The Early Edition: August 15, 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

A federal judge yesterday rejected the House Judiciary Committee’s bid to formally link two lawsuits — one seeking to obtain former special counsel Robert Mueller’s grand jury evidence and another seeking to compel testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn — a request the committee alleges will expedite its decision to recommend articles of impeachment against U.S. President Trump. The committee argued the two cases should be considered together because both arose from former special counsel Mueller’s probe into Russian electoral interference and are central to the committee’s investigation into the episodes of potential obstruction by Trump, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

D.C. federal District Court Chief Judge Beryl Howell ruled that links between the two suits as presented by the House Judiciary Committee were “too superficial” to meet the requirement for designating the cases as connected, and decided the McGahn case should be randomly assigned to a federal judge. “[T]he House Judiciary Committee has failed to meet its burden that departure from the practice of random case assignment is warranted,” Howell wrote in an 11-page ruling; whilst Howell acknowledged the “factual connections” between the two cases, the judge ultimately decided upon closer examination that “these connections … are too superficial and attenuated for the instant McGahn Subpoena Case to qualify,” Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday slated Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for blocking an array of legislation including a bill aimed at preventing foreign election interference, referring to him as “Moscow Mitch” — a derivative nickname that suggests McConnell is giving cover to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We all want to invest in building our democracy and saving it from any enemies foreign and domestic, so we’ve sent our legislation to the Senate,” Pelosi stated at an Illinois Democrats’ “Democrat Day” event in Springfield, adding “‘Moscow Mitch’ says that he is the ‘Grim Reaper’ … that he’s going to bury all this legislation … well, we have news for him … all this legislation is alive and well in the general public,” Dartunorro Clark reports at NBC.

IMMIGRATION

A group of 13 U.S. states sued President Trump’s administration yesterday —  seeking to block the implementation of a new “public charge” rule unveiled Monday that would deny permanent residency to legal immigrants if they fail to meet income requirements or if they receive public assistance such as food stamps, subsidized housing or Medicaid. The Trump Administration’s message is clear: if you’re wealthy you’re welcome, if you’re poor, you’re not,” Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement, adding: “this rule is un-American, anti-immigrant and unlawful;” the rule is to take effect Oct. 15, Reuters reports.

The Trump administration wants to redirect more money to I.C.E. by taking federal funding out of other Department of Homeland Security accounts, according to two House aides and a congressional office, a move likely to vex Democrats already riled by Trump’s harsh immigration policies, including recent I.C.E. raids across Mississippi food-processing plants that led to the arrest of 680 workers. It is not known “how much the administration wants to move around, what the funds would be used for or whether the request would require congressional approval,” Caitlin Emma and Jennifer Scholtes report at POLITICO.

More than 350 Google employees signed a letter yesterday urging Google not to work with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (C.B.P.) — in addition to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (O.R.R.) — accusing all three agencies of human rights abuses because of their treatment of migrants at the country’s southern border. “We demand that Google publicly commit not to support C.B.P., I.C.E., or O.R.R. with any infrastructure, funding, or engineering resources, directly or indirectly, until they stop engaging in human rights abuses,” the letter reads, adding “these abuses are illegal under international human rights law, and immoral by any standard,” Al Jazeera reports.

An analysis of the possible impact of the new public charge rule on the immigration landscape is provided by Michael D. Shear, Miriam Jordan and Caitlin Dickerson at the New York Times, who write that the rule “represents a fundamental shift for a nation that has long welcomed impoverished immigrants from around the world who seek a fresh start in a country with more opportunity than where they came from.”

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Lawyers for President Trump and the House Ways and Means Committee and New York state have reached a deal on a new course for handling their battle over the president’s state tax returns, according to a court filing from yesterday. Under the agreement, Trump’s attorneys will file a new amended lawsuit by Monday setting out their case for why a temporary restraining order is necessary to block the Committee from using a New York law that could give the panel access to the president’s state tax returns, Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

Internal Revenue Service analyst John Fry yesterday pleaded guilty to “illegally disclosing sensitive financial records” about Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen. Fry is scheduled to be sentenced in December, Devlin Barret reports at the Washington Post.

RUSSIA 

A  N.A.T.O. military official said yesterday that a Russian fighter jet escorting the country’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu acted in an “unsafe manner” during a Tuesday encounter with a N.A.T.O. aircraft, with the Russian plane “almost cutting into the flight path of a N.A.T.O. plane, forcing the alliance jet to maneuver to avoid a dangerous situation.” The NATO official said the two Russian Su-27 fighter airplanes were flying over the Baltic Sea “without a flight plan” and had their transponders switched off, behavior N.A.T.O. officials allege causes risk to civilian and military aircraft operating in the area, Ryan Browne reports at CNN.

Russian news agency T.A.S.S. yesterday released a dramatic video of Tuesday’s incident after it reported that the two Russian jets had forced N.A.T.O. aircraft to back off in an encounter over the Baltic Sea, Alexander Smith and Tatyana Chistikova report at NBC.

A guide to “what is known and unknown” about the Aug. 8 accidental explosion in the Russian region of Arkhangelsk that killed five people and injured three others is provided by Vladimir Isachenkov at the AP.

SYRIA

A Syrian government warplane was shot down yesterday by the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (H.T.S.) over al-Tamanaa, just to the east of Khan Sheikhoun, as fighting continues in the rebel-held northern province of Idlib. U.K.-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the pilot of the Russian-made Sukhoi 22 warplane had been captured and was being held by H.T.S., the dominant faction in the area; the group confirmed that it was holding the pilot but gave no further information, nor did it say how the plane had been shot down, the BBC reports.

Turkish drones have started operating in northern Syria where Washington and Ankara have agreed to establish a safe zone, Turkey’s Defense Ministry announced yesterday. In a statement, the Defense Ministry said that work was underway to create the joint operations centre in Sanliurfa, adding that Turkish drones had began carrying out work in the area where the safe zone will be created, without providing further information on the drones’ operations, Reuters reports.

Captured Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) fighters receive short sentences of two or three years and art therapy in Syria — in contrast to detainees in Iraq who are being held in degrading conditions and subjected to torture —  an approach Syrian Kurdish officials hope will “deter a revival of the militant movement.” Their goal is to “rehabilitate and reintegrate” many of the former I.S.I.S. fighters in their custody with a view to breaking the cycle of revenge that has locked the region in conflict for decades, Liz Sly reports at the Washington Post.

IRAN

The U.S. Department of Justice today moved to halt the release of Iranian tanker Grace 1, which is being held in Gibraltar on suspicion of selling oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions: “the U.S. Department of Justice has applied to seize the Grace 1 on a number of allegations which are now being considered,” the Gibraltar government said in a statement, Reuters reports.

The Gibraltar court will decide today whether to extend the detention of the Iranian tanker which was seized on Jun. 4, amid growing expectations in Tehran that the vessel will soon be freed, Andrew England and Najmeh Bozorgmehr report at the Financial Times.

The Trump administration continues to send mixed and contradictory messages to Iran about its terms for new negotiations, complicating diplomatic efforts for foreign American allies, a number of U.S and European officials told The Daily Beast, with one former senior administration official involved with the internal spats describing the diverging opinions as “absolute amateur hour.” Erin Banco and Asawin Suebsaeng report at The Daily Beast.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani yesterday slammed a U.S.-led naval mission in the Strait of Hormuz — claiming Washington’s military build-up in the Gulf was aimed at “creating division and emptying the treasuries” of countries in the region. Speaking during a cabinet meeting, Rouhani insisted the Gulf countries could take care of their own security and called for unity to do so: “all talks about establishing a new coalition in the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman won’t be practical … the Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to ensure the security of the historical region alongside its littoral states, as it has done so throughout the history,” Al Jazeera reports.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Southern separatists supported by the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) should withdraw from areas they seized in the southern port city of Aden before the internationally recognized government engages in talks with them, top Yemeni official Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdullah al-Hadrami said yesterday. Al-Hadrami urged the Southern Transitional Council (S.T.C.) to turn in arms to the government of exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Al Jazeera reports.

Yemen’s southern separatists yesterday pledged to keep control over Aden warning the only way out of the current deadlock that has cracked a Saudi-led military alliance was “for Islamists and northerners to be removed from positions of power in the south.” “Giving up control of Aden is not on the table at the moment,” British-based spokesperson for the S.T.C. Saleh Alnoud told reporters, adding: “we are there to remain but to remain for a positive reason: to maintain stability,” Reuters reports.

Tens of thousands of Yemenis gathered in Aden today backing separatist forces who took over the southern port. Demonstrators demanded recognition of southerners’ right to self-rule in Aden, the temporary seat of Yemen’s Saudi-backed government, Reuters reports.

The International Committee for the Red Cross in Aden has said that “scores” of people were killed and hundreds wounded during fighting, in an assessment of the recent bout of hostilities in Yemen’s key port, Peter Beaumont reports at the Guardian. 

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea cautioned yesterday that the U.S. would trigger a “new Cold War” and an arms race if it advances to place new ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in South Korea. “The U.S. pointed out that it is now examining a plan for deploying ground-to-ground medium-range missiles in the Asian region and South Korea has been singled out as a place for the deployment,” North Korea’s state news agency K.C.N.A. reported, adding: “it is a reckless act of escalating regional tension, an act that may spark off a new Cold War and arms race in the Far Eastern region to deploy a new offensive weapon in South Korea,” Reuters reports.

The remarks came after U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper earlier this month expressed support for placing ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Asia, a day after the U.S. officially withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (I.N.F.) Treaty with Russia, Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Any violent crackdown on demonstrators in Hong Kong would be a “mistake” and would be met with “swift consequences,” the leaders of U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee said yesterday. The panel urged Beijing “to cease encroaching on Hong Kong’s autonomy,” according to a statement by Democratic Chair Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas,) Reuters reports.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton yesterday warned the Chinese government against any potential crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong, referencing the 1989 student-led protests in Tiananmen Square in China. “The Chinese have to look very carefully at the steps they take because people in America remember Tiananmen Square,” Bolton said, adding: “they remember the voices of the Chinese people asking for freedom and democracy, and they remember the repression of the Chinese government in 1989 … it would be a big mistake to create a new memory like that in Hong Kong,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

“At some point … the need to punish the protesters for their desecration of Beijing and the affront they represent to the Communist Party will begin to outweigh in internal political calculations the downside of intervention,” Richard McGregor comments at the New York Times in an analysis of the likelihood of a crackdown in Hong Kong.

“The question now hanging over Hong Kong is whether Beijing is prepared to crush the protests with direct force or whether the recent threats are simply bluster … intended to spook both the protesters and Lam’s administration,” Jude Blanchette argues at Foreign Policy, weighing the prospects of a “second Tiananmen” in Hong Kong.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Sudanese rebel alliance the Sudan Revolutionary Front (S.R.F.) yesterday said it should be represented in the transitional government formed by the military and the pro-democracy movement, with senior official in the S.R.F. Yesir Arman stating that the transitional government “should end the long-running war in Darfur and integrate the rebels into the armed forces as part of an agenda of peace.” Samy Magdy reports at the AP.

A U.N. call for a humanitarian cease-fire over this week’s Eid al-Adha religious holiday led to a “palpable reduction” of violence around Libya’s capital of Tripoli, the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (U.N.S.M.I.L.) said in a statement released yesterday, the U.N. News Centre reports.

Israel is weighing barring a trip by two of its strongest critics in the U.S. Congress — Democrats Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.,) who plan to visit the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem this weekend, an Israeli official said today, Reuters reports.

A look at why turkey “boldly gambled” on arms deal with Russia — that jeopardizes Ankara’s role in Nato and its relations with U.S. —  and whether the risk will pay off, is fielded by Laura Pitel, Aime Williams and Henry Foy at the Financial Times.

Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) has drafted a bill that that aims to close a loophole in the law that prevents domestic terrorism being a distinct federal crime. “For too long we have allowed those who commit heinous acts of domestic terrorism to be charged with related crimes that don’t portray the full scope of their hateful actions,” McSally said, adding: “that stops with my bill … the bill I am introducing will give federal law enforcement the tools they have asked for so that they can punish criminals to the fullest extent of the law,” Zack Budryk reports at the Hill.

The House Homeland Security Committee issued a subpoena yesterday compelling testimony from the owner of 8chan Jim Watkins, the online messaging board connected to three mass shootings this year. Committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) demanded Watkins appear before the panel on Sept. 5 to testify on any efforts his platform has made to combat racist and violent content, Christiano Lima reports at POLITICO.

“While the United States government has certain tools to punish state-sponsored cyberattacks against American targets … these options cannot force a foreign state to pay compensation for the damage caused by cyberattacks,” Sam Kleiner and Ambassador (ret.) Lee Wolosky write at Just Security, making a case for enacting a new cyber-attack exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. 

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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).