The Early Edition: April 9, 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.

D.H.S. SHAKEUP AND IMMIGRATION POLICY

The White House yesterday announced the departure of Secret Service Director Randolph Alles, just a day after the ouster of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, with Alles reportedly having fallen out of favor with the president even before the security incursion at his private Florida Mar-a-Lago club last week. At least two to four more high-ranking figures affiliated with Nielsen are expected to leave the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.,) according to administration officials who have asked not to be identified, Peter Baker, Maggie Haberman, Nicholas Fandos and Zolan Kanno-Youngs report at the New York Times.

President Trump “has selected James M. Murray … a career member of the U.S.S.S. … to take over as director beginning in May,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced in a statement, Dartunorro Clark reports at NBC.

“No doubt you have seen media reports regarding my ‘firing,’” Alles said in his departure message to Secret Service agents, stressing “I assure you that this is not the case, and in fact [I] was told weeks ago by the administration that transitions in leadership should be expected across the Department of Homeland Security … the president has directed an orderly transition in leadership for this agency and I intend to abide by that direction,” Erin Durkin reports at the Guardian.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) yesterday called on Alles to testify about potential security vulnerabilities at Mar-a-Lago despite his departure. “The outgoing Secret Service director must testify before Congress as soon as possible about the potential security vulnerabilities at Mar-a-Lago involving a Chinese national arrested with malware, and other counterintelligence and national security threats,” Schumer said in a statement, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Nielsen yesterday vowed to work to ensure a “smooth” transition, with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Kevin McAleenan set to replace her as acting chief of the D.H.S. In her first comments since her ouster was confirmed, Nielsen said: “I share the president’s goal of securing the border … I will continue to support all efforts to address the humanitarian and security crisis on the border, and other than that I’m on my way to keep doing what I can for the next few days,” Rafael Bernal reports at the Hill.

Trump has reportedly told aides he wants to reinstate his family-separation policy, which sparked a political outcry when it was implemented last spring. According to an administration official, Trump recently told hardline adviser Stephen Miller: “you’re in charge” of the administration’s immigration policy, Rebecca Ballhaus and Vivian Salama report at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg yesterday blocked President Trump’s policy of returning asylum seekers to Mexico to wait out the processing of their cases, ruling that the D.H.S. had overstepped its authority. The judgment marked a rebuke for the Trump administration’s efforts to stop the flow of migrants at the Southern border, AFP reports.

Seeborg ruled that the Nielsen-introduced Migrant Protection Protocols that the D.H.S. sought to authorize lacked sufficient safeguards for ensuring that people who want to apply for asylum are not returned “to places where they face undue risk to their lives or freedom.” The judgment came in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups on behalf of 11 asylum-seekers from Central America, who submitted that requiring the migrants to wait in Mexico violated humanitarian protections offered under U.S. and international law, Richard Gonzales reports at NPR.

Nielsen’s ouster signals the final victory for Stephen Miller in a power struggle that has lasted over a year and half, Asawin Suebsaeng comments at The Daily Beast.

Nielsen’s resignation fits within a line of Trump firings where sycophancy of the president has merely backfired, Dana Milbank writes at the Washington Post.

“Cosmopolitan progressives have disproportionate economic and cultural power … that power should be deployed to force the sort of accountability Nielsen reportedly fears … and to serve as a warning to others that the Trump stink never washes off” Michelle Goldberg argues in an Op-Ed at the New York Times.

MAR-A-LAGO INTRUSION

The Chinese woman charged with tricking her way into President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Florida resort – Yujing Zhang –will remain in custody at least another week, a federal magistrate ruled yesterday. Zhang was arrested after giving conflicting reasons for the incursion, and Prosecutors claim that a search of her hotel room unearthed a device to detect hidden cameras, five cell phone SIM cards and over $8,000 in cash, Reuters reports.

A Secret Service agent investigating Zhang’s Mar-a-Lago visit infected one of the agency’s own computers with the malware brought in by the unannounced Chinese national, in a development that provoked “wide derision” yesterday from computer security professionals. Kevin Poulsen reports at The Daily Beast.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

House Democrats plan to question Attorney General William Barr forcefully about his handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report when he appears before an Appropriations subcommittee this morning. The hearing is ostensibly focused on the Department of Justice’s (D.O.J.) budget, but will mark Barr’s first public appearance since the release of his four-page summary of Mueller’s findings; “in extremely quick fashion, you turned a 300-plus page report into a four-page letter that supposedly summarized the findings … the American people have been left with many unanswered questions; serious concerns about the process by which you formulated your letter; and uncertainty about when we can expect to see the full report,” Committee Chair Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y) will say in his opening statement tomorrow. Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

The leaders of the House Judiciary Committee yesterday agreed to call Mueller to appear for a hearing, although it remains unclear whether Mueller would agree to such a call. Ranking member of the panel Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) kick-started the process, sending a letter asking Committee Chair Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) asking him to invite Mueller to testify later this month, writing that “ it is special counsel Mueller who is best positioned to testify regarding the underlying facts and material in which you are so interested,” Philip Ewing reports at NPR.

The full Mueller report could be released if the House opens preliminary impeachment hearings, former Watergate special prosecutor Philip Allen Lacovara and constitutional law professor Laurence H. Tribe write in a legal analysis at the Washington Post.

IRAN            

The U.S. yesterday designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a foreign terrorist organization, in a move illustrating the Trump administration’s determination to damage Tehran’s strategy in the Middle East. The White House announced that the decision marked the first time the U.S. had named part of a government a terrorist organization and would “significantly expand the scope and scale of our ‘maximum pressure’ on the Iranian regime;” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commented that the U.S. would “bring all pressure to bear” on Iran, adding “the leaders of Iran are racketeers, not revolutionaries,” Aime Williams and Najmeh Bozorgmehr report at the Financial Times.

Iran’s Supreme National Council moved swiftly to brand the U.S. as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” in a tit-for-tat response to the administration’s decision. In a statement carried by state-run I.R.N.A. news agency, the council said it also declared all U.S. forces operating in the Middle East “terrorist groups;” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also sent a message on Twitter slamming Trump’s decision as “another dangerous U.S. misadventure” in the region and a “misguided election-eve gift” to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Al Jazeera reports.

Saudi Arabia has welcomed the U.S. decision, with the Sunni-led country having accused Shi’ite Iran of meddling in its internal affairs and faced off against Tehran in proxy wars for years – including those in Syria and Yemen. “The U.S. decision translates the Kingdom’s repeated demands to the international community of the necessity of confronting terrorism supported by Iran,” state-run S.PA news agency said, citing a foreign ministry source, Reuters reports.

The designation of the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization is merely a reflection of reality, even if it serves to alienate those who wish to do business with Tehran, the Wall Street Journal editorial board argues.

LIBYA

The U.N. has condemned an air strike that yesterday closed the only functioning airport in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. The U.N. blamed the air strike on forces loyal to eastern Libyan commander General Khalifa Haftar, who are engaged in an offensive to seize control of the city; a spokesperson for Haftar’s forces said civilian planes had not been targeted, the BBC reports.

“The [U.N.] Secretary-General [António Guterres] urges the immediate halt of all military operations in order to de-escalate the situation and prevent an all-out conflict,” a spokesperson for Guterres announced in a statement, adding that “he emphasizes that there is no military solution to the Libya conflict and calls on all parties to engage in immediate dialogue to reach a political solution” the U.N. News Centre reports.

An analysis of the implications of the battle for Tripoli – both for Libya and the wider region – is provided by Patrick Wintour at the Guardian.

EGYPT

U.S. President Trump will tomorrow host Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the White House, with the two leaders set to discuss tensions in the Middle East, security, economic reform and human rights in Egypt, according to a senior administration official. Egypt’s parliament has moved to implement constitutional reforms that would enable Sisi to stay in power until 2034 with constitutional reforms; asked whether Trump supported such a move, the official said the administration was encouraging Egypt to develop democratic institutions while remaining mindful of U.S. security interests, Reuters reports.

“The only sensible course is for the United States to make clear… that it opposes the [constitutional] amendments and sees them as taking Egypt in the wrong direction—even if the U.S. cannot stop them from happening,” Michael Dunne argues at POLITICO Magazine.

SYRIA

 Russia and Turkey will continue their efforts to establish peace in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin said after talks with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Moscow yesterday. Putin also claimed that the two leaders discussed the supply of S-400 missile systems to Turkey, Reuters reports.

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 State Department yesterday named 16 individuals who it claims had roles in the murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. The individuals named in a State Department in a press release, along with their immediate family members, will not be allowed entry into the U.S. following the designation, Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

A car bomb outside of Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield yesterday killed three U.S. service members and a contractor, also wounding three other U.S. service members who were evacuated and receiving medical care, according to a statement released by the N.A.T.O.-led Resolute Support mission. The Taliban have claimed responsibility for the attack, Courtney Kube, Mosheh Gains and Tim Stelloh report at NBC.

The Pentagon wants to streamline its security clearance program using an A.I. – specifically, a “continuous evaluation” system which autonomously analyzes applicants’ behavior. Rolling out such a system “would signal a dangerous new direction for personnel management at the federal level,” John Bowers explains at Just Security.

The U.S. is “wide open for foreign influence,” Stephn M. Walt writes in an Op-Ed at Foreign Policy. 

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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).