The Early Edition: October 4, 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

Two of President Trump’s top envoys to Ukraine reportedly drafted a statement for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in August that would have publicly committed the country to investigating Trump’s political rival Joe Biden. The statement, worked on by Kurt Volker, the then State Department’s special envoy to Ukraine, and the U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, offers fresh evidence of how Trump’s fixation with conspiracy theories tied to Ukraine prompted senior diplomats to “bend” American policy for the president’s own political benefit in the weeks after a July 25 call between the two leaders. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani contributed the “critical” language for the proposed statement, Volker apparently told House Democratic investigators yesterday during more than 8 hours of closed-door testimony. Kenneth P. Vogel and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

House committees on Intelligence, Oversight and Reform, and Foreign Affairs disclosed a series of text messages last night which the chairs of the committees — Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Ca.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) — argued in a joint statement revealed that Trump administration officials sought to use a White House meeting between Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart as leverage to press the Ukrainian government to probe Biden. The 60 pages of text messages, provided by Volker to congressional investigators during his testimony yesterday, are exchanges from July to early September between three U.S. diplomats — Volker, Sondland and the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine Bill Taylor. Giuliani and a Zelenskiy aide, Andrey Yermak, also make brief appearances in the correspondence. Jackie Kucinich and Spencer Ackerman report at The Daily Beast.

“Heard from the White House … assuming President Z convinces [T]rump he will investigate/ ‘get to the bottom of what happened in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington,” one text between Volker and Yermak on July 25 — the day of the Trump-Zelenksy call — read, linking a Zelensky trip to Washington to whether the Ukrainian government advanced with the Biden investigation. Josh Bresnahan reports at POLITICO.

In the texts, Taylor repeatedly raised serious concerns about Washington’s decision to withhold military aid to increase the pressure on Ukrainian to investigate Biden as officials tried to arrange a meeting between Trump and Zelensky. “Are we now saying that security assistance and W.H. [White House] meeting are now conditioned on investigations?” Taylor wrote to Sondland in September, writing a week later, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” After speaking with Trump, Sondland responded that the president had made “crystal clear” there was no quid pro quo, adding, “I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.” Karoun Demirjian, Rachael Bade, Josh Dawsey and John Hudson report at the Washington Post.

Trump yesterday openly called on China to investigate Biden — flouting Democrats who are already investigating him for seeking foreign assistance in private. “China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine,” Trump told reporters. Asked if he had already asked China’s leader Xi Jinping to start an investigation, the president said: “I haven’t, but it’s certainly something we can start thinking about.” Adam Edelman and Shannon Pettypiece report at NBC News.

 Schiff said yesterday that “Trump broke his oath of office in asking China to probe Biden.” “The president of the United States encouraging a foreign nation to interfere again to help his campaign by investigating a rival is a fundamental breach of a president’s oath of office … it endangers our elections … it endangers our national security,” Schiff told reporters, adding: “it ought to be condemned by every member of this body, Democrats and Republicans alike.” Reuters reports.

Trump reportedly brought up Biden in a June phone call with Xi, mentioning the former vice-president’s political prospects, as well as those of Senator Elizabeth Warren. Trump also told Xi he would remain silent on the unfolding Hong Kong protests so long as trade talks between the U.S. and China progressed. The White House record of the June call was reportedly stored in the highly restricted database that also contained the call between Trump and Zelensky. Kylie Atwood, Kevin Liptak, Pamela Brown, Jim Sciutto and Gloria Borger report at CNN.

The Prosecutor General of Ukraine Ruslan Riaboshapka reportedly announced today his office is undertaking a general review of all cases closed by his predecessor — including Burisma, the oil and gas company linked to Biden’s son. “We are now reviewing all the cases which were closed, fragmented or investigated earlier in order to make a decision on cases where illegal procedural decisions were taken,” Riaboshapka said. Co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman reports at Just Security.

Trump reportedly ordered the removal of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch after Giuliani complained that she was obstructing investigations into Biden and his son. Giuliani apparently reminded Trump in the lead-up to Yovanovitch’s removal earlier this year of the complaints surrounding her — including her having an anti-Trump bias and her being a barrier to the Biden investigations occurring in Ukraine. Giuliani told reporters Trump thought she had already been dismissed from her role. Rebecca Ballhaus, Michael C. Bender and Vivian Salama report at the Wall Street Journal.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) asked Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday to suspend the House impeachment inquiry until she establishes more “transparent and equitable rules and procedures.” “Unfortunately, you have given no clear indication as to how your impeachment inquiry will proceed — including whether key historical precedents or basic standards of due process will be observed,” McCarthy wrote in a letter to Pelosi. Haley Bird reports at CNN.

Giuliani said Wednesday that he personally handed U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a file of documents with unproven allegations against Biden and was informed that the State Department would look into those claims. The documents, some of which are contained in the 79-page packet that the State Department’s inspector general turned over to Congress Wednesday, “raise new questions about what was done with the files after they were delivered to the State Department and whether an investigation into the allegations contained in them was ever launched.” Leigh Ann Caldwell, Kristen Welker, Heidi Przybyla, Josh Lederman and Abigail Williams report at NBC.

Defense Department (D.O.D.) officials were not in on the July call between Trump and the Ukrainian president that is now at the center of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, the Pentagon’s top spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said yesterday. “To my knowledge, no one from the Department of Defense was on that call … I’ve specifically asked [Defense Secretary Mark Esper] that question and he was not on that call,” Hoffman told reporters at the Pentagon, adding that the department’s general counsel “has directed all offices to provide documents related to aid received by Ukraine.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

When the White House stopped military aid to Ukraine, it would have created a paper trail that could be of use to congressional investigators, Sam Berger suggests at Just Security.

“[U.S. President] Trump has shifted his solicitation of foreign assistance for his reelection campaign from private phone calls to live television …  it’s astounding that he would believe that these appeals do not transgress his oath of office,” the Washington Post editorial board argues.

The public facts about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine fit a paradigmatic case for impeachment, Frank Bowman comments at Just Security, noting that impeaching for abuse of presidential power, whether the conduct is criminal or not, has a long history.

A look at Hunter Biden’s business in China in light of Trump’s recent appeal for help from China, is fielded by Sharon LaFraniere and Michael Forsythe at the New York Times.

An explainer on why Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani “can’t hide behind attorney-client privilege” is provided by Cyrus Mehri, Richard Condit and Cleveland Laurence at POLITICO.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Hong Kong’s C.E.O. Carrie Lam today invoked rarely-used emergency powers to ban people from wearing face masks at protests, in an effort to calm the increasingly violent demonstrations that have been continuing for nearly four months. Lam said she imposed the ban under a provision in the territory’s colonial-era law that allows the issuance of regulations in response to “a state of serious danger;” hundreds of thousands of protesters have worn face masks to conceal their identities and protect themselves from tear gas during the months of pro-democracy protests. Keith Bradsher, Daniel Victor and Tiffany May report at the New York Times.

Thousands of masked protesters marched through Hong Kong today in response to the government’s announcement, immediately defying the ban set to take effect tomorrow. The AP reports.

The U.N. human rights office warned today that any new government measures to deal with protests in Hong Kong must be “grounded in law and protect the right to freedom of assembly.” “Any use of force should be exceptional and only in compliance with international standards, including the principles of necessity and proportionality,” U.N. human rights spokesperson Marta Hurtado told a Geneva briefing. Reuters reports.

Russian president Vladimir Putin announced yesterday that Moscow is assisting China in developing a system to warn of ballistic missile launches. Speaking at an international affairs conference in Moscow, Putin said that “this is a very serious thing that will radically enhance China’s defense capability;” the president’s statement “signaled a new degree of defense cooperation” between the two former Communist rivals. The Guardian reports.

The U.S. needs to stand up to China in Hong Kong, Democratic candidate in the 2020 U.S. presidential election Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) argues at Foreign Policy, commenting that “the values the United States stands for — democracy and freedom of expression and assembly — are part of what differentiates it from autocracies like China and one of the reasons why the people of Hong Kong and others around the world look to this nation for hope.”

SYRIA

Turkey does not believe its efforts with the U.S. to form a “safe zone” along the border between Turkey and Syria will bring the results it wants and is prepared to take action itself, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted as saying yesterday. Turkey is frustrated by the slow pace of joint efforts to create the zone, while the two countries are also unable to agree on how far it should extend into Syria and who should control it. Reuters reports.

U.S. officials are reportedly increasingly worried that Turkey soon will mount a major attack in northern Syria and provoke a clash with Kurdish fighters, a move likely to spur the Trump administration to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria to avoid a conflict. Despite Washington’s attempts to suppress Turkish concerns by conducting joint military patrols in two Syrian cities and holding talks on Turkey’s request for the creation of the “safe zone,” U.S. officials said this week that they see building evidence that Turkey is readying to insert forces into northeastern Syria “in the coming days or weeks,” endangering U.S. forces. Gordon Lubold and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S-led coalition conducted its third joint patrol with Turkey in northeastern Syria today, part of a plan to ease tensions between its N.A.T.O. ally and Syrian Kurds. The AP reports.

A new report from the Syria Study Group (S.S.G.) shows that the U.S. is “unlikely ever to substantially contribute to the peace and stability of Syria,” Steven A. Cook comments at Foreign Policy. The S.S.G. is a bipartisan commission charged by Congress with “examining and making recommendations on the military and diplomatic strategy of the United States with respect to the conflict in Syria.”

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The U.N. Security Council will hold a closed session Tuesday on North Korea’s recent ballistic missile launches, after Britain, France and Germany requested a council meeting following the latest series of missile launches, which are a violation of U.N. sanctions. The consultations will take place after Saturday’s meeting of U.S. and North Korean officials in Stockholm, the first formal working-level meeting since talks between the two nations aimed at dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear programs stalled in February. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday hailed Trump for what he called the U.S. president’s “historic move” to negotiate with North Korea in an effort to defuse nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula. Reuters reports.

“Pyongyang is using a diplomatic impasse to improve its weapons technology” and “the timing of the [latest] launch could hardly be more embarrassing to Washington,” Elias Groll argues at Foreign Policy, commenting that “in the absence of any concrete nuclear deal with the United States, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un continues to assemble, piece by piece, a sophisticated nuclear weapons arsenal and the capacity to deliver those weapons on neighboring countries.”

“The Trump administration should press pause on North Korea,” Adam Mount suggests at CNN warning that “given the President’s state of mind and [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo’s own involvement in the Ukrainian scandal, neither can be trusted to manage a North Korea crisis effectively.”

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

The U.S. — along with the United Kingdom and Australia — have called on social media giant Facebook to hold off on plans to add end-to-end encryption across its messaging services unless law enforcement officials have backdoor access, saying encryption hindered the fight against child abuse and terrorism. In an open letter signed by his British and Australian counterparts, U.S. Attorney General William Barr wrote: “companies cannot operate with impunity where lives and the safety of our children is at stake, and if [company C.E.O. Mark] Zuckerberg really has a credible plan to protect Facebook’s more than two billion users it’s time he let us know what it is.” Robert McMillan, Jeff Horwitz and Dustin Volz report at the Wall Street Journal.

The F.B.I. on Wednesday issued a warning to U.S. businesses and organizations over the “increasing threat posed by ransomware cyberattacks,” amid a number of high-profile attacks on government offices and other public entities, it was reported yesterday. The agency said the attacks are “becoming more targeted, sophisticated, and costly,” adding that, while the incidence of ransomware campaigns had “sharply declined” since early 2018, the losses from such attacks have “increased significantly.” Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS   

Deteriorating security across Afghanistan in the past four years led to more than 14,000 “grave violations” against children, including nearly 3,500 children killed and over 9,000 injured, according to a U.N. report released yesterday. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres denounced “the alarming level” of grave violations committed by all parties and the fact that children “continue to bear the brunt of the armed conflict,” citing that the nearly 12,600 children verified to have been killed or injured in 2015-2018 “represented almost a third of all civilian casualties.” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP. 

“The United States has a responsibility in making sure that [Libya] has the best possible chance of achieving stability and democracy, and remains our partner in fighting terrorism … [but] the Trump administration is missing in action,” Josh Rogin argues at the Washington Post.

A man employed by the police in Paris attacked the police headquarters yesterday with a knife, killing four police and injuring others. Saskya Vandoorne and Antoine Crouin report at CNN.

The State Department formally notified Congress of the approval of a potential $39.2 million sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles and related equipment to Ukraine, after approving the sale Tuesday, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced yesterday. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

An Internal Revenue Service (I.R.S.) official filed a whistle-blower complaint in July alleging that senior Treasury officials attempted to improperly interfere the mandatory audit of U.S. President Trump’s tax returns, according to a person familiar with the matter. JAlan Rappeport reports at the New York Times.

Although the Trump administration has made sanctions a key part of its foreign policy arsenal — there is no real evidence that this tactic works, Adam Taylor writes at the Washington Post, citing a new report released by a government watchdog this week which found that the agencies that implement sanctions do not measure whether the sanctions achieve their aim in forcing a target to change its behavior.

A new report from a bipartisan task force that traced practices under the past three presidents has outlined specific steps to strengthen the political appointment process. Viola Genger takes a look 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).