The Washington Post informs us that despite earlier denials by National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and others in Trump’s administration, Flynn did discuss the possibility of lifting U.S. sanctions against Russia with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, in a series of phone calls before President Trump took office. Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador originally attracted attention due to their timing, coming as the U.S. intelligence community was concluding that Russia had waged a campaign of cyber interference with the 2016 U.S. presidential election and then-President Barack Obama was levying sanctions against Russia as a result. Officials said that the FBI is still looking into Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak. Vice President Mike Pence went on television last month to deny any contact between Trump associates (including Flynn) and Russia. The New York Times has confirmed the Post’s story.
The New York Times tells us that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously rejected the government’s request for an emergency stay of the temporary restraining order barring enforcement of President Trump’s ban on travel into the United States from seven Muslim majority countries. The court rejected the government’s argument that courts cannot review a president’s national security assessments, stating that it is “beyond question that the federal judiciary retains the authority to adjudicate constitutional challenges to executive action.” Trump responded by tweeting out, “SEE YOU IN COURT, THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE.” (Later, he also selectively misquoted Benjamin Wittes’s review of the Ninth Circuit’s decision.) If the government chooses to take the case to the Supreme Court, a short-staffed Court could hand down a 4-4 decision that would leave the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in place.
The Times writes that Trump promised Chinese President Xi Jinping over a Thursday night phone call that he would honor the United States’ longstanding “One China” policy, in what Chinese leaders view as a major success. The policy, which has been in place since 1979, dictates that Washington recognizes Beijing as the only official government of China and will not establish formal relations with the government in Taiwan. Days after his election, Trump stoked controversy by accepting a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen breaking with well-established protocol.
Meanwhile, Reuters reports that a U.S. Navy P-3 plane and a Chinese military aircraft came dangerously close to each other over the South China Sea yesterday. The planes flew within 1,000 feet of each other over the Scarborough Shoal between the Philippines and China, in an incident the Navy is calling inadvertent. The U.S. plane was “on a routine mission operating in accordance with international law,” according to a Pacific Command statement.
Defense News notes that China is upgrading its military infrastructure in the South China Sea, continuing to expand its construction activities in the Paracel Islands according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Paracels are also claimed by Vietnam, and play a key role in China’s goal of establishing surveillance and power projection capabilities throughout the South China Sea.
The Wall Street Journal tells us that Trump plans to use Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the White House today to reassure America’s Asia-Pacific allies that his administration views U.S. alliances in the region as a “cornerstone” of security for the United States and the world. The effort seeks to smooth over Trump’s past suggestions that the United States might scale back its military presence in the region and encourage Japan and South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons.
The Post informs us that Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and White House senior advisor, has become the primary point of contact for presidents, ministers, and ambassadors from more than two dozen countries. Kushner worked with the foreign minister of Mexico to moderate Trump’s language against Mexico, an effort that ultimately failed. While Kushner has no traditional foreign policy experience, he appears to be in contact with officials throughout the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, and the Asia-Pacific region.
CNN reports that in response to the deportation of an undocumented Mexican woman from the United States on Thursday, the Mexican government has issued a warning to its citizens living in the U.S. to “take precautions” and has emphasized that its consulates “forsee more severe immigration measures … and possible violations to constitutional precepts.” Relations between Mexico and the United States have quickly deteriorated since the beginning of the Trump presidency over Trump’s promise to build a border wall and withdraw from NAFTA.
The Hill also tells us that senators from both sides of the aisle are demanding a briefing on the controversial raid in Yemen that led to the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL. Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) wrote a concerned letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and acting Director of National Intelligence Michael Dempsey to “urgently request a classified briefing regarding our actions and objectives,” in Yemen. The four have been highly critical of U.S. policy in Yemen for some time, particularly U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign in the civil war there.
The AP writes that CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim met today, agreeing to closer cooperation against terrorism and organized crime, with Turkey renewing its request for the extradition of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the Turkish government blames for the failed coup in July. Pompeo was also scheduled to discuss plans for a possible operation to retake the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.
Russia intervened to halt a struggle between Syrian government forces and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels in northern Syria near the village of al-Bab, according to Reuters. While both groups are fighting ISIS in the area, this marks the first confrontation between the different forces. Russia and Turkey have backed opposing sides in the war, but recently started cooperating over Syria, including brokering a truce between government forces and rebels and reviewing peace talks together. One witness said “this whole incident felt like a test” of Russia and Turkey’s still-tense relationship.
The Daily Beast notes that ISIS sympathizers may be purchasing U.K. passports on the deep web. Italy’s agency for information and external security, known as AISE, found an advertisement on the Deep Web during an investigation into the growing illegal document trade that it traced to a Neapolitan firm that can provide biometric passports that are easily read when entering the U.K. The firm is most likely connected to a middle-aged couple that was arrested last week for running guns and helicopters to ISIS.
Afghan officials would be happy to host an increased number of U.S. troops, Reuters writes. The Afghan Defense Ministry responded to a suggestion by General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. and international forces in the country, that the mission to Afghanistan is understaffed. The country has faced a deteriorating security situation under the onslaught of a resurgent Taliban.
The Post informs us that a Palestinian gunman opened fire and stabbed Israeli shoppers with a screwdriver near a busy open air market in central Israel yesterday, wounding at least six people. The 18-year-old attacker fired at a bus and toward shoppers buying groceries before being detained by nearby civilians and police.
The Miami Herald tells us that the Pentagon has retroactively classified a letter from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to then-President Obama, the day after the letter was published on the Herald’s website. The Guantanamo Bay detention center refused to mail the letter, which is reportedly full of insulting commentary. Then military judge Army Colonel James L. Pohl, who is presiding over KSM’s trial, ordered prosecutors to deliver the document to Obama at least a week before Trump entered office. The Army has not elaborated on the basis for the continued sealing.
ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare
Benjamin Wittes posted the Rational Security podcast: The “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” Edition.
Jillian Schwedler highlighted the folly of designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
Yishai Schwartz examined the history of the Amona settlement and the new Israeli law “regularizing” settlements.
Paul Rosenzweig provided a revised draft of President Trump’s executive order on cybersecurity he received from three different sources.
Quinta Jurecic flagged the Trump administration's three new executive orders on law enforcement.
Quinta also flagged the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Washington v. Trump.
Emma Kohse summarized the Ninth Circuit’s decision.
Curtis Bradley and Neil S. Siegel raised concerns that Trump may use blame-shifting after an attack to weaken the judiciary and the media.
Ben reviewed the two big questions at issue in Washington v. Trump, and how they were handled by the Ninth Circuit.
Susan Hennessey placed the report that Michael Flynn discussed sanctions with Russia within the context of past investigations and reporting.
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