The Early Edition: May 15, 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 Intelligence Committee is investigating whether lawyers linked to President Trump and his family helped obstruct the panel’s inquiry into Russian election interference by crafting false testimony, a series of previously undisclosed letters from Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.)  indicate. “Among other things, it appears that your clients may have reviewed, shaped and edited the false statement that [President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael] Cohen submitted to the committee, including causing the omission of material facts,” Schiff wrote to Trump family lawyers in a May 3 letter, Nicholas Fandos and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

Schiff sought documents related to any drafts of or communications about a false statement former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen made to the committee in 2017, as well as records about any discussions of a pardon or “pre-pardon” related to  Cohen and nearly a dozen other Trump associates, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former national security adviser Mike Flynn and the president’s son-in-law and daughter, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, Rebecca Ballhaus reports at Wall Street Journal.

Schiff’s letter was sent to four attorneys: the president’s lawyer Jay Sekulow, the president’s son Donald Trump Jr.’s lawyer Alan S. Futerfas, Trump Organization lawyer Alan Garten and Ivanka Trump’s lawyer Abbe D. Lowell. Sekelow’s own lawyer Patrick Strawbridge yesterday issued a statement on behalf of the four, stating: “instead of addressing important intelligence needs, the House Intelligence Committee appears to seek a truly needless dispute — this one with private attorneys — that would force them to violate privileges and ethical rules … as committed defense lawyers, we will respect the constitution and defend the attorney-client privilege — one of the oldest and most sacred privileges in the law.” Jonathan Allen, Rebecca Shabad and Alex Moe report at NBC.

Donald Trump Jr. will testify in a closed-door interview with the Senate Intelligence Committee next month, in a decision diffusing some tension over a subpoena as part of the panel’s Russia investigation. Under the terms of the deal struck between the Trump Jr. and lawmakers, the interview will be limited to two-to-four hours and limited in scope to five-to-six topics, though questions about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting and the Trump Tower Moscow project will not be off limits, according to sources familiar with the matter., the AP reports.

The agreement for Trump Jr.’s testimony comes after the committee issued a subpoena last month that sparked an intense kickback against Chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.) from Trump Jr.’s allies and many of Burr’s G.O.P. colleagues, Jeremy Diamond, Jeremy Herb and Kara Scannell report at CNN.

“None of us tell Chairman Burr how to run his committee,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters yesterday, adding: “I asked him to undertake this investigation with Russian collusion a couple of years ago. He’s indicated publicly that he believes they will find no collusion,” Marianne Levine, Andrew Restuccia and Burgess Everett report at POLITICO.

U.S. attorney for Connecticut John Durham – selected to scrutinize the origins of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference – is for now conducting only a review and has not opened any criminal inquiry, a person familiar with the matter disclosed yesterday. Durham is examining the administration’s collection of intelligence involving the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russians, according to the source, Charlie Savage, Adam Goldman and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) has been silent on the reports about Attorney General William Barr’s decision to tap Durham, and a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office in Connecticut also declined to comment. Reports of the move have prompted praise from Republicans while evoking suspicion from Democrats – critical of Barr’s decision to review the origins of the intelligence collection on the Trump campaign, which Barr last month referred to as “spying,” Olivia Beavers and Morgan Chalfant report at the Hill.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta yesterday voiced skepticism of a request by the president and several Trump entities to block a subpoena by House Democrats seeking financial records from the president’s longtime accounting firm. “Historically, there have been investigations of presidents and their conduct,” Mehta said during a 90-minute hearing in Washington, D.C., adding that no Supreme Court case or major lower-court ruling since 1880 has found Congress had overstepped its bounds in issuing subpoenas, Brett Kendall reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Mehta said that Congress could legitimately investigate whether Trump is complying with the U.S. Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which bars Trump-owned businesses from receiving payments from foreign governments. “That would be a proper subject of investigation,” Mehta stated, Reuters reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“The good news about [U.S. attorney for Connecticut John] Durham’s appointment is that he is a career government lawyer with a history of investigating improprieties in the national security apparatus,” the New York Times editorial board comments, stressing that nevertheless, “the F.B.I. has well-founded concerns that Russia will continue to meddle in American elections … so once the Trump administration is done investigating the investigators, it should turn its attention to ensuring the … security of the nation’s ballot boxes.”

“In his quest to protect the presidency … [Attorney General William] Barr is damaging our national security,” Barbara McQuade comments on the Durham appointment at The Daily Beast.

An account of yesterday’s courtroom showdown over the disclosure of the president’s financial documents is provided by Dana Milbank at the Washington Post.

An account of the dynamics on the inside of special counsel Robert Mueller’s office during the Russia probe is provided by Josh Gerstein at POLITICO.

A comprehensive account of the Mueller Report’s references to potential wrongdoing by President Trump’s personal lawyers is provided by Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman and Alex Potcovaru – in chart form –at Just Security.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, with both sides expressing willingness to repair damaged relations – even as they remained deeply at odds on crises in Ukraine, Venezuela, Iran and North Korea. Russia “would like to rebuild fully fledged relations and I hope that right now the conducive environment is being built for that,” Putin told Pompeo ahead of their meeting; Pompeo stated earlier that “the U.S. stands ready to find common ground with Russia,” making the comments during a joint press conference with Lavrov following one-on-one discussions and a working dinner.  Georgi Kantchev reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday weighed in on the Mueller report, joking that “despite the exotic nature of the work of special counsel Mueller, we must give him credit.” In an emulation of Trump’s own language, Putin said Mueller’s report showed claims of Trump-Russia collusion were “nonsense,” Stephen Collinson writes at CNN.

Pompeo claimed that he and Lavrov had spoken about “the question of interference in our domestic affairs,” adding that Russia now has a chance to prove “that these types of activities are a thing of the past.” Pompeo later said: “I made clear to Foreign Minister Lavrov… that interference in American elections is unacceptable … if the Russians were to engage in that in 2020, it would put our relationship in an even worse place than it has been … we would not tolerate that,” Bill Chappell reports at NPR.

“We had a very productive conversation on pathways forward in Syria … things we can do together where we have a shared set of interests on how to move the political process forward,” Pompeo told reporters at the airport before flying out, claiming that he and Putin agreed on ways to move ahead with a long-delayed Syrian-led committee that will rewrite the constitution in hopes of a political end to the conflict.  The U.S. and Russia are on opposite sides of the eight-year Syrian civil war, with Russia serving as the primary backer of President Bashar al-Assad, AFP reports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is open to a new meeting with President Trump if Moscow receives a formal proposal for such an encounter, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said yesterday after Putin’s talks with Pompeo. Trump had said Monday that he planned to meet Putin on the sidelines of a meeting of G.20 nations in Japan next month, Reuters reports.             

IRAN

President Trump denies planning to send 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack U.S. forces or escalate its nuclear activities – “it’s fake news,” Trump said of the New York Times report. “Now, would I do that? Absolutely … but we have not planned for that … hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that,” Trump told reporters, although he did not rule out deploying “a hell of a lot more troops than that” in the future. AFP reports.

The Trump administration is considering a “range of options” for using military force against Iran. Trump’s top advisers met late last week to consider possible steps – including military action – as officials discussed “credible threats” by Iran or their proxy forces to U.S., Missy Ryan, John Hudson and Carol Morello report at the Washington Post.

Iran accuses the U.S. of “unnecessarily escalating tensions” with Tehran, as Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov described the situation as “downward spiral.” Lavrov stated that Russia needs to consult with Europe and China “to find a way out of this crisis because the situation is getting worse and worse,” Nicole Gaouette reports at CNN

The U.S. military is investigating the alleged “sabotage attacks” on four oil tankers off the U.A.E. coast at the request of the U.A.E. Iran’s foreign ministry also asked for an investigation, calling the incidents “worrisome and dreadful;” details of the attack remain unclear, and U.A.E. officials have declined to say who they suspect was responsible, Al Jazeera reports.

Saudi Arabia shut down one of its major oil pipelines yesterday after a series of drone attacks claimed by Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels. Saudi energy minister Khalid al-Falih described the incident as an “act of terrorism… that not only targets the kingdom but also the security of oil supplies to the world and the global economy,” AFP reports.

Iran has accused the U.S. of “framing it” for the tanker sabotage in order to provoke military conflict. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif denied Iran was behind the attacks on four oil tankers, stating “radical individuals” were attempting to pull Iran and the U.S. into a war; Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei yesterday played down talk of hostility, stating: “neither we seek war, nor do they … they know it’s not in their interest.” Sune Engel Rasmussen, Nancy A. Youssef and Aresu Eqbali report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Pentagon has rebuked comments from top-ranking British official Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika who claims there is “no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria.” Central Command put out a statement saying Ghika’s remarks run “counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces in the region,” Jamie Ross reports at the Daily Beast.

The U.S is not seeking war with Iran, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo claimed yesterday during a visit to Russia. AFP reports.

Iran has officially stopped some of its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal following an order from its national security council. An official in the country’s atomic energy body told reporters that Iran “has no limit from now for the production of enriched uranium and heavy water,” Al Jazeera reports.

“Israel, Saudi Arabia and Trump aides are pushing for a confrontation with Iran – will Trump listen?” Dan De Luce comments at NBC.

“Rather than Iran walking into [U.S. national security adviser John] Bolton’s trap … it is Bolton who is walking into Iran’s trap,” Trita Parsi explains at NBC, adding that “Iran is not being deterred by Bolton’s theatrics and threats of war, because Bolton is actually playing the exact role Tehran expected — and wanted — him to play.”

“It’s time for the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Iran to talk,” Hossein Mousavian and Abdulaziz Sager comment at the New York Times, arguing that common ground can be found between the sides.

An explainer of the “sabotage attacks” is provided by Zaheena Rasheed at Al Jazeera.

IRAQ

The State Department has ordered “non-emergency U.S. government employees” in Iraq to leave its embassy in Baghdad and its consulate in Erbil amid tensions with neighboring Iran. “The U.S. government’s ability to provide routine and emergency services to U.S. citizens in Iraq is extremely limited,” the department said in a statement early today, also advising U.S. citizens: “do not travel to Iraq due to terrorism, kidnapping and armed conflict,” Phil Helsel reports at NBC.

The order applies primarily to full-time diplomats posted to Iraq by State Department headquarters in Washington, while contractors who provide security, food and other such services will remain in place. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that the administration had received intelligence related to “Iranian activity” that put U.S. facilities and service personnel at “substantial risk;” Iraqi officials have voiced skepticism about the about the described threat, Edward Wong reports at the New York Times.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel is “on the Side of God,” U.S. Ambassador David M. Friedman has claimed. Freidman said that a second reason why Israel is gaining strength is because the relationship between the two countries was growing “stronger and stronger and stronger.” David M. Halbfinger reports at the New York Times.

A U.S. official is in Beirut to discuss the maritime border dispute with Israel. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield arrived early yesterday to begin a two-day visit meeting officials in Lebanon, AP reports.

YEMEN

The U.N. has said Yemen’s Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi armed group has handed over security of three Red Sea ports to the “coastguard” under a peace deal that it hopes will pave the way for wider talks to resolve the conflict. “U.N. teams have been monitoring this redeployment which has been executed,” Head of the U.N.’s Redeployment Coordination Committee (R.C.C.) – the group in charge of monitoring the deal – Lieutenant General Michael Lollesgaard said in a statement yesterday after visiting the ports of Saleef, Ras Isa and Hodeidah, Al Jazeera reports.

Hodeidah residents are cautiously hoping that the city will be spared future violence as the long-awaited withdrawal by the Houthis appeared to be proceeding according to plan. Bethan McKernan and Patrick Wintour report at the Guardian.

Forces loyal to the internationally recognized Yemeni government-in-exile –supported by the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition – killed 97 Houthi forces and captured 120 in the governorate of Al-Dhalea, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya T.V. network reported today, citing military sources. Reuters reports.

An explainer on how and why the Houthi rebels are increasingly deploying drones in the Yemeni conflict is provided at the AP.

VENEZUELA

Opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó yesterday accused the Venezuelan government of attempting to “gag” the country’s congress after security forces prevented opposition lawmakers from entering the National Assembly, two weeks Guaidó’s uprising against President Nicolás Maduro failed.  AFP reports.

The U.S. is calling on all nations “to be prepared to take concrete actions” to respond to repression by President Maduro’s regime. A statement yesterday issued by the U.S. Mission to the U.N. said that “the world is watching as the dire humanitarian crisis and assaults on basic human rights in Venezuela worsen by the day,” though it did not elaborate on what actions it is seeking, the AP reports.

N.G.O. Amnesty International yesterday asked the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) to investigate alleged “crimes against humanity” committed by Maduro’s government, especially after the wave of violent protests in January. In a report presented in Mexico City, the group said it had found evidence of extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions and deaths and injuries due to excessive use of force by government forces; Maduro’s administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment, Reuters reports.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

President Trump is expected to sign an executive order effectively banning Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from the U.S. “China hawks” in the Trump administration have been urging the president to sign the executive order for months amid rising fear within U.S. security and intelligence agencies about the vulnerability of Huawei-supplied wireless networks to Chinese spying, Demetri Sevastopulo, Kiran Stacey and Nian Liu report at the Financial Times.

San Francisco has become the first U.S. city to ban the use of facial-recognition by police and other local agencies. The move supplements the general push to regulate a technology that critics argue “can perpetuate police bias and give authorities excessive surveillance powers,” Asa Fitch reports at the Wall Street Journal.

WhatsApp has announced that the recent security breaches on its app may have targeted human rights groups, Katie Paul, Joel Schectman and Christopher Bing report at Reuters.

Facebook is restricting live streaming for people who have recently posted or shared terrorist propaganda in the wake of the New Zealand mosque attacks. The social media giant announced it will impose a “one-strike” rule, blocking people who have violated certain Facebook rules, Sam Schechner reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Microsoft has warned that a “monster” computer bug could be “exploited by malicious software” similar to the WannaCry worm, which spread across the world two years ago. The company has now patched the flaw, Robert McMillan reports at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. MILITARY

A House defense spending bill would provide $15 million merely to study plans for a Space Force rather than funding the establishment of the military branch as President Trump has requested. The bill would allocate $15 million to “study and refine plans for the potential establishment of a Space Force as a branch of the Armed Forces,” according to draft bill text released yesterday by House Democrats, adding that “nothing in this provision shall be construed to authorize the establishment of a Space Force,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The bill would limit the amount of money the Pentagon is allowed to transfer between accounts after it unilaterally shifted money for the president’s proposed border wall. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan last week approved transferring $1.5 billion from various accounts to be used on the wall, provoking a furious reaction from Democrats, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz) announced yesterday that she will introduce legislation to address how the military deals with sexual assault claims. McSally is expected to introduce the proposal as soon as today, with the goal of getting the bulk of it included in the National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.,) Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Can Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan stand up to “long-time hawks” such as U.S. security adviser John Bolton? Wesley Morgan and Nahal Toosi provide an analysis at POLITICO.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Sudan’s military leaders have reached an agreement with the country’s opposition movement for a three-year transition to a fully civilian administration after President Omar al-Bashir was toppled in a military coup last month. At a joint press conference in the early hours of today, the military council announced that a deal would be signed within 24 hours, Tom Wilson reports at the Financial Times.

French President Emmanuel Macron wants to meet Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar to push for a ceasefire in the country and resume peace talks. Macron last week called for a truce in the month-long battle for Libya’s capital Tripoli, after meeting U.N.-recognized Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, Al Jazeera reports.

President Trump plans a speech in coming days to outline his views on how immigration laws should be reformed, Republican senators said yesterday after top White House advisers briefed them on the plan. Reuters reports.

The U.S. has warned that greater military co-operation between European Union (E.U.) countries would constitute a “dramatic reversal” of three decades of transatlantic defense integration. In a letter sent this month by U.S. Under-Secretary of Defense Ellen Lord to top E.U. diplomat Federica Mogherini, Washington threatened retaliation if the European nations pressed ahead with rules that it said would limit the involvement of U.S. companies in pan-European military projects, Guy Chazan and Michael Peel report at the Financial Times. 

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).

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).