The Early Edition: September 30, 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

U.S. President Trump reportedly told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that he was “unconcerned” about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 elections because the U.S. did the same thing to other countries, according to three former officials who requested anonymity. Trump made the previously unreported comments during the same May 2017 Oval Office meeting in which he famously revealed highly classified information on the Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.); the president also told the two senior Russian officials during the meeting that sacking F.B.I. director James Comey the previous day had relieved him of “great pressure.” Shane Harris, Josh Dawsey and Ellen Nakashima report at the Washington Post.

The comments alarmed White House officials who subsequently restricted access to a memorandum summarizing the meeting to those with only the highest security clearances, the officials said. Trump hit back at the report in a message sent on Twitter late Friday, calling it “more fake news” and referring to past comments from his former national security adviser H.R. McMaster who asserted at the time that it was “wholly appropriate” for Trump to discuss the information. The revelation came a day after the release of an intelligence community whistleblower report in which a C.I.A. officer alleged that the White House placed a record of a phone call between Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky into a code-word classified system reserved for the most sensitive intelligence information. Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

The White House used a highly classified computer system to limit access to transcripts of Trump’s delicate conversations with other foreign leaders including phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin and members of the Saudi royal family, such as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to people familiar with the matter. Pamela Brown, Jim Sciutto and Kevin Liptak report at CNN.

The Kremlin said on Friday that it hoped the contents of Trump’s phone conversations with Putin would not be made public — two days after the White House published a readout of a call between Trump and Zelensky. When asked if Moscow was worried about the confidentiality of the American president’s contacts with Putin, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said “we would like to hope that we would not see such situations in our bilateral relations, which already have plenty of quite serious problems.” The AP reports.

“Congress is determined to get access to Trump’s calls with Putin and other world leaders,” House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said yesterday on N.B.C.’s “Meet the Press.” “I think the paramount need here is to protect the national security of the United States and see whether in the conversations with other world leaders — and in particular with Putin — that the president was also undermining our security in a way that he thought would personally benefit his campaign,” Schiff said. Reuters reports.

Schiff said in a separate interview broadcast yesterday night that he intends to subpoena Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani for documents linked to the Ukraine scandal as early as this week. “It’s our intention as soon as first thing next week to subpoena him for documents,” Schiff said in an interview on “60 Minutes,” adding “there may very well come a time where we want to hear from him directly.” Giuliani has been tied to efforts to pressure Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. Audrey McNamara reports at The Daily Beast.

Several of Giuliani’s former Department of Justice (D.O.J.) colleagues have said they believe Giuliani likely broke the law through his efforts to push the Ukrainians to probe Biden. Rich Schapiro reports at NBC.

The chairs of three House committees — the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the House Intelligence Committee and the House Oversight Committee — subpoenaed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday for documents related to their investigation into Trump’s controversial call with Zelensky. “The subpoenaed documents shall be part of the impeachment inquiry and shared among the Committees … your failure or refusal to comply with the subpoena shall constitute evidence of obstruction of the House’s impeachment inquiry,” the three chairs wrote in a letter to Pompeo. The House panels also scheduled depositions with five other State Department officials, marking House Democrats’ first concrete steps in the impeachment investigation of Trump. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

U.S. Special Envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker resigned Friday, following reports he collaborated with Ukraine and Trump and within hours of an announcement from three House committees that the diplomat was among State Department officials who would be compelled to testify. Volker’s departure is the first since the emergence of reports that Trump may have abused his presidential powers and sought help from a foreign government to undermine current Democratic frontrunner Biden. Nahal Toosi reports at POLITICO.

The White House confirmed Friday that the partial transcript of Trump’s call with Ukraine at the center of a whistleblower complaint was moved to a highly classified system maintained by the National Security Council (N.S.C.) at the “direction” of White House lawyers. The AP reports.

Some of Trump’s top allies said yesterday that they do not see “any problems” with the president’s behavior regarding Ukraine or his July phone call with Zelensky. “We have now seen the transcript … the president of Ukraine said that there was no pressure, he was not pushed,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told interviewers, adding: “look, if Democrats want to impeach because Rudy Giuliani talked to a couple Ukrainians, good luck with that.” Allan Smith reports at NBC.

The chairs of two House panels demanded Friday in a letter to the White House Office of Management and Budget (O.M.B.) that the White House turn over documents and information about hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid withheld from Ukraine amid scrutiny over Trump’s communications with the country. House Budget Committee Chair John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) and Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) wrote that the decision to temporarily withhold congressionally approved funds over the summer represented a potential “abuse of authority” by the president on apportioning money, implying the move may have violated the Impoundment Control Act of 1974. Niv Elis reports at the Hill.

Several federal agencies including the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council were “unanimous” in supporting the aid to Ukraine, and “the president acted alone in withholding the aid over the summer,” Fox News has reported. Ronn Blitzer reports at Fox News.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Friday said that the Trump administration’s delay in sending military aid to Ukraine did not affect U.S. national security. “At this point most of the money is out the door … and at no time or at any time has any delay in this money, this funding, affected U.S. national security,” Esper told reporters, adding that the Pentagon would provide to lawmakers “whatever information we can provide with regard to this incident, with regard to this matter, just as we would with any other matter.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Schiff said yesterday that his panel had reached an agreement to secure “unfiltered testimony” from the anonymous whistleblower whose detailed complaint launched an impeachment investigation into Trump. The whistleblower has agreed to appear “very soon”  before members of Congress, Schiff told A.B.C. News, adding that the House Intelligence Committee was “taking all the precautions” to protect his identity. James Politi reports at the Financial Times. Josh Mitchell reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump escalated his attack on the whistleblower yesterday, accusing him of representing a “perfect conversation with a foreign leader in a totally inaccurate and fraudulent way.” Trump also demanded to meet “his accuser” face to face: “was this person SPYING on the U.S. President? big Consequences!” Trump said in a message sent on Twitter. Ed Pilkington and Victoria Bekiempis report at the Guardian.

 Lawyers acting for the whistleblower have warned in a letter to Acting Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) Joseph Maguire dated Saturday that their client’s personal safety is in danger partly as a result of the president’s remarks. Alex Johnson reports at NBC.

White House senior adviser Stephen Miller yesterday dismissed the anonymous whistleblower complaint as a “partisan hit job,” suggesting that Trump is the true whistleblower and the individual who complained was “a saboteur trying to undermine a democratically elected government,” making the remarks during an interview on “Fox News Sunday.” Miller’s defense of the president came on the same day that Tom Bossert, a former Trump homeland security adviser, said he was “deeply disturbed” by the implications of the Trump’s recently reported actions. Felicia Sonmez, Mike DeBonis and Christopher Rowland report at the Washington Post.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A top expert backgrounder on U.S. President Trump’s impeachment and where it is likely headed is provided by Harold Hongju Koh at Just Security.

An analysis of the “absurdity” of the Justice Department’s refusal to investigate Trump’s apparent violation of federal campaign finance laws is provided by Paul Seamus Ryan at Just Security.

“Trump’s assaults on democracy are rarely solo endeavors.” The New York Times editorial board suggests a list of who the House needs to hear from during its impeachment inquiry. 

“By restricting access to call readouts, not writing them at all, and apparently not even giving relevant Cabinet officials verbal readouts when they were discussed on a presidential call, the president’s team made some major process fouls,” Samantha Vinograd argues at POLITICO, commenting that “only senior White House officials—like the national security adviser, chief of staff or the president himself—have the authority to disturb the process in these damaging ways.”

“It is now stunningly evident that when it comes to protecting our democracy from foreign interference, our current legal framework is not up to the task.” Jessica Brandt and Joshua Rudolph at Just Security call on Democrat and Republican lawmakers to treat the solicitation of foreign interference as a bipartisan national security issue.

The previous presidential impeachment cases of Johnson, Nixon and Clinton “offer us little direct help today,” David Greenberg argues at POLITICO, commenting that “we’re in uncharted waters here.”

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

A federal judge on Friday rejected a new Trump administration rule that would have allowed indefinite  detention of migrant children and their parents. U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles described the government’s defense of its proposed new policy as “Kafkaesque” and said the regulations conflict with a 1997 settlement agreement which set a number of minimal standards for the treatment of children in secure detention facilities and requires their expeditious release in most cases. Miriam Jordan reports at the New York Times.

A federal judge on Friday blocked the Trump administration’s effort to expand use of a process known as “expedited removal” that allows the government to quickly deport illegal immigrants without going through immigration courts. In July, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) officials announced plans to expand the application of the policy to the entire country and to any immigrant who entered the U.S. illegally in the previous two years, however U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson blocked the policy shift, declaring that the Trump administration’s decision-making process leading to the change appeared to have violated federal law. Kat Lonsdorf reports at NPR.

“Government actors who make policy decisions in their official capacities cannot succumb to whims or passions while rulemaking,” Jackson wrote in a 126-page ruling issued just before midnight Friday. “If a policy decision that an agency makes is of sufficient consequence that it qualifies as an agency rule, then arbitrariness in deciding the contours of that rule—e.g., decision making by Ouija board or dart board, rock/paper/scissors, or even the Magic 8 Ball—simply will not do,” the ruling continued, faulting officials for failing to carry out a formal notice-and-comment practice required for major changes to federal rules. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels said yesterday they carried out a major attack on forces of a Saudi-led coalition in August near the border between the two nations, releasing video footage purporting to show hundreds of captured troops and equipment. Houthi military spokesperson Yahya Saree said that “more than 200 were killed in dozens of [missile and drone] strikes while trying to escape or surrender;” the Saudi-led coalition has yet to respond to the rebels’ claims. Al Jazeera reports.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman denied in an interview broadcast yesterday that he ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, but said that he takes “full responsibility” for the killing because it was carried out by Saudi government employees. The crown prince insisted he was not aware of the operation, saying it would be impossible for “3 million people working for the Saudi government” to send daily reports to the leader “or the second highest person in the Saudi government.” Christina Maxouris reports at CNN.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged today that his country would continue its efforts to “shed light” on Khashoggi’s killing, describing the journalist’s murder as “arguably the most influential and controversial incident of the 21st century.” In a Washington Post op-ed, Erdogan blamed the death on a “shadow state within the kingdom’s government — not the Saudi state or people.” The AP reports.

IRAN

“With U.S. President Trump considering ways to retaliate against Iran for an attack against Saudi oil infrastructure — but desperate to avoid getting entangled in a shooting war — cyberattacks against Iranian targets have emerged as a potentially bloodless way to flex American power,” Elias Groll writes at Foreign Policy, warning that “the administration’s apparent eagerness to rely on digital weapons to strike back against Tehran … carries with it a great risk: normalizing the militarization of cyberspace.”

A look at how diplomatic efforts to arrange a meeting between Trump and Rouhani at the U.N. General Assembly “unraveled” is provided by  Laurence Norman and Michael R. Gordon at the Wall Street Journal.

SYRIA

Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister Walid al-Moualem on Saturday demanded an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. and Turkish troops from his country and warned that Syrian government forces had the right to take countermeasures authorized under international law if they refused. “Any foreign forces operating in our territories without our authorization are occupying forces and must withdraw immediately,” al-Moualem said during an address to world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Kelly Virella reports at the New York Times.

Al-Moualem also told the annual summit that while terrorism is a “global nightmare which haunts everyone” — some countries have invested in terrorism as a tool to impose their “insidious agendas” on other nations. “Tens of thousands of foreign terrorist fighters have been brought to Syria from more than a hundred countries, with the support and cover of States that are known to all,” al-Moualem said. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Mustafa Bali — an official with the main Kurdish-led force in Syria — yesterday criticized the U.N. special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen over the the committee formed earlier this month that will be in charge of drafting a new constitution, saying the ethnic minority is not represented. In a message sent on Twitter, Bali said that Pedersen, “must know that having a couple of Kurds” from northeast Syria who are allied with the Syrian government or the opposition” did not mean Kurds were represented on the committee. Al Jazeera reports.

American counterterrorism officials have warned about the rising threat from a Qaeda affiliate in Syria that they say is planning attacks against the West by “exploiting the chaotic security situation in the country’s northwest and the protection inadvertently afforded by Russian air defenses shielding Syrian government forces allied with Moscow.” Eric Schmitt reports at the New York Times.

Turkey’s Defense Ministry said yesterday that Turkish warplanes had downed an unidentified drone that violated its airspace along its border with Syria six times on Saturday. The AP reports. 

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Hong Kong riot police fired rounds of tear gas and blue-dyed liquid at protestors and made arrests yesterday during clashes between demonstrators and officers just two days before China celebrates 70 years of Communist rule. Eileen Ng reports at the AP.

Beijing moved thousands of troops across the border into Hong Kong last month, according to seven Asian and Western envoys in the city who believe the late-August deployment was a reinforcement. Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Low turnout was widely reported at Afghanistan’s presidential election over the weekend, as many voters were worried about security following threats from the Taliban. With just over half the votes counted, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission estimated that only 2.2 million out of 9 million registered voters cast ballots in the poll, representing the lowest turnout in the past 18 years. Susannah George and Pamela Constable report at the Washington Post.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could inform Israel’s president that he is unable to form a unity government with his centrist election rival as early as this week after negotiations with politicians stalled at the weekend, his Likud party said. Oliver Holmes reports at the Guardian.

The United Nations Human Rights Council on Friday launched an investigation into rights violations in Venezuela, including torture and thousands of summary executions. Reuters reports.

A detailed look at national security developments at the U.N. last week, including at the U.N. General Assembly, is fielded by Sahrula Kubie at Just Security. 

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).