The Early Edition: June 13, 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 said yesterday that he would be willing to accept information from a foreign country on his opponent in the 2020 election race, after years of denying that Moscow assisted in his presidential win.  “It’s not an interference,” the president said in an interview with A.B.C. News, describing the practice as “opposition research” and adding: “they have information — I think I’d take it,” Peter Baker reports at the New York Times.

Trump maintained that he believed there was not anything wrong with listening to what foreign powers might have to offer. “If somebody called from a country, Norway, [and said] ‘we have information on your opponent’—oh, I think I’d want to hear it,” the president said during the interview, Alex Leary reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The president said he would call the F.B.I. only “if I thought there was something wrong.” Trump made the comment to interviewer George Stephanopoulos while discussing why his son Donald Trump Jr., did not go to the F.B.I. after he spoke with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential election, Doha Madani reports at NBC.

“You’re a congressman, someone comes up and says … ‘I have information on your opponent’ … do you call the F.B.I.?” Trump asked his interviewer. “If it’s coming from Russia, you do,” Stephanopoulos replied, pointing out that F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray said recently that the agency should have been notified when the Trump campaign received an offer of information on his 2016 Democratic rival Hillary Clinton; “the F.B.I. Director is wrong,” Trump rebutted. Colby Itkowitz and Tom Hamburger report at the Washington Post.

Trump Jr. yesterday concluded a three-hour closed-door return interview with the Senate Intelligence Committee, as panelists grilled him about his contacts with Russians. Trump Jr. attempted to dismiss concerns he may have perjured himself in his 2017 testimony, commenting after the interview: “I don’t think I changed anything of what I said because there was nothing to change … I’m glad that this is finally over [and] we’re able to put some final clarity on that,” AFP reports.

Officials from the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) intend to interview senior C.I.A. officers as they review the Russia investigation, according to people briefed on the matter. The interview plans are the latest indication that the D.O.J. will take a critical look at the C.I.A.’s work on Russia’s election interference, with investigators allegedly hoping to talk with at least one senior counterintelligence official and a senior C.I.A. analyst – both involved in the agency’s work on understanding the Russian 2016 electoral manipulation campaign, Julian E. Barnes, Katie Benner, Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

House Intelligence Committee Chair Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) yesterday threatened to subpoena Wray for information regarding the original counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference. After a panel hearing yesterday that featured testimony from former officials on the implications of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign, Schiff told reporters that he has been unable to get briefings or information on the status or findings of the counterintelligence probe, adding “we’re running out of patience … if we don’t get answer soon, we’ll be issuing subpoenas.” Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

“Of all the questions that Mueller helped resolve … he left many critical questions unanswered — what happened to the counterintelligence investigation?” Schiff had said at the opening of the hearing. “Were there other forms of compromise, like money laundering, left out, uninvestigated or referred to other offices? were individuals granted security clearances that shouldn’t have them? and are there individuals still operating in the administration that leave America vulnerable?” Ken Dilanian reports at NBC.

Top Republican on the panel Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.) used his opening statement to attack Democrats and the media for perpetuating what he described as the “collusion hoax,” also criticizing Mueller’s report as a “hit piece” that was selectively edited to strengthen Democrats’ argument for impeachment. “Unfortunately for Democrats, the Mueller dossier, as I call it, either debunked many of their favorite conspiracy theories or did not even find them worth discussing,” Nunes remarked, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks has agreed to provide closed-door testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, the panel’s Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) announced yesterday, marking a “small breakthrough” for congressional Democrats frustrated by the White House’s resistance to their efforts to investigate the president. Hicks is scheduled to meet with the panel next Wednesday and a transcript of her testimony will be released publicly, the panel announced, Dustin Volz and Siobahn Hughes report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump has accused Democrats of being “totally out of control” as congressional probes deepen. Trump made the comments ahead of a bilateral meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda in the Oval Office, David Nakamura, Josh Dawsey and John Wagner report at the Washington Post.

Trump filed a brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Tuesday that takes the position that Congress cannot investigate the president, except possibly in impeachment proceedings. “It’s a spectacularly anti-constitutional brief, and anyone who harbors such attitudes toward our Constitution’s architecture is not fit for office,” George T. Conway III and Neal Katyal comment at the Washington Post.

“Trump just put a ‘for sale’ sign on his forehead,” Samanatha Vinograd writes at CNN in an analysis of the president’s comments yesterday regarding foreign electoral assistance.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that relations between Moscow and Washington are getting worse and worse, noting in an interview published today that the current U.S. administration had imposed dozens of sanctions on Russia. “[Relations] are going downhill, they are getting worse and worse … the current administration has approved, in my opinion, several dozen decisions on sanctions against Russia in recent years,” Putin told the Mir TV channel, according to a Kremlin transcript, Reuters reports.

Turkey has already purchased S-400 missile defense systems from Russia and hopes they will be delivered in July, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced yesterday. Turkey and the U.S. have bickered publicly for months over Ankara’s order for the S-400s, which are not compatible with N.A.T.O.’s systems, Al Jazeera reports.

President Trump yesterday doubled down on his assertion that Russia had pulled personnel out of Venezuela — despite denials from Moscow—telling a reporter he was “always right.” When questioned by a reporter about Russia’s opposing claims, the president told them to “just watch” what happens, The Daily Beast reports.

2020 CENSUS CITIZENSHIP QUESTION

The House Oversight and Reform Committee yesterday voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for withholding documents about the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. The vote, which passed 24-15 largely along party lines, came just hours after President Trump asserted executive privilege to block access to the information, Rebecca Shabad and Alex Moe report at NBC.

“We must protect the integrity of the census … and we will stand up for Congress’s authority under the Constitution to conduct meaningful oversight,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) commented, after being informed that Trump had decided to invoke his secrecy powers. Cummings labeled the privilege claim “another example of the administration’s blanket defiance of Congress’s constitutionally mandated responsibilities,” Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Charlie Savage report at the New York Times.

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) – the sole Republican in Congress to come out in favor of starting impeachment proceedings against Trump – broke with his party again yesterday on the committee vote to hold Barr and Ross in contempt. Amash joined Democrats to vote in favor of the contempt resolution, Jacqueline Thomsen reports at The Hill.

“I think it’s totally ridiculous that we would have a census without asking [about citizenship],” Trump told reporters yesterday, publicly backing the new census question. The president added “but the Supreme Court is going to be ruling on it soon,” Natalie Andrews reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Organizations challenging the citizenship question decision asked the Supreme Court yesterday to put off a ruling on whether the Trump administration may include the question: “If ever there were a case that should be decided on the basis of a true and complete record, it is this one,” American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.) lawyer Dale Ho wrote in the brief, adding “even an appearance that the government has manipulated the census for partisan and racially discriminatory purposes would undermine public confidence in our representative democracy.” Robert Barnes reports at the Washington Post.

CHINA, HONG KONG AND HUAWEI

Encrypted messaging service Telegram suffered a “major cyber-attack” yesterday that seemed to originate from China, the company’s C.E.O. Pavel Durov announced today, linking the attack to the ongoing political unrest in Hong Kong. Telegram reported yesterday that it was suffering a “powerful” Distributed Denial of Service (D.D.o.S.) attack, which involves a hacker overwhelming a target’s servers by making a large number of junk requests, the AFP reports.

Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei has urged Washington to drop its plans to ban wireless companies from using U.S. government funds to buy Huawei gear for their networks. In a filing to the Federal Communications Commission yesterday, the company argued that the proposed rule would “do nothing to protect national security, and could destabilize rural networks if they are required to rip out Huawei equipment they installed years ago,” Reuters reports.

U.S. President Trump is reportedly “impressed” with the volume of protesters in Hong Kong, describing it as big a demonstration as he has ever seen. The president, who avoided picking a side, said he understands the reason for the demonstration, adding “I hope it all works out for China and for Hong Kong,” the AP reports.

“Just because the structure of international relations seems to mandate a new cold war – it does not follow that it is inevitable,” Janan Ganesh comments at the Financial Times, arguing that if there is to be conflict with China, the U.S. public will have to consent.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

“Deepfake” videos continue to pose a threat to the 2020 campaign: “I think it’s a grave threat and I don’t think we’re at all prepared,” House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) commented, adding “there’s no end to the pernicious abuse of this technology.” Christiano Lima reports at POLITICO.

Facebook yesterday disputed a report that claimed the company had “uncovered emails” that could show C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg “knew of problematic privacy practices” at the company. Commenting on the Wall Street Journal report, an unnamed Facebook spokesperson told reporters, “at no point did Mark or any other Facebook employee knowingly violate the company’s obligations under the F.T.C. consent order nor do any emails exist that indicate they did,” Donie O’Sullivan reports at CNN.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) are questioning the F.B.I. over its response to Russia attempting to hack voting machine company V.R. Systems during the 2016 presidential election. In a letter to F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray yesterday, the senators asked what measures the F.B.I. took after V.R. Systems alerted them in August 2016 that it had found “suspicious” I.P. addresses on its systems, Maggie Miller reports The Hill.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee yesterday approved bipartisan legislation that would create baseline cybersecurity standards for government-purchased internet-connected devices. The legislation, intended to reduce the risks to government information technology from cyberattacks, directs the National Institute of Standards and Technology to devise recommendations for the federal government on “the appropriate use and management” of the devices by Mar. 31 2020, Maggie Miller reports at The Hill.

IRAN AND GULF SEA TANKER ATTACK

The U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet is helping two tankers in the Gulf of Oman after receiving distress calls from the vessels amid a “reported attack.” The Fleet claimed it was investigating the incident and urged “extreme caution” amid heightened United States-Iran tensions, Al Jazeera reports.

Coordinates given by the U.K. Maritime Trade Operations said the vessels were both within 30 miles of the Iranian coast.  Alexander Smith, Caroline Radnofsky, Linda Givetash and Kurt Chirbas report at NBC.

Reports of the blasts first came from the same Hezbollah-linked news agencies in Lebanon that correctly reported attacks on tankers docked off the coast of the U.A.E. in May. The U.S. blamed those attacks on Iran – an accusation Tehran has denied, Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

It was not immediately clear how the most recent attacks were carried out or by whom. The two ships that were struck today appear to have been more seriously damaged than those hit in May, Richard Pérez-Peña, Stanley Reed and David D. Kirkpatrick report at the New York Times.

Seoul-based Hyundai Merchant Marine Co. has confirmed that all the 23 crew aboard one of the two oil tankers have been rescued by one of its cargo vessels sailing in the area. The company cited crew of its Hyundai Dubai cargo vessel as saying that there were three rounds of explosion sounds at the M.T. Front Altair before it sent an emergency distress call. Updates at the AP.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif described today’s incidents as “suspicious” and called for regional dialogue to avoid tensions. “Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning,” Zarif commented in a message sent on Twitter, adding “Iran’s proposed Regional Dialogue Forum is imperative,” Reuters reports.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday urged Tehran to play a “constructive role” during a rare diplomatic mission to Iran aimed at defusing U.S.-Iran tensions. “It is essential that Iran plays a constructive role in building solid peace and stability in the Middle East,” Abe told a joint news conference with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, adding “today, tension is rising in the Middle East … some experts point out that the conflict might be triggered accidentally … [a clash] must be avoided by all means,” AFP reports.

“Japan’s interest in continuing to purchase oil from Iran and solving financial issues…can secure the expansion of our relations,” Rouhani told reporters following the meeting. Alastair Gale reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Abe today held talks with Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ahead of his return Tokyo. “Supreme Leader Khamenei made a comment that the country will not and should not make, hold or use nuclear weapons, and that it has no such intentions,” Abe told reporters in Tehran following the meeting, adding “I regard this highly as a major progress toward this region’s peace and stability,” Reuters reports.

Khamenei reportedly warned that while Tehran doesn’t seek nuclear weapons – “America could not do anything” to stop Iran if it did. Jon Gambrell reports at the AP.

An analysis of Abe’s Iran trip is provided by Ben Dooley at the New York Times.

IRAQ

The Trump administration yesterday announced sanctions against an Iraqi company and two individuals that allegedly trafficked weapons for Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force. The Treasury Department announced sanctions against Baghdad-based company South Wealth Resources Company – which it claimed had trafficked “hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons” to Iraqi militias backed by the elite Revolutionary Guard unit – additionally sanctioning Makki Kazim Al Asadi and Muhammed Husayn Salih al-Hasani who it said helped facilitate the Quds Force’s access to weapons. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

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]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel has closed the fishing zone off the coast of the Gaza Strip in response to the firing of incendiary balloons from the Palestinian enclave. “Due to the continuous launching of incendiary balloons and kites from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, it has been decided tonight not to allow access to Gaza’s maritime space until further notice,” a spokesperson for a unit of Israel’s defense ministry C.O.G.A.T said in a statement yesterday, Al Jazeera reports.

Palestinians have urged Egypt and Jordan not to attend the upcoming U.S.-led economic conference in Bahrain that is part of the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan. Spokesperson for the Palestinian government Ibrahim Melhem urged “all brotherly and friendly countries to withdraw,” explaining that their participation “would carry wrong messages about the unity of the Arab position” on rejecting President Trump’s plan, Al Jazeera reports.

The Israeli military (I.D.F.) reportedly struck a Hamas tunnel in the Gaza Strip, after militants launched a rocket into southern Israel overnight. An I.D.F. statement today stated that fighter jets are targeting “underground infrastructure in a Hamas military compound” in Gaza after air defenses intercepted a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, the AP reports.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

A missile fired by Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels struck the arrivals hall of an airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia today injuring 26 people, according to spokesperson for the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition fighting the rebels in Yemen – Turki al-Malki. Eighteen people were treated at Abha International Airport for minor injuries while another eight were taken to hospital, al-Maki said in a statement published on Saudi state media, Nada Altaher and Bianca Britton report at CNN.

The kingdom described the attack as a “continuation of the Iranian regime’s support and practice of cross-border terrorism” and vowed to retaliate. Houthi official Mohamed Abdul Salam claimed the strike was in retaliation for the coalition’s continued “aggression and blockade” against Yemen, Vivian Yee reports at the New York Times.

“Evidence indicates Iran’s Revolutionary Guards supplied the Houthis with the weapon that targeted Abha airport,” Saudi-owned Al Arabiya T.V. quoted the coalition as saying. Reuters reports.

Coalition aircraft bombed areas around the Yemeni capital Sanaa today, according to residents and the Houthi-run Al-Masirah TV. Masirah reported there had been raids on three sites, including military targets belonging to Houthi forces, on the outskirts of Sanaa; there was no immediate confirmation from the coalition, Reuters reports.

Head of the U.N. mission in Yemen’s key port city of Hodeidah – Lt. Gen. Michael Lollesgaard – is urging the Houthi rebels to complete the removal of prepared military positions. Lollesgaard said yesterday that the U.N. mission has not detected a rebel military presence in Hodeidah and the two small ports of Salif and Ras Isa since May 14, but that there are still usable rebel military positions in the strategic Red Sea city, the AP reports.

U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R Clarke Cooper yesterday appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to defend the U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. cleared by the president’s emergency declaration last month, which waived a 30-day congressional review required by the U.S. Arms Export Control Act of 1976. In a “contentious” hearing, lawmakers from both parties pressed Cooper to outline when the administration first developed the plan to declare an emergency and sell weapons against Congress’s will, Catie Edmondson and Edward Wong report at the New York Times.

U.S MILITARY

President Donald Trump and Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a new defense agreement yesterday at the White House that will deploy a further 1,000 U.S. troops in Poland on a rotational basis. During a Rose Garden news conference, Trump said Poland will bear the cost of the additional troops: “Poland will provide the basing and infrastructure to support a military presence of about 1,000 American troops … the Polish government will build these projects at no cost to the United States … the Polish government will pay for this,” Jeremy Diamond reports at CNN.

“Trump is trying to basically reward the Poles … punish the Germans … and the Russians are in some ways almost incidental,” Deputy Director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Jeffrey Mankoff commented. Experts have claimed the increase in troops is less about responding to any new Russian threat and more about rewarding Poland for its commitment to security,” Foreign Policy.

The U.S. Navy is determining how to expand its presence in the waters of the high north – mainly off the coast of Alaska – as climate change melts ice that has long blocked the region off from transit and industry. “You see the shrinking of the polar ice cap, opening of sea lanes, more traffic through those areas … it’s the Navy’s responsibility to protect America through those approaches,” Rear Adm. Daniel Dwyer commented on the plans.  Zachariah Hughes reports at NPR.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Russian military has announced a cease-fire agreement to halt the fighting between Syrian government and rebel forces in northwest Syria, according to two Russian news agencies late yesterday. The reports said the cease-fire was negotiated between Russia, which backs the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey, which controls much of Syria’s northwest, Andrew E. Kramer and Vivian Yee report at the New York Times.

The State Department yesterday appointed a special envoy to Sudan to find a “peaceful” solution to the conflict between demonstrators and generals. Ambassador Donald Booth – who previously served as the chief of mission to Ethiopia, Zambia and Liberia and as the U.S. special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan from August 2013 until January 2017 – was appointed as the special envoy to Sudan, and will attend meetings in Khartoum and Addis Ababa today with Assistant Secretary Tibor Nagy. Tal Axelrod reports at The Hill.

U.K. Home Secretary Sajid Javid has revealed he has signed a request for Wikileaks Co-founder Julian Assange to be extradited to the U.S. where he faces a D.O.J.-issued, 18-count indictment that includes charges under the Espionage Act, Matthew Weaver reports at the Guardian.

Conflict prevention and mediation are two of “the most important tools at our disposal to reduce human suffering” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council yesterday, explaining that “when we act early, and are united, we can successfully prevent crises from escalating, saving lives and reducing suffering,” the U.N. News Centre reports.

A commentary on Marik String’s appointment as Acting Legal Adviser to the State Department is provided by John T. Nelson 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).