The Early Edition: February 22, 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.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump appears keen to declare an end to seven decades of war on the Korean Peninsula when he meets North Korea Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam next week, while his advisers seem more focused on hashing out a road map for Pyongyang’s denuclearization. U.S. officials insisted yesterday that disarmament remains Trump’s “overriding goal,” with one projected outcome being an agreement that would trade a peace declaration for a North Korean commitment to open up and dismantle a handful of nuclear or missile facilities, Mark Landler reports at the New York Times.

Trump and Kim are planning to meet one-on-one during their summit in Vietnam, senior administration officials announced yesterday. Speaking to reporters on a background call, a senior administration official claimed that more details on the exact format were still to come, but that “it’s going to be similar in format to what you saw last June 12 in Singapore … there will be an opportunity for the two leaders to see one another one-on-one, to share a meal and engage in expanded meetings of their respective delegations,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Democratic lawmakers leading key House national security committees yesterday alleged that Trump is keeping Congress in the dark about the upcoming talks with the North and the status of Pyongyang’s weapons program. “There is no legitimate reason for having failed to provide regular, senior-level briefings to the relevant committees of jurisdiction on a matter of such significance to our national security,” Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Adam Schiff (D-Schiff), chairs of the House foreign affairs, intelligence and armed services committees, wrote in a letter to the president, adding “our ability to conduct oversight of U.S. policy toward North Korea on behalf of the American people has been inappropriately curtailed by your administration’s unwillingness to share information with Congress,” Dan De Luce reports at NBC.

North Korea claims it has been forced to reduce rations by half after facing a food shortfall of 1.4 million tons this year, pointing to harsh weather and U.N. sanctions as reasons for the deficit. “The [North Korean] government calls on international organizations to urgently respond to addressing the food situation,” read a two-page memo from North Korea’s mission to the U.N., also claiming that the country’s food production last year was 4.951 million tons, 503,000 tons down from 2017; analysts have commented that the upcoming Trump-Kim summit may be part of the reason for Pyongyang’s decision to release the memo now, The Daily Beast reports.

China is extending its influence over the upcoming Trump-Kim summit, just as it did last July in Singapore. Katrina Yu explains in an analysis at Al Jazeera.

SYRIA

The U.S. will retain “a small peacekeeping group” of 200 American troops in Syria for a period of time after a U.S. pullout, the White House announced yesterday, as President Trump rowed back from promises of a complete withdrawal.  Yesterday’s decision came after a phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during which the two leaders reportedly agreed to continue working together to try to create a “safe zone” in Syria the White House said, Annie Karni and Thomas Gibbons-Neff report at the New York Times.

Trump in December ordered a withdrawal of all 2,000 American troops in Syria, claiming they had defeated Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) militants there; since then, Trump has been under pressure from multiple advisers to adjust his policy to ensure the protection of Kurdish forces, who supported the fight against Islamic State group and who might now be threatened by Turkey, Reuters reports.

A car bombing claimed by the I.S.I.S. hit U.S.-backed forces in eastern Syria yesterday as they attempted to negotiate the release of civilians trapped in the militant’s last patch of territory in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) are working towards evacuating civilians remaining in the holdout, so they can finish off the dying I.S.I.S “caliphate” through either an assault or a surrender deal; the car bomb killed 14 oil workers and six of the Kurdish-led alliance’s conscripts near the Omar oil field that it uses as its main base in the region, according to the S.D.F. and a monitor, AFP reports.

A substantial number of trucks loaded with civilians left Baghouz today, according to a witness near the area on the Iraqi border. It was not clear whether any civilians remained in the I.S.I.S.-held zone, which U.S.-backed Syrian forces want to clear of non-combatants before finally capturing the area, Reuters reports.

The father of Alabama woman Hoda Muthana – who joined I.S.I.S. and is now seeking a return to the U.S. – yesterday filed a lawsuit against President Trump and other senior officials after the president said he had moved to prevent her from re-entry. Ahmed Ali Muthana filed the lawsuit in Washington D.C. federal district court on behalf of his daughter; Muthana has claimed she is a U.S. citizen, but the Trump administration says her status as the daughter of a Yemeni diplomat means she is not a naturalized citizen and thus not entitled to the Constitutional rights of an U.S. citizen, Brent D. Griffiths reports at POLITICO.

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]

IRAN

The Iranian navy launched “large-scale” drills in the Strait of Hormuz and the Sea of Oman in a display of its naval force amid escalating tensions with the U.S. Commander of Iran’s navy Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzad stated that the maneuvers began yesterday and will run for a week, featuring submarine-launched missiles for the first time; earlier this week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani opened the “state-of-the-art” and domestically produced submarine Fateh (“Conqueror,”) Al Jazeera reports.

There is a desperate need for Congress to revisit the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, Edit0r-in-Chief Steve Vladeck and Senior Editor Tess Bridgeman comment at Just Security, providing a critique of Monday’s Washington Times “exclusive” report titled “Iran-al Qaeda Alliance May Provide Legal Rationale for U.S. Military Strikes.”

VENEZUELA

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro yesterday ordered his country’s vast border with Brazil to be closed, making the order just days before opposition leaders plan to bring in foreign humanitarian aid he has refused to accept. Maduro also stated that he is considering closing the border with Colombia, making the announcement on state T.V. surrounded by military commanders, the AP reports.

Opposition leaders led by U.S.-backed self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó had vowed to bring in U.S. supplies of emergency food and medicine to highlight the country’s humanitarian crisis under Maduro, who has said the nation does not need such help; “what the U.S. empire is doing with its puppets is an internal provocation,” Maduro commented, adding “they wanted to generate a great national commotion, but they didn’t achieve it,” the AP reports.

Former chief of Venezuela’s military intelligence Hugo Carvajal broke with Maduro yesterday, pledging support for Guaidó amid the escalating political crisis in the country. Carvajal called for authorities to allow into Venezuela the humanitarian aid that the U.S. is stockpiling on the Colombian border, stating: “people of Venezuela, we find ourselves in the worst humanitarian crisis of our modern history … it’s been more than enough, Nicolás … assume your responsibility,” Ana Vanessa Herrero and Nicholas Casey report at the New York Times.

Carvajal also addressed active Venezuelan troops, many of whom have appeared in propaganda videos meant to rouse nationalist sentiment against what the Maduro regime claims is an imminent U.S. invasion. “Today we do not have the technical capacity to confront any enemy,” Carvajal said, adding “he who says otherwise lies,” Ryan Dube and Kejal Vyas report at the Wall Street Journal

U.S. Vice President Pence will travel to Colombia on Monday to demand that Maduro steps down and allow Guaidó take power. Pence will be in Colombia to “voice the U.S.’ unwavering support for interim President Juan Guaidó and highlight the Venezuelan people’s fight for democracy over dictatorship,” the vice president’s office said in a statement, Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

“The aid showdown puts in stark relief the choice in Venezuela between a dictator who wants to block aid for the people … and the Guaidó government that wants to deliver it,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

A roadmap for President Trump to speed up Maduro’s exit is provided by José R Cárdenas at Foreign Policy, who suggests that the president should maintain a multilateral and bipartisan consensus; keep a close watch; and pursue an inclusive transition.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III yesterday scheduled former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to be sentenced March 8 for financial malfeasance in Virginia. Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) promised yesterday that Congress would subpoena special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign if lawmakers do not receive a comprehensive summary from the Justice Department. Justin Wise reports at the Hill.

Federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson yesterday “dramatically” restricted longtime Trump associate Roger Stone’s ability to speak publicly about his criminal case after he published an Instagram post with what appeared to be the crosshairs of a gun drawn behind her head. Stone now cannot speak publicly about the investigation or the case or any participants in the investigation or the case, Katelyn Polantz reports at CNN.

“The U.S. legal system is withstanding the Trump onslaught,” David Brooks writes in an Op-Ed at the New York Times.

An explainer on how events could unfold when the Mueller report is wrapped up is provided by Philip Ewing at NPR.

NATIONAL EMERGENCY AND BORDER WALL

The Pentagon yesterday indicated that it has asked the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) for a priorities list to justify using military funds to build President Trump’s long-promised border wall. “We’ve asked D.H.S. for input facts, data, priorities; we are waiting to receive those,” Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters, adding “when we do, we will then … match that with our mission analysis and begin the process I think I’ve described to many of you,” Ellen Mitchel reports at the Hill.

“If I had been directed, when I was Chief Financial Officer of the Department of Defense … to implement the bulk of this plan … I don’t believe that that I would have concluded it was legal” Micahel McCord comments at Just Security, regarding the president’s proposal to take funds available to the Departments of Defense and Treasury and expend them on functions that are the responsibility of the D.H.S. “The President’s use of an emergency declaration in this case poses profound challenges and raises profound risks to our system of government,” McCord writes.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russian President Vladimir Putin stated yesterday that Russia is militarily ready for a Cuban Missile-style crisis if the U.S. wants one and threatened to position hypersonic nuclear missiles on ships or submarines near U.S. territorial waters. “[Tensions] are not a reason to ratchet up confrontation to the levels of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s … in any case, that’s not what we want,” Putin commented, adding “[but] if someone wants that, well O.K. they are welcome,” Al Jazeera reports.

The Supreme Court’s decision to curtail power to seize property “is being cheered by advocates on the left and right.” The Economist provides an analysis. 

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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).