The Early Edition: October 10, 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

Turkish forces launched an operation in Kurdish-controlled areas in northeaster Syria yesterday, with intensive bombardment followed by a ground offensive. Announcing the operation on Twitter yesterday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara’s goal was to “prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border and to bring peace to the area.” The development came after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region, Bethan McKernan, Julian Borger and Dan Sabbagh report at the Guardian.

At least eight people were killed and dozens of others were wounded in the first day of the assault, according to the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F..) The Turkish Defense Ministry confirmed it had “launched the land operation into the east of the Euphrates river” and later said its armed forces had hit a total of 181 “militant targets,” despite U.S. warnings that it would punish the nation if it attacked the Kurdish militants, considered a terrorist organization by Turkey. Eliza Mackintosh, Bianca Britton, Fernando Alfonso III and Veronica Rocha report at CNN.

While the development drew heavy criticism from U.S. lawmakers on both sides, President Trump defended his decision to pull U.S. troops from northeast Syria to effectively clear the way for Turkey. Trump called the Turkish offensive “a bad idea” but reiterated his opposition to “endless, senseless wars — especially those that don’t benefit the United States.” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Trump again threatened he would “wipe out” Turkey’s economy if Ankara’s incursion in Syria extinguished the Kurdish population there. Reuters reports.

Trump later seemed dismissive of the Kurds — who were instrumental in the U.S. fight against the Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) — saying they had fought alongside American troops against I.S.I.S. only out of self-interest, “for their land.” The president noted that the Kurds “didn’t help us in the Second World War … they didn’t help us with Normandy,” and said the U.S. had spent “tremendous amounts of money on helping [them].” “With all of that being said, we like the Kurds,” Trump added. Karen DeYoung, Missy Ryan and Dan Lamothe report at the Washington Post.

Trump said he was not concerned that I.S.I.S. prisoners might escape and pose a threat elsewhere amid bipartisan worries that some of the thousands of Islamic State fighters held by Kurdish-led forces could potentially escape in the chaos surrounding the Turkish incursion. “Well they’re going to be escaping to Europe … that’s where they want to go,” Trump said, explaining that many of the fighters are of European origin and that he had given European nations several chances to take responsibility for them. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Operations dedicated to fighting I.S.I.S. have reportedly suspended in Syria after Turkey launched a military attack across the border, according to U.S. and Syrian officials. Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer report at Foreign Policy.

The U.S. military is taking custody of around 40 high-value Islamic State detainees, including Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh — two members of a notorious British group of I.S.I.S. militants known as “the Beatles” tied to the murder of Western hostages. The move, intended “to prevent their escape or release from camps in Syria,” where they have been restrained by Kurdish forces now under threat from Turkey’s incursion, is “a rare instance in which the U.S. has taken direct responsibility for Islamic State prisoners in Iraq and Syria [and] comes as U.S. officials scramble to ensure that Ankara’s unfolding military operation does not permit the Islamic State to regain strength.” Ellen Nakashima, Souad Mekhennet, Rachel Weiner and Missy Ryan report at the Washington Post.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denied that the Trump administration had granted permission for Turkish aggression. “The United States didn’t give Turkey a green light [to invade Syria and attack Kurdish forces],” Pompeo asserted in an interview yesterday, explaining that his priority was defending the U.S. from terrorism and that American troops were in danger staying in Syria. Ben Hubbard and Carlotta Gall report at the New York Times.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) yesterday unveiled an outline for proposed sanctions on Turkey, including targeting the U.S. assets of President Erdogan and other top Turkish officials and imposing visa restrictions. The sanctions bill, according to a fact sheet shared by Graham, would also impose sanctions on U.S. military sales to Turkey and on anyone who supports Turkey’s domestic energy industry for use by its armed forces. Graham said he expects “strong bipartisan support” for the bill, Burgess Everett reports at POLITICO.

The U.N. security council is due to convene today to discuss the Turkish military offensive in northern Syria at the request of its five current European members. Reuters reports.

Live updates to the Turkish military offensive in Syria are available at CNN.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

U.S. President Trump suggested yesterday he might cooperate with House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry if they hold a formal vote to outline rules for investigation and if those rules are “fair,” just a day after the White House said in an eight-page letter it would not cooperate with the inquiry. Asked by a reporter if he would participate in the proceedings and comply with Democrats’ demands for testimony and documents if a House vote were held, Trump said: “we would if they give us our rights.” The Trump administration has blocked a number of current and formal officials from complying with House-issued subpoenas and the State Department earlier this week blocked E.U. ambassador Gordon Sondland from testifying, Michael C. Bender, Natalie Andrews and Ken Thomas report at the Wall Street Journal.

Former Vice President Joe Biden made his clearest and most direct call for Trump’s impeachment yesterday, saying the president “indicted” then “convicted himself” when he asked foreign nations to investigate his political rival. “Trump has violated his oath of office, betrayed this nation and committed impeachable acts,” the Democratic frontrunner told a crowd of supporters in Rochester, N.H., adding: “to preserve our Constitution, our democracy, our basic integrity, he should be impeached.” Felicia Sonmez, Colby Itkowitz and John Wagner report at the Washington Post.

Trump hit back at Biden minutes after the remarks calling him “pathetic.” “So pathetic to see Sleepy Joe Biden, who with his son, Hunter, and to the detriment of the American Taxpayer, has ripped off at least two countries for millions of dollars, calling for my impeachment — and I did nothing wrong,” Trump stated in a message sent on Twitter. Allan Smith, Marianna Sotomayor and Mike Memoli report at NBC News.

American diplomats who pushed to end the White House’s freeze on military aid for Ukraine were  instructed to “play down” the release of the funds, according to a series of internal State Department emails. “Keep moving, people, nothing to see here …” one State Department official wrote in an email, saying the National Security Council “would not publicly announce” that $141 million in State Department aid was being restored after being withheld in what the White House described as “a normal review.” The money is now at the center of an impeachment inquiry into whether Trump held up a total of $391 million in funding as he sought dirt on his political opponents from Ukraine’s newly elected President Volodymyr Zelensky, Lara Jakes reports at the New York Times.

Vice President Mike Pence said yesterday he would not object to the publication of transcripts of his conversations with Ukraine and said he was working to secure their release. “I’d have no objection to that and we’re discussing that with White House counsel as we speak,” Pence told reporters. House Democrats formally requested a transcript of a call between Pence and Zelensky, along with a stash of other documents, in a letter to the vice president on Friday, Matthew Choi reports at POLITICO.

Sen. Lindsey Graham suggested yesterday that Senate Republicans would never vote to remove Trump from office on the basis of the transcript of his controversial July phone call with Ukraine’s leader. Graham said that House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry threatens to “destroy the nation,” adding he intends to ask his G.O.P. Senate colleagues to co-sign a letter to the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stating that they “do not believe the transcript of the phone call” amounts to an impeachable offense. Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

President Zelensky said today there was “no blackmail” in his phone call with Trump. The Ukrainian leader dismissed suggestions that Trump pressured him to investigate Biden in exchange for military aid to help Ukraine fight Russian-backed separatists, asserting he had not known that U.S. assistance to Ukraine had been withheld at the time of the call. Reuters reports.

An informal White House adviser on China, Michael Pillsbury, said he obtained information about the business activities of Hunter Biden during a visit to Beijing in the same week Trump called on China to investigate Joe Biden’s son. “I got a quite a bit of background on Hunter Biden from the Chinese,” Pillsbury told reporters. Demetri Sevastopulo reports at the Financial Times.

Former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch is expected to appear tomorrow for scheduled testimony in the House’s ongoing impeachment inquiry, notwithstanding the White House’s vow not to cooperate with Democrats’ efforts to investigate Trump, according to congressional officials involved with the process. Yovanovitch and her lawyer are “on board,” a senior congressional aide said. Karoun Demirjian and Carol Morello report at the Washington Post.

Trump’s wide claims of executive immunity have drawn criticism that he is acting above the law. “In courts and before Congress, Trump’s legal teams are simultaneously arguing two contradictory points: that the president can’t be investigated or indicted by prosecutors because Congress has the sole responsibility for holding presidents accountable, and that the House’s impeachment inquiry is an unconstitutional effort that the White House can ignore,” Toluse Olorunnipa and Ann E. Marimow report at the Washington Post.

Trump’s escalating attack on the whistleblower who reported concerns over his July phone call with Zelensky is uncovering what experts say are “flaws” in the law, which does not adequately protect whistleblowers from being publicly identified and harassed, Natasha Bertrand reports at POLITICO.

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone has been pushed “to the center of a battle that could determine the course of Trump’s presidency and potentially lead to a constitutional battle with far-reaching ramifications.” Elizabeth Williamson at the New York Times explores Cipollone’s role in the impeachment inquiry.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A heavy critique of White House Counsel Pat Cipollone’s representation of cases and historical practices in his Oct. 8 letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi is provided by leading historian on impeachment Frank O. Bowman III at Just Security.

“Far from a good faith effort to engage Congress in the normal accommodations process … the letter’s true purpose appears to be furthering President Trump’s preferred political strategy – stonewalling Congress while trying to muddy the waters with pretextual arguments that his supporters can amplify in the court of public opinion,” Tess Brigeman writes in an analysis of the Trump administration’s letter at Just Security, noting that the White House letter “goes to great lengths to seek to white wash Trump’s July 25 call with [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky.”

“Trump could hardly ask for more incompetent opponents than Pelosi, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.),” Hugh Hewitt argues at the Washington Post, in light of Trump’s remarks Tuesday that House Democrats have turned their impeachment inquiry into a “kangaroo court.”

CHINA, HONG KONG and HUAWEI

The Trump administration will soon issue licenses allowing a select few American companies to do business with Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, according to people familiar with the matter, a step that could ease tensions between the two countries as trade talks resume this week. In a meeting last week, U.S. President Trump gave the approval to begin approving the licenses, which will allow certain American companies to sidestep a ban his administration placed on Huawei in May. Ana Swanson reports at the New York Times.

Apple has dropped an app used by protestors that tracked the movements of Hong Kong police through crowdsourced data after the tech firm found it was in breach of local laws and company guidelines. The app, HKmap.Live, “shows real-time locations of Hong Kong police vehicles, riot and special tactical police and locations where tear gas has been fired, as well as directions of where protests should move” and has been available for less than a week after making its debut on Oct 5. Erin Hale reports at the Guardian.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Around $70 million assigned to human rights programs run by the State Department is now at risk following bureaucratic maneuvers by the Trump administration to trim U.S. funding for foreign aid, officials and humanitarian organizations said. Robbie Gramer reports at Foreign Policy.

North Korea threatened again today to continue nuclear and long-range missile tests, accusing the U.S. of having incited some members of the U.N. Security Council to denounce its recent weapons drills. The AP reports.

A counterterrorism analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency, Henry Frese, has been charged with leaking classified government information about foreign countries’ weapons systems to two journalists, federal authorities said. NBC News reports.

Trump should take “the necessary steps” to shut down Guantánamo Bay detention facility, Andrew Boyle argues at Just Security, commenting that the torture of the defendants while in C.I.A. custody haunts the proceedings, as does the validity of “confessions” obtained by so-called F.B.I. “clean teams,” after the C.I.A. tortured them. 

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).