The Early Edition: June 3, 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

Congress returns today from a weeklong recess with Democrats determined to follow up on special counsel Robert Mueller’s statement last week regarding his investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign: “if we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” Congressional Democrats are divided on how to proceed, with some set on securing Mueller’s public testimony, and a growing number calling for the instigation of a formal impeachment inquiry, Nicholas Fandos and Sheryl Gay Stolberg report at the New York Times.

Democrats eager to launch impeachment proceedings against the president fear they are running out of time to persuade House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) – who has been opposed to impeachment – to change course, before “presidential politics consumes Washington.” Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio report at POLITICO.

“I was disappointed … to see such a profound reluctance to testify,” House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said yesterday regarding Mueller, making the comments on A.B.C.’s “This Week.” “I think he has one last service to perform … it’s not enough merely to speak for 10 minutes and say, ‘I’m not going to answer questions for Congress and the American people’ … there are a great many things that are not in the report,” Schiff added, Matthew Choi reports at POLITICO.

Republicans are reportedly targeting former F.B.I. Director James Comey along with former C.I.A. Director John Brennan in an attempt to draw attention to what they allege was an unfair investigation of President Trump, instigated in the Obama administration. G.O.P. lawmakers are seeking to level blame at Comey and Brennan over the use of the so-called “Steele” dossier in the surveillance warrant application that ultimately allowed the F.B.I. to wiretap a member of the Trump campaign in 2016, Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

“Yes … Russia did attempt to interfere in our election. … there is no question,” Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said yesterday, during an interview with N.B.C. “Let’s not lose sight of the fact that it was the previous administration that let that happen,” Mulvaney added, Kelsey Tamborrino reports at POLITICO.

Federal prosecutors rebuffed a judge’s order to release by Friday secret transcripts of discussions between former national security adviser Michael Flynn and then- Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition. The transcripts were expected to indicate that the two men had spoken December 2016 about sanctions that the Obama administration had just imposed on Russia; Flynn initially denied the exchanges about sanctions both to Trump administration officials and the F.B.I. in the weeks following the discussions, Adam Goldman reports at the New York Times.
“The Democrats must try to get on the same page about how far they’re willing to go and how hard they’re willing to push,”
Philip Ewing writes in an analysis at NPR.

“Mueller erred in failing to anticipate the sheer willingness of Trump and his minions to brazenly lie about his report,” David R. Lurie argues at The Daily Beast.

“Mr. Mueller … your job is not done yet,” E.J. Dionne Jr. comments at the Washington Post, arguing that Mueller can make up for the failure to respond immediately to Attorney General William Barr’s summary of his report by “going before Congress and doing what comes naturally to you: you can tell the truth.”

“Mueller is as elliptical as Barr is diabolical,” Maureen Dowd writes at the New York Times, contrasting the two men as a perfect villain and an imperfect hero.

U.S. MILITARY

The Pentagon has told the White House to stop politicizing the military amid the fallout over a Trump administration order to obscure the U.S. battleship named for the late Sen. John McCain from view during President Trump’s recent trip to Japan. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told his chief of staff Friday to speak with the White House military office “and reaffirm his mandate that the Department of Defense will not be politicized,” Courtney Kube reports at NBC.

The Navy has acknowledged receiving a request to “minimize visibility” of the ship but said it remained in its normal form. “A request was made to the U.S. Navy to minimize the visibility of U.S.S. John S. McCain, however, all ships remained in their normal configuration during the President’s visit,” the Chief of Navy Information told C.N.N. in a statement late Friday, adding that “there were also no intentional efforts to explicitly exclude Sailors assigned to U.S.S. John S. McCain,” Jesse Byrnes reports at the Hill.

Shanahan said yesterday he does not plan to initiate an independent review by Pentagon investigators into the request. Nancy A. Youssef, Gordon Lubold and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

MEXICO TARIFFS AND BORDER SECURITY

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) stated Friday that President Trump is “sowing chaos over the border” with his threat to impose tariffs on Mexican imports, calling on him to cooperate with Congress on immigration reform. “We hope that the president will join us in bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform, be strategic about our trade relationships and recognise the importance of the U.S.-Mexico relationship,” Pelosi said in a statement, adding: “yet again, the president is sowing chaos over the border instead of delivering solutions for American workers and for American consumers,” Reuters reports.

Trump has labeled Mexico “an ‘abuser’ of the United States,” sending a series of messages on Twitter early yesterday warning that threatened tariffs would force companies to move back to the U.S. if nothing is done to remedy illegal immigration. “People have been saying for years that we should talk to Mexico … the problem is that Mexico is an ‘abuser’ of the United States, taking but never giving … it has been this way for decades,” the president claimed, Kyle Balluck reports at the Hill.

Trump allegedly proceeded with the Mexico tariff plan over the objections of several top advisers – including his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, choosing instead to side with hardline officials advocating the move, according to multiple administration officials and people briefed on their plans. Ana Swanson, Maggie Haberman and Alan Rapperport report at the New York Times.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

The two federal agencies that handle antitrust matters have split up oversight of the tech giants Google and Amazon, with the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) covering Google and the Federal Trade Commission taking Amazon, according to three people with knowledge of the matter. While the decisions do not mean that the agencies have opened official federal investigations, the agencies are signaling the potential for greater scrutiny, Cecilia Kang, David Streitfeld, Katie Rogers and Sephanie Saul report at the New York Times.

The National Security Agency (N.S.A.) has denied that its stolen EternalBlue hacking tool was used in the May ransomware attack on Baltimore that disrupted city services for more than three weeks, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) stated Friday. Scott Shane and Nicole Perlroth report at the New York Times.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said yesterday that he sees no need to restore large-scale military exercises with South Korea, limited over the past year as a show of goodwill to the North. “I’m confident that we have the readiness that we are required to have,” Shanahan said as he flew to Seoul to meet with his commanders and South Korean officials, although he added that he wants to discuss the issue with top U.S. commander in South Korea – Army Gen. Robert Abrams – to “make sure that the plan that we put in place is sufficient,” Lolita C. Baldo reports at the AP.

A bid by the U.N. International Civil Aviation Organization (I.C.A.O.) to curb North Korea’s missile program with an airspace safety audit – while simultaneously reviving its air traffic – has been delayed, amid U.S. concerns that the plan may breach U.N. sanctions, according to sources familiar with the matter. Reuters reports.

Pyongyang’s chief nuclear negotiator Kim Yong-chol has been seen in public sitting alongside the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. South Korean media reported last week that the official had been sentenced to hard labor and ideological re-education over the collapsed Hanoi summit with U.S. President Trump in February, The Daily Beast reports.

Southern media also reported that senior envoy Kim Hyok-chol was executed along with four other officials over the nuclear negotiations. Robbie Gramer consults North Korean experts on the likely veracity of the reports in an analysis at Foreign Policy.

CHINA

U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Saturday denounced China’s moves in the South China Sea and efforts to steal technology from other countries, claiming that the U.S. will no longer “tiptoe” around Beijing on a raft of issues. “Perhaps the greatest long-term threat to the vital interests of states across this region comes from actors who seek to undermine, rather than uphold, the rules-based international order,” Shanahan stated during a speech at the major Shangri-La summit in Singapore, Jesse Byrnes reports at the Hill.

Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe hit back at the U.S. yesterday, citing what he described as Washington’s U.S.’ undue interference in regional disputes relating to Taiwan and the South China Sea. In comments to the Shangri-La summit yesterday, Weng claimed yesterday that China would “fight to the end” against meddling into its relationship with Taiwan, which Beijing considers its own, Zack Bydryk reports at the Hill.

The U.S. intensified pressure on Western allies over Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei on Friday, saying countries that allow the firm to build their telecoms infrastructure could be cut off from crucial intelligence data. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued the warning after meeting German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, cautioning: “[there is] a risk we will have to change our behavior in light of the fact that we can’t permit data on private citizens or data on national security to go across networks that we don’t have confidence [in],” Reuters reports.

The U.K. takes careful notice of what the U.S. says on the risks of using Huawei in 5G networks, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said this morning, ahead of President Trump’s visit to the U.K. “We take careful notice of everything the U.S. says on these issues,” Hunt told B.B.C. radio, adding “we will certainly listen carefully to what they say,” Reuters reports.

“As tensions between Beijing and Washington harden … there is a growing fear that China and the United States are entering a new cold war,” Charles Edel and Hal Brands write in an in-depth analysis at Foreign Policy.

VENEZUELA

Russia has withdrawn key defense advisers from Venezuela, marking an embarrassment for incumbent President Nicolás Maduro. Russian state defense contractor Rostec, which trains Venezuelan troops and advised on securing arms contracts, has cut its staff in the country to just a few dozen, from about 1,000 at the apex of cooperation between Moscow and Caracas several years ago, according to a person close to the Russian defense ministry, Thomas Grove reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Canada yesterday suspended operations at its embassy in Venezuela, saying the Maduro regime would not renew visas for its diplomats. Rob Gillies reports at the AP.

IRAN

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that the Trump administration was ready to negotiate with Iran’s clerical leaders with “no preconditions.” The statement followed President Trump’s comment last week that he was ready to talk to Iranian leaders and was not seeking regime change; an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman responded to yesterday’s remarks by labeling Pompeo’s statement as “word play,” stressing that what mattered to Tehran was a change in the U.S. government’s “general approach and actual behavior toward the Iranian nation,” Edward Wong reports at the New York Times.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani added yesterday that it was Washington that had left the negotiating table, and it “should return to normal state.” Reuters reports.

The U.S. military says a B-52 bomber and an aircraft carrier have conducted a joint exercise together in the Arabian Sea. The Air Force said in a statement Saturday that the exercise saw F/A-18 Super Hornets, MH-60 Sea Hawk helicopters and E-2D Growlers from the USS Abraham Lincoln fly with the B-52 bomber, the AP reports.

While national security adviser John Bolton “is trying to frame a war on Iran as a justified—even righteous—act of self-defense” – such a war would be illegal, Oona Hathawaty explains in an analysis at Just Security.

IRAQ

The U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group (I.S.I.S) group has claimed that it unintentionally killed more than 1,300 civilians in Iraq and Syria since 2014. The coalition issued a statement reporting that had carried out 34,502 strikes since its air campaign against I.S.I.S. began nearly five years ago; a U.K.-based monitoring group, however, has said that the real toll is much higher, estimating up to nearly 13,000 civilian fatalities. The BBC reports.

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].

SYRIA

U.S. President Trump yesterday told Syria and Russia to stop “bombing the hell” out of Syria’s last rebel-held province of Idlib. “Hearing word that Russia, Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iran, are bombing the hell out of Idlib Province in Syria, and indiscriminately killing many innocent civilians … the World is watching this butchery … what is the purpose, what will it get you? STOP!” Trump wrote in a message on Twitter, AFP reports.

Israeli aircraft have struck Syrian army targets after rockets were fired at the occupied Golan Heights, according to the Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) Three Syrian soldiers were killed in the overnight strike, Syrian state media reported yesterday, the BBC reports.

A car bomb killed at least 13 people last night near a mosque in the northern town of Azaz held by Turkey-backed fighters, according to Syrian opposition activists. The AP reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo played down the prospects of the Trump administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan in a closed-door meeting with Jewish leaders, saying “one might argue” that the plan is “un-executable” and it might not “gain traction.” In an audio recording of the private meeting obtained by The Washington Post, Pompeo adds that the deal “may be rejected … could be in the end,” John Hudson and Loveday Morris report at the Washington Post.

President Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner has expressed uncertainty over the ability of the Palestinians to self-goven in a rare television interview broadcast last night. Kushner – who is considering delaying the publication of the political portion of his peace plan due to the need for new parliamentary elections in Israel – said it would be “a high bar,” when asked if Palestinians could expect freedom from Israeli military and government interference, Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

The U.S.’ Middle East peace plan is seen by the Palestinians as a plan to finish off their state. Samia Nakhoul provides an account at Reuters.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement have launched a drone attack on a military parade for Saudi-led coalition forces in the port city of Aden, the Houthi’s Al Masirah T.V. announced early today. Reuters reports.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad will meet with the Taliban this month during an international trip to promote peace talks to end the Afghan War, officials announced Saturday. The State Department announced that Khalilzad will travel to Afghanistan, Belgium, Germany, Pakistan, Qatar and the U.A.E. through June 16, noting that he will meet with Taliban officials in Doha, Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

Sudan’s ruling military council today used force in a bid to break up a sit-in outside the Khartoum army headquarters, according to one of the main protest groups and witnesses. AFP reports.

President Trump and his family today arrived in the U.K. for a delayed state visit, greeted on arrival by U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Before landing, Trump described London Mayor Sadiq Khan as “a stone cold loser,” after Kahn slammed Trump as a 20th-century fascist, Matthew Weaver reports at the Guardian. 

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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).