The Early Edition: March 20, 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-RUSSIA

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will stay at the Justice Department “a little longer,” according to a senior department official. Rosenstein – previously responsible for overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with Trump campaign – had previously indicated that he would leave in mid-March, noting during a public appearance on March 7 that it would be one of his final speeches, Julia Ainsley and Pete Williams report at NBC.

Rosenstein recently discussed his upcoming planned departure with Attorney General William Barr, after which it was decided that he would stay on a short period, according to the official. Rosenstein’s departure has been tied by many to the completion of Mueller’s report, Darren Samuelsohn and Josh Gerstein report at POLITICO.

Mueller began investigating President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen nearly a year before the F.B.I. raided Cohen’s properties in New York last April, according to documents unsealed yesterday. The heavily redacted documents, released by prosecutors in response to a court order, indicate that the F.B.I. sought and obtained warrants to search Cohen’s electronic communications as far back as July 2017 and suspected Cohen as potentially acting as an unregistered foreign agent, Morgan Chalfant, Jacqueline Thomsen and Olivia Beavers report at the Hill.

Prosecutors working for Mueller yesterday cited the “press of other work” when asking a judge to give them until April 1 to respond to the court about a request from The Washington Post to unseal records in former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort’s criminal case. In a two-page filing, Deputy Solicitor General Michael R. Dreeben and prosecutor Adam C. Jed stated: “counsel responsible for preparing the response face the press of other work and require additional time to consult within the government;” a response had been due March 21, Spencer S. Hsu and Matt Zapotoskuy report at the Washington Post.

The complete refusal by the Trump White House to produce any documents or witnesses to the primary investigative committee in the House reflects a decision at the highest levels to deny congressional oversight altogether,” Chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) writes in an Op-Ed at the Washington Post. The Committee has written a number of letters to the White House on issues including coordination with Russia and the provision of security clearances.

Women on the D.C. federal bench are playing a critical role in the Trump-Russia developments. Carrie Johnson explains at NPR.

An updated list of substantive documents in cases related to the Russia investigation is provided at Just Security.

IMMIGRATION

The Trump administration reportedly intends to start pulling back on a controversial plank of U.S. immigration policy, announcing yesterday it will stop sending some migrant families who illegally cross the border in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley to jail. Starting this week, hundreds of families caught each day in that area are set to be released by Border Patrol agents, instead of being handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for potentially more lengthy periods of detention, according to government officials, Alicia A. Caldwell reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that certain immigrants who have served jail sentences must be held without bail during deportation proceedings, marking the second 5-4 decision in a year to adopt the government’s broad definition of “aliens” subject to mandatory detention. Jess Bravin reports at the Wall Street Journal.

SYRIA

U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces from the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) yesterday wrested control of an encampment held by the Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) in eastern Syria, after hundreds of militants surrendered overnight, with the development heralding the group’s collapse after months of fierce resistance. The taking of the camp marks a major advance but not the final defeat of I.S.I.S. in their final stronghold of Baghouz, according to S.D.F. spokesperson Mustafa Bali, Philip Issa reports at the AP.

“This is not a victory announcement … but a significant progress in the fight against [I.S.I.S,]” Bali stated on a message sent on Twitter, claiming that clashes were ongoing and that fighters remain “in several pockets and their presence is not limited to a defined geography.” Reuters reports.

During yesterday’s operations the S.D.F. captured a group suspected of organizing the Jan 16 bomb attack that killed four U.S. citizens and a number of allied Syrian militia fighters, Bali announced. In a message sent on Twitter, Bali claimed that the S.D.F. had used “technical surveillance” to find and arrest the suspects, Ben Hubbard reports at the New York Times.

An account of the S.D.F.’s progress against I.S.I.S. fighters in eastern Syria is provided at AFP.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 99 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Feb. 24 and March 9 [Central Command]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli Defense Force (I.D.F.) soldiers killed three Palestinian individuals in two separate incidents last night, according to Palestinian health ministry and emergency services. One of those killed – Omar Abu Leila (19) – was suspected of carrying out a deadly stabbing-and-shooting attack in the occupied West Bank two days earlier; in a separate incident two more Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, Al Jazeera reports.

Israel and the U.S. have successfully intercepted a series of medium to long-range ballistic missiles in the course of a joint drill. The missile test in southern Israel was conducted yesterday by the Israeli Ministry of Defense along with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency and Israeli defense technology company Rafael, the AP reports.

An analysis of the striking similarities between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Trump is provided by Loveday Morris and Ruth Eglash at the Washington Post.

VENEZUELA

U.S. President Trump said yesterday that the U.S. could impose harsher sanctions on Venezuela in its campaign to remove incumbent President Nicolás Maduro. Recent power outages across Venezuela illustrate that “something terrible is going on down there” and “we need to put an end” to the current situation, Trump remarked during a joint news conference with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at the White House, Christopher Torchia reports at the AP.

High-level U.S.-Russian talks regarding defusing the Venezuelan crisis ended yesterday at an impasse, with the two sides still at odds over the legitimacy of Maduro. “No, we did not come to a meeting of minds, but I think the talks were positive in the sense that both sides emerged with a better understanding of the other’s views,” U.S. special representative Elliot Abrams told reporters, Reuters reports.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

President Trump claimed yesterday that social media platforms discriminated against members of his party, and accused the organizations of collusion. “It seems to be if they’re conservative, if they’re Republicans, if they’re in a certain group, there’s discrimination, and big discrimination, and I see it absolutely on Twitter and Facebook … and others,” Trump said during a joint White House news conference with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, adding “we use the word ‘collusion’ very loosely all the time, and I will tell you there is collusion with respect to that because something has to be going on,” Reuters reports.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen yesterday urged private companies to increase efforts to help the federal government identify new cyber threats, claiming that the administration is unable to do so alone. “We need you to focus again on the future of cybersecurity,” Nielsen said, adding “I’ll keep coming back to that because that’s what keeps me up at night is that the rate at which threats and risks are emerging is outpacing our ability to identify, assess and address them,” Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

“A landmark legal battle that will unfold later this month in federal court in New York represents a welcome chance for freedom of expression to triumph over falsehood,” Just Security Editor Joshua Geltzer and Harvard Law School Professor Laurence H. Tribe write at POLITICO Magazine, having filed an amicus brief supporting litigants who have sued Trump for blocking free expression by blocking them on Twitter.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Trump said yesterday he was strongly considering N.A.T.O. membership for Brazil as he welcomed Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to the White House. Reuters reports.

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia yesterday ruled that said her injunction preventing the president’s transgender military policy from taking effect remains in place, just days after the Pentagon released a memo to implement the policy. In a three-page order, Kollar-Kotelly wrote that “defendants were incorrect in claiming that there was no longer an impediment to the military’s implementation of the [transgender policy] in this case,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Trump said yesterday that the U.S. Supreme Court will stay at nine judges for at least the next six years. Asked during a Rose Garden news conference about the developing proposal among some Democratic presidential candidates to expand the Court, Trump ruled out the possibility, saying that if the court added justices, it would not be until after the end of his second term – and labelling Democrats hoping to expand the court as sore losers, Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

Corruption in the U.S. is a national security threat, Stephen M. Walt comments at Foreign Policy 

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About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

Assistant 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).