The Early Edition: March 6, 2019

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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-RUSSIA

President Trump took time out of official business in October 2017 to sign a $35,000 check to his then-personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who had made “hush payments” to prevent alleged sexual misconduct from being exposed before the 2016 presidential election. The incident marks one of 11 occasions that Trump or his trust cut such checks, with others coinciding with Trump’s conversations with Russian President Putin and the firing of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman report in an exclusive at the New York Times.

The House Intelligence Committee has hired experienced former Southern District of New York federal prosecutor Daniel Goldman to lead its myriad investigations into President Donald Trump. Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) announced yesterday that Goldman, who has experience prosecuting Russian organized crime, joined the committee last month as senior adviser and director of investigations, Andrew Desiderio reports at POLITICO.

Trump yesterday characterized the sweeping new investigation of his inner circle as a “big … fat … fishing expedition.” In a series of messages sent on Twitter, the president claimed the House Judiciary Committee investigation of his alleged crimes was “the greatest overreach in the history of our Country,” adding “the real crime is what the Dems are doing, and have done!” AFP reports.

A federal judge said yesterday that the publication of a book last month by longtime Trump associate Roger Stone which criticized Special Counsel Robert Mueller may violate a media gag order – a move that could land the self-described “dirty trickster” Stone in jail. Judge Amy Berman Jackson for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered Stone and his attorneys to provide her with a report by Monday explaining how he plans to comply with the order, and also insisted that he turn over particular records detailing everything he knew about the book’s release, Reuters reports.

An analysis on the likely next steps for Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign, and the furore over the release of the investigation’s report in particular, is provided at the Economist.

Trump is now engaged in a war for his survival, Stephen Collinson comments at CNN, contrasting Trump with the more “disciplined” former president Bill Clinton, and arguing that the president’s “incessant claims that he is the victim of ‘hoax’ investigations and attempts to tear down the guardrails surrounding his office often give the impression that he has something to hide.”

The “big unanswered questions” after Cohen’s congressional hearings last week are explored by Philp Ewing at NPR: why did the Trumps keep Cohen out of the June 2016 meeting with the Russians; did the Trumps do anything beyond welcome the work of WikiLeaks; what else is in the ‘treasure trove;’ and how credible is Cohen?

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea has allegedly begun rebuilding a rocket launch site that had been partially dismantled as a goodwill gesture after the Singapore summit between President Trump and Northern leader Kim Jong-un in June last year. Satellite images suggest the reconstruction work was carried out shortly before the leaders’ failed second summit in Hanoi last week, and the publication of the photographs last night have contributed to fears that the peace effort us in jeopardy, Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

North Korea began dismantling the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri near its northwestern border with China last summer, partially dismantling an engine test site, a rocket launchpad and a rail-mounted building used by engineers to assemble launch vehicles and move them toward the launchpad. However, the North did not completely take down the facilities, and when Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in September, he offered to destroy them in the presence of U.S. experts – an offer that is now shrouded in uncertainty, Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

U.S. Senators merged from a closed-door briefing yesterday on the Kim-Trump summit apparently reassured that the administration has a plan for dialogue with Pyongyang going forward, even if they remain unclear whether the plan will be successful. “I see what the strategy is,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) commented, describing the briefing as “great,” and adding: “the odds of success on the strategy are not high, but I think everybody’s realistic about that,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Trump has consistently failed to understand Kim’s motivations, retired U.S. Army colonel and former member of the National Security Council Jeff McCausland comments at NBC.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

President Trump strong-armed his former chief of staff John Kelly and former White House counsel Don McGahn to grant his daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump a security clearance in defiance of their recommendations, according to a new report. Three people familiar with the matter have claimed that the president’s decision to intervene in his daughter’s security clearance process “rankled” White House officials; White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated “we don’t comment on security clearances,” Pamela Brown and Kaitlan Collins report at CNN.

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone yesterday said that the administration will refuse to provide Congress with information about senior adviser Jared Kushner’s security clearance, criticizing House Democrats for “overly intrusive document requests.” Cipollone wrote a letter to Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, stating that his Committee’s request for information on Kushner “suggest[s] that the Committee is not interested in proper oversight, but rather seeks information that it knows cannot be provided consistent with applicable law,” Andrew Desiderio reports at POLITICO.

VENEZUELA

Venezuelan opposition leader and self-declaed interim president Juan Guaidó pledged yesterday to increase pressure on incumbent President Nicolás Maduro, who in turn promised to crush the “crazed minority” that wants to remove him from power. Guaidó, who returned to the country on Monday in defiance of a travel ban, told reporters that Maduro’s government is “drowning in contradictions, they don’t know how to respond to Venezuela’s people … they thought the pressure had reached its zenith, but it’s only just beginning,” AFP reports.

Is Guaidó interim president or opposition leader? Carol Morello provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

SYRIA

U.S.-backed forces in Syria are holding more than 2,000 suspected Islamic State group fighters, according to U.S. defense officials, with the development providing an obstacle to Trump administration’s plans to withdraw U.S. forces from the war-torn country. The new estimate exacerbates the challenge of relocating the captured Islamic State fighters to their home countries – and makes it more difficult for the U.S.-led coalition to wind down operations in Syria,  Nancy A. Youssef and Gordon Lubold report at the Wall Street Journal.

Two months after declaring all U.S. troops are leaving Syria – President Trump wrote to members of Congress that he agrees “100%” with keeping a military presence in the country. A bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives wrote to Trump on Feb. 22, praising his decision to maintain a small residual force in Syria; “I agree 100% … ALL is being done,” President Trump responded, writing directly on the letter, Courtney Kube reports at NBC.

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]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Senate Republican leaders have acknowledged that opponents of President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency along the Southern border have sufficient votes in the Senate to prevail on a resolution aimed at preventing the move. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – who is backing Trump despite his own misgivings about the declaration – said Trump will veto the resolution that is likely to be sustained in Congress: “I think what is clear in the Senate is there will be enough votes to pass the resolution of disapproval, which will then be vetoed by the president and then, in all likelihood, the veto will be upheld in the House,” McConnell told reporters, Al Jazeera reports.

At least 16 people were killed in a suicide attack today on a construction company in eastern Afghanistan. The hours-long attack in the key city of Jalalabad began early this morning when at least two blasts were heard – according to a reporter – before security forces rushed to the scene, AFP reports.

Tech giant Google has remained silent over reports it told a U.S. congresswoman that a “controversial” app was not in breach of its terms and conditions. Saudi app Absher can be used by men to track women and stop them from travelling, the BBC reports.

Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei yesterday urged governments – along with the telecoms industry and regulators – to work together to create a common set of cybersecurity standards. Reuters reports.

A group of Democratic and progressive lawmakers are reportedly sponsoring a pledge from a veterans group to “end the forever war.” Gass-roots organization Common Defense claims that it has secured the backing of eight lawmakers –including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) – for its pledge calling for the U.S. “to bring a clear end to these military interventions,” citing involvement in conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Niger, Somalia and Thailand, Justin Wise reports at the Hill. 

About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

Associate 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).