The Early Edition: March 5, 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

The House Judiciary Committee yesterday began a sweeping investigation into allegations of obstruction of justice by President Trump, demanding documents from the White House as well as the president’s company, charity, transition team, inauguration and 2016 campaign, in addition to a number of longstanding associates and the president’s two sons. Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) opened the probe with letters to 81 people, companies and government entities, seeking a wide range of materials relevant to the allegations against the president — including abuses of power, corruption and obstruction of justice, Andrew Desiderio and Darren Samuelsohn report at POLITICO.

“We will act quickly to gather this information … assess the evidence … and follow the facts where they lead with full transparency with the American people,” Nadler said in a statement, adding “this is a critical time for our nation, and we have a responsibility to investigate these matters and hold hearings for the public to have all the facts … that is exactly what we intend to do.” The inquiry will consider an array of matters, ranging from the president’s business dealings with Russia to the firing of former F.B.I. Director Jim Comey, with much of the subject matter overlapping with special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian electoral interference, Rachel Bade, Karoun Demirjian, Ellen Nakashima and Philip Rucker report at the Washington Post.

The House Judiciary Committee is where impeachment proceedings begin, but Nadler did not mention the word “impeachment” in any of yesterday’s documents. Congressional Republicans, however, assert that Democrats have already decided to target Trump for impeachment, claiming repeatedly in recent weeks that despite public statements to the contrary, the new majority is determined to remove Trump from office, Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

“Today … Chairman Nadler opened up a disgraceful and abusive investigation into tired … false allegations already investigated by the special counsel and committees in both chambers of Congress,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders commented on the development, adding: “Chairman Nadler and his fellow Democrats have embarked on this fishing expedition because they are terrified that their two-year false narrative of ‘Russia collusion’ is crumbling, the BBC reports.

Trump himself appeared to pledge assistance with the sweeping probe launched yesterday. Asked by a reporter whether he will cooperate with panel, the president answered: “I cooperate all the time with everybody,” Reuters reports.

Three Democratic House chairmen are pressing for records and interviews related to President Trump’s communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin, following reports that the president sought to destroy the relevant contacts. House Intelligence Committee Chair Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.,) Foreign Affairs Chair Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) have written separate letters to acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo requesting that they disclose records detailing the president’s contacts with Putin, allegedly also hoping for access to the interpreters who sat in on Trump’s meetings with the Russian leader, Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

“According to media reports … President Trump … on multiple occasions … appears to have taken steps to conceal the details of his communications with President Putin from other administration officials … Congress … and the American people,” the Chairs wrote, adding: “the President reportedly seized notes pertaining to at least one meeting held with President Putin and directed at least one American interpreter not to discuss the substance of communications with President Putin with other federal officials. These allegations, if true, raise profound national security, counterintelligence, and foreign policy concerns, especially in light of Russia’s ongoing active measures campaign to improperly influence American elections,” Allan Smith reports at NBC.

Attorney General William Barr will not recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s investigation, a Department of Justice (D.O.J.) spokesperson announced yesterday. Barr’s confirmation for a second period as attorney general was complicated by the disclosure that he had written a 19-page memo last June expressing skepticism about elements of the Mueller probe, Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

An attorney for Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen reportedly approached President Trump’s legal team and “raised the possibility of a pardon” after Cohen was raided by the F.B.I. in April 2018. Cohen’s attorney – Stephen Ryan – reportedly discussed the prospect while he was working alongside Trump’s lawyers to review files taken during the raid and determine if any of them violated attorney-client privilege; Trump’s legal team reportedly dismissed the idea of pardoning Cohen, though the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani reportedly left the possibility of a future pardon open, Rebecca Ballhaus, Joe Palazzolo and Michael Rothfeld report at the Wall Street Journal.

Cohen told the House Oversight Committee last week under oath that he had “never asked for … nor would I accept … a pardon from Mr. Trump.” There is no indication Cohen personally asked for a Trump pardon himself, and a spokesperson for Cohen maintains he stood by his testimony, The Daily Beast reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A breakdown of seven “intriguing names on the list of Democrats’ Trump-world documents requests” is provided by Aaron Blake at the Washington Post.

An in-depth analysis of the fight over what is made public – as the Mueller probe reaches its final stages – is provided by Khadim Shubber at the Financial Times.

“Republicans are wrong … when they claim Justice Department rules forbid transparency about the completed work of the special counsel,” former F.B.I. Director Jim Comey comments at the Washington Post, arguing that “past departmental practices suggest [Barr] can release far more details than many people may now realize.”

Michael Cohen last week implicated the president in collusion that extends far beyond the Trump Tower Moscow deal allegations. Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman explains at Just Security, commenting: “the question is now whether President Trump told or encouraged Cohen to lie to Congress. … if there is additional evidence to corroborate Cohen’s claims, it may help spell the fate of his presidency”

NATIONAL EMERGENCY AND BORDER WALL

The White House told Senate Republicans yesterday to “keep their powder dry” ahead of a vote to stymie President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border as the administration pushed to limit defections on the matter. The message was delivered by White House deputy director of government communications Zach Parkinson in a meeting yesterday morning with Senate Republican communications staffers, according to two attendees – the message coming just as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) predicted that the resolution to overturn Trump’s emergency declaration would pass in the Republican-led Senate but not survive a veto, Erica Werner, Jacqueline Alemany and John Wagner report at the Washington Post.

The only remaining question on the National Emergencies Act is “how stern a rebuke will the Senate deliver?” Emily Cochrane writes in an analysis at the New York Times, breaking down the various Republican camps that might push the measure through the Senate.

VENEZUELA

Venezuela’s opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó returned to Caracas yesterday, defying the threat of arrest imposed by the country’s Supreme Court and receiving a “hero’s welcome” from thousands of flag-waving supporters chanting “yes, you can!” Guaidó told the crowds “we know the risks we face, that’s never stopped us … the regime, the dictatorship must understand,” adding “we’re stronger than ever, let’s carry on in the streets, mobilized” and announcing a new protest march for Saturday to ramp up pressure on incumbent president Nicolás Maduro, AFP reports.

Guaido has named Harvard University economist Ricardo Hausmann as the country’s representative to the Inter-American Development Bank (I.A.D.B.), Guaido’s envoy to the U.S. announced yesterday. Reuters reports.

Venezuela’s “democratic transition will have to address the needs of the country’s unconventional military,” Javier Corrales comments at the New York Times, adding that such a scenario is nonetheless “better than the war-based stalemate that the country is in or the U.S.-led intervention that many are increasingly calling for.”

SYRIA

Thousands of people have left the last area held by the Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) in Syria as the final defeat of the so-called “caliphate” drew nearer today. Spokesperson for the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) Mustafa Bali sent a message on Twitter suggesting that about 3,000 people – including militants – came out of the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria yesterday, leaving through a humanitarian corridor created by the S.D.F. for those who wish to leave or surrender, Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

The evacuations came as the U.S.-backed forces slowed down their most recent advance on Baghouz to allow civilians to leave the tiny enclave. It is unclear how many I.S.I.S. fighters and civilians remain inside the village, but the number is likely in the hundreds, according to local activists, Al Jazeera reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 211 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Feb. 10 and Feb. 23. [Central Command]

The KINGDOM

Republican Senators stated yesterday that they re frustrated by a closed-door briefing from the administration on last year’s killing of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.  Members of the Trump administration briefed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last night about an investigation ordered by members of the panel last year into Khashoggi’s death; Republicans on the committee including Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) appeared unimpressed by the meeting, indicating that they did not learn any new information, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

The Trump White House’s “controversial” relationship with the Kingdom is under fresh scrutiny over the case of U.S.-Saudi citizen and physician Walid Fitajhi, who has reportedly been detained, beaten and tortured in the country. Fitaihi was detained in a sweep against prominent Saudi figures led by the kingdom’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in November 2017 – and was initially held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, Stephen Collinson reports at CNN.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea continues to use a uranium-enrichment facility that was a key plank of the discussions at last week’s Hanoi summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the United Nations atomic agency has announced. In a quarterly report released yesterday, Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Yukiya Amano claimed a five-megawatt reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear appeared to have been shut since early December; however, Amano maintained that construction continues at Yongbon on an experimental light-water reactor and there are “indications of the ongoing use of the reported nuclear centrifuge enrichment facility,” Laurence Norman and Michael R. Gordon report at the Wall Street Journal.

Kim returned home today after travelling 4,000km in his green train from Vietnam. His arrival came as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was hopeful Washington would send a delegation to North Korea in the coming weeks to continue denuclearization negotiations, Al Jazeera reports.

Trump stated yesterday that he did not discuss with Kim a cessation of U.S.-South Korea joint military drills, doubling down on claims that he believed the costs of the drills are too high. “The military drills, or war games as I call them, were never even discussed in my mtg w/ Kim Jong Un of NK — FAKE NEWS!” the president stated in a message sent on Twitter, adding “I made that decision long ago because it costs the U.S. far too much money to have those ‘games’, especially since we are not reimbursed for the tremendous cost!” Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. has deployed a highly advanced missile defense system in Israel for the first time, U.S. and Israeli militaries announced yesterday, reflecting shared concerns about Iran’s missile development. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (T.H.A.A.D.) as an indication of the strength of the two nations’ military ties, stating that the development makes Israel “even stronger in order to deal with near and distant threats from throughout the Middle East,” Isabel Debre reports at the AP.

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday formally ordered a suspension of his country’s obligations under the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (I.N.F.) Treaty. The Kremlin claimed in a statement that the decision to suspend the agreement was made after the U.S. said it would stop abiding by the accord, though the statement did not acknowledge Washington’s accusations that Russia had broken its obligations under the I.N.F. treaty with the testing of its nuclear-capable 9M729 missile.

Chinese tech giant Huawei intends to file a lawsuit against the U.S. government over a law that bans U.S. federal agencies from buying Huawei products. Ben Westcott and Sherisse Pham report at CNN Business. 

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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).