The Early Edition: March 26, 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

President Trump and his associates yesterday looked to enact political revenge on congressional Democrats and the media, taking advantage of the momentum generated by the end of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference. A summary of Mueller’s conclusions released Sunday by Attorney General William Barr stated that the special counsel had not found enough evidence to prove a conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Moscow, although Mueller did not make a determination on allegations of obstruction of justice, Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill.

“There are a lot of people out there that have done some very … very evil things … very bad things — I would say treasonous things against our country,” Trump said in remarks from the Oval Office yesterday, although he did not give names. “Those people will certainly be looked at … I’ve been looking at them for a long time,” the president added, Peter Baker and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

“I will tell you … I love this country … I love this country as much as I can love anything: my family … my country … my God,” Trump told reporters, adding: “but what they did – it was a false narrative, it was a terrible thing … we can never let this happen to another president again … I can tell you that … very few people I know could have handled it.” However, when asked if Mueller had acted honorably, Trump said: “Yes, he did,” David Smith reports at the Guardian.

Trump indicated he would support the public release of the full report, and that such a release “wouldn’t bother me at all.” Democrats have called for the speedy release of the report and its underlying documents to enable the public to draw its own conclusions, Vivian Salama and Kristina Peterson report at the Wall Street Journal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) yesterday blocked a resolution calling for the report to be released publicly. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) had asked for unanimous consent for the nonbinding resolution –which cleared the House 420-0 – to be passed by the Senate, stating on the floor that “whether or not you’re a supporter of President Trump … there is no good reason not to make the report public … it’s a simple request for transparency;” McConnell, however, objected, noting that Barr is working with Mueller to determine what in his report can be released publicly, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Mueller reportedly informed Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein three weeks ago that his office would not reach a conclusion on obstruction of justice, according to a person familiar with the March 5 meeting. Julia Ainsley reports at NBC.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated yesterday that have been no conversations regarding Trump issuing pardons for any of his associates who have been charged or pleaded guilty as part of Mueller’s investigation. Reuters reports.

The House Intelligence Committee postponed its scheduled public interview with Trump Tower Moscow chief negotiator Felix Sater, a spokesperson for the panel announced yesterday, citing outstanding questions from Barr’s summary. “In light of the cursory letter from the Attorney General, and our need to understand Special Counsel Mueller’s areas of inquiry and evidence his office uncovered, we are working in parallel with other committees to bring in senior officials from the D.O.J., F.B.I. and S.C.O. to ensure that our committee is fully and currently informed about the SCO’s investigation, including all counterintelligence information,” the spokesman remarked, Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday refused to hear an appeal from an unidentified foreign corporation fighting a sealed grand jury subpoena issued by Mueller. The case, In re Grand Jury Subpoena, No. 18-948, has been shrouded in secrecy, but redacted court rulings and Supreme Court briefs have provided a few clues including that an unnamed foreign government – referred to in court papers as Country A – owns the company, Adam Liptak reports at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An account of the unfolding reaction to the summarized release of Mueller’s findings, in Washington and Moscow, is provided by John Wagner and Felicia Sonmez at the Washington Post.

Following the release of Mueller’s findings the prospect of a Republican Senate moving to impeach Trump is now “further away than ever.” Burgess Everett provides an analysis at POLITICO.

“Trump is premature in claiming his exoneration by Barr’s letter,” Michael Conway comments at NBC, arguing that “Congress, the public and history are entitled to decide if Mueller’s recitation of facts warrants the indictment or impeachment of President Trump for obstruction of justice.”

Mueller’s findings give the Democrats an opportunity to move on, Bill Scher comments at POLITICO Magazine, writing that “many voters won’t care that Trump is a grifter if they believe Trump has made their own lives better … the Democratic challenge is to show that he hasn’t.”

“The Mueller report marked a low point for more substantive norms of presidential conduct,” even if legal process norms have mostly emerged in sound condition, Bob Bauer argues at the New York Times.

SYRIA

U.S. envoy for Syria Jim Jeffrey has claimed that Islamic State group’s (I.S.I.S) loss of its last territorial stronghold in Syria over the weekend marked a “great day” but the fight against the group will continue and U.S. forces would remain in Syria. “This is not the end of the fight against I.S.I.S. … that will go on, but it will be a different kind of fight,” Jeffrey told reporters yesterday while speaking to a briefing at the State Department, Reuters reports.

The territorial defeat of the Islamic State group marks a transition to a more difficult battle to come, U.S. military officials and experts have warned. For U.S. counterterrorism strategy, the focus will move from years of armed conflict as the group held parts of Iraq and Syria to confrontation with a more dispersed and furtive insurgency,b Gordon Lubold, Warren P. Strobel, and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S.-backed Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) fighters who drove I.S.I.S from its final strongholds are calling for an international tribunal to prosecute hundreds of foreigners rounded up in the nearly five-year campaign against the extremist group. “We call on the international community to establish a special international tribunal in northeast Syria to prosecute terrorists,” the S.D.F. said in a statement, also claiming that such a tribunal is required “for justice to take its course” – in particular given that several countries have refused to bring home their detained nationals, Al Jazeera 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 ceasefire has been reached – after Israeli air strikes hit sites across the Gaza Strip yesterday in retaliation for a long-distance rocket attack that struck a house near Tel Aviv. Militant Palestinian Hamas group, in control of the Gaza strip, announced that Egypt had brokered today’s ceasefire, with spokesperson Eawzi Barhoum commenting “Egyptian efforts succeeded with a ceasefire between the occupation and the resistance factions,” AFP reports.

U.S. President Trump yesterday formally recognized the occupied Golan Heights as Israeli territory marking an election boost for visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but provoking a sharp response from Syria – which formerly held the strategic territory. Following a meeting with Netanyahu at the White House, Trump signed a proclamation officially granting U.S. recognition of the occupied Golan as Israeli territory – a “dramatic shift” from decades of U.S. policy, Al Jazeera reports.

The Trump administration has indefinitely detained Palestinian computer programmer and Florida resident Adham Hassoun, who has already served 15 years in prison for sending support to Islamist militants abroad. The administration has relied on a seldom used immigration regulation issued after 9/11 to authorize the detention, Charlie Savage reports at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Venezuela blamed an “attack” on its electric system for a blackout yesterday – the second outage to hit the nation this month. “We have suffered a new attack on our national electricity system’s load and transmission centre today,” Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez announced, adding that the event had “similar characteristics” to the March 7 “attack,” Reuters reports.

U.S. President Trump was open to easing sanctions on North Korea provided there was a ‘snapback’ clause if the North restarted nuclear activities, according to South Korean media reports of a North Korean statement. The new statement, from a March 15 news conference by North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, claimed that Trump had a “flexible position” on the issue during his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last month, Reuters reports.

=The Pentagon sent U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships through the Taiwan Strait Sunday amid growing tensions between China and Taiwan. “The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific … the U.S. will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” a military statement proclaimed, Chris Mills Rodrigo reports at the Hill.

The Pentagon reportedly diverted $1 billion in Army funds to build 58 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border on Monday. In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan claimed that the funds – drawn primarily from the Army’s military personnel account – will be used to build a fence that will cut off “11 drug-smuggling corridors.” The Daily Beast reports.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres urged artificial intelligence (A.I.) experts meeting in Geneva yesterday to push ahead with work to restrict the development of lethal autonomous weapons systems (L.A.W.S.) The U.N. News Centre reports.

  

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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).