The Early Edition: April 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 AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

President Trump claimed yesterday that he did not ask former White House counsel Don McGahn to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, directly contradicting a detailed account in Mueller’s report. “As has been incorrectly reported by the Fake News Media, I never told then White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller, even though I had the legal right to do so,” the president wrote in a message sent on Twitter, adding “if I wanted to fire Mueller, I didn’t need McGahn to do it, I could have done it myself,” Rebecca Ballhaus and Alex Leary report at the Wall Street Journal.

The redacted version of Mueller’s report released last week mentioned conversations in June 2017, when Trump called McGahn to tell him he should direct Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – overseeing the special counsel’s probe – to remove Mueller due to conflicts of interest. The report cited “McGahn’s clear recollection” that the president directed him to tell Rosenstein that “Mueller has to go,” although the report found that McGahn did not carry out Trump’s order, Reuters reports.

Rosenstein commented last night that the U.S. is safer and better informed about Russian election interference because of the Mueller probe. In a speech to the Armenian Bar Association Rosenstein, Rosenstein criticized the Obama administration as being slow to publicly address Russia’s efforts to undermine U.S. elections, and launched a broadside at former F.B.I. Director James Comey for announcing to Congress that the bureau was investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow, Sadie Gurman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Attorney General William Barr is scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee next Thursday on Mueller’s investigation, the panel announced yesterday. Barr’s public hearing before the Committee will give lawmakers on the Democratic-led panel the opportunity to question Barr on his handling of Mueller’s final report and about the special counsel’s findings, and comes a day before Barr is set to appear before the Republican-chaired Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions on the same subjects, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Trump yesterday described Mueller’s investigation a “coup” and an “attempted overthrow of the United States government,” making the claims during a call in to Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, marking the president’s first T.V. interview since the release of the redacted Mueller report, Justin Baragona reports at The Daily Beast.

During the interview Trump stated that his unsubstantiated claim in March 2017 that former President Obama had his “wires tapped” in Trump Tower was premised on “a little bit of a hunch,” suggesting he was surprised that the claim had prompted such an outcry at the time. “I don’t know if you remember, a long time ago, very early on I used the word ‘wiretap,’ and I put in quotes, meaning surveillance, spying you can sort of say whatever you want,” the president said, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Convicted Russian operative Mariia Butina will be sentenced today by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, after pleading guilty in December to conspiring with a Russian official to infiltrate a gun rights group and influence U.S. conservative circles. Prosecutors are reportedly hoping that Chutkan will impose an 18 month custodial sentence, while Butina’s lawyers plan to argue that Butina has already price for her actions and should spend no more time in detention, Reuters reports.

Democratic politicians yesterday sought documents on Trump administration firings of top officials at the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.), claiming that they were concerned the dismissals were prompted by the officials’ refusal to break the law. Three House Committee Chairs sent a letter to D.H.S. asking for documents related to actions by Trump and top aide Stephen Miller to remove senior leaders at the agency; “we are also concerned that the president may have removed D.H.S. officials because they refused his demands to violate federal immigration law and judicial orders,” the lawmakers said in a statement, Al Jazeera reports.

Mueller’s account of Trump’s efforts to enlist former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a back channel to try to curtail scope of the Russia probe “provides a new window into how far the president went in trying to hold back the special counsel,” Ashley Parker, Rosalind S. Helderman and Matt Zapotosky write at the Washington Post.

Republicans are treating the Mueller report “as a summons for collective inaction,” Glenn Thrush writes in an analysis at the New York Times, noting that not a single G.O.P. lawmaker has pressed for “even a cursory inquiry” into the findings by the special counsel.

“White House allies are starting to worry that Trump’s inability to move on to other subjects, … is doing more harm than good,” Gabby Orr and Caitlin Oprysko write in an analysis at POLITICO.

The White House’s blanket refusal to respect subpoenas and demands from House committees  “has serious implications … for the future ability of Congress to conduct oversight of any administration,” Carl Hulse comments at the New York Times.

What should Congress ask Barr when he testifies next week? Joshua Geltzer, Ryan Goodman and Asha Rangappa provide a round-up of suggested questions at Just Security, now with additions from a former senior U.S government official.

A reading of the Mueller report through the lens of German novelist Franz Kafka is provided by Robert Zaretsky at Foreign Policy, arguing that “everything about the Mueller report is ambiguous—except its ultimate moral meaning.”

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has accused the U.S. of acting in “bad faith,” according to North Korean state media. The official Korean Central News Agency reported that during his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok this week, Kim told Putin that the U.S. had adopted a “unilateral attitude in bad faith” at his February Hanoi summit with President Trump, quoting him as saying that “peace and security on the Korean peninsula will entirely depend on the U.S. future attitude, and the D.P.R.K. [North Korea] will gird itself for every possible situation,” AFP reports.

The Kim-Putin summit has ended with a joint pledge to forge closer ties, but without a public promise from Moscow of economic assistance to mitigate the effect of sanctions on Pyongyang. Thomas Grove and Timothy W. Martin report at the Wall Street Journal.

Kim boarded his private train today and headed back to Pyongyang in a departure about 4 ½ hours earlier than planned, according to Russian news agencies. Before leaving Vladivostok, Kim visited a park near the headquarters of the Russian navy’s Pacific Fleet for a wreath-laying ceremony that was held two hours later than expected; it was not immediately known why he decided to return from Vladivostok early, Iuliia Stashevska and Eric Talmadge report at the AP.

North Korea billed the Trump administration $2 million for the medical care of detained U.S. student Otto Warmbier, before agreeing to release him in 2017. A senior U.S. diplomat negotiating for Warmbier’s freedom accepted the bill, though Warmbier died six days later, after arriving back in the U.S. in a coma, Edward Wong reports at the New York Times.

An account of this week’s Putin-Kim summit is provided by Eric Talmadge at the AP.

SRI LANKA EASTER BOMBING ATTACKS

Sri Lanka yesterday lowered the death toll from the Easter suicide bombings to 253, as authorities hunted urgently for a least five more suspects and prepared for the possibility of further attacks in the coming days. In revising the number down from 359, a top Health Ministry official said in a statement that the blasts had damaged some bodies beyond recognition, making identification difficult, Emily Schmall and Bharatha Mallawarachi report at the AP.

The Sri Lanka bombings signal the “widening reach” of Islamic State group following its territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq, Rukimi Callimachi and Eric Schmitt explain at the New York Times.

Updates on the situation in Sri Lanka at Al Jazeera.

RUSSIA-UKRAINE

The European Union (E.U.). yesterday criticized Russia’s move to fast-track citizenship applications from people living in conflict areas in eastern Ukraine, lambasting the move as an attack on Ukrainian sovereignty, serving to undermine a delicate peace agreement. Putin defended his decision, claiming it would help people stranded in areas where Ukrainian government services are not available, Lorne Cook reports at the AP.

The U.N.’s political affairs chief Rosemary DiCarlo has urged all parties to the peace plan protocol for eastern Ukraine known as the Minsk Agreements, to avoid “any unilateral steps” that could undermine efforts to demilitarize the eastern conflict zone. The U.N. News Centre reports.

SYRIA

The U.S.-backed assault to drive Islamic State group from its former Syrian capital Raqqa in 2017 killed more than 1,600 civilians, a figure 10 times what the coalition has acknowledged, according to a new report published by N.G.O. Amnesty International and the monitoring group Airwars yesterday. The report appealed to coalition members to “end almost two years of denial about the massive civilian death toll and destruction it unleashed in Raqqa,” Al Jazeera reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 18 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between April 6 and April 20 [Central Command]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan was yesterday cleared of any ethics violations in an internal Pentagon investigation into links with his former employer Boeing, where Shanahan worked for 30 years. Zachary Cohen reports at CNN.

The Senate is set to take up President Trump’s veto of legislation cutting off U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen next week, though any override attempt is expected to fail.  Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) office announced yesterday that the chamber would “process the president’s veto message on the Yemen resolution by the end of the week,” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Fining tech giant Facebook $3 billion to $5 billion for privacy violations “won’t change anything,” Kara Swisher comments at the New York Times, considering the appropriateness of a much higher penalty.

“The Supreme Court can’t allow Trump to weaponize the census,” Eric H. Holder Jr. argues at the Washington Post. 

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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).