The Early Edition: May 2, 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

Attorney General William Barr yesterday testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions about his handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, facing strong criticism from Democrats on the panel for his initial summary of the Mueller report and his public embrace of President Trump’s explanations of his actions. Peter Baker reports at the New York Times.

Barr told the Senate committee that he did not review the underlying evidence in Mueller’s report before writing his initial summary of the investigation, but defended his actions, stating that “we presented the evidence presented in the report.” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Mueller’s letter accusing him of creating “public confusion” over the Russia investigation was a “bit snitty,” adding that he thinks that Mueller’s March 27 letter – which was released earlier this week – was probably written by one of the special counsel’s “staff people.” Kadhim Shubber reports at the Financial Times.

“If [Mueller] felt he shouldn’t go down a path of making a traditional prosecutive decision, then he shouldn’t have investigated,” Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee, criticizing the special counsel for not reaching a conclusion about whether the president obstructed justice. Sadie Gurman, Byron Tau and Kristina Peterson report at the Wall Street Journal.

The attorney general defended Trump’s public account of his actions regarding attempts to direct former White House counsel Don McGahn to remove Mueller, recasting the episode which may amount to an obstruction of justice case. Carol D. Leonnig explains at the Washington Post.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) yesterday called on Barr to resign as Schiff believes the attorney general “willingly misled the Congress” during testimony to the House Appropriation subcommittee last month over his initial summary of the Mueller report. Katie Galioto reports at POLITICO.

The White House has reacted approvingly to Barr’s testimony and Congressional Republicans have expressed support for the attorney general in the face of tough questions from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Asawin Suebsaeng and Erin Banco report at The Daily Beast.

Barr has canceled today’s scheduled hearing before the Democrat-controlled House Judiciary Committee over disagreements about the format of questioning. The Justice Department (D.O.J.) pushed back against a proposal by committee chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) to have committee lawyers question Barr and said that the D.O.J. would not comply with the subpoena issued by Nadler to obtain an unredacted version of the Mueller report and access to the underlying evidence. Andy Sullivan and Sarah N. Lynch report at Reuters.

Nadler yesterday warned that he would seek a contempt citation against Barr if he unable to reach a “reasonable” agreement with the D.O.J. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

TRUMP-RUSSIA: OPINION & ANALYSIS

Barr’s testimony shows that the president “can get away with almost anything,” Stephen Collinson writes at CNN, warning that the attorney general’s actions to act as a “protective bulwark” for Trump spells trouble for the remainder of the presidential term.

Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein have been compromised by their “proximity to an amoral leader” and lack the inner strength to counter the president’s ability to “[eat] your soul in small bites,” the former F.B.I. Director James Comey writes at the New York Times.

The key takeaways from Barr’s testimony are provided by Niall Stanage at the Hill.

In his testimony Barr was “behaving as an Attorney General should” and the Democrats’ reaction shows how “frustrated and angry” they continue to be over the fact that Mueller’s probe “wasn’t obstructed and there was no underlying crime.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

Mueller’s “tone and tenor” in his letter to Barr is “remarkable,” the New York Times editorial board writes, adding that the special counsel’s letter shows that Mueller could not let the attorney general undermine the conclusions of his report.

VENEZUELA

Violence has escalated in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, with one woman killed and dozens injured in clashes between supporters of the Nicolás Maduro government and supporters of opposition leader Juan Guaidó. The crisis has been developing since January when Guaidó declared himself as Venezuelan interim leader and was recognized as leader by more than 50 countries – including the U.S., the BBC reports.

Guaidó has called on Venezuelans to remain out in force today and to prepare for a general strike. The AP reports.

“We are doing everything we can do, short of, you know, the ultimate,” President Trump told Fox News yesterday when discussing the U.S. role in resolving Venezuela’s crisis, adding that some of the options to deal with the situation are “pretty tough.” Tom Phillips, Julian Borger and Patricia Torres report at the Guardian.

Members of the military, the White House National Security Council and the State Department met yesterday to discuss next steps in the Venezuela crisis. Vivian Salama and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. and Russia have accused each other of interfering in Venezuela, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov telling U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a phone call yesterday that there would be grave consequences should U.S. take further “aggressive steps” in Venezuela; while Pompeo accused Russia earlier this week of persuading Maduro to abandon plans to leave the country. Al Jazeera reports.

Members of Maduro’s inner circle engaged in secret talks with members of Venezuela’s opposition in recent months, according to U.S. special envoy Elliott Abrams and people close to Guaidó, who said that the talks were aimed at getting Maduro to step down and to establish an interim government. David Luhnow and José de Córdoba report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. is focused on collecting intelligence on the situation in Venezuela, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford told the House Appropriations Committee defense subpanel yesterday. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Trump’s advisers believed earlier this week that the Maduro regime would fall but the crisis continues, and it is not clear what will happen next – raising questions about U.S.’ understanding of events on the ground and its ability to exact regime change in Caracas. Mark Landler and Julian E. Barnes explain at the New York Times.

An analysis of the barbs traded between the U.S. and Russia over interference in Venezuela is provided by Emily Tamkin at the Washington Post.

An explanation of the challenges the Venezuela crisis poses to Trump administration policy is provided by Matt Spetalnick at Reuters.

AFGHANISTAN

A new round of peace talks began yesterday in Qatar between U.S. and Taliban negotiators, with the U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad stating that focus will be on four main issues: troop withdrawal, counter-terrorism, a political settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and a lasting ceasefire. David Zucchino reports at the New York Times.

The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (S.I.G.A.R.) has warned that peace talks “could frustrate the shared goal of a stable Afghanistan,” with the watchdog emphasizing the potential setbacks to human rights, women’s rights, U.S. reconstruction investment, and national security. Pamela Constable reports at the Washington Post.

An Afghan grand council – known as Loya Jirga – today agreed on a series of recommendations on peace talks with the Taliban, demonstrating the Afghan government’s attempts to achieve a unified stance on future negotiations. Amir Shah reports at the AP.

The U.S. military has stopped tracking who controls territory in Afghanistan, which has often been used as a metric of success in the war with the Taliban. S.I.G.A.R. Inspector General John Sopko said in a report to Congress that the assessments were “of limited decision-making value” to the military mission. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The surreal nature of the Afghanistan peace talks is due to “ill-considered American-imposed plans,” Hy Rothstein and John Arquilla write at the Wall Street Journal, urging the U.S. to stop direct negotiations with the Taliban and to understand that Afghanistan cannot be governed by “day-to-day control from Kabul.”

IRAN

President Trump’s ban on all Iranian oil exports demonstrates a victory for the administration’s hawkish economic and security advisers, Humeyra Pamuk and Timothy Gardner explain at Reuters.

U.S. sanctions have had a substantial impact on Iran’s economy, the BBC explains.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Sri Lankan authorities have identified the nine individuals who detonated suicide bombs on Easter Sunday. Ben Otto reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The former C.I.A. officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee has pleaded guilty to conspiring to spy for China, the Justice Department said yesterday. Reuters reports.

The White House yesterday said it would not comply with the House Oversight Committee’s request for materials related to security clearances for Trump administration officials, with White House counsel Pat Cipollone writing in a letter that “it is not within the authority of Congress to second guess how the President selects his advisors or who has access to the information necessary to provide the President with fully-informed advice.” Rebecca Ballhaus and Natalie Andrews report at the Wall Street Journal.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been sentenced by a British judge to 50 weeks in prison for jumping bail. The AP reports.

The Saudi-led coalition yesterday raided an airbase adjoining the airport in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 18 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between April 6 and April 20 [Central Command] 

About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK