The Early Edition: May 9, 2019

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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

President Trump asserted executive privilege over special counsel Robert Mueller’s report yesterday, marking his first use of the executive authority in the ongoing constitutional battle with Congress. The administration’s move to deny Congress and the broader public access to Mueller’s complete report from his investigation into Russian electoral interference came just hours before the House Judiciary Committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for ignoring a congressional subpoena, Rachael Bade, Carol D. Leonnig and Matt Zapotosky report at the Washington Post.

Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd informed House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) that Trump had officially invoked executive privilege yesterday morning.  “Regrettably, you have made this assertion necessary by your insistence upon scheduling a premature contempt vote,” Boyd wrote to Nadler; meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed in a statement that “neither the White House nor the attorney general will comply with Chairman Nadler’s unlawful and reckless demands,” Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

“We have talked for a long time about approaching a constitutional crisis …we are now in a constitutional crisis,” Nadler commented, moments after the contempt vote. Nadler added that “our fight is not just about the Mueller report – although we must have access to the Mueller report … our fight is about defending the rights of Congress, as an independent branch, to hold the president, any president, accountable,” Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

The two sides are headed for a showdown in the federal court system likely to reach the Supreme Court. The high court has never considered a case on whether congressional demands for information can overcome an executive-privilege claim by an administration, Byron Tau reports at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) yesterday announced that he has subpoenaed Barr for documents related to the Mueller investigation. In a statement, Schiff said the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) had failed to respond to his committee’s request for the materials and he had set a May 15 deadline for Barr to comply with the subpoena. Reuters reports.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has subpoenaed the president’s eldest son Donald Trump Jr., who met with Russians in June 2016 after being promised political dirt about Trump’s 2016 Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, according to people familiar with the panel’s decision. Trump Jr. is the first of the president’s children to be subpoenaed in the continuing congressional investigations, and the move by the Republican-led committee suggests that some G.O.P. lawmakers are not aligned with the president’s desire for a swift end to all of the related inquiries, Mark Mazzetti and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

Democratic lawmakers are seeking to increase pressure on Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to call Mueller to testify, sharing 60 questions they believe Mueller could help answer. Top Democrat on the panel Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) yesterday sent Graham a letter stating that the panel would “benefit greatly” from having Mueller testify, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Former F.B.I. Director James Comey yesterday slammed Barr over his comments regarding “spying” that Barr believes was carried out on President Trump’s 2016 campaign. In an appearance on “C.B.S. This Morning,” Comey admonished Barr for his use of the word “spy” and said that is not what the bureau does: “we investigated a very serious allegation, that Americans might be hooked up with the Russian effort to attack our democracy,” John Bowden reports at the Hill.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Legal experts view the White House’s decision to assert executive privilege “as a clever … if risky … way to stall a possible reckoning in court,” Devlin Barrett, Carol D. Leonnig and Josh Dawsey write in an analysis of yesterday’s developments at the Washington Post.

Democrats are struggling to mount a more aggressive campaign to compel the president to cooperate with their investigations, while some who previously urged caution are now saying impeachment may be inevitable, Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in an analysis at the New York Times.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the assertion of privilege creates a “presumption” of authority for the president to block Congress from gaining access to materials, but that the power is not absolute, Jonathan Allen explains at NBC.

What can Democrats do to secure compliance from the Trump administration? Suzanne Garment surveys a range of strategies at NBC.

President Trump should release his tax returns: “because politicians should keep their promises, because the public deserves to know whether his policies are lining his pockets and because the integrity of our system of government requires everyone, particularly the president, to obey the law,” the New York Times Editorial board comments, arguing that if the president does not make the disclosure voluntarily, “Congress can and must force the issue.”

A Q&A on yesterday’s contempt vote is fielded by Founding Editor Andy Wright at Just Security.

VENEZUELA

Deputy to Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó – Edgar Zambrano – has been detained by the country’s intelligence services, in the first arrest of a senior opposition figure since attempts to spark a military uprising against incumbent President Nicolás Maduro. The BBC reports.

Zambrano was towed in his car to the political prison El Helicoide after he refused to leave his vehicle when he was approached by agents from the S.E.B.I.N. intelligence agency, Tom Phillips reports at the Guardian.

Zambrano broadcast his detention, sending a message on Twitter stating “we democrats we will keep fighting!” as he was hauled off. The AP reports.

The detention came after Zambrano became one of 10 opposition officials charged with treason, conspiracy and rebellion by the pro-Maduro Supreme Court in connection to the April 30 uprising, Anthony Faiola reports at the Washington Post.

The arrest was quickly denounced by the U.S. and Latin American governments, who called for Zambrano’s immediate release, Ryan Dube reports at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump is questioning his administration’s aggressive strategy in Venezuela following the failure of a U.S.-backed effort to oust Mauduro. Trump has recently said that U.S. national security adviser John Bolton wants to get him “into a war,” Anne Gearan, Josh Dawsey, John Hudson and Seung Min Kim report at the Washington Post.

President of Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice – Maikel Moreno – rejected a U.S. threat to apply sanction to all its judges. Moreno accused the Trump administration of attempting to manipulate the crisis-wracked nation’s justice system and spark a coup, Scott Smith reports at the AP.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters he was “disgusted” to see politicians in Britain and the U.S. continue to support Maduro, making the comments while on a visit to the U.K., Reuters reports.

IRAN

The White House yesterday imposed sanctions for the first time against Iran’s industrial-metals sector, with the move coming just hours after Tehran announced its intention to stop complying with elements of the 2015 nuclear deal. The action, which the Trump administration said hits 10% of Iran’s exports, “puts other nations on notice that allowing Iranian steel and other metals into your ports will no longer be tolerated,” President Trump claimed, adding that Iran can “expect further actions unless it fundamentally alters its conduct,” Aresu Eqbali in Tehran, Sune Engel Rasmussen in Beirut and Laurence Norman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Trump administration will impose additional sanctions on Iran “very soon,” U.S. National Security Council’s senior director for weapons of mass destruction and biodefense – Tim Morrison – announced yesterday. “Expect more sanctions soon,” Morrison said at a Foundation for Defense of Democracies conference, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The new sanctions come on the anniversary of Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, with tensions soaring as the U.S. deployed an aircraft carrier strike group and nuclear-capable bombers to the region and accused Iran of “imminent” attacks. AFP reports.

The European Union (E.U.) today urged Iran to respect the international agreement curbing its nuclear ambitions, saying it aims to continue trading with the country despite U.S. sanctions. The E.U. and key European powers — Britain, France and Germany — also said that they “note with great concern the statement made [yesterday] by Iran concerning its commitments” to the nuclear deal, Lorne Cook reports at the AP.

Chair of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel has called for Gulf countries to work together to contain the “threat posed by Iran.” “The U.S. and its Gulf partners share economic opportunities, anti-terrorism concerns and can be working together to counter the threat posed by Iran,” Engel commented yesterday, Al Jazeera reports.

“The crucial question now is whether … Trump’s efforts to strangle Iran economically will force Tehran to retreat or embolden hardliners – opposed to [Iranian President] Rouhani,” Andrew England and Najmeh Bozorgmehr write in an analysis at the Financial Times, explaining that the anti-Rouhani hardliners believe Trump’s actions vindicate their position – that Iran’s regional aggression is more important than ever.

An explainer on the Iran developments, covering the implications of Rouhani’s announcement yesterday, the likely U.S. response and the chances of a resolution, is provided by Patrick Wintour at the Guardian.

SYRIA

Forces loyal to the Syrian government have captured the town of Qalaat al-Madiq in northwestern Idlib province, residents of the town and U.K.-based monitor Observatory for Human Rights announced today, as government troops backed by Russian air power push into the most significant remaining rebel territory. Qalaat al-Madiq was the rebel area closest to the Russian Hmeimim airbase at Latakia, which insurgents have previously targeted with rocketfire, Reuters reports.

Government troops have entered rebel-held village Kfar Nabudah on the southwestern edge of Hama province, pro-government Central Military Media (C.M.M.) announced yesterday. Capturing Kfar Nabudah breaks the link between the southern edge of the rebel-held enclave in Hama province with its western and eastern portions, Al Jazeera reports.

An explainer on why the conflict in Idlib escalated once again is provided at Reuters.

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]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A lack of health funding in Gaza means 1,700 people shot by Israeli security forces may have to have amputations within the next two years, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for occupied Palestinian territory Jamie McGoldrick told reporters yesterday. McGoldrick said 29,000 Palestinians had been wounded in protests in the past year, and 7,000 of them had gunshot wounds, mostly in the lower legs, Reuters reports.

The Egypt-brokered truce that managed to bring last weekend’s violence to an end did not address the underlying issues driving the conflict, and we should expect the next bout of fighting to be even more deadly, Neri Zilber comments at Foreign Policy.

LIBYA

U.N. sanctions monitors are investigating likely use of an armed drone by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (L.N.A.) forces, or a supporting “third party,” in an attack last month on Libyan government-affiliated troops, according to a confidential report to the U.N. Security Council. The report found that a Blue Arrow air-to-surface missile (B.A.-7) was likely used in the attack near the Libyan capital of Tripoli on April 20, and that such a weapon is designed to be fired by a Wing Loong drone, Reuters reports.

French President Emmanuel Macron has called for a ceasefire in the month-long battle for capital Tripoli after meeting with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. “Noting that there is no military solution to the Libyan conflict … the proposal was put forward to delimit a ceasefire line, under international supervision,” Macron’s office said in a statement yesterday, backing a U.N. peace plan and elections in the country, Al Jazeera reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea has launched a number of unidentified projectiles in the Sino-ri area in the country’s western Pyongbuk province. The test comes as top U.S. envoy Stephen Biegun is in South Korea for talks on how to continue the stalled denuclearization negotiations with the North, AFP reports.

The projectiles were “probably short-range missiles”, according to a statement by South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Reuters reports.

The launch marks the second test in less than a week, with the first taking place Saturday. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un supervized a military drill, Simon Denyer reports at The Washington Post.

The new launch adds a further complication to the deadlocked negotiations with the U.S. and peace talks between the North and South. Weapons experts claim that Saturday’s test may have involved a new, more advance type of short-range missile that in theory could carry a nuclear warhead, Joshua Berlinger, Yoonjung Seo and Sophie Jeong report at CNN.

“North Korea’s newest missile appears similar to advanced Russian design,” Geoff Brumfiel explains at NPR.

U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned Britain that American intelligence sharing could be risked by allowing Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei to be part of Britain’s new cellular network. Pompeo told a press conference in London that “China steals intellectual property for military purposes,” Stephen Castle reports at the New York Times.

“The United States has an obligation to ensure that … places where American information is, places where we have our national security resident … operate inside trusted networks,” Pompeo said in London. Reuters reports.

Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou intends to seek a stay of her extradition proceedings, with her spokesperson commenting that “the criminal case against Miss Meng is based on allegations that are simply untrue,” Meng faces charges related to Iran sanctions violations, AFP reports.

The extradition stay is sought partly in light of statements by President Trump about the case, which Meng’s lawyers claim amount to political abuse and disqualify the U.S. from pursuing the matter in Canada. Evan Duggan and Karen Freifield report at Reuters.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. will need to keep counterterrorism forces in Afghanistan until there is no insurgency left in the country, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said during a congressional hearing yesterday, suggesting a longstanding military presence in the country even after more than 17 years of war. The U.S. is currently in talks with the Taliban insurgents to seek an end to the conflict, Reuters reports.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) announced yesterday that they will lead the newly established Cyberspace Solarium Commission (C.S.C.): a group of government and industry officials that will work to create a report on how to defend the U.S. in cyberspace. Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration’s proposed plan to create a new Space Force could increase annual Pentagon costs by $1 billion to nearly $2 billion and require one-time startup costs of $2 billion to nearly $5 billion, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (C.B.O.) announced in a report released yesterday. The estimate comes as acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan called the previously floated $2 billion price tag “overstated” earlier in the day, Ellen Mitchel reports at the Hill.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has postponed a scheduled visit to Greenland because he needs to return directly to Washington from London, the State Department announced today. Reuters reports. 

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).

Nat O'Connell

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow her on Twitter (@oconnellnat).