The Early Edition: October 7, 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.  

SYRIA

The U.S. is pulling troops from northeast Syria in advance of an expected Turkish military offensive against Kurdish-led forces in the region, according to a statement released last night by the White House. “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” the White House announced, adding that the U.S. “will not support or be involved in the operation” and “will no longer be in the immediate area.” The move conflicts with the recommendations of top officials in the Pentagon and the State Department who have tried to keep a small troop presence in northeast Syria to keep up operations against the Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) and is a blow to the Kurdish fighters who allied themselves with the U.S. against I.S.I.S. and did the majority of the fighting on the ground. Eric Schmitt, Maggie Haberman and Edward Wong report at the New York Times.

In the statement, the White House said U.S. President Trump had spoken directly with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the pair had agreed to give Turkey responsibility for captured I.S.I.S. fighters in the area. The White House also called out its allies in “France, Germany, and other European nations” for not taking back captured I.S.I.S. fighters from those nations, and declared that the U.S. will no longer hold them at “great cost to the United States taxpayer.” AFP reports.

The U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) condemned the pullout and accused the U.S. of allowing the area to “turn into a war zone,” adding that the force would “defend north-east Syria at all costs.” The S.D.F. said this morning that their U.S. partners “had already begun withdrawing troops” from areas along Turkey’s border, while video footage aired on Kurdish news agency Hawar apparently showed American armored vehicles “evacuating key positions” in the border region. Speaking to reporters today in Ankara, Erdogan also confirmed the development. Julian Borger in Washington and Bethan McKernan report at the Guardian.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

A second whistleblower has come forward with firsthand information about  U.S. President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and his attempts to get the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate a political rival, lawyers for the official said yesterday. Lawyer Mark Zaid, who is part of a team of attorneys representing the initial whistleblower whose complaint triggered impeachment proceedings against Trump, said the informant, also an intelligence official, has “firsthand knowledge” of some of the allegations involving the initial whistleblower complaint and has been interviewed by the Intelligence Community’s Inspector General (I.C. I.G.) Michael Atkinson. Annie Karni and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

“A new complaint, particularly from someone closer to the events, would potentially add further credibility to the account of the first whistleblower,” Michael S. Schmidt and Adam Goldman write at the New York Times.

An attorney for the first whistleblower confirmed yesterday that “multiple” whistleblowers have come forward. “I can confirm that my firm and my team represent multiple whistleblowers in connection to the underlying August 12, 2019, disclosure to the Intelligence Community Inspector General … no further comment at this time,” Andrew Bakaj said in a message sent on Twitter. When asked whether his team had been approached by one additional potential whistleblower or others as well, Zaid responded: “there are definitely multiple whistleblowers.” Dustin Volz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

A top C.I.A. lawyer attempted to make a criminal referral to the Justice Department weeks ago based on allegations made in the recently released whistleblower complaint, it was reported Friday. The move by the C.I.A.’s general counsel Courtney Simmons Elwood signaled that she and other senior officials had determined that a potential crime had been committed, “raising more questions about why the Justice Department later closed the case without conducting an investigation.” Ken Dilanian and Julia Ainsley report at NBC.

Trump told House Republicans Friday that he was urged by Energy Secretary Rick Perry to make the July phone call to Zelensky that is now at the center of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, suggesting it was a call he didn’t even want to make. The Energy Department said late Saturday that Perry “absolutely supported and encouraged the President to speak to the new President of Ukraine,” but only “to discuss matters related to their energy security and economic development.” Kevin Bohn and Devan Cole report at CNN.

While Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was pressing Ukraine on Biden, Trump-Giuliani associates with “inside knowledge of the U.S. government’s plans in Ukraine” were “trying to install new management at the top of Ukraine’s massive state gas company” in order to steer lucrative contracts to companies controlled by Trump allies,” it was reported today. Two of the three businessmen—Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman—are the same men who coordinated and helped Giuliani with Ukrainian officials to push for Biden and 2016 investigations, while one of men “told Favorov [the Ukraine gas company exec they planned to elevate and then sell gas to company] that he regularly meets with Trump at Mar-a-Lago and that the gas-sales plan had the president’s full support;” Favorov sensed the meeting was a “shakedown.” The AP reports.

The Democratic chairs of the three House committees leading the impeachment investigation into Trump on Friday subpoenaed the White House for documents related to their probe. Chairs of the House committees on Intelligence, Oversight and Reform, and Foreign Affairs — Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Ca.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) — said they were compelled to issue the subpoena after the White House failed to produce documents they requested in a Sept. 9 letter. “We deeply regret that President Trump has put us — and the nation — in this position, but his actions have left us with no choice but to issue this subpoena,” the three chairs said. Reuters reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused members of Congress of harassing his department to obtain documents linked to the impeachment investigation against Trump. During a visit in Greece, Pompeo accused the congressional committees leading the probe of having “harassed and abused” State Department employees by “contacting them directly” for documents rather than going through department lawyers. “That’s harassment … and I’m never going to let that happen to my team,” Pompeo added. AFP reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has so far failed to comply with a subpoena for documents in the impeachment investigation, Engel told the C.B.S. news program “Face the Nation” yesterday. “They’re in discussions that are ongoing and we’re hoping that he will comply,” Engel added; his panel issued a subpoena for Pompeo on Sept. 27. Reuters reports.

House Democrats on Friday asked Vice President Mike Pence to turn over documents relating to a meeting he held with Zelensky and a call between the Ukrainian president and Trump that is at the centre of their impeachment probe. Schiff, Engel and Cummings requested Pence produce the records by Oct. 15. Christina Marcos reports at the Hill.

Trump on Friday defended his open call for foreign governments to meddle in the 2020 election by investigating the Biden family, insisting he is “duty-bound to encourage the probes” while asserting his motivations are “apolitical.” “As President I have an obligation to end CORRUPTION, even if that means requesting the help of a foreign country or countries … it is done all the time,” Trump wrote in a message sent on Twitter, adding: “this has NOTHING to do with politics or a political campaign against the Bidens;” Trump made similar remarks to reporters Friday. Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

Pompeo agreed Saturday that Trump’s July phone call with Zelensky “wasn’t political extortion,” insisting that “Trump was actually trying to help Ukraine fight corruption.” Placing the conversation in the context of normal relations between countries, in which each seeks to advance its own national interests, Pompeo said nations “routinely” tell each other, “if you can help me with X, we’ll help you achieve Y.” David M. Herszenhorn reports at POLITICO Magazine.

Trump denied Friday he would seek to tie a much-anticipated trade deal with China to any potential investigation into Biden. Speaking to reporters, the president explained that trade negotiations with China were “separate” from any investigation into the Bidens: “one thing has nothing to do with the other,” the president said, adding he would only strike a trade deal with China “if it’ good for our country.” Reuters reports.

An array of U.S. diplomats will give closed-door testimony this week as Democrats build their impeachment case against Trump. Among those scheduled to testify are Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and Masha Yovanovitch, who was recalled from her position as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in May “after Trump supporters questioned her loyalty to the president.” Reuters reports.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

In the weeks before and after the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call, Ukrainians and U.S. diplomats were “scrambling” to persuade U.S. President Trump to schedule a White House meeting for the two. Viola Gienger at Just Security analyses the stream of text messages released last Thursday by three House committees and explains the powerful symbolism of a foreign leader meeting with the U.S. president and the critical signal to Russia.

An account of “how events looked from the Ukrainian side—in particular how the administration in Kyiv felt under pressure to accede to the White House’s wishes” is provided by Alan Cullison, Georgi Kantchev, Thomas Grove and James Marson at the Wall Street Journal.

A look at the most explosive text messages disclosed by the former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker is provided by Cristina Marcos at the Hill and Natasha Bertrand at POLITICO.

“Is it ever O.K. for a president to ask a foreign country to investigate a political rival?” Edward B. Foley sheds some light on the issue at POLITICO.

While “Trump insists he and his attorney general did nothing wrong by seeking damaging information about his domestic opponents from [foreign governments] … for every other White House in the modern era, Republican and Democratic, the idea of enlisting [such] help for political advantage was seen as unwise and politically dangerous, if not unprincipled,” Peter Baker writes at the New York Times, citing a 1992 White House memo and a survey of 10 former White House chiefs of staff under Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

A primer on federal employees’ rights when it comes to communicating with Congress, in light of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assertion that “Congress is exceeding its authority and trying to bully State Department employees by requesting their testimony about alleged White House and State Department misconduct,” is provided by Irvin McCullough and Tom Devine at Just Security.

The Justice Department appears to have conducted a “wholly cursory examination” of whether to open a criminal investigation based on a complaint by a whistleblower in the U.S. intelligence community about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, Harry Litman argues at the Washington Post, noting that the department’s Public Integrity Section exists for the purpose of considering possible new criminal violations by others in the administration. 

A close examination of an incident involving President George Washington, often cited to support the president’s power to withhold info from Congress related to diplomacy, reveals that Washington “understood that the House would be entitled to this information in the event that it was pursuing impeachment proceedings,” Jean Galbraith comments at Just Security.

The impeachment inquiry requires a “clinical and focused approach” given “Trump’s theatrics and distraction.” Margaret L. Taylor at the New York Times argues that House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Ca.) is the right man for the job.

A roundup of the evidence collected so far in the Trump impeachment inquiry, including documents and testimony, is provided by Weiyi Cai and Alicia Parlapiano at the New York Times.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

U.S. and North Korean negotiators broke off high-level nuclear talks Saturday following months of stalemate between the two countries. “The negotiation did not live up to our expectations and broke down,” the chief North Korean negotiator, Kim Myong-gil, said, adding that the U.S. had arrived “empty-handed” and had “not discarded its old stance and attitude.” The AP reports.

The U.S. has denied that the nuclear talks with North Korea ended in failure, insisting that the two sides had “good discussions” that American negotiators intend to build on in two weeks. The State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said the U.S. negotiators had traveled to Stockholm with “creative ideas and had good discussions” with their North Korean counterparts, adding that the U.S. had “accepted the invitation of the Swedish government for American and North Korean negotiators to return to Stockholm to meet again in two weeks.”  Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

North Korea said yesterday it has “no intention” to continue nuclear talks unless the U.S. takes steps to end hostilities, a day after negotiations in Sweden broke down. “We have no intention to hold such sickening negotiations as … happened this time [in Sweden] before the U.S. takes a substantial step to make complete and irreversible withdrawal of the hostile policy towards the D.P.R.K.,” a spokesperson for North Korea’s foreign ministry told K.C.N.A. state news agency, referring to the official name of North Korea. Reuters reports.

North Korea gave the Trump administration until the end of the year to reconsider its “hostile policy” and change its approach in denuclearization negotiations if it wants the talks to continue. “As we have clearly identified the way for solving [the] problem, the fate of the future D.P.R.K.-U.S. dialogue depends on the U.S. attitude, and the end of this year is its deadline,” the North Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Min Too Kim reports at the Washington Post.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Hong Kong police fired tear gas yesterday as tens of thousands of masked protesters defied an emergency law and marched through the city. The recent measure, enacted by C.E.O. Carrie Lam using colonial-era emergency powers, prohibits people from wearing face masks at public gatherings and “has stoked a swift backlash among protesters and worries about a crackdown on civil liberties.” Joshua Berlinger and James Griffiths report at CNN.

A look at the policy options available to Lam to ease the unrest in Hong Kong is provided by Keith Bradsher at the New York Times, who writes that “the most likely policy option now being considered, several of Lam’s advisers said, is to greatly extend the operating hours at Hong Kong courthouses so that they can put numerous violent protesters behind bars quickly.”

AFGHANISTAN

The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad met with Taliban leaders in the Pakistani capital Thursday for the first time since U.S. President Trump declared last month that peace talks between the two sides were “dead,” according to two people with knowledge of the meeting. The State Department said Khalilzad traveled to Islamabad to meet with Pakistani officials, adding in a news release that the trip did not indicate “a restart of the Afghan Peace Process.” Susannah George reports at the Washington Post.

Taliban officials said “several” of their group’s members have been released from Afghan jails, including former shadow governors, just days after Khalilzad met with top Taliban leaders. The AP reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS   

The U.N. on Saturday urged an end to “violence” and the “senseless loss of life” in Iraq after a new wave of anti-government protests resulted in almost 100 deaths. In a statement, the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert said, “five days of deaths and injuries: this must stop.” The BBC reports.

A roundup of this week’s developments at the U.N. at the intersection of national security, human rights, and the rule of law is provided by Emily Shire at Just Security.

Israel’s state prosecutors and lawyers for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were winding down the pre-indictment hearing over a stack of corruption allegations against the prime minister, including fraud, breach of trust and bribery. The AP reports.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry said yesterday that Riyadh is “working on” having Sudan removed from the U.S.’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Al Jazeera reports.

A hacking group that appears to be linked to Iran’s government targeted the 2020 U.S. presidential election, tech company Microsoft said in a blog post. The group, dubbed “Phosphorus” by Microsoft, attacked more than 200 email accounts, some of which belonged to people associated with “a U.S. presidential campaign,” it said. Reuters reports.

The U.S. will block the entry of immigrants without health insurance or the ability to pay for medical bills, President Trump revealed Friday. Under the new rule which takes effect Nov. 3, visas will only be issued to prospective immigrants who can prove they “will not impose a substantial burden” on the U.S. health care system. Dennis Romero reports at NBC News.

A detailed look at instances in September 2019 where the Trump administration flouted democratic norms including Trump pressuring a foreign government to investigate a political rival — as well as “the erosion of those norms in reactions and responses by others” is provided by Edwin Djabatey 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).