The Early Edition: May 24, 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.

JULIAN ASSANGE

WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange has been charged with violating the U.S. Espionage Act for publishing military and diplomatic files in 2010. The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) revealed 18 new charges against Assange, accusing him of conspiring with former U.S. intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in stealing secret U.S. files, and recklessly exposing confidential sources in the Middle East and China, Natasha Bertrand reports at POLITICO.

“Assange’s actions risked serious harm to U.S. national security to the benefit of our adversaries and put the unredacted named human sources at a grave and imminent risk of serious physical harm and/or arbitrary detention,” the D.O.J. stated, with Assistant Attorney General John Demers adding that “the department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy … but Julian Assange is no journalist,” AFP reports.

The new charges put additional pressure on Assange – whom the U.S. is trying to extradite from the U.K. Aruna Viswanatha, Dustin Volz and Sadie Gurman report at the Wall Street Journal.

Chelsea Manning and her lawyers argue that her captivity amounts to an unwarranted punishment, stating that “it is unclear why [Manning] is still being detained even though Assange has now been charged,” John Swaine reports at the Guardian.

Manning has condemned the charges against Assange as an indication that the federal government is “using the law as a sword” against freedom of the press. Manning’s lawyer Moira Meltzer-Cohen commented that the D.O.J. has historically been hesitant to prosecute publishers of classified material, adding that “this signals a real shift, and sets a new precedent for the federal government’s desire to chill and even punish the vigorous exercise of the free press,” Zack Budryk reports at the Hill.

Journalists and press freedoms groups are alarmed at the charges against Assange. “It’s not criminal to encourage someone to leak classified information to you as a journalist — that’s called news gathering, and there are First Amendment protections for news gathering,” media lawyer Theodore J. Boutrous Jr. commented, adding: “the ramifications of this are so potentially dangerous and serious for the ability of journalists to gather and disseminate information that the American people have a right to know.” Michael M. Grynbaum and Marc Tracy report at the New York Times.

Assange’s new indictment seeks to criminalize activity engaged in by journalists every day, according to many advocates and legal scholars.  Alex Johnson provides an account of the reaction at NBC.

“Invoking the Espionage Act in this case threatens to blur the distinction between a journalist exposing government malfeasance … and foreign spies seeking to undermine the nation’s security,” the New York Times Editorial Board comments, arguing that the indictment aims at the “heart” of the First Amendment.

There are ways to prosecute and punish Assange under law that do not have such terrible implications for our free institutions, Gabriel Schoenfeld explains at Just Security.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

President Trump repeatedly called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “crazy,” and claimed that former F.B.I. Director James Comey and former Acting F.B.I. Director Andrew McCabe were guilty of treason, making the comments yesterday to reporters at the White House. A day after storming out of an infrastructure meeting with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.,) citing ongoing Congressional investigations and discussion of impeachment, Trump claimed:  “I was so calm … Cryin’ Chuck, Crazy Nancy — I tell you what, I’ve been watching her … I have been watching her for a long period of time … she is not the same person … she has lost it.” Jonathan Allen reports at NBC.

Pelosi hit back, telling reporters the “White House is just crying out for impeachment” but that Democrats will continue to hold back on opening an impeachment inquiry until it’s “unavoidable.” “How we deal with it is a decision that our caucus makes, and our caucus is very much saying ‘whatever we do, we need to be ready when we do it’,” Pelosi said during her weekly news conference, Ashley Killough, Clare Foran and Naome Seifu report at CNN.

Special counsel Robert Mueller has expressed interest in giving private testimony to Congress about his investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) appeared on “The Rachel Maddow Show” last night, claiming that that Mueller has told the committee that he is willing to make a public opening statement, but leave his testimony behind closed doors, Doha Madani reports at NBC.

“We think it’s important for the American people to hear from him and to hear his answers to questions about the report,” Nadler said, adding “he doesn’t want to participate in anything that he might regard as a political spectacle.” A spokesperson for Mueller has previously declined to comment on whether he would testify, Siobhan Hughes reports at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump has authorized Attorney General William Barr to declassify any documents he deems fit in his newly launched investigation into the origins of Mueller’s Russia probe and “intelligence activities” focused on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Trump has also directed intelligence officials to cooperate and “promptly provide such assistance and information” as Barr may request as part of the new investigation, Chelsia Rose Marcius reports at The Daily Beast.

Trump made the move in a directive, authorizing the C.I.A. and the country’s 15 other intelligence agencies to cooperate with Barr’s review and granting Barr the authority to unilaterally declassify their documents. The development – which would appear to give Barr “immense leverage” over the intelligence community – came just hours after the president again declared that those who led the investigation committed treason, Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

“Today’s action will ensure that all Americans learn the truth about the events that occurred … and the actions that were taken … during the last Presidential election and will restore confidence in our public institutions,” the White House said in an accompanying statement, which Trump then shared in a message on Twitter. Devlin Barrett, Carol D. Leonnig, Robert Costa and Colby Itkowitz report at the Washington Post.

The president’s battle to prevent the release of his financial records is on the fast track for a court decision after the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed yesterday to hear oral arguments later this summer. In a two-page order, the judges scheduled oral arguments for July 12, with the president set to face House Democrats, who issued a subpoena to the accounting firm Mazars U.S.A. for eight years of Trump’s financial documents, Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

Deceptively edited videos altered to make Pelosi appear to be drunkenly slurring her words are spreading across social media despite attempts by platforms to halt their dissemination. The videos alter the audio of Pelosi’s speech at a Center for American Progress event Wednesday in which she accuses Trump of a “cover-up,” editing the clip to make it appear as though she is slurring her words, Drew Harwell reports at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

President Trump’s “wild … improvised” response yesterday suggests that Pelosi is winning “the hugely consequential clash between Washington’s top two political forces,” Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis at CNN.

Democrats have accepted they need to shift their strategy around the Mueller probe, Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio explain at POLITICO, noting that lawmakers “have been so busy fighting technical battles over access to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report that they’ve barely had time to speak directly to Americans about its damning public findings of President Donald Trump’s conduct.”

It is no longer viable to defer talk of impeachment: “if Trump’s outrageous misdeeds are visible for all to see — and they are — you don’t need further investigation to justify beginning an inquiry into whether impeachment is justified,” Michelle Goldberg comments at the New York Times.

The American public is “sick and tired of the investigations into President Trump and don’t want Democrats in Congress to impeach him,” Marc A. Thiessen comments at the Washington Post, arguing that “if Democrats don’t listen, they could hand Trump a second term.”

U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS

President Trump said yesterday that Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei could be part of a trade deal between the U.S. and China. Washington targeted Huawei by putting the company on a trade blacklist last week; “Huawei is something that is very dangerous … you look at what they’ve done from a security standpoint, a military standpoint … very dangerous,” Trump told reporters at the White House, though he added “if we made a deal, I could imagine Huawei being possibly included in some form or some part of it,” the BBC reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that Huawei’s C.E.O. Ren Zhengfei has been lying about the company’s ties to the Beijing government, and he believed more U.S. companies would cut ties with Huawei. “The company is deeply tied not only to China but to the Chinese Communist Party … and that connectivity, the existence of those connections puts American information that crosses those networks at risk,” Pompeo told C.N.B.C. in an interview, Reuters reports.

Pompeo stressed that there are two separate elements to U.S.’ China strategy: “the national security component” and efforts “to create a fair reciprocal balanced trade relationship between the two countries.” “I hope that we can keep those issues in their own place … we have an imperative to protect American national security … we have a need to make sure we get these trade rules right,” Pompeo said. AFP reports.

China today denounced Pompeo’s remarks. “Recently, some U.S. politicians have continually fabricated rumors about Huawei but have never produced the clear evidence that countries have requested,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang hit back, adding that  “[they] fabricate lies to try to mislead the American people, and now they are trying to incite ideological opposition,” Reuters reports.

IRAN

President Trump does not think the U.S. needs to send more troop to the Middle East to counter Iran. “I don’t think we’re going to need them … I really don’t,” Trump told reporters yesterday, shortly before he was briefed at the White House on a new deployment plan by acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, adding “I would certainly send troops if we need them … we’ll be there in whatever number we need,” Phil Stewart and Jeff Mason report at Reuters.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met today with Pakistan’s Prime Minster Imran Khan, ahead of next week’s “emergency” Arab League meeting –called because of escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf region. “Bilateral issues” were discussed during the meeting, according to a brief statement from Khan’s office, the AP reports.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani claims his people “will never give up the fight for their independence” and Tehran “will never abandon its goals even if it is attacked.” Rouhani told a state news agency that “more than one year after the imposition of these severe sanctions, our people have not bowed to pressures despite facing difficulties in their lives,” Al Jazeera reports.

The lack of any established channel for direct negotiation means U.S.-Iran tensions could quickly escalate into a crisis. “[U.S. Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo makes sure that every time he talks about Iran, he insults me … why should I even answer his phone call?” Zarif commented; the two have reportedly never spoken directly, Reuters reports.

Even conservative Iranians want closer ties to the U.S., Fotini Christia, Elizabeth Dekeyser and Dean Knox write at Foreign Policy, arguing that – contrary to political and scholarly rhetoric – the U.S. is not seen as Iran’s archenemy.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels have announced that they targeted the airport in the Saudi Arabian city of Najran yesterday, marking the  third attempt to hit the facility in a week. The drone attack came as Houthis said they would step up their offensive against Saudi targets, according to the group’s Al Masirah T.V.; the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis said the drone was intercepted by the kingdom’s air defenses, Al Jazeera reports.

U.S. lawmakers from both parties are urging President Trump not to bypass Congress in order to complete arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other countries, amid anxieties that the president may soon use his emergency powers to do so. Lawmakers and human rights advocates are anticipating that the administration may take advantage of a legal window that permits the president to circumvent congressional “holds” on proposed arms sales, Karoun Demirjian and Missy Ryan report at the Washington Post.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and some political appointees in the State Department are reportedly pushing for the administration to invoke the emergency provision. The sales – worth about $7 billion – include precision-guided munitions and combat aircraft, Edward Wong, Catie Edmonson and Eric Schmidtt report at the New York Times.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman met the deputy head of Sudan’s transitional military council General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (“Hemedti,”) who is currently on a visit to Saudi Arabia, Saudi Press Agency said early today. The two reportedly discussed cooperation between their two countries, Reuters reports.

U.S. MILITARY

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.) would authorize $72.4 million to create Space Force as a branch of the military under the purview of the Department of the Air Force, the committee announced yesterday. Though the bill would create Space Force, it does make several changes to the administration’s proposal, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The N.D.A.A. includes numerous reforms to policies surrounding military sexual assault and harassment, including making sexual harassment a stand-alone offense in the military’s criminal justice system.  Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

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].

Air raids by Syrian warplanes in the country’s northwest killed at least eight civilians, including two children, in fighting yesterday over the contested town of Kafr Nabuda in Hama province. Al Jazeera reports.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is looking to block the sale of F-35 fighter jets to N.A.T.O. ally Turkey and cut Ankara from its partnership in the program if it continues with its plan to buy a Russian missile defense system. The committee’s draft $750 billion fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.) — advanced Wednesday and unveiled yesterday — would prohibit the sale of the Lockheed Martin-made F-35 Lightning II to Ankara in the event it buys Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The U.S. is seeking to destroy a food aid program – according to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. “[The U.S.] is preparing sanctions to destroy the C.L.A.P. system,” Maduro said in televised broadcast, referring to Washington’s plans to impose sanctions and criminal charges against Venezuelan officials and others suspected of using the food program to launder money for the Maduro government; the measures against the program are expected to be enacted within the next 90 days, Reuters reports.

North Korea claimed today that an “arbitrary and dishonest” U.S. position had resulted in the failure to reach a deal during the second summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in February, warning the nuclear standoff would never be resolved without a new approach, Reuters reports.

President Trump arrives in Japan tomorrow for a three-day visit. James Griffiths provides a preview at CNN.

As lawmakers review the Global Fragility Act, and consider the report from the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States as part of that exercise, they must “be careful to avoid a narrow focus on battling ‘extremism’ at the expense of addressing the underlying human security and governance deficits that cause violence and state fragility,” Jason S. Calder writes in an analysis at Just Security.

Trump’s promised pardons for those convicted of war crimes sees the president “dominate the targets of his hatred with arbitrary violence,” Jamelle Bouie writes in an Op-Ed 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).