The Early Edition: May 1, 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 wrote a letter to Attorney General William Barr last month complaining that a four-page memo Barr wrote summarizing Mueller’s findings “did not fully capture the context … nature … and substance” of Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference, according to Department of Justice (D.O.J.) officials. Mueller apparently sent the letter to Barr on March 27, three days after Barr issued his four-page summary, citing “public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation,” Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky report at the Washington Post.

Barr reportedly called Mueller upon receiving his letter and that the two had had a “cordial and professional conversation,” according to D.O.J. spokesperson Kerri Kupec. “The Special Counsel emphasized that nothing in the Attorney General’s March 24 letter was inaccurate or misleading … but, he expressed frustration over the lack of context and the resulting media coverage regarding the Special Counsel’s obstruction analysis,” Kupec said in a statement, Sabrina Siddiqui reports at the Guardian.

Barr defended his descriptions of the investigation’s conclusions in conversations with Mueller over the days after he sent the letter, according to two people with knowledge of their discussions. Barr, scheduled to testify today before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the investigation, has said publicly that he disagrees with some of the legal reasoning in the Mueller report, Mark Mazzetti and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is demanding that Barr bring the letter to today’s scheduled Senate Hearing. “In light of Mueller’s letter, the misleading nature of Barr’s 4/10 testimony & 4/18 press conference is even more glaring … Barr must bring the letter with him when he testifies in the Senate tomorrow,” Schumer message sent on Twitter last night, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

The D.O.J. is officially through with the Mueller probe, Barr is set to tell senators today according to prepared remarks released last night. “With the completion of the Special Counsel’s investigation and the resulting prosecutorial decisions, the Department’s work on this matter is at its end aside from completing the cases that have been referred to other offices,” Barr’s prepared remarks read, Alex Johnson reports at NBC.

“Attorney General William Barr’s two-day tightrope walk through congressional hearings just got a lot more perilous,” Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio comment in an analysis of the developments at POLITICO.

“Thus far … Barr has given us a disingenuous and inaccurate spin on Mueller’s report,” Elie Honig comments at CNN, arguing that “now it’s time for Barr to get called out publicly on his most important misstatements and his overt political pandering” and suggesting five questions Congress should ask him this week.

VENEZUELA

Incumbent Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has claimed his forces have defeated a botched attempt to topple him organized by Venezuela’s “coup-mongering far right” and President Trump’s imperialist “gang”. In an hour-long address to the nation last night – following an uprising that had started before dawn– Maduro accused opposition leader Juan Guaidó and his political mentor Leopoldo López of attempting to provioke an armed confrontation that might be used as a pretext for a foreign military intervention, Tom Phillips reports at the Guardian.

Thousands of Venezuelans had clashed in the streets with pro-government forces following an Guaidó’s call for people to join him and a small group of military officers in overthrowing Maduro’s government. Protests continued into the evening, but there was no sign the rebellion had succeeded in ousting Maduro despite repeated expressions of U.S. support by the Trump administration for Guaidó, Kejal Vyas reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The developments have exposed division within the country’s armed forces: although the highest ranks of the military dig into their support for Maduro’s government, many rank-and-file soldiers appear willing to defy their commanders and come to the aid of the opposition, Nicholas Casey writes at the New York Times.

“It’s a very delicate moment,” U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said of the Venezuelan conflict, adding that “the president wants to see a peaceful transfer of power,” which he added would be possible if enough military and government figures switch allegiances; Bolton repeated that “all options” remain open to President Trump but said nothing further about any potential use of U.S. military force, Anne Gearan and Karen deYoung report at the Washington Post.

Calling for the final phase of the revolution was the Guaidó’s “boldest move yet,” and will be decisive in whether the protest movement against Maduro can succeed, Michael Albertus comments at Foreign Policy.

MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD

The Trump administration is moving to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization, the White House announced yesterday. The designation will bring economic and travel sanctions against Egypt’s oldest Islamist movement, and follows a White House visit by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in April, at which Sisi reportedly asked President Trump to make the move, the BBC reports.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has criticized the designation. “The U.S. is not in position to .. . start naming others as terror organizations and we reject any attempt by the U.S. in this regard,” he told reporters on a fringes of a conference in Doha today, adding “the U.S. is supporting the biggest terrorist in the region, that is Israel,” Al Jazeera reports.

The Muslim Brotherhood yesterday stated that it would continue to work in line with “our moderate and peaceful thinking” regardless of the Trump administration’s designation. Reuters reports.

SYRIA

The U.S. yesterday warned against an escalation of violence in northwest Syria, claiming any such action “will result in the destabilization of the region.” “We call on all parties, including Russia and the Syrian regime, to abide by their commitments to avoid large scale military offensives, return to a de-escalation of violence in the area, and allow for unhindered humanitarian access,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement, Reuters reports.

U.N. special envoy for Syria Geir Pederson said yesterday that he is “optimistic” an agreement can be reached on the formation of a committee to draft a new constitution for the country so it can meet this summer. Pederson told reporters after briefing the Security Council that he based his outlook on the “intensive” and “very good” dialogue he has had with the Syrian government and opposition — as well as “tangible progress,” on the committee’s rules of procedure and composition, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

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]

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban has claimed that a fresh round of talks with U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is to commence in Qatar. Khalilzad is trying to negotiate an end to Afghanistan’s 17-year war; Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told journalists that today’s talks will mark the sixth round of direct meetings with Khalilzad since his appointment last year, the AP reports.

The U.S. military has reportedly stopped tracking the amount of territory controlled or influenced by the Afghan government and militants – one of the last remaining public metrics tracking the worsening security situation in the war-torn country – a U.S. watchdog announced yesterday. Reuters reports.

LIBYA

Over 42,000 people have been displaced from the Libyan capital of Tripoli and thousands are believed trapped in the city’s southern outskirts, since fighting broke out  there earlier this month between Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled army and forces loyal to the U.N.-recognized government, the U.N. News Centre reports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan yesterday called for a ceasefire in Libya and renewal of a political process under the auspices of the U.N., the Kremlin said in a statement. The two leaders also underscored further close coordination between Russia and Turkey toward “normalization” in Syria’s Idlib province and agreed on “efficient” measures against militants there, Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

 North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister said yesterday that the U.S. will face “undesired consequences” if it fails to present a new position in denuclearization talks by the end of the year, according to state media. Reuters reports.

Sudan’s ruling military council yesterday warned protesters against any further “chaos” as organizers called for mass rallies later this week. Deputy Head of the Military Council Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo said council members “are committed to negotiate, but no chaos after today,” also reiterating the military’s demand that protesters clear roads and railways, the AP reports.

Wikileaks Co-Founder Julian Assange has been sentenced to 50 weeks in prison after being found guilty of bail-skipping charges in the U.K. Assange was arrested and dragged out of London’s Ecuadorian embassy by British police in earlier this month; he will face a hearing on U.S. extradition charges tomorrow under which he could be imprisoned for up to five years, Jamie Ross explains at The Daily Beast. 

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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).