The Early Edition: May 22, 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

Former White House counsel Don McGahn defied a subpoena yesterday to appear before Congress, following orders from the White House. The House Judiciary Committee held a brief hearing in McGahn’s absence, with Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) vowing that the House would hold the president accountable “one way or the other,” adding that the committee was ready to hold McGahn in contempt: “let me be clear: this committee will hear McGahn’s testimony … even if we have to go to court,” Sabrina Siddiqui and David Smith report at the Guardian.

House Democrats yesterday subpoenaed two more former White House aides, including the president’s former adviser and confidante – Hope Hicks – and former White House deputy counsel Annie Donaldson. The subpoenas seek testimony and documents in connection with the House judiciary committee’s probe of whether the president obstructed special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. Sarah N. Lynch and Jan Wolfe report at Reuters.

A federal judge yesterday ordered the release of search warrants relating to President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen that had been sought by Mueller. The documents are expected to reveal further information on Mueller’s own attempts to investigate Cohen from before Mueller referred the case to prosecutors in New York, Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

Calls for impeachment proceedings against Trump are growing after McGahn failed to appear at yesterday’s hearing. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) claimed the president’s latest moves enhanced his “appearance of guilt” and “pushed Congress to a point where we must start an impeachment inquiry.” The BBC reports.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is to meet with Democrats this morning to hear from Democrats on whether to move forward with impeachment proceedings. “She’s hearing the views of the caucus … and listening to different perspectives and we’re having that debate,” Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass) stated. The arguments for an impeachment inquiry based on the argument advanced by a number of Democrats that it “gives the House a stronger legal hand in securing documents, testimony and cooperation from the Trump administration,” Susan Davis and Kelsey Snell write at NPR.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “secretly” met with the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday to discuss his time in the Trump administration and the “frictions” he experienced with the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. In a meeting allegedly lasting over six hours, Tillerson told members and staffers that the Trump administration “actively avoided” confronting Russia about allegations of electoral interference “in an effort to develop a solid relationship with the Kremlin,” Erin Banco reports at The Daily Beast.

House Democrats are “stepping up” calls to secure Mueller’s testimony, with Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) saying they “should do whatever we can to get to get that testimony.” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) agreed, stating: “I think he will have to be subpoenaed … he’s critical … he basically made the case for obstruction of justice and we need to hear from him.” Olivia Beavers and Morgan Chalfant report at the Hill.

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) yesterday offered to provide materials related to Mueller’s investigation as long as the panel confirms it would not move forward with an “enforcement action” against Attorney General William Barr. Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd stated the department is willing to “expedite” access to foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information identified by the committee as a priority if the panel drops its threat to pursue an enforcement action. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Trump’s lawyers filed an appeal yesterday of Judge Amit Mehta’s ruling Monday. Mehta rejected the president’s demand for a preliminary injunction that would block his accounting firm Mazars from handing over records subpoenaed by the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Josh Gerstein and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“Politics” is not the real reason behind Mueller’s concerns about his potential testimony in front of a House committee, Chris Cillizza comments at CNN, arguing that Mueller and his advisers are “fooling themselves” if they consider that if he refuses to testify it will “somehow preserve a patina of impartiality around him.”

The “loud impeachment chorus” isn’t breaking on Pelosi yet, Jonathan Allen argues at NBC, writing that Pelosi’s goal all along has been to “keep her caucus together” and that still means “not rushing into an impeachment inquiry.”

Congress cannot force McGahn to testify and “he has every constitutional right not to appear,” the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board comments, arguing that this is not a “close legal call.”

A comparison of the conditions for impeaching Trump compared to the cases of Presidents Nixon and Clinton – along with the key differences – is provided by Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman at Just Security.

While the White House’s position on blocking a Congressional subpoena for McGahn is unsurprising – whether it can sustain the position in a core challenge “is another question,” Bob Bauer writes in a legal analysis at Just Security.

U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS

The Trump administration is considering imposition restrictions on Chinese video surveillance firm Hikvision, which would involve limiting the tech giant’s ability to buy U.S. technology, according to people familiar with the matter. The move marks the administration’s latest attempt to counter Beijing’s global economic ambitions and would also serve as the first time the Trump administration has punished a Chinese company for its role in the surveillance and mass detention of the minority Muslim Uighur group, Ana Swanson and Edward Wong report at the New York Times.

China’s foreign ministry said today that Beijing opposes the U.S. smearing Chinese companies, following media reports regarding the Hikvision sanctions. “China urges the United States to provide a fair and non-discriminatory environment for Chinese firms,” ministry spokesperson Lu Kang told a daily news briefing, Reuters reports.

Major U.K.-based chip designer A.R.M. is suspending business with Huawei to comply with U.S. regulations, the BBC reported today, citing internal company documents. Reuters reports.

Analysts have talked of a technological “decoupling” and a “digital Iron Curtain,” following the U.S.’ punitive measures against Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, David Ignatius explains at the Washington Post, commenting that “that sounds like a description of a world in which everyone would be worse off — a mobilization for a conflict such as World War I.”

IRAN                                                                                    

The Trump administration yesterday appeared keen to ease escalating tensions with Iran, aiming to reassure worried lawmakers it does not seek war and claiming that robust U.S. military moves had deterred the Tehran regime. “This is about deterrence, not about war … we are not about going to war,” Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters after exiting the closed-door briefing he gave with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, AFP reports.

Shanahan claimed that deterrence measures taken by the Pentagon had “put on hold” the potential for attacks on Americans. It was unclear exactly what Shanahan meant and Pentagon officials could not immediately clarify whether the threat from Iran had been diminished, Reuters reports.

“We’re in a period where the threat remains high and our job is to make sure that there is no miscalculation by the Iranians,” Shanahan added.  Later asked to clarify whether he meant the threat from Iran was diminished or reduced, Shanahan replied, “there haven’t been any attacks on Americans … I would consider that a hold,” Ellen Mitchel reports at the Hill.

Top administration officials told senators during the briefing that recent attacks on shipping and a pipeline in the Middle East was directed by the Iranian administration, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) Graham told reporters that the briefers “explained to us how the Iranian threat streams were different than in the past, that the attack on the ships and the pipeline was coordinated and directed by the Iranian government, the ayatollah,” Reuters reports.

Some Democratic politicians expressed skepticism after the closed-door Iran briefings. “Secretary Pompeo … argued, ‘here are all the terrible things that Iran has done,’ and he spent about 10 minutes until I cut him off,” Chair of the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wa.) told reporters after the briefing for House members, adding: “‘we know Iran is bad …what is the policy going forward?’ there wasn’t enough information on that,” Al Jazeera reports.

“The divided response underscored how even national security has become an increasingly partisan issue in Washington,” Nahal Toosi and Daniel Lippman write in an account of yesterday’s briefings at POLITICO.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said Iran will not negotiate with President Trump unless the U.S. shows Tehran “respect” by honoring its commitments under the disputed 2015 nuclear deal. In an exclusive interview, Zarif warned the U.S. was “playing a very, very dangerous game” by boosting its military presence in the Gulf, warning that “having all these military assets in a small area is in of itself prone to accidents … extreme prudence is required,” Frederik Pleitgen and Sheena McKenzie report at CNN.

Iran will “under no circumstances” enter a war either directly or indirectly with the U.S., prominent reformist Iranian lawmaker Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh commented today. Falahatpisheh’s comments, reported by the semi-official I.L.N.A. news agency, carry particular weight as he serves as the chair of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, Nasser Karimi reports at the AP.

The House Appropriations Committee yesterday approved an amendment to the annual defense spending bill that would end the authorization for the use of military force (A.U.M.F.,) as lawmakers grow increasingly concerned over the possibility of war with Iran. The panel voted 30-22 along party lines for Rep. Barbara Lee’s (D-Calif.) amendment to sunset the A.U.M.F., which has been cited as legal justification for military operations against terrorist groups since its introduction in 2001, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

“Many legal experts agree that stretching the 2001 A.U.M.F. to cover Iran is untenable,” Heather Brandon-Smith writes at Just Security, querying whether lawmakers will “step up” this week to “criticize the executive branch’s usurpation of their constitutional war powers.”

U.S. sanctions are forcing Tehran to cut funds to its terrorist proxies, Marc A. Thiessen writes at the Washington Post, commenting that despite this achievement, “it will take more than sanctions to leave the Iranian regime on the ash heap of history.”

IRAQ

Iraq will send delegations to Washington and Tehran to help “halt tension” amid the U.S.-Iran fallout, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said yesterday. His comments came two days after a rocket landed close to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s ‘Green Zone,’ Reuters reports.

U.N. envoy for Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert yesterday appealed for “wide-based international support” to prevent Islamic State group from regaining a foothold in the country. Hennis-Plasschaert also told the Security Council that if the issue of thousands of returning Islamic State group fighters and their families from Syria to Iraq is not managed properly, “we risk creating a new breeding ground for the next generation of terrorists,” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

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]

SYRIA

The U.S. claims to have seen indications that the Syrian government may once again be using chemical weapons in its attempt to recapture the last rebel-held pocket of the country, warning the use of any such weapons would provoke retaliatory measures from Washington and its allies. The alleged attack occurred on Sunday on the border of rebel-held Idlib province where Syrian government forces have intensified their air and ground campaign in recent weeks; local reports claimed that four Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (H.T.S.) fighters were injured by chlorine released by munitions dropped near the village of Kabana, Bethan McKernan reports at the Guardian.

The Trump administration issued a threat to the Syrian government that the U.S. and allies will respond “quickly and appropriately” if the suspicion regarding the chemical attack proves to be true. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said yesterday: “we are still gathering information on [Sunday’s] incident, but we repeat our warning that if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons, the United States and our allies will respond quickly and appropriately,” The Daily Beast reports.

Ortagus called the suspected attack “part of a violent campaign by the Assad regime that violates a cease-fire that has protected several million civilians in the greater Idlib area.” She added: “the United States reiterates its warning, first issued by President Trump in September 2018, that an attack against the Idlib de-escalation zone would be a reckless escalation that threatens to destabilize the region,” Edward Wong reports at the New York Times.

Rebels in northwestern Syria launched a counterattack on yesterday against pro-government positions and fighting killed more than three dozen combatants from both sides, according to U.K.-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The fighting in the town of Kafr Nabuda, in the north of Hama province, killed 26 pro-government fighters as well as 18 rebels, Al Jazeera reports.

Syrian activists and rebels say opposition fighters announced this morning that Kafr Nabuda has been recaptured from the government, following an overnight counteroffensive that drove government forces from areas they captured earlier this month. The AP reports

The Russian military announced that al-Qaida-linked militants in northwestern Syria launched an attack on Syrian government forces yesterday, apparently making use of tanks. Head of the Russian military’s Reconciliation Center in Syria – Maj. Gen. Viktor Kupchishin – said the Syrian army was fighting back against the offensive, the AP reports.

YEMEN

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels launched a drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s Najran airport, the movement’s Al Masirah T.V. reported early today. The report said that the attack targeted hangars containing war planes and that there were no immediate reports of damage or casualties; there was also no immediate comment from Saudi Arabia or the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen, Reuters reports.

The U.N. claims that food aid is being diverted by corrupt and uncooperative officials in Houthi-held areas of Yemen, where millions of people are believed to be on the verge of famine. Head of the World Food Program (W.F.P.) David Beasley stated that the agency’s efforts to reach people in need were being repeatedly blocked, adding that he hoped “good Houthi leaders,” the BBC reports

An account of how the Houthis have stepped up drone attacks on the kingdom this week is provided at Reuters.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) announced yesterday that it welcomes a June 25-26 “Peace to Prosperity” economic workshop hosted in Bahrain in cooperation with the U.S. The Trump administration has characterized the conference as an overture to its own plan for peace between Israel and Palestinians, Reuters reports.

Bahrain has defended its decision to host the conference, saying its only objective is to support the “brotherly Palestinian people.” The Palestinian Authority has rejected the economic conference, saying any peace effort that ignores the Palestinian people’s aspirations for an independent state is doomed to fail; Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa yesterday sent a message on Twitter reiterating that his country respects the Palestinian leadership’s steadfast position safeguarding Palestinian rights, Aya Batrawy reports at the AP.

“The abiding impression among Palestinians is that Trump and his lieutenants aren’t honest brokers,” Ishaan Tharoor writes in an analysis at the Washington Post, arguing that the long-awaited Middle East Peace Plan promised by the president and his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner “looks doomed already.”

RUSSIA

U.S. fighter jets intercepted six Russian military planes in international airspace off the coast of Alaska Monday, North American Aerospace Defense Command (N.O.R.A.D.) announced yesterday.  “Our ability to deter and defeat threats to our citizens and vital infrastructure starts with detecting, tracking, and positively identifying aircraft our airspace … we are on alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” N.O.R.A.D. wrote in a message sent on Twitter, with the words attributed to its commander Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, the Hill reports.

The Russian nuclear capable long-range bombers flew into the Air Defense Identification Zone, which extends approximately 200 miles off Alaska’s western coast. The Russian bomber flights are regarded by U.S. military officials as part of Moscow’s effort to train its military for a potential crisis while simultaneously projecting a message of strength for its adversaries, Ryan Browne reports at CNN.

The Kremlin today condemned as unacceptable an alleged U.S. ultimatum to Turkey designed to force it to cancel a deal to buy Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems and purchase U.S. Patriot missile systems instead. Moscow was responding to a C.N.B.C. report which said Washington had given Turkey just over two weeks to scrap the Russian deal and do an arms deal with the U.S. instead or risk severe penalties; Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said “we regard this extremely negatively … we consider such ultimatums to be unacceptable … the S-400 deal is already complete and will be implemented.” Reuters reports.

Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar says that his country’s military personnel are receiving training to operate a S-400 missile defense system despite U.S. and NATO objections. Akar also told a group of reporters late yesterday that Turkey was “making preparations” and “considering all options” against possible U.S. sanctions on Turkey over the purchase, the AP reports.

Ukraine may submit any preliminary peace deal agreed with Russia to the Ukrainian people for a referendum, new head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s administration – Andriy Bogdan – told the 112 TV news channel yesterday. Ukrainian troops are fighting Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass region in a conflict that has killed 13,000 people since 2014, Reuters reports.

VENEZUELA

Venezuelan opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó has announced that he has agreed to talks with the administration of incumbent president Nicolás Maduro in Norway, although he has restated that “we will not lend ourselves to false negotiations.” In a speech to public sector workers Thursday, Guaidó said the goal remained to remove Maduro, establish a transitional government and call free and fair elections, Anatoly Kurmanaev reports at the New York Times.

The U.S. is preparing measures against people it believes to be involved in Venezuela’s military-run emergency food program, which U.S. officials have describe as a large-scale money-laundering operation run by the Maduro administration. The measures – ranging from criminal charges to sanctions – are expected to be rolled out in the coming weeks and months as part of a bid to increase pressure on the regime, Ian Talley, Aruna Viswanatha and Kejal Vyas report at the Wall Street Journal.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

About 10,000 city government computers remain frozen at Baltimore two weeks after the city faced a disruptive cyberattack. The city was hit by hackers May 7 demanding an undisclosed sum to unlock computers – the city has not paid, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating the incident, Scott Calvert and Jon Kamp report at the Wall Street Journal.

A helpful in-depth discussion of last week’s “online security nightmare” between Charlie Warzel and Sarah Jeong can be found at the New York Times.

Campaign group Avaaz has uncovered over 500 far-right Facebook accounts “spreading fake news and hate speech” to millions of people across Europe. “The pages have high levels of interactions,” the group’s campaign director Christoph Schott stated, adding that “they have over 500 million views just on the pages taken down, that’s more than the number of voters in the EU,” Emma Graham-Harrison reports at the Guardian.

The Democratic National Committee’s (D.N.C.) cybersecurity practices “lag behind” those of its Republican counterpart (R.N.C.), notwithstanding the investments made by the group since the 2016 presidential election, Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Recent months have seen a rise in attacks on girls’ schools in Afghanistan. Najim Rahim and David Zucchino provide an account at the New York Times.

The U.N. envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame warned yesterday that the oil-rich nation “is on the verge of descending into a civil war” that could divide the country and endanger the security of its neighbors. Salame told the Security Council that extremists from the Islamic State group and al-Qaida are already exploiting the security vacuum sparked by the offensive to take the capital Tripoli launched April 4 by the self-styled Libyan National Army (L.N.A.) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The Trump administration will hire former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II to coordinate immigration policy at the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.,) according to three administration officials yesterday. Josh Dawsey and Nick Miroff report at the Washington Post.

President Trump yesterday announced plans to nominate former Chair of the Aerospace Corporation Barbara Barrett as the next Air Force secretary. The president made the announcement in a message sent on Twitter, adding that he believes Barrett “will be an outstanding Secretary!” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

The New York Assembly yesterday passed a bill yesterday that closes the “double jeopardy” loophole, permitting state authorities to prosecute someone who receives a pardon from the president. Bobby Allyn reports at NPR.

The world is currently at the greatest risk of global nuclear war since the end of World War II, according to Director of the U.N.’s Institute for Disarmament Research (U.N.I.D.I.R.) Renata Dwan. John Bowden reports at the Hill. 

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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).