The Early Edition: October 9, 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 White House yesterday wrote to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and three Democratic committee leaders to say it would not cooperate with the House’s impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Trump, rejecting the probe as “partisan and unconstitutional” and in violation of Trump’s due process rights. White House counsel Pat Cipollone accused Democrats in an eight-page letter of violating “the Constitution, the rule of law and every past precedent,” and attempting to overturn the results of the 2016 election. Cipollone also said Democrats were making “legally unsupported demands” of the executive branch. Nicholas Fandos, Peter Baker, Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

“Never before in our history has the House of Representatives — under the control of either political party — taken the American people down the dangerous path you seem determined to pursue,” Cipollone wrote to top congressional Democrats, adding: “given that your inquiry lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections, the Executive Branch cannot be expected to participate in it.” “To fulfill his duties … Trump and his administration cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry under these circumstances,” the letter continued. Karoun Demirjian, Josh Dawsey, Shane Harris and John Wagner report at the Washington Post.

Pelosi responded by accusing the president of “trying to make lawlessness a virtue.” “The White House letter is only the latest attempt to cover up [Trump’s] betrayal of our democracy, and to insist that the President is above the law,” the speaker said in a statement, calling the letter “manifestly wrong.” Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

The White House letter came hours after the Trump administration abruptly blocked a key witness in the Ukraine scandal from appearing before the congressional impeachment inquiry at a scheduled deposition yesterday. The State Department instructed the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland not to appear for the deposition, according to his counsel, while Trump endorsed the decision to block Sondland’s testimony in a message sent on Twitter, accusing Democrats of running a “totally compromised kangaroo court.” Sondland was one of the three envoys who discussed via text message a plan to secure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s commitment to investigate Trump’s political rivals. AFP reports.

Sondland’s lawyer Robert Luskin said his client was “profoundly disappointed” that the State Department did not allow him to testify and voiced hope that the issues raised by the agency would be resolved quickly to allow him to testify. “Ambassador Sondland believes strongly that he acted at all times in the best interests of the United States, and he stands ready to answer the Committee’s questions fully and truthfully,” Luskin said in a statement.  Julian Borger and Martin Pengelly report at the Guardian.

House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) later lashed out at the State Department, saying it was withholding text messages and emails contained on Sondland’s “personal device” that were “deeply relevant” to the impeachment inquiry. Schiff also warned that blocking Sondland’s testimony amounted to obstructing the investigation being conducted by the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees. Demetri Sevastopulo and Lauren Fedor report at the Financial Times.

Democrats formally subpoenaed Sondland last night for testimony and documents related to Trump’s apparent efforts to pressure Ukrainian officials to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son after the ambassador failed to show up yesterday. “In light of Secretary Pompeo’s direct intervention to block your appearance before our Committees, we are left with no choice but to compel your appearance at a deposition,” the House democrats’ subpoena, which compels Sondland to appear on Oct. 16 and produce documents by Oct. 14, reads. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Trump told Energy Secretary Rick Perry and two other top State Department officials to speak with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani in May about Ukraine ahead of Trump’s meeting with Zelensky, “in a clear circumvention of official channels,” it was reported yesterday. Perry, Sondland and the former State Department’s special representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker had all reported back to Trump at a May 23 meeting that they had a “favorable impression” of Zelensky after attending his inauguration, and hoped for a meeting between the pair. Trump still believed that Ukraine was corrupt, however, and said that Giuliani would have to be convinced of a meeting with Zelensky. Giuliani’s role as a gatekeeper for the president is “more direct” than previously disclosed by one of the meeting’s participants in a statement to the House last week, Katelyn Polantz, Gloria Borger and Kylie Atwood report at CNN.

The Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday released a sweeping new bipartisan report documenting Russian efforts to boost Trump’s White House bid on social media during the 2016 U.S. elections, undermining claims by the president and his allies of anti-Trump meddling by Ukraine. The report, the second volume of the committee’s investigative findings, details how Russian operatives used a variety of social media platforms to spread divisive messages, focusing on racial and other controversial issues in U.S. politics, among the American electorate. Elias Groll reports at Foreign Policy.

Democrats investigating Trump want to take another look at whether the sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Kiev last year was in any way linked to Ukraine’s decision to stop investigating Trump’s campaign chair. The renewed interest in the circumstances surrounding the sale has been triggered by revelations about the Trump administration’s dealings with Zelensky, and “raises the prospect that the president, or his aides, may have been pressuring the Ukrainian government in exchange for political favors far earlier than previously known.” Natasha Bertrand and Daniel Lippman report at POLITICO.

A federal judge indicated yesterday that she might allow House Democrats to access some of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s secret grand jury material. During a two-hour hearing, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell pressed the Justice Department to explain its “extraordinary position” of trying to block lawmakers from seeing the Mueller’s grand jury materials, which include testimony and evidence that has been kept private since the Mueller investigation ended in March. Howell heard arguments from both sides yesterday, but did not immediately rule on the requests. Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

The timeline of U.S. President Trump’s July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “just got a bit more complicated,” Philip Bump writes in an analysis at the Washington Post, noting the involvement of Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker.

Un updated detailed chronology of events in the months-long campaign by Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to reportedly pressure the Ukraine government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden is provided by Viola Gienger and Co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman at Just Security. The Washington Post has called it “an epic big-picture timeline of the Trump-Ukraine scandal that illustrates the story’s larger themes.”

A full vote by the House to support the ongoing impeachment inquiry could end up creating more “roadblocks” for Congress, Molly Claflin warns at Just Security, commenting that “House members should not be forced to pre-commit to voting for impeachment … just because the White House appears to believe that the lack of a vote somehow means impeachment isn’t real.”

“Democrats won’t convince anyone else with their current method of irregular order, secret hearings and selective leaks to the pro-impeachment press,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board argues, asking “if Democrats are confident [Trump’s behavior] merits impeachment, then why not make the case in public, step by regular step, for all to see?”

SYRIA

Turkish forces and Syrian rebel allies will begin an offensive in northern Syrian “shortly,” a Turkish official said early today, as part of an expected incursion to shift Kurdish militia — backed by the U.S. in the campaign against the Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) — away from its border. “Turkish military, together with the Free Syrian Army, will cross the Turkish-Syrian border shortly,” the Turkish government communications director Fahrettin Altun declared in a message sent on Twitter early this morning from Istanbul. The offensive comes after U.S. President Trump announced Sunday that U.S. troops would be withdrawn from northeast Syria, Helen Regan reports at CNN.

Altun said that members of Kurdish forces would have two options: “they can defect or we will have [to] stop them from disrupting our counter-I.S.I.S. efforts,” he wrote on Twitter.  Laura Pitel, Chloe Cornish and Henry Foy report at the Financial Times.

The message came after reports yesterday from Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) that Turkish forces had began shelling an S.D.F. border outpost earlier in the day. “The Turkish military is shelling one of our points on #SereKaniye Border with Turkey,” the S.D.F. said in a message sent on Twitter last night, referencing the main border town of Ras al-Ain. “There were no injuries to our forces … we didn’t respond to this unprovoked attack … we are prepared to defend the people and the people of NE #Syria,” the message continued. AFP reports.

Altun suggested in a commentary in the Washington Post published yesterday evening that Trump had given the Turkish leader the “green light” for an attack, going against denials from White House officials Monday. Julian Borger and Bethan McKernan report at the Guardian.

Trump yesterday strongly rejected claims that the U.S. was abandoning its Kurdish allies in northern Syria amid backlash from both Kurds and U.S. lawmakers over his decision. In a string of messages sent on Twitter, the president also declared that he was planning to hold a meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Nov. 13. David Gauthier-Villars and Vivian Salama report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Pentagon insisted yesterday that top defense officials were consulted ahead of Trump’s surprise and widely condemned announcement that U.S. troops would leave northeast Syria ahead of an imminent Turkish attack in the area. “Despite continued misreporting to the contrary, [Defense Secretary Mark Esper] and [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley] were consulted over the last several days by the President regarding the situation and efforts to protect U.S. forces in northern Syria in the face of military action by Turkey,” chief Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman assured in a statement. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The U.S. military has “no plans to intervene” if Syrian Kurdish forces decide to move guards currently controlling more than 20 prisons and camps holding 11,000 I.S.I.S. militants and their families in Syria to confront an expected Turkish invasion, officials said yesterday. Describing Trump’s evolving strategy in Syria, U.S. officials said the Pentagon “did not have enough forces to oversee the prisons if those facilities were left unguarded, nor a mandate to do so.” Missy Ryan and Liz Sly report at the Washington Post.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has expressed “great concern” for the risks posed to civilians by possible military actions in the war-torn region following Trump’s policy shift and “has called on all parties to exercise maximum restraint.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

Trump’s Syria decision makes the fate of the thousands of women and children stranded in detention camps in northern Syria even more perilous, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin argues at Just Security, calling on European countries to finally bring them home. 

AFGHANISTAN

A new U.N. report released today found that U.S. airstrikes in May on suspected Taliban drug facilities killed at least 39 civilians, including 14 children. The U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (U.S.F.O.R.-A.) issued a statement today dismissing the U.N. report — which follows a joint investigation with Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission and the U.N. Assistance Mission — insisting that there were no casualties. Reuters reports.

The leader of al-Qaeda’s South Asia branch Asim Omar was killed in a raid by Afghan forces last month, Afghan intelligence officials said yesterday. Afghanistan’s National Directorate for Security said in a statement that the operation on Sept. 23, backed by U.S. airstrikes that also killed tens of civilians, killed Asim Omar along with six other al-Qaeda members in the southern Helmand province. Al Jazeera reports.

An account of how Afghanistan avoided massive attacks on election day promised by the Taliban is provided by Susannah George at the Washington Post, who notes that although the insurgents “launched more than 200 attacks that day … they were small and scattered.”

ARMS CONTROL

Four top defense and foreign policy Democrats in the House and Senate warned yesterday against U.S. President Trump withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty — a multilateral treaty which allows the pact’s 34 signatories, including the U.S. and Russia, to fly unarmed observation flights over the entire territory of other signatories. In a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the lawmakers argued that the treaty is a “critical element” of U.S. and European security. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

A look at how the U.S.’s arms-control structure has “gradually crumbled” is provided by David Ignatius at the Washington Post, who argues, as lawmakers raise the alarm over possible withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty, that “dialogue about how to avoid miscalculation with doomsday weapons” is needed now more than ever.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

The Trump administration will impose visa restrictions on Chinese government officials connected to the mass detention of Uighur and other Muslim minorities in western China, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced yesterday, a day after the U.S. Department of Commerce blacklisted several Chinese companies it said were linked to the crackdown. Pompeo said China had pursued a “highly repressive campaign” against Uighurs and other Muslims in the region of Xinjiang, which included mass detention, high-tech surveillance and “draconian controls” on cultural and religious expression. The BBC reports.

The U.N. Security Council met yesterday over North Korea’s latest test of an underwater-launched ballistic missile. Its European members called on Pyongyang to “abandon all weapons of mass destruction” and engage in “meaningful negotiations” with the U.S.. The AP reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to show “maximum restraint” and “address protesters’ grievances” when the pair spoke yesterday after days of widespread protests against corruption, unemployment and poor public services in Iraq, the State Department said in a statement. Al Jazeera reports.

House Democrats introduced new legislation yesterday to combat foreign election interference as they investigate whether U.S. President Trump solicited foreign election help from Ukraine ahead of the 2020 vote. A House committee could advance the election security bill — which aims to tighten the laws around the exchange of campaign information between candidates and foreign governments and compel campaigns to report illicit offers of foreign help to the F.B.I. — as soon as next week. Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

The secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (F.I.S.C.) ruled last year that some of the F.B.I.’s surveillance activities violated the targets’ Fourth Amendment privacy rights, the intelligence community revealed yesterday. Charlie Savage reports at the New York Times.

A look at the long-awaited text of the new U.S.-U.K. data-sharing agreement, the CLOUD Act, released Monday is provided by Jennifer Daskal and Peter Swire 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).