Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Friday, February 23, 2018, 2:16 PM

On Thursday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller filed a superseding indictment listing dozens of more charges against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates, the New York Times reports. The indictment includes charges that Manafort lied to banks to secure loans as part of a money laundering scheme, exaggerated his income to take out mortgages on homes, and failed to declare his income on tax returns. The indictment also alleges that much of the help Manafort received in these schemes came from Gates. Manafort has sued the Justice Department on the grounds that Mueller has overstepped his authority. It appears that Manafort’s son-in-law, Jeffrey Yohai, may also have been involved, as Mueller appears to have communications between the two dealing with the schemes. Politico writes that Gates is set to plead guilty to conspiracy and false statement charges in the indictment. Gates, who once served as deputy campaign chairman of the Trump campaign, in taking a plea deal, has signaled that he is cooperating with Mueller. Gates is largely driven by the desire to protect his family from the public scrutiny and financial cost of a trial. The federal judge overseeing the D.C-based portion of Gates’s prosecution has set a plea hearing for 2:00 p.m. EST on Friday.

The Trump administration levied its “largest ever” set of sanctions against North Korea today, the Wall Street Journal tells us. The sanctions target 56 companies, ships, and one individual that the administration claims continue to aid North Korea in circumventing bans on fuel and coal imports. The sanctions are part of a “maximum pressure campaign” by the White House meant to force North Korea to negotiate with the United States over aspects of its nuclear program. Despite its ability to push sanctions through the U.N., the administration has been unable to fully convince China and Russia to enforce the sanctions, with China seeking to prevent 10 blacklisted ships from being sanctioned. The sanctions come as North and South Korea have agreed to talks, and Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, is expected to meet with North Korean officials as part of her visit to the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics, according to Newsweek. The North Korean delegation is said to include North Korean general Kim Yong Chol, who is suspected of being behind the hack of Sony Pictures in 2014.

Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution on Thursday that would declare a 30-day ceasefire in Syria, the Times informs us. The failed resolution as new reports have detailed increasing death tolls in eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held city. The U.K.’s representative, Stephen Hickey, said the suffering “brings shame on all of us,” and described the situation as “hell on earth.” But Russia’s representative, Vasily A. Nebenzya, dismissed claims of civilian casualties, accusing his fellow representatives of “massive psychosis,” before vetoing the resolution.

Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who is believed to be in control of mercenaries in Syria, was in close communication with the Kremlin in the days and weeks before an assault by those mercenaries on U.S. troops, the Washington Post reports. Prigozhin, who was recently indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in connection with Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, is known as “Putin’s chef” and told a senior Syrian official that he had “secured permission” from a Russian minister to move forward with a “fast and strong” initiative in February. The mercenaries Prigozhin is believed to control are comprised of ultra-nationalist Russians and veterans. 

The Trump administration, in a pair of letters to Congress from the Defense and State Departments, claims it needs no more legal authority from Congress to keep U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq, the Times writes. The letters claim that even once the two countries have been cleared of ISIS fighters, the U.S. military will still have the legal authority, under the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force and international law, to stay and protect the United States and Iraq from terrorists. The stance was foreshadowed by speeches made earlier this month by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has outlined a plan to keep U.S. troops in the region to curb Iranian aggression and prevent the Syrian regime from wiping out rebel-held strongholds. The plan would keep approximately 2,000 American military personnel in Iraq and Syria for an unspecified period of time without Congressional approval.

The administration plans to discontinue the office of special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition in light of increasing military gains against the Islamic State, Foreign Policy tells us. The office, headed by career diplomat Brett McGurk, has provoked concern, would most likely either have its mission scaled back, or be incorporated into the counterterrorism bureau of the State Department. The move has provoked concern among those who see it as potentially facilitating a diplomatic vacuum in the region amid renewed bloodshed in Syria. McGurk, who has had an unusually long tenure as a political appointee and will likely be transferred to a new position if the office is scaled back, has served for nearly 14 years in senior positions under Republican and Democratic administrations.

President Trump will meet with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull today, the Post writes. The visit comes after a phone call between Trump and Turnbull briefly roiled relations between the historically close countries in January 2017. The visit marks a remarkable turnaround from the call, when Trump said it was “the most unpleasant call” he had made that day before hanging up in the prime minister’s face. The U.S.-Australian alliance has been a critical, centuries-old partnership primarily focused on diplomatic, intelligence, and military issues.

ICYMI: Yesterday on Lawfare

Quinta Jurecic summarized what was new in the superseding indictment of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates.

Matthew Kahn posted the superseding indictment against Manafort and Gates.

Thania Sanchez reviewed Kathryn Sikkink’s “Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century.”

Charlie Dunlap explained why the Mueller indictment doesn't allege the Russians swung the election.

Benjamin Wittes posted the Rational Security podcast.

Robert Chesney and Steve Vladeck posted the National Security Law Podcast.

Josh Blackman examined the flaws in the Article II analysis of Judge Roger Gregory concurring opinion in IRAP v. Trump.

Sharon Bradford Franklin described how the Microsoft-Ireland case raises broad and complex policy questions that should be addressed by Congress.

Phillip Carter addressed three questions that loom for civil-military relations under Trump.

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