The Early Edition: May 23, 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 cut short a meeting with Democratic leaders after just a few minutes, saying he refuses to work with them on an infrastructure plan unless they stop investigating him and remove the threat of impeachment. Democrats hit back immediately, claiming that Trump had planned the move in advance and claiming that the events at the White House would “make your jaw drop,” David Smith reports at the Guardian.

Trump and Democratic leaders were to meet yesterday to develop a $2 trillion plan to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) first met with Democrats on Capitol Hill to deflect pressure on impeachment, which she has opposed. Emerging from that meeting, Pelosi moved to demonstrate sympathy with Democrats angry at the president’s efforts to block Congressional investigations, declaring that “the president of the United States is engaged in a cover-up,” Peter Baker, Katie Rogers and Emily Cochrane report at the New York Times.

The accusation angered Trump, who stormed out of the meeting into the Rose Garden to deliver a statement demanding that Democrats “get these phony investigations over with.” “Instead of walking in happily into a meeting, I walk in to look at people that have just said that I was doing a cover-up,” Trump told reporters, adding: “I don’t do cover-ups … you people know that probably better than anybody.” Quint Forgey, Burgess Everett, John Breshanan and Nancy Cook report at POLITICO.

“I knew the president was not serious about infrastructure and would find a way out,” Pelosi joked as the president stormed out, according to a Democratic aide. Later, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) claimed to have gone to the White House in the “spirit of bipartisanship to find common ground with the president,” but that his behavior was not “really respectful;” “I pray for the president of the United States and I pray for the United States of America,” Pelosi added. Dartunorro Clark, Hallie Jackson and Alex Moe report at NBC.

An account of Democratic responses to Trump’s conduct yesterday is provided The Daily Beast.

Trump has denied having a “temper tantrum” during the planned infrastructure meeting with Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). “In a letter to her House colleagues, Nancy Pelosi said: ‘President Trump had a temper tantrum for us all to see,’” Trump wrote in a message on Twitter last night, adding “this is not true … I was purposely very polite and calm, much as I was minutes later with the press in the Rose Garden … can be easily proven … it is all such a lie!” The Daily Beast reports.

A federal judge in New York ruled yesterday that Trump cannot block subpoenas that House Democrats sent to two banks requesting documents related to the president’s business and family. U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos’ ruling, mirroring U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta’s judgment in Washington D.C. earlier this week, was the result of a lawsuit filed late last month by Trump and his three adult children against Deutsche Bank AG and Capital One Financial Corp, seeking to block the banks from complying with the subpoenas, Corrine Ramey reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Ramos described the subpoenas as “undeniably broad” but “clearly pertinent.” Tom Winter reports at NBC.

The House Oversight Committee has reached an agreement with Trump’s legal team to seek an expedited appeal of the financial records case, the panel announced in a statement yesterday. Reuters reports.

The New York Assembly passed legislation yesterday that allows New York’s Department of Taxation and Finance to share political officials’ state tax returns with congressional committees, boosting Democrats in their attempt to obtain more information about the president’s finances. The state Senate passed the bill two weeks ago, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo – who has said he is “supportive” of the proposal – is expected to sign it, Bill Mahoney reports at POLITICO.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) announced yesterday that the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) has agreed to start honoring a subpoena for intelligence materials relating to the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference, ending a standoff and averting Democratic attempts to force compliance. The D.O.J. could begin handing over counterintelligence and foreign intelligence-related documents as soon as this week, Schiff said yesterday morning, cancelling  a committee meeting scheduled for later in the day at which Democrats had planned to vote on an unspecified “enforcement action,” Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Russian President Vladimir Putin out-prepared President Trump during a key 2017 meeting in Hamburg, putting Trump at a marked disadvantage. In a seven-hour closed meeting Tuesday, Tillerson told the panel that the U.S. side had anticipated a shorter meeting for exchanging courtesies, but the session morphed into an over two-hour session involving deliberations on a variety of geopolitical issues; “we spent a lot of time in the conversation talking about how Putin seized every opportunity to push what he wanted,” a committee aide said, adding “there was a discrepancy in preparation, and it created an unequal footing.” John Hudson and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

“I think there’s a larger message to draw from the former Secretary’s appearance … .current and former Executive Branch employees have a statutory right to speak to Congress without fear of retribution” Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.,) commented on the Tillerson disclosures, apparently encouraging more officials to come forward. “The White House’s sweeping, indefensible claims of Executive Privilege are no bar to this … rather, the First Amendment protects such disclosures in an appropriate setting … the Foreign Affairs Committee stands ready to help public servants do the right thing,” Engel added in a statement [House Committee on Foreign Affairs].

Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen received thousands of dollars from Russia-linked firm Columbus Nova from Election Day in 2016, newly unsealed court documents indicate. The F.B.I. have honed in on what it considered to be suspicious emails and bank transfers from Cohen’s accounts; at the heart of investigators’ interest in Cohen was a company he set up in October 2016 called Essential Consultants, L.L.C., whose bank account began receiving large deposits from Columbus Nova soon after opening, Natasha Bertrand reports at POLITICO.

The D.O.J. reportedly plans to make a minimally redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report available to all lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to a new court filing. The D.O.J. plans to provide access to Mueller’s report to the Senate panel under the same conditions as the House Intelligence Committee, federal prosecutors in Washington D.C. wrote in a new filing in the case involving longtime Trump associate Roger Stone, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Former C.I.A. Director John Brennan yesterday launched a broadside at Attorney General William Barr’s memo to Congress about Mueller’s report, slamming the document as “misleading & highly politicized.” “I subsequently learned from the Mueller report that there was a lot more evidence of collusion and obstruction of justice than was indicated in the … Barr memo,” Brennan stated in a message on Twitter, adding: “your obvious fear of Congressional action is warranted & your dishonesty is appalling,” he said in the message directed at President Trump, Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An analysis of yesterday’s events at the White House is provided by Michelle Cottle at the New York Times.

Trump’s alleged temper tantrum yesterday suggests the Democrats are gaining momentum, Kurt Bardella comments at NBC.

“Congress’s power to conduct investigations and to compel witnesses and evidence through subpoena is well-established … executive privilege has a much more dubious pedigree,” Neil Kinkopf writes at the Washington Post. In blocking a Congressional subpoena for former White House counsel Don McGhan, Kinkopf comments, “the president has shown that he holds Congress in contempt … the question now is whether Congress will reciprocate.”

“Judges cannot behave as though these are usual times or pretend that the procedure they choose will not have direct political consequences,” the Washington Post Editorial Board comments, arguing that the judiciary “should make the Trump cases a priority and act with deliberate speed.”

House Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee have a legislative purpose for their subpoena for Trump’s personal and business tax returns, Walter Pincus writes at Just Security, considering the potential role of the “tax gap” estimate.

U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS

A bill to help U.S. firms remove Chinese telecommunications equipment from its networks – from companies such as Huawei – was introduced yesterday by a bipartisan group of senators. The legislation would require 5G wireless networks to be free of equipment or services provided by Chinese telecommunications companies such as Huawei and Z.T.E. deemed to be a national security threat, Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

China has reportedly lodged “solemn representations” with the U.S. after it escalated a trade war between the two countries by putting Huawei on a blacklist for U.S. suppliers. “Regarding the relevant U.S. measures, China has lodged solemn representations,” Commerce Ministry spokeperson Gao Feng stated at a weekly briefing in Beijing, adding “the best response to the U.S. bullying is that Chinese firms continue to grow stronger,” Reuters reports.

Beijing says the U.S. needs to correct its “wrong actions” for trade talks to continue after the U.S. blacklisted Huawei. “If the U.S. wants to continue trade talks, they should show sincerity and correct their wrong actions … negotiations can only continue on the basis of equality and mutual respect,” Feng told reporters, Reuters reports.

Top Huawei executive Deputy Chairman Eric Xu has been accused by U.S. startup CNEX Labs of participating in a conspiracy to steal its trade secrets. Huawei declined to comment on the allegations, which were made in a lawsuit set for trial June 3, Kate O’Keeffe reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Chinese video surveillance firm Hikvision “takes cybersecurity very seriously as a company” and “follows all applicable laws and regulations in the markets it operates in,” the company reportedly told China Daily Newspaper today, adding “the company has already retained a human rights expert and former U.S. ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper to advise the company regarding human rights compliance,” Reuters reports.

Two U.S. warships have sailed through the Taiwan Strait in an apparent display of government of the self-ruled island, which China claims as its own. “We urge the U.S. to … properly deal with Taiwan-related issues with caution so as to avoid further negative impacts to China-U.S. relations and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” defense ministry spokesperson Lu Kang stated at a news conference. The AP reports.

The U.S. conflict with China is increasingly becoming a technology war, David J. Lynch comments at the Washington Post.

China uses its high-tech surveillance to compel ethnic minorities to submit to monitoring and data collection, Chris Buckley and Paul Mozur explain at the New York Times, in an analysis of the country’s surveillance systems.

IRAN

The Pentagon is to present its plans today to deploy 10,000 more troops to the Middle East, in a move to increase defenses against potential Iranian threats. U.S. officials stated that the move was aimed at reinforcing security in the region and that the troops would be defensive forces; the plans also include additional Patriot missile batteries, more ships and increased efforts to monitor Iran, the AP reports.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publicly criticized his country’s politicians, stating that he disagreed with the implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal they had negotiated with world powers. Khamenei blamed the deal’s unravelling on President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif – the first time he has criticized both politicians by name, Amir Vahdat and Jon Gambrell report at the AP.

“Iran’s youth will witness the demise of Israel and American civilization,” Khamenei added in comments published on his official website. Khamenei, who met with University students in Tehran, told the students: “you young people should be assured that you will witness the demise of the enemies of humanity, meaning the degenerate American civilization, and the demise of Israel,” Reuters reports.

The standoff between Iran and the United States is a “clash of wills”, according to a senior commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards. Reuters reports.

Iran has “complete control” of Gulf waters north of the Strait of Hormuz, according to senior Guards commander Ali Fadavi. “Everything north of the Strait of Hormuz is under our control,” Fadavi reportedly told Fars news agency yesterday, adding that movements of U.S. battleships in the region are “under the complete control of Iran’s army and the Revolutionary Guards.” Reuters reports.

Iran is starting to “hit back” in the face of unyielding U.S. pressure, by abandoning the policy of restraint shown in recent weeks and shifting towards a series of offensive actions aimed at pushing the White House to reconsider its efforts at isolating Tehran. Tamer El-Ghobashy and Liz Sly write at the Washington Post.

IRAQ

Iraq is weighing up captives’ rights against the fear of the new Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.)  The country is preparing to bring home more than 30,000 citizens from the Syrian town of al-Hol, but it is yet to decide where to place them, and how to distinguish those with genuine I.S.I.S. links and those simply caught up in its caliphate; aid agencies have already said they will not provide support for a new internment camp or detention zone due to the risk of rights violations. Reuters reports.

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. has found no evidence so far of new chemical weapons being used by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria’s continuing civil war.  During a congressional hearing, a top U.S. diplomat for Syria stated that “we’re watching this very closely … also the reports of chemical weapons use … so far we cannot confirm it, but we are watching it,” Edward Wong reports at the New York Times.

Fighting broke out after Syrian opposition fighters recaptured a village in northwestern Syria yesterday, in an offensive that destroyed a months-old ceasefire in the area. A spokesperson for the opposition fighters – Naji al-Mustafa – claimed they regained control of the village yesterday following an overnight counteroffensive, adding that they aim to regain control of all the areas seized by the government over the last two weeks. Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

The Syrian army shot down a drone full of bombs near Hama’s airport yesterday. The drone was launched by Nusra Front militants, according to Syrian state TV, Reuters reports.

The U.S. called for a ceasefire yesterday following renewed attacks in northwest Syria. “What we really need in Idlib and throughout the country is a ceasefire,” U.S. special representative for Syria engagement – James Jeffrey – stated at a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, adding “these conflicts, back and forth exchanges … just put tremendous pressure on civilians … we’re very much engaged in trying to get this stopped and get it back to the ceasefire we had basically since September.” Humeyra Pamuk and Ellen Francis report at Reuters.

Civilians are in fear as the air assaults in northeastern Syria escalate. Bethan McKernan provides an account at the Guardian.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) yesterday warned that the Trump administration is considering a move to bypass Congress and push through the sale of bombs to Saudi Arabia by declaring a national security emergency. “I am hearing that Trump may use an obscure loophole in the Arms Control Act and notice a major new sale of bombs to Saudi Arabia (the ones they drop in Yemen) in a way that will prevent Congress from objecting,” Murphy wrote in a series of messages sent on Twitter, Dan De Luce, Courtney Kube and Abigail Williams report at NBC.

Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also issued warnings regarding the possible arms sale. “I have had some rumblings that they’re considering some other provision of law to try to do the sale, a provision that I believe is not legal,” top Democrat on the committee Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) told reporters, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Ongoing civilian carnage in Yemen “remains an American liability,” Declan Walsh writes at the New York Times, explaining how the U.S. provides the warplanes, munitions and intelligence used in deadly strikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition.

LIBYA

Libya’s rebel commander Khalifa Haftar rejected a ceasefire requested by French President Emmanuel Macron during talks in Paris. Hafter claimed the conditions for halting hostilities “were not met,” but acknowledged that a “political dialogue” is needed to end the standoff with his rival, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, AFP reports.

“When the question of the ceasefire was put on the table … Haftar’s reaction to this was to ask: ‘negotiate with whom for a ceasefire today?’” according to an Elysee official who commented that “the distrust we see between the Libyan actors is stronger than ever today,” Reuters reports.

Haftar reportedly wants to remove groups from the capital that had “infested” the U.N.-backed government. Macron has for weeks called on warring sides in Libya to reach an unconditional ceasefire and has repeated his official support for the country’s U.N.-recognized government, Al Jazeera reports.

SUDAN

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan yesterday revived a lawsuit against French-based bank B.N.P. Paribas S.A. by alleged victims of the former regime in Sudan.  The twenty-one refugees who filed the class action allege that the bank’s processing of thousands of illegal transactions through its New York offices furthered the Sudanese regime’s campaign of murder, mass rape, torture and deliberate H.I.V. infection against its own people; circuit Judge Barrington Parker said claims against the bank based on genocide in Sudan were subject to U.S. judicial review, and a lower court judge had erred in concluding otherwise. Reuters reports.

A counterrevolution has begun in Sudan, as the system established by former president Omaar al-Bashir starts to fight back against those who removed him. Justin Lynch comments at Foreign Policy.

VENEZUELA

“The Trump administration has done a terrific job building a regional and global coalition against [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) writes in an Op-Ed at the Wall Street Journal. Graham calls for further action, arguing that “while no one wants a military conflict, this nightmare in Venezuela must end for the good of the region and for the sake of democracy … if Mr. Trump put Cuba and Mr. Maduro on notice, it would send a clear message to dictators and despots that America means what it says.”

The Trump administration is engaged in “coalition mismanagement” in Venezuela, “shedding the very allies that the country’s democratic forces need, while strengthening international opponents,” Javier Corrales explains at the New York Times.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea has labeled Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden a “fool of low I.Q.” and an “imbecile bereft of elementary quality as a human being” after Biden described North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a tyrant during a recent speech. Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency yesterday said Biden had insulted the country’s supreme leadership and committed an “intolerable and serious politically-motivated provocation” against the North, Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the AP.

The U.S. seizure of a North Korean cargo ship is the biggest stumbling block to improving Washington-Pyongyang relations, North Korea’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva and disarmament ambassador – Han Tae Song – said during an interview yesterday.  “It would be the greatest miscalculation if America thought my country is among the countries where American-style logic of strength or pressure might work,” Han added, Reuters reports.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY       

Lawmakers from both parties are fiercely opposed to the widespread deployment of facial recognition technology, using a hearing yesterday to signal a plan to draft legislation that would curb or prevent its implementation. “It seems to me it’s time for a time out,” House Oversight and Reform Committee ranking member Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) stated during the hearing, adding “[this technology] is virtually unregulated — but I think that frankly needs to change,” Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill.

The Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) is asking its cybersecurity-focused employees to consider taking on new roles by volunteering to help with the border crisis. Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan told House lawmakers yesterday that employees in the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (C.I.S.A.) have been asked to consider relocating to the Southern border, but he stressed he would not support sending “critical” cyber staff to the region, Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

President Trump is making social media giant Facebook central to his re-election campaign. David Leonhardt explains at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Pakistan’s military has successfully test-fired a long-range ballistic missile today capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The surface-to-surface Shaheen-II missile, which has a range of 1,500 kilometers, was launched today and ended in the Arabian Sea, according to a statement from the country’s military, the AP reports.

“Trump doesn’t want peace … he wants Palestinian surrender,” Saeb Erekat explains at the New York Times.

“The next Middle East conflict may be one of accident,” Roula Khalaf comments at the Financial Times, explaining that although Trump is not looking for war with Iran, “hawks in the U.S. and among its allies could provoke one.”

U.N., governments along with the International Committee of the Red Cross and civil society organizations will meet this week for a conference on ending sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian crises, with the innovative session taking place in Norway, Natalia Kanem and Mark Lowcock report at the Guardian.

Two senior aides to President Trump – Johnny DeStefano and Shahira Knight – are to leave the White House, Peter Baker reports at the New York Times. 

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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).