The Early Edition: October 16, 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

George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine, told impeachment investigators in a closed-door deposition yesterday that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney oversaw a meeting on May 23 which sought to set up a separate channel to handle diplomacy with Ukraine. Kent testified that after the meeting, he and other officials whose portfolios included Ukraine policy were “edged out” by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, European Ambassador Gordon Sondland and special envoy Kurt Volker, who “declared themselves the three people now responsible for Ukraine policy,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, told reporters after leaving the gathering. Kent’s testimony followed a pattern that has emerged among recent witnesses “in which administration witnesses are instructed not to comply with the impeachment inquiry in line with a White House declaration last week that there would be a “full halt” to any cooperation, but who ultimately agree to do so.” Nicholas Fandos, Kenneth P. Vogel and Michael D. Shear report at the New York Times.

“[Kent] told House investigators he was instructed to ‘lay low,’ focus on the five other countries in his portfolio and defer to Volker, Sondland and Perry — who called themselves the ‘three amigos’ — on matters related to Ukraine,” Connolly told reporters yesterday. Paul Kane, Karoun Demirjian and Rachael Bade report at the Washington Post.

Kent also reportedly testified about a campaign by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to pressure Ukraine into investigating the president’s political rivals, including former vice president and 2020 Democratic candidate Joe Biden, and his son Hunter. Kent had apparently raised concerns to colleagues as early as March of this year about Giuliani’s role in what he called a “disinformation” campaign intended to use Ukraine’s former chief prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko to smear Trump’s adversaries, such as Biden and the then U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch who was removed from her post in May. Olivia Beavers and Mike Lillis report at the Hill.

Kent’s testimony came as lawyers for Giuliani and Vice President Mike Pence informed Congress yesterday that neither official will cooperate with the House’s impeachment inquiry. Democrats had subpoenaed Giuliani and requested documents from Pence’s office, as well as from the Defense Department and the Office of Management and Budget (O.M.B.), however, Pence and the O.M.B. rejected the requests, while a lawyer for Giuliani said in a letter to House officials that his client would not comply with the “overbroad, unduly burdensome” subpoena he was issued or provide documents related to what he described as an “unconstitutional” impeachment probe. Rebecca Ballhaus and Natalie Andrews report at the Wall Street Journal.

White House lawyers have reportedly begun an internal review into the actions of officials surrounding Trump’s controversial July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a move which some fear is aimed at finding a scapegoat. The lawyers’ review is focused on why White House counsel John Eisenberg placed the Ukraine call transcript in a highly secure computer system. Eisenberg has reportedly said that he limited access to the call transcript over concerns of leaks, and declined to comment about the matter. The call, and the White House’s apparent effort to limit access to its transcript, are the subject of a whistleblower complaint that has triggered an impeachment inquiry into Trump. Julian E. Barnes, Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

House Democrats are reportedly eyeing Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton as potential witnesses in their impeachment investigation of Trump amid increasing scrutiny of Trump and Giuliani’s interactions with Ukraine after “explosive” testimony from two witnesses about the president’s pressure on a foreign leader to investigate political rivals. “House Democrats yesterday began discussing the possibility of summoning both men — who would be the highest-ranking individuals to testify — as the investigation has accelerated in recent days with the cooperation of several current and former administration officials,” Karoun Demirjian, Rachael Bade and Mike DeBonis report at the Washington Post. 

A federal grand jury in New York yesterday issued a subpoena to former Rep. Pete Sessions seeking documents related to his dealings with Giuliani and two of his associates — Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — who were indicted last week on campaign finance and conspiracy charges. Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett report at Washington Post.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said yesterday that House Democrats will hold off on a full House vote authorizing an impeachment inquiry into Trump, despite pressure from the G.O.P. to do so. Pelosi said there was no requirement for a formal vote at this point; Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) repeated the speaker’s remarks and said that the Constitution is “very clear” that an initial vote was not yet necessary. Rebecca Shabad reports at NBC News.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An analysis of the “dam-breaking” testimony of Trump’s former top adviser on Russia and Europe Fiona Hill and other developments in the impeachment inquiry against President Trump is provided by Michael D’Antonio at CNN.

For 100 years, the law has protected the right of career officials to communicate with Congress. Co-Equal at Just Security documents how they have routinely done so and explains that the White House has no lawful way to stop officials in the Ukraine probe.

“Whether by chance or by design, the foreign policy crises involving Syria and Ukraine that have enveloped the White House have a common element … in each case, Trump has taken action that has had the effect of helping the authoritarian leader of Russia,” Anna Gearan comments at the Washington Post.

TURKEY AND SYRIA

Democratic lawmakers, joined by some of Trump’s fellow Republicans, introduced a resolution yesterday formally opposing the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. The House will vote today on the joint resolution, which also urges Turkey to “immediately” end its military action, calls on the U.S. to protect the Kurds and demands the White House “present a clear and specific plan for the enduring defeat of [the Islamic State group] ISIS.” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

The Republican and Democratic leaders of the both the House and Senate as well as the congressional foreign affairs and armed services committees are to meet with Trump at the White House today to discuss the situation in Syria. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

The U.S. reportedly plans to increase diplomatic pressure on Turkey and threaten Ankara with further sanctions to persuade it to stop its military assault in northeastern Syria, a senior administration official said yesterday, as Turkey ignored Trump’s latest penalties and pressed on with its offensive against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists for its links to separatists in Turkey. Reuters reports.

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdoğan yesterday rejected calls from Trump for a ceasefire. “They are pressuring us to stop the operation … they are announcing sanctions … our goal is clear … we are not worried about any sanctions,” the Turkish president said, vowing, “we will never declare a ceasefire.” The BBC reports.

Erdoğan’s comments come ahead of a visit to Turkey this week by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Pence in an attempt to broker a ceasefire in northern Syria. Pence will lead a delegation on behalf of Trump that also includes national security adviser Robert O’Brien, and is expected to meet tomorrow with the Turkish president for bilateral talks, Isabel Coles, Jared Malsin and Thomas Grove report at the Wall Street Journal.

Turkey today called on Kurdish fighters to leave the designated border zone in Syria by “tonight” in order to end the Turkish offensive. Erdoğan made clear Turkey would not bow to pressure and would continue with its military operation, but said the quickest solution was for militants to drop their weapons and pull back from the area by this evening. The AP reports.

Turkey could be deemed responsible for summary executions of captured Kurdish fighters and a well-known politician carried out by an affiliated armed group, acts that may amount to war crimes, the U.N. said yesterday. The U.N. human rights office also said it had documented civilian casualties caused by air strikes, ground-based strikes and sniper fire each day since the Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria began last Wednesday. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Turkish authorities have apparently arrested 24 people for disseminating “black propaganda” on social media about Ankara’s offensive into Syria, the state-run Anadolu news agency said today. Reuters reports.

Russia announced early yesterday that it has units patrolling between Turkish and Syrian forces in northern Syria after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the area, “in a sign that Moscow, a key ally of the Syrian government, was moving to fill a security vacuum” following the removal of U.S. military personnel. Russian military police in the northwestern town of Manbij were “along the line of contact between the Syrian Arab Republic and Turkey,” the Defense Ministry in Moscow said in a statement, adding that the Russian military was working to prevent a confrontation between the two sides. Kareem Fahim, Sarah Dadouch and Will Englund  report at the Washington Post.

The pullout of U.S. troops gives Moscow “a new opportunity to press for Syrian army gains and project itself as a rising power broker in the Middle East,” Ben Hubbard, Anton Troianovski, Carlotta Gall and Patrick Kingsley report at the New York Times.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with his Turkish counterpart about Syria by phone and invited him to visit Russia “in the coming days,” an innovation which Erdoğan has accepted, the Kremlin said late yesterday. According to the Kremlin statement, the two leaders “agreed to ensure Syria’s territorial integrity” and “discussed the need to avoid possible conflicts between Turkish and Syrian military.” Reuters reports.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) have recaptured some territory seized by Turkish-backed forces using a “sophisticated network of tunnels,” Lara Seligman reports at Foreign Policy.

TURKEY AND SYRIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A detailed look at how the U.S. military might carry out its “hasty, risky” withdrawal from Syria is provided by Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt at the New York Times.

Suspension or expulsion of Turkey’s membership of N.A.T.O. are legally available options despite lack of an explicit mechanism in the North Atlantic Treaty, Aurel Sari argues at Just Security.

“With no military or civilian presence on the ground and chaos engulfing northeast Syria … the United States now finds itself unable to safeguard its interests or protect against an Islamic State revival there,”  Peter Juul warns at Foreign Policy, outlining two pressing challenges that U.S. policy toward Syria must address.

“The far greater impact of Trump’s disastrous and completely mishandled Syria withdrawal is that millions of other Syrian civilians will soon find themselves living under the control of the Bashar al-Assad regime or Iranian forces, which is a fate crueler than any other,” Josh Rogin argues at the Washington Post, additionally noting the outrage about the U.S. abandoning its Kurdish partners in Syria.

Turkey’s operations in Syria trigger every nation’s obligation under the Geneva Conventions to apprehend Turkish officials responsible for war crimes if they travel to those countries, Beth Van Schaack and Julia Brooks argue at Just Security.

“The violence precipitated by the American withdrawal is an outcome of tensions that have been building since the conflict began more than eight years ago,” Max Fisher comments at the New York Times.

AFGHANISTAN

At least two security officers were killed this morning after a car bomb exploded near a district headquarters in eastern Laghman province, an Afghan official said. 26 people including 20 children and six security forces were reportedly injured in the attack, the AP reports.

Violence linked to Afghanistan’s presidential election last month killed 85 civilians and wounded more than 370 others across the country, a special U.N. report said yesterday. The majority of the casualties were caused by Taliban fighters, who attacked several polling stations in an attempt to derail the vote. The U.N. News Centre reports.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

The House yesterday approved three bills showing support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which will now move to a vote in the Senate before it can become law, aims to defend civil rights in the semi-autonomous territory and “has drawn rare bipartisan support in a polarized Congress.” A second measure, the Protect Hong Kong Act, would ensure U.S. weapons are not used against protesters, while a separate non-binding house resolution called on the Hong Kong government to begin negotiations to address the demonstrators’ demands. AFP reports.

The new measures prompted an angry response from China. In a statement, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said the U.S. should stop interfering and warned Beijing would take “strong measures” to counter the proposed Hong Kong bill. David Crawshaw and Shibani Mahtani report at the Washington Post.

Hong Kong’s C.E.O. Carrie Lam abandoned her key annual policy address today after she was heckled by opposition lawmakers demanding her resignation during chaotic scenes inside the city’s legislature. Pro-democracy lawmakers twice forced Lam to stop delivering a speech laying out her policy objectives; she later delivered the address by video from a protected location, Javier C. Hernández reports at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani repeatedly called on Trump to arrange for the deportation of a Turkish cleric living in the U.S., Fethullah Gulen, former White House officials said yesterday. The extradition was a top priority of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had requested that the U.S. turn in Gulen to be tried on charges that he instigated a failed coup in Turkey in 2016. Giuliani was at times so insistent that a number of White House aides feared he was secretly lobbying for Turkey, one of the former officials said. Carol D. Leonnig, Ellen Nakashima, Josh Dawsey and Tom Hamburger report at the Washington Post.

A federal appeals court yesterday revived a lawsuit claiming that Trump is illegally profiting from foreign and state government visitors at his luxury hotel in downtown Washington. NBC News reports.

Trump has vetoed a joint resolution of Congress that sought to end his declaration of a national emergency on the southern U.S.-Mexico border, the White House said yesterday. Reuters reports.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (F.I.S.A. Court) opinions released last week represent “the fourth major F.I.S.A. Court opinion on Section 702 in 10 years documenting substantial non-compliance with the rules meant to protect Americans’ privacy,” Elizabeth Goitein comments 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).