The Early Edition: May 13, 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

President Trump pushed former White House counsel Don McGahn to declare he did not regard the president’s 2017 directive seeking special counsel Robert Mueller’s dismissal to be obstruction of justice, but McGahn rebuffed the request, according to people familiar with the matter who claimed that the disagreement took place within a day of the release of the Mueller report last month. The president has publicly denied asking McGahn to fire Mueller since the release of Mueller’s report on his investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign, Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

McGahn’s reluctance reportedly angered the president, who believed that McGahn displayed disloyalty by telling Mueller’s investigations about Trump’s attempts to maintain control over the Russia investigation. The White House made one of the requests to McGahn’s lawyer William A. Burck before the Mueller report was released publicly, but after the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) gave a copy to Trump’s lawyers in the preceding days, Michael S. Schmidt reports at the New York Times.

Trump lashed out at McGahn Saturday, sending a message on Twitter stating that he was “Never a big fan” of the former White House counsel. “I was NOT going to fire Bob Mueller, and did not fire Bob Mueller … in fact, he was allowed to finish his Report with unprecedented help from the Trump Administration,” the president wrote, adding “actually, lawyer Don McGahn had a much better chance of being fired than Mueller … Never a big fan!” Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

The White House yesterday denounced Democratic-led congressional investigations, claiming that Democrats are refusing to follow “rules and norms” that govern oversight authority as they issue subpoenas for documents the Trump administration has refused to hand over. “There are rules and norms governing congressional oversight of the executive branch, and the Democrats simply refuse to abide by them,” White House deputy press secretary Steve Groves said in a statement, adding that “Democrats are demanding documents they know they have no legal right to see – including confidential communications between the President and foreign leaders and grand jury information that cannot be disclosed under the law,” Devan Cole reports at CNN.

Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee Richard Neal (D-Mass.) has issued subpoenas for the president’s tax returns. Neal said in a statement he did not “take this step lightly,” but believed it gave the committee “the best opportunity” to get documents that so far the White House has refused to hand over; the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service (I.R.S.) have until 5pm on May 17 to hand over six years of records, the BBC reports.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said in a letter to Attorney General William Barr Friday that he was still open to talks with the D.O.J. over a subpoena for an unredacted version of the Mueller report. “We note that the full House has not yet taken action on this matter … the committee stands ready to resume the accommodation process to attempt to reach a compromise,” Nadler wrote, Reuters reports.

Former top F.B.I. lawyer James Baker offered a “robust” defense Friday of the bureau’s investigation into Trump and his 2016 campaign, slamming Trump’s allegation that the inquiry effectively equated a coup. “There was no attempted coup,” Baker told his audience at the taping of a Lawfare podcast, adding “there was no way in hell that I was going to allow some coup or coup attempt to take place on my watch,” Matt Zapotosky reports at the Washington Post.

The president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani announced Friday night that he had canceled a trip to Kiev in which he had planned to push the incoming Ukrainian government to make progress with investigations that he hoped would benefit Trump. Giuliani explained that he felt as if he was being “set up” by Ukrainians critical of his efforts, blaming Democrats for trying to “spin” the trip; “they say I was meddling in the election — ridiculous — but that’s their spin,” Giuliani commented, Kenneth P. Vogel reports at the New York Times.

The proposed trip had been met with stern criticism from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) “It is highly unethical for the president’s personal lawyer to go meet with officials from a foreign government to see if they can influence, somehow, the upcoming presidential election,” Warren said earlier Friday, adding “Rudy Giuliani should just back off,” Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

Chair of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) claimed yesterday that Democrats are reluctant to impeach the president, but he may provoke such a move by continuing to obstruct Congress’ efforts to oversee his administration. “He may get us there,” Schiff said in comments to A.B.C.’s “This Week,” adding that “he certainly seems to be trying and maybe this is his perverse way of dividing us more … he thinks that’s to his political advantage, but it’s certainly not to the country’s advantage,” Reuters reports.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo must warn Russian President Vladimir Putin against meddling in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged yesterday. “During your meeting with Vladimir Putin” – expected to take place tomorrow – “it is critical that you warn him that any action to interfere in our elections will be met with an immediate and robust response,” Schumer wrote in a letter to Pompeo, adding “President Trump’s approach to dealing with President Putin, especially on this vital issue, must change,” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

 A growing number of Democratic committee members are pushing House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.)  to take more aggressive steps to force the Trump administration to comply with a host of congressional subpoenas, with some even suggesting that Congress avail itself of its long-untouched authority to fine or even imprison witnesses. John Besnahan and Kyle Cheney explain at POLITICO.

Subpoenaing the president’s eldest son Donald Trump Jr. is a waste of time and distraction from the real issues facing the Senate, Hugh Hewitt argues at the Washington Post.

Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was “happy to oblige the White House on … spearheading the president’s war on leakers and whistleblowers,” even while serving as a thorn in the president’s side on the Mueller probe, Betsy Woodruff and Adam Rawnsley comment at The Daily Beast.

“The Justice Department’s assertions when it comes to protecting its law enforcement equities … including materials related on ongoing criminal investigations … are rooted in longstanding D.O.J. practice,” Edgar Chen writes in an analysis at Just Security.

IRAN

The U.S. will deploy additional Patriot missiles to the Middle East following Iranian threats. According to U.S. officials, intelligence suggests Iran and its proxies could be planning to threaten U.S forces and interests in the Middle East, Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne report at CNN.

The move is part of a “series of carefully calibrated deployments” intended to deter Iran or proxy forces from launching an attack on U.S. forces in the region, according to Pentagon officials. Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

President Hassan Rouhani has called for unity among Iran’s political factions in order to overcome the “unprecedented pressure” arising from tightening U.S. sanctions. Rouhani compared the economic conditions to when Saddam Hussein’s army invaded Iran in 1980, adding that during the war period “we did not have a problem with our banks, oil sales or imports and exports, and there were only sanctions on arms purchases,” Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. military presence in the Gulf represents a “target” and “opportunity” as opposed to a serious threat, Head of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards Amirali Hajizadeh said yesterday. “An aircraft carrier that has at least 40 to 50 planes on it and 6000 forces gathered within it was a serious threat for us in the past but now … the threats have switched to opportunities,” Hajizadeh said, adding if the U.S. forces make a move “we will hit them in the head.  Al Jazeera reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will hold talks with European officials on Iran and other issues today before heading to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Reuters reports.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has warned about the risks of an “unintended conflict” happening “by accident” between the U.S. and Iran over the unraveling 2015 nuclear deal. Hunt also told reporters in Brussels that it was crucial not to put Iran back on the path of re-nuclearization, Lorne Cook reports at the AP.

Hunt has called for a period of calm talks between the European Union and Pompeo “so that everyone understands what the other side is thinking,” Reuters reports.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz cautions that Iran may attack Israel if the stand-off between Tehran and Washington escalates, Reuters reports.

What sanctions did the U.S. impose on Iran? Zaheena Rasheed explains at Al Jazeera.

“We may be moving toward a military confrontation,” Sen. Angus King warns in an interview with Lara Seligman at Foreign Policy, suggesting that the Trump administration’s latest actions against Iran risks provoking the Iranian regime into an attack.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a site for a promised new settlement to be named after U.S. President Donald Trump in the occupied Golan Heights had been selected and formal approval was under way. Netanyahu pledged last month to name a site in appreciation of Trump’s recognition of Israel’s claim of sovereignty over a section of the strategic plateau, Al Jazeera reports.

Palestinian leaders have observed on Twitter a “digital manifestation” of how the Trump team has firmly aligned itself with Israel and its leaders, despite the Trump administration’s denial of claims of favoritism toward Israel, that would undermine the U.S.’ role as credible peacemaker in the region, Josh Lederman reports at NBC.

SYRIA

Syrian forces need to halt attacks in northwestern Syria, according to Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar. Akar added that Syrian forces should “return to territories agreed in an international deal in Kazakhstan,” in light of growing humanitarian problems and in order to reduce hostilities and casualties. Reuters reports.

Syrian officials who report directly to President Bashir Hafez al-Assad ordered mass detentions and knew of arbitrary arrests and torture prisons, according to newly discovered government memos sent to Syria’s head of military intelligence, Anne Barnard explains at the New York Times.

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]

AFGHANISTAN

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that there is a “real risk” that the Taliban can take over Afghanistan if U.S. troops are pulled out of the country, adding that the Trump administration must be assured that the Afghan government is stable before withdrawing the 12,000 troops stationed in the country. “I think that the circumstances under which you bring them home matter … and I think trying to give the Afghan government the best possible shot at survival is really important for the future of Afghanistan,” Gates said in an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation” aired yesterday, Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

Afghan officials say the Taliban last night targeted security checkpoints in northern Sari Pul province, killing at least seven members of the country’s security forces. Head of provincial council Mohammad Noor Rahmani added that the insurgents also abducted two members of the force and left five wounded in attacks near the provincial capital; the provincial governor’s spokesperson said that four Taliban fighters were killed in a gunfight lasting several hours, the AP reports.

A Taliban attack on two aid organizations last week serves as a signal that the insurgents are lashing out against so-called “soft targets” while peace talks falter. Rod Nordland provides an account of the developments at the New York Times.

“The American people are being kept more in the dark about the dismal state of the United States’ longest-running war,” the New York Times editorial board comments. The Op-Ed notes that the latest Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report to Congress did not provide updates on the number of districts and people living under Taliban control, while several other key metrics were classified or otherwise kept from the public eye.

YEMEN

Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Yemen withdrew forces yesterday from three strategic Red Sea ports following government accusations of rebels “faking” the pullout in a “policy of deception”. The U.N. has stated that the redeployment is proceeding as planned, AFP reports.

The step offers a “tentative boost” to wavering U.N.-led efforts to begin talks on ending the four-year conflict between the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels, Declan Walsh reports at the New York Times.

The withdrawal could ease hostilities and is a “vital part” of last December’s cease-fire agreement, Sune Engel Rasmussen and Saleh al-Batati report at the Wall Street Journal.

Yemen’s government-in-exile reportedly awaits a time-frame from the U.N. for the next steps of a peace deal, Reuters reports.

The KINGDOM

Saudi Arabia announced today that two of its oil tankers were damaged in “sabotage attacks” in the Gulf as regional tensions soared in light of the U.S.-Iran standoff.   Tehran called for an investigation into the “alarming” attacks and warned of “adventurism” by foreign players to disrupt maritime security, AFP reports.

Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih commented today that the oil tankers were attacked off the coast of Fujairah, one of the seven emirates that make up the U.A.E., adding that while there were no casualties or oil spills  the attacks had caused “significant damage to the structures of the two vessels.” Yesterday, the U.A.E. said four commercial vessels were “sabotaged” off Fujairah; Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry announced that the attacks constituted a “dangerous threat to the safety of navigation and affects negatively regional and international security.” Simon Kerr, Andrew England, Anjili Raval, Siddarth Shrikanth and Michael Peel report at the Financial Times.

Head of the Arab League Ahmed Aboul-Gheit has condemned the attacks as “criminal acts,” releasing a statement today claiming that the act are a “serious violation of the freedom and integrity of trade and maritime transport routes.” Geit says the Arab League stands by the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia “in all measures taken to safeguard their security and interests.” Live updates at the AP.

VENEZUELA

The U.S. has expanded the scope of its Venezuela sanctions to the defense and security services sectors in an effort to increase pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Reuters reports.

Venezuelan Gen. Ramon Rangel has called on the country’s armed forces to “rise up” against Maduro. Rango claimed the Venezuelan government is being controlled by the “communist dictatorship” in Cuba, Reuters reports.

“We have to find a way to get rid of the fear … to go out into the streets … to protest and to seek a military union to change this political system,” Rangel stated in a video posted on YouTube, Reuters reports.

Venezuelan opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaido has asked his envoy to the U.S. to meet with Pentagon officials to “co-operate” on a solution to his country’s political crisis. Guaido claims that China intends to join a diplomatic effort between European and Latin American countries – known as the International Contact Group on Venezuela – to negotiate an end to the crisis, Reuters reports.

Maduro has called his former intelligence chief Manuel Christopher a “traitor”, stating he helped plan a “coup”, Reuters reports.

BORDER SECURITY AND IMMIGRATION

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has approved the transfer of $1.5 billion to build more than 80 miles of barriers on the border with Mexico, U.S. officials announced Friday. The figure includes about $600 million taken from an account intended for Afghan security forces, Reuters reports.

Shanahan made his second trip to the Southern border Saturday. Shanahan told reporters that he intends to speed up plans to secure the border while claiming that Pentagon officials would remain at the border until it is secure: “we’re not going to leave until the border is secure … this isn’t about identifying a problem … it’s about fixing a problem more quickly,” Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Federal prosecutors are seeking the removal of the lead defense lawyer for Chinese tech giant Huawei – James Cole. Huawei are charged with bank fraud and sanctions violations; prosecutors have alleged that Cole has a conflict of interest arising from his supervision of a “substantially related” case while he served in a prior position as the D.O.J.’s second-highest-ranking official, Ellen Nakashima reports at the Washington Post.

Several Democratic Congressional committee chairs reintroduced a bill Friday to protect U.S. election systems against cyberattacks, including requiring President Trump to produce a “national strategy for protecting democratic institutions.” The Election Security Act is aimed at reducing risks posed by cyberattacks by foreign entities or other actors against U.S. election systems; the national strategy from the president would “protect against cyberattacks, influence operations, disinformation campaigns, and other activities that could undermine the security and integrity of United States democratic institutions,” Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

House Democrats are pushing to revive funding for the nonpartisan agency Office of Technology Assessment (O.T.A.) – intended to better inform lawmakers about science and technology issues relevant to legislation and public policy. The agency was created by Congress in 1972 but shut in 1995 after the then G.O.P.-controlled House cut its funding, Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

European Union (E.U.) investigators alongside academics and advocacy groups have stated that new disinformation efforts targeting European Parliament elections share many of the same tactics used in previous Russian attacks, including the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Matt Apuzzo and Adam Satariano report at the New York Times.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron are reportedly forming a joint plan to eliminate terrorist and violent content online. Ardern and Macron will meet in Paris this week on the fringes of a meeting of digital ministers from the G.7. nations to discuss the plan – dubbed the “Christchurch Call” – and urge other leaders to sign up, Eleanor Ainge Roy reports at the Guardian.

Social media giant Facebook has rejected a call from co-founder Chris Hughes Thursday to split in three, while lawmakers urged the D.O.J.  to launch an antitrust investigation into the organization, Reuters reports.

“Facebook shouldn’t be broken up — but it does need to be held to account,” Facebook’s Vice President for Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg writes at the New York Times, arguing that “anyone worried about the challenges we face in an online world should look at getting the rules of the internet right, not dismantling successful American companies.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates claimed Friday that North Korea is unlikely to ever give up all its nuclear weapons, and that President Trump was right to walk away from deal with leader Kim Jong-un at the leaders’ Hanoi summit in February. In an interview with C.B.S., Gates stated that  North Koreans have come to regard some modest nuclear capabilities as “essential to their national survival,” adding “I believe that North Koreans will never completely denuclearize … [the Trump administration] is unrealistic in believing that they can get complete denuclearization,” Patrick Temple-West reports at POLITICO.

Sri Lanka has once again blocked various social media networks– including Facebook and WhatsApp – following attacks on Muslims in the latest fallout arising from the Easter Sunday suicide attacks last month, Al Jazeera reports.

“Libya can’t take another tyrant” and Tripoli’s Government of National Accord must help to stop aspiring military dictator Khalifa Haftar in his attempted takeover, Fayez Serraj comments at the Wall Street Journal.

Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch are “disagreeing more than we could have expected,” Adam Liptak explains at the New York Times.

North Korea alongside Iran and Venezuela all decided this week they could take on President Trump. Each of the three nations “is betting that Mr. Trump is neither as savvy a negotiator nor as ready to use military force as he claims,” David E. Sanger and Edward Wong write in an analysis at the New York Times, noting that “each also poses a drastically different challenge to a president who has little experience in handling international crises, has struggled to find the right balance of diplomacy and coercion and has not always been consistent in defining his foreign policy.” 

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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).

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).