The Early Edition: October 17, 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.  

TURKEY AND SYRIA

The House yesterday overwhelmingly approved a resolution formally condemning President Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria. The non-binding measure, which passed in a 354-60 vote, states Congress’ opposition to the troop pullback and calls on Turkey to halt its military action in Syria. The resolution also urges the Trump administration to present a clear plan for an “enduring defeat” of the Islamic State group (ISIS). Connor O’Brien reports at POLITICO.

The House vote was followed by a White House meeting with congressional leaders in which Trump apparently insulted top Democrats, calling House Speaker Nancy a “third-rate” politician, before they walked out, accusing the president of having a “meltdown.” Pelosi and other Democratic leaders in Congress said they cut short the contentious high-level briefing on the Syria crisis after it quickly devolved into an insult-fest and it became clear the president had no plan to prevent the potential resurgence of ISIS in the Middle East. Katie Rogers reports at the New York Times.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham offered a different account of the meeting, saying in a statement that Trump was “measured” and “decisive” and that Pelosi “had no intention of listening.” “While Democratic leadership chose to storm out and get in front of the cameras to whine, everyone else in the meeting chose to stay in the room and work on behalf of this country,” Grisham added. Clare Foran reports at CNN.

Trump later lashed out at Pelosi on Twitter, accusing the speaker of experiencing her own “meltdown,” while adding that she “needs help fast!” “There is either something wrong with her ‘upstairs,’ or she just plain doesn’t like our great Country,” the president wrote in a message. AFP reports.

Just hours before the meeting, Trump had defended as “strategically brilliant” his decision to pull American troops out of Syria, insisting that the U.S. had no interest in intervening in the ongoing conflict between Turkey and the Kurds because it was “over land that has nothing to do with us” and the Kurds, who helped the U.S. in its campaign against ISIS, were “no angels.” Trump however sent mixed signals by playing down the region’s importance to America while hitting back at critics, citing a letter he apparently sent to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week as evidence that he had not given the leader a “green light” to advance Turkish forces into Syria. Seung Min Kim and Mike DeBonis report at the Washington Post.

In the Oct. 9 letter, which began with the sentence “Let’s work out a good deal!,” Trump called on his Turkish counterpart to negotiate an end to Turkey’s assault against U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters, warning him: “don’t be a tough guy,” “don’t be a fool.” “You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy — and I will,” Trump wrote, adding, “history will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way.” Vivian Salama reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump shrugged off concerns that his decision to pull back had cleared the way for Russia, Iran, the Syrian government and ISIS to advance in the territory and reassert influence in the area. “I wish them all a lot of luck,” Trump said of the Russians and Syrians, adding, “if Russia wants to get involved with Syria, that’s really up to them.” Peter Baker and Catie Edmondson report at the New York Times.

Syrian forces last night entered the strategic border town of Kobani, blocking one route for the Turkish military to create a “safe zone” free of Syrian Kurdish fighters along the frontier as part of its week-old assault. The AP reports.

The Turkish incursion into northeast Syria has so far killed 218 civilians and wounded more than 650 others since it began a week ago, the Kurdish-led administration in the region said today. Reuters reports.

More than a thousand Syrian refugees have crossed the Iraqi border in the days since U.S. troops withdrew troops and Turkey moved in to push Kurdish-led forces from its southern frontier, aid groups said. Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim report at the Washington Post.

The U.N. Security Council expressed concern yesterday over “the risks of a deterioration in the humanitarian situation in northeast Syria and the escape of ISIS fighters,” but made no reference to the Turkish offensive on U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish militia and did not urge Turkey in its statement to end its operation. Reuters reports.

Iraq’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali-Hakim declared today that his country would “only take back Iraqi citizens detained in Syria who were fighters with ISIS and their families,” saying that the home nations of other former Islamic State group members and their families should “take the necessary measures.” The AP reports.

Turkey is “very unlikely” to be expelled from NATO over its incursion into northern Syria, the AP reports.

Vice President Mike Pence today arrived in Ankara in an unlikely bid to persuade Erdogan to end Turkey’s military incursion into Syria. Pence will lead a high-level delegation that includes Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien, the AP reports.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Former top adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Michael McKinley yesterday told impeachment investigators that he resigned last week out of frustration over the Trump administration’s “mistreatment of career U.S. diplomats” and the “alarming” allegations related to efforts to pressure Ukraine’s president into investigating President Trump’s political rivals, including former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Carol Morello and John Hudson report at the Washington Post.

McKinley said he quit his job because of “Trump’s attacks on the ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine [Marie Yovanovitch] and the State Department’s unwillingness to protect career diplomats from politically motivated pressure,” according to people familiar with the closed-door testimony. McKinley also warned that efforts to pressure Ukraine “to procure negative information on political opponents” would “have a serious impact on foreign service morale and the integrity of our work overseas.” Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

Former White House senior director for European and Russian affairs Fiona Hill reportedly said she believed that U.S. Ambassador to the European Union (E.U.) Gordon Sondland created a national security risk because his inexperience could be exploited by foreign governments. Hill did not say Sondland acted maliciously but described his use of a personal phone for official diplomatic business and said he told foreign officials they could visit the White House whenever they wanted, according to two people familiar with Hill’s closed-door testimony before the House this week. Nicholas Fandos and Adam Goldman report at the New York Times.

Lawmakers are set to hear from Sondland today about his knowledge of efforts by Trump to urge Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and allegations the president withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine as part of that effort. Josh Lederman reports at NBC News.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry reportedly contacted Rudy Giuliani this spring at Trump’s direction to address the president’s concerns about alleged Ukrainian corruption, “a sign of how closely the president’s personal lawyer worked with the administration on Ukraine policy,” Timothy Puko and Rebecca Ballhaus report on an exclusive interview with Perry at the Wall Street Journal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell outlined the next few months of impeachment yesterday at the Senate Republicans’ weekly luncheon. McConnell told the caucus that House Democrats wanted to move expeditiously, possibly approving articles of impeachment by Thanksgiving, adding that the Senate could deal with the trial by Christmas.  Rachael Bade and Erica Werner report at the Washington Post.

“One by one, a parade of Trump administration career diplomats and senior officials has offered a cascade of revelations,” Michael D. Shear and Nicholas Fandos report on the latest disclosures at the New York Times, writing that just a week after the White House’s declaration to House impeachment investigators, “it has become clear that Trump’s attempts to stonewall the Democrat-led inquiry that has imperiled his presidency and ensnared much of his inner circle are crumbling.”

The addition of former Rep. Trey Gowdy to Trump’s legal team dealing with the House of Representative’s impeachment inquiry raises pertinent questions,  Sidney Blumenthal comments at Just Security, proposing 10 questions that Gowdy needs to answer.

“Sondland wedged his way into Ukraine policymaking anyway, attending the new president’s inauguration in Kiev in May and briefing Trump afterward, all over the objections of the national security adviser at the time, John Bolton,” Sharon LaFraniere, Michael Crowley and Michael S. Schmidt write at the New York Times ahead of Sondland’s testimony today.

Impeachment investigations “have moved at staggering speed and produced a torrent of damaging revelations for the White House,” Stephen Collins writes in an analysis at CNN, noting the key testimony “on the horizon.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Three American diplomats were briefly detained on Monday in Russia near the military testing site where a mysterious explosion released radiation in August, it was reported yesterday by the New York Times.

Chinese diplomats in the U.S. must now notify American authorities before holding any meetings with U.S. officials under new rules which the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. called a “violation of the Vienna Convention.” The BBC reports.

“President Trump appeared to confirm [yesterday] that U.S. nuclear weapons are being housed at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, making him the first U.S. official to publicly acknowledge what has been considered an open secret for years,” Zachary Cohen reports at CNN.

A fourth man involved in a campaign fraud case involving associates of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani is being held in federal custody, Edward Helmore reports at the Guardian.

Dozens of Democratic lawmakers yesterday pushed the State Department to label three white supremacist groups as foreign terrorist organizations, arguing that “reclassification could help the U.S. seriously confront the escalating crisis of white extremist violence.” Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill.

The second part of the analysis of last week’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (F.I.S.A. Court) opinion, including what the opinion reveals about the number of F.B.I. queries that did not comply with internal rules, the statute, or the Fourth Amendment, is provided by Elizabeth Goitein 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).