The Early Edition: April 4, 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.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Democrats yesterday launched a triple-headed attack on President Trump, demanding six year’s worth of his tax returns, moving to obtain ten years of his financial records and laying the ground to issue a subpoena for the full report of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. John Bresnahan, Andrew Desiderio and Sarah Ferris report at POLITICO.

Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) relied on a little-known provision in the federal tax code – I.R.S. Code statute 6103 – when making his request for the president’s personal and business tax returns, a move likely to precipitate a major battle with the administration. Trump suggested that he would fight the request, telling reporters in the Oval Office: “I guess when you have a name, you are audited, but until such time as I’m not under audit I would not be inclined to [disclose the returns,]” Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

I.R.S. Code statute 6103 gives the authority to “tax-writing committees in Congress” to request information on any tax filer, and is believed not to have been previously used to view the tax returns of a president, Julia Arciga, Allison Quinn and Asawiun Suebsaeng report at The Daily Beast.

The House Intelligence Committee is reportedly seeking an interview with top organizer on President Trump’s inaugural committee – Stephanie Winston Wolkoff – according to people familiar with the request, indicating that Congress is widening its probe of how the fund raised and spent more than $100 million. Wolkoff – a former adviser to first lady Melania Trump – served as a producer and a vendor for the inauguration, Rebecca Davis O’Brien and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

The president’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner has been identified as the White House official whose security clearance was denied last year because of concerns about foreign influence, private business interests and personal conduct, according to people familiar with documents and testimony provided to the House Oversight Committee. Kushner was identified only as “Senior White House Official 1” in committee documents released earlier this week reporting the testimony of White House’s personnel security office whistleblower Tricia Newbold; Newbold claimed that she and a colleague determined that Kushner had too many “significant disqualifying factors” to receive a clearance but the decision was overruled by White House Presidential Personnel Office Director Carl Kline. Tom Hamburger, Rachel Bade and Ashley Parker report at the Washington Post.

MAR-A-LAGO INTRUSION

Federal authorities are reportedly investigating possible Chinese espionage attempts on Trump’s Florida Mar-a-Lago club. The probe is also looking into the case of Yujing Zhang, a Chinese woman arrested Saturday by Secret Service agents after reportedly trying to enter the club with a thumb drive containing malware, Jay Weaver, Nicholas Nehmas, Sarah Blaskey, Caitlin Ostroff and Alex Daugherty report at the Miami Herald.

The president claimed that the reported security breach at Mar-a-Lago was “just a fluke.” When asked if he was concerned about the possibility of Beijing conducting spying against the U.S. by attempts on his club, Trump said: “no, I’m not concerned at all … no, I think that was just a fluke situation,” The Daily Beast reports.

What could a hacker with a USB stick actually access at Mar-a-Lago? Philip Bump explains at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Investigators for special counsel Robert Mueller have told associates that Attorney General William Barr inadequately characterized the findings of their inquiry, which the associates claim could be worse for the president than Barr suggested. Members of Mueller’s team allegedly thought that Barr should have included more of their material in the four-page summary he released March 24, which stated that Mueller found no proof that Trump criminally colluded with Russia and that the special counsel had reached no conclusion about whether the president obstructed justice, Nicholas Fandos, Michael S. Schmidt and Mark Mazzetti report at the New York Times.

The House Judiciary Committee yesterday voted to authorize a subpoena for the full and unredacted Mueller report, taking the action after Barr told Congress that he intends later this month to provide a report to lawmakers with certain material removed. Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.,) reportedly hoped to have the subpoena power ready in the event aht Barr does not comply with Democratic demands for the nearly 400-page report; “the Constitution charges Congress with holding the president accountable for alleged official misconduct … that job requires us to evaluate the evidence for ourselves — not the attorney general’s summary, not a substantially redacted synopsis, but the full report and the underlying evidence,” Nadler said in his opening remarks. Rebecca Shabad reports at NBC.

Privacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center’s (E.P.I.C.) claim to obtain the full Mueller report has been expedited by the D.O.J. E.P.I.C. and the D.O.J. are set to appear before a federal judge in the case on April 9., Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

Barr’s summary does not help us “judge whether Trump has committed impeachable offenses … let alone whether he is unfit to hold his office,” Suzanne Garment comments at NBC, arguing that various criminal offences “will be less difficult [to prove] than conspiracy and obstruction — for example, campaign finance violations, tax offenses and insurance and ordinary old commercial fraud.”

N.A.T.O.

The N.A.T.O. alliance faced a fresh challenge as members the U.S. and Turkey exchanged threats yesterday over Ankara’s plan to buy a Russian air-defense system, with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence claiming that Turkey had to choose between the Russian deal and its role as a key partner in the alliance. The Trump administration announced Monday it was suspending the delivery to Turkey of equipment and supplies related to F-35 jet fighter sales, highlighting Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 system; at a joint session of Congress yesterday Pence claimed: “we will not stand idly by while N.A.T.O. allies purchase weapons from our adversaries,” Jessica Donati and Courtney McBride report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. administration and Turkey should explain to the U.S. Congress why Ankara had to purchase the S-400 missile system from Russia, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the session, Reuters reports.

Yesterday’s spat corresponded with an appearance by N.A.T.O. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg before the joint session, in which he urged allies to stand up to an assertive Russia. Stoltenberg claimed that while the alliance is not seeking a new Cold War –it was important to not be “naïve” about the Kremlin’s intentions, citing “a pattern of Russian behavior” that necessitates a united response, Helene Cooper and Julian E. Barnes report at the New York Times.

Beijing has replaced Moscow as N.A.T.O.’s top concern. Matthew Karnitschnig provides an analysis at POLITICO.

VENEZUELA

A bipartisan group of 15 U.S. senators yesterday introduced legislation to provide $400m in new aid to Venezuela, encourage other countries to impose sanctions on incumbent President Nicolas Maduro’s administration and ease penalties on officials who recognize a new government in the country. The introduction of the Venezuelan Emergency Relief, Democracy Assistance and Development (V.E.R.D.A.D.) Act comes more than two months after the Trump administration recognized Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president, Al Jazeera reports.

“Venezuelans fleeing crisis have already faced insurmountable obstacles … heartbreak … and trauma in the pursuit of sanctuary,” Mariam Iskajyan comments at Just Security, arguing for a compassionate approach at the border to those fleeing the Latin country

SYRIA

An explosion yesterday in the town of Raqqa was caused by an unexploded mine left by Islamic State group rather than by suicide attacks, according to U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) Spokesperson Mustafa Bali told journalists in an online message that earlier information the group provided about suicide bombings in the city was wrong, Reuters reports.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is collaborating with House Democrats including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar to appeal to the president to make good on his pledge to pull U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan – a move that is opposed by most congressional Republicans. “We write in bipartisan support of your announcement of the start of a ‘deliberate withdrawal’ of U.S. military forces in Syria, and we welcome the completion of this process within the next six months,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Trump, Alexander Bolton reports at the Hill.

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]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Kremlin is manipulating G.P.S. navigation systems in order to protect Russian President Vladimir Putin, Elias Groll explains at Foreign Policy.

An Australian right-wing extremist will face 50 murder and 39 attempted murder charges following the shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15 that killed 50 and injured a further 50. He will appear in court on April 5, according to a police statement, which added that other charges were “still under consideration,” Jamie Smyth and Alice Woodhouse report at the Financial Times. 

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).