The Early Edition: March 8, 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

Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort was sentenced yesterday to 47 months in prison for tax evasion and bank fraud, with the sentence imposed considerably more lenient than recommended in the sentencing guidelines. Ordering the sentence, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis said that guidelines calling for Manafort to spend between 19 and 24 years in prison were “out of whack,” ruling that he viewed the matter as a regular tax- and bank-fraud case, despite the role of special counsel Robert Mueller’s office in the matter, Aruna Viswanatha and Julie Bykowicz report at the Wall Street Journal.

“Mr Manafort … you stand accused of very serious crimes,” said Ellis, noting that the offences included concealing $6m from the Internal Revenue Service and adding “in essence, that’s a theft of money from everyone who pays their taxes.” Wearing a green prison jumpsuit, Manafort was seated in a wheelchair and “betrayed little emotion” as Ellis pronounced his sentence, which will be set off against the nine months Manafort has already served, David Smith reports at the Guardian.

Ellis noted that he must consider the entirety of Manafort’s life when handing down his sentence, commenting that pieces of correspondence indicate that Manafort has been “a good friend” and a “generous person” but maintaining that such features “can’t erase the criminal activity.” Rachel Weiner, Lynh Bui, Justin Jouvenal and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

“To say I have been humiliated and ashamed would be a gross understatement,” Manafort told Ellis, also claiming that his life was “professionally and financially in shambles,” Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

Commentators and lawmakers were surprised by the leniency of the sentence. “Paul Manafort getting such little jail time for such serious crimes lays out for the world how it’s almost impossible for rich people to go to jail for the same amount of time as someone who is lower income,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) commented in a message sent on Twitter, adding “in our current broken system, “justice” isn’t blind … it’s bought,” Dennis Romero reports at NBC.

A plea deal Manafort struck to avoid a trial was thrown out after the federal judge determined he had lied to Mueller’s office and the F.B.I. about matters relevant to Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. Trump maintains that Manafort’s crimes – involving work Manafort provided on behalf of Ukrainian government – had nothing to do with him and have no bearing on the allegation of collusion. Reuters reports.

President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael yesterday filed a lawsuit against the Trump Organization, alleging that his former employer owes him millions of dollars in unpaid legal and court fees stemming from the federal investigations arising from Cohen’s work on the president’s behalf. In a lawsuit filed in the state of New York, Cohen alleged that the Trump Organization has refused to pay his attorneys since last summer, around the period Cohen publicly pledged to cooperate in a federal investigation into the president; Cohen says the organization breached an indemnification agreement it had entered into with Cohen as part of his former role, Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

A prosecutor with Mueller’s office – Jonathan Kravis – has stated that information disclosed by Mueller’s team could be used against the U.S., if a court ordered the unveiling of “sensitive” documents to Russian officials. Kravis made the submission yesterday during court proceedings in a case against Russian company Concord Management and Consulting – that allegedly gave money to a troll farm accused of spreading misinformation and propaganda during the 2016 election, Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

“Attorney General [William] Barr should reconsider Justice Department policy” against indictment of a sitting president,  J.T. Smith II comments at the New York Times, arguing “if the evidence gathered by the Mueller investigation on the actions of the president and his advisers indicates a crime … an indictment might be the proper course to hold the president accountable.”

“Manafort’s cooperation and even his sentencing did not go as Mueller likely had hoped … but Manafort’s willingness to forgo Mueller’s recommendation for a reduction in sentence suggests there is more that he’s hiding,” Barbara McQuade writes at The Daily Beast, arguing that if Manafort is concealing further information, “there should be no doubt that Mueller will find it.

An explainer on the myriad Congressional investigations into Trump’s alleged Russia links and other business is provided by Nicholas Fandos at the New York Times.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The U.S. still believes the “fully verified denuclearization” of North Korea is achievable by the end of President Trump’s “first term,” a senior official commented yesterday, making the remarks despite warnings the Sohae rocket launch site in the North seems to have resumed operations. North Korea monitor 38 North and the Center for Strategic and International Studies employed commercial satellite imagery to monitor construction at Sohae, which they claim was initiated ahead of last week’s Hanoi summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, AFP reports.

The U.S. will ask the North to admit its inspectors to the restoration at Sohae, although the Trump administration is yet to conclude that the facility is currently operational, according to a State Department spokesperson. The spokesperson added that the U.S. is not certain why the activity detected at the site is taking place and is monitoring it closely, also claiming that the U.S. would continue to press for access to the site as part of a larger effort to eliminate Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal, Michael R. Gordon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

South Korea and the U.S. today formally signed a deal on Seoul’s increased payment for the U.S. troop deployment, amidst concerns about the future of the countries’ longstanding military alliance. Trump earlier had put pressure Seoul to increase its share, precipitating anxieties in the South that the president might withdraw some of the 28,500 U.S. troops here if Seoul refused to accept the demand, Hyung-Jin Kim reports at the AP.

VENEZUELA

Much of Venezuela remained in darkness early today having been struck by one of the largest power outages in years. Incumbent President Nicolás Maduro was quick to blame the outage on “sabotage” at a major hydroelectric dam.  The blackout hit 22 of the nation’s 23 states, including the capital Caracas, Reuters reports.

With the Venezuelan administration reportedly alleging that the U.S. – alongside opposition leader Juan Guaidó – are behind the attack,  Maduro sent a message on Twitter characterizing the blackout as “the electrical war announced and directed by American imperialism against our people.” State-owned electricity operator Corpoelec also blamed the outage on the act of “sabotage” at the Guri Dam – one of the world’s largest hydroelectric stations and the “cornerstone” of Venezuela’s electrical grid, Al Jazeera reports.

SYRIA

Head of the U.S. Central Command Joseph Votel commented yesterday that he is under no pressure to withdraw forces from Syria by any specific date, after President Trump ordered the pull-out of most U.S. troops from Syria at the end of last year. “What is driving the withdrawal of course is our mission, which is the defeat of I.S.I.S. [Islamic State group] … and so that is our principal focus and that is making sure that we protect our forces, that we don’t withdraw in a manner that increases the risk to our forces,” Votel said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing, adding “there is no pressure on me to meet a specific date at this particular time,” Al Jazeera reports.

International lawyers have filed the first cases against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) in The Hague. The lawsuits were submitted on behalf of 28 Syrian refugees in Jordan who say they were forced to flee the country, with the legal teams calling on the court to investigate possible crimes against humanity committed since the onset of Syria’s civil war in 2011; however, Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, which has stymied the chance of a prosecution before the I.C.C., the BBC reports

As Islamic State group mounts its final stand in the last remaining patch of its self-declared “caliphate” at the Syrian village of Baghouz, the group is already “switching gears … returning to its insurgent roots by seeding sleeper cells across parts of Syria and Iraq it once controlled,”  with assassinations allegedly mounting according to locals. Louisa Loveluck provides an account at the Washington Post.

An account of the ongoing surrender of Islamic State group militants evacuating Baghouz is provided by Andrea Rosa at the AP.

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]

AFGHANISTAN

Peace talks in Qatar between the U.S. and Taliban insurgents regarding the long-running conflict in Afghanistan have paused for a two-day period, following “extensive” discussion for 11 days. The fifth round of peace talks in Doha started on Feb. 25, after both parties hailed significant progress in the previous rounds of talks in which they agreed on a “draft framework” that included U.S. troops withdrawal and discussions of a Taliban commitment that the Afghan territory would not be exploited by international “terror” groups, Al Jazeera reports.

The current set of talks has been slowed by disagreement over a fundamental question: “what is terrorism, and who is a terrorist?” Mujib Mashal explains at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi endorsed the “aggressive” legal strategy adopted by tech giant Huawei in its fight against the U.S., claiming that the outcome of the dispute is critical to China’s national interests. At a news conference today, Wang applauded the company and its C.F.O. Meng Wanzhou for filing lawsuits against a U.S. ban on purchases of Huawei equipment and Meng’s arrest by Canada respectively,” Josh Chin and Chun Han Wong report at the Wall Street Journal.

A selection of photographs from celebrations and protests marking International Women’s Day 2019 is provided at the Guardian 

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).