The Early Edition: July 18, 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.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The House yesterday effectively killed a measure to impeach President Trump over racist comments he made about four Democratic congresswomen of color, opting to table Rep. Al Green’s (D-Tex.) resolution in a 332-95 vote, with one lawmaker voting “present.” The vote marked the first time the Democratic-controlled chamber had weighed in on impeachment, an issue that has divided the party, Alex Moe and Jane C. Timm report at NBC.  

“It’s time for us to deal with his bigotry,” Green told reporters yesterday, adding “this president has demonstrated that he’s willing to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, and we have seen what can happen to people when bigotry is allowed to have a free rein … we all ought to go on record … we all ought to let the world know where we stand when we have a bigot in the White House.” Rachel Bade and Mike DeBonis report at the Washington Post.  

The president brushed off the vote as a victory, later telling a rally in Greenville, N.C. that the “dangerous, militant hard left” among the Democrats are “hate-filled extremists who are constantly trying to tear our country down.” Toward the end of the rally, Trump went further, accusing them of seeking the “destruction of our country,” Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times. 

The House yesterday voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary William Ross in criminal contempt for failing to comply with subpoenas related to the administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. The 230-198 vote is largely symbolic as the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) is unlikely to prosecute the two men, the Guardian reports. 

Barr and Ross sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ahead of the vote urging her to postpone the action and arguing their respective departments had made efforts to cooperate with the committee. “By this action, the House is both unnecessarily undermining inter-branch comity and degrading the constitutional separation of powers and its own integrity,” the officials wrote, also claiming that some of the materials requested were withheld because of the president’s decision to assert executive privilege, Tim Mak reports at NPR. 

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham described the move as “ridiculous” and “lawless.” “House Democrats know they have no legal right to these documents, but their shameful and cynical politics know no bounds,” Grisham commented, Andrew Desiderio reports at POLITICO. 

While impeachment proceedings at this juncture would bring uncertainty – Congress should instead move to censure President Trump, Michael A. Genovese and Jessica Levinson argue at NBC. The authors suggest that “a censure is a small but concrete step, and it does not preclude impeachment at a later date … if anything, it could possibly help make the case for impeachment more clear if and when that moment comes.”
What did we learn about Trump’s nominee to become Defense Secretary Mark Esper from his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday
? Edwin Djabatey and Kate Brannen outline the key takeaways at Just Security. 

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS 

Federal judge William Pauley III yesterday ordered the disclosure of search warrants tied to the investigation into President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen’s campaign finance crimes. “The campaign finance violations discussed in the materials are a matter of national importance … now that the government’s investigation into those violations has concluded, it is time that every American has an opportunity to scrutinize the materials,” Judge Pauley III said in court papers, refusing the government’s request for limited redactions, Tom Winter and Rich Schapiro report at NBC.

The Senate approved legislation yesterday that would allow the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) to pursue federal charges against anyone who hacks voting systems used in federal elections. The Defending the Integrity of Voting Systems Act passed the chamber by unanimous consent and “provides the Department of Justice the ability to investigate and prosecute those who seek to manipulate elections systems equipment” which will ultimately “help protect us from further attempts to interfere with the 2020 election,” Chair of the Judiciary Committee Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) explained, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee advanced a bill yesterday that aims to protect elections from foreign interference, sending it to the House floor for a vote. The Safeguard Our Elections and Combat Unlawful Interference in Our Democracy Act was approved after an hour of debate between committee members regarding the scope of the bill and is intended to “expose and deter unlawful and subversive foreign interference” in elections; the Act would require the State Department to present to Congress a list of individuals who were involved in interfering in U.S. elections prior to 2015, Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

The House approved three resolutions yesterday to block President Trump’s planned arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) worth over $8 billion. The House approved two of the resolutions 238-190 and the third resolution 237-190, AFP reports.

The measures have been sent to the White House – where Trump is expected to issue a veto, the third, fourth and fifth vetoes of his presidency. Trump’s veto will likely be upheld, as neither chamber would have enough votes to override it, Andrew Desiderio reports at POLITICO.

“If the administration wants to sell these weapons, they should follow the law — not misuse it — and come to Congress,” Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Rep Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) stated, indicating that the Iran emergency was “phony” and created “to trample on this body’s constitutional duties.”  “I’ve supported our partners and our partnerships in the Gulf region … I think they’re an important counterbalance to the threat Iran poses,” Engel added, Catie Edmondson reports at the New York Times.

“The decision to move forward with these arms sales is part of a larger effort to deter Iran,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) stated, urging his colleagues to vote down the resolutions. “Right now, as I speak, Iran is stretching its tentacles of terror across the Middle East … one of the ways we can push back against Iran’s murderous aggression is by empowering our partners in the region,” McCaul added, explaining that the arms sales are necessary in light of increased tensions with the country, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill. 

The Pentagon is sending around 500 additional troops to Saudi Arabia in an effort to display force toward Iran, two Defense Department officials revealed yesterday, Thomas Gibbons-Neff reports at the New York Times.

TURKEY

The Trump administration officially removed Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program yesterday, following the country’s acquisition of a Russian S-400 air defense system. The White House released a statement that said Turkey’s decision to purchase the system “unfortunately … renders its continued involvement with the F-35 impossible,” the AP reports.

“The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities … accepting the S-400 undermines the commitments all N.A.T.O. allies made to each other to move away from Russian systems,” the statement continued, adding “Turkey has been a longstanding and trusted partner and N.A.T.O. Ally for over 65 years, but … this will have detrimental impacts on Turkish interoperability with the Alliance,” Katie Rogers and Thomas Gibbons-Neff report at the New York Times.

“The U.S. and other F-35 partners are aligned in this decision to suspend Turkey from the program and initiate the process to formally remove Turkey from the program,” the under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment Ellen Lord told reporters at the Pentagon. Lord revealed that replacing Turkish manufacturing suppliers would cost the U.S. up to $600 million in one-time expenses, Al Jazeera reports.

“Turkey’s removal from the F-35 fighter jet program over its purchase of Russia’s S-400 defense system is not based on a legitimate reason and does not suit ally spirit,” the Turkish foreign ministry said early today. In a statement, the foreign ministry called on the U.S. to reverse its decision, Reuters reports.

A guide to the Russian S-400 defense system and the U.S.’s opposition to it is provided by Siobhán O’Grady at the Washington Post.

IRAN

Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard forces have seized a foreign oil tanker accused of smuggling oil with a crew of 12, Iran’s state T.V. reported today, just days after an oil tanker based in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) disappeared off trackers in Iranian territorial waters. The Panamanian-flagged oil tanker M.T. Riah stopped transmitting its location overnight Sunday near Qeshm Island, which has a Revolutionary Guard base on it, according to data listed on tracking site Maritime Traffic, Nasser Karimi and Aya Batrawy report at the AP.

U.S. sanctions on Iran are “deliberately targeting innocent civilians” and amount to economic terrorism, the country’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the U.N. in New York yesterday. The “unlawful, extraterritorial” sanctions “represent the greatest threat to the achievement of sustainable development goals of Iran and many of our neighbors,” Zarif added, having claimed earlier in the day that Tehran needs ballistic missiles to defend itself from U.S.-backed foreign invaders, Al Jazeera reports.  

The increased use of drones by Iran and its allies for surveillance and attacks across the Middle East is causing anxiety in Washington. The U.S. believes that Iran-linked militants in Iraq have recently increased their surveillance of American troops and bases in the country by using off-the-shelf, commercially available drones, according to U.S. officials, Reuters reports. 

British Defense Secretary Penny Mordaunt yesterday said Britain had always been concerned about defending its interests in the Gulf and elsewhere, making comments when asked about a decision to send a third British warship to the Gulf. “It is vital that we send a very clear message to Iran that we want them to step back from this situation, that we want them to de-escalate, but we have always and we will continue to protect shipping and the free flow of goods in that area,” Mordaunt commented during a defense conference, Reuters reports. 

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY 

U.S. lawmakers slammed tech giant Facebook yesterday over its planned cryptocurrency Libra, saying the firm had not proved it could be trusted to protect the world financial system and consumers’ data. “I have serious concerns with Facebook’s plans to create a digital currency and digital wallet,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said in her opening remarks during a House Financial Services Committee hearing, adding “if Facebook’s plan comes into fruition, the company and its partners will wield immense economic power that could destabilize currencies and governments,” Reuters reports.

Sen. Min. Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has called for the F.B.I. and Federal Trade Commission (F.T.C.) to investigate FaceApp – a viral photo-aging tool. In a letter posted on Twitter and sent to F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray and F.T.C. Chair Joseph Simons yesterday, Schumer expressed concern about the app, which is headquartered in Russia and risks posing “national security and privacy risks for millions of U.S. citizens,” the BBC reports.

Microsoft has detected nearly 800 cyberattacks against political organizations over the past year launched by hackers from nations including Russia and Iran as well as North Korea, with most of the attempts targeting groups based in the U.S., Dustin Volz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

China-made surveillance cameras continue to observe U.S. military bases, just weeks ahead of a federal ban on such equipment, Camilla Hodgson reports at the Financial Times.

A look inside the “stalking” spyware hidden on thousands of phones for tracking users without their knowledge is provided by Camilla Hodgson at the Financial Times.

IMMIGRATION AND BORDER SECURITY 

The Pentagon has approved a Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) request to send an additional 2,100 active duty and National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Defense Department announced yesterday. The deployment will consist of 1,100 active duty troops and 1,000 Texas National Guard troops, adding to the roughly 4,500 active duty and Guard troops currently at the border, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The new active-duty troops will arrive “in the next several weeks” and will provide “aerial surveillance, operational, logistical, and administrative support” to Customs and Border Patrol, Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Chris Mitchell said in a statement. Wesley Morgan reports at POLITICO. 

The deployment follows similar actions by Mexico, which has sent thousands of troops to its borders with both the U.S. and Guatemala to limit immigration in recent months, drawing praise from Trump. “I want to thank Mexico because they really have gone above and beyond,” Trump said Tuesday, adding: “the borders were run by the cartels, and Mexico is taking back its country and I give the [Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador] a tremendous amount of credit for that because that’s been going on for a long time,” Zach Montague reports at the New York Times. 

Within days the U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in on President Trump’s plan to build a wall on the southern border, with the government wanting the justices to issue a ruling by July 26th to permit it to use money in the defense budget to get started on the wall. An account is provided at the Economist. 

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

N.A.T.O. is determined to boost defense already in place and maintain “credible deterrence” against Russia, as the U.S. and Russia exit the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (I.N.F.) treaty, the alliance’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg declared yesterday at the opening of the annual Aspen Security Forum, Al Jazeera reports.

Unknown gunmen killed a U.N. peacekeeper and six civilians in the disputed region of Abyei on the border between Sudan and South Sudan, the regional governor said yesterday, adding that one of the civilians killed was a child. The U.N. said in its own statement late Tuesday that the peacekeepers had been conducting a routine patrol and came under attack by unknown assailants, Reuters reports. 

At least 18 Afghan soldiers were killed overnight by Taliban militants in clashes that erupted when troops attempted to capture a senior Taliban leader, according to government officials. Reuters reports.

A senior Turkish diplomat and a civilian were shot dead yesterday in the capital of Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, in a daytime attack by a gunman inside a restaurant, the Guardian reports.

International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) appeals judges have upheld a ruling that found convicted Democratic Republic of Congo warlord Thomas Lubanga liable for $10 million in reparations to hundreds of victims. The AP reports.

U.N. special rapporteur for Myanmar Yanghee Lee said today the U.S. did not “go far enough” in sanctions against four top Myanmar generals over the mass killings of minority Rohingya Muslims. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had announced Tuesday that Myanmar’s commander-in-chief and his deputy, two other generals, and their immediate families had been banned from traveling to the U.S., the AP reports.

The European Union (E.U.) is poised to become a major geopolitical power – despite being long deemed strategically irrelevant by the U.S., Max Bergmann comments at Foreign Policy. 

The House passed a new intelligence authorization yesterday that aims to increase bans on disclosing the identities of covert agents and direct new intelligence reviews of Russian and other foreign influence operations, Julian E. Barnes reports at the New York Times.

The case of Gundy v. United States “set those favoring a regulatory state and those worried about a national security one on a collision course,” Harlan Grant Cohen comments at Just Security, in an in-depth analysis of the decision.

A look at former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ impact on the Supreme Court is provided by Adam Liptak at the New York Times. 

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About the Author(s)

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).

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).