The Early Edition: July 25, 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.

MUELLER HEARINGS

Former special counsel Robert Mueller gave testimony yesterday during back-to-back hearings before the House of Representatives Judiciary and Intelligence committees, marking his first time answering questions about the findings of his 22 month investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign, Jeremy Herb, Manu Raju and Alex Rogers report at CNN.

Mueller’s testimony was not the game changer that Democrats had hoped in the debate over whether to impeach President Trump; many of Mueller’s replies were clipped or monosyllabic, and he avoided answering dozens of questions, refusing repeatedly to engage with lawmakers on matters outside the scope of his public report, leaving House Democrats disappointed, Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Mueller insisted that his report did not exonerate Trump on obstruction charges after House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) asked whether the president was accurate to claim that he was “completely and totally exonerated” by the special counsel report, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Mark Mazzetti report at the New York Times.

Mueller said he “generally” agreed that Trump’s written answers to investigators around Russian interference in the U.S. election were “not always truthful” – in addition to being “inadequate” and “incomplete,” Reuters reports.

“I think there’s probably a spectrum of witnesses in terms of those who are not telling the full truth and those who are outright liars,” Mueller stated, in response to questions from Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) over whether there were other witnesses who had lied to his team of prosecutors beyond those who had been indicted. Mueller also said he “generally agreed” that lies by Trump campaign and administration officials had hindered his work, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

“Let me just say … I don’t subscribe necessarily to the way you analyze that … I’m not saying it’s out of the ballpark … but I’m not supportive of that analytical charge,” Mueller responded when asked whether, in ordering former White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller and then lie about it, Trump had “committed an obstructive act,” connected it to an official proceeding and “did so with corrupt intent,” which amounted to an obstruction of justice. Reuters reports.

Mueller explained that he did not subpoena Trump for an interview due to the necessity of “expediting the end of the investigation:” Mueller acknowledged that Trump’s written answers on Russian interference “were certainly not as useful as an interview would be,” but revealed that his office ultimately declined to exercise subpoena powers because of the significant delay it would have caused to the investigation, Marianne Dodson reports at The Daily Beast.

The former special counsel warned Congress that Russia is still interfering with American democracy: “They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it in the next campaign,” Mueller said of the Russians, Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky, Rosalind S. Helderman and Karoun Demirjian report at the Washington Post.

Mueller voiced concern that the 2016 campaign “established a new normal” that will enable political candidates in the future to not report to the F.B.I. that a “hostile foreign power is trying to influence an election,” following questions from Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.,) Elias Groll and Amy MacKinnon report at Foreign Policy.

Mueller described Trump’s 2016 comments on WikiLeaks – including “I love WikiLeaks” – as “problematic”: “‘it’s problematic’ is an understatement in terms of what it displays in terms of giving some … hope or some boost to what is or should be illegal activity,” Sadie Gurman and Aruna Viswanatha report at the Wall Street Journal.

The former special counsel defended his investigation’s conclusions and rejected Trump’s accusations that he had conducted a “witch hunt,” the first time Mueler has publicly refuted Trump’s scathing nickname for the probe. Mueller also denied the Russian interference was a “hoax,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Trump criticized Mueller’s performance before Congress as well as his conduct of the investigation: “I think Robert Mueller did a horrible job, both today and with respect to the investigation …  I don’t think there’s anybody — even among the fakers — I don’t think there’s anybody that would say he did well … but in all fairness to Mueller, he had nothing to work with,” he told reporters at the White House, explaining “you can be a builder, but if they don’t give you the right materials, you’re not going to build a very good building,” Michael D. Shear and Lola Fadulu report at the New York Times.

“We had a very good day today … the Republican Party … there was no defense of what Robert Mueller was trying to defend … there was no defense to this ridiculous hoax … this witch hunt,” Trump told reporters yesterday, reacting to Mueller’s testimony. “This was a devastating day for the Democrats … the Democrats had nothing … and now they have less than nothing,” Trump added, the Washington Post reports.

“This morning’s testimony exposed the troubling deficiencies of the Special Counsel’s investigation,” Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow stated in a message sent on Twitter, which the president retweeted. “The testimony revealed that this probe was conducted by a small group of politically-biased prosecutors … who, as hard as they tried, were unable to establish either obstruction, conspiracy, or collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia,” Sekulow wrote, Edward Helmore reports at the Guardian.

The U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee will move forward to enforce a subpoena against former White House counsel Don McGahn, Nadler told reporters yesterday after Mueller’s testimony before his panel and the House Intelligence Committee, indicating that the House will press ahead with congressional investigations and will go to court today or tomorrow, Reuters reports.

MUELLER HEARINGS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An analysis of Democrats’ disappointment following former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony is provided by Peter Baker at the New York Times.

“The president appears more concerned with nursing his ego than safeguarding American democracy — and that puts us all … Republicans … Democrats and independents … at risk,” the New York Times editorial board writes, commenting on Mueller’s “they’re doing it as we sit here” warning in relation to foreign electoral interference.

Mueller “failed to do his job” and did not help the American people “get nearly as close to the truth as he could have,” David Leonhardt writes at the New York Times, commenting that the former special counsel “should have stated that the evidence strongly suggested that Trump committed obstruction of justice and campaign-finance crimes.”

“Mueller affirmed four instances of potential obstruction of justice [in his testimony] – now it’s up to Congress,” Noah Bookbinder argues at the New York Times, writing that Mueller “said all he needed to say.”

“The real bombshell in Mueller’s testimony … was Mueller’s warning that what happened in 2016 could happen again,” Karen Tumulty argues at the Washington Post.

A close look at whether the results of yesterday’s congressional hearing will be enough for the Democratic leaders to pursue impeachment is fielded by Charles M. Blow at the New York Times.

How Mueller’s probe lives on – a guide to the “ongoing congressional probes” and “unsettled court fights” related to the Russia investigation is provided by Darren Samuelsohn, Natasha Bertrand and Josh Gerstein at POLITICO.

A roundup of top law and intelligence experts’ views on the Mueller hearings is provided by Just Security.

What we learned from Mueller’s seven hours on Capitol Hill – Nicholas Fandos provides 7 takeaways at the New York Times. 

The key exchanges from Mueller’s testimony – including on Russia, impeachment and Wikileaks – is fielded by the Wall Street Journal.

A tracker of the 198 times Mueller declined or deflected questions during yesterday’s hearings is provided by NBC.

A transcript of Mueller’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee is available at the Washington Post.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) revealed yesterday that federal prosecutors will not prosecute Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross after a House vote to hold the officials in contempt for failing to comply with congressional subpoenas. In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.,) Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen wrote: “The Department of Justice’s long-standing position is that we will not prosecute an official for contempt of Congress for declining to provide information subject to a presidential assertion of executive privilege,” Jacqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

A federal judge in San Francisco yesterday temporarily blocked the Trump administration from enforcing a new rule that would require asylum-seekers to first apply for asylum in countries they had traveled through on their way to the U.S.. District Judge Jon S. Tigar issued a preliminary injunction against the policy, which aims to bar Central Americans and other migrants from requesting asylum at the southern border, explaining that “the federal government’s frustrations with rising border crossings” did not warrant “shortcutting the law,” Maria Sacchetti and Spencer S. Hsu report at the Washington Post.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

A Senate committee yesterday approved legislation aimed at reducing the threats posed by “deepfake” videos. The bipartisan legislation, that would require the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) to conduct an annual review of deepfakes and similar content, was approved by voice vote by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

Senate Republicans yesterday blocked two election security bills and a cybersecurity measure, shortly after former special counsel Robert Mueller cautioned about meddling attempts during his congressional testimony, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

An explainer of what Google and Facebook could face in the U.S. antitrust probe is provided by Reuters.

CHINA, HONG KONG AND TAIWAN

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry today declared that the U.S. Navy is “free to sail” through its strait, making the statement after an American warship – the U.S.S. Antietam – passed through the Taiwan Strait shortly after Beijing cautioned against foreign interference in its relationship with the island. Taiwan’s joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance task force stated nothing “unusual” took place during the ship’s journey, the AP reports.

China’s military is “closely” observing the political unrest in Hong Kong, defense spokesperson Senior Col. Wu Qian told reporters at a press briefing yesterday when asked how China’s defense ministry would respond to the protests there. Qian revealed that the Chinese government considers the violence to be “absolutely intolerable” and made reference to a law that allows the city’s government to seek help from Chinese armed forces to uphold public order, Jeremy Page reports at the Wall Street Journal.

An analysis of whether Beijing will resort to military force “to stamp out” the Hong Kong protests is provided by Nectar Gan and Kristin Huang at POLITICO, in partnership with South China Morning Post.

AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN

At least 15 people were killed after three bombs exploded in the Afghan capital of Kabul today, according to spokesperson for the Interior Ministry in Kabul Nasrat Rahimi, Reuters reports.

An analysis of U.S. President Trump’s “careless Afghanistan comments” is provided by Siobhán O’Grady at the Washington Post, who writes that experts believe Trump “was neither articulating a shift in American policy nor a well thought-out political message but was merely trying to please the person in front of him … in this case, it was [Pakistani Prime Minister Imran] Khan.”

“Trump thinks he can get Imran Khan to help as he exits Afghanistan … history suggests otherwise,” Michael Harris and Lara Seligman write in an analysis at Foreign Policy, commenting that Pakistan might be “playing Washington.”

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea test-fired two short-range missiles off its east coast into the Sea of Japan this morning, according to the South Korean military, in the first such launch since U.S. President Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in late June. Al Jazeera reports.

South Korea’s defense ministry has urged the North to “stop acts that are unhelpful for easing military tension,” in a statement made today. The White House, Pentagon and U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asserted the test had “no immediate impact” on Japan’s security, according to reports by “Kyodo News,” Reuters reports.

The KINGDOM

President Trump yesterday vetoed three congressional resolutions that would have blocked his emergency arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) worth over $8 billion. “This resolution would weaken America’s global competitiveness and damage the important relationships we share with our allies and partners,” Trump wrote in veto messages to Congress released by the White House yesterday evening, Michael D. Shear and Catie Edmondson report at the New York Times.

The U.S. Senate will vote within days on whether to override Trump’s vetoes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) announced yesterday, the BBC reports.

“There is no legitimate reason for keeping the legal analysis hidden from Congress and from the American public … especially as legislators decide whether and how to maintain any U.S. support for the Saudi’s war effort,” Oona Hathaway argues at Just Security, commenting on the missing State Department memo on U.S. officials’ possible aiding and abetting Saudi war crimes.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

At least six people were killed yesterday after a suicide bomber detonated explosives inside the mayor’s office in Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu, during a high-level security meeting. The mayor was also seriously injured, according to local authorities, Hussein Mohamed and Anemona Hartocollis report at the New York Times.

Sudan’s military yesterday announced that it had foiled a coup attempt and arrested a number of senior officers in connection with the plot – including the county’s chief-of-staff Gen. Hashem Abdel-Muttalib Babakr, Samy Magdy reports at the AP.

The U.S. plans to “escort” American-flagged ships facing Iranian threats, according to new Defense Secretary Mark Esper. “The Brits are escorting their ships,” Esper told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday, adding “we will escort our ships to the degree that the risk demands it … I assume that other countries will escort their ships,” Paul Sonne reports at the Washington Post.

President Trump asked Republican senators for “flexibility” in responding to Turkey’s acquisition of Russian S-400 missile-defense system during a private meeting Tuesday at the White House, Carol E. Lee, Leigh Ann Caldwell and Courtney Kube report at NBC.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday “commended” the House of Representatives for approving a resolution opposing the global boycott movement against Israel. “This attests to the support for Israel in the U.S.; this support is bipartisan, and it is important to us … I welcome this decision … it is right and it is helpful,” Netanyahu stated in a video shared on Twitter, Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill. 

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).