The Early Edition: October 18, 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

U.S. ambassador to the European Union (E.U.) Gordon Sondland told House impeachment investigators during his closed-door testimony yesterday that Trump directed him and other administration officials to work with the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani on matters related to Ukraine. “Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election [including the Democratic National Committee (D.N.C.) server] and Burisma as two anti-corruption investigatory topics of importance for the President,” Sondland said, testifying that Trump had ordered diplomats to talk to his lawyer about Trump’s concerns over Ukraine, bypassing normal foreign policy channels. Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

Sondland sought to distance himself from the president, saying in his opening statement to Congress he had been “disappointed” Trump had chosen to conduct an important strategic relationship through his lawyer. Sondland also insisted he only realised later that Giuliani’s agenda might have included an effort to “prompt the Ukrainians” to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter and to involve the Ukrainians in the president’s campaign at a time when nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine was being withheld. The ambassador’s account is inconsistent with testimony from some foreign policy officials who have portrayed Sondland as “a willing participant who inserted himself into Ukraine policy … and a key player in Trump’s efforts to win a commitment from the new Ukrainian government to investigate his political rivals,” Nicholas Fandos and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

Sondland’s testimony emerged as Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, told reporters that the Trump administration’s withholding of nearly $400 million in military aid was linked to Trump’s request that the Ukrainians investigate the “server” theory   an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that the president and his allies have long espoused about a purported Ukrainian link to Russia’s hack of the D.N.C. during the 2016 presidential election. When asked if what he described was a quid pro quo, under which Ukraine would receive aid in exchange for assisting with a Justice Department investigation that might boost Trump’s campaign, Mulvaney responded, “we do that all the time with foreign policy … get over it … there is going to be political influence in foreign policy.” Rebecca Ballhaus, Michael C. Bender and Vivian Salama report at the Wall Street Journal.

“Mulvaney’s comments appeared to reflect a change in White House tactics,” Julian Borger reports at the Guardian, noting, “the administration is no longer denying there was a political trade-off in relations with Kyiv, after multiple officials have testified that there was.” 

Mulvaney, however, later walked back the remark, denying that the flow of security assistance to Ukraine was conditioned on Kiev investigating a theory related to 2016 election interference. Mulvaney issued a statement five hours after the news conference accusing the media of misreporting his account “to advance a biased and political witch hunt against President Trump” despite the fact that his words were captured live on camera: “let me be clear … there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election,” Mulvaney said, adding, “the president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server.” Mulvaney insisted the only reason security aid was held up was because the administration was reviewing whether other nations were contributing enough and out of concerns over corruption. Allan Smith reports at NBC News.

Mulvaney also said there was nothing wrong with the president relying on his personal lawyer to conduct foreign policy. “That’s the president’s call,” he said, adding, “You may not like the fact that Giuliani was involved … that’s great, that’s fine … it’s not illegal, it’s not impeachable.” Michael D. Shear and Katie Rogers report at the New York Times.

White House and Justice officials close to Trump were reportedly angered by Mulvaney’s remarks. One Trump adviser said Mulvaney did “far more damage” than Sondland’s testimony, calling it “totally inexplicable.” “He literally said the thing the president and everyone else said did not happen,” the adviser said. Colby Itkowitz, Felicia Sonmez and John Wagner report at the Washington Post.

Trump yesterday confirmed that Energy Department Secretary Rick Perry would leave the administration by the end of this year. “We already have his replacement,” Trump told reporters on his way to a campaign stop in Texas, adding, “Rick has done a fantastic job … but it was time.” Perry, one of three U.S. officials — tagged “the Three Amigos” — who had influence over U.S. policy on Ukraine, was subpoenaed by House Democrats to produce Ukraine-related documents by Oct. 18. The BBC reports.

Top Pentagon official who oversees policy on Ukraine Laura Cooper will no longer testify today before the congressional committees leading an impeachment inquiry of Trump — but is likely to give testimony next week. Reuters reports.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A closer look at Attorney General Bill Barr’s effort to discredit the F.B.I.’s decision to open an investigation into Russian interference in 2016 is provided by James Lamond and Talia Dessel at Just Security, who comment that “America’s chief law enforcement officer using the full power of the U.S. government to pressure foreign governments to engage in investigations designed to politically benefit Trump” is a “gross abuse” of his power.

“[Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney] didn’t directly use the phrase ‘quid pro quo,’ but he didn’t take issue with it, either … [and] in the moment, instead of disputing it, Mulvaney suggested this particular quid pro quo was par for the course when it comes to foreign policy,” Aaron Blake writes in an analysis at the Washington Post.

“[Mulvaney] revealed all that House investigators need to know in order to determine whether [President] Trump abused his oath of office,” the Washington Post editorial board argues, commenting that Trump’s chief of staff clearly confessed that the president “conditioned U.S. defense aid, as well as a visit to the White House, on the Ukrainian president’s help in providing him with political dirt.”

Mulvaney’s “conflicting” statements about quid pro quo, taken from a complete transcript of the live, televised news conference at the White House, are available at the New York Times.

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, in light of recent testimony, 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.”

TURKEY AND SYRIA

Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday brokered what they described as a “ceasefire” in Syria. Pence announced in a press conference in Ankara that Turkey has agreed to pause its week-old military incursion for five days while the U.S. helped facilitate the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from the nearly 20-mile-wide safe zone area south of the Turkish border in Syria. Pence said Washington would impose no further sanctions on Turkey and would also lift recently imposed sanctions once a “permanent ceasefire” was achieved. Maegan Vazquez, Ryan Browne, Sarah Westwood and Nikki Carvajal report at CNN.

Trump swiftly hailed the deal on Twitter as a major breakthrough, boasting that it will save “millions of lives.” “This deal could NEVER have been made 3 days ago … there needed to be some ‘tough’ love in order to get it done,” Trump said in a message, adding, “Great for everybody,” he wrote. “Proud of all!” The deal was necessitated by Trump’s decision earlier this month to withdraw American forces from Syria, effectively clearing the way for a Turkish assault on Kurdish fighters who had fought for years alongside the U.S. against the Islamic State group (ISIS), but whom Turkey considers terrorists. Jake Sherman reports at POLITICO.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu pushed back on how Pence framed the agreement, saying in a separate new conference that the U.S.-Turkey agreement was “not a ceasefire.” “We will pause the operation for 120 hours in order for the terrorists to leave,” Cavusoglu said, stressing that the halt “was contingent upon Kurdish-led forces leaving the safe-zone area, the collection of heavy weapons and the destruction of fortifications.” The commander of the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) Gen. Mazloum Kobani said shortly after Pence’s announcement that the ceasefire deal is limited to the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, the territory where fighting has been ongoing. Alex Leary, Lindsay Wise and David Gauthier-Villars report at the Wall Street Journal.

The agreement raises questions about whether the Kurdish military is even prepared to partake in the “facilitated” withdrawal and evacuate from northern Syria. “Analysts said it remains unclear how workable the deal will ultimately prove, given that most of the main actors in northern Syria — the Kurdish leadership and the Russian and Syrian governments — were not at the negotiating table,” Annie Karni, Lara Jakes and Patrick Kingsley report at the New York Times.

“The agreement … appeared to hand Turkey’s leader [President Recep Tayyip Erdogan] most of what he sought when his military launched an assault on northeastern Syria just over a week ago: the expulsion of Syrian Kurdish militias from the border and the removal of a U.S. threat to impose sanctions on Turkey’s vulnerable economy,” Kareem Fahim, Karen DeYoung and Seung Min Kim report at the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, “the deal is a significant loss for the Kurds, who lost 11,000 troops in their U.S.-backed fight against the Islamic State,”Lara Seligman, Elias Groll and Robbie Gramer report at Foreign Policy.

Fighting apparently carried on this morning in a northeast Syrian border town at the center of the conflict between Turkey and Kurdish forces, despite the U.S.-brokered truce that went into effect overnight. Shelling and gunfire resounded around Ras al-Ayn, however elsewhere along the border was relatively calm, the AP reports.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hailed “any efforts” to de-escalate the situation in northern Syria and protect civilians, U.N. spokesperson Farhan Haq said in a statement yesterday after Turkey agreed to halt its offensive there. “The Secretary-General recognizes that there is still a long way to go for an effective solution to the crisis in Syria,” the statement added. Reuters reports.

Senators yesterday pledged to continue working on sanctions legislation against Turkey despite Pence’s announcement of a temporary ceasefire agreement. “There are other issues obviously than just a ceasefire that need to be addressed,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Jim Risch (R-Idaho) said, referring to the “security of ISIS prisoners and safety of the Kurds.” Risch and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have each released separate sanctions bills, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The bipartisan leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) — officially introduced legislation yesterday that would expand the number of Turkish officials subject to U.S. sanctions, restrict transactions with the Turkish military, and ban military assistance for Turkey. “Congress must speak out and show decisive action to hold accountable those who created this catastrophe: President Erdogan, who is directing this slaughter, and President Trump, who opened the door to the Turkish incursion and betrayed our Kurdish partners,” Engel said in a statement announcing the bill’s introduction, adding, “the president is an arsonist who later pretends to be a fireman … his actions have resulted in a loss for America, and a win for terrorists and America’s enemies.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Despite the announced ceasefire, Turkey’s offensive in northeast Syria “is already proving to be a propaganda windfall for [the Islamic State group],” Joby Warrick and Souad Mekhennet report at the Washington Post, noting comments from intelligence officials and terrorism experts that the extremist group “is racing to capitalize on the deteriorating security situation in northern Syria, stepping up attacks on prisons as well as on the now-weakened Kurdish militia.”

TURKEY AND SYRIA: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“Turkey’s latest invasion of Syria violates the prohibition of aggression [and] the basic rules of international humanitarian law,” Adil Ahmad Haque writes at Just Security, noting that while Turkey bears State responsibility for its acts, these violations also trigger the legal responsibilities of all States “to prosecute individuals responsible for war crimes as well as doing everything reasonably in their power to ensure respect for the law of armed conflict.”

“Several Pentagon and State Department officials and military officers who have worked on Syria policy or deployed to the country’s northwest expressed shock, outrage and disbelief at the administration’s second major capitulation to [Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan] in less than two weeks,”  David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt write in an analysis at the New York Times, commenting that “the cease-fire agreement reached with Turkey by Vice President Mike Pence amounts to a near-total victory for  Erdogan who gains territory, pays little in penalties and appears to have outmaneuvered President Trump.”

“The Senate bill … is a powerful incentive for Erdogan to negotiate with the Kurds rather than bomb them out of the region,” the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board argues, commenting that the goal of the legislation is “to get back to negotiating an arrangement that protects the Kurds, protects Turkey’s legitimate security concerns along its border, and helps develop the oil fields in the region.”

Four key things to know about U.S.-Turkey “ceasefire” in Syria, including what area the deal covers, are provided by Nick Paton Walsh at CNN.

AFGHANISTAN

A record 1,174 civilians were killed and 3,139 others were wounded in Afghanistan’s war against the Islamist Taliban between July and September, the U.N. said in a report yesterday. The United Nations’ Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (U.N.A.M.A.) said civilian deaths and injuries had increased by 42 percent in the third quarter of this year compared with the same period last year; 425 Afghan civilians were killed and 1,164 were injured in July alone. Mujib Mashal and Thomas Gibbons-Neff report at the New York Times.

“Civilian casualties at record-high levels clearly show the need for all parties concerned to pay much more attention to protecting the civilian population, including through a review of conduct during combat operations,” U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan Tadamichi Yamamoto said, noting that July to September were the deadliest months so far this year. The AP reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

The Senate yesterday failed to override President Trump’s veto of a resolution that would have ended the national emergency declaration intended to help build the border wall. Senators voted 53-36, falling short of the two-thirds needed to successfully override the veto. According to the president, the February emergency declaration has allowed the administration to “counter large-scale unlawful migration” and facilitated the construction of his long-promised border wall. Emily Cochrane reports at the New York Times.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Israel’s prime minister today to reaffirm the two nations’ “close ties” at a time when many in Israel view Trump as an “unreliable ally” after the U.S. abandoned the Kurds fighting in Syria. The AP reports.

A legal analysis of whether recent U.S. cyber operations against Iran crossed the use of force threshold, following reports of a U.S. cyber strike against Iran carried out in June and another in late September, is provided by Edwin Djabatey 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).