The Early Edition: April 24, 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 White House intends to contest the subpoena issued by the House Judiciary Committee for former White House counsel Donald McGahn to testify, according to people familiar with the matter, setting up another potential battle in the aftermath of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. The Trump administration also allegedly plans to oppose other requests from House committees for the testimony of current and former aides regarding actions in the White House described in the Mueller report, according to two people familiar with internal thinking, Josh Dawsey, Robert Costa and Rosalind S. Helderman report at the Washington Post.

President Trump has said explicitly that he opposed any of his former or current aides testifying in front of Congress because lawmakers were “obviously very partisan,” making the comments in an interview in the Washington Post. “I don’t want people testifying to a party, because that is what they’re doing if they do this,” Trump said, adding that given he let his aides testify for Mueller’s report, Congress has “all of that information that’s been given,” The Daily Beast reports.

House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) responded yesterday to the reports regarding the administration’s approach to the McGhan subpoena, claiming that the White House does not have the authority to circumvent the subpoena and that an attempt to do so would be “obstruction.” “The moment for the White House to assert some privilege to prevent this testimony from being heard has long since passed,” Nadler said in yesterday’s statement, adding: “I suspect that President Trump and his attorneys know this to be true as a matter of law-and that this evening’s reports, if accurate, represent one more act of obstruction by an Administration desperate to prevent the public from talking about the President’s behavior.” Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner yesterday dismissed Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign as a “couple of Facebook ads,” and claimed Mueller’s investigation of it was far more damaging to the country than the intrusion itself. “You look at what Russia did — you know, buying some Facebook ads to try to sow dissent and do it — and it’s a terrible thing … but the investigations, and all of the speculation that’s happened for the last two years, has had a much harsher impact on our democracy than a couple of Facebook ads … quite frankly, the whole thing is just a big distraction for the country,” Kushner stated during a Time Magazine-organized panel discussion, Mark Landler reports at the New York Times.

A network of more than 5,000 pro-Trump Twitter bots clamored against the “Russiagate hoax” shortly after the release of Mueller’s report last week, according to data gathered by a prominent disinformation researcher. The bots, which were created last November and December and appear to have ties to a social media operation that previously pushed messages backing the Saudi government, were pulled down by Twitter on Sunday night for breaking the social network’s rules against “manipulation,” Ben Collins reports at NBC.

Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen apparently attempted to focus the White House on new and different Russian forms of interference in the 2020 election in the months leading up to her resignation, but Trump’s chief of staff Mick Mulvaney reportedly told her not to bring up the subject, making clear that the president still equated any public discussion of malign Russian election activity with questions about the legitimacy of his victory. Eric Schmidtt, David E. Sanger and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

In spite of Kushner’s claims to the contrary – Russia’s electoral interference went far further than “a couple of Facebook ads”. A fact-checker on the claim is provided by Miles Parks at NPR.

The Mueller report has failed to turn Republicans – even the most vulnerable incumbents amongst them – against the president. Burgess Everett and Melanie Zanona explain at POLITICO.

In refusing to follow Trump’s orders to seek Mueller’s removal “McGahn thus saved Mr. Trump from his own bad political judgment,” the Wall Street Editorial Board comments, in praise of the former White House counsel.

An account of what detention at Federal Correctional Institution Otisville will hold for Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen is provided by Tracy Connor at The Daily Beast.

Mueller “wanted a legacy of having run a tight ship,” Shanion Wu comments at CNN, arguing that while “he accomplished that [he] failed at the very mission for which he was appointed, namely, to have a non-politically appointed prosecutor decide whether the President had engaged in criminal conduct.”

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The Treasury Department yesterday declined to turn over President Trump’s tax returns, failing to meet the deadline set by the Democratic Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee Richard Neal (D-Mass.,) in a decision that could lead to litigation on the issue. Neal made a formal request earlier this month for several years’ worth of the president’s returns under a law that would require them to be handed over; however, in a letter sent yesterday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin outlined constitutional and privacy concerns with the request and said the Treasury would consult with the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) before giving a final answer by May 6., Richard Rubin reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee will vote on holding former White House security director Carl Kline in contempt for failing to appear for questioning yesterday on allegations that the Trump administration inappropriately granted clearances to some of the president’s advisers, the panel’s Chair Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) has said. “We will hold a vote of our committee shortly to hold him in contempt and then we will check with House counsel … to see where we go from there,” Cummings stated during an interview yesterday, without specifying a date, Reuters reports.

“Should Kline fail to appear … I would caution against a rush to declare a constitutional crisis,” Founding Editor Andy Wright comments at Just Security, arguing that “I would [rather] suggest it is a constitutional conflict which will ultimately be determined by the courts.”

SRI LANKA EASTER BOMBING ATTACK

The suicide bombers who carried out Sunday’s Easter bombing attacks in Sri Lanka were inspired by Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) and may have received funding from the group, the country’s Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said in a news conference today. I.S.I.S. yesterday claimed responsibility for the attacks that killed at least 359 people; Wijewardene said authorities were investigating whether the attackers had received direct training from I.S.I.S., Niharika Mandhana reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. had no prior knowledge of attacks, U.S. ambassador Alaina Teplitz said today, despite local claims that foreign officials had been warned an attack was looming. Jon Gambrell reports at the AP.

The KOREAN PENINSULA                     

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un arrived in Russia’s Pacific port city of Vladivostok today for a first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as Pyongyang seeks support in its nuclear stalemate with the U.S. The talks, organized in secret and announced at the last minute, will mark Kim’s first face-to-face meeting with another head of state since negotiations with President Trump in Hanoi collapsed in February, AFP reports.

“I have heard a lot of good things about your country and have long dreamt of visiting it” Kim said hours earlier at the Khasan border crossing, according to the regional administration, adding “seven years have passed since I took charge of the country, but I did not have a chance to visit Russia until now,” Andrew Roth reports at the Guardian.

Both Pyongynag and Moscow hope to use the summit to send messages to Washington, Amie Ferris-Rotman and Simon Denyer comment at the Washington Post.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner claimed yesterday that he would present his long-awaited Middle East peace proposal around June and that it would include a “robust business plan” for the Palestinians. Kushner said he had hoped to offer the proposal late last year but delayed due to the country’s elections, adding that once Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed a coalition “we’ll probably be in the middle of Ramadan, so we’ll wait until after Ramadan and then we’ll put our plan out,” AFP reports.

Netanyahu has announced that he wants to name a new settlement in the occupied Golan Heights after President Trump, to mark appreciation of his recognition of Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the strategic land. Netanyahu stated yesterday in a video message that there was a “need to express our appreciation” to the president, and so “after the Passover holiday, I intend to bring to the government a resolution calling for a new community on the Golan Heights named after President Donald J. Trump,” Al Jazeera reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Forces supporting Libya’s internationally recognized government yesterday pushed back troops loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar to more than 37 miles southwest of the capital Tripoli, according to reporters. Reuters reports.

Afghan and international forces killed more civilians in the first three months of this year than the Taliban and fighters from other armed groups, according to findings from the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (U.N.A.M.A.) released today. The findings indicate that at least 305 civilians were killed by pro-government forces between January and March, Al Jazeera reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 52 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between March 24 and April 6 [Central Command]

President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner said yesterday he had urged Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman to be transparent about the circumstances surrounding the slaying of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Kushner was not specific about when exactly he had spoken to the crown prince about the October killing, but claimed that he had spoken to Salman by phone in the days after the death and met with him in Riyadh during a February tour of Gulf capitals; “the advice I gave was, be as transparent as possible,” Kushner said, Reuters reports.

The U.N. has backed a resolution on combatting rape in conflict but excluded references in the text to sexual and reproductive health, after strong opposition from the U.S. The resolution was passed by the Security Council yesterday after a three-hour debate and a weekend of fraught negotiations on the language among member states that threatened to wreck the process, Liz Ford reports at the Guardian.

The Supreme Court yesterday appeared willing to permit the Trump administration add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census form, despite arguments from populous states that it would serve to make the count less accurate. The court’s conservative majority seemed prepared to rule that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross acted within his authority to add the question, as no method is guaranteed to produce an accurate count; both Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch stated that citizenship questions have been included in the census for most of American history. Pete Williams reports at NBC. 

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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).