The Early Edition: September 27, 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 AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

A whistleblower complaint released yesterday alleged that U.S. President Trump not only abused his office in attempting to solicit Ukraine’s interference in the 2020 U.S. election for his political gain — but that the White House tried to “lock down” evidence about that conduct.  Explaining concerns about how senior White House officials handled the record of a controversial July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the whistleblower said it was removed from the usual electronic storage system for transcripts and put in a separate system normally used for “classified information of an especially sensitive nature.” Michael D. Shear reports at the New York Times.

“I learnt from multiple U.S. officials that senior White House officials had intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call … especially the word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced,” the whistleblower, whose written complaint is at the center of calls for an impeachment inquiry into Trump, wrote. “This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call … one … official described this act as an abuse of this electronic system because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective.” Josh Dawsey and Carol D. Leonnig report at the Washington Post.

The whistleblower said information from “multiple” government officials appeared to show that Trump used the July call “to advance his personal interests,” including, “pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the President’s main domestic political rivals.” Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was a “central figure” and U.S. attorney-general William Barr “appears to be involved as well,” the complaint said. Olivia Beavers and Morgant Chalfant report at the Hill. 

Trump shrugged off the whistleblower complaint as “fake news,” stating in a message sent on Twitter: “a whistleblower with second hand information? another Fake News Story! see what was said on the very nice, no pressure, call … another Witch Hunt!” The Guardian reports.

Trump later demanded to know who gave information to the whistleblower — saying the source was “close to a spy.” “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart, right? the spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now,” Trump told staff from the U.S. mission to the U.N., according to audio of his remarks. Maggie Haberman and Katie Rogers report at the New York Times.

White House officials also downplayed the significance of the document. “Nothing has changed with the release of this complaint, which is nothing more than a collection of thirdhand accounts of events and cobbled-together press clippings — all of which shows nothing improper,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said. The president “has nothing to hide,” Grisham asserted, adding, “the White House will continue to push back on the hysteria and false narratives being peddled by Democrats and many in the mainstream media.” Dustin Volz, Warren P. Strobel and Siobhan Hughes report at the Wall Street Journal.

The complaint was released as Acting Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) Joseph Maguire testified before the House intelligence committee about what he described as an “unprecedented” situation. Maguire defended his handling of the complaint and testified that he earlier withheld the complaint because Trump’s call was subject to executive privilege. Maguire also said he believed the whistleblower “did the right thing” and had acted in “good faith.” Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) commented that it was a “travesty” that the whistleblower complaint was “held up for this long.” Schiff said the whistleblower “has shown more dedication to country, more of an understanding of the president’s oath of office than the president has ever demonstrated.” Lauren Fedor and Demetri Sevastopulo report at the Financial Times.

“There is a lot in the whistleblower complaint that is concerning,” former C.I.A. officer Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) said in a message sent on Twitter, while Republicans largely held the line, cautious of fully breaking with Trump. “We need to fully investigate all of the allegations addressed in the letter, and the first step is to talk to the whistleblower,” the message continued. Burgess Everett and Melania Zanona report at POLITICO.

The whistleblower — whom the New York Times has identified as a C.I.A. officer who once worked at the White House — filed his complaint after first sharing information with the C.I.A. general counsel Courtney Simmons Elwood through an anonymous process soon after Trump’s call with Zelensky, multiple people familiar with the matter said. The agency’s top lawyer shared the officer’s concerns about potential abuse of power and a White House cover-up with White House and Justice Department officials, following policy. Julian E. Barnes, Michael S. Schmidt, Adam Goldman and Katie Benner report at the New York Times.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the White House had engaged in a “cover-up” to hide details of Trump’s attempts to to seek political help from Ukrainian leaders. Pelosi said Trump’s alleged efforts to persuade Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic presidential contender ahead of the 2020 election, and later bury key documents “betrayed his oath of office” and threatened national security and elections. “We are at a different level of lawlessness that is self-evident to the American people,” Pelosi said, adding, “we have a heightened responsibility to act upon those facts.” Sarah Ferris and Heather Caygle report at POLITICO.

House Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said the allegations in the whistleblower complaint describe “election interference, plain and simple.” In a statement released yesterday, Schiff said “the declassified whistleblower report is clear … the President again, just as he did in 2016, sought out assistance from a foreign power to help in his reelection,” appealing for increased election security and claiming that Trump had “undermined” U.S. elections. Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

House Democrats are proceeding with a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump they said would be focused tightly on the president’s dealings with Ukraine, with aides and lawmakers describing the whistleblower complaint as both a “primary focus” and a “tipping point.” “The consensus in our caucus is that focus now is on this allegation,” Pelosi said yesterday, adding: “all of the other work that relates to abuse of power, ignoring subpoenas of government, of Congress, abuse — contempt of Congress by [Trump] — those things will be considered later.” Heidi Przybyla, Leigh Ann Caldwell, Alex Moe and Geoff Bennett report at NBC News.

Lawmakers have suggested they could potentially draft articles of impeachment by the end of October. Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A line-by-line analysis of the whistleblower complaint at the center of calls for an impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Trump is provided by Zachary B. Wolf and Curt Merrill at CNN. 

The key takeaways from the whistleblower complaint are provided by Charlie Savage at the New York Times.

Key takeaways from Acting Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) Joseph Maguire’s testimony before Congress are provided by Olivia Beavers, Cristina Marcos and Morgan Chalfant at the Hill.

“The complaint significantly bolsters the case that the quid pro quo of the July 25 phone call was a promise by [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky to investigate [former Vice President Joe] Biden in exchange for an invitation to meet Trump at the White House,” the Washington Post editorial board argues.

“The whistleblower has by some measures managed to exceed what former special counsel Robert  Mueller accomplished in two years of investigating Trump: producing a file so concerning and factually sound that it has almost single-handedly set in motion the gears of impeachment,” Greg Miller comments at the Washington Post.

“The wisest course of action [for Democrats] would probably be to drop the complaint as a significant piece of evidence … since it raises almost nothing new,” Henry Olsen advises at the Washington Post.

Just how corrupt is Attorney General Bill Barr? Michelle Goldberg tried to shed some light at the New York Times.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani “acts as a private emissary in defiance of diplomatic norms,” Joshua Chaffin, Max Seddon and Roman Olearchyk comment at the Financial Times.

Trump effectively pleaded guilty to an impeachable offense in the White House readout from his July call with Zelensky, Michael Gerson argues at the Washington Post.

An updated timeline of Trump and Giuliani’s efforts to pressure the Ukraine government to investigate Biden is provided by Viola Gienger and Co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman at Just Security.

IRAN

The British-flagged Stena Impero oil tanker held by Iran since July was released this morning and was heading toward the United Arab Emirates, the Swedish owner of the ship confirmed. The company’s C.E.O. Erik Hanell said the vessel and its crew had been released, and the ship would be transiting through Dubai for the crew to disembark and receive medical checks. The AP reports.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani confirmed yesterday that Iran has begun using advanced models of centrifuges to enrich uranium in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers “because Tehran had been complying with the pact, while the Europeans, under pressure from U.S. sanctions, had not followed through on promised trade and economic benefits.” Rouhani also dismissed U.S. attempts to pin his country for the attack on Saudi oil facilities.  Nicole Gaouette and Richard Roth report at CNN.

Three European signatories to the nuclear accord — Britain, France and Germany —  warned Iran against any further violations of the deal, threatening at a meeting with Iranian ministers on the fringes of the U.N. General Assembly to trigger a special dispute mechanism. The BBC reports.

The U.N. and the world have a moral responsibility “to apply utmost pressure with every tool available … to end the terrorist and aggressive conduct of the Iranian regime,” Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim bin Abdulaziz Al-Assaf told the General Assembly yesterday. Al-Assaf said that the “reprehensible attacks” against the Kingdom’s major oil facilities earlier this month “demanded attention and a unified international response.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

The Foreign Minister of Israel Yisrael Katz appealed at the U.N. summit yesterday to the international community to “join together to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

The U.S. military is sending around 200 additional troops, a surface-to-air missile battery and several advanced radars to Saudi Arabia, the Pentagon said in a statement yesterday, after attacks this month on a major Saudi oil refinery that U.S. and Saudi officials blamed on Iran. “This deployment will augment the Kingdom’s air and missile defense of critical military and civilian infrastructure,” chief Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said yesterday, adding it would build on “an already significant presence of U.S. forces in the region.” Gordon Lubold reports at the Wall Street Journal.

An attempt by Saudi Arabia to cut short an investigation into human rights abuses in Yemen was rejected yesterday, following the release of a preview of a “Frontline” documentary in which the kingdom’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. Saudi Arabia tried to curtail the investigation, but the nations on the Human Rights Council voted to dismiss the Saudi effort. Ben Hubbard and Nick Cumming-Bruce report at the New York Times.

SYRIA

Syrian government forces used chlorine gas in an attack against rebels last May, a new U.S. intelligence assessment has concluded, marking the first confirmed violation of the international accord banning chemical weapons since U.S. President Trump authorized a U.S. military strike on Syria in 2018 over its alleged use of poison gas. Jennifer Hansler and Michael Conte report at CNN.

“The United States will not allow these attacks to go unchallenged … nor will we tolerate those who chose to conceal these atrocities,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an effort to dissuade the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from repeating its use of chemical agents on the battlefield. “The United States will continue to pressure the insidious Assad regime to end the violence directed at Syrian civilians and participate in the U.N.-led political process,” Pompeo said. AFP reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Russia’s foreign ministry appeared optimistic today over a new proposal from Moscow aimed at easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, according to reports from the R.I.A. news agency. “We have agreed the draft plan with our Chinese partners and have shown it to representatives of the United States, South Korea and North Korea,” Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov was quoted as saying. “We expect that after the approval of the document by all the sides we will manage to … make real progress in resolving the problem of the Korean peninsula,” he added. Reuters reports.

North Korea would like U.S. President Trump to make a “wise option and bold decision” to revive stalled nuclear talks, Foreign Ministry adviser Kim Kye Gwan said in a statement today, in an apparent escalation of pressure on the U.S. ahead of an expected continuation of negotiations. Hyung-Jin Kim reports at the AP.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Hong Kong’s C.E.O. Carrie Lam held her first “open dialogue” with the pubic yesterday in a bid to end more than three months of often violent unrest. Lam faced heavy criticism from frustrated protesters during the question-and-answer session, with many reciting a phrase frequently heard during the demonstrations, “five demands, not one less!,” referring to the protesters’ list of needed reforms and inquests. Shibani Mahtani and Tiffany Liang report at the Washington Post.

In the weeks before Israel’s Sept. 17 elections U.S. President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both spoke favorably of negotiating a mutual defense treaty. Douglas J. Feith at the Wall Street Journal points out “potential pitfalls” of such a treaty.

Afghans will head to the polls this weekend to vote in the presidential election despite threats from the Taliban to target election rallies and polling stations. Al Jazeera reports.

The Trump administration announced yesterday that it will allow no more than 18,000 refugees to resettle in the country, setting the lowest cap for asylum seekers since the U.S. established its refugee program in 1980. Bobby Allyn reports at NPR.

The Senate confirmed Gen. John Hyten as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff yesterday, following months of controversy over sexual assault allegations against him. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The Senate also confirmed Trump’s pick for Army secretary Ryan McCarthy in a voice vote yesterday afternoon. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

New York state prosecutors and Trump’s lawyers reached a temporary agreement yesterday over a dispute regarding a subpoena for eight years of the president’s tax returns. Corinne Ramey reports at the Wall Street Journal.

A report released yesterday — following an annual gathering of hackers that uses election machines to detect vulnerabilities — found that U.S. voting systems remain vulnerable to cyberattacks three years after documented efforts to infiltrate election machines. The white-hat hacker D.E.F. C.O.N. Voting Village allowed hackers to “test voting equipment, including e-poll books, optical scan paper voting devices and direct recording electronic voting machines” — all verified for use in at least one U.S. voting jurisdiction. Maggie Miller reports at the Hill. 

About the Author(s)

Nat O'Connell

Associate 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).