The Early Edition: February 27, 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-KIM SUMMIT

President Trump opened two days of summits today by offering a public embrace of North Korean leader Kim Jon-un, describing the authoritarian ruler as “my friend” and extolling the virtues of Vietnam as a model for economic growth should Kim follow steps to denuclearize. “Vietnam is thriving like few places on earth,” Trump claimed in a message sent on Twitter, adding “North Korea would be the same, and very quickly, if it would denuclearize … the potential is AWESOME, a great opportunity, like almost none other in history, for my friend Kim Jong Un … we will know fairly soon – Very Interesting!” David Nakamura and Simon Denyer report at the Washington Post.

Trump today met Vietnam President Nguyen Phu Trong, with the two leaders agreeing to continue to work toward the denuclearization of the North, ahead of Trump’s meeting with Kim this evening. Trump thanked Nguyen and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc for their nation’s “generosity and partnership in hosting his meeting with Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Chairman Kim Jong-un,” Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

Former U.S. Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has weighed in on the prospect of a successful deal with North, arguing that any claims of victory will be like putting “lipstick on a pig.” Clinton told journalist Tina Brown in a podcast episode released yesterday that “I have serious doubts that whatever [Trump] claims will be actually achieved,” Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

South Korean officials are “cautiously” attempting to make their presence felt at the summit venue in Hanoi, anxious not to be left on the sidelines as Trump and Kim work to strike a deal that could determine the future of the Korean peninsula. Reuters reports.

The Japanese administration is reportedly concerned that its interests will be ignored in any deal struck between Trump and Kim. An analysis of Tokyo’s position on the summit is provided by Robbie Gramer at Foreign Policy.

For both leaders the summit represents a moment of critical choices, David E. Sanger and Choe Sang-Hun comment in an analysis at the New York Times, explaining that “Kim needs to make good on promises to nurture the North Korean economy and maintain the military might to ensure his country’s survival, while … Trump faces the biggest opportunity of his presidency yet for a diplomatic breakthrough — and the stark risks of underdelivering on a signature issue after threatening ‘fire and fury’ only months ago.”

Trump’s political opponents claim to be worried that his domestic concerns may play a decisive role in Hanoi this week, pushing him into rushing into “unwise bargains” with the North. Jonathan Allen explains at NBC.

“History suggests that … Trump will be content with another colorful photo opportunity and more diplomatic shadow boxing that perpetuates the illusion of success … while running down the clock on a nearly intractable challenge,” former U.S. national security adviser Susan E. Rice argues in an Op-Ed at the New York Times.

Live updates in the run-up to the Trump-Kim summit are provided at CNN.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen today will tell Congress his former boss is a “conman” who indirectly told him to lie about business his real estate empire was seeking out in Moscow during the 2016 presidential race. In an opening statement Cohen will provide to the House Oversight Committee, he will also accuse Trump of being a “racist” and a “cheat,” Demetri Sevastopulo reports at the Financial Times.

“In July 2016, days before the Democratic convention …I was in Mr Trump’s office when his secretary announced that [longtime Trump associate] Roger Stone was on the phone,” Cohen’s opening statement reads, adding “Mr Stone told Mr Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with [Wikileaks founder] Julian Assange and that Mr Assange told Mr Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign … Mr Trump responded by stating to the effect of ‘wouldn’t that be great,” Sabrina Siddiqui, Adam Gabbat and Julian Borger report at the Guardian.

Cohen also claims Trump ordered him to pay $130,000 to an adult film performer Stormy Daniels in order to hide an affair in violation of campaign finance laws, and also told Cohen to lie about the matter to First Lady Melania Trump, Reuters reports.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders hit back at Cohen in a statement, calling the president’s former attorney a “disgraced felon,” noting that he had previously pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and making other false statements. Rebecca Ballhaus and Warren P. Strobel report at the Wall Street Journal.

White House ally Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Flo.) yesterday launched a personal broadside against Cohen, sending a message on Twitter (later deleted) stating:  “do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? … maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat … I wonder if she’ll remain faithful when you’re in prison.” Gaetz defended the tweet in a phone interview shortly after it was posted, claiming that he was not engaging in witness intimidation at all but was rather “challenging the veracity and character of a witness,” Sam Stein reports at The Daily Beast.

“While it is important 2 create context around the testimony of liars like Michael Cohen … it was NOT my intent to threaten … as some believe I did,” Gaetz wrote shortly before midnight, following a rebuke from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) Gaetz added: “I’m deleting the tweet & I should have chosen words that better showed my intent … I’m sorry,” Andrew Restuccia and Darren Samuelsohn report at POLITICO.

Cohen has been disbarred and may no longer practice law. A document filed by Manhattan’s Attorney Grievance Committee detailing why Cohen should no longer be permitted to practice in the state of New York was officially entered into the record late yesterday afternoon, Tom Winter reports at NBC.

Democratic lawmaker Rep. Lloyd Doggett yesterday filed legislation that would require special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign to be made public and give Congress access to the investigation’s underlying evidence. The legislation represents the latest effort by House Democrats to head off any effort by the Trump administration to keep private the findings of Mueller’s investigation; “this legislation safeguards … taxpayer-funded law enforcement work and assures the right of Americans to see justice served,” Doggett claimed in a statement, Reuters reports.

Federal prosecutors yesterday once again delayed the sentencing of Russian agent Mariia Butina, claiming that Butina – who pleaded guilty to secretly working with the Kremlin while making political inroads with the National Rifle Association and other conservative groups – is still cooperating with investigators. During the public portion of a court hearing in Washington, prosecutor Erik Kenerson was “cryptic” about the need for the delay, stating only “the defendant’s cooperation is ongoing,” Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

“Michael Cohen rose to the pinnacle of Trump’s enterprise … and plunged … knife firmly in his back … to the depths,” Rick Wilson comments at The Daily Beast, describing Cohen’s congressional hearings as a reckoning for the president: “today, [Cohen] has a new role as one of the greatest dangers in Donald Trump’s constellation of ill-starred political and legal fortunes.”

A legal analysis as to why the principles of Justice Department non-disclosure policy and grand jury secrecy may not apply to Mueller’s report is provided by Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman and Founding Editor Andy Wright at Just Security.

RUSSIA

The U.S. military managed to disrupt the internet access of a Russian troll farm accused of trying to influence American voters on November 6, 2018, the day of the midterm congressional elections. A U.S. Cyber Command strike targeted the Internet Research Agency in the Russian city of St Petersburg, according to unidentified U.S. officials, Ellen Nakashima reports at the Washington Post.

The U.S. Army estimates that Russian military capabilities will peak in 2028, closely followed by China’s around 2030, giving the U.S. near on a decade to prepare for those potential threats, the top civilian at the U.S. Army – Secretary Mark Esper – said in an interview Monday. Esper, claimed that the U.S. Army will reduce, eliminate or delay nearly 200 weapons programs and refocus the funds on investing in capabilities to overtake emergent Russian and Chinese militaries; “what we’re looking at is 2028 and beyond, because we think it’s time the Russians will be peaking,” Esper added, Reuters reports.

NATIONAL EMERGENCY, BORDER WALL AND IMMIGRATION

The House yesterday voted to prevent the White House from syphoning federal funds toward building President Trump’s long-promised border wall, and the Senate moved closer to doing the same, raising the possibility of President Trump exercising his veto power for the first time. There appears to be nearly enough Republican support for the measure to clear the Senate in the coming weeks – but Trump has already indicated he would veto the measure should Congress get it to his desk, Joshua Jamerson and Kristina Peterson report at the Wall Street Journal.

House Democrats issued subpoenas late yesterday to three cabinet officials – Homeland Security Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen; Attorney General William Barr; and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar –calling for the high ranking officials to turn over documents pertaining to the detention policies at the border. The move marks a “sharp escalation” of the battle over the administration’s family separation policy, Glen Thrush reports at the New York Times.

VENEZUELA

Venezuelan opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó has claimed that he will soon return home and mobilize new protests against incumbent President Nicolás Maduro. Guaidó made the comments yesterday while in Colombia after meeting with regional officials and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, and added that in the coming days he will announce the date of his return as well as actions aimed at garnering support amongst Venezuela’s military and state employees, the AP reports.

U.S. envoy Elliott Abrams announced yesterday that the Trump administration will seek a U.N. Security Council vote this week on a resolution calling for Venezuela’s government to let in humanitarian aid and to hold free elections, exchanging verbal barbs with Moscow over possible U.S. military intervention in the politically divided country. Abrams alleged that “armed gangs, thugs and criminals released from prisons” were being deployed to control Venezuela’s borders — leading to the burning of humanitarian aid and killing of their countrymen, whilst Maduro “literally was dancing in Caracas,” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani today rejected Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s resignation, according to the Tehran government’s official website. “I believe your resignation is against the country’s interests and do not approve it,” Rouhani allegedly responded in a letter to Zarif, adding “I consider you, as put by the leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] to be ‘trustworthy, brave and pious’ and in the forefront of resistance against America’s all-out pressure,” AFP reports.

A peace deal in the key Yemeni port city of Hodeidah has stalled once again. Reuters reports. 

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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).