The Early Edition: June 19, 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.

PATRICK SHANAHAN WITHDRAWAL

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is stepping down and withdrawing from consideration for the Cabinet position, U.S. President Trump announced yesterday. Trump had previously stated that Shanahan would be tapped to take over the job permanently, but yesterday sent a message on Twitter stating that Shanahan “who has done a wonderful job, has decided not to go forward with his confirmation process so that he can devote more time to his family,” Adam Edelman, Hallie Jackson, Kristen Welker and Courtney Kube report at NBC.

“I thank Pat for his outstanding service and will be naming Secretary of the Army … Mark Esper … to be the new Acting Secretary of Defense,” Trump stated in a follow-up message, adding “I know Mark, and have no doubt he will do a fantastic job!” Brian Naylor reports at NPR.

Trump did not say whether Esper would be nominated for the permanent position, but told reporters that Esper was a “highly respected” graduate of West Point and Harvard and predicted that “he’ll do very well.” Michael D. Shear and Helene Cooper report at the New York Times.

Shanahan’s withdrawal comes following multiple media reports yesterday chronicling a history of domestic violence and assault in his family. The F.B.I. has been investigating the domestic violence issues as part of its background investigation into the nominee, which had delayed Shanahan’s nomination process; it remains unclear why the issues did not come up during his confirmation process to be deputy secretary of defense in 2017, Lara Seligman, Elias Groll and Robbie Gramer report at Foreign Policy.

Shanahan’s former wife Kimberley Jordinson reportedly told police in 2010 that Shanahan had punched her in the stomach, after she was arrested for allegedly punching him in the face; in a separate incident, Shanahan’s son was arrested for allegedly hitting his mother with a baseball bat. Shanahan responded to the reports with a statement claiming that the dredging up of a “deeply personal family situation from long ago” was being portrayed in a “misleading way,” Audrey McNamara reports at The Daily Beast.

Republican senators were quick to back Shanahan’s decision to withdraw his nomination, with some expressing surprise at the allegations. Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) described the move as a “smart decision,” adding that he had not heard about the domestic violence allegations “in detail” but had heard “rumors about them,” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.) said he was aware during Shanahan’s deputy secretary confirmation of a “contentious divorce,” but that many of the details reported yesterday were new. “The more we know, the better off we are,” Reed responded when asked if the committee should have known more at the time, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Esper will “undoubtedly face questions about his defense industry and lobbying ties if Trump nominates him,” Eliana Johnson, Wesley Morgan and Connor O’Brien write in a profile of the new acting defense secretary at POLITICO. The authors note that before rejoining the Pentagon in late 2017 Esper was the top lobbyist for major U.S. defense contractor Raytheon, and that “during his confirmation hearing to be Army secretary, Esper fended off questions about potential conflicts of interest, telling skeptical senators that he directly lobbied only on a handful of Army programs, and resisted calls to extend his two-year recusal from Raytheon matters to his entire tenure as Army secretary.”

Shanahan’s departure will increase uncertainty at the Pentagon at a moment of significant potential military risk, David Ignatius argues at the Washington Post.

IRAN

President Trump does not want war with Iran – but the administration wants to protect U.S. interests, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters yesterday after a closed-door meeting at the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Florida. “We are there to deter aggression … President Trump does not want war,” Pompeo stated, adding “we will continue to communicate that message while doing the things that are necessary to protect American interests in the region,” Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

“We all have to remember this isn’t just two and a half years or five years this is 40 years of Iranian activity that has led us to this point,” Pompeo said, explaining there were issues with Iran beyond the attacks on two oil tankers that he has blamed on Tehran, Al Jazeera reports.

Pompeo called on other nations to help safeguard tanker traffic in the Gulf following a wave of recent attacks on ships. “The United States is prepared to do its part, but every nation that has a deep interest in protecting that shipping lane so that energy can move around the world and support their economies needs to make sure they understand the real threat,” Pompeo stated, Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

There will not be any military confrontation between Iran and the U.S., Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani has stated, according to state news agency I.R.N.A. “There will not be a military confrontation between Iran and America since there is no reason for a war … accusing other countries has turned into a common practice among U.S. officials as they try to pressure other counties,” Shamkhani reportedly said, Reuters reports.

Shamkhani called on “the independent countries of the world” to help counter a U.S. campaign that has included crippling economic sanctions and thousands of additional troops sent to the Middle East. “The U.S. has destabilized the international security system with unilateralism and extraterritorial sanctions,” Shamkhani stated yesterday at a summit in Ufa, Russia, where security officials from 119 nations have gathered, adding “if a broad spectrum of countries decide to stand against the illegal blackmailing and bullying by the U.S., we can make the U.S. retreat.” Sune Engel Rasmussen and Aresu Eqbali report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump declared yesterday that the U.S. was “very prepared” with regard to Iran. “We’ll see what happens,” Trump told reporters, Reuters reports.

China has reportedly urged the U.S. to alter its Iran strategy and pursue deescalation amid rising tensions. “We call on all sides to remain rational and exercise restraint, and not take any escalatory actions that irritate regional tensions, and not open a Pandora’s box,” Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi told reporters in Beijing, adding “in particular, the U.S. side should alter its extreme pressure methods … any unilateral behavior has no basis in international law … not only will it not resolve the problem, it will only create an even greater crisis.” Chris Mills Rodrigo reports at the Hill.

A bipartisan group of senators have urged Trump to explain his decision to deploy additional troops to the Middle East, warning that Congress has not authorized military action against Iran. “We remain concerned that increasingly escalatory actions by both sides will lead to an unnecessary conflict … given that growing risk, we want to reiterate that, as of this date, Congress has not authorized war with Iran and no current statutory authority allows the U.S. to conduct hostilities against the Government of Iran,” the senators wrote in a letter led by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah). Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Key senators are to get a new round of briefings from the Trump administration soon amid increasing U.S. tensions with Iran. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) yesterday announced that committees would receive a briefing, and that a top State Department official will take part in a closed-door Senate Republican lunch to discuss the present situation with G.O.P. senators, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

The U.S. will not mount a unilateral military response against Iran for the tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman unless U.S. forces or interests in the region are targeted, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva stated yesterday, warning that “if the Iranians come after U.S. citizens, U.S. assets or U.S. military, we reserve the right to respond with a military action, and they need to know that,” Wesley Morgan reports at the POLITICO.

The damage to the Japanese-owned oil tanker is “not consistent with an external flying object hitting the ship,” a U.S. Navy expert has declared, the AP reports.

The limpet mine used in attack on Japanese-owned oil tanker “bears a striking resemblance” to Iranian mines, the expert added, the AP reports.

Kuwait’s ruling emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah arrived on a state visit to Iraq today to discuss escalating regional tensions after attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, Reuters reports.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has stated that pulling out of some commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal was a “minimum” measure that Tehran could adopt a year after the U.S. withdrew from the agreements and reimposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Rouhani made the comments today in a speech broadcast on the state television, adding that Iran will not negotiate with the U.S. under pressure. Reuters reports.

Iran has said it will not give European powers any more time beyond Jul. 8 to save its nuclear deal by shielding it from U.S. sanctions. A spokesperson for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization said Tehran was prepared to go through with a threat to enrich uranium to a higher level if Europe did not step in, a move that would breach the terms of a nuclear pact with world powers, Reuters reports.

Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence yesterday claimed the country had dealt “a heavy blow against America’s international spy network.” In a statement, the ministry said it recently targeted the network, along with its international allies, and succeeded in “preventing American plans from succeeding;” a U.S. official has disputed the ministry’s claim, Fred Pleitgen and Shirzad Bozorgmehr report at CNN.

IRAN: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

European leaders find themselves in an “uncomfortable place” as tensions between Washington and Tehran escalate, Steven Erlanger writes at the New York Times, commenting that the “last thing the Europeans want is to declare Iran out of compliance.”

Former president Ronald Reagan’s response to Iranian tanker attacks in the 1980s offers a model for avoiding a catastrophic conflict, Steven Simon argues at POLITICO, describing Reagan’s response as “careful and swift.”

“The U.S. and Iran are playing nuclear roulette,” David Gardner argues at the Financial Times, commenting on Tehran’s announcement this week that it will breach the uranium enrichment limits in the 2015 nuclear deal, and Washington deploying a further 1,000 troops to the region.

The recent attacks make clear that Iran’s enemies will not be able to bypass it in the Persian Gulf, Micha’el Tanchum argues at Foreign Policy, writing that Iran’s “carefully coded” message is awaiting a response.

An update on recent developments in the Gulf is provided by the AP.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

U.S. President Trump has announced plans for an “extended” meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G.20 summit in Japan next week. Speaking at the White House yesterday, the president said U.S. and Chinese negotiators would resume trade negotiations today ahead of his planned talk with Xi, Ben Westcott, Steven Jiang and Kevin Liptak report at CNN.

“Had a very good telephone conversation with President Xi of China,” Trump said in a message on Twitter. “We will be having an extended meeting next week at the G-20 in Japan. Our respective teams will begin talks prior to our meeting,” the president added, Ana Swanson and Julie Hirrschfeld Davis reports at the New York Times.

Members of the Senate Commerce security subcommittee looked at the potential impact of banning Chinese-manufactured drones, or components for drones, during a hearing yesterday. Lawmakers compared the debate on drones to the recent decision by the Department of Commerce to blacklist Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in May, in a move that barred U.S. firms from working with the company, Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

Hong Kong is preparing for fresh rallies on Friday, as protesters gave city authorities until tomorrow to meet their demands on the retraction of the city’s extradition bill. Anonymous message have spread on social media calling for people to gather outside the government headquarters in the Admiralty business district to “escalate their actions” should the Hong Kong government fails to meet their demands by 5pm tomorrow, Verna Yu reports at the Guardian.

Hong Kong’s security secretary John Lee Ka-chiu today defended police’s use of tear gas and pepper spray against protesters last week, claiming that officers had been in a “life-threatening situation.” Ka-chiu told the city’s Legislative Council that the police had adopted a “tolerant” attitude on June 12 until protesters “violently” attacked them, Mike Ives and Katherine Li report at the New York Times.

Trump has revived the Monroe Doctrine as a warning to China and Russia, Lucia Newman writes in an analysis at Al Jazeera. “Named after President James Monroe in 1823,” Newman explains, “the doctrine basically states that ‘America is for the Americans,’ and that the United States has the right to intervene in any nation south of its borders to ensure that other countries do not exert their influence.”

Xi has been given a ‘bloody nose’ by the Hong Kong protesters, Tom Mitchell, Sue-Lin Wong and Nicolle Liu write in an in-depth analysis at the Financial Times, projecting how Beijing might respond to the developments.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Chinese President Xi Jinping said today that China supported North Korea’s “correct direction” in politically resolving issues on the Korean Peninsula, making the remarks in an op-ed published in the North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun. The front-page op-ed is an honor rarely granted to foreign leaders and comes a day before Xi travels to Pyongyang at the invitation of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, making him the first Chinese leader to visit in 14 years, Al Jazeera reports.

Xi was silent on the stalled nuclear weapons talks between Washington and Pyongyang, although some experts are of the opinion that he could use his summit with Kim to endorse North Korean calls for an incremental disarmament process – in which every action Pyongyang takes is met with U.S. concessions on sanctions and security issues. Xi said his visit will “strengthen strategic communication and exchange” between Beijing and Pyongyang, Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the Washington Post.

“It is believed that Xi’s visit to the D.P.R.K. [North Korea] will present the opportunity for the two leaders to agree on some concrete cooperation projects based on the complementarity of the two economies,” the official China Daily said in editorial this week. Reuters reports.

“Xi … is attempting to make sure China’s role is secure in what has become a sort-of diplomatic love triangle between the three countries,” Joshua Berlinger writes in an analysis of Xi’s upcoming trip at CNN.

“Iran and North Korea are wildly different versions of the same threat … and the White House has taken wildly different approaches to them,” Nick Paton Walsh comments at CNN, arguing that the Trump administration is floundering in its nuclear strategies.

An explainer on “what to watch for at Kim-Xi summit in North Korea?” is provided by Hyung-Jin Kim and Kim Tong-Hyung at the AP.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

Special rapporteur for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Agnes Callamard today released a 101-page report on her months-long inquiry into the death of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Callamard’s report called for further investigation of high-level Saudi officials, including Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, finding that the culpability for Khashoggi’s killing extends beyond the 11 unnamed Saudis who are on trial in a closed-door judicial proceeding, Carol Morello and Kareem Fahim report at the Washington Post.

Callamard cited “credible evidence” pointing to bin Salman’s involvement, finding that Khashoggi’s killing “constituted an extrajudicial killing for which the State of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible.” Al Jazeera reports.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Senators might vote on blocking the Trump administration’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. as soon as this week. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) began the formal process yesterday on one of the 22 resolutions of disapproval on the Senate floor, and asked the Senate to move to immediate consideration of the resolution, Al Jazeera reports.

“This resolution that I have just asked for the discharge of would disapprove the administration’s proposed sale of precision guided munitions to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Menendez said from the Senate floor, adding these are “weapons they have used in the killing of untold numbers of innocent civilians in their ongoing campaign in Yemen,” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has blocked the inclusion of Saudi Arabia on a U.S. list of countries that recruit child soldiers, discounting his experts’ findings that a Saudi-U.A.E. coalition has been using underage fighters in Yemen’s civil war, Al Jazeera reports.

The $11.2 billion military vehicle between Canada and Saudi Arabia is the “focal point” of a debate in Canada about balancing the country’s respect for human rights with hundreds of well-paying jobs, Jackie Northam writes at NPR.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is welcoming next week’s U.S.-organized Middle East peace conference, even though Israeli government officials are not invited. Speaking at a government ceremony yesterday, Netanyahu praised the Bahrain conference as “an attempt by the U.S. to bring a better future and solve the problems of the region,” the AP reports.

Former Israeli general and chief liaison officer to the Palestinians – Yoav Mordechai – will attend in a private capacity, according to a person briefed on the Bahrain gathering, Reuters reports.

The Trump administration’s rhetoric regarding the Israel-Palestine reflects “not just a reflection of a racist … colonial mentality … but a lack of understanding” of Palestinian aspirations, Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi told a briefing yesterday organized by the Arab Center Washington. Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

SYRIA

A humanitarian disaster in Syria’s northwestern rebel-held province of Idlib is “unfolding before our eyes,” U.N. Humanitarian Chief Mark Lowcock declared yesterday in a briefing to the Security Council. Lowcock told the Council that since Syrian troops began pushing into Idlib on Apr. 30 an estimated 330,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and more than 230 civilians have died, The U.N. News Centre reports.

U.N. Chief Antonio Guterres yesterday urged Russia and Turkey to stabilize the situation in northwestern Syria “without delay” as the U.N. aid chief said that certain hospitals were not sharing their locations with the warring parties because that “paints a target on their back.” Reuters reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Ex-Trump aide Hope Hicks is to testify today behind closed doors to U.S. House investigators, becoming the first member of the president’s inner circle to testify to the congressional panel leading an investigation into Trump’s possible obstruction of justice, Reuters reports.

House Democrats plan to question former Hicks about five specific incidents that Special Counsel Robert Mueller detailed as part of his investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign, Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

The White House aims to severely limit any testimony regarding Hick’s time in the Trump administration. White House counsel Pat Cipollone sent a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) yesterday, notifying Nadler that the president had instructed Hicks not to answer the panel’s questions about her time working in the White House: “Ms. Hicks is absolutely immune from being compelled to testify before Congress with respect to matters occurring during her service as a senior adviser to the President,” Cipollone wrote, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Hicks is the “Forrest Gump” of the Mueller investigation: she somehow witnessed – and at times participated in – seemingly every major event in Trump’s prolonged campaign to obstruct justice, Elie Honig writes at CNN, arguing that live testimony from Hicks on the nature and depth of Trump’s obstructive conduct would have a greater impact than a written transcript.

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) has stepped in to keep former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort in federal custody after Manafort expressed concern over being transferred to a state lockup in New York. “In light of New York’s position, and Mr. Manafort’s unique health and safety needs, the department determined to err on the side of caution by keeping Mr. Manafort in federal custody during the pendency of his state proceeding,” a D.O.J. spokesperson said, Tom Winter, Jonathan Dienst and Allan Smith report at NBC.

“Mueller did clear the president of colluding with Russia,” Marc A. Thiessen argues at the Washington Post, commenting on an interview with Trump and A.B.C. News anchor George Stephanopoulos.

Trump’s fondness for the U.S. Supreme Court could be “tested” by the series of legal disputes targeting him personally – from his taxes and businesses to his 2016 election campaign – that ultimately may be decided by the justices. Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley provide an analysis at Reuters.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi yesterday said foreign troops and local militia operating inside his country are not allowed to fight and must operate under the supervision and control of the Iraqi armed forces, the AP reports.

The U.N. has called for a “thorough and transparent investigation” into the death of Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in court, as thousands of people across the Middle East paid their respects to Morsi, Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. yesterday announced a $250m military aid package for Ukraine to strengthen the country’s naval and land capabilities. “These reforms will bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend its territorial integrity in support of a secure, prosperous, democratic and free Ukraine,” Pentagon spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Carla M Gleason commented, Al Jazeera reports.

President Trump’s top Russia advisor Fiona Hill is expected to step down from her post at the National Security Council (N.S.C.) in August. Hill is to be replaced by the arms control expert Tim Morrison, Robbie Gramer and Amy MacKinnon report at Foreign Policy.

The Democratic-controlled House voted last night to block President Trump’s move to restrict transgender men and women from military service. The House passed by 243-183 an amendment to block Trump’s ban – which bars people who have undergone gender transition from enlisting – though the move still faces a Trump veto threat against the underlying $1 trillion spending bill, the AP reports.

Trump’s push to fix the U.S. security clearance system is “behind schedule and disorganized,” according to U.S. officials and an internal agency report. Reuters reports.

Democrats are reportedly trying to increase pressure on Majority Leader Mitch Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to move election security bills, with the issue having remained at an impasse in the Senate for months. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

A record 71 million people have been displaced worldwide by war, persecution and other violence, the U.N. refugee agency announced today, marking an increase of more than 2 million from a year earlier. The U.N. News Centre 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).