The Early Edition: April 3, 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.

N.A.T.O.

President Trump yesterday claimed to have strengthened N.A.T.O. by demanding a “rocket”-like escalation in military spending from allies who he says had been exploiting the U.S.’ generosity. “Tremendous progress has been made and N.A.T.O.’s much stronger,” Trump told reporters at a White House meeting with N.A.T.O. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg ahead of the alliance’s 70th anniversary celebrations in Washington, AFP reports.

Trump singled out Germany as not meeting the alliance’s spending target, claiming that “Germany honestly is not paying their fair share … they’re not paying what they should be paying … they’re paying close to one percent.” Al Jazeera reports.

The joint press conference appeared to mark an “awkward moment” – with Trump criticizing German defense spending and predicting that the U.S. would get along with Russia. However, Stoltenberg seemed positive in his comments following the meeting, stating “I accept there are differences … but when it comes to defense spending we all agree,” claiming that the president had helped push member states to budget an additional $100 billion in defense spending and crediting Trump with “having a real impact,” Julian E. Barnes reports at the New York Times.

N.A.T.O. is shifting focus to potential security threats from China, representing a challenge for members that have conflicting attitudes about Beijing. The U.S. has expressed concerns that Beijing could force tech giant Huawei to spy or disrupt communications, while many European governments have embraced Chinese investment and Huawei, James Marson explains at the Wall Street Journal.

The greatest threat facing N.A.T.O. is “the absence of strong … principled American presidential leadership for the first time in [the alliance’s] history,” Nicholas Burns and Douglas Lute comment at the Washington Post.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The House Oversight and Reform Committee yesterday voted to authorize a subpoena for a former White House Personnel Security Director Carl Kline to testify as part of the panel’s investigation into the Trump administration’s security clearance process. The committee voted 22-15 along party lines to approve a resolution authorizing a subpoena for Kline to interview with the committee; committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) has accused the White House of obstructing his panel’s wide-ranging investigation into the security clearances of the president’s aides (including his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner,) Morgan Chalfant and Olivia Beavers report at the Hill.

The White House yesterday hit back at Democratic moves to issue a subpoena for Kline. “These requests are absolutely ridiculous,” White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley said in an interview on MSNBC, adding that the White House would not cooperate with Cummings’ demands on security clearances. Reuters reports.

An analysis of the Committee’s “fierce and effective” response this week to White House counsel Pat Cipollone’s attempt to argue that Congress has no legislative or oversight role on security clearances, is provided by Founding Editor Andy Wright at Just Security.

TRUMP-RUSSIA                                                                          

President Trump yesterday dismissed Democrats’ efforts to compel the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s full report as “somewhat of a waste of time,” making the remarks ahead of today’s House panel vote to authorize a subpoena for the entire document and its underlying evidence. “So there’s no collusion … the attorney general now and the deputy attorney general ruled no obstruction … they said no obstruction … now we’re going to start this process all over again?” Trump commented during his Oval Office meeting with N.A.T.O. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, adding: “I think it’s a disgrace … these are just Democrats that want to try and demean this country … and it shouldn’t be allowed,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Former F.B.I. Director James Comey yesterday condemned Trump’s calls for a possible inquiry into how Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference commenced, adding that to launch such an inquiry would create a troubling precedent. “I don’t fear it personally … I fear it as a citizen,” Comey said during an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, adding: “investigate what? investigate that investigations were conducted? what would be the crime you’d be investigating?  … it’s a terrible cycle to start,” Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

Attorney General William Barr’s March 24 letter to Congress summarizing Mueller’s principal conclusions Mueller appears to have gone well beyond what the special counsel regulations authorize, Michael Zeldin comments at CNN, arguing that “the appropriate course of action would have been for Barr not to have made a determination about whether Trump could or would be prosecuted for obstruction.”

An explainer on the “big questions” about Trump and Russia the redacted Mueller report may answer upon its release this month is provided by Philip Ewing at NPR.

BORDER WALL and IMMIGRATION

Trump yesterday called on Congress to take action on immigration, putting pressure on Democrats to strike a deal after he had threatened to close the southern border. “Congress has to meet quickly and make a deal … I could do it in 45 minutes … we need to get rid of chain migration,” Trump commented during his Oval Office meeting with N.A.T.O. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, adding: “to be honest with you, we have to get rid of judges,” later explaining that he no longer wants to detain people trying to cross the Southern border and “bring them to a court,” Megan Vazquez and Abby Phillip report at CNN.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said earlier yesterday that closing the border is not the White House’s “first choice,” telling reporters outside the White House that “our first choice would be for Democrats to actually sit down with us and help fix a broken system to address the national security and humanitarian crisis that exists at our border.” Sanders added that the president does not want to hurt the U.S. economy,” but that his No. 1 job “is to protect life and to protect Americans;” Sanders would not be drawn on offering a specific timeline for Trump’s proposed plan, Rebecca Morin and Caitlin Oprysko report at POLITICO.

“It’s hard to imagine a more self-destructive decision” than closing the southern border, and “it wouldn’t solve the border asylum crisis in any event,” The Wall Street Journal editorial board comments.

An account of the situation at the southern border, with those on both sides “united by fear of Trump’s closure,” is provided by Ed Pilkington at the Guardian.

VENEZUELA

Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly yesterday voted unanimously to strip opposition leader self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó of immunity in a move his supporters worry may indicate his the impending arrest and prosecution. Until now, incumbent president Nicolás Maduro has refrained from detaining Guaidó who has the backing of the Trump administration and several dozen other countries, Richard Gonzales reports at NPR.

Guaidó has vowed to continue fighting Maduro’s “cowardly … miserable and murderous” regime. “They think that by attacking me and attacking those around me … they will halt the hope of change in Venzeuela,” Guaidó told reporters outside his home in Caracas, adding “the transition is underway … nothing will stop us,” Tom Phillips and Patricia Torres report at the Guardian.

Russia has opened a training center in Venezuela to help the country’s pilots fly Russian-made military helicopters, Russian state-owned industrial conglomerate Rostec announced Monday, in Moscow’s most recent gesture of support for Maduro. Rostec said the center was inaugurated last Thursday – the same day as the White House warned Russia and other countries backing Maduro against sending troops and military equipment, Reuters reports.

Colombia yesterday rejected a Russian warning against foreign military intervention claiming that it supports a peaceful transition to democracy in Venezuela. “Colombia reiterates that the transition to democracy must be conducted by the Venezuelans themselves peacefully and within the framework of the Constitution and international law, supported by political and diplomatic means, without the use of force,” Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said in a statement, Reuters reports.

Guaidó “put too much faith in Maduro’s bad judgment and in outside powers,” Annika Henroth-Rothstein comments at The Daily Beast, providing an analysis of how the self-declared interim president has lost his opportunity for regime change.

TURKEY

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said yesterday that he expected to resolve a dispute with Turkey over its purchase of Russia’s S-400 long-range air defense system, a day after the U.S. halted the delivery of equipment related to the F-35 aircraft to Ankara, Al Jazeera reports.

Shanahan said he was “very confident” that Turkey would choose to buy the U.S.-made Patriot anti-missile system over the Russian system. “I expect we’ll solve the problem so that they have the right defense equipment in terms of Patriots and F-35s,” Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon prior to meeting with his Mongolian counterpart, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

“Some wonder if [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan sees the F-35 as truly necessary for Turkey’s defense,” Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer explain at Foreign Policy, adding that “while the stealthy fighter jet is very capable against Russia’s air defenses, it may be overkill for Ankara’s primary security threats: Syria and Iran.”

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Lawyer and academic Alan Dershowitz has allegedly consulted with senior White House officials on efforts to negotiate a peace deal between Israel and Palestine.  “I’ve consulted with them about it,” Dershowitz told reporters yesterday, adding that he has discussed the issue with the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, special envoy Jason Greenblatt, Ambassador David Friedman, and the president himself, Betsy Woodruff and Asawin Suebsaeng report at The Daily Beast.

Any U.S.-brokered Middle East peace plan “will require a Palestinian security force that can fend off those determined to use violence to derail peace efforts,” Michael Singh comments at the New York Times, arguing that “aid to the Palestinians — conditional and coordinated with Israel — should be a part of American policy.”

YEMEN

The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen has intercepted two drones launched by the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels towards the Saudi city of Khamis Mushait, with five people injured by debris, according to Saudi press agency S.P.A. Last month the coalition said it attacked drone storage caves as part of an operation launched in January to destroy the Houthis’ drone capabilities, Reuters reports.

Houthi forces yesterday denied the U.N. access to a grain storage site in the key port of Hodeidah, according sources familiar with the matter, stymieing efforts to up the distribution of food aid to the country’s starving population. Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Tech giant Facebook is embroiled in another privacy row following a request that users disclose the password for their outside email account as the price of admission to the social network. Kevin Poulsen reports at The Daily Beast.

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]

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a murderer has no right to a “painless death” Monday. While the 5-4 ruling in Bucklew v Precythe is “perhaps not surprising … the hard-hearted tone of the majority opinion is nonetheless shocking,” the Economist comments

A woman carrying Chinese passports was arrested at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort Saturday with a thumb drive containing malware, according to court records. Khadim Shubber reports at the Financial Times.

A lawsuit filed yesterday is challenging a “prepublication review” system used by the administration to censor former military and intelligence officials who might decide to write articles and books after public service. The Justice Department has declined to comment about the complaint, Charlie Savage reports at the New York Times.

The U.N. Security Council heard yesterday that the prospect of a nuclear war is “higher than it has been in generations.” The U.N. News Centre reports. 

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).