The Early Edition: May 30, 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

Special Counsel Robert Mueller yesterday reignited demands for President Trump’s impeachment, breaking his two-year silence to deny that the U.S. president is innocent of a crime. Mueller, whose report on Russian election interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign was published last month, delivered a nine-minute statement that many have interpreted as a signal to Congress to act on his finding that Trump sought to obstruct justice, David Smith reports at the Guardian.

“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime … we would have said so,” Mueller said, reading from prepared notes at the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) at a late notice public appearance. Mueller also noted that while D.O.J.  policy prohibits charging a sitting president with a crime, the Constitution provides for another remedy to accuse a president of wrongdoing — a nod toward Congressional ability to conduct impeachment proceedings, Shron LaFraniere reports at the New York Times.

Mueller took no questions and announced his resignation from the D.O.J., shutting down the special counsel’s office and returning to private life. That announcement brings to an end his inquiry into Russian interference, Byron Tau, Aruna Viswanatha and Sadie Gurman report at the Wall Street Journal.

Mueller emphasized that there were “multiple… systematic” attempts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments, that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election …and that allegation deserves the attention of every American” Mueller stated, Morgan Gstalter reports at the Hill.

“I hope and expect this to be the only time that I will speak to you in this manner … I am making that decision myself,” Mueller said in the course of his televised remarks, adding “any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report … the report is my testimony.” Natasha Bertrand reports at POLITICO.

The D.O.J. and special counsel’s office have claimed that there is “no conflict” between statements made by Attorney General William Barr and Mueller about the role that D.O.J. guidelines regarding indictment played in Mueller’s obstruction inquiry. “The Attorney General has previously stated that the Special Counsel repeatedly affirmed that he was not saying that, but for the [Office of Legal Counsel] opinion, he would have found the President obstructed justice … the Special Counsel’s report and his statement today made clear that the office concluded it would not reach a determination – one way or the other – about whether the President committed a crime … there is no conflict between these statements,” D.O.J. spokesperson Kerri Kupec and special counsel spokesperson Peter Carr in a statement issued yesterday evening. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

“Nothing changes from the Mueller Report,” the president responded in a message sent on Twitter, adding “there was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent … the case is closed! Thank you,” Dartunorro Clark reports at NBC.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) – who has been resistant to calls for impeachment – remained cautious in response to Mueller’s statement, stating: “I thank special counsel Mueller for the work he and his team did to provide a record for future action both in the Congress and in the courts. The Congress will continue to investigate and legislate to protect our elections and secure our democracy,” Kadhim Shubber reports at the Financial Times.

“You don’t bring an impeachment unless you have all the facts,” an “unruffled” Pelosi said in California several hours after Mueller gave his statement, although she added that “nothing is off the table.” Stephen Collinson reports at CNN.

“With respect to [the] impeachment question … at this point … all options are on the table and nothing should be ruled out,” House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) commented when asked about his current stance of affairs. In an earlier statement following the special counsel’s comments, Nadler claimed it now “falls to Congress to respond to the crimes, lies and other wrongdoing of President Trump,” and that the Constitution “points to Congress to take action to hold the President accountable,” Rebecca Shabad reports at NBC.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said yesterday that lawmakers “look forward” to Mueller’s testimony, despite the special counsel’s stated reluctance to testify on Capitol Hill. “We look forward to Mueller’s testimony before Congress … while I understand his reluctance to answer hypotheticals or deviate from the carefully worded conclusions he drew on his charging decisions, there are, nevertheless, a great many questions he can answer that go beyond the report,” Schiff said in a statement yesterday afternoon, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Senate Democrats are intensifying a push for Congress to pass additional election security legislation following Mueller’s statement yesterday. Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) said Mueller made clear during his remarks that Congress should “take steps to protect our democracy by passing legislation that enhances election security, increases social media transparency, and requires campaign officials to report any contact with foreign nationals attempting to coordinate with a campaign,” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Pelosi yesterday slammed social media giant Facebook, arguing that the company’s refusal to take down altered videos of her demonstrated how the it had contributed to misinformation and enabled Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. “We have said all along, poor Facebook, they were unwittingly exploited by the Russians,” Pelosi said in an interview with the public radio station K.Q.E.D., adding “I think wittingly, because right now they are putting up something that they know is false,” Cecilia Kang reports at the New York Times.

Former aide to longtime Trump associate Roger Stone – Andrew Miller – appears to have given up a yearlong quest to challenge Mueller’s authority by resisting a grand jury subpoena. Miller’s arguments against Mueller did not find favor with a federal district court judge and an appeals court panel in Washington, Josh Gerstein and Natasha Bertrand report at POLITICO.

An updated list of substantive documents in cases related to the Russia investigation is provided at Just Security.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Mueller’s statement yesterday was “starkly different” from the address Attorney General William Barr gave six weeks ago, Mark Mazzetti and Charlie Savage write in an account of yesterday’s events at the New York Times.

Mueller’ statement was “far from the ‘total exoneration’ that Trump has repeatedly — and falsely — claimed,” Anita Kumar writes in an analysis of the implications of yesterday’s events for the president’s position at POLITICO.

Mueller “hewed to Justice Department legal opinions that have not been tested in the courts and were rooted in past presidential crises,” Rosalind S. Helderman explains in an analysis of Mueller’s reasoning at the Washington Post.

“Mueller could have avoided much confusion and short-circuited the administration’s attempt to manipulate public opinion if he had made his statement weeks ago,” the Washington Post editorial board argues.

Mueller advised Congress and the American public to “focus on two interlocking pieces,” Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman writes at Just Security, identifying “the gravity of Russia’s actions” and “the gravity of obstruction” as the two priority areas arising from yesterday’s statement.

Following Mueller’s statement Nancy Pelosi will “now be under pressure to retreat to a new line … or abandon it altogether” Edward Luce comments at the Financial Times.

Mueller’s statement was delivered using respectful and nuanced language, “but his message was clear: ‘it’s about Russia, stupid!’” Barbara McQuade comments at The Daily Beast.

A “translation” of Mueller’s “cautious language” is provided by the New York Times editorial board.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

Russia may be conducting low-level nuclear tests to help it upgrade its nuclear arsenal, according to a new U.S. intelligence assessment. The assessment marks the first time the U.S. has said the Kremlin has failed to observe its commitments under the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Michael R. Gordon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“The U.S. believes Russia is probably not adhering to the nuclear testing moratorium in a manner consistent with the zero-yield standard,” Defense Intelligence Agency Director – Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley Jr. – told reporters yesterday at the Hudson Institute. In a question-and-answer session afterward, he stated only that Russia “has the capability” to conduct a test with a low nuclear yield, Julian E. Barnes and William J. Broad report at the New York Times.

There was no immediate response from the Russian government and the head of a body monitoring a global nuclear treaty commented there was no sign of such violations by Moscow. Head of the Russian State Duma Defense Committee Vladimir Shamanov told news agency Interfax that Ashley “could not have made a more irresponsible statement,” Reuters reports.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton is to meet with his Israeli and Russian counterparts in Jerusalem in June to discuss regional security matters. Reuters reports.

 It is not Russian [intercontinental ballistic missiles] or hypersonic vehicles that pose the greatest threat to U.S. national security – but rather Moscow’s covert influence and destabilization operations, Michael Carpenter writes in an Op-Ed at Just Security.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

 Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has shifted his standards on the makeup of the Supreme Court, Carl Hulse writes at the New York Times, contrasting McConnell’s “oh, we’d fill it” comment Tuesday with his previous refrain shown regarding filling a vacancy.

McConnell will do anything to fill the Supreme Court with nominees who will answer the commands of conservative interest group – regardless of what voters decide year to year, E.J. Dionne Jr. comments at The Washington Post, arguing that “the courts are being packed, politicized and pushed hard to the right.”

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan states recent North Korean missile tests “are a violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution,” breaking with President Trump. Trump has repeated in recent days that he was “not bothered” by the short-range missile tests earlier this month and that he remains hopeful for diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

North Korea yesterday accused the U.S. of showing “evil ambition” and “bad faith” in negotiations by conducting nuclear and missiles tests and military drills to defeat North Korea by force. A statement released by the North Korean foreign ministry accused U.S. officials of a “hostile scheme to stifle us by force,” adding that “the U.S. has … showcased its ulterior intention that it seeks a strength-based solution of the issues, though outwardly it advocates for dialogue,” David Brunnstrom reports at Reuters.

IRAN

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton warned Iran yesterday that any attacks in the Gulf will draw a “very strong response” from the U.S. “The point is to make it very clear to Iran and its surrogates that these kinds of action risk a very strong response from the United States,” Bolton told journalists in the U.A.E. capital, Abu Dhabi, Jon Gambrell reports at the AP.

U.S. warmongers continue to push for conflict with Iran, according to Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi. Araghchi reportedly stated: “we are aware that evident elements are trying to put America into a war with Iran for their own goals,” accusing Bolton and “other warmongers” of plotting against Iran, Al Jazeera reports.

Iran will not negotiate with the U.S. over its nuclear and missile programs, according to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s website. “We said before that we will not negotiate with America, because negotiation has no benefit and carries harm,” Khamenei commented yesterday, after President Hassan Rouhani indicated talks with Washington might be possible if sanctions were lifted, Reuters reports.

“We will not negotiate over the core values of the revolution … we will not negotiate over our military capabilities,” Khameni stated, according to a state T.V. program, Reuters reports.

A U.S. military top general believes recent threats from Iran are “different” because they were “more of a campaign” than previous threats. “What’s not new are threat streams … what I would argue was qualitatively different is we saw something that was more of a campaign than an individual threat,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford commented, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration’s mission to counter Iran’s foreign policy is more likely to lead the U.S. into war “well before any showdown over a nuclear program,” according to lawmakers, former government officials and analysts. Edward Wong reports at the New York Times.

Remember the intelligence lessons of Iraq as Bolton marches to war with Iran, Peter Eisner cautions at CNN, urging the U.S. to examine Bolton’s past behavior.

Iran and Russia will remain allies with an easily defined common enemy, so long as the U.S. continues its aggressive and erratic policies in the region, Reese Erlich comments at Foreign Policy, arguing that U.S. sanctions could create new strategic alliances rather than isolating Tehran.

IRAQ

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has not yet decided whether to extend a 90-day U.S. waiver exempting Iraq from sanctions to buy energy from Iran, Reuters reports.

Two Turkish soldiers were killed yesterday in northern Iraq in a new operation against Kurdish militants, according to a statement made on Turkey’s official news agency, the AP 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 latest strikes in the wave of regime bombardment on the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib killed at least 15 civilians yesterday, despite calls to halt the attacks, according to U.K.-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Seven of yesterday’s victims were reportedly killed in an air raid on the village of Sarja, AFP reports.

The European Union (E.U.) yesterday called for a ceasefire in Idlib province and said Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Syrian government must protect civilians under siege. At least 180,000 people have fled the surge in violence, and government bombing has killed dozens in the past three weeks, Reuters reports.

U.S. forces quietly sent at least 30 suspected foreign Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) fighters captured in Syria last year and in late 2017 to stand trial in Iraq, according to interviews with the men, Iraqi sources and court documents. The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (C.T.S.) have denied that the men were transferred into their custody, also denying unverified torture claims made by four of the men, Reuters reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a new government yesterday, triggering a new election and becoming the first elected prime minister in Israeli history unable to forge a working government. Paul Goldman reports at NBC.

“Middle East peace is only possible with the creation of a Palestinian state,” Jordan’s King Abdullah told President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. According to a palace statement, Abdullah – who is reportedly “deeply concerned” about Trump’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan – told Kushner that Israel had to withdraw from the West Bank, Reuters reports.

Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan is “doomed to fail” and the Palestinian resistance movement will respond firmly to those who proposed such deal, Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards said in statement released yesterday, Reuters reports.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

An analysis of how U.S. sanctions over a Russian weapon could rattle Turkey is provided at Reuters.

Turkish-American scientist Serkan Golge – detained in Turkey for nearly three years – has been released. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus welcomed the decision but declined to discuss why Golge was released, the AP reports.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Trump agreed during a phone call yesterday to meet on the sidelines of a G.20 meeting set for June 28-29 in Japan, the Turkish Presidency’s communications director announced in messages sent on Twitter.  The two leaders discussed issues such as boosting mutual trade, Turkey’s planned purchase of a Russian missile defense system and “the opportunity to continue the discussion” during the G.20 summit, White House spokesperson Judd Deere said in an email.  Reuters reports.

U.S. MILITARY

The White House wanted the U.S. Navy to move the warship U.S.S. John S. McCain “out of sight” ahead of President Trump’s visit to Japan, according to a May 15 email to U.S. Navy and Air Force officials. The ship was named after the father and grandfather of the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — a frequent target of Trump’s ire — with the senator’s own name added to the ship last year, Rebecca Ballhaus and Gordon Lubold report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump denied knowing anything about the request, sending a message on Twitter claiming that he “was not informed about anything” related to the ship.  The Navy Chief of Information also sent a message claiming that the ship’s name “was not obscured,” also adding that “the Navy is proud of that ship, its crew, its namesake and its heritage” although not denying that an initial request had been made, the BBC reports.

“Trump is a child who will always be deeply threatened by the greatness of mydads incredible life,” McCain’s daughter Meghan McCain stated in a message on Twitter, adding “there is a lot of criticism of how much I speak about my dad, but nine months since he passed, Trump won’t let him RIP … so I have to stand up for him … it makes my grief unbearable,” Colby Itkowitz, Dan Lamothe and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

A critique of Defense Dept General Counsel Ney’s recent remarks on the law of war is provided by Adil Ahmad Haque at Just Security.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A mutual defense cooperation deal between the U.S. and the U.A.E came into force yesterday, amid increasing tensions between Washington and Tehran. Al Jazeera reports.

At least six people have been killed – and six injured – in a suicide bomb attack today in the Afghan capital. The explosion took place near an Afghan military training center after the attacker was prevented from entering the Marshal Fahim National Defense University, according to an anonymous official, Reuters reports.

China has stepped up efforts to design and manufacture chips itself rather than buy from the U.S., in response to the threat of U.S. sanctions in its high-tech industry.

“Now the U.S. has made a full-on strike on Huawei with no concrete evidence … the chip industry has fully realized the importance [of self-sufficiency],” chief analyst at Shanghai-based semiconductor research company ICWise – Gu Wenjun – commented, Yuan Yang, Nian Liu and Sue-Lin Wong report at Financial Times.

Venezuelan opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó has vowed to press ahead with street protests, after talks with government officials hosted by Norway ended yesterday without progress towards resolving the country’s political crisis, Reuters reports. 

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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).