The Early Edition: September 26, 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 PHONE CALL

U.S. President Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to work with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr to “look into” his Democratic political rival Joe Biden, a five-page White House memo summarizing the July 25 call between the two leaders revealed yesterday. The disclosure came a day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an official impeachment inquiry following an unidentified whistleblower’s complaint regarding alleged violations by Trump. Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky, Carol D. Leonnig and Shane Harris report at the Washington Post.

“I would like you to do us a favor,” Trump said, according to the call readout, after his Ukrainian counterpart brought up receiving military aid from the U.S.. “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation in Ukraine … there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son … that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” Trump said to Zelensky. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … it sounds horrible to me,” Trump continued. Rebecca Ballhaus, Sadie Gurman and Dustin Volz report at the Wall Street Journal.

The rough transcription of the call does not include any reference to the aid funding that Trump allegedly directed his acting chief of staff to withhold from Ukraine a few days before the call took place. However, the U.S president  mentioned several times how the U.S. spends “a lot of effort and a lot of time” helping Ukraine. Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

Trump insisted yesterday that he placed “no pressure” on Zelensky to investigate Biden. When asked by reporters about their July telephone call, Zelensky said it was a “normal” and “good phone call,” and that he and Trump discussed “many things,” adding “nobody pushed me;” the pair met yesterday on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly. Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

“No push, no pressure, no nothing — it’s all a hoax, folks … it’s all a big hoax,” Trump told reporters, calling scrutiny of the conversation “a joke … impeachment for that?” Philip Rucker, Rachael Bade and Robert Costa reports at the Washington Post.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the summary of the phone conversation between Trump and Ukraine’s president confirmed the need for an impeachment inquiry of Trump. “The release of the notes of the call by the White House confirms that the President engaged in behavior that undermines the integrity of our elections, the dignity of the office he holds and our national security,” Pelosi said in a statement. CNN reports.

House Democrats have suggested making their impeachment inquiry narrowly focussed on Trump and his dealings with Ukraine, after months of House committee hearings on a range of other activities by the president. According to Democratic lawmakers and aides familiar with the talks, Pelosi proposed during a leadership meeting yesterday morning that the consideration of articles of impeachment should “focus exclusively on Trump’s efforts to push Zelensky to investigate Biden.” Kyle Cheney, Andrew Desiderio and Heather Caygle report at POLITICO.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell did not appear troubled by the content of the readout of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president and said it is “laughable to think this is anywhere close to an impeachable offense.” MConnell suggested Democrats were “overreaching” with their impeachment inquiry of Trump: “I’ve read the summary of the call … if this is the ‘launching point’ for House Democrats’ impeachment process, they’ve already overplayed their hand,” McConnell said, adding “it’s clear there is no quid pro quo that the Democrats were desperately praying for.” Burgess Everett reports at POLITICO.

Justice Department officials dropped an inquiry into Trump’s communications with his Ukrainian counterpart about investigating Biden after less than a month, sparking concerns among Democrats that the law enforcement agency is acting as a “shield” for the president. Just weeks after intelligence officials referred the matter to the Justice Department and F.B.I. as a possible violation of campaign-finance law, the head of the department’s criminal division concluded there was not sufficient cause to even open an investigation, senior Justice Department officials said. Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

“The U.S. Senate intelligence panel should probe Trump’s handling of Ukraine,” Senate minority leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters yesterday after the release of the White House memo. Schumer said the transcript “raised a number of questions that Republicans should also want answered.”  Reuters reports.

Giuliani is facing scrutiny, after details of the call bolster the view of some U.S. officials that the lawyer “operates at the president’s behest, often in a closed loop, and occasionally in contravention to the messages of diplomats in Kiev,” John Hudson reports at the Washington Post.

The call’s reconstruction has also raised questions about Trump’s relationship with Barr and whether the president regards Barr as his political ally and legal protector, rather than as the nation’s top law enforcement officer. Julia Ainsley reports at NBC.

TRUMP PHONE CALL: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A line-by-line analysis of U.S. President Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that launched an impeachment inquiry is provided by Natasha Bertrand at POLITICO.

Key takeaways from the Trump-Zelensky call are suggested by Brett Samuels and Morgan Chalfant at the Hill and Charlie Savage and Adam Goldman at the New York Times.

A guide to where House Democrats stand on impeaching Trump is provided by JM Rieger, Amber Phillips and Kevin Schaul at the Washington Post.

A roundup of eight legal experts’ opinion on “whether the president’s phone call with the Ukrainian president was an abuse of power — and if not, what the House would need to learn to arrive at an answer,” is provided by POLITICO Magazine.

Did Trump leverage a missile sale to Ukraine for political gain? Lara Seligman and Amy Mackinnon try to shed some light at Foreign Policy.

“Trump has confirmed that, at a minimum, he heavily pressured a foreign leader to intervene in the 2020 election, while dangling a political favor and withholding congressionally approved aid,” the Washington Post editorial board argues, commenting that “the integrity of U.S. democracy depends on how Congress and the nation respond.”

“Ukrainegate is nothing like Russiagate.” Elias Groll at Foreign Policy explains why Trump has a “far more damaging scandal on his hands.”

“The vault was empty. Again.” Hugh Hewitt at the Washington Post suggests that “House Democrats (mis)handled the guaranteed-to-get-him-impeached rough transcript of the phone call in July between Trump and Zelensky.”

“Trump’s alleged conduct toward Ukraine can be characterized as bribery, extortion and abuse of power … but, if true, it also constitutes another wrong — honest services fraud,” Barbara McQuade argues at Just Security.

TRUMP WHISTLEBLOWER COMPLAINT

Members of U.S. Congress saw for the first time yesterday a whistleblower complaint filed by an intelligence official against U.S President Trump at the center of the Trump-Ukraine scandal that has led to calls for his impeachment. Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee offered wide descriptions of the declassified whistleblower complaint, which relates to Trump’s communications with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, describing the document as both “troubling” and “credible.” Olivia Beavers and Juliegrace Brufke report at the Hill. 

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said he found the allegations “deeply disturbing,” but believes the whistleblower’s complaint was “well written” and “credible,” and felt it provided members with more threads to investigate. The complaint, which, according to Schiff “exposed serious wrongdoing,” could be released as soon as this morning, Dana Bash, Zachary Cohen, Ted Barrett and Jim Acosta report at CNN.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that he was “even more worried” about the whistleblower complaint after reviewing it yesterday. In a statement, he called for its immediate release, saying: “the public has a right to read the whistle-blower’s complaint for themselves … the contents of the complaint should be made public immediately.” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said the complaint contained “lots that’s very troubling,” and urged his colleagues not to dismiss it, after reading the document. Reuters reports.

The intelligence officer who filed the complaint raised concerns not only about what the two leaders said in a phone call — but also about how the White House handled records of the conversation, two people briefed on the complaint said. Charlie Savage, Michael S. Schmidt and Julian E. Barnes report at the New York Times.

When the Trump-Zelensky call was over, “senior White House officials pulled the verbatim transcript out of the system that it is traditionally stored on and moved it into a separate system reserved for extremely sensitive/highly compartmented programs,” a person familiar with the content of the complaint told Just Security. Kate Brannen at Just Security explains that “it would be extremely unusual to store it in [this] system, unless there was a genuine concern that the conversation included this kind of sensitive, classified material.”

Acting Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) Joseph Maguire reportedly threatened to resign over concerns the White House might press him to withhold information from Congress in scheduled testimony before the House Intelligence Committee today regarding the whistleblower complaint. Maguire reportedly said he was “not willing to stonewall Congress,” claims he later denied in a statement: “at no time have I considered resigning my position since assuming this role … I am committed to leading the Intelligence Community to address the diverse and complex threats facing our nation,” the statement said. Greg Miller, Shane Harris and Karoun Demirjian report at the Washington Post.

The disclosure to Congress of the whistleblower’s complaint came as the number of House members supporting an impeachment inquiry reached 218 — 217 Democrats and independent Rep. Justin Amash — a critical milestone that indicates there is a majority in the House willing to at least consider drafting and voting on articles of impeachment. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

U.N. GENERAL ASSEMBLY

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in suggested on Tuesday during a speech to the U.N. General Assembly that the Demilitarized Zone (D.M.Z.) between North and South Korea be turned into an “international peace zone” and used as a “peace and cooperation district” for the North and South, following decades of an armed impasse at the border, it was reported yesterday. John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan revealed that he has been trying to tell the U.N. this week about the danger of a nuclear war breaking out with India over the disputed Kashmir region. “I fear there will be a massacre and things will start to go out of control … my main reason for coming here was to meet world leaders at the U.N. and speak about this,” Khan said, adding “we are heading for a potential disaster of proportions that no one here realizes.” Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

A summary of what’s happening at the U.N. General Assembly in New York is provided by Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer at Foreign Policy.

IRAN

President Trump yesterday ordered a visa ban on senior Iranian government officials and their family members, barring them from entering the U.S.. Farnaz Fassihi, Lara Jakes and Edward Wong report at the New York Times.

The order came after a new round of American economic penalties was issued against several Chinese companies, who are Iran’s largest oil customers, for allegedly shipping Iranian oil in violation of U.S. sanctions. Ian Talley, Costas Paris and Courtney McBride report at the Wall Street Journal.

Rouhani told world leaders at the U.N. summit that the Gulf region is “on the edge of collapse” and proposed a “coalition for hope” in order to reverse this. “Our response to any negotiation under sanctions is negative,” Rouhani said, explaining “we shall not tolerate the provocative intervention of foreigners” and “we shall respond decisively and strongly to any sort of transgression to and violation of our security and territorial integrity.” The “alternative” and “proper” solution for Iran, he said, is to “strengthen consolidation among all the nations with common interests in the Persian Gulf and the Hormuz region.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

“Iran is willing to give reassurances on not seeking nuclear arms and accept changes to its 2015 nuclear accord with world power if the U.S. returns to the deal and lifts sanctions,” government spokesperson Ali Rabiei said yesterday. “If the sanctions are ended and there is a return to the [nuclear] accord, there is room for giving reassurances towards breaking the deadlock and [Rouhani] has even a proposal for small changes in the accord,” Rabei said on state T.V.. Reuters reports.

Congress received classified briefings yesterday on Iran following attacks on two major Saudi oil facilities this month that the Trump administration has pinned on Tehran. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) left the Senate’s briefing saying: “I am more determined now than ever to make the case that to restore deterrence Iran has to pay a price that they can feel — and sanctions will never do the job — and that we should be considering a military response.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced support for Iran yesterday amid global accusations over the oil site attacks. In an interview with Fox News, Erdogan said “I don’t think it would be the right thing to blame Iran,” explaining that “the evidence available does not necessarily point to that fact.” Erdogan also stated there was “no point” to U.S. sanctions on the Islamic Republic as they “never solved anything.” Al Jazeera reports.

“The United States cannot resolve this slate of issues through self-isolation and disdain for Iran’s diplomats … even in the face of bitter disagreements,” Thomas A. Shannon Jr. and John B. Bellinger III comment at Foreign Policy, calling on Trump to use the U.N. General Assembly as an opportunity to open dialogue with Zarif.

“The crisis in the Gulf today is the predictable result of the Trump administration’s failed Iran policies,” Ilan Goldenberg and Kaleigh Thomas argue at Foreign Policy, commenting that the administration “triggered the crisis in the first place and has since worsened it through diplomatic, rhetorical, and strategic blunders.”

AFGHANISTAN

“President Trump’s decision this month to call off peace talks with the Taliban should not obscure the fundamental fact that a political settlement of the Afghanistan conflict remains the best way to protect U.S. national security interests and prevent terrorist attacks from originating in the region,” Stephen Hadley and Michèle Flournoy argue at the Washington Post.

An explainer on how Afghanistan will elect its next president and potential peace maker is available at Reuters.

ISRAELI ELECTION

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin tasked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday with assembling a new government after power-sharing talks with his strongest rival Benny Gantz failed following an inconclusive general election last week. Netanyahu now has six weeks to try to form a government; if his attempts fail, the opportunity could pass to the next candidate who the president thinks has the greatest chance of forming a government. Oliver Holmes reports at the Guardian.

Accepting the mandate from Rivlin at a televised ceremony, Netanyahu acknowledged his chances of success were only slightly higher than those of Gantz. “If I don’t succeed, I will return the mandate to you and with the help of God and Israel’s citizens and yourself, Mr President, we will establish a broad national unity government down the line,” he said. Bobby Allyn reports at NPR.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Preparations were underway today for a town hall session to be held by Hong Kong’s C.E.O. Carrie Lam aimed at easing tension in the city after months of protests. The community dialogue with 150 participants, selected randomly from more than 20,000 applicants, is the first since demonstrations began in June triggered by a controversial extradition bill that the government has now vowed to withdraw. The AP reports.

Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously approved the “Hong Kong Human Rights Act” yesterday, and its Senate version cleared the committee level shortly after, moving U.S. Congress closer to passing legislation that would mandate an annual review of its trade and business policy towards Hong Kong. “To the Chinese Communist Party and those seeking to undermine Hong Kong’s freedom and autonomy, let me be crystally clear … the House Foreign Affairs Committee will not sit idly by,” Committee chair Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said ahead of the vote. Al Jazeera reports.

 OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

The U.S. Senate voted yesterday for a second time to end the national emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border President Trump declared in February, a move Trump would almost certainly veto, were it to reach his desk. Al Jazeera reports.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said he bears “all the responsibility” for the murder of  Washington Post columnist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi last year by Saudi operatives “because it happened under my watch,” according to a P.B.S. documentary to be broadcast next week. Al Jazeera reports. 

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).