The Early Edition: September 23, 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.  

U.S.-UKRAINE RELATIONS

U.S. President Trump confirmed yesterday that he discussed former Vice President Joe Biden and corruption allegations in his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, as Democrats strengthened their calls for investigation into Trump’s contact with the foreign leader. Trump said that the conversation touched on alleged corruption involving the Democratic presidential primary candidate and his son Hunter, telling reporters: “the conversation I had was largely congratulatory, was largely corruption … and largely the fact that we don’t want our people like Vice President Biden and his son [contributing] to the corruption already in the Ukraine;” the phone call has prompted Democrats to accuse the president of wrongfully pressuring a foreign leader to investigate a political opponent and is said to be the subject of an intelligence community whistleblower complaint which the White House is refusing to release to Congress. Peter Baker reports at the New York Times.

Trump reportedly pressed Ukraine’s president about eight times on the call to investigate Biden, according to reports on Friday by the Wall Street Journal and other U.S. media outlets. The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump repeatedly asked Zelenskiy during the call to work with his personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani to investigate Biden and his son. The Washington Post and New York Times also reported details of the call, which is under investigation by three Democratic-led House committees.

The president dismissed news reports that he urged his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate the Bidens as little more than a “witch hunt” and said his dealings were “perfectly fine” and “routine” in a string of messages sent on Twitter. Trump also suggested that the media was avoiding coverage of Biden’s past connections to Ukraine. John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Trump said yesterday he would consider releasing a transcript of his July call with Zelensky, despite two of his Cabinet secretaries saying just hours earlier that such conversations must remain “private.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that “it wouldn’t be appropriate” to release the transcript, adding that the Trump administration publishes transcripts only “in the most extreme circumstances.” “I think it would be highly inappropriate to release a transcript of a call between two world leaders,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in an interview.  Eleanor Mueller reports at POLITICO.

Biden told reporters on Saturday that Trump’s actions appeared “to be an overwhelming abuse of power” and called on the president to “immediately release” a transcript of the phone call “so that the American people can judge for themselves.” Jesse Brynes reports at the Hill.

Chair of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said the pursuit of Trump’s impeachment may be the “only remedy” to the situation. Schiff, who had previously shied away from calling for impeachment, told interviewers “if the president is essentially withholding military aid at the same time that he is trying to browbeat a foreign leader to do something illicit, to provide dirt on his opponent during a presidential campaign, then that may be the only remedy that is co-equal to the evil that conduct represents.” “We’re talking about serious or flagrant abuse and potential violation of law … this seems different in kind, and we may very well have crossed the Rubicon here,” Schiff added. Nicholas Fandos, Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

Trump on Friday dismissed mounting scrutiny over a whistleblower allegation that he made a “promise” to a foreign leader, believed to be Zelensky, criticizing the complaint as “partisan” and “ridiculous,” despite admitting to not knowing the person’s identity. “It’s just another political hack job … that’s all it is,” the president told reporters in the White House, saying the focus should instead be on Biden’s ties to Ukraine during his time as vice president; Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire has agreed to testify in open session before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday about the whistleblower complaint. The BBC reports.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) warned Trump’s administration against withholding the full content of the whistleblower complaint over Trump’s call with a foreign leader, stating in a letter to colleagues late yesterday that the complaint “must be addressed immediately.” “If the administration persists in blocking this whistleblower from disclosing to Congress a serious possible breach of constitutional duties by the president, they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation,” Pelosi wrote; the administration has so far resisted sharing the details of the complaint with lawmakers. Allan Smith reports at NBC News. 

Trump is to meet with Zelenskiy on Wednesday during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, a senior administration official has said. Reuters reports.

U.S.-UKRAINE RELATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Basic facts behind the whistleblower complaint involving President Trump’s dealings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and former Vice President Joe Biden are provided by Michael Crowley and Kenneth P. Vogel at the New York Times.

An analysis of intelligence whistleblower laws in light of the controversy is provided by Deanna Paul at the Washington Post.

A look at how the whistleblower case could affect the 2020 election is fielded by Amy Mackinnon at Foreign Policy, who comments that “if the U.S.-Ukraine relationship is undermined by [Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph] Giuliani’s pursuit of dirt on Biden, there is only one party that stands to gain: Russia.”

“If Trump used his power to try to coerce a foreign leader into influencing U.S. elections … it could precipitate the worst political crisis of a presidency.” Stephen Collinson at CNN explains how.

Part 2 of a Q&A legal analysis of Acting Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) Joseph Maguire’s handling of the whistleblower complaint is provided by Kel McClanahan at Just Security. 

“Just as Trump and his advisers went to great lengths to benefit from a foreign power’s interference in our election and got away with it … it’s perfectly plausible that Trump is trying to do the same thing again,” Greg Sargent argues at the Washington Post, adding: “worse, if this is the subject of the whistleblower complaint, Congress may never learn about it — because Trump may be able to count on his top law enforcement officials to keep it buried.”

If Trump’s phone call really was ‘pitch perfect’ as the president has claimed the Trump administration “wouldn’t be blocking the whistleblower from speaking to Congress,” Kate Brannen comments at Just Security.

“Republicans as well as Democrats ought to be anxious to determine just what transpired between Trump and Zelensky,” the Washington Post editorial board argues, urging the three House committees that already announced an investigation of the Ukraine affair to “pursue it as aggressively as possible.”

“Do we really want a President’s private talks with world leaders exposed for all to hear?” The Wall Street Journal editorial board warns against the precedent of making a President’s private calls with other world leaders open to public scrutiny. 

A timeline of the Trump whistleblower complaint is provided by John Bowden at the Hill.

IRAN

The Trump administration on Friday imposed new sanctions on Tehran, including on Iran’s central bank and the national development fund, following last week’s attacks on Saudi oil facilities that Riyadh and U.S. officials attribute to Iran. “These are the highest sanctions ever imposed on a country,” President Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, adding that the penalties would go “right to the top” of the Iranian government; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Washington had now “cut off all source of funds to Iran.” Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO. 

Trump “would like a diplomatic solution” with Iran and wants to give diplomacy “every opportunity to succeed” in the wake of the Saudi strikes, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday. In an interview with A.B.C.’s “This Week” Pompeo added: “but make no mistake about it, if we’re unsuccessful in that and Iran continues to strike out in this way, I am confident that President Trump will make the decisions necessary to achieve our objectives.” AFP reports.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has pledged to unveil a regional peace plan at the U.N. general assembly this week. The Iranian president said the proposal for Gulf security, named the ‘Coalition of Hope’, was “designed to exclude the U.S..” Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Major General Hossein Salami said Saturday that Iran was “ready for any type of scenario,” warning that any nation that attacks Iran would become the “main battlefield.” Speaking at a news conference in Tehran, Salami said “we will never allow any war to encroach upon Iran’s territory … we hope that [the U.S. doesn’t] make a strategic mistake,” listing previous U.S. military “adventures” against the country. AFP reports.

“The harshest reality laid bare by Trump’s week of dither [over Iran] is that the age-old fight between Iran and Saudi Arabia is not necessarily America’s fight – and few Americans believe that murderous Saudi royal despots are worth dying for,” Simon Tisdall argues at the Guardian.

“Trump’s reluctance to retaliate against Iran may reflect his belief that an ‘energy independent’ United States no longer needs to protect the region,” Keith Johnson suggests at Foreign Policy.

“As Trump again weighs retaliation against Iran, this time for the Saudi attacks, the choice he made in June is instructive in the insight it provides into how the president approaches a life-or-death decision committing American forces against an enemy.” Peter Baker, Eric Schmitt and Michael Crowley at the New York Times provide a detailed account of the president’s Jun. 20 decision to abort an attack on Iran.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Five civilians from one family were killed in air attacks by the Saudi-led coalition in Omran province in Yemen earlier today, according to the Houthi owned Al-Masirah T.V.. Reuters reports.

The U.S. announced Friday that it was sending military reinforcements to the Gulf region following attacks on major Saudi oil facilities that the administration has blamed on Iran. Washington approved the deployment of U.S. troops and missile defense equipment to Saudi Arabia at “the kingdom’s request,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, noting the forces would be “defensive in nature” and focused on air and missile defense. Wesley Morgan reports at POLITICO

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the U.S. was “posturing” by sending troops and  equipment to Saudi Arabia, adding that the decision was “going the wrong direction” to address issues after the attacks on a major Saudi oil facility. Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

Houthi militants in Yemen have cautioned foreign diplomats that Iran is readying a follow-up strike to the missile and drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry a week ago, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Dion Nissenbaum reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“The U.S (and its allies) have helped create the greatest humanitarian disaster of our time and they have a duty and ability to help end it … starting by immediately ending their arms sales to the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition.” Rasha Mohamed and Philippe Nassif at Just Security analyze the recent Report of the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen.

“Security cooperation … is not just about arms sales … it is about making arms sales count,” Bilal Y. Saab argues at Foreign Policy, explaining “for that to happen, the [U.S.] must commit to doing the real hard work of helping its partners develop better institutions for effectively using and sustaining the weapons they receive.”

ISRAELI ELECTION

An alliance of Arab Israeli parties yesterday recommended a prime ministerial candidate to President Reuven Rivlin for the first time in almost three decades. The Joint List, the bloc of Arab parties that came in third in last week’s repeat general election, endorsed former army chief Benny Gantz for prime minster “in the hope| of removing current leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Al Jazeera reports.

The alliance’s 13 incoming lawmakers decided to recommend Gantz because it would “create the majority needed to prevent another term for Netanyahu,” the leader of the Arab Joint List Ayman Odeh explained in an Op-Ed for the New York Times published yesterday. “It should be the end of [Netanyahu’s] political career,” Odeh wrote, stressing that the decision was not an endorsement of Gantz’s policies or the man himself. David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner report at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

At least 35 people were killed and 13 others were wounded today during a raid conducted by Afghan special forces on Taliban hideouts in the southern Helmand province, provincial officials said. Reuters reports.

Indonesian police today arrested nine suspected militants accused of planning a suicide bomb attack on police. The AP reports.

The Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) has claimed responsibility for a bus bombing on Friday that killed 12 people near the Iraqi city of Kerbala, the Amaq news agency reported Saturday. Reuters reports.

Security forces in Egypt clashed with hundreds of protesters in the port city of Suez Saturday in a second night of rare demonstrations against President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. The protests are in response to corruption allegations against President Sisi’s government. The BBC reports.

Protesters and police clashed in Hong Kong in the 16th consecutive weekend of unrest as protesters targeted subway stations and shopping malls in the run-up to a significant political anniversary for Beijing. The demonstrations come less than 10 days before China celebrates its national day on Oct. 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. James Griffiths reports at CNN.

The Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) unveiled a new counterterrorism strategy Friday that focuses on extremist violence and the threat from white supremacists. Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

The State Department’s top official for arms control — Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson — is leaving, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

President Trump’s Asia policy adviser Matt Pottinger will serve as the new deputy national security adviser, newly named national security adviser Robert O’Brien has confirmed. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

A guide on what to expect at this week’s U.N. general assembly is provided by Edward Wong, Lara Jakes, Michael Schwirtz and Rick Gladstone at the New York Times. 

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).