The Early Edition: May 7, 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

The House Judiciary Committee has announced that it will vote tomorrow on whether to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress, intensifying a dispute with the Trump administration after Barr missed lawmakers’ deadline to produce an un-redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian electoral inteference. If the panel approves the resolution, as is expected, it would then need to be approved by the full House, Byron Tau reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The contempt measure refers Barr for possible federal criminal prosecution while opening further legal avenues for House Democrats to try to force the release of the full report through a civil lawsuit, the BBC reports.

“[T]he Committee needs to review the unredacted report … the underlying evidence … and associated documents so that it can ascertain the facts and consider our next steps,” the 27-page report released by the Committee states. It also invokes Congress’ Article I powers set out in the Constitution, stating: “that includes whether to approve articles of impeachment with respect to the President or any other Administration official, as well as the consideration of other steps such as censure or issuing criminal, civil or administrative referrals,” Tim Mak reports at NPR.

“We were disappointed that the Committee took initial steps this morning toward moving forward with the contempt process,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote in a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) yesterday, adding that “the Department reiterates its concerns with the Committee’s rush to issue a subpoena immediately after the Attorney General took the extraordinary step of publicly disclosing, with as few redactions as possible, the confidential report of Special counsel Mueller III,” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration yesterday formally rejected demands by House Democrats to turn over the president’s tax returns. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Democratic demands raise “serious constitutional questions” and that lawmakers do not have a “legitimate” reason for seeking the president’s filings, Brian Faler reports at POLITICO.

“Out of respect for the deadlines previously set by the Committee … and consistent with our commitment to a prompt response … I am informing you now that the Department may not lawfully fulfill the Committee’s request,” Mnuchin wrote in a letter to House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.,) citing guidance from the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) Rebecca Shabad and Hallie Jackson report at NBC.

Three Senate Democrats are asking D.O.J. watchdogs to probe potential talks between Barr and White House staff about investigations arising from Mueller’s Russia probe. Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) yesterday sent a letter to D.O.J. Inspector General Michael Horowitz and Office of Professional Responsibility Director Corey Amundson, asking them to investigate if Barr shared the names involved in parallel cases with White House staff; “it would be highly inappropriate if Mr. Barr did in fact share case names with, and by default revealed the identity of, any defendants in those cases to the White House,” the senators wrote. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Hundreds of former federal prosecutors have signed a letter asserting Trump would have been charged with obstruction of justice if he were not president. In yesterday’s letter, former D.O.J. officials said the evidence of obstruction as laid out Mueller’s report was enough to bring forward an obstruction charge, Dartunorro Clark reports at NBC.

Barr’s assessment of the Mueller report was wrong because he failed “to understand that the special counsel’s job is different from that of ordinary prosecutors in a fundamental way,” Rebecca Roiphe comments at The Daily Beast.

“The special counsel is not authorized to bypass the required binary decision … he must decide to prosecute or not,” David E. Kendall comments at the Washington Post, arguing that Mueller’s explanation for his “flinch … does not withstand scrutiny.”

Asking whether Mueller got “played” by Barr is the wrong question, Joshua Geltzer cautions Trump-Russia watchers in an Op-Ed at Just Security.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Qatar has said it will send $480m to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip after a ceasefire deal yesterday morning ended the deadliest fighting between Israel and Palestinians since 2014. A statement from Qatar’s Foreign Ministry this morning said $300m would support health and education programs of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (P.A.), which controls parts of the West Bank, Al Jazeera reports.

The weekend’s violence fueled calls yesterday within Israel for a rethinking of the longstanding blockade on the Gaza Strip, which many see as ineffective and possibly counterproductive. Joseph Federman explains at the AP.

Middle East experts have commented that the recent outbreak of violence might provide political boosts to both Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Hamas militant group – currently in charge of the Gaza Strip. Rachel Elbaum explains at NBC.

IRAN

U.S. intelligence indicated that Iran made plans to target U.S. forces in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, precipitating the decision to reinforce the U.S. military presence in the region in an effort to deter any possible moves by Tehran, U.S. officials said yesterday. Gordon Lubold and Michael R. Gordon report at the Wall Street Journal.

The escalation in tensions came as European diplomats announced yesterday that Iran appears ready to breach portions of the 2015 international nuclear pact that limited Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reportedly plans to announce the scaling back of some “minor and general” commitments under the deal tomorrow, which marks the anniversary of President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would exit the arrangement, Zack Budryk reports at the Hill.
It is hard to determine the principles of U.S.’ Iran policy, Stephen M. Walt argues at Foreign Policy, writing that “Trump prizes being unpredictable, and his chaotically run administration is either unable or unwilling to provide clear and coherent justifications for many of its policy decisions.” Walt outlines six possible strategies that might underpin the administration’s thinking.

SYRIA

The Syrian army has made a minor advance into the rebels’ last major stronghold in the country, according to a pro-government newspaper and U.K.-based monitor war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights yesterday, following huge bombardments that began late last month. The northwestern area being targeted in the latest bombardment was the subject of a Russian-Turkish agreement last September to divert a government offensive; the army loyal to President Bashar al-Assad reportedly captured the villages of al-Janabara and Tel Othman yesterday, 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]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Eastern Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar yesterday urged his soldiers to teach government forces an “even harder lesson” after launching an offensive to capture the capital of Tripoli on April 4 that so far has been repelled. Al Jazeera reports.

China has refused to take part in three-way nuclear talks with the U.S. and Russia, a government spokesperson said yesterday, stymieing plans by the Trump administration for a flagship nuclear deal between the three nations. Ben Westcott reports at CNN.

Cybersecurity firm Symantec has found evidence Chinese intelligence operatives repurposed National Security Agency (N.S.A.) hacking technology in 2016 to attack U.S. allies and private firms in Europe and Asia. Researchers at the firm believe the Beijing administration captured the code from an N.S.A. attack on their own systems rather than stealing it, Nicole Perlroth, David E. Sanger and Scott Shane report at the New York Times.

The U.S. State Department is opening new military-style training facilities around the world, expanding plans to support local forces in counter-terrorism efforts, “as the Trump administration seeks cutbacks in conventional diplomacy and development programs,” Jessica Donati explains at the Wall Street Journal. 

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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).