The Early Edition: September 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.  

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

U.S. President Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski yesterday defended Trump against Democratic allegations of abuse of power during the first congressional hearing to explore possible impeachment of the president. While Lewandowski acknowledged that his former boss enlisted him in 2017 to try to limit the scope of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russian election interference inquiry, he also told the panel he did not believe the president had asked him to do anything illegal. Reuters reports.

“Sadly … the country spent over three years and 40 million taxpayer dollars on these investigations … it is now clear the investigation was populated by many Trump haters who had their own agenda — to try and take down a duly elected president of the United States,” Lewandowski said in his opening statement at the contentious hearing which spanned about 5 hours. “As for actual ‘collusion,’ or ‘conspiracy,’ there was none,” he told the House Judiciary Committee; Lewandowski refused to answer questions on the substance of his conversations with Trump outside those already disclosed in the Mueller report. Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

The Committee’s Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) called Lewandowski’s conduct at the hearing “completely unacceptable” and said he was considering seeking to hold him in contempt of Congress. “When you refuse to answer these questions, you are obstructing the work of our committee … you are also proving our point for the American people to see: the president is intent on obstructing our legitimate oversight … you are aiding him in that obstruction,” Nadler told Lewandowski. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Trump hailed his ex-campaign manager’s “beautiful” remarks in a message sent on Twitter. The BBC reports.

Lewandowski’s hearing “turned into an iconic Trump-era spectacle that served … to show how the White House and its acolytes have made a mockery of the checks and balances of the Washington system,” Stephen Collins writes in an analysis at CNN, commenting that after hours of cross-examination, “Democrats were left with a conundrum: how to use televised hearings to tease out damning passages of the Mueller report when Trump and his gang are determined to turn them into a circus.”

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

U.S. President Trump yesterday listed five possible replacements for recently fired national security adviser John Bolton. The candidates Trump said he was considering include Maj. Gen. Ricky Waddell — principal military adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a former deputy national security adviser to Trump — and Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, retired officer and national security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, as well as U.S. hostage negotiator Robert O’Brien, former chief of staff to Bolton Fred Fleitz, and undersecretary of energy for nuclear security Lisa Gordon-Hagerty. Anna Gearan reports at the Washington Post.

The Trump administration yesterday fired the general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security John Mitnick, the latest high-profile departure as the White House continues to exert pressure on the agency’s immigration agenda. An administration official suggested Mitnick would be replaced by Chad Mizelle, an associate counsel to the president, however a Department of Homeland Security official said later that Joseph Maher, the department’s principal deputy general counsel, would fill the position. Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

The House yesterday voted 198-219 against a Republican motion on diverting military construction funding to build Trump’s border wall as the chamber moved to officially begin negotiations with the Senate on the annual defense policy bill. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

A breakdown of the Trump administration’s new terror financing executive order, including what the order does and why it was considered necessary, is provided at Just Security by former director of the C.T. Finance and Designations Office at State Jason M. Blazakis.

WHISTLEBLOWER COMPLAINT

Acting Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) Joseph Maguire will not comply with a House Intelligence Committee subpoena for testimony relating to a whistleblower’s report of “serious misconduct,” Maguire’s general counsel Jason Klitenic informed House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) in a letter yesterday. Klitenic said the director was “not available on such short notice” to appear tomorrow at a hearing as Schiff requested. Karoun Demirjian reports at the Washington Post.

Klitenic argued in the letter that Maguire had complied with the whistleblower statute governing his agency in blocking the transmission of the complaint to Congress. The general counsel insisted that the complaint did not meet the legal definition of an “urgent concern” that must be turned over to the congressional oversight committee, writing that “only allegations relating to the funding, administration or operation of an intelligence agency meet that requirement.” Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

A detailed look at the issues at play with the whistleblower complaint being withheld from Congress by the D.N.I. is provided in a Q&A by Kel McClanahan at Just Security.

SAUDI OIL SITE ATTACKS

The U.S. has reportedly identified locations in Iran from which drones and cruise missiles were launched against major Saudi oil facilities on Saturday. U.S. officials familiar with the latest intelligence told reporters that the attacks originated from southern Iran, at the northern end of the Persian Gulf. Reuters reports.

Saudi military forces and their air defenses failed to detect the drones and missiles because they were focused on the kingdom’s southern border, to prevent attacks from Yemen, the officials explained. Observers have questioned the extent of the protection Riyadh’s outreach to the U.S. for weapons has bought it. Adam Taylor reports at the Washington Post.

A senior U.S. official yesterday appealed for a U.N. Security Council response to Saturday’s attacks, but it was not clear what action the official sought, as diplomats believe Russia and China — which are council veto powers — are likely to protect Iran. Reuters reports.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to the Persian Gulf yesterday as part of a spur-of-the-moment trip to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss a response to Saturday’s attack on Saudi oil facilities, as Iran’s supreme leader ruled out any direct talks with the U.S.. In a speech in Washington, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence repeated President Trump’s words, saying: “we don’t want war with anybody but the United States is prepared … we’re locked and loaded and we’re ready to defend our interests and allies in the region, make no mistake about it.” AFP reports.

IRAN

U.S. President Trump yesterday lashed out at close ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) after the Republican criticized the president’s past approach to Iran, arguing Tehran viewed it as a “sign of weakness.” “No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand!” Trump hit back in a message sent on Twitter after Graham earlier in the day called on the president to take a more decisive stance against Iran. Erin Banco and Asawin Suebsaeng report at The Daily Beast.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said today U.S. claims that Iran was responsible for an attack on Saudi oil sites were aimed at “increasing pressure on Tehran,” state media reported. “While exerting psychological and economic pressure on the Iranian people [through sanctions], they want to impose maximum … pressure on Iran through slander … meanwhile, no one believes these accusations,” Rouhani was quoted as saying. Reuters reports.

Iran held talks on “the latest developments in Afghanistan” with four members of a Taliban delegation, its Foreign Ministry said yesterday, a week after peace talks between the U.S. and the insurgents collapsed. Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen confirmed the meeting took place on Sept. 9. Al Jazeera reports.

“If Trump tries to gather a coalition to impose diplomatic penalties, tighten sanctions to further choke off Iranian oil exports or retaliate with a military or cyberstrike, he may discover that … he is largely alone,” David E. Singer argues at the New York Times, commenting that “for a president with a loose relationship with the facts and poisonous relationships with allies … Trump may struggle to prove the administration’s case that Iran was behind the strike and rally the world to respond.”

“With no international support, no strategy and no good options … the American president finds himself in a weak position,” Brett Bruen argues at NBC, commenting that “Trump has alienated key allies by unilaterally pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and re-imposing sanctions.”

AFGHANISTAN

A suicide bomber attacked a government building in eastern Afghanistan today, according to an Afghan official who was unable to immediately provide information on casualties. The AP reports.

The death toll from two separate Taliban suicide bomb attacks yesterday has risen to 48, making it the deadliest day for civilians in Afghanistan since U.S.-Taliban peace talks collapsed Sept. 8. 26 people died in an attack in Parwan province, north of the capital Kabul, during an election rally where President Ashraf Ghani was due to speak, while a second blast, near the U.S. embassy in central Kabul, killed 22 people. Pamela Constable and Susannah George report at the Washington Post.

The Pentagon yesterday identified the U.S. service member that was killed in action a day prior in Afghanistan as Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy W. Griffin. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The Taliban told media outlet B.B.C. during an exclusive interview that their “doors are open” should U.S. President Trump wish to continue peace talks in the future. Chief negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai said negotiation remained “the only way for peace in Afghanistan.” The BBC reports. 

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Votes are being counted this morning following yesterday’s repeat election in Israel, Lili Bayer reports at POLITICO.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promises to annex the West Bank would undermine Israel’s security and destabilize its eastern neighbor Jordan, Albert B. Wolf argues at Foreign Policy.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

At least 10 Iran-backed fighters were killed after an unknown aircraft attacked a weapons depot belonging to Iranian-backed paramilitary forces in an eastern town near the Iraqi border early yesterday, security officials said. The attack took place in Al Bukamal, in the eastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour. Al Jazeera reports.

One of the accused conspirators in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was secretly recorded at Guantánamo confessing he moved most of the money that funded the hijackers who killed almost 3,000 people 18 years ago, according to transcripts presented by prosecutors in a pretrial hearing yesterday. Carol Rosenberg reports at the New York Times.

A group of five human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International appealed to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to condemn the Chinese government’s detention of more than a million Muslims in the Xinjiang region and call for the “immediate closure” of government detention camps. In a letter to Guterres released yesterday, the organizations argued these actions would be an important step to addressing “one of the most pressing human rights issues of our time.” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The U.S. government unveiled its plans yesterday to increase foreign investment oversight, including a proposal to allow the blocking of some foreign purchases of real estate within 100 miles of military bases. Reuters reports.

The F.B.I. and other federal departments and agencies are engaging in potentially illegal surveillance activities in violation of the U.S. Constitution, Patrick Eddington argues at Just Security, as yesterday marked the 232nd anniversary of its signing. 

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.)’s antitrust division chief Makan Delrahim said yesterday that its investigation into “market-leading online platforms” were a “priority” that could result in either “law enforcement or policy options as solutions.” The antitrust panel is investigating allegations that tech giants, such as Google or Amazon, engage in anticompetitive practices. Reuters reports. 

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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).