The Early Edition: October 11, 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 businessmen who helped President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani in his efforts to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden’s dealings in Ukraine were charged yesterday with violating U.S. campaign finance laws by secretly funneling foreign money to American candidates and pro-Trump political groups. Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were arrested at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., on Wednesday night, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan; the two men appeared in court yesterday afternoon. Ben Schreckinger, Darren Samuelsohn, Ben Lefebvre and Caitlin Oprysko report at POLITICO.

The pair were charged with four counts, including conspiracy, falsification of records and lying to the Federal Election Commission about their political donations, which included a $325,000 donation to a pro-Trump super P.A.C., according to the indictment. Some of the charges against Parnas and Fruman stem from alleged activities related to their work with Giuliani, including a lobbying campaign to have the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch removed from her post. Trump’s decision to recall Yovanovitch in May is a key question in the continuing Democratic impeachment inquiry. Kenneth P. Vogel reports the New York Times.

House impeachment investigators issued subpoenas to Parnas and Fruman shortly after the indictment became public, compelling them to appear for depositions next Wednesday and to turn over records related to their work with Giuliani in Ukraine. Aruna Viswanatha, Rebecca Ballhaus, Sadie Gurman and Byron Tau report at the Wall Street Journal.

“The new indictment … suggests the first criminal implications of the shadow foreign policy that Giuliani pushed on behalf of the president,” Mark Mazzetti, Eileen Sullivan, Adam Goldman and William K. Rashbaum report at the New York Times.

“The string of allegations reveal gaping holes in America’s defenses against foreign influence in its politics and elections, stretching far beyond the inadequate cybersecurity that Russian hackers exploited in 2016.” Maggie Severns writes at POLITICO.

House Democrats also subpoenaed Energy Secretary Rick Perry yesterday as part of the impeachment inquiry into Trump, demanding information on his reported efforts to influence board changes at Naftogaz, Ukraine’s state-owned energy company. The records could shed light on any role he may have played in Trump’s attempts to pressure the Ukrainian government. The Daily Beast reports.

At least four national security officials raised concerns to a White House lawyer over the Trump administration’s efforts to pressure Ukraine both before and after Trump’s July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, it was reported yesterday.  The officials apparently had been concerned by the May ouster of Yovanovitch, conspiracy theories pushed by Giuliani and signals in meetings that Trump wanted information that could hurt Biden. Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe report at the Washington Post.

The White House shifted the authority to withhold nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine to a politically appointed official after career budget staff members questioned the legality of delaying the funds, according to people familiar with the matter. The “seemingly unprecedented” shift in control is of interest to House Democrats who are probing the freeze as part of the impeachment inquiry. Andrew Duehren and Gordon Lubold report at the Wall Street Journal.

Zelensky indicated yesterday that he would be ready to jointly open an investigation into any possible Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and into Burisma gas company, which had Joe Biden’s son on its board. Zelensky said he had seen no evidence of Ukraine meddling in the election in the U.S., but that it was “in Ukraine’s interest to determine what happened.” The AP reports.

“[Giuliani’s] own foreign freelancing seems to have seriously undercut the President’s core impeachment defense,” Stephen Collinson writes at CNN in an analysis of the corruption indictments filed yesterday against two Giuliani associates.

“If a bill of impeachment comes before the Senate, we urge all members of the Senate to put aside partisan loyalties and carry out their own constitutional duties courageously and honestly.” 17 former Watergate special prosecutors at the Washington Post explain why they believe Trump’s “serious and persistent” abuses of power satisfy the constitutional standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” setting out “compelling” evidence that “can be accepted as sufficient for impeachment unless disproved.”

SYRIA

Casualties are increasing as Turkey escalates its campaign against Syrian Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, now in its third day. Turkey’s defense ministry confirmed the first fatality among Turkey’s soldiers today, while heavy clashes between Turkish forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) continued in the Syrian border towns this morning. Thousands of civilians have fled air strikes and shelling, and a total of 342 Kurdish fighters — dubbed “terrorists” by Ankara — have been killed by Turkish forces in the major military operation so far, Turkey’s defense ministry said in a statement. Mehmet Guzel reports at the AP.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres expressed “deep concern” over the violence, saying de-escalation of renewed conflict in northern Syria is “absolutely essential,” while the council’s five European members who called yesterday’s emergency meeting to discuss a potential response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria urged Ankara “to cease the unilateral military action.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

U.S. envoy to the U.N. Kelly Craft warned yesterday that Turkey’s government would face “consequences” if it failed to protect “vulnerable” civilians or contain the Islamic State group (ISIS) militants. Speaking to reporters after an emergency meeting with the U.N. Security Council, Craft said that the Trump administration was monitoring Turkey’s military actions in the area and warned that the Turkish government should continue to “play by the rules.” Reuters reports.

President Trump is under increasing pressure to take action in response to Turkey’s military attack and reports of high numbers of casualties, amid apparent divergent views about what should be done. “Some want us to send tens of thousands of soldiers to the area and start a new war all over again … others say STAY OUT and let the Kurds fight their own battles,” the president said early yesterday in a message sent on Twitter, adding, “I say hit Turkey very hard financially with sanctions if they don’t play by the rules.” Karen DeYoung reports at the Washington Post. 

Trump later returned to Twitter to reveal a third option available to the U.S.: mediating a deal between Turkey and the Kurds. “I hope we can mediate,” Trump said when asked about the options by reporters at the White House. “We are going to possibly do something very very tough with respect to sanctions and other financial things,” the president added. Reuters reports.

A group of 29 Republicans in the Democratic-controlled House have announced legislation which would impose sanctions on Ankara over its campaign in northern Syria after Trump withdrew U.S. forces from the area. House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.)’s efforts follow similar efforts taken in the Senate by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who are also seeking to impose sanctions targeting Turkey’s leadership. Juliegrace Burke reports at the Hill.

The United States will take penalizing action against Turkey if it engages in any “inhumane and disproportionate” moves against civilians during its incursion into northeastern Syria, a senior State Department official said yesterday. The official set out what actions by Turkey would cross a U.S. red line, including “ethnic cleansing, indiscriminate artillery air and other fires directed at civilian population;” the official said there have not yet been significant examples of such actions. David Gauthier-Villars reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan yesterday called on Europe to back Turkey’s military offensive in Syria — saying the alternative was to release millions of Syrian refugees to European shores. During a speech at a meeting of lawmakers from his Justice and Development (A.K.) party, Erdogan told the European Union (E.U.) to “come to [its] senses,” threatening, “if you try to describe our current operation as an occupation … we will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way.” Helen Regan and Tara John report at CNN.

A senior official of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad yesterday ruled out any prospects of Damascus dialogue with the S.D.F., accusing the group of “pursuing a separatist agenda that gave Turkey a pretext to violate Syria’s sovereignty.” Al Jazeera reports.

Trump’s foreign policy in Syria is “built primarily on reflex and increasingly resistant to outside advice,” Peter Baker and Lara Jakes write in an analysis at the New York Times, commenting that “unimpressed by the national security establishment and uninterested in the tedium of traditional policymaking, Trump often demonstrates more faith in what some overseas strongman tells him than the soft-boiled guidance of the bureaucrats, diplomats, intelligence analysts and military officers in the Situation Room.”

Syria is becoming “a regional free-for-all,” Bilal Baloch argues at Foreign Policy, commenting that “the U.S. withdrawal creates further strategic and moral chaos in Syria’s eight-year-long conflict, but it remains unclear who will gain full advantage.”

IRAN

An Iranian state owned oil tanker was hit and damaged by two missiles today in what has been described as a “terrorist” incident by Iranian official sources. The vessel, identified as Sabiti, was hit in the Gulf Sea around 60 miles from the Saudi port of Jeddah, the first ship targeted since a spate of attacks in the Gulf Washington blamed on Tehran. There have been no casualties, but the tanker leaked oil into the sea. AFP reports. 

Iran’s foreign ministry confirmed the attack today, according to reports from state T.V.. “Those behind the attack are responsible for the consequences of this dangerous adventure, including the dangerous environmental pollution caused,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi reportedly said. Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Norway’s foreign minister declared yesterday that the country will suspend arms sales to Turkey due to Ankara’s military assault in northern Syria against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces who helped fight the Islamic State group (ISIS). John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Sweden plans to press for a European Union (E.U.) weapons embargo against Turkey at an (E.U.) foreign ministers meeting on Monday, the Swedish parliament decided today. Reuters reports.

Hong Kong officials have revealed that 750 out of the 2,379 protesters arrested during four months of demonstrations are children, prompting outrage in the city. Verna Yu reports at the Guardian.

Israel’s Likud party passed a resolution yesterday backing Benjamin Netanyahu as its sole candidate for prime minister, however only a small proportion of the party’s members turned out for the vote. The motion, “unanimously” voted in favor for by around 500 of the committee’s nearly 4,000 members, aimed to stop any of Netanyahu’s Likud party rivals from forming a government without the long-serving leader as prime minister in the event Netanyahu fails. The AP reports.

President Trump yesterday confirmed that senior al Qaeda bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri was killed in a U.S. strike in Yemen two years ago. In a statement, the White House said the bomb-maker’s death in a U.S. counterterrorism operation “significantly handicapped al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula.” Al Jazeera reports. 

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).