The Early Edition: February 15, 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.

GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN AND BORDER WALL

President Trump intends to sign a spending bill that will keep the government open and will subsequently declare a national emergency in order to seek funding for his long-promised border-wall, the White House announced yesterday, with the developments ending uncertainty over a possible second government shutdown but giving rise to fresh controversy, Peter Baker, Emily Cochrane and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

A Trump administration official confirmed last night that the president will announce around $8 billion for a border wall under executive actions, part of which will be the emergency declaration. That figure includes $1.375 billion in the spending bill for fencing in Texas; $600 million from the Treasury Department’s drug forfeiture fund; $2.5 billion from a Defense Department drug interdiction program; and $3.5 billion from a military construction budget under an emergency declaration by the president, Rebecca Shabad, Alex Moe, Frank Thorp V and Kristen Welker report at NBC.

News of Trump’s stance was announced after a phone call with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and ended a stalemate in Congress as lawmakers waited anxiously to hear whether the president would sign the spending bill into law. The White House said Trump is scheduled to make remarks about border security at 10 a.m. this morning, Rebecca Ballhaus, Kristina Peterson and Natalie Andrews report at the Wall Street Journal.

Politicians from both parties have strongly condemned the plan. The “rarely-used” move would enable Trump to bypass Congress, and Senior Democrats have accused the president of a “gross abuse of power” and a “lawless act,” the BBC reports.

“I wish he wouldn’t have done it,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who McConnell interrupted on the Senate floor to make the announcement of Trump’s stance, adding: “if [Trump] figures that Congress didn’t do enough and he’s got to do it, then I imagine we’ll find out whether he’s got the authority to do it by the courts.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) stated that “in general, I’m not for running the government by emergency, nor spending money … the Constitution’s pretty clear: spending originates and is directed by Congress … so I’m not really for it,” Burgess Everett, Andrew Desiderio and Melanie Zanona report POLITICO.

The bill itself lacks any money toward a wall, falling far short of Trump’s original demand for $5.7 billion, Reuters reports.

Congress believes the Pentagon has $21 billion in unobligated military construction funding, that the president could use to build the wall over objections from Congress, according to two congressional aides. The money in question has been appropriated by the legislature and set aside for specific projects but not yet issued, Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer explain at Foreign Policy.

“The President’s response to a futile effort to squeeze lawmakers for wall funding is to obliterate a constitutional guardrail in a way that could fundamentally alter the power balance between the presidency and Congress,” Stephen Collinson comments at CNN, projecting that Republicans will rue the implications of the decision for years to come.

“The president’s decision to officially declare an emergency … is not only an act of constitutional vandalism,” Eugene Robinson comments at the Washington Post, arguing that the president himself is the national emergency facing the U.S.  

An explainer on the promised declaration of a national emergency is provided by Tom McCarthy at the Guardian.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The Senate voted yesterday to approve William Barr as attorney general, giving the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) its first confirmed head since President Trump pushed out Jeff Sessions last fall. Senators voted 54-45 for Barr’s nomination, with Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) acting as the only Republican voting against Barr, while Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin  (W.Va.), Doug Jones (Ala.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) broke with their party to lend him votes, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

“Trump’s foreign policy at midterm remains a work in progress,” John Hannah writes at Foreign Policy, in an analysis following last month’s release of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’’ midterm report on the foreign policy performance of Trump’s administration.

IRAN

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence demanded yesterday that Europeans drop the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and join in working to cripple the regime, in an appeal that “united” Israel with longtime Arab adversaries at a conference in Warsaw. Suspicious of President Trump’s “hawkish” impulses and convinced the 2015 deal is working, major European powers sent low-level representation to the U.S.-initiated meeting; Pence took direct aim at allies U.K., France and Germany, criticizing their new initiative to let European companies operate in Iran in defiance of unilateral U.S. sanctions, AFP reports.

“Sadly … some of our leading European partners have not been nearly as cooperative,” Pence stated, adding: “in fact, they have led the effort to create mechanisms to break up our sanctions.” Pence claimed that “efforts to increase trade with Iran was “an effort to break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime … it is an ill-advised step that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the EU and create still more distance between Europe and the United States,” Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani yesterday blamed the U.S. and its regional allies for a suicide bombing in the country’s southeast that killed 27 members of the country’s elite Revolutionary Guards, Iranian state TV reported. “The crime will remain as a ‘dirty stain’ in the black record of the main supporters of terrorism in the White House, Tel Aviv and their regional agents,” Rouhani said; Militant Sunni Jaish al Adl (Army of Justice) group has claimed responsibility for the attack, Reuters reports.

SYRIA

Russia has joined with Turkey and Iran in regarding the planned U.S. military pullout from Syria as a positive step, leaders of the three nations said after a summit in Russia regarding the Syrian crisis.  Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted yesterday’s summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi to discuss the future of Syria with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and their Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani; Putin said at a press briefing following the leaders’ meetings that they agreed that the U.S. withdrawal “would be a positive step that would help stabilize the situation in this region … where ultimately the legitimate government should re-establish control,” Al Jazeera reports.

U.S.-backed Syrian fighters are clearing Islamic State group (I.S.I.S) fighters from the last two villages under the control of the militant group controls, according to military officials. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) alliance launched an assault at the weekend on the villages of Shajalah and Baghuz, near the Iraqi border – with the last militants remaining there now reportedly retreating and hiding among the local population, the BBC reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 199 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Jan. 27 and Feb. 9. [Central Command]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

President Trump’s senior Middle East adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner said yesterday that the Trump administration would unveil its much-awaited Mideast “Deal of the Century” following Israeli elections on April 9. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Kushner briefed participants at a security conference in Poland about the long-awaited plan but would not go into details for fear of it leaking; Netanyahu told reporters that he looked forward to “seeing the plan once it is presented,” Aron Heller reports at the AP.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan stated yesterday that the U.S. will not pull troops from Afghanistan without consulting its allies. “There will be no unilateral troop reduction,” Shanahan told reporters in Brussels after meeting with N.A.T.O. defense chiefs, adding: “that was one of the messages of the meeting today … we’ll be coordinated … we’re together;” reports emerged late last year suggesting that President Trump wanted to withdraw a significant portion of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Ellen Mitchel reports at the Hill.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro claimed yesterday that his foreign minister recently held secret talks in New York with the U.S. special envoy to Venezuela Eliott Abrams, even as the Trump administration was publicly backing an effort to unseat the Venezuelan president by opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó. Maduro said he holds out hope of meeting the U.S. president soon to resolve the political crisis, and that his foreign minister had extended an invitation to Abrams to come to Venezuela “privately, publicly or secretly;” “If he wants to meet, just tell me when, where and how and I’ll be there,” Maduro said without providing more details, the AP reports.

Tech giant Facebook is in early talks with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission regarding settling an investigation into privacy violations that could result in a record fine for the company, according to several people familiar with the matter. The watchdog is investigating whether the social network broke a consent order that it signed with the F.T.C. in 2011, which obligated it to be transparent with users about how their data were being shared with third parties, Hannah Murphy, Kiran Stacey and Khadim Shubber report at the Financial Times.

“Trump’s mystifying behavior and questionable campaign contacts have made the unthinkable, thinkable: is the president of the United States a witting or unwitting agent of Russian intelligence?” Senior Fellow and Founding Editor Andy Wright writes at Just Security, in an analysis of whether Trump can employ executive privilege to block Congress’ access to the notes of his July 6, 2018 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. 

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).