The Early Edition: March 27, 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 U.S. House Judiciary Committee yesterday unanimously approved a resolution directing the Justice Department to give Congress records on F.B.I. obstruction and counterintelligence probes of President Trump. In a “surprising show of bipartisanship” the Democratic-led panel voted 22-0 to send the measure to the full House of Representatives for a possible floor vote, after Attorney General William Barr said in a letter to Congress on Sunday that special counsel Robert Mueller did not find that President Trump colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election, while neither charging nor exonerating the president on obstruction of justice, Al Jazeera reports.

Top Democrats have called on Barr to provide Congress with the full Mueller report following his investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. The Democratic heads of six committees in the House of Representatives wrote to Barr on Monday to demand that he provide a copy of Mueller’s report by April 2, also asking for the underlying documents used to compile the report on the 22-month investigation, Demetri Sevastopulo and Khadim Shubber report at the Financial Times.

The report reportedly will be made available for Congress and the public within weeks, according to a Justice Department official, who added that there are no plans to provide the White House with the report in advance. Although the president said Monday that it “wouldn’t bother me at all” for the report to be released in full, it remains unclear whether he will seek to rely on executive privilege to protect his communications with advisers that may have been gathered during the 22-month investigation, Sadie Gurman and Siobahn Hughes report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump commented yesterday that he believes the Justice Department’s summary of Mueller’s findings “could not have been better,” marking the most explicit statement to date from the president that he regards the end of the investigation into the Russia probe as an unqualified political victory. “The Mueller report was great …it could not have been better,” Trump told reporters at the Capitol before meeting in private with Senate Republicans, Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill.

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R- Ky.) said yesterday he supported a move by fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) pushing for an inquiry into potential missteps by law enforcement officials in the Russia probe. “I think Senato Graham has raised a legitimate question … I think it’s not inappropriate for the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, with jurisdiction over the Justice Department, to investigate possible misbehaviors,” McConnell told reporters, Reuters reports.

House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has doubled down on claims against the president since the release of Barr’s letter. “Undoubtedly there is collusion,” Schiff said in an interview this week, adding “we will continue to investigate the counterintelligence issues … that is, is the president or people around him compromised in any way by a hostile foreign power? . … it doesn’t appear that was any part of Mueller’s report,” Karoun Demirjian reports at the Washington Post.

Former F.B.I. Director James Comey told an audience in Charlotte yesterday that he is confused by Mueller’s decision to neither charge nor exonerate Trump on obstruction. “The part that’s confusing is, I can’t quite understand what’s going on with the obstruction stuff,” Comey told his audience, adding “I have great faith in Bob Mueller, but I just can’t tell from the letter why didn’t he decide these questions when the entire rationale for a special counsel is to make sure the politicals aren’t making the key charging decisions,” Julia Ainsley reports at NBC.

“The Trump-Russia episode proves the primacy not of law or even of politics … both of which are designed to reconcile conflicting values and lead to resolution,” John F. Harris comments at POLITICO Magazine, arguing that the probe and its aftermath have demonstrated “the primacy of psychology, in which current events represent a nonstop Rorschach test.”

A guide to the “top four things to look for in Mueller’s report in light of Barr’s letter: 1. counterintelligence findings on coordination with Russia; 2. counterintelligence findings on whether Trump is compromised; 3. the “several matters” Mueller referred to “other officers for further action; and 4. alleged conspiracy and coordination with Russia, is provided by Tess Bridgeman, Ryan Goodman and Andy Wright at Just Security.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

An unofficial cease-fire between Israel and militant Palestinian Hamas group –which controls the Gaza strip – appeared to be holding today, despite limited exchanges of fire, the AP reports.

An account of the political pressures underpinning the recent violence in Gaza is provided by Felicia Schwartz and Don Lieber at the Wall Street Journal.

The Palestinian Health Ministry says an 18-year-old has been shot dead in West Bank clashes with Israeli troops. The ministry announced that Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) soldiers shot Sajed Mizher after stones were thrown at them early today during an arrest raid in the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem; the I.D.F. had no immediate comment. Live updates at the AP.

Syria is calling on the U.N. Security Council to hold an urgent meeting on the U.S. decision to recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. President Trump signed a proclamation Monday in which the U.S. recognized Israel’s annexation of the strategic territory, despite U.N. resolutions recognizing the Golan as “Israeli-occupied” land, Al Jazeera reports.

Five Gulf nations are rejecting Trump’s proclamation on the Golan, cautioning that the move will have “negative effects” on the overall Middle East peace process. The governments of Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait have all issued statements condemning the decision, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

SYRIA

Iran is moving to cement its long-term influence in war-torn Syria by nurturing goodwill and winning converts to the Shi’ite sect. Raja Abdulrahim and Benoit Faucon explain at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 250 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between March 10 and March 23 [Central Command]

YEMEN

At least seven people – including four children – have died after an airstrike hit the entrance to a hospital in a rebel-controlled area of Yemen, according to N.G.O. Save the Children. Two further people are unaccounted for and eight were injured after a missile launched by the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition blew up a petrol station next to Kitaf hospital in Saada province yesterday morning, Bethan McKernan reports at the Guardian,

Yemenis held a mass rally in the rebel-controlled capital of Sanaa yesterday to show support for the Iran-aligned Shi’ite rebel Houthi movement on the fourth anniversary of the country’s bloody war. Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russia has confirmed the presence of its military personnel in Venezuela, claiming that the operatives that arrived in the Latin American country over the weekend have every right to be there. The AP reports.

Dissident North Korean organization – the Cheollima Civil Defense (C.C.D.) – today claimed responsibility for a raid on Pyongyang’s embassy in Madrid last month, saying it has shared “information of enormous potential value” with the F.B.I. The group is committed to the overthrow of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, AFP reports.

China has expelled former Interpol chief Meng Hongwei from public office and the ruling Communist Party. The AP reports.

House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) yesterday rejected a Pentagon request to move $1 billion from counter-drug funding to help build the president’s long-promised border wall, threatening that such a transfer would jeopardize the Department of Defense’s (D.O.D.) ability to move money in the future. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Military prosecutors claim to be in possession of tapes of telephone calls between the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks – Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – and three of his accused co-conspirators. The tapes feature the individuals using code to discuss the attack months before it took place, a defense lawyer disclosed Monday, Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald. 

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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).