The Early Edition: April 25, 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 AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

“We’re fighting all the subpoenas,” President Trump told reporters outside the White House yesterday, intensifying the battle with various Congressional investigations as the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) refused to let civil rights division official John Gore testify and the president vowed to combat what he described as a “ridiculous” subpoena for former White House counsel Don McGhan. “These aren’t, like, impartial people … the Democrats are trying to win 2020,” Trump added, Charlie Savage reports at the New York Times.

“I have been the most transparent president and administration in the history of our country by far,” Trump claimed, adding “I say it’s enough … get back to infrastructure, get to back to cutting taxes, get back to lowering prescription drug prices.” Trump also used the opportunity to once again criticize special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference, describing it as one conducted by “18 angry Democrats” though still referring to the probe as the “most thorough investigation in the history of our country,” Dartunorro Clark reports at NBC.

Trump continued his attack on the Mueller probe over social media, claiming in a message sent on Twitter that its final report was written by a team biased against him who had “unlimited money.” The president claimed that in any event, the report “didn’t lay a glove on me,” adding: “I DID NOTHING WRONG … if the partisan Dems ever tried to Impeach, I would first head to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Kate Galioto reports at POLITICO

“The White House will protect the prerogatives of the executive branch and the presidency,” a senior White House official commented on the administration’s stance, arguing that the decision to fight the congressional subpoenas wasn’t a political decision but one motivated by constitutional concerns. Michael C. Bender and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

The D.O.J. yesterday doubled down on its refusal to comply with the subpoena issued for Gore by the House Oversight and Reform Committee, citing the fact that lawmakers have refused to permit a D.O.J. attorney to be in the room with Gore during his deposition. “We are disappointed that the Committee remains unwilling to permit Department counsel to represent the interests of the Executive Branch in the deposition of a senior Department official,” the D.O.J. stated in a letter sent to the panel yesterday, Juliegrace Brufke and Jacqueline Thomsen report at the Hill.

The White House is refusing to allow senior adviser Stephen Miller to testify before the House Oversight Committee. The panel’s Chair Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) received a letter from the White House counsel yesterday denying his request that Miller come before the committee to testify on the Trump administration’s immigration policies; “we are pleased that the Committee is interested in obtaining information regarding border security and much needed improvements to our immigration system,” White House Counsel Pat Cipollone wrote, offering to make available “cabinet secretaries and other agency leaders” to discuss the issue, Colby Itkowitz and Rachel Bade report at the Washington Post.

House Democrats are reportedly grappling with how to respond to Trump’s blanket resistance to cooperating with their investigations. “This is a massive, unprecedented, and growing pattern of obstruction,” Cummings said in a statement yesterday, as the House mulled the possibility of issuing multiple contempt citations and initiating civil litigation to defend its oversight role, Rachel Bade and Tom Hamburger report at the Washington Post.

Deutsche Bank has begun the process of providing financial records to New York state’s Attorney General Letitia James in response to a subpoena for documents related to loans made to President Trump and his business, according to a person familiar with the production. Christina Alesci reports at CNN.

The F.B.I. is reportedly continuing to investigate Russian attempts to influence the Trump administration and assess the national security damage from Russia’s 2016 effort as part of its counterintelligence mission, according to current and former U.S. officials.  Ken Dilanian and Tom Winter explain at NBC.

An official with knowledge of the administration’s efforts to combat Russia’s election interference commented yesterday that getting the White House to pay attention to the efforts was like “pulling teeth.” The official – who went unnamed – claimed that Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats feels that the White House is not being “forward-leaning enough in notifying Congress and the American people” about the need to take Russian efforts to interfere in U.S. affairs more seriously, adding that officials have “spent months and months trying to sound alarm at the White House about the need to take foreign interference more seriously and elevate the issue,” Jake Tapper and Jim Acosta report at CNN.

President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen has disavowed responsibility for some of the crimes to which he has pleaded guilty, privately contending in a recent recorded phone call that he had not in fact evaded taxes and that a criminal charge related to his home-equity line of credit was “a lie.” During a March 25 call secretly recorded by the comedian Tom Arnold, Cohen expressed dismay that after testifying for more than 100 hours to federal and congressional investigators about his work for the president —including the coordination of hush-money deals with two women—that he remained “a man all alone,” Michael Rothfeld reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The president has repeated unproven and unverified accusations that British intelligence agencies spied on his election campaign. Dan Sabbagh reports at the Guardian.

The Mueller report reveals much about how Trump attempted to get former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to prosecute his 2016 Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. Michael S. Schmidt provides an analysis at the New York Times.

“Our election was corrupted … our democracy assaulted … our sovereignty and security violated … this is the definitive conclusion of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report,” Clinton writes in an Op-Ed at the Washington Post.

A close look at what the Mueller report has to say on the conduct of “the President’s personal counsel” – a group including Rudi Giuliani and Jay Sekulow – is provided by Stephen Gillers at Just Security.

2020 CENSUS

President Trump yesterday wrote online that “the American people deserve to know who is in this country,” breaking with the Department of Justice’s reasoning (D.O.J.) in its defense of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ attempts to place a citizenship question on next year’s census questionnaire. The Commerce Department, in attempting to justify its efforts to ask everyone in the country next year if they are U.S. citizens, has said the question would be inserted at the request of the D.O.J. as part of an effort to better protect voting rights, Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

While U.S. Department of Commerce v New York “raises important legal questions… the political implications of the case cannot be overstated,” Jessica Leninson comments at NBC, drawing attention to the fact that the census determines the allocation of congressional seats and Electoral College votes.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Tech giant Facebook expects to pay a fine of up to $5 billion in a settlement with federal regulators, and has already set aside $3 billion for payment. The organization disclosed the $5 billion figure in its first-quarter 2019 financial results, having been in negotiations with the Federal Trade Commission following concerns that the company violated a 2011 consent decree, Aarti Sahani reports at NPR.

The National Security Agency has recommended that the White House abandon a surveillance program that collects information about U.S. phone calls and text messages, stating that the logistical and legal burdens of retaining the program outweigh its intelligence benefits, according to people familiar with the matter.  Dustin Volz and Warren P. Strobel report at the Wall Street Journal.

How much of a security risk does Huawei equipment pose? Yuan Yang provides an explainer at the Financial Times.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un met face-to-face for the first time today in Russia, vowing to seek closer ties as they look to counter U.S. influence. The two leaders shook hands before heading into one-on-one talks that lasted nearly two hours on an island off the Pacific coast city of Vladivostock, AFP reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commented yesterday that U.S. talks with the North would be “bumpy,” but expressed hope there would be several more chances to discuss how to progress Pyongyang’s denuclearization. Pompeo commented during an interview that North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons put it at risk rather than making it safe, Reuters reports.

SYRIA

An explosion in the opposition-held Syrian province of Idlib has killed at least 15 people, according to rescue workers. Three buildings in the town of Jisr al-Shughour were destroyed by the blast, the cause of which remains unknown, the BBC 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]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Sri Lankan authorities are starting to piece together profiles of the perpetrators of the Easter bombing attacks in the country. Niharika Mandhana and Jon Emont report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. yesterday condemned an order issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin that simplifies the procedure by which residents of separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine can obtain a Russia passport. “Russia, through this highly provocative action, is intensifying its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the U.S. State Department commented in a statement, Reuters reports.

British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe could be released from jail in a prisoner swap with Iranians detained in the U.S. and Australia, Iran has suggested. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years imprisonment in 2016 after being convicted of spying, which she denies; speaking in New York yesterday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said “let’s have an exchange … I’m ready to do it,” the BBC reports.

An analysis of the “three main problems” flowing from the I.C.C.’s refusal to open an investigation into crimes committed in Afghanistan is provided by Luis Moreno Ocampo at Just Security.

President Trump’s backing for Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar “is designed to reinstall an autocrat at the helm of an Arab state and undermine a U.N. process … seen by much of the world community as the best way forward,” Roula Khalaf writes at the Financial Times.

U.N. high Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has condemned Saudi Arabia’s beheading of 37 men yesterday. Amid allegations that confessions were obtained through torture, Bachele expressed concern over a lack of due process and fair trial guarantees, adding that it was “particularly abhorrent” that at least three of those executed were minors at the time of their sentencing, the U.N. News Centre reports. 

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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).