The Early Edition: May 31, 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.

MEXICO TARIFFS AND BORDER SECURITY

President Trump announced yesterday that the U.S. would impose rising tariffs on all Mexican imports starting June 10, in an attempt to pressure the country to stem the flow of asylum-seeking Central American families to the border. Citing “Mexico’s passive cooperation in allowing this mass incursion,” the president stated that the tariff would begin at 5% and grow steadily, reaching 25% by Oct. 1 unless “the illegal migration crisis is alleviated through effective actions taken by Mexico,” Louise Radnofsky, William Mauldin and David Luhnow report at the Wall Street Journal.

“As everyone knows … the United States of America has been invaded by hundreds of thousands of people coming through Mexico and entering our country illegally,” the president claimed in a written statement, adding “this sustained influx of illegal aliens has profound consequences on every aspect of our national life—overwhelming our schools, overcrowding our hospitals, draining our welfare system, and causing untold amounts of crime,” Abby Phillip, Kevin Liptak, Caroline Kelly and Kaitlan Collins write at CNN.

“The trigger for the threat was not entirely clear,” the Economist writes in an analysis of the development, hypothesizing that “ It could have been Mr Trump’s desire to shift attention away from news coverage of [special counsel] Robert Mueller … or it could have been meant in response to a video the president tweeted the day before, of more than 1,000 “illegal aliens” crossing into the United States.”

“Tariffs … are a very crude tool,” the New York Times editorial board comments, arguing that the move will prove ineffective and it will be Americans who “feel the pain.”

U.S. District Court Judge Haywood Gilliam yesterday blocked an effort by the Trump administration to begin construction on a wall at the southern border, while the administration appeals a ruling finding that funding for the wall was likely not authorized by Congress. On Wednesday, civil rights groups and 20 states began round two of what is likely to be a prolonged battle over wall funding, asking Gilliam to prevent the administration from redirecting an additional $1.5bn that Congress had approved for the military, according to a court filing, Al Jazeera reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

President Trump appeared to acknowledge for the first time yesterday that Moscow helped him win the presidency in 2016, before pulling back on the claim and launching a broadside against special counsel Robert Mueller and his probe into Russian electoral interference. “Russia, Russia, Russia! …that’s all you heard at the beginning of this Witch Hunt Hoax … and now Russia has disappeared because I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected,” Trump complained in a message sent on Twitter, AFP reports.

Trump appeared on the White House lawn almost immediately afterwards, contradicting his message and claiming that “Russia did not help me get elected… Russia didn’t help me at all.” The events came a day following Mueller’s first and only public statement since the conclusion of his investigation, in which the special counsel reiterated his finding that if his team had concluded Trump did not commit a crime, they would have said so, Jamie Ross reports at The Daily Beast.

Trump accused Mueller of being a “true never-Trumper,” who was conflicted due to a past “business dispute” between them. “Look, Robert Mueller should’ve never been chosen because he wanted the F.B.I. job and he didn’t get it … and the next day, he was picked as special counsel … plus, we had a business dispute … plus, his relationship with [former FBI Director James] Comey was extraordinary,” Trump said in comments to reporters – in claims previously described as baseless by former White House aides. Colby Itkowitz, Josh Dawsey and John Wagner report at the Washington Post.

Trump described impeachment “a dirty … filthy … disgusting word.” “It was high crimes and misdemeanors,” the president commented, adding “there was no high crime or there was no misdemeanor ? How do you impeach based on that?” Allan Smith reports at NBC.

Attorney General William Barr said in an interview broadcast yesterday that Mueller should have decided whether his findings about Trump’s efforts to impede the Russia investigation amounted to criminal activity. “I personally felt he could have made a decision,” Barr told C.B.S. News during an interview in Alaska, adding “he had his reasons for not doing it, which he explained … and I’m not going to, you know, argue about those reasons,” Katie Benner reports at the New York Times.

Barr said that he does not think Obama-era Justice officials committed treason “as a legal matter.” However, when asked whether he was concerned about the way officials handled the Russia probe, Barr said he was, adding: “sometimes people can convince themselves that what they’re doing is in the higher interest and better good … they don’t realize that what they’re doing is really antithetical to the democratic system that we have,” Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

“Trump’s close advisers are increasingly pining for Robert Mueller to be dragged before Congress and subjected to conservative lawmakers’ questions,” Sam Stein and Asawin Suebsaeng explain in an analysis at The Daily Beast.

“The biggest message Mueller wanted to leave with the American public was a very loud howl about Russia’s attempts to undermine the American democratic system by hacking into the Clinton campaign computers,” Gail Collins comments at the New York Times, arguing it is unlikely that the special counsel will want to assist the American public further.

Mueller “invented an extraconstitutional legal standard for his obstruction investigation and acted … in violation of the spirit of the special counsel regulations,” Rich Lowry argues at POLITICO Magazine.

RUSSIA: OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russia and Japan yesterday accused each other of military buildups as their foreign and defense ministers met for talks that failed to make progress on decades-long island disputes. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed at a joint news conference following the talks that Russia was concerned about Tokyo’s plan to build a pair of land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense systems; meanwhile Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono stated that “our country’s legal position does not accept the missile drills, fighter aircraft deployment, and enhancement of the military presence in the Northern Territories.” Mari Yamaguchi reports at the AP.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will hold a summit meeting on June 29, when Putin visits Japan for a meeting of leaders of the G.20 nations, Lavrov announced today. Reuters reports.

Moscow yesterday rebuffed a U.S. allegation that Russia may be conducting low-level nuclear tests in violation of a moratorium, stating that “such accusations are absolutely groundless and aimed at trying again to smear our country.” Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs claimed that Moscow was in full compliance with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (C.T.B.T.) which it ratified in 2000, calling on Washington itself to ratify the treaty, Reuters reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea executed its special envoy to the U.S. Kim Hyok Chol following the collapse of the second summit between leader Kim Jong-un and President Trump, South Korean newspaper The Chosun Ilbo reported today. The report claimed that Kim Hyok Chol was executed by firing squad for “betraying the supreme leader” after he was “won over to the U.S.” during pre-summit negotiations, AFP reports.

Kim was investigated and executed at Mirim Airport in March along with four foreign ministry officials, in a crackdown on growing discontent in the country, according to the newspaper report. A sixth official, Kim Yong Chol – counterpart to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the run-up to the February Hanoi summit, has reportedly been subjected to forced labor and ideological education, Song Jung-a reports at the Financial Times.

IRAN

Iran bears responsibility for recent drone attacks carried out by Tehran-aligned Houthi rebels on targets in Saudi Arabia, U.S. national adviser John Bolton claimed yesterday. “The Houthi capability in drones and missiles, all supplied by Iran, is a real threat to peace and security in the region,” Bolton told reporters in London. Bolton had accused Iran Wednesday of directly carrying out attacks earlier this month on four ships in the Persian Gulf, a claim Tehran dismissed as ridiculous, Jason Douglas reports at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday also leveled blamed at Iran for the oil tanker attacks, telling reporters shortly before leaving on a trip to Europe: “these were efforts by the Iranians to raise the price of crude oil throughout the world.” Pompeo suggested he had seen evidence of Iran’s involvement as described by Bolton, adding “oh yes … Ambassador Bolton got it right,” Reuters reports.

IRAQ

Iraqi President Barham Salih told an emergency Arab summit in Saudi Arabia yesterday that regional and international tensions with Iran could provoke a war if not managed well and expressed hope that Iran’s security would not be targeted. Salih also appealed to neighbors and allies to support his country’s stability, Reuters reports.

Several people have been killed and more than a dozen others wounded in a series of blasts that struck the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, according to the Iraqi military. At least six improvised explosive devices went off yesterday in the northern city while two more were defused by security forces, the military said in a statement, giving a death toll of three people, Al Jazeera reports.

Baghdad’s Green Zone has been a barometer for tension and conflict in Iraq for nearly two decades,” Bassem Mroue explains in an account of the area and its significance at the AP.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 10 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq between April 21 and May 4 [Central Command].

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last night showed off a new State Department map of Israel autographed by President Trump during a televised statement, telling viewers that the map marks the occupied Golan Heights as part of Israel and that Trump had written “Nice” on it. Netanyahu added that the map was a gift from Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who was visiting Jerusalem as part of a regional trip, Andrew Carey, Oren Liebermann and Nicole Gaouette report at CNN.

“The security of Israel is something that is critical to the relationship between America and Israel and also very important to the president in his heart,” Kushner reportedly told Netanyahu earlier in the day, adding that “we appreciate all of your efforts to strengthen the relationship between our two countries … it’s never been stronger,” Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

Israeli forces have killed two Palestinians in separate events within the past 24 hours. Police shot and killed a 16-year-old Palestinian near the West Bank separation barrier today, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, while in Jerusalem’s Old City, an alleged Palestinian attacker was killed after stabbing and injuring two Israelis, according to Israeli police, Isabel Debre reports at the AP.

“The White House’s economic plan for Gaza and the West Bank should invite skepticism,” Khaled Eldindy writes in an Op-Ed at Foreign Policy.

AFGHANISTAN

A car bomb aimed at a convoy of foreign forces has exploded in the Afghan capital Kabul, wounding four U.S. service members and causing a number of other casualties, according to officials. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the blast which occurred in the busy Jalalabad area today, marking the second such attack in the city in two days; Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) yesterday claimed a suicide attack outside a military training academy that killed at least six people, Al Jazeera reports.

A Taliban official has claimed that “decent progress” has been made at talks with a group of senior Afghan politicians in Moscow, but there has been no real breakthrough and further talks will be needed, Russian news agencies reported. The Taliban delegation, led by chief negotiator Mullah Baradar Akhund, met Afghan politicians, including senior regional leaders and candidates planning to challenge President Ashraf Ghani in this year’s presidential election, Al Jazeera reports.

At least 134 pro-government forces and 47 civilians were killed in Afghanistan during the past seven days, marking the deadliest week of fighting of 2019, Fahim Abed reports at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin late yesterday that a ceasefire in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib province must be implemented to prevent further civilian deaths and a refugee influx to Turkey, Erdogan’s office said in a statement, Reuters reports.

Wikileaks Co-Founder Julian Assange is showing all the symptoms associated with prolonged exposure to psychological torture, and should not be extradited to the U.S., according to the U.N. special rapporteur Nils Melzer who visited Assange in a U.K. prison, Ben Quinn reports at the Guardian.

President Trump will threaten to limit intelligence sharing with the U.K. if the British government allows Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei to build part of the country’s 5G mobile network. Trump reportedly will convey the message in person during his visit to London next week, Kiran Stacey reports at the Financial Times.

President Trump yesterday sought to distance himself from a reported decision by military officials to obscure the U.S.S. John S. McCain during his trip to Japan. “The Navy put out a disclaimer on the McCain story,” Trump said in a message sent on Twitter, adding “looks like the story was an exaggeration, or even Fake News – but why not, everything else is!” Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

Navy SEAL platoon leader Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher – court-martialed on war crimes charges – was unexpectedly ordered released from base confinement in San Diego yesterday, 11 days before he is due to stand trial in a case that has attracted the president’s attention. Reuters reports.

The Trump administration plans to launch a new panel to offer “fresh thinking” on international human rights and “natural law,” in a move some activists fear is geared at narrowing protections for women and members of the L.G.B.T. community. The new body, to be dubbed the Commission on Unalienable Rights, will advise Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to a notice the State Department quietly published yesterday on the Federal Register, Nahal Toosi reports at POLITICO. 

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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).