The Early Edition: October 23, 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

Top American diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor told impeachment investigators yesterday that President Trump held up $391 million in security aid and withheld a White House meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky until he secured commitment from Kiev that it would publicly investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. In his 15-page opening statement, Taylor said he was told by U.S. ambassador to the European Union (E.U.) Gordon Sondland that “everything” — including military aid and a White House visit — was conditional on the Ukrainian president publicly declaring he was opening two investigations: into Burisma Group, a Ukrainian gas company where Biden’s son Hunter was a board member, and into alleged Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Michael D. Shear and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

Taylor testified that Trump repeatedly told officials that he was not seeking a “quid pro quo” — but “effectively laid out a trade between the aid and the investigations.” Taylor said he learned from a senior White House official about a Sept. 7 phone conversation between Trump and Sondland in which the president denied a quid pro quo for Ukraine, but in the same call insisted that “Zelensky go to a microphone and say he’s opening investigations of Biden, and the 2016 election interference.” Sondland later told Zelensky and his aide Andrey Yermak that until he did that, he would be at a “stalemate.” Taylor added he understood a “stalemate” to mean the U.S. would not release the military assistance to Ukraine. Rebecca Ballhaus, Natalie Andrews and Siobhan Hughes report at the Wall Street Journal.

Taylor also told impeachment investigators that he “became increasingly concerned” by “irregular, informal channels” of U.S. policymaking which diverged from official U.S. goals — led by Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. The “informal” channel included Sondland, U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Taylor said. Rachael Bade, Anne Gearan, Karoun Demirjian and Mike DeBonis report at the Washington Post.

Democrats said Taylor’s testimony provided the clearest evidence yet that Trump had engaged in a “quid pro quo” arrangement with his Ukrainian counterpart and declared it to be the clearest account to date of Trump’s abuse of office in the Ukraine scandal. Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

Responding to the latest testimony in Congress, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham denounced the congressional hearings as “a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the constitution.” In a White House statement, Grisham said that Trump “has done nothing wrong,” adding, “there was no quid pro quo … today was just more triple hearsay and selective leaks from the Democrats’ politically-motivated, closed door, secretive hearings.” Jessica Taylor, Miles Parks and Michele Kelemen report at NPR.

Lawmakers reacted with outrage yesterday after Trump compared the ongoing impeachment inquiry to “a lynching.” The remark, which elicits a time when black Americans were killed by extrajudicial white mobs, drew rebukes from prominent black lawmakers, with at least one Republican calling for the president to retract it. Allan Smith reports at NBC News.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said yesterday that he will introduce a resolution in the Senate to condemn the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry of Trump. “This resolution puts the Senate on record condemning the House … we cannot allow future presidents, and this president, to be impeached based on an inquiry in the House that’s never been voted upon,” Graham said in an interview. Graham objected to the closed-door depositions that have been held, saying, “any impeachment vote based on this process, to me is illegitimate, is unconstitutional, and should be dismissed in the Senate without a trial.” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Laura Cooper, a top Pentagon official who oversees policy on Ukraine and Russia, is expected to testify today before the House committees leading the impeachment inquiry. Reuters reports.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A detailed analysis of top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor’s testimony yesterday, in which he described how President Trump tried to force Ukraine to advance his political interests, is provided by Peter Baker at the New York Times.

“The depositions and documents collected by three House committees from present and former senior administration officials … contain clear proof that Trump, acting directly and through his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, repeatedly demanded a pledge from [Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky] to open those political investigations to obtain an Oval Office invitation,” the Washington Post editorial board argues.

If Taylor’s testimony is to be taken at face value — “Trump placed his personal political future above the national-security interests of the U.S. … and he used hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to do it,” Jesse Wegman comments at the New York Times.

A list of twelve questions for Congress and the news media to ask Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as the Ukraine scandal unfolds is proposed by Sidney Blumenthal at Just Security.

Trump has refused to cooperate with the “official impeachment inquiry,” citing executive privilege. Jean Galbraith and Michel Paradis at the Wall Street Journal explain why the president’s defense will necessarily fail if the full House passes a resolution authorizing the inquiry or if the courts hold that a resolution is not needed for the inquiry to be lawful.

Key revelations of Taylor’s “explosive” opening statement to impeachment investigators are fielded by Sharon LaFraniere at the New York Times,  Dareh Gregorian at NBC News and Michael Warren at CNN.

TURKEY AND SYRIA

Russia agreed to help Turkey drive out Kurdish YPG militias from areas close to the Turkey-Syria border in a deal reached yesterday which both Moscow and Ankara hailed as a triumph. The announcement was made after “marathon” talks in Sochi between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, just two hours before a U.S.-brokered five-day truce between Turkish and Kurdish-led forces was due to expire. As the deadline passed, Turkey declared there was “no need” to relaunch the assault. AFP reports.

Under the deal, Erdoğan said he would suspend military action for nearly six days against Kurds, whom his government considers terrorists, to let them evacuate the area, during which, Russian and Syrian security forces would push any remaining Kurdish fighters away from Turkey’s border. After the 150-hour deadline, Turkey and Russia will begin conducting joint patrols in the area, Erdoğan said. Lara Seligman reports at Foreign Policy.

The agreement “cements Moscow’s new role as prime powerbroker in the Middle East as U.S. influence in the region wanes” and is “widely perceived as good news for Ankara and a poor result for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.),” Bethan McKernan and Julian Borger report at The Guardian.

Hours after the deal was announced, Kurdish leaders apparently confirmed their withdrawal from a “safe zone” in northeast Syria along the Turkey-Syria border, while a senior Trump administration official said Turkey was believed to have halted its southern advance. “Although discussions were still underway in Washington, the official indicated that sanctions would not go forward,” Kareem Fahim, Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan report at the Washington Post.

Around 180,000 people, including 80,000 children, have been displaced by the fighting in northeast Syria, targeting Kurdish-held areas across the border, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (O.C.H.A.) reported yesterday. The O.C.H.A. reported that “despite a shaky five-day ceasefire, the airstrikes and a ground offensive launched by Turkey has had a significant humanitarian impact.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

The Trump administration’s special envoy for Syria and the anti-ISIS coalition James Jeffrey admitted yesterday he was not consulted on President Trump’s decision this month to pullout U.S. troops from Syria. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jeffrey said he was not on a phone call between Trump and Erdoğan that came before the White House announcement but argued that he was “very thoroughly briefed on it.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other top Republicans yesterday introduced a measure warning the Trump administration against pulling out U.S. troops from northern Syria. The resolution calls on Trump to end the withdrawal of American forces and cautions that a “precipitous withdrawal” would “create vacuums.” It also urges Trump to revoke his invitation for Erdoğan to visit the White House next month. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

An analysis of Putin and Erdoğan’s deal on Syria, including the “winners” and “losers”of the arrangement, is provided by Nathan Hodge at CNN.

Trump violated all the principles of sustainable engagement in Syria, Thomas L. Friedman argues at the New York Times.

IRAQ

U.S troops crossing into Iraq as part of a drawdown from northeast Syria are “transiting” and will leave the country within four weeks, Iraq’s Defense Minister Najah al-Shammari said today. Al-Shammari’s remarks followed a meeting in Baghdad with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who arrived amid reports the U.S. was considering increasing the number of troops based in Iraq, at least temporarily. The AP reports.

An Iraqi government-appointed inquiry into week-long protests earlier this month has concluded that security forces used excessive force during the protests — killing 149 civilians and wounding over 3,000. The BBC reports.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Hong Kong’s legislature today formally withdrew a controversial extradition bill that triggered months of protests that have since evolved into a campaign for greater democratic change. The news emerged as the murder suspect whose case prompted the original extradition bill that in turn sparked the protest movement in June was released from prison today. The withdrawal of the bill, just one of five demands of protestors, is unlikely to end the unrest, Kelvin Chan reports at the AP.

China reportedly has plans to replace Hong Kong’s C.E.O. Carrie Lam with an “interim” chief executive once protests have settled down. According to people briefed on the deliberations, if Chinese President Xi Jinping decided to go ahead, Lam’s successor would be put in by March and cover the remainder of her term, which ends in 2022. Tom Mitchell and Alice Woodhouse report at the Financial Times.

China’s foreign ministry this morning dismissed the Financial Times report as “a political rumor with ulterior motives,” Reuters reports.

Hong Kong can still “return to normalcy” if the government and protesters are prepared to make “difficult, even risky, compromises,” Derek Grossman argues at Foreign Policy, commenting that “there are at least two protester demands that Lam should be able to meet.”

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

A New York-led investigation into claims that social media giant Facebook put consumer data at risk and pushed up advertising rates has expanded to include attorneys general from 47 U.S. states and territories, New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement yesterday. Reuters reports.

Facebook C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg is expected to tell House lawmakers today that he would support a delay of the company’s Libra cryptocurrency project until regulators are satisfied. “[S]ome have suggested that we intend to circumvent regulators and regulations,” Zuckerberg said in prepared remarks for a hearing this morning called by the House Financial Services Committee, adding, “we want to be clear: Facebook will not be a part of launching the Libra payments system anywhere in the world unless all U.S. regulators approve it … and we support Libra delaying its launch until it has fully addressed U.S. regulatory concerns.” Zachary Warmbrodt reports at POLITICO.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

“China is organizing talks among Afghanistan’s rival factions as part of efforts to end years of war after negotiations between the Taliban and the United States on the withdrawal of U.S. forces broke down,” Afghan officials said today. Reuters reports.

Justice Department investigators reviewing the origins of the Russia probe are looking into the C.I.A.’s actions in 2016 when John Brennan served as its director. Natasha Bertrand and Daniel Lippman report at POLITICO.

We cannot let President Trump abandon the United States’ commitment to the Open Skies Treaty. Alexandra Bell and Anthony Wier at Just Security explain why Trump was fortunate to inherit a whole set of institutions and relationships to help him manage threats, also noting, “there is no evidence that the Trump administration has considered how walking out on the treaty would impact our national interests.” 

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).