The Early Edition: April 19, 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’s long-anticipated report on Russian electoral interference was released yesterday, with the redacted document revealing the scope of a “historic” campaign by Moscow to sabotage the 2016 presidential as well as a “frantic” effort by President Trump to frustrate a federal investigation endangering his presidency. Mark Mazzeti reports at the New York Times.

The release of the report was preceded by a press conference given by Attorney General William Barr, who noted that he had “disagreed” with some of Mueller’s legal theories. The extent of those disagreements was exposed less than an hour later with the report’s release, Kadhim Shubber reports at the Financial Times.

Mueller’s report details “multiple contacts” between the Trump campaign and Russian government officials, setting out 10 “episodes” in which the president possibly obstructed justice. Mueller wrote that he did not make a “traditional prosecutorial judgment” on whether Trump did obstruct justice, adding that the evidence obtained about “the president’s actions and intent” threw up “difficult issues;” however, the special counsel refused to exonerate Trump on the charge, concluding that “if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” Luke Harding reports at the Guardian.

“Oh my God … this is terrible …this is the end of my presidency … I’m f—d,” the president said in spring 2017 when he was told by aides that Mueller had been appointed as special counsel, according to notes by a top aide of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Mueller’s report lays out in detail what it says were attempts by Trump to control the Russia investigation and limit its fallout, Aruna Viswanatha and Sadie Gurman report at the Wall Street Journal.

The report is divided into two volumes, with Volume I looking at Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and its interactions with the Trump campaign. Volume II focuses on the president’s actions toward investigations carried out by the F.B.I. and by the special counsel, Jerome Socolovsky, Carrie Johnson and Brian Naylor report at NPR.

“[T]he investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome … and … the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” the report states, although it notes that ultimately “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Social media trolls backed by the Russia-linked Internet Research Agency (I.R.A.) began targeting the U.S. in 2014, according to the report, which details how the Russians tried to sow political discord by stirring divisive debates and organizing pro-Trump events, Jane C. Timm reports at NBC.

Members of the 2016 Trump campaign had a series of contacts with WikiLeaks and people close to its operation regarding leaked campaign emails of Trump’s Democratic opponent Hilary Clinton, even preparing a press strategy ahead of their release, according to the report. Mueller also found that members of Trump’s campaign repeatedly sought to acquire Clinton’s deleted emails at the Trump’s direction, specifically campaign staffer and national security adviser Michael Flynn, Ben Popken, Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins report at NBC.

Mueller considered charging Trump campaign officials with a campaign finance violation over the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer, but considered that he did not have sufficient evidence to do so, Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

The report suggests — though never explicitly states — that Congress rather than the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) should assumes the role of prosecutor when the person who may be prosecuted is the president. “The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law,” the report states, Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky report at the Washington Post.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders admitted in interviews with Mueller’s office that she had told lies around the time Trump fired former F.B.I. Director James Comey. Sanders had repeatedly claimed in live press briefings that the rank and file of the F.B.I. had lost confidence in Comey, and that “we’ve heard from countless members of the F.B.I.” who did not support him; Sanders later admitted in interviews with Mueller’s office that these claims had no basis in fact, Lois Beckett reports at the Guardian.

Barr claimed that Trump’s personal lawyers were given the opportunity to read a final version of the redacted report earlier this week but did not request additional redactions. “The president’s personal counsel requested and were given the opportunity to read a final version of the redacted report before it was publicly released,” Barr said at his morning press conference, adding “that request was consistent with the practice followed under the Ethics in Government Act, which permitted individuals named in a report prepared by an independent counsel the opportunity to read the report before publication,” Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

President Trump claimed yesterday that he was a “having a good day,” following the release of the report, adding, “it’s called no collusion, no obstruction.” “There never was, by the way, and there never will be,” Trump told a gathering of wounded troops at the White House, adding that “we do have to get to the bottom of these things, I will say, and this should never happen … to another president again,” Reuters reports.

“I had the right to end the whole Witch Hunt if I wanted … I could have fired everyone, including Mueller … if I wanted … I chose not to,” Trump stated in a message sent on Twitter, adding “I had the RIGHT to use Executive Privilege. I didn’t!” The Daily Beast reports.

“Taken as a whole … Mueller’s report paints a damning portrait of lies that appear to have materially impaired the investigation … a body of evidence of improper contacts with a foreign adversary … and serious allegations about how President Trump sought to obstruct a legitimate … and deeply important, counterintelligence investigation,” six top House Democrats wrote in a joint statement responding to the report’s release, maintaining that the Mueller report “does not exonerate” the present. Reps Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.,) Adam Schiff (Calif.,) Maxine Waters (Calif.,) Richard Neal (Mass.,) Elijah Cummings (Md.,) and Eliot Engel (N.Y.,) added that they were “profoundly troubled by the astonishing efforts by President Trump identified in the report to obstruct the investigation, including his attempts to remove the Special Counsel and encourage witnesses to lie and to destroy or conceal evidence.” John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Other Democrats were “apoplectic” over the apparent mismatch between Barr’s claims and the report’s findings relating to obstruction of justice. “Turns out Bill Barr lied through his teeth,” said member of the House Judiciary Committee Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.;) the panel is set to hear from Barr on May 2, Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

Democratic leaders however stopped short of calling for impeachment. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) signed on to an impeachment resolution after the report’s release and Democratic donor and billionaire Tom Steyer renewed his call for Congress to impeach Trump, but they remain outliers on the issue, Rachel Bade and Chelsea Janes report at the Washington Post.

The House Intelligence Committee is inviting Mueller to testify before his panel in May. The Committee’s Chair Adam Chiff (D-Calif.) yesterday sent a letter to the special counsel stating that he will work with Mueller “to secure a mutually agreeable date,” stressing that “to discharge its distinct constitutional and statutory responsibility, the Committee must be kept ‘fully and currently informed’ of the intelligence and counterintelligence findings, evidence, and implications for your investigation,” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

TRUMP-RUSSIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

The “key revelations” of the Mueller report are highlighted in an analysis at The Financial Times, focusing on: how aides didn’t obey Trump orders to intervene; Trump’s reaction to Mueller appointment; the findings on Russian ‘collusion;’ why Mueller didn’t interview Trump; the role of WikiLeaks; the tale of Don McGahn; whether Trump knew about the Trump Tower meeting; Trump aides in hope of pardons; and the ‘episodes’ of possible Trump obstruction.

“The vivid portrait that emerges from Mueller’s 448-page report is of a presidency plagued by paranoia … insecurity and scheming,” Philip Rucker and Robert Costa comment in an analysis at the Washington Post, noting how “again and again, Trump frantically pressured his aides to lie to the public, deny true news stories and fabricate a false record.”

“The Mueller report answers lots of questions but leaves one big one lingering: why were so many Russians so eager to ingratiate themselves with Trump World?” Adam Rawnsley explains at The Daily Beast.

“The money trail is the most important part of the unanswered questions,” former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul comments in an interview with Michael Hirsch at Foreign Policy, expressing the view that the Mueller report “is only a partial investigation of what happened in 2016.”

An account of how Putin deployed his oligarchs to capitalize on Trump’s electoral victory is provided by Natasha Bertrand at POLITICO, drawing on the Mueller report’s findings.

The Mueller report mentions that the special counsel made criminal referrals in 14 cases, but only two are publicly known. An account of what is known about the other 12 referrals is provided by Dareh Gregorian at NBC.

Yesterday saw the Trump camp attempting to have it both ways – claiming that report exonerated the president while stating that it was also “laden with errors, if not outright lies,” Asawin Suebsaeng, Betsy Woodruff and Lachlan Markay comment at The Daily Beast.

“The special counsel’s report … lays out a compelling case — even absent a prosecutive conclusion — of obstruction of justice by the president,” Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Noah Bookbinder argues at the New York Times.

“Any other president in America’s history would have had to resign or now face being ousted,” Jon Swaine writes at the Guardian, writing that “no past president has so frequently denied reality, nor seemed so unfamiliar with the very concept of shame …neither, perhaps, has any past president enjoyed the support of such a compliant Senate … and willing to excuse his every scandal in the service of their agenda.”

An analysis of what the Mueller report says about the president’s senior advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump as well as his son Donald Trump Jr. is provided by Elizabeth Chuck at NBC.

A legal analysis of Congress’ access to further information related to Mueller’s investigation going forward is provided by Founding Editor Andy Wright at Just Security, explaining how “Barr appears to be using the term “executive privilege” as shorthand for two of its components: those designed to protect presidential communications and executive branch deliberations (whether or not they involve the president).

“Two hellish years later … Trump is still president …Democrats and the media should give the rest of us a break,” Daniel Henninger comments in an Op-Ed at the Wall Street Journal.

Roundups of legal experts’ reactions to the redacted Mueller report are provided at POLITICO Magazine and Just Security.

An annotated version of the redacted report is provided at the New York Times.

Groupings of “touchstone words and names” in the redacted report are provided at the Washington Post.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

A new weapon that North Korea claims to have tested is likely a short-range guided missile aimed at striking battlefield targets with high precision, according to military experts, in an indication of how Pyongyang continues to develop its warfare capabilities even as it pursues diplomacy with the U.S.. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un supervised the test-firing of a new tactical guided weapon on Wednesday, according to Pyongyang’s state media, Dasl Yoon and Timothy W. Martin report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. does not believe North Korea successfully launched the new weapon, according to a U.S. official directly familiar with the latest assessment. The assessment is based on a review of information gathered from satellites and aircraft that did not register any indication of a launch of any type of short-range tactical weapon or a ballistic missile, the official said, Barbara Starr reports at CNN.

North Korea announced yesterday it no longer wanted to deal with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and that someone more mature should replace him in denuclearization talks, hours after it announced the weapons test. A spokesperson for the State Department said it was aware of the report about Pompeo and added: “the United States remains ready to engage North Korea in a constructive negotiation,” Reuters reports.

Kim will travel to Russia later this month to meet President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin announced yesterday. The meeting will be the first of its kind between the two leaders, Al Jazeera reports.

President Trump will travel to Japan next month for meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that are expected to include discussions on North Korea and “efforts to achieve final, fully verified denuclearization.” Al Jazeera reports.

SUDAN

The U.S. State Department yesterday called on Sudan’s military to step aside and make way for a peaceful civilian-led transition. “The will of the Sudanese people is clear: it is time to move toward a transitional government that is inclusive and respectful of human rights and the rule of law,” department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement that appeared to clarify the U.S. position towards the military council’s hold on the country, after Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was ousted on April 11, Reuters reports.

Huge crowds formed outside Sudan’s defense ministry yesterday to demand the country’s transitional military council hand over power to civilians. Hundreds of thousands of people were in the streets by early evening, forming the largest crowds to gather in the center of the capital since last week when Bashir was ousted, Al Jazeera reports.

LIBYA

The U.N.’s Libya envoy Ghassan Salame warned yesterday of “a widening conflagration” in the country, as clashes spread south to a key military base. Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (L.N.A.) launched an offensive on April 4 to take the capital of Tripoli; while fighting there is deadlocked, Haftar’s force claimed that clashes had erupted at a military base it controls some 400 miles to the south, killing four people and leaving six wounded, AFP reports.

Libya’s U.N.-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj has condemned the “silence” of his international allies in the face of Haftar’s advance. The BBC reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A landmark meeting between the Taliban and senior Afghan political figures was canceled yesterday in a row over who should participate, marking a significant setback to efforts to reach a negotiated settlement of the 18-year conflict. Craig Nelson and Ehsanullah Amiri report at the Wall Street Journal.

U.N. Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings Agnes Callamard is set to release her findings on the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi to the U.N. Human Rights Council before its next session in June. “My report is … going to spend a lot of time and pages on the next steps and the recommendations and how we provide accountability to Mr Khashoggi, to his family, friends and colleagues,” Callamard told reporters yesterday, adding that inquiries into the killing should not end once her report on the killing is submitted, Al Jazeera reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 52 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between March 24 and April 6 [Central Command]

Federal regulators are reportedly discussing whether and how to hold Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg personally accountable for the company’s record of mismanaging users’ private data, according to two sources familiar with the discussions. Dylan Byers and Cyrus Farivar report at NBC. 

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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).