The Early Edition: June 26, 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

Former special counsel Robert Mueller will testify to Congress in a public session next month about his investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. The House Judiciary and Intelligence committees announced late yesterday that “pursuant to a subpoena,” Mueller has agreed to appear before both panels on Jul. 17. Rachel Bade, Matt Zapotosky and Karoun Demirjian report at the Washington Post.

“The American public deserves to hear directly from you about your investigation and conclusions,” Committee Chairs Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) wrote in a letter to Mueller yesterday. “We will work with you to address legitimate concerns about preserving the integrity of your work, but we expect that you will appear before our committees as scheduled,” they added, Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

“Americans have demanded to hear directly from the Special Counsel so they can understand what he and his team examined … uncovered, and determined about Russia’s attack on our democracy …the Trump campaign’s acceptance and use of that help … and President Trump and his associates’ obstruction of the investigation into that attack,” Nadler and Schiff announced in a joint statement last night. Both panels had been negotiating for Mueller’s voluntary appearance for several weeks but had not reached an agreement; Mueller signaled his unwillingness to testify publicly before Congress in his first public remarks on his investigation into Russia’s election interference last month, Morgan Chalfant and Tal Axelrod report at the Hill.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also welcomed Mueller’s testimony, saying in a statement: “Members of Congress must honor our oath and our patriotic duty to follow the facts, so we can protect our democracy,” Andrew Desiderio and Heather Caygle report at POLITICO.

The committees have reportedly been working with the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) on negotiating terms for Mueller’s appearance over the last several weeks. The negotiations have been prolonged in part because of Mueller’s announcement that he would leave the D.O.J. and retire to private life, Erin Banco reports at The Daily Beast.

“Presidential Harassment!” Trump responded to the news, in a message sent on Twitter yesterday, Jeremy Herb and Manu Raju report at CNN.

“Bob Mueller has already stated that his report is his testimony … in that report … he concluded that there was no collusion or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia,” Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow responded to the development in a statement, adding “we also expect that he will have to answer questions regarding some of the irregularities that took place during his investigation, not the least of which involve [former F.B.I. personnel] Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.” Both a spokesperson from the D.O.J. and the White House declined to comment, Siobhan Hughes and Sadie Gurman report at the Wall Street Journal.

“Who cares,” Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani commented on the news, adding “I think his testimony is going to be just like his press conference, totally useless with him repeating ‘I can’t make up my mind.’” “Mueller said he put anything he was going to say in his report … so I have no idea why he’s testifying,” Giuliani continued, also stating that he was not worried that the testimony would add to calls for impeachment, Rebecca Shabad and Kirsten Welker report at NBC.

“There is still no overarching Russia strategy in place … let alone the discipline to implement it,” Andrew S. Weiss comments in an Op-Ed at POLITICO Magazine, noting that “the blowback from Trump’s past encounters with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin have even prompted jokes that the best way to avoid further deterioration to the U.S.-Russian relationship is simply to prevent the two leaders from ever meeting again.”

IRAN

U.S. President Trump warned yesterday that “any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force” and would result in the “obliteration” of parts of the country. The president made the remarks in a message sent on Twitter, in response to comments by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that the White House was “mentally handicapped.” David E. Sanger, David D. Kirkpatrick and Isabel Kershner report at the New York Times.

Trump labeled Rouhani’s comments “ignorant” and stated that Iran does “not understand reality,” Karen DeYoung reports at the Washington Post.

“Iran leadership doesn’t understand the words ‘nice’ or ‘compassion’ … they never have,” Trump stated in a message sent on Twitter, adding “sadly, the thing they do understand is Strength and Power, and the U.S.A. is by far the most powerful Military Force in the world, with 1.5 Trillion Dollars invested over the last two years alone.” Erin Cunningham and Ruth Eglash report at the Washington Post.

New U.S. sanctions and other pressure “is likely to bring Iran to the negotiating table,” U.S. national security adviser John Bolton told reporters in Jerusalem yesterday after meeting with Russian and Israeli officials: “they’ll either get the point or … we will simply enhance the maximum pressure campaign further … it will be, I think, the combination of sanctions and other pressure that does bring Iran to the table,” Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

“Iran is not looking for war with America,” Rouhani told French President Emmanuel Macron in a phone call yesterday. “Iran has no interest to increase tension in the region and it never seeks war with any country, including (the) U.S.”” Rouhani was quoted as saying by state news agency I.R.N.A., adding “we have always been committed to regional peace and stability and will make efforts in this respect,” AFP reports.

Rouhani also told his French counterpart that if the U.S. violates Iran’s territorial space again – as Iranian officials claim a U.S. drone did last week – it would be confronted: “if the Americans want to violate the waters or airspace of Iran again, Iran’s armed forces have a duty to confront them and they will have a decisive clash,” Rouhani said, Reuters reports.

“U.S. sanctions against Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are an attack against the nation,” Iran’s government spokesperson Ali Rabiei stated in a message sent on Twitter yesterday, adding “this action will increase the unity of Iranian people,” Reuters reports.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei today stated that his country will not retreat in the face of “cruel” U.S. sanctions and “insults.” “The most vicious officials of the [U.S.] government accuse Iran and insult it … the Iranian nation will not give in and retreat in the face of such insults,” Khamenei stated, Reuters reports.

Iran declared it will take fresh steps to reduce its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers on Jul. 7 in defiance of the new U.S. sanctions, Ali Arouzi and Alexander Smith report at NBC.

The offer by the U.S. to negotiate with Iran is a “deception,” according to Khamenei. “Negotiations are a deception for what they want … a weapon is in your hands and they don’t dare come close … they say drop the weapon so I can do whatever I want with you … this is negotiation,” Khamenei stated in remarks published on his official website, Reuters reports.

Iran will never pursue a nuclear weapon, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated yesterday, disputing Trump’s recent comments that he called off a military strike on Iran because it would have killed 150 people. “You were really worried about 150 people? How many people have you killed with a nuclear weapon?” Zarif stated, adding “it is us who, because of our religious views, will never pursue a nuclear weapon,” Reuters reports.

United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan today stated that “clear … scientific and convincing” evidence is needed on the recent oil tanker attacks in the Gulf region. Speaking in Moscow at a press conference with his Russian counterpart, bin Zayed Al Nahyan also called for de-escalation of tensions in the region, Reuters reports.

“I don’t need exit strategies,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office yesterday when asked if the president has an “exit strategy” in mind in case of a war with Iran, Julia Arciga reports at The Daily Beast.

Senate Maj. Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) yesterday indicated he is willing to vote on an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.) that would require Congressional approval for any military action against Iran. “We’re not opposed to having the vote and we’re working on having that vote, passing N.D.A.A. and doing the supplemental [border spending bill], all this week,” McConnell stated yesterday, Alexander Bolton reports at the Hill.

The latest updates to the U.S.-Iran tensions are provided by Al Jazeera.

IRAN: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

President Trump’s “obliteration” threat to Iran has renewed war fears, Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis at CNN.

“Trump was right to show restraint and his Iran policy is working,” Marc A. Thiesssen argues at the Washington Post, commenting that “the fact that Trump was moments away from ordering a military strike should serve as a warning to Tehran.”

“Trump has weakened our national security by implementing an erratic foreign policy,” Halie Soifer comments on the new Iran sanctions at NBC.

The threat of U.S.-Iran war persists, Roula Khalaf writes at the Financial Times, commenting that “starting a diplomatic process is the only sensible path to de-escalation.”

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

A U.S. Senate committee approved legislation yesterday that would make it harder for President Trump to avoid congressional review of arms sales, highlighting lawmakers’ anger over the president’s approval of $8 billion in military deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) The Republican-majority Senate Foreign Relations Committee backed the “Saudi Arabia False Emergencies (S.A.F.E.) Act,” just days after the full Senate approved 22 separate resolutions of disapproval of the transactions, which did not garner enough support to overcome Trump’s promised veto, Reuters reports.

The U.K. government has said it will not grant any new licenses for weapons exports to Saudi Arabia or its coalition partners fighting in Yemen after the Court of Appeal of England and Wales ruled last week that such sales were unlawful, Al Jazeera reports.

Saudi and Yemeni special forces this month captured the man they identified as leader of the Islamic States groups (I.S.I.S.) branch in Yemen – Abu Osama Al-Muhajir – in a raid aided by elite U.S. forces and American intelligence, according to Saudi and American officials. The Jun. 3 seizure of A-Muhajir deals a blow to one of I.S.I.S.’

smaller branches, which the group has relied on since its territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq, Jared Malsin reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Saudi Arabia’s air defenses yesterday intercepted a drone launched toward a residential area in the Khamis Mushait by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthis yesterday, a spokesperson for the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition stated. The Houthis’ Al Masirah T.V. said earlier that the rebels had attacked military positions and aircraft hangars at two nearby airports in southwestern Saudi Arabia; there were no details about casualties or damage, Reuters reports.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi is denying allegations that drones which targeted Saudi oil pipelines last month could have taken off from Iraq, rather than Yemen. The attack — claimed by the Houthi rebels — was part of a series of incidents that escalated tensions in the Persian Gulf amid Washington-Tehran tensions; Abdul-Mahdi told reporters in Baghdad late yesterday that U.S. officials contacted the Iraqis recently, alleging the drones may have taken off from Iraq, the AP reports.

Houthi attacks have highlighted the deficiencies of the kingdom’s missile defenses. The kingdom’s American-made Patriot missile-defense system reportedly has a mixed record of intercepting projectiles from Yemen and is not primarily designed for repelling drones, Jared Malsin explains at the Wall Street Journal.

U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Agnes Callamard will today present her findings on the murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the U.N. Human Rights Council, a week after her report on the matter was released. A breakdown of “five things you need to know about what has happened since Khashoggi disappeared in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 and what is expected to happen next” is provided at Al Jazeera.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

U.S. President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner yesterday appealed for Palestinians to embrace his $50 billion economic support plan, as part of the Trump administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan. Speaking at the U.S.-led conference in Bahrain – with no Israelis or Palestinians present – Kushner invited the audience to “imagine a new reality in the Middle East,” Loveday Morris reports at the Washington Post.

“Agreeing on an economic pathway forward is a necessary precondition to resolving the previously unsolvable political issues,” Kushner stated, adding “to be clear, economic growth and prosperity for the Palestinian people are not possible without an enduring and fair political solution to the conflict – one that guarantees Israel’s security and respects the dignity of the Palestinian people.” Martin Chulov reports at the Guardian.

Kushner acknowledged that the initiative has been met with widespread skepticism and low expectations, commenting “my direct message to the Palestinian people is that despite what those who have let you down in the past say, President Trump and America have not given up on you,” Matthew Lee reports at the AP.

“Some people have mockingly called this effort the ‘deal of the century’ … but at its core … this is not about just making a deal,” Kushner stated, adding “this effort is better referred to as the ‘opportunity of the century’…if the leadership has the courage to pursue it,” Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Kushner’s current plan won’t bring peace to the Middle East,” Muriel Asseburg and Hugh Lovatt argue at Foreign Policy, commenting that European leaders should not lend support to the plan.

An analysis of whether the Mideast plan can pave the way for peace is provided by Stephen Farrell at Reuters.

A useful explainer of the U.S. economic plan, including its supporters and opponents, is provided by the AP.

The latest updates to the U.S.-led Bahrain meeting on Palestine are provided by Al Jazeera.

SYRIA

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday hosted an extraordinary meeting of national security advisers from Israel, the Russia and the U.S., with Netanyahu pressing to rid Syria of all foreign forces – in particular, Iranians and their proxies across Israel’s northern frontier. “I believe that there is a wider basis for cooperation between the three of us than many believe,” Netanyahu stated. Isabel Kershner reports at the New York Times.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton has announced that the U.S. is seeking for Iranian forces to leave Syria as one leg of a wider withdrawal from foreign territories. “It’s not a question I think of a disagreement about the outcome, but a mutual effort to find a way to make it happen,” Bolton said at a press conference following the Jerusalem meeting, Ivan Levingston reports at Bloomberg.

The U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs Mark Lowcock has asked Russia to explain how it uses data on the location of Syrian hospitals and clinics following a string of attacks on health facilities. According to the U.N., more than 23 hospitals have been hit by attacks since Russia-backed Syrian forces launched an offensive in the northwestern rebel-held province of Idlib in late April, Al Jazeera reports.

AFGHANISTAN

Two U.S. military service members have been killed in Afghanistan, according to a statement released today by the N.A.T.O.-led Resolute Support mission. The statement did not provide details surrounding the circumstances of their deaths and the names of the service members are being withheld until 24 hours after the notification of next of kin in accordance with U.S. Defense Department policy, Phil Helsel reports at NBC.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday expressed hopes there will be a peace deal with the Taliban by September, commenting that “the hour has come for peace” in Afghanistan. In a visit to the Afghan capital for talks with Afghan officials, Pompeo announced that progress has been made in reaching a comprehensive settlement of the nearly 18-year war and that neighboring Pakistan has a key role to play, Courtney McBride and Craig Nelson report at the Wall Street Journal

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The recent U.S. extension of sanctions against North Korea was an act of hostility and an outright challenge to last year’s Singapore summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a spokesperson for Pyongyang’s foreign ministry announced today. The White House last week extended six executive orders containing sanctions levied on over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs by one year. Reuters reports.

The unidentified North Korean spokesperson today denounced U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s remarks Sunday that more than 80 percent of the North Korean economy has been affected by sanctions, also accusing Washington of “viciously slandering” Pyongyang in its latest reports on human trafficking and religious freedom around the world, AFP reports.

The spokesperson claimed that the North is “not a country that will surrender to the U.S. sanctions.” According to state-run news agency K.N.C.A., the statement also accused the U.S. of having a “wild dream… to bring us to our knees by means of sanctions and pressure,” The Daily Beast reports.

The comments come two days after state media reported that Kim had received a personal letter of what was described as “excellent content” from President Trump. Al Jazeera reports.

Hopes for a third Trump-Kim summit appeared to be revived today even after the rebukes from Pyongyang. Just hours after the statement was published, South Korean President Moon Jae-in revealed that the long-time adversaries had been talking “behind the scenes” and “engaged in dialogue in regard to a third summit;” “there’s no reason to regard the current situation as a stalemate in the peace process on the peninsula just because the pace has remained slow,” Moon said in a written question-and-answer session with several media outlets. Joshua Berlinger and Jake Kwon report at CNN.

CHINA AND HUAWEI

U.S. chip-makers continue to sell millions of dollars of products to Huawei despite a Trump administration ban on the sale of U.S. technology to the Chinese telecommunications giant. Industry leaders including Intel and Micron have reportedly discovered ways to avoid labeling goods as U.S.-made, Paul Mozur and Cecilia Kang report at the New York Times.

Around 1,500 activists opposed to extradition legislation today marched to key foreign consulates – including the U.S. and U.K. consulates – in Hong Kong, calling on leaders at the upcoming G.20 summit in Japan to support the full scrapping of the controversial extradition bill and to raise the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping at this week’s summit, Katie Tam reports at the AP.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Top aide to first lady Melania Trump – Stephanie Grisham – will be the next White House press secretary and communications director, filling the vacancy left by outgoing press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “I can think of no better person to serve the Administration & our country,” Melania Trump stated in a message sent on Twitter, the BBC reports.

The Trump administration’s chief of protocol in the State Department – Ambassador Sean Lawler – has been pulled off the job just ahead of the G.20 summit amid an investigation into allegations of discrimination and harassment, according to U.S. officials said. Lawler is not expected to return to his job, Josh Lederman reports at NBC.

Acting Head of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency John Sanders has resigned from his position, amid a public outcry over the treatment of migrant children in one of the agency’s facilities near the U.S.-Mexico border, Al Jazeera reports.

“If the White House truly believes that requiring [the president’s adviser Kellyanne] Conway to abide by the Hatch Act constitutes an unacceptable affront to the First Amendment … the answer is not to encourage her to continue breaking the law,” the New York Times editorial board comments, regarding the ongoing fallout over Conway’s requested appearance before the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The board argues that rather, “she and other administration officials should work to educate Congress and the public about why it is the Hatch Act that needs to be overhauled — or perhaps repealed altogether.”

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

The National Security Agency (N.S.A.) got rid of millions of Americans’ phone records after learning that some of the data was collected in error as part of a “controversial” counterterrorism program, according to documents made public today. The development marks the second such instance last year of “over-collection” and informed the agency’s decision — which it still has not publicly acknowledged — to close down the program earlier this year, according to people familiar with the matter, Ellen Nakashima reports at the Washington Post.

Federal agencies responsible for safeguarding millions of Americans’ security and personal data have failed to apply even basic defenses to cyberattacks, Senate investigators announced yesterday. A 99-page report accuses eight agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and the Social Security Administration, of having relied on outdated systems; neglected to keep track of hardware and software; failed to apply mandatory security patches; and ignored well-known threats and weaknesses – in some cases for more than a decade, Alex Johnson reports at the NBC.

Senate Republicans yesterday blocked an attempt by Democrats to pass legislation aimed at bolstering the country’s election infrastructure despite a stalemate in the chamber on the matter. Top Democrat on the Rules Committee Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) had tried to call up the Election Security Act, which would require backup paper ballots and provide election security grants to states, before it was blocked, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) yesterday revealed a plan to secure elections against cyber threats and foreign interference, as well as to end voting suppression. “Our elections should be as secure as Fort Knox … but instead, they’re less secure than your Amazon account,” Warren wrote, Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.S. President Trump remains committed to a pressure campaign to force incumbent Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to step aside so that opposition leader Juán Guaido can assume the presidency, Washington’s envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams said yesterday. Reuters reports.

The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) has taken the next step toward opening a full investigation into alleged crimes against the minority Muslim Rohingya group driven from Myanmar to Bangladesh, a statement from the prosecutor announced today. Reuters reports.

“Democratic presidential candidates—and a new group of wonks—are committed to fixing rampant gender inequalities in the national security workplace.” Rosa Brooks explains at Foreign Policy. 

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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).