The Early Edition: February 28, 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

Talks between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi ended abruptly today after the parties failed to remedy the impasse over U.S. sanctions on the North. Trump blamed the breakdown on Pyongyang’s insistence that all sanctions leveled by the U.S. be lifted without a firm commitment to eliminating its nuclear arsenal, Jonathan Lemire, Deb Riechmann and Foster Klug report at the Washington Post.

“It was about the sanctions,” Trump commented, adding “basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that. They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

“I am never afraid to walk from a deal,” Trump told reporters after the summit collapsed. However, the president would not close the door to future negotiations between the two sides, saying that “eventually we’ll get there,” Jonathan Cheng and Vivian Salama report at the Wall Street Journal.

“We had some options … at this time we decided not to do any of the options … we’ll see where that goes,” the president claimed at a press conference moved forward by almost two hours after the talks collapsed. The summit ended with a handshake, according to Trump, who described the talks as “very friendly,” Jonathan Allen and F. Brinley Bruton report at NBC.

Trump claimed that he and Kim had discussed the dismantling of North Korea’s main nuclear facility at Yongbyon during the talks. Kim was allegedly willing to shut down the plant, but sanctions relief once again remained the sticking point, Reuters reports.

Trump said he does not hold Kim responsible for the death of U.S. student Otto Warmbier, who was released and sent back to the U.S. in a coma in June 2017 after more than a year of imprisonment in the North, dying within days of arrival. “He felt badly about it … he felt very badly,” Trump said at the press conference, claiming the leaers had discussed the matter privately and adding: “he tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word,” Jeremy Diamond reports at CNN.

“From what I feel right now … I do have a feeling that good results will come out,” Kim stated in answer to a question from a journalist as to whether he was “confident.” Kim’s move to directly answer the question marked “a stunning — and possibly unprecedented” move, Caitlyn Oprysko comments at POLITICO.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in described the breakdown of nuclear talks as unfortunate, but expressed hope that the U.S. and the North continue an active dialogue. The collapse of the Vietnam summit marks a setback for Moon, who had planned to announce new proposals for inter-Korean engagement, possibly including economic cooperation, in a ceremony tomorrow marking the 100th anniversary of a 1919 uprising by Koreans against Japanese colonial rule, Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the AP.

“Every effort was made in recreating the circumstances and ambience of Singapore,” Julian Borger comments in an analysis at the Guardian, noting that “like most theatrical reboots, the strain in keeping things the same in Vietnam highlighted the small way things changed.”

A selection of photographs from the Hanoi summit are provided at the New York Times.

MICHAEL COHEN HEARING

President Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen yesterday accused the president of a wide-ranging pattern of lies and criminality, laying out for Congress a damning depiction of life in the president’s inner circle. In his public testimony to the House of Representatives Oversight Committee yesterday, Cohen claimed that Trump lied to the public about business interests in Moscow, lied to reporters about stolen Democratic emails and told him to lie about “hush money” payments made to cover up his affairs, Peter Baker and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

Cohen stated that Trump “knew of and directed” plans for a Trump Tower Moscow, all the while stating publicly that he had no dealings in Russia. “At the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him,” Cohen testified, “he would look me in the eye and tell me there’s no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing … in his way, he was telling me to lie,” the BBC reports.

Cohen alleged that Trump blessed the meeting his son Donald Trump Jr. held with a Russian delegation to obtain dirt on Trump’s presidential opponents in 2016. Regarding the organization of the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, Cohen claimed “there was nothing that happened at the Trump Organization … that did not go through Mr. Trump for his approval and signoff,” Philip Ewing reports at NPR.

“Don Jr. would never set up any meeting of any significance alone—and certainly not without checking with his father,” Cohen stated. He added that “what struck me as I looked back and thought about that exchange between Don Jr. and his father was, first, that Mr. Trump had frequently told me and others that his son Don Jr. had the worst judgment of anyone in the world,” Barbie Latza Nadeau reports at The Daily Beast.

Cohen also asserted that Trump knew in advance that WikiLeaks planned in July 2016 to release a batch of emails damaging to his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. Cohen testified that he overheard a phone call from longtime Trump associate Roger Stone in which Stone allegedly informed Trump he had spoken by telephone with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and learned that the anti-secrecy group would be publishing a “massive dump” of Clinton emails within days; Cohen said he could hear the conversation because Trump had put Stone on speaker phone, and that Trump had responded “wouldn’t that be great,” Matt Zapotosky, Rosalind S. Helderman, Karoun Demirijan and Rachel Bade report at the Washington Post.

“He once asked me if I could name a country run by a black person that wasn’t a ‘shithole,’” Cohen claimed, citing a number of other examples of Trump making racist comments to him. The Daily Beast reports.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) clashed during the Cohen hearing over the allegations of racism, with Tlaib condemning as a “racist act” Meadows’ use of a statement by a single black woman in an attempt disprove the allegations of racism against the president. Meadows had invited Trump administration staffer Lynne Patton to the hearing to push back against Cohen’s allegations; Tlaib told the hearing “just because someone has a person of color, a black person working for them does not mean that they aren’t racist… the fact that someone would actually use a prop, a black woman in this chamber, in this committee, is alone racist in itself,” Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

“He lied a lot …he lied about so many different things,” Trump stated in Hanoi at the close of his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un when asked about the Cohen hearing. However, Trump said he was “impressed” that Cohen said he had no evidence for collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia – although in fact Cohen did not unequivocally deny that such collusion had taken place, Jeremy Diamond reports at CNN.

WikiLeaks yesterday contradicted Cohen’s congressional testimony, sending a message on Twitter stating that “WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange has never had a telephone call with Roger Stone … WikiLeaks publicly teased its pending publications on Hillary Clinton and published > 30k of her emails on 16 March 2016,” Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

MICHAEL COHEN HEARING: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Hearing Cohen’s allegations made openly before Congress “crystallized how extraordinary they are,” the Economist comments in an account of yesterday’s hearing.

Democrats are reportedly vowing that Cohen’s “marathon” appearance is just “the beginning,” foreshadowing intensifying scrutiny of the president’s businesses and his 2016 campaign’s relations with Russia. Courtney Weaver provides an analysis at the Financial Times.

“Even if those watching didn’t believe anything else he said … [Cohen] left no doubt that he is working closely with prosecutors in Manhattan’s Southern District in criminal investigations that could end up roiling the Trump presidency,” Ken Dilanian explains at NBC.

The most significant bombshell arising from Cohen’s written testimony provided to Congress ahead of yesterday’s hearing was the statement that Roger Stone informed candidate Trump in advance of Wikileaks’ release of the stolen emails – and Trump’s corresponding words of encouragement. Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman comments at Just Security.

“Tlaib is right: it’s racist to use a black woman as a prop,” Sophia A. Nelson comments at The Daily Beast in a rebuke of Meadows’ tactics at the hearing.

Roundups of key takeaways from yesterday’s hearing are provided at the Guardian, the Hill and the New York Times.

VENEZUELA

The U.S. is calling for a vote on a U.N. resolution urging “the peaceful restoration of democracy” in Venezuela – including free and fair presidential elections; unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid to all people in need; and making clear its support for opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó. The draft resolution is expected to be put to a vote this afternoon, according to a council diplomat, but it is likely to face a veto from Russia, which backs incumbent Venezuelan President Nicolâs Maduro, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Guaidó has reportedly returned safely to Venezuela, where the government is threatening to jail him. Ryan Dube reports at the Wall Street Journal.

SYRIA

Hundreds of people streamed out of Islamic State group’s last enclave in Syria under escort from U.S.-backed forces yesterday, as part of an exodus of both the militants’ supporters and victims from its final patch of land in the village of Baghouz. Reuters 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]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Eight panels representing prototypes of designs for President Trump’s long-promised wall at the Southern border were demolished in California yesterday. John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Taliban and U.S. officials holding talks in Qatar on ways to end the war in Afghanistan have held “extensive” discussions on how foreign troops could be withdrawn and on how to guarantee the country would not be used again by outside forces to attack other countries, the Taliban said in a statement released today. U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said in a message on Twitter that the meetings in Doha were productive, Reuters reports.

A U.S. delegation including Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner met Tuesday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the first known face-to-face meeting since the Saudi government’s involvement in the killing of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Katie Galioto reports at POLITICO.

Five transgender troops fighting to overturn President Trump’s proposed ban on trans servicepeople yesterday gave evidence to Congress, “making history with their moving testimonies.” Tim Teeman provides an account at The Daily Beast. 

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).