The Early Edition: October 1, 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

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) confirmed yesterday that U.S. President Trump had contacted foreign countries at Attorney General William Barr’s request to ask them for assistance in an ongoing probe into the origins of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. “As the Department of Justice has previously announced, a team led by U.S. Attorney John Durham is investigating the origins of the U.S. counterintelligence probe of the Trump 2016 presidential campaign … Durham is gathering information from numerous sources, including a number of foreign countries,” D.O.J. spokesperson Kerri Kupec said in a statement, adding at Barr’s request, “the President has contacted other countries to ask them to introduce the Attorney General and Durham to appropriate officials.” Matthew Choi reports at POLITICO.

The department statement quickly followed a report that Barr had sought help from British and Italian officials as part of an investigation into U.S. intelligence activities around Trump’s election. The Washington Post reported yesterday that Barr traveled with Durham to Italy last week to meet with senior Italian government officials, where he asked the country to assist in the probe, and had also approached British intelligence officials about the matter.  Devlin Barrett, Shane Harris and Matt Zapotosky report at the Washington Post.

The D.O.J. statement also followed reports hours earlier that Trump had pressed Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a recent phone call to assist Barr in gathering information about the origins of Mueller’s investigation. The White House reportedly restricted access to the call’s transcript to a small group of the president’s aides — contrary to usual protocol — “similar to the handling of a July call with [Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky] that is at the heart of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.” Australia confirmed the call had taken place and that Morrison agreed to help. Mark Mazzetti and Katie Benner report at the New York Times. 

House Democrats yesterday subpoenaed Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to turn over communications and documents related to Trump’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden as part of their impeachment inquiry, sparked by a whistleblower complaint over known Trump administration interactions with Ukraine. “Our inquiry includes an investigation of credible allegations that you acted as an agent of the President in a scheme to advance his personal political interests by abusing the power of the Office of the President,” House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) wrote in a letter to Giuliani. The three committees demanded that Giuliani turn over the information by Oct. 15. Andrew Desiderio reports at POLITICO.

The lawmakers said in a statement that Giuliani had acknowledged in several recent interviews that he had asked the government of Ukraine for information about Biden. They noted Giuliani had said that he had evidence such as text messages and telephone records, suggesting that other Trump administration officials might have been involved in the scheme to pressure Ukraine to become involved in the 2020 election. Reuters reports.

Giuliani did not say whether he planned to comply with the subpoena, stating in a message sent on Twitter that it  raised “significant issues concerning legitimacy and constitutional and legal issues” including attorney-client privileges. Giuliani noted that the subpoena was “signed only by Democrat Chairs who have prejudged this case,” but said it “will be given appropriate consideration.” Justin Wise reports at the Hill.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was identified yesterday for the first time as being among the administration officials listening in on the July phone conversation between Trump and Zelensky that is at the centre of the House impeachment inquiry. Pompeo’s involvement could soon prompt another subpoena for testimony, Courtney McBride and Sadie Gurman report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump continued to criticize a whistleblower who accused him of pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, saying that the whistleblower “knew almost nothing” and that the White House was “trying to find out” the whistleblower’s identity even as new evidence emerged yesterday that Trump and his administration attempted to enlist investigative help from other foreign governments. Trump lashed out at Schiff, suggesting he should be arrested for “treason,” and warned that any effort to oust him could lead to civil war; the remarks came as Republicans struggled to form a clear strategy to respond to a fast-moving and quickly mounting threat to his presidency. Annie Karni and Eileen Sullivan report at the New York Times.

Intelligence Community Inspector General (I.C. I.G.) Michael Atkinson pushed back against claims made by Trump and some Republican lawmakers that the whistleblower lacked firsthand knowledge of the conduct set out in the complaint and accordingly the allegations were based on “hearsay.” In a rare statement released yesterday, the I.C. I.G. insisted that the whistleblower was not simply communicating secondhand knowledge: “the whistleblower stated on the form that he or she possessed both first-hand and other information … the I.C I.G. reviewed the information provided as well as other information gathered and determined that the complaint was both urgent and that it appeared credible,” the statement read, adding that the whistleblower had “direct knowledge of certain alleged conduct.” Zachary Cohen reports at CNN.

The I.C. I.G. also pushed back on allegations from Trump and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that the rules for filing a complaint were changed just before the whistleblower on the Ukraine call came forward. The Office of the Inspector General issued a statement yesterday making it clear that the complaint was filed under procedures put in place in May 2018. The clarification came as the president sent a message on Twitter yesterday, asking: “WHO CHANGED THE LONG STANDING WHISTLEBLOWER RULES JUST BEFORE SUBMITTAL OF THE FAKE WHISTLEBLOWER REPORT? DRAIN THE SWAMP!” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Lawyers for the House of Representatives argued in a new court filing yesterday that they have reason to believe that the grand-jury redactions in Mueller’s report indicate that Trump lied about his knowledge of his campaign’s contacts with WikiLeaks. “The text redacted … and any underlying evidence to which it may point are critical to the committee’s investigation,” the attorneys wrote, as part of the House Judiciary Committee’s bid for the grand-jury materials, which have remained secret by law. Andrew Desiderio reports at POLITICO.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said yesterday that if the House voted to impeach Trump, a trial in the Senate would be unavoidable. McConnell said he was bound by existing Senate rules governing the impeachment and conviction process, amid reports that he could disregard the specter of putting Trump on trial. “I would have no choice but to take it up,” McConnell said during a C.N.B.C. interview, adding “how long you’re on it is a whole different matter, but I would have no choice … based on a Senate rule on impeachment.” Demetri Sevastopulo and Primrose Riordan report at the Financial Times.

An analysis of Trump’s false claim that the rules for whistleblowers were recently changed is provided by Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post.

A helpful explainer on the recent developments in the impeachment inquiry into Trump is provided by Amy Mackinnon and Elias Groll at Foreign Policy.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

The Treasury Department issued new economic sanctions yesterday against Yevgeniy Prigozhin — an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin previously accused of trying to tamper with the 2016 U.S. presidential election — for his alleged attempt to interfere in the 2018 midterm vote. The Trump administration’s move marks the first use of new authorities Congress granted last year specifically to punish election interference. Ian Talley reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed the action a warning to foreigners who seek to interfere in American elections. “We have been clear: we will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections,” Pompeo said in a statement, adding “the United States will continue to push back against malign actors who seek to subvert our democratic processes … and we will not hesitate to impose further costs on Russia for its destabilizing and unacceptable activities.” Lara Jakes reports at the New York Times.

The Kremlin said yesterday that Washington required Russian consent to release transcripts of phone calls between U.S. President Trump and his Russian counterpart. When asked about Congress’ push for the publication of Putin-Trump calls, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov responded that “the publication is only possible by mutual agreement of the parties.” Reuters reports.

“For an American president to defend Moscow’s misbehavior by asking what about us? … that should outrage us,” Joshua Geltzer and Jake Sullivan argue at Just Security, commenting that Trump’s weekend remarks — that he was unconcerned that Russia interfered with America’s 2016 election because the U.S. takes similar steps to meddle with domestic elections in other countries — represent “a dereliction of a solemn duty” and “a far cry from putting ‘America First.’”

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan said yesterday that the U.S. would join a lawsuit filed by U.S. President Trump to quash a subpoena for eight years of the president’s personal and business tax returns. In a brief letter to the judge, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman and Chief of the office’s civil division Jeffrey Oestericher said the U.S. would file a submission in the case by tomorrow. Corinne Ramey reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Army Gen. Mark Milley was sworn in yesterday as the 20th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, becoming the highest ranking military officer in the U.S.. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) resigned from his House seat yesterday, ahead of his expected guilty plea today to charges linked to to insider trading. Tom Winter and Alex Moe report at NBC.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels unilaterally released 290 detainees yesterday as part of a U.N. peace initiative, the International Committee of the Red Cross said. The Houthi National Committee For Prisoners’ Affairs said the release “proves [the movement’s] credibility in implementing the Sweden agreement” and was made “as a statement of goodwill,” with head of the committee Abdul Qader al-Murtada calling on the U.N. “to pressure the [Saudi-led] coalition to reciprocate.” Those freed include 42 survivors of an air strike on a prison this month that killed more than 100 people. Paolo Zialcita reports at NPR.

The U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths welcomed the move in a message sent on Twitter, saying he hoped it would lead to further progress on an agreed prisoner exchange deal and would help revive a stalled peace process after months of failed efforts. The U.N. News Centre reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Former national security adviser John Bolton yesterday criticized the Trump administration over its pursuit of a nuclear deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in his first public remarks since he was fired three weeks ago. Noting that he was now free to speak in “unvarnished terms,” Bolton challenged administration claims that U.S. President Trump had made significant progress with North Korea, asserting that Kim was still determined to retain a “deliverable nuclear weapons capability” notwithstanding the letters he had sent to Trump. Elias Groll reports at Foreign Policy.

North Korea and the U.S. will resume nuclear negotiations this weekend following a months-long impasse over the withdrawal of sanctions in exchange for disarmament, North Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs Choe Son Hui said today. The AP reports.

The statement came after North Korea’s U.N. ambassador Kim Song yesterday blamed stalled nuclear negotiations on “political and military provocations” from the U.S.. Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly’s Annual gathering, Kim said that “it depends on the U.S.” whether negotiations between the two countries “become a window of opportunity or an occasion that will hasten the crisis.” The AP reports.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Violent protests escalated today in Hong Kong, as police shot a protester with a live round for the first time since pro-democracy demonstrations engulfed the city four months ago. The shooting overshadowed celebrations in Beijing to mark 70 years of Communist party rule and came just hours after China’s leader Xi Jinping oversaw the biggest military parade in China’s history aimed at emphasizing that national unity will not be challenged. The New York Times reporting.

A California tour guide, Xuehua Peng, was charged yesterday with acting as an illegal foreign agent for China. The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) said in a statement that Peng delivered classified U.S. national security information to officials working at China’s leading intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security (M.S.S.). The BBC reports.

“This year marked other significant anniversaries, too: It’s three decades since the bloody crackdown at Tiananmen Square and five years since a new generation of pro-democracy protesters first took to the streets in Hong Kong,” Ishaan Tharoor writes in an analysis at the Washington Post, commenting that “China’s 70th anniversary party can’t hide a sense of unease.”

Live updates to the protests on China’s National Day are available at CNN, the BBC and the Guardian.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

At least 11 policemen were killed early today in a “multi-pronged” attack by the Taliban on a district headquarters in a remote district in northern Afghanistan, officials said. The AP reports.

U.S. and partnered forces yesterday carried out two airstrikes — killing 10 militants, after Somalia’s Islamic extremist rebel group al-Shabab “brazenly” attacked U.S. and European military targets in Somalia the same day. Max Bearak reports at the Washington Post.

U.K. special envoy on media freedom Amal Clooney yesterday urged for more power for the U.N. to investigate targeted state killings of human rights defenders and journalists following the murder of Washington Post columnist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

A long form analysis on the international legal framework governing the use of force is provided by leading scholar Claus Kreß 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).