The Early Edition: May 3, 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 last month lodged a formal complaint with the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) over the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller, clarifying that President Trump believes he retains the right to assert executive privilege over material contained in Mueller’s report despite its public release. The letter was written by Emmet Flood – the official handling the Mueller investigation for the White House counsel’s office – and submitted to Attorney General William Barr on April 19, the day after Barr released a redacted version of the report. Rosalind S. Helderman and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

Flood said Trump’s decision to let advisers cooperate with the Mueller probe does not extend to congressional oversight investigations. “It is one thing for a president to encourage complete cooperation and transparency in a criminal investigation conducted largely within the Executive Branch,” Flood wrote in the letter, adding “it is something else entirely to allow his advisers to appear before Congress…” Reuters reports.

The fallout between Barr and House Democrats appeared to reach boiling point yesterday as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) accused him of lying to Congress and the Judiciary Committee threatened to hold him in contempt if he did not promptly hand over a complete version of the Mueller report. Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

“What is deadly serious about it is the attorney general of the United States of America was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States … that’s a crime,” Pelosi told reporters, in response to the news that Mueller had sent Barr a letter criticizing him for his handling of Mueller’s findings, Rebecca Shabad reports at NBC

“Speaker Pelosi’s baseless attack on the attorney general is reckless … irresponsible … and false,” the D.O.J. responded in a statement. Brian Naylor reports at NPR.

House Democrats also lambasted Barr for his refusal to appear before the House Judiciary Committee yesterday, which Barr justified on the basis of Democratic demands that their staff counsel be able to question him. Democrats went forward with the theater of the hearing in any event, setting up an empty chair for the absent Barr; Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) brought a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken to the morning event, accusing Barr of being a coward, Morgan Chalfant and Olivia Beavers report at the Hill.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) has indicated he intends to give Barr “one or two” days to consider complying with Democratic demands. “We must do all we can in the name of the American people to ensure that when the Trump administration ends we have as robust a democracy to hand to our children as was handed to us,” Nadler commented, Kyle Cheney and Darren Samuelsohn report at POLITICO.

Mueller’s team is reportedly in direct talks with the House Judiciary Committee about whether he will testify before Congress, according to multiple reports, Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

The F.B.I. in 2016 sent an investigator posing as a research assistant to meet with former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos as part of its probe into ties between Moscow and the Trump campaign. The woman, travelling under the name Azra Turk, reportedly met with Papadopoulos at a London bar where she asked him about whether the campaign was working with Moscow, Adam Goldman, Michael S. Schmidt and Mark Mazzetti report at the New York Times.

“Barr deserved great credit for standing up to a room full of bullies who now think defeating the President means mimicking his worst qualities,” Paul Callin comments on Wednesday’s Senate hearing at CNN.

Barr’s testimony Wednesday was “an astonishing exercise in dissembling,” Rhode Island Senator and former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse comments at The Daily Beast.

“Accomplished people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive this president,” former F.B.I. Director James Comey writes in an Op-Ed at the New York Times, considering the relationship between Trump and Barr.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Former White House security director Carl Kline told congressional investigators Wednesday that he loosened clearance procedures for new hires over the objections of career officials. Kline was responding to testimony by subordinate Tricia Newbold who told the committee in March how he frequently overruled the recommendations of security specialists and described how she had kept a running list of at least 25 officials whose clearance applications Kline had approved, despite a “wide range” of disqualifying information, including drug use, financial problems and criminal conduct, Reuters reports.

Kline claimed that he had not been pressured over the clearances, reportedly testifying: “I have never been approached by anybody at the White House or outside the White House to adjudicate a case … one way or the other … in my tenure,” Katie Rogers, Maggie Haberman and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

VENEZUELA

Incumbent Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro yesterday called on the armed forces to oppose “any coup plotter” after a military uprising in support of opposition leader Juan Guaidó petered out, and subsequent street clashes left four protesters dead. Guaidó –recognized by more than 50 countries as the country’s interim president – had urged the armed forces to rise up against the embattled leader Tuesday; although a small group heeded the call, the movement failed to gain momentum, AFP reports.

Opposition leader Leopoldo López has stated that he expects the country’s military will step up to overthrow Maduro despite setbacks. López spoke with reporters yesterday at the gate of the Spanish ambassador’s home in Caracas, where he is seeking refuge having broken house arrest; he commented that in recent weeks he has talked with majors in the Venezuelan armed forces who told him they are committed to Maduro’s ouster, the AP reports.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) argued this week that the U.S. was partly to blame for the devastation in Venezuela – eliciting a harsh response yesterday from Vice President Mike Pence. “A lot of the policies that we have put in place has kind of helped lead the devastation in Venezuela, and we’ve sort of set the stage for where we’re arriving today,” Omar said Wednesday during a T.V. interview, adding “this particular bullying and the use of sanctions to eventually intervene and make regime change really does not help the people of countries like Venezuela, and it certainly does not help and is not in the interest of the United States,” Caroline Kelly reports at CNN.

An analysis of the likely direction of travel in Venezuela after the flatlining of Guiadó’s latest attempt to oust Maduro is provided by Tom Phillips and Joe Parkin Daniels at the Guardian.

“I think the Trump administration has handled this one reasonably well using diplomatic and economic pressure,” U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis comments on the Venezuela developments in an interview at Foreign Policy.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has revealed new details of the upcoming U.S. peace plan for the Middle East, indicating that it will depart from long-standing mentions of a two-state solution with the Palestinians and accept Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Al Jazeera reports.

“If you say ‘two-state’ … it means one thing to the Israelis … it means one thing to the Palestinians,” Kushner said yesterday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, adding “we said, ‘you know, let’s just not say it … let’s just say, let’s work on the details of what this means’,” AFP reports.

YEMEN

The Senate yesterday found itself unable to overturn President Trump’s veto of the War Powers Resolution that would have ended U.S. military assistance for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The 53-45 vote handed a victory to the White House for its policy of continuing to back Saudi Arabia, falling short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto, Al Jazeera reports.

Possible next steps available to Congress toward ending U.S. involvement in Yemen are explored by Senior Editor Tess Bridgeman at Just Security, who notes that “having worked in the Obama White House … I can attest how difficult it is for a President to veto the entire N.D.A.A. despite provisions he finds loathsome.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

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]

Expanding Chinese activities in the Arctic region could lay the ground for a strengthened military presence, including the deployment of submarines to act as nuclear deterrents, the Pentagon said in a report released yesterday. Reuters reports.

Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan intends to make sexual harassment a military crime in its own right and is appealing to top commanders to stamp out sex assault and harassment as the Pentagon releases a damning new report showing the problem is worsening. “To put it bluntly, we are not performing to the standards and expectations we have for ourselves or for each other,” Shanahan wrote in a memo to his top subordinates Wednesday, released by the Pentagon yesterday, citing data from a new annual report on sexual assault in the military, Wesley Morgan reports at POLITICO.

The Pentagon yesterday morning released its latest annual report on civilian casualties. “While the report contains some improvements in reporting standards and parameters, it illustrates the serious gaps that remain to be address by both the department and Congress,” Rita Siemion and Daniel R. Mahanty explain at Just Security. 

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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).