The Early Edition: September 24, 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 ordered his staff to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Ukraine days before he allegedly tried to pressure the country’s president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his son. According to three senior administration officials, Trump in July asked his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to withhold $391m in military aid that Congress had approved for Ukraine, triggering further questions about the July 25 telephone conversation that Trump held with Zelensky; the phone call is said to be the subject of an intelligence community whistleblower complaint which the White House is refusing to release to Congress. Maggie Haberman, Nicholas Fandos, Michael Crowley and Kenneth P. Vogel report at the New York Times.

Administration officials denied there was a quid pro quo, rejecting any links between Trump holding back the funds and pressing Zelensky into investigating the Bidens, after questions were raised over whether the U.S. president sought to leverage congressionally approved aid to damage a political opponent. One official said that Trump’s decision to block the aid was based on his concerns about there being “a lot of corruption in Ukraine.” Karoun Demirjian, Josh Dawsey, Ellen Nakashima and Carol D. Leonnig report at the Washington Post. 

Trump also dismissed accusations he had offered aid to Ukraine only if it investigated his political rival Biden. “I did not ask for — I did not make a statement that you have to do this or I’m not gonna give you aid … I wouldn’t do that … I wouldn’t do that,” Trump told reporters yesterday at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

Trump tried to shift the controversy toward Biden during his first full day at the U.N. annual gathering of world leaders, accusing the former vice president, without evidence, of engaging in corruption in Ukraine. In a meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda, Trump asserted that if Biden were a Republican, the news media would have him in “the electric chair by right now.” Anne Gearan, Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker report at the Washington Post.

Three House committees yesterday threatened to subpoena Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to force him to hand over documents related to communications between Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Ukrainian officials. Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Oversight Chair Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), and Foreign Affairs Chair Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said Pompeo must inform their committees by Thursday as to whether he plans to follow their requests, or face subpoenas. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) yesterday called on Republicans to investigate a whistleblower complaint at the centre of a dispute between Congress and the Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.), including issuing a subpoena to compel the administration to turn over the complaint and demanding a transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelenskiy. “It is the Senate’s duty … to take this national security matter seriously and investigate now … Senate Republicans have the sole power and the overwhelming responsibility to see that it does,” Schumer said, speaking on the Senate floor. Reuters reports.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) yesterday warned the Trump administration against releasing the transcript of the Trump-Ukraine call, saying it would set a “very dangerous precedent.” “I think it’s going to really harm any president, whether it’s this president or a future president’s ability to talk to world leaders candidly,” Johnson told reporters, adding “this is not something that Congress necessarily has to have its hands on.” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee will receive a briefing this week from acting U.S. Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) Joseph Maguire and Intelligence Community Inspector General (I.C. I.G.) Michael Atkinson on the Ukraine-related whistleblower complaint, a Senate aide said. Reuters reports.

U.S.-UKRAINE RELATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

U.S. President Trump “may have the right to withhold communications with foreign leaders from lawmakers and the public as classified or otherwise privileged … but in this case — when Trump is said to have pressed Ukrainian president [Volodymyr Zelensky] about investigating the son of former vice president Joe Biden, one of his political rivals — he could be misusing his authority to cover up personal wrongdoing.” Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett sum up legal analysts’ comments at the Washington Post.

An analysis of Trump’s rhetoric about his July conversation with Zelensky is provided by Philip Bump at the Washington Post.

“The president’s tactic of redirecting accusations of misconduct back at his accuser is childish, petty … and surprisingly effective,” Tom McCarthy argues at the Guardian, noting that “the big question attached to Trump’s tactic is whether it will generate enough talk about ‘Biden’ and ‘corruption’ to dilute the reported new evidence of Trump’s corruption, as laid out in the whistleblower complaint.” 

“Through the Mueller investigation, Trump should have learned the legal risks of seeking foreign support for his election efforts … instead, he seems only to have learned that he can get away with it.” Paul Seamus Ryan at Just Security comments that if the allegations that Trump repeatedly pressured Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son are true, “it looks like Trump has violated federal campaign finance laws.”

“The man who once said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan without consequence seems to be testing whether he can do the political equivalent,” Peter Baker argues at the New York Times, suggesting that “the president has grown even more defiant” since Mueller’s investigation.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“House Democrats are so frustrated with President Trump’s administration and his allies blocking their investigative efforts that some have seriously encouraged invoking a long-dormant power Congress has to jail or fine uncooperative witnesses,” Amber Phillips at the Washington Post takes a look at inherent contempt, noting “if past is any precedent, Congress could have a hard time starting to use it again.”

“Trump is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s worst nightmare — he keeps almost self-impeaching,” Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis at CNN. 

If Trump had threatened to withhold aid to Ukraine in order to force it to help him in the election — that would be an impeachable offense, seven freshman Democrats who are also veterans of the military and defense and intelligence agencies warn in an op-ed at the Washington Post.

“A formal impeachment process would … give new weight to Democratic claims when they go to court to enforce subpoenas or pry loose documents the administration is trying to hide [and] it would show that Democrats are serious when they say that Trump’s behavior is intolerable,” Michelle Goldberg argues at the New York Times.

IMMIGRATION

The Trump administration will no longer permit migrant families apprehended at the border to enter the U.S. under the immigration policy commonly known as “catch and release,” Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan announced yesterday. The Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) said that a new policy will be instituted next week as the result of the “combined impact” of existing initiatives that will end the practice of detaining migrant families before releasing them into the U.S. while they wait for their claims to be decided. Richard Gonzales reports at NPR.

The policy change is a significant expansion of the government’s “Remain in Mexico” program, which has so far sent back about 47,000 immigrants to wait in Mexican cities for their U.S. immigration hearing dates, and is part of the Trump Administration’s strategy to “mitigate the loopholes that act as a ‘pull factor’ for family units seeking to cross illegally at the Southwest border,” according to the statement. Michelle Hackman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

IRAN

Britain, France and Germany joined the U.S. yesterday in blaming Iran for an attack on Saudi oil facilities on Sept. 14, saying it was “clear” Iran was responsible and that there was “no other plausible explanation.” In a joint statement, the three governments urged Iran to “refrain from choosing provocation and escalation” and called on the country to agree to negotiations on its nuclear and missile programs as well as regional security issues. Laurence Norman and Michael R. Gordon report at the Wall Street Journal.

Iran rejected the fresh accusations and denied any part in the Saudi oil attacks. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif pointed to claims of responsibility by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, insisting “if Iran were behind this attack, nothing would have been left of this refinery.” Edith M. Lederer and Jill Lawless report at the AP.

Iran also ruled out the possibility of negotiating a new deal with major powers, saying that European partners have failed to fulfill their commitments under the 2015 nuclear pact. “E3’s paralysis in fulfilling their obligations [without] U.S. permission has been clear since May 2018 … no new deal before compliance [with the] current one,” Zarif said in a message sent on Twitter. The BBC reports.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he would meet separately with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani  and U.S. President Trump at the U.N. summit in a diplomatic effort to defuse tensions between Washington and Tehran. Rym Momtaz reports ay POLITICO.

Trump said yesterday he would discuss Iran “a bit” during his speech before the U.N. General Assembly today. “A lot of things are happening with respect to Iran … a lot more than you know … I’ll be discussing it a bit tomorrow,” Trump told reporters as he met with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Reuters reports.

Iran’s message to the world is “peace and stability,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said upon his arrival in New York, where he will attend the U.N. gathering, state news agency I.R.N.A. reported yesterday. Reuters reports.

“The mix of military restraint and sanctions resolve has worked well for Washington so far … but the chances of a military confrontation between Iran and the U.S. are rising, not falling,” Walter Russell Mead warns at the Wall Street Journal.

“It appears … that the United States (or its partners) has been playing smart in a long war that it can actually win by continuing to let Iran lose,” Micha’el Tanchum comments at Foreign Policy, wiring that “a spate of mysterious, unattributable attacks against the sophisticated weaponry stored by [Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] I.R.G.C.-backed Shiite militias in Iraq is undermining Iran’s push for regional hegemony.”

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Two dozen largely western countries — including Britain, Germany and Canada — have issued a joint statement slamming Saudi Arabia’s human rights record for alleged use of torture, unlawful detentions and unfair trials of critics, including activists and journalists. The joint statement, which was read out at a meeting of the U.N.’s Human Rights Council in Geneva, marks the second time in six months that the body has condemned the kingdom, after a similar statement in March. Peter Beaumont reports at the Guardian.

The unprecedented Open Source Intelligence (O.S.I.N.T.) investigation by investigative journalism organization Bellingcat can contribute to the legal analysis of the Saudi-led coalition’s air war. Ioannis Kalpouzos at Just Security explains how the rich factual data allows for applied and more precise analysis of practices that have been alleged to be unlawful.

SYRIA

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced yesterday the formation of a constitutional committee for Syria, a long-awaited step in an effort to reach a political solution to end the more than eight-year war in Syria. In a statement, Guterres said the “Syrian-owned and Syrian-led” constitutional committee will be facilitated by the U.N. in Geneva, adding that it would be convened in the coming weeks. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini hailed the announcement and said it “gives back hope to the Syrians.” The constitutional committee will be made up of 50 opposition members, 50 representing the government and 50 representing civil society, and follows almost two years of negotiations. AFP reports.

U.N. GENERAL ASSEMBLY

U.S. President Trump dodged one of the defining issues of this year’s U.N. General Assembly, paying minimal attention to climate change, which overshadowed the first day of the gathering. Trump attended the climate event for 14 minutes in a surprise visit but did not speak, instead hosting his own summit on the persecution of religious minorities in a conference room. “I believe in clean air and clean water, very simple,” Trump said later yesterday, explaining why he decided to ultimately take part. Seung Min Kim and Anne Gearan report at the Washington Post.

U.S. President Trump and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in met yesterday to discuss plans to continue stalled talks between the U.S. and North Korea. “There’s been no nuclear testing at all … and the relationships have been very good … we want to see if we can do something.” Trump told reporters as he met Moon on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. Reuters reports.

Latest updates to the U.N. General Assembly are available at Al Jazeera.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

A U.S.-backed raid by Afghan forces against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan Sunday night killed at least 40 civilians, Afghan officials said yesterday. The AP reports.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main opponent Benny Gantz have taken “a significant step” towards forming a unity government, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin stated yesterday, after hosting a nearly two-hour meeting for the two rivals. Isabel Kershner reports at the New York Times.

Hong Kong C.E.O. Carrie Lam said today the city’s police force which is facing allegations of beating protestors and using excessive force in three months of demonstrations is under “extreme pressure” and noted it would be a “long road towards healing the divisions” in Hong Kong society. Al Jazeera reports.

A U.S. Army soldier was charged yesterday with distributing information via social media related to making explosives and weapons of mass destruction. Jarrett William Smith allegedly suggested using a vehicle bomb to attack a major U.S. news network’s headquarters, and also named presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke as a possible target. Hannah Allam reports at NPR. 

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).