obtain useful information from Cohen — without jeopardizing ongoing criminal … counterintelligence … and other investigations,” Elise Bean comments at Just Security, suggesting “ a three-step process, carried out on a bipartisan basis” that might offer a practical path forward.

President Trump’s recent attacks former acting F.B.I. Director Andrew McCabe “serve a dual … if internally contradictory … purpose,” Toluse Olorunnipa and Matt Zapotosky comment in an analysis at the Washington Post, arguing that president is aiming “to discredit McCabe’s highly critical new book while using it to advance a case that he is the victim of a corrupt ‘deep state’ plotting an administrative coup.”

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country would aim at the U.S. with new advanced weapons if Washington deploys intermediate-range missiles in Europe, in a warning that appeared geared toward maintaining the status quo but nonetheless left open the possibility of negotiations, after the breakdown of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Putin claimed that Moscow is not seeking a confrontation with Washington, but if the U.S. were to put weapons on the continent, such a move would present “a serious threat to us” and Russia would be “forced to provide for mirror and symmetrical actions,” Ann M. Simmons reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Putin also suggested yesterday that there is a “deep state” in the U.S. government working against President Trump. He claimed that there are too many people within the U.S. “ruling class” who are “too captivated by ideas of their exceptionalism and their superiority over the entire rest of the world” adding “but do they know how to count? surely they do … let them first calculate the range and speed of our advanced weapons systems, and then make decisions on the threats against our country,” Neil MacFarquhar reports at the New York Times.

The U.S. yesterday dismissed Putin’s comments. “President Putin’s remarks are a continuation of Russia’s propaganda effort to avoid responsibility for Russia’s actions in violation of the I.N.F. Treaty,” said a U.S. State Department spokesperson on condition of anonymity, Reuters reports.

NATIONAL EMERGENCY AND BORDER WALL

House Democrats are set to introduce a privileged resolution as soon as tomorrow in a push to stop President Trump’s national emergency declaration to fund the building of a barrier along the Southern Border, according to a Democratic aide. Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) is leading the efforts on the resolution, which has reportedly garnered the support of 90 Democratic co-sponsors; Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is backing the Castro resolution and urging colleagues to support it, Juliegrace Brufkie reports at the Hill.

Legal analysts from across the political spectrum have conceded that the Trump administration might have a better legal case for the emergency declaration than initially thought. Just Security Editor-in-Chief Steve Vladeck commented in a message sent on Twitter that the fate of Trump’s declaration likely rests on a relatively narrow reading of the law: “the legal dispute won’t be over whether there really is an ‘emergency’ … it will be over whether the statutory authorities an emergency declaration unlocks actually authorize wall construction,” Tom McCarthy reports at the Guardian.

An Op-Ed on whether Trump’s wall will survive an onslaught of legal challenges in the courts is provided at the Economist.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

President Trump yesterday denied that he is considering firing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, despite several reports that Trump was fuming and “enraged” over Coats’ remarks during last month’s hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee in which Coats departed with the president on several critical foreign policy fronts. “I haven’t even thought about it,” Trump told reporters while meeting with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan clashed with clashed with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) over the administration’s Syria policy during a briefing last weekend, provoking Graham into unleashing a series of expletives and declare himself Shanahan’s “adversary,” according to two officials in the briefing and three others familiar with the conversation. The contentious briefing on the fringes of the Munich Security Conference caused consternation amongst the bipartisan group of lawmakers and cast doubt over Shanahan’s chances of being confirmed as Defense Secretary, Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee report at NBC.

“The search for a permanent replacement for former U.S. Secretary of Defense [Jim] Mattis … is not going well,” Lara Seligman explains at Foreign Policy, unpicking the difficulties in finding a candidate satisfactory to both the Senate and president.

SYRIA

U.S.-backed Syrian forces are negotiating to evacuate civilians from the Islamic State group’s (I.S.I.S.) last hideout which now faces “inevitable defeat,” the international coalition fighting against the militants announced today. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.), backed by the warplanes of the US-led coalition, have trapped I.S.I.S. fighters in less than a fifth of a square mile in the village of Baghouz; hundreds of people including women and children were trucked out of the territory yesterday, but the S.D.F. claimed that a large number of civilians remained inside, AFP reports.

Allies of the U.S. fighting in Syria have reportedly “unanimously” told Washington that they “won’t stay if you pull out,” according to a senior administration official. France and the U.K. are the only other countries with troops on the ground in the U.S.-led coalition battling I.S.I.S. and have provided training, supplies, logistics and intelligence for the S.D.F.; French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said last week that he was mystified by Trump’s policy on withdrawal of troops, while British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Tuesday that “there is no prospect of British forces replacing the Americans” in the country, Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan report at the Washington Post.

A woman who left Alabama to join the I.S.I.S in Syria is not a U.S. citizen and will not be allowed to return, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced yesterday. Hoda Muthana says she made a mistake in joining the group and now wants to return with her 18-month-old son; in a brief statement that gave no details as to how the determination was reached, Pompeo claimed that Muthana has no “legal basis” to claim American citizenship, Al Jazeera reports.

An analysis of the key legal issues in Muthana’s case: i.) is Muthana an American citizen?; ii.) can her citizenship be revoked?, and iii.) if Muthana is a citizen, does she have a right to return?, is provided by Editor-in-Chief Steve Vladeck at Just Security.

An account of the situation on the ground at the final I.S.I.S. stronghold of Baghouz is provided by Bethan McKernan 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]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Pyongyang’s special representative for the U.S. Kim Hyok-chol arrived in Hanoi yesterday with a North Korean delegation, ahead of next week’s summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The top official was seen by a reporter walking into a government guesthouse where other North Korean officials involved in pre-summit preparations were staying over the weekend, AFP reports.

Trump yesterday held out the prospect of an easing of tough sanctions on the North, but only on the condition that Pyongyang carries out “something that’s meaningful” on denuclearization. “I don’t think they’re reluctant; I think they want to do something,” Trump said, adding “we’ll see what happens … the sanctions are on in full … I haven’t taken sanctions off, as you know … I’d love to be able to, but in order to do that, we have to do something that’s meaningful on the other side,” Reuters reports.

Trump “ must … by law … raise human rights issues if he intends to remove broad sanctions on North Korea,” John Sifton argues at Just Security.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Venezuela’s deputy U.N. military attaché Colonel Pedro Chirinos announced yesterday that he recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s interim president, increasing pressure on President Nicolás Maduro, Reuters reports.

The threats of violence and radicalism in the Occupied Palestinian Territory are growing, and the prospect of sustainable peace is fading by the day, U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolav Mladenov told the Security Council yesterday, the U.N. News Centre reports.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko yesterday claimed that a U.N.-mandated peacekeeping operation could be decisive in ending the conflict in the east of his country with Russian-backed separatists — appealing to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to send an assessment mission to come up with options. Poroshenko accused Russia of conducting an “undeclared war against my country,” but said his government is ready to discuss a multinational peacekeeping operation that has “a clear objective to end the Russian aggression and restore Ukraine’s sovereignty,” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP. 

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).