The Early Edition: March 1, 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 Obama refused to walk away from a bad deal with Iran … President @realDonaldTrump refuses to make the same mistake with Iran … North Korea … or anybody else,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed in a message sent on Twitter yesterday, adding “President Trump will always put the safety of the American people above politics.” The message follows the early collapse of Trump’s summit in Hanoi with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

North Korea has disputed Trump’s claim that the talks fell apart because Kim demanded total sanctions removal. “What we proposed was not the removal of all sanctions but the partial removal,” Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said through an interpreter in Hanoi, adding that Pyongyang sought relief from five U.N. sanctions imposed in 2016 and 2017 that hurt the country’s economy, out of a total of 11, in exchange for disabling its main nuclear complex, Amy Held reports at NPR.

North Korean state media claimed the leaders’ second summit helped deepen “mutual respect and trust” between the countries as they work toward resolving the nuclear standoff, despite the contrasting narratives regarding the sanctions issue, the AP reports.

Following the breakdown of the talks Trump described Kim as “sharp as you can be” and claimed the two leaders “get along really well,” making the remarks in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity aired late last night. “He’s a character … he’s a real personality … he’s very smart … and he’s a real leader,” Trump claimed, adding “he’s pretty mercurial — I don’t say that in a bad way, but he’s a pretty mercurial guy,” The Daily Beast reports.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson (D-N.M) commented yesterday that Trump’s claim that Kim had no knowledge of the mistreatment of U.S. student Otto Warmbier by the North is “inconceivable.” “It is totally impossible,” the Clinton-era ambassador told M.S.N.B.C, adding “It is inconceivable that such a high-profile American prisoner like Otto Warmbier, that Kim Jong Un would not know,” Elizabeth Chuck reports at NBC.

Trump yesterday repeated complaints that annual military drills with South Korea are “very … very expensive” and that the South must pay more for them. Trump’s comments have once again raised the question of whether the allies can hold springtime exercises this year at the same level as in the past and maintain military readiness should tensions with North Korea escalate following the collapsed summit talks, Hyun Jim-Kim reports at the AP.

TRUMP-KIM SUMMIT: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

In the wake of contrasting narratives surrounding the summit collapse – can Washington and Pyongyang salvage denuclearization talks? Robbie Gramer provides an analysis at Foreign Policy.

“Now the question is whether … Trump will continue his form of personal-relationship diplomacy,” David E. Sanger writes at the New York Times, wondering whether Trump might in fact decide that “ he should return to the step-by-step approach most of his predecessors used.”

Trump’s main victory at the Hanoi Summit was over the U.S. media. Jack Shafer explains at POLITICO Magazine.

“Trump’s vanity diplomacy has strengthened the North Korean leader,the Guardian comments in an editorial, arguing that “a humbler, more careful and more pragmatic approach, seeking to freeze rather than eradicate the weapons program, would have been a far wiser course.”

MICHAEL COHEN HEARING

The Democratic-led House Intelligence Committee privately questioned Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen for nearly eight hours yesterday, finishing off a week-long marathon of hearings involving Cohen on Capitol Hill. Some lawmakers indicated that yesterday’s hearing yielded new information relevant to the panel’s revived probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, with Cohen also promising to return to complete his testimony coming Wednesday; “we had a long day, but it wasn’t a long enough day,” Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told reporters at the conclusion of the interview, Morgan Chalfant and Olivia Beavers report at the Hill.

House Democrats have suggested that they will seek testimony from Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg as well as other employees of the Trump Organization – potentially including members of Trump’s family – to follow up on accusations of wrongdoing made by Cohen in his public hearing on Wednesday. “If there were names that were mentioned or records that were mentioned during the hearing, we’re going to take a look at all of that,” Chair of the House Oversight Panel Rep. Elijah Cummings (D., Md .) commented yesterday, adding he intended to carefully study the hearing transcripts this weekend, Andrew Duehren and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the

Weisselberg reportedly has an immunity deal with federal prosecutors in New York, who Cohen claimed Wednesday are investigating other alleged illegal acts involving the president. A Weisselberg appearance before Congress could give lawmakers an opportunity to learn what those prosecutors have already found out, Jacqueline Thomsen and Brett Samuels write at the Hill.

Republican congressmen Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan yesterday sent a letter to Attorney General Bill Barr, claiming Michael Cohen “willfully and intentionally” lied while testifying in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. The letter accuses Cohen of lying once again about his aspiration to secure a position in the White House and his contracts with foreign entities, Erin Banco and Asawin Suebsaeng report at The Daily Beast.

Cohen’s claim that “if Trump loses the election in 2020 … there will never be a peaceful transition of power,” provided the most ominous moment of Wednesday’s hearing, Aaron Blake argues at the Washington Post.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) used Wednesday’s hearing to “calmly [pursue] a line of questioning that puts the Trump family and Trump organization directly in the House Oversight Committee’s line of fire.” Kurt Bardella provides an analysis at NBC.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

President Trump ordered his former chief of staff John Kelly to grant his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner a “top-secret” security clearance last year, overruling worries voiced by intelligence officials and the White House counsel Don McGhan, according to four people briefed on the matter. Trump’s decision in May concerned senior administration officials so much that Kelly allegedly wrote a contemporaneous internal memo about how he had been “ordered” to provide Kushner with the clearance, Maggie Haberman, Michael S. Schmidt, Adam Goldman and Annie Karni report at the New York Times.

Democrats have responded angrily to the revelations, with Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Eric Swallwell (D-Calif.) accusing the president of “nepotism” and putting “blood” before national security – warning that the committees they chair will be examining the New York Times report. “There is no nepotism exception for background investigations,” Schiff commented in a statement, Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The second U.N. Security Council of the week on Venezuela took place yesterday, with competing resolutions produced by the U.S. and Russia both proposed. Neither text was adopted as the U.S. draft was vetoed and the Russian draft failed to secure enough votes in favor, the U.N. News Centre reports.

Israel’s attorney general announced yesterday that he intends to charge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, throwing into doubt Netanyahu’s bid to become his nation’s longest-serving leader in the upcoming April elections. The charges are linked to three corruption probes and follow two years of investigations, Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump declared yesterday that U.S.-backed forces in Syria have retaken 100% of the territory once claimed by Islamic State group in the country, in an announcement disputed by U.S. officials and regional allies leading the effort on the ground. “We just took over you know you kept hearing it was 90%, 92%, the caliphate in Syria, now it’s 100%, we just took over 100% caliphate, that means the area of the land we’re just have 100% so that’s good,” Trump claimed while addressing U.S. troops at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska on his return trip from Hanoi; an official with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.), however, told reporters that the fighting is ongoing and that the group is “surprised by this statement,” Zacahry Cohen reports at CNN.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 211 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Feb. 10 and Feb. 23. [Central Command]

The U.S. is offering a reward of up to $1m for information about one of the sons of the former al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. Hamza Bin Laden – thought to be based near the Afghan-Pakistani border – is emerging as a leader of the Islamist militant group, according to officials, the BBC reports.

An in-depth account of the “chaotic early days of Trump’s foreign policy,” is provided by Nahal Toosi at POLITICO Magazine. 

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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).