The Early Edition: October 22, 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

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban both reinforced President Trump’s “hostile view” of Ukraine in the weeks before and after his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, it was reported yesterday. While Putin and Orban did not specifically encourage Trump’s fixation on an unsubstantiated Ukraine-related theory about former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, or claim Kiev meddled in the 2016 election, the foreign leaders reportedly reinforced Trump’s perception of Ukraine as a “hopelessly corrupt country.” Putin’s and Orban’s influencing role was described to Congress by deputy assistant secretary of state George Kent in closed-door testimony last week, Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe, John Hudson and Ellen Nakashima report at the Washington Post.

A Republican effort to censure House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) for his handling of the impeachment inquiry into Trump was blocked by the chamber’s Democratic majority yesterday. The House voted 218-185, along party lines, to reject the measure, which was introduced last month by Republicans angered by the investigation into Trump’s July 25 “quid pro quo” call with Ukraine’s president. John Wagner, Brittany Shammas and Michael Brice-Saddler report at the Washington Post.

During his Cabinet meeting yesterday, Trump called on Republicans to “get tougher and fight” against the impeachment inquiry as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) distributed a “fact sheet” accusing Trump of a “stunning abuse” of presidential power, including a “shakedown,” “pressure campaign” and “cover up.” The outline “may yet serve as a basis for potential articles of impeachment against Trump,” Lauren Gambino reports at the Guardian.

Tump also blasted the “phony emoluments clause” of the Constitution, which played a role in forcing him to scrap plans to host the June G-7 summit at his private golf club in Florida. Trump defended his now-reversed decision to hold the gathering at his resort and suggested he was being treated differently than other presidents who allegedly profited from the office, citing former presidents George Washington and Barack Obama. Julia Arciga reports at The Daily Beast.

Senate Minority leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked both the acting Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) Joseph Maguire and Intelligence Community Inspector General (I.C. I.G.) Michael Atkinson yesterday to set out what “specific steps” they are taking to protect the whistleblower whose complaint prompted a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump. “In light of the President’s ill-advised statements, his lack of respect for the rule of law and his well-documented habit of condoning violence by his supporters, I am concerned that he may disclose the whistleblower’s identity or cause it to be disclosed by others in the administration,” Schumer wrote in a letter to Maguire and Atkinson, adding, “if that were to happen, it will be your responsibility to take immediate action to protect the whistleblower from both workplace reprisal and threats to his or her personal safety.” Burgess Everett reports at POLITICO.

Lawmakers conducting an impeachment inquiry into Trump will hear from top U.S. official in Ukraine William Taylor today about the administration’s alleged effort to leverage U.S. military aid for Ukraine. Taylor raised concern about military assistance being held up from Kiev for domestic political reasons on Sept. 9 to Kurt Volker, the State Department’s former special envoy to Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, in a text message released by impeachment investigators in Congress. Reuters reports.

Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to press Ukraine to open an investigation into the 2016 election “should be understood as directly linked to trying to interfere in the 2020 election by specifically damaging [Joe] Biden too,” Co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman and Alex Potcovaru write in an analysis at Just Security, explaining the connection between Giuliani’s “clear political objective” and evidence of a quid pro quo involving the withholding of U.S. military aid to Ukraine.

TURKEY AND SYRIA

President Trump announced yesterday that a limited number of U.S. troops would remain in northeast Syria to protect the Kurdish-controlled oil fields there, despite his calls for them to “return home,” while others would stay near Israel and Jordan at those countries’ request. Speaking at a meeting of his Cabinet at the White House,  Trump said he does not consider it will be necessary to keep American forces in Syria except to secure oil fields, describing the region as “very dangerous territory.” The president also defended his administration’s support for the Kurds but maintained the U.S. had given “no commitment” to protect the Kurds “for 400 years.” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Trump’s remarks came after U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters in Afghanistan early yesterday that the Pentagon was considering leaving some forces near oilfields in northeastern Syria alongside Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) to help deny oil to Islamic State group (ISIS) militants. Esper stressed the plan was not yet finalized and had not yet been presented to the president. Lara Seligman and Keith Johnson report at Foreign Policy.

Trump suggested the five-day ceasefire negotiated last week in the Turkish offensive against U.S.-allied Kurdish-led fighters in northern Syria was holding despite some clashes, and that it could potentially go beyond today’s expiration: “I’m sure if we needed a little extension that would be happening,” the president told reporters at the meeting. Reuters reports.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said today up to 1,300 Kurdish fighters have yet to vacate an area near to Syria’s northeast border and warned Turkey could resume its offensive in the area when the ceasefire expires today. Reuters reports.

“Trump’s pullout has handed the Islamic State its biggest win in more than four years and greatly improved its prospects,” analysts say, David D. Kirkpatrick and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times, noting that “[a]lthough Trump has repeatedly declared victory over the Islamic State — even boasting to congressional leaders last week that he had personally “captured ISIS” — it remains a threat.”

U.S. troops leaving Syria and heading to neighboring Iraq are not permitted to remain in the country, Iraq’s military said today. The statement appears to contradict Esper, who has said that under the current plan, all U.S. troops exiting Syria will be repositioned in western Iraq and the military would continue to conduct operations against ISIS to prevent its resurgence in the region. The AP reports.

Leader of Syrian Kurdish forces who have been attacked by Turkey Ilham Ahmed told reporters today that Trump’s pullback of U.S. troops from northern Syria was “akin to genocide.” Ahmed, who yesterday met with senators who have sponsored a bipartisan measure sanctioning Turkey until it ends its incursion into northern Syria, said that her message to Trump is: “Stop these massacres.” The AP reports.

Two ISIS detainees — half of the four-man cell known as “the Beatles” who allegedly killed American journalist James Foley — are in U.S. custody, recently picked up in Syria. Beth Van Schaack and Julia Brooks at Just Security outline options for bringing them to justice, arguing that prosecuting the pair in civil court under the U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996 “would send a strong signal for war crimes accountability.”

“Does Erdogan believe that Turkey has the right or need to acquire nuclear weapons to cement its status?” Tim Lister tries to shed some light on the matter in an analysis at CNN.

AFGHANISTAN

The U.S. has begun trimming its troop presence in Afghanistan despite the lack of a working peace deal with Taliban forces, the top American commander in the country Gen. Scott Miller said yesterday. Gen. Miller told reporters that U.S. troop levels in the country were reduced by 2,000 to about 12,000 over the past year. American negotiators had tried to use troop reduction as leverage over the terms of any settlement with the Taliban in their long peace talks with the insurgent group, which Trump abruptly ended last month, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Mujib Mashal report at the New York Times.

Gen. Scott Miller explained that he is winding down the American presence slightly to “optimize” the force, while officials said the reduction in troop size and strength “did not amount to initial steps of an overall drawdown of forces” in the 18-year conflict. Nancy A. Youssef and Gordon Lubold report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Pentagon reportedly has recently began drawing up plans for a quick pullout of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan in case President Trump “surprises” military leaders by ordering an immediate drawdown as he did in Syria, three current and former defense officials said. Officials cautioned, however, that the contingency planning is just a “precaution” and there is currently no White House directive to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Carol E. Lee and Courtney Kube report at NBC News.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper insisted yesterday the Syria withdrawal should not be compared to Afghanistan — where the situation was “very, very different,” as Trump’s decision earlier this month to pullback all 1,000 American troops from northern Syria has been slammed in Washington and elsewhere as a “betrayal” of loyal Kurdish allies who had fought for years in the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State group (ISIS). Esper assured that while America did not have a commitment to defend Syrian Kurdish fighters against Turkey, it does have a “longstanding commitment” to Afghan security forces, adding that the U.S. has “invested billions upon billions of dollars” and “both the Afghan people and the American people have sacrificed treasure and the lives of their soldiers.” Reuters reports.

“The Taliban have wanted the U.S. to pull troops out of Afghanistan, Turkey has wanted the Americans out of northern Syria and North Korea has wanted them to at least stop military exercises with South Korea … President Trump has now to some extent at least obliged all three — but without getting much of anything in return,” Peter Baker writes in an analysis at the New York Times, commenting that “the self-styled dealmaker has given up the leverage of the United States’ military presence in multiple places around the world without negotiating concessions from those cheering for American forces to leave.”

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Social media giant Facebook yesterday disclosed it had taken down four new foreign interference operations originating from Iran and Russia, including one targeting the U.S. 2020 presidential elections that appears to be linked to the Russian troll agency, the Internet Research Agency (I.R.A). In a blogpost, Facebook said the network bears the hallmark of the same Kremlin-backed group that meddled in the 2016 election. Maggie Miller and Chris Mills Rodrigo report at the Hill.

Facebook yesterday unveiled plans to combat “misinformation and voter suppression” ahead of next year’s  presidential election, the same day it announced the removal of a network of Russian accounts targeting U.S. voters on Instagram. The firm said it would “increase transparency through measures such as showing more information about the confirmed owner of a Facebook page and more prominently labeling content that independent fact-checkers have marked as false.” Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

At least five civilians, including two children, were killed today in an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels said. The AP reports.

Israel’s longest serving prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave up his struggle to form a new government yesterday after failing to secure a majority coalition, opening a possible path to power for his centrist rival Benny Gantz. Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud party, said he had been unable to form a government following an election in September, and returned the mandate back to Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, who said he would task Gantz with the job of putting together a new government. Oren Liebermann and Andrew Carey report at CNN.

A judge in London has rejected WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s attempt to delay his U.S. extradition case. The U.S. wants to try Assange over allegations of leaking government secrets, including conspiring to hack government computers and violating espionage law. The Guardian reports.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet urged yesterday for independent investigations into deaths in weekend protests in Chile, citing “disturbing allegations” of excessive use of force by security forces. The number of people killed in violent protests against rising living costs in the country has reportedly risen to 11. Reuters reports.

The Trump administration issued a proposal yesterday that would allow it to collect DNA from immigrants detained by U.S. authorities, raising privacy concerns especially for asylum-seekers and minor offenders whose genetic information would be stored in an FBI criminal justice database. The Justice Department said the proposed rule would be officially published today and subject to a 20-day public comment period. Bobby Allyn and Joel Rose report at NPR. 

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).