The Early Edition: March 25, 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

Special counsel Robert Mueller did not find that President Trump or his campaign colluded with Russians to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, according to a four-page summary released yesterday by Attorney General William Barr. Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

“The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” Mueller wrote in his findings. However, Mueller did not take a clear position on whether Trump obstructed justice, with the ambiguity serving to keep alive Democratic debates as to whether impeaching the president remains an option, Darren Samuelsohn and Josh Gerstein report at POLITICO.

The special counsel states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime … it does not exonerate him’,” Barr wrote in his four-page letter. Demetri Sevastupulo, Khadim Shubber and Courtney Weaver report at the Financial Times.

“For each of the relevant actions investigated … the [Mueller] report sets out evidence on both sides of the question,” Barr added in his letter, clarifying that the report “leaves unresolved what the Special Counsel views as ‘difficult issues’ of law and fact concerning whether the President’s actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction,” Pete Williams, Julia Ainsley and Gregg Birnbaum report at NBC.

The president yesterday described the probe as an “illegal takedown that failed,” telling reporters that “it’s a shame that our country had to go through this … to be honest, it’s a shame that your president has had to go through this,” also claiming that those responsible for the investigation should face scrutiny. Trump’s aides had reportedly warned him not to react to the findings with a sense of triumph, but the president presented Barr’s statements as an outright victory, Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

Trump’s advisers yesterday allegedly began formulating plans to use Mueller’s findings as a line of attack against Democrats ahead of the 2020 election, according to a person familiar with the matter, marking a pronounced reversal in the administration’s stance toward the investigation. Rebecca Ballhaus, Alex Leary and Vivian Salama report at the Wall Street Journal.

 Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said that based on the summary ­– Mueller’s report was more positive than he had anticipated. “It’s better than I expected,” said Giuliani, who has “relentlessly” attacked Mueller and his work since he took on the role of representing the president last year, Reuters reports.

Democrats have indicated that they will proceed with probes of the Trump administration despite calls from Republicans to desist following Mueller’s findings. “Attorney General Barr’s letter raises as many questions as it answers,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said in a joint statement, adding “the fact that Special Counsel Mueller’s report does not exonerate the president on a charge as serious as obstruction of justice demonstrates how urgent it is that the full report and underlying documentation be made public without any further delay, Kristina Peterson, Natalie Andrews and Siobhan Hughes report at the Wall Street Journal.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerold Nadler (D-N.Y.) emphasized that the summary of the Mueller report “clearly and explicitly’ did not exonerate Trump. Nadler added that Barr was too quick to dismiss further action on the obstruction question, yesterday sending a message on Twitter stating: “Special Counsel Mueller worked for 22 months to determine the extent to which President Trump obstructed justice … Attorney General Barr took 2 days to tell the American people that while the President is not exonerated, there will be no action by [the Department of Justice],” Chris Mills Rodrigo reports at the Hill.

The summarized findings have provoked delight in Moscow. Nathan Hodge reports at CNN.

U.S. civil liberties privacy group The Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a lawsuit seeking the public release Mueller’s report. The Center brought the Freedom of Information Act suit against the Department of Justice (D.O.J.,) the group said in an announcement posted on its website on Friday, Reuters reports.

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

TRUMP-RUSSIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“For President Trump … it may have been the best day of his tenure so far,” Peter Baker writes in analysis of yesterday’s events at the New York Times, describing the finding of the report as the lifting of a cloud that will provide the president with “a powerful boost” for the remaining 22 months of his term.

An account of the response from both sides of the political divide to yesterday’s developments is provided by Asawin Suebsaeng, Sam Brodey and Erin Banco at The Daily Beast, who note that “Trumpworld spent Sunday doing the unthinkable: using Robert Mueller to dunk on Democrats.”

An analysis of the likely backlash following the release of Mueller’s findings, and of the dimmed prospects of impeaching the president, is provided by Michael Hirsch at Foreign Policy.

Mueller’s decision not to come to a firm conclusion on obstruction sees the Special Counsel “defer to his superiors — like the Marine officer he once was,” Ken Dilanian comments at NBC.

“If Democrats care about thwarting Russian meddling and aggression … they will … stop wasting taxpayer money peddling disproved collusion narratives,” Mark Green argues at the Wall Street Journal, commenting that “instead, they can support this administration’s efforts to stand tall against the consistent threat Russia poses to America’s national security.”

Following the release of Mueller’s summarized findings – we should now turn our attention to the work of congressional intelligence committees, Founding Editor Marty Lederman comments at Just Security, pondering: “what has Mueller told them?  What more will the committees discover about Trump’s relationship … with … Russian interests?  …can the answers to those questions be shared with the rest of Congress and the public, consistent with national security imperatives?|

A roundup of reactions to the Mueller report summary from legal experts is provided at POLITICO Magazine.

SYRIA

U.S.-backed Kurdish-led fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) pronounced the death of the Islamic State group’s (I.S.I.S.) nearly five-year-old “caliphate” Saturday after flushing out the militants from their very last redoubt in the eastern town of Baghouz. S.D.F. fighters raised their yellow flag in the town, capping a bloody six-month operation against the final remnants of the self-declared “caliphate” that formerly stretched across vast swathes of Syrian and Iraq. AFP reports.

“Baghouz is free and the military victory against [I.S.I.S] has been achieved,” S.D.F. spokesperson Mustafa Bali claimed in a message sent on Twitter. I.S.I.S. affiliates in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Afghanistan and elsewhere, however, continue to pose a threat, with the group’s ideology also inspiring so-called “lone-wolf” attacks with little connection to its leadership. The AP reports.

“We will remain vigilant… until I.S.I.S. is finally defeated wherever it operates,” U.S. President Trump commented in a statement. The BBC reports.

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

A rocket allegedly fired from the Gaza strip this morning struck a residential home in central Israel, in the community of Mishmeret, north of the city of Kfar Saba, wounding six members of the occupant family. Israel’s ambulance service said it treated seven people overall, including two women who were moderately wounded; the developments will “set the stage for a potential major conflagration” ahead of Israel’s upcoming elections, Al Jazeera reports.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that he will cut short his visit to Washington after the Gaza attack. Netanyahu described this morning’s rocket launch as a “criminal attack” and vowed to strike back hard, clarifying that he will return to his country to handle the crisis shortly after meeting with President Trump today. Live updates at the AP.

Gaza’s militant Hamas leaders have reportedly gone underground. Witnesses reported seeing Hamas evacuating its personnel from government premises, with the group also announcing that its Gaza chief Yehiya Sinwar had canceled a scheduled public speech, Oliver Holmes reports at the Guardian.

AFGHANISTAN

A devastating Taliban attack over the weekend on an Afghan army outpost in southern Helmand province killed 26 soldiers and seven policemen, according to a provincial official today, although the country’s defense ministry has refused to disclose the casualties. In a separate development, the U.N. announced today that a N.A.T.O. airstrike over the weekend in northern Kunduz province killed 13 civilians, including 10 children, Amir Shah reports at the AP.

The Helmand attack provides yet another indication that the Taliban are continuing to attack Afghan government forces aggressively even as they have entered peace negotiations on a pullout of U.S. troops from the country, Taimoor Shah and Fahim Abed report at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russian military officials have arrived in Venezuela to discuss equipment maintenance and training with the Maduro administration, according to an official in Caracas. The Guardian reports.

President Trump announced Friday that he would revers the sanctions against North Korea that were recently announced by the Treasury Department, in a declaration that sparked confusion in Washington. Trump stated in a message sent on Twitter that “I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!” Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill. 

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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).