The Early Edition: May 21, 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 yesterday blocked the former White House counsel Don McGahn from testifying before Congress about special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. The White House released a statement explaining that McGhan has “immunity” and therefore cannot be compelled: “the Department of Justice has provided a legal opinion stating that … [McGahn] cannot be forced to give such testimony … this action has been taken in order to ensure that future presidents can effectively execute the responsibilities of the office of the presidency.” McGahn Rachael Bade, Josh Dawsey and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

Trump is “trying to block damaging testimony about his obstruction of justice,” House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) hit back. “The President acted again and again … perhaps criminally … to protect himself from federal law enforcement … McGahn personally witnessed the most egregious of these acts … President Trump knows this … he clearly does not want the American people to hear firsthand about his alleged misconduct,” Nadler commented in a statement, adding that his committee still expects McGahn to show up today and testify. Sarah N. Lynch, David Morgan and Steve Holland report at Reuters.

Nadler believes that Trump’s action is “unprecedented” and the Justice Department’s opinion is “unsupported by relevant case law,” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

McGahn will “respect the President’s instruction” and decline to testify, McGahn’s lawyer William Burck told the Judiciary Committee yesterday, adding that although “McGahn understands … that the Committee would vote to hold him in contempt should he not appear tomorrow,” he “must honor his ethical and legal obligations.” Burck further wrote that the committee’s issue, “is not with Mr. McGahn but with the White House,” Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“We’ll hold McGahn in contempt if he skips congressional testimony,” Nadler told reporters yesterday evening. “[F]irst thing we’re gonna do is we’re gonna have to hold McGahn in contempt—then we’re gonna pass a resolution in the House enforcing our contempt citations against Barr and McGahn and seek to enforce those subpoenas in court,” Nadler stated, Julia Arciga reports The Daily Beast.

Three key Democrats want to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump. Representatives Jamie Raskin (D-Md.,) David Cicilline  (D-R.I.,) and Joe Neguse (D-Colo.,) all argued for launching an impeachment inquiry if McGahn failed to testify at today’s hearing before the Judiciary Committee. Cicilline explained that “an impeachment inquiry could be used as a tool to force the Trump administration to comply with subpoenas for certain witnesses to testify or to provide requested documents,” Heidi Przybyla, Alex Moe and Rebecca Shabad report at NBC.

Trump’s accounting firm must turn over his financial records to congress, judge Amit Mehta ruled yesterday, rejecting the president’s legal team’s argument that lawmakers had no legitimate power to subpoena the files. Trump criticized the ruling as “crazy” and “totally the wrong decision by obviously an Obama-appointed judge;” his lawyers are expected to file an appeal, Charlie Savage reports at the New York Times.

“Congress has broad authority to conduct investigations,” according to Mehta’s ruling, which adds “it is not unreasonable to think that [the president’s accounting firm] Mazars records might assist Congress in determining whether ethics statutes or regulations need updating to strengthen Executive Branch accountability, promote transparency, and protect against Executive Branch officials operating under conflicts of interest.” Brent Kendall and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

Attorney General William Barr has claimed his long-held belief in executive power is more about protecting the presidency than Trump. Barr stated in a recent interview that he “felt the rules were being changed to hurt Trump, and [he] thought it was damaging for the presidency over the long haul,”  Sadie Gurman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen was asked by the president’s legal team to testify falsely to congress, according to transcripts released yesterday of Cohen’s private interviews early this year with the House Intelligence committee. Trump attorney Jay Sekulow requested that Cohen “falsely” tell Congress that negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow concluded on Jan 31 2016, nearly six months before they actually ended, Cohen claimed.  Andrew Desiderio, Natasha Bertrand and Darren Samuelsohn report at POLITICO.

Justin Amash has become the first Congressional Republican to call for Trump’s impeachment. Amash sent multiple messages on Twitter arguing that Trump’s conduct had met the constitutional standard for impeachment—and that Barr had “misled the public” about the special counsel’s findings over the president’s apparent “high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” the Economist reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Republicans are torn between loyalty to President Trump and a reluctance to penalize Representative Justin Amash following his declaration of “impeachable conduct,” Mike DeBonis and Rachael Bade explain at the Washington Post.

Amash has “set an example” for Democrats by claiming the Mueller report shows that Trump committed impeachable offenses, Cristian Farias comments at the New York Times.

Trump’s senior attorneys seem to be enabling his “most constitutionally dubious actions,” Tom McCarthy argues at the Guardian, explaining the lawyers are “at risk of neglecting a higher, sworn duty” to respect the rule of law and the constitution.

Trump’s calls for investigations into his political opponents have “intensified debate” over possible abuse of power, Maggie Haberman, Annie Karni, Kenneth P. Vogel and Katie Benner explain at the New York Times.

“Why is Trump (and the rest of his administration) spending so much energy and political capital to keep the president’s tax returns hidden?” Catherine Rampell writes at the Washington Post, asking: “what could possibly be so disturbing or incriminating to justify such an effort?”

Trump’s lies reveal an “emboldened but vulnerable president,” Charles M. Blow argues at the New York Times.

HUAWEI

The U.S. Commerce Department yesterday announced an easing of some of the restrictions placed on Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei last week. The relaxation gives some Huawei suppliers and customers a 90-day reprieve from trade penalties, and should also ensure that owners of Huawei smartphones will continue to have access to critical Android software updates, Ahiza Garcia reports at CNN Business.

The Commerce Department had blocked Huawei from buying U.S. goods last week, announcing that the firm was involved in activities contrary to national security. Despite yesterday’s exemption, the company is still prohibited from buying American-made hardware and software to make new products without further licenses, Reuters reports.

“The Temporary General License grants operators time to make other arrangements and the Department space to determine the appropriate long term measures for Americans and foreign telecommunications providers that currently rely on Huawei equipment for critical services,” Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross commented, adding “in short, this license will allow operations to continue for existing Huawei mobile phone users and rural broadband networks,” John D. McKinnon, Dan Strumpf and Yoko Kubota report at the Wall Street Journal.

Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei said the reprieve “doesn’t mean much” to the company as it had already prepared for a potential blacklisting, and warned that the U.S. was underestimating Huawei. “We will not easily and narrowly exclude U.S. chips . . . but if there is a supply shortage, we have a back-up,” Ren said in an interview with Chinese state media today, adding “the current practice of American politicians underestimates our strength,” James Politi, Demetri Sevastopulo and Kiran Stacey report at the Financial Times.

Google has said that it would work with Huawei during the 90 day period to provide security updates to its Android operating system, but that it planned to abide by the Commerce Department’s orders when the period expired. Adam Satariano, Raymond Zhong and Daisuke Wakabayashi report at the New York Times.

“[Google] have zero motivation to block us,” Huawei’s representative to E.U. institutions Abraham Liu told journalists, adding “we are working closely with Google to find out how Huawei can handle the situation and the impact from the U.S. Department of Commerce decision,” Reuters reports.

“Huawei is becoming the victim of the bullying by the U.S. administration,” Liu continued, adding “this is not just an attack against Huawei. It is an attack on the liberal, rules-based order … this is dangerous,” Reuters reports.

“Huawei isn’t a problem … it’s an opportunity to revitalize the U.S. economy and enhance its digital infrastructure,” George Gilder comments at the Wall Street Journal, arguing that the U.S. should embrace Huawei “as a triumph of the American-led system rather than push it into the arms of Chinese hard-liners.”

IRAN

Iranian officials announced yesterday that within weeks Tehran could exceed the internationally agreed cap on their stockpile of low-enriched uranium, as tensions between Iran and the U.S. escalated once again. Iran threatened earlier this month to accelerate its nuclear program, claiming it would initially stop respecting limits set on its stockpiles of enriched uranium and heavy water; yesterday, Iranian media cited officials at the Natanz nuclear facility saying they had made technical changes to the site to allow a quadrupling of Iran’s production of low-enriched uranium. Laurence Norman and Aresu Eqbali report at the Wall Street Journal.

Top officials from the Trump administration will brief the Senate and House about Iran this afternoon, congressional aides said, after lawmakers called for more information about the tense situation. The briefers will be Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford and an unnamed representative of the intelligence community, according to congressional aides, Reuters reports.

President Trump warned yesterday that Iran would be met with “great force” if it attacked U.S. interests in the Middle East, and administration sources said Washington strongly suspects Shi’ite militias with ties to Tehran were behind a rocket attack in Baghdad’s Green Zone where the U.S. Iraqi embassy is situated. “I think Iran would be making a very big mistake if they did anything,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House yesterday evening for an event in Pennsylvania, adding “if they do something, it will be met with great force but we have no indication that they will,” Reuters reports.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said yesterday that national security adviser John Bolton had briefed him on the Iran situation and urged Trump to “stand firm.” “Just received a briefing from National Security Advisor Bolton about escalating tensions with Iran … it is clear that over the last several weeks Iran has attacked pipelines and ships of other nations and created threat streams against American interests in Iraq … if the Iranian threats against American personnel and interests are activated we must deliver an overwhelming military response,” Graham stated in a pair of messages sent on Twitter, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said yesterday that Trump’s “genocidal taunts” will not “end Iran.” “Iranians have stood tall for millennia while aggressors all gone … economic terrorism and genocidal taunts won’t ‘end Iran’,” Zarif wrote in a message on Twitter, adding “never threaten an Iranian … try respect — it works!” AFP reports.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said he generally favors talks and diplomacy but not under the present conditions, state news agency I.R.N.A. reported late yesterday. “Today’s situation is not suitable for talks and our choice is resistance only” I.R.N.A. quoted Rouhani as saying, Reuters reports.

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last night said that “Iran’s behavior must change,” but he emphasized that unilateral action is not the way forward with Tehran and that the “military must work to buy time for diplomats to work their magic,” making the comments during a previously unannounced speech before a Ramadan lecture series in honor of Abu Dhabi’s crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the AP reports.

“There are limits to how much support Trump could count on from his own party should military action be seriously considered,” Burgess Everett writes in an account of the G.O.P. position at POLITICO.

Military adventurism under this administration is a dangerous prospect, Tess Bridgeman, Rebecca Ingber and Stephen Pomper write in an analysis at Just Security, explaining: (1) why President Trump’s stated preference for staying out of war with Iran is not a sufficient anti-war insurance policy; (2) why Attorney General William Barr’s extreme past positions on unilateral presidential power could cut out any required role for Congress in authorizing or rejecting war; and (3) what Congress can—and must—do to retain its constitutional role.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels have announced that they launched a bomb-laden drone into Saudi Arabia, targeting an airport with a military base, in an attack that has been acknowledged by the kingdom – which is leading the coalition fighting the rebels in Yemen. The Houthis’ Almasirah satellite news channel said early today the attack targeted the airport in Najran with a Qasef-2K drone, hitting an “arms depot;” it was not clear if there were any injuries or what the extent of damage was, Al Jazeera reports.

Saudi Arabia said yesterday that it had intercepted two missiles in Mecca province fired by Houthis, who earlier denied having targeted Islam’s holiest site. A Saudi coalition spokesperson commented, “Royal Saudi Defense Forces spotted aerial targets flying through restricted areas in the provinces of Jeddah and Taif and dealt with them as required by the situation,” Reuters reports.

SYRIA

Hundreds of lawmakers led by senior members of the House and Senate Foreign Policy Committees have written to President Trump calling for a new U.S. strategy in Syria to counter Russia and Iran, deter terrorists and protect Israel. The letter, sent yesterday and signed by a bipartisan group of nearly 400 members of the House and Senate, cautions that “pockets of ungoverned space have allowed terrorist groups, such as [Islamic State], Al-Qaeda, and their affiliates, to keep parts of Syria in their stranglehold,” Courtney McBride reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“As some of our closest allies in the region are being threatened … American leadership and support are as crucial as ever,” the letter continued. Many U.S. lawmakers from both parties were deeply concerned about Trump’s Syria policy since December, when the president took a surprise decision to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from the country; Trump backtracked in February, agreeing to leave a small U.S. presence to help keep pressure on Islamic State group during what the U.S. military believes will be a critical stabilization phase in the country, Reuters reports.

LIBYA

Water supplies to the Libyan capital Tripoli and surrounding cities have been restored two days after they were cut off when an armed group stormed a control room, averting shortages that may have sparked a humanitarian crisis. “The crisis of halting water supplies has ended and flows have started,” the Great Man-Made River company said in a statement, Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

On Sunday an armed group claiming loyalty to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar – leader of the east Libyan self-styled Libyan National Army (L.N.A.) – had stormed a pumping station run by the Great Man-Made River south of Tripoli, forcing employees to shut down water pipes connected to underground wells, the AP reports.

Eastern Libyan city of Benghazi – currently under Haftar’s control “offers a glimpse of what may befall … Tripoli,” Rami Musa and Joseph Krauss write in an analysis at the AP.

RUSSIA

Russians linked to interference in the 2016 U.S. election discussed plans to provoke unrest inside the U.S. as recently as 2018, according to documents reviewed by NBC News. Communications between associates of Kremlin-linked oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin – indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for previous influence operations against the U.S. — laid out a fresh strategy to manipulate black American voters, Richard Engel, Kate Benyon-Tinker and Kennett Werner report at NBC.

French President Emmanuel Macron is accusing Russian oligarchs – along with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon – of conspiring with Europe’s nationalists to dismantle the European Union (E.U.) Macron stated in an interview with French regional newspapers published today that Europeans “should not be naive” about foreign interference ahead of this week’s European Parliament elections, adding that “Russians and some others” are financing extreme political parties in Europe, the AP reports.

The U.N. Security Council rejected a Russian request yesterday to hold a meeting on a new language law in Ukraine, with opponents describing the move as an attempt by Moscow to interfere in the inauguration of new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 10 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq between April 21 and May 4 [Central Command]

Several leading Palestinian businessmen have criticized the Trump administration’s planned “economic workshop” in Bahrain next month, geared to demonstrate to Palestinian business leaders the potential benefits they would gain under the administration’s long-awaited Middle East Peace Plan. The businessmen, including some who said they already received invitations to Bahrain and others considered likely to be asked, dismissed the event as insulting and counterproductive, David M. Halbfinger reports at the New York Times.

A battle has broken out over Wikileaks’ Co-founder Julian Assange’s computers, setting up a possible future “tug-of-war” between Sweden and the U.S. over any extradition of Assange from the U.K.., following his expulsion from London’s Ecuadorian embassy last month. Joshua Goodman reports at the AP.

Venezuelan opposition envoy to the U.S. Carlos Vecchio has said that he met Pentagon and State Department officials in Washington yesterday to discuss “all aspects of the Venezuelan crisis.”  Vecchio, representing opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó, said in a message on Twitter that the talks held at the State Department had been “very positive,” Reuters reports.

Tech firm Google – along with social media giants Facebook and Twitter – will send representatives to testify at an upcoming hearing on election security, the House Oversight and Reform Committee announced yesterday. Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill.

President Trump’s planned pardons for U.S. service members accused or convicted of war crimes “would send a message of disrespect for the laws of war and for the larger values that the United States’ fallen service members have so nobly defended,” the Washington Post editorial board comments.

Trump’s penchant for appointing acting officials weakens U.S. national security, with “weakened leaders less likely to push back against [the president,] drive change in their organizations or work directly with Congress on challenging problems,” Carrie Cordero and Joshua Geltzer argue at Just Security.  

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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).