The Early Edition: March 4, 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

The U.S. and South Korea have canceled major war games in order to “support diplomatic efforts” with the North. News of the cancelation of the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle series of exercises comes after the second summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un concluded without an agreement; South Korea released a statement claiming that Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan had discussed the summit and expected more “active dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea based on the outcome of the talks,” Yoonjung Seo and Jamie Griffiths report at CNN.

Shanahan and Jeong “made clear that the alliance decision to adapt our training program reflected our desire to reduce tension and support our diplomatic efforts to achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a final … fully verified manner,” the Pentagon announced in a statement on the cancelation, Hyung-Jin Kim and Lolita C. Baldor report at the Washington Post.

Trump yesterday blamed the congressional testimony of his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen for the collapse of last week’s summit. “For the Democrats to interview in open hearings a convicted liar & fraudster, at the same time as the very important Nuclear Summit with North Korea, is perhaps a new low in American politics and may have contributed to the ‘walk’,” the president claimed in a message sent on Twitter, adding, “never done when a president is overseas … shame!” Seung Min Kim reports at the Washington Post.

The president on Friday sought to clarify his earlier claim that Kim not know about the mistreatment of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier by the North. Trump sent a pair of messages on Twitter addressing the reaction to his initial comments at a Thursday news conference, stating: “I never like being misinterpreted, but especially when it comes to Otto Warmbier and his great family … remember, I got Otto out along with three others … the previous Administration did nothing, and he was taken on their watch … of course I hold North Korea responsible….” Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would not answer whether or not he believed Kim had knowledge of Warmbier’s treatment. “The North Korean regime is responsible for the death Otto Warmbier and the humanitarian violations that are continuing to take place,” Pompeo said when asked if he thought Kim was responsible, according to an interview published yesterday by USA Today, Owen Daugherty reports at the Hill.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton defended Trump’s strategy at the summit. “I think it was unquestionably a success for the U.S. because the president protected, defended American interests,” Bolton commented yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” adding “I think he made a very important point to North Korea and to other countries around the world about negotiating with him … he’s not desperate for a deal — not with North Korea, not with anybody — if it’s contrary to American national interests,” Kelsey Tamborrino reports at POLITICO.

“Trump’s failed gambit was the culmination of two years of threats … hubris and misjudgment on both sides,” David E. Sanger and Edward Wong comment in an analysis of the summit collapse at the New York Times.

“I don’t think there’s any question that Trump benefited tremendously by demonstrating to Kim that he’s not a soft touch” Obama administration arms control chief Gary Samore comments in an interview with Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump launched a fresh attack on his political enemies in a speech to the Conservative Political Action (C.P.A.) Conference Saturday. After hugging the American flag upon walking onstage, Trump spent much of his two-hour speech criticizing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. Trump also brushed aside efforts at oversight by Democrats in Congress as “bullshit,” commenting: “they fight so hard on this witch hunt, this phony deal they put together … this phony thing that now looks like it’s dying … So they don’t have anything on Russia. … there’s no collusion, so now they morph into, let’s inspect every deal he has ever done,” Shannon Van Sant reports at NPR.

Lawmakers will demand documents from Trump’s eldest son Don Trump Jr. and lifelong business associate Allen Weisselberg as part of a “wide-ranging” probe into alleged abuses of office by the president, House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) revealed yesterday, making the comments on A.B.C. political show “This Week.” Nadler said that the requests – addressed to around 60 individuals – would go out today “to begin investigations to present the case to the American people about obstruction of justice, corruption and abuse of power” by Trump, AFP reports.

The House and Senate Intelligence Committees are examining whether any attempt was made to influence Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen through discussions about a pardon after his home and office were searched by the F.B.I. in April, according to three sources familiar with the matter. Cohen spent last week in congressional hearings, giving public testimony on Wednesday before the House Oversight Committee, Ken Dilanian reports at NBC.

Attorneys for former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort asked a federal judge in Northern Virginia on Friday to be lenient when he sentences Manafort this week, describing him as a loyal and idealistic man who has learned a “harsh lesson.” The sentencing memorandum – the second filed last week – was submitted to Judge T.S. Ellis III of the United States District Court in Alexandria, who will sentence Manafort Thursday for tax fraud, bank fraud and other financial crimes, ahead of his sentencing next week in Washington D.C. in a related conspiracy case, Sharon LaFraniere reports at the New York Times.

“We don’t yet know who the 60 people are or exactly what the letters say .. but I think we can make some pretty safe educated guesses about both,” Michael Tomasky comments at The Daily Beast, citing obstruction of justice, violations of the emoluments clause and lifting sanctions for full denuclearization as topics Nadler may want to explore.

An account of last week’s Trump-Russia developments – including the Cohen congressional hearings – is provided by Jack Shafer at POLITICO Magazine. Looking forward to the coming weeks, Shafer writes: “if it’s true that Trump has never met a crisis he couldn’t lie his way past, prepare yourself for a festival of fudging, stonewalling and prevarication that will eclipse his previous outbursts.”

U.S. INTELLIGENCE

Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) on Friday intensified the call for access to key documents and interview potential witnesses from the White House, following fresh reports that Trump had personally intervened to grant a security clearance to his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner despite legal and national security concerns. In a new letter, Cummings accuses the White House of stonewalling his requests for information and implied that if it did not comply voluntarily he would issue a subpoena to compel cooperation, Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

Trump has reportedly complained privately that his intelligence officials and generals “don’t understand business,” demanding that his briefings focus on economic issues and frustrating officials who believe that he is not prepared to listen to key information about non-economic national-security threats such as terrorism. The president has also allegedly reduced the amount of intelligence briefings he receives, slashing the previously once-daily meetings to a few times a week, The Daily Beast reports.

“It is entirely logical for our foreign counterparts to worry that Kushner is not equipped to handle top secret intelligence responsibly,” Samantha Vinograd comments in her “weekly briefing” to the president at CNN.

NATIONAL EMERGENCY AND BORDER WALL

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is throwing support behind a resolution that would block President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build his long-promised U.S.-Mexico border wall, flouting a warning from the president and putting the measure on track for congressional passage. “I can’t vote to give the president the power to spend money that hasn’t been appropriated by Congress,” Paul said in a speech Saturday, adding: “we may want more money for border security, but Congress didn’t authorize it … if we take away those checks and balances, it’s a dangerous thing,” Felicia Somnez reports at the Washington Post.

The 1976 National Emergencies Act gives the president the “unrestricted authority to declare national emergencies,” Peter J. Wallison argues at the Wall Street Journal, commenting that “Washington’s response to President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency over immigration has been hypocrisy as usual.”

SYRIA

U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces yesterday bombarded Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) jihadists making a “desperate” last stand in their final remaining stronghold at the Syrian village of Baghouz. I.S.I.S. fighters responded to the artillery and air attack with small arms fire as the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) advanced, AFP reports.

“When darkness falls … I.S.I.S. is hampered without night vision goggles … and for the past two nights U.S. jets and helicopters have attacked,” Bethan McKernan and Mohammed Rasool explain in an in-depth account from Baghouz at the Guardian.

Fighters of the Ansar al-Tawheed rebel group launched attacks against Syrian army posts in the northwest of the country, which the group alleges killed at least 25 soldiers to avenge civilian deaths during recent army shelling. Rebels of the Ankara-backed mainstream Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) factions told reporters that dozens of rebels belonging to Ansar al-Tawheed attacked two key army checkpoints near the village of Masasneh in northern Hama province in an early morning attack yesterday, Al Jazeera reports.

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]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli soldiers today shot three Palestinians dead after a car ramming attack in the occupied West Bank, according to the Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.,) Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. consulate in Jerusalem was permanently closed over the weekend, marking the demotion of Washington’s de-facto embassy to the Palestinians. “This decision was driven by our global efforts to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of our diplomatic engagements and operations,” U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Palladino commented in a statement, adding “it does not signal a change of U.S. policy on Jerusalem, the West Bank, or the Gaza Strip,” Owen Daugherty reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The body of murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was likely burned in a large oven at the Saudi consulate general’s residence in Istanbul, an Al Jazeera investigation has revealed.

Huawei C.F.O. Meng Wanzhou – facing an extradition request from the US – has lodged a lawsuit against three Canadian border officers and an R.C.M.P. officer involved in her detention in the country, as well as Canada’s attorney-general. Meng was detained at Vancouver International Airport in December while transferring to an onward flight to Mexico, Richard Waters reports at the Financial Times.

Venezuelan opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó claims he plans to return to his home country today. “I announce my return to the country,” Guaidó announced yesterday morning from Ecuador in a message posted on Twitter, calling for nationwide demonstrations against incumbent President Nicolás Maduro at 11 a.m. today that would be timed to coincide with his arrival, José de Córdoba and Juan Forero report at the Wall Street Journal. 

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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).