The Early Edition: October 24, 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

About two dozen Republican lawmakers stormed a closed-door hearing yesterday to protest Democrats’ impeachment inquiry process, prompting a standoff with Democrats and breaking up the deposition of Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense responsible for Ukrainian policy. House representatives, who were not authorized to attend the hearing, barged into the secure room inside the Capitol with their phones — violating long-standing bipartisan rules governing the use of technology — and demanded they be allowed to see the closed-door proceedings. Elise Viebeck, Rachael Bade, Mike DeBonis and Kayla Epstein report at the Washington Post.

G.O.P. members of the House attacked the inquiry on procedural grounds, objecting to the private nature of the hearings and accusing Democrats of failing to conduct a fair and open investigation into President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. The disruption came a day after top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor provided Congress a detailed account of how Trump repeatedly sought to make a White House meeting for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and a military aid package to Ukraine worth nearly $400 million conditional on Kiev opening investigations into Trump’s political opponents, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

Republican members of Congress have repeatedly criticized Democrats as part of their “impeachment pushback” for choosing to only allow members of the House Intelligence, Oversight and Reform and Foreign Affairs committees to attend the hearings and depositions, arguing that the full breadth of the testimony should be made available to all members. Sam Brodey and Sam Stein report at The Daily Beast.

An explainer on how secure facilities are used and whether lawmakers can be penalized for their conduct yesterday in the most restricted area of the Capitol is provided in Q&A format by Kel McClanahan at Just Security.

Cooper testified in front of House impeachment investigators yesterday afternoon after a five-hour delay caused by the invasion. According to lawmakers, Cooper provided “a very technical readout of how foreign aid is disbursed [which] helped show that the Ukraine aid deviated from that normal process,” however the official did not give an opening statement. Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb report at CNN

Ukrainian officials were aware of Trump’s decision to freeze $391 million in military aid in early August, contradicting Trump’s assertion that there could not have been a quid pro quo because Kyiv did not previously know the funding had been held up. According to documents and interviews obtained by The New York Times, Ukrainian officials were alerted to the existence of the aid freeze by the end of the first week of August, which is weeks earlier than acknowledged and “also means that the Ukrainian government was aware of the freeze during most of the period in August when Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and two American diplomats were pressing Zelensky to make a public commitment to the investigations.” Andrew E. Kramer and Kenneth P. Vogel report at the New York Times.

Newly elected President Zelensky voiced concern to advisers as early as May about Trump pressuring him to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, it was reported yesterday. Two weeks before taking office, Zelensky and his team discussed the pressure they were already feeling from the Trump administration and Giuliani to publicly launch investigations that would benefit the U.S. leader. Among those present in the May 7 meeting were two of Zelensky’s top aides, Andriy Yermak and Andriy Bogdan, and Amos Hochstein, an American who sits on the Ukrainian company’s supervisory board. Desmond Butler and Michael Biesecker report at the AP. 

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland either does not recall or disputes the testimony made yesterday by the acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor to House investigators, Sondland’s lawyer Robert Luskin said. “Sondland does not recall any conversation in Warsaw concerning the aid cutoff, although he understood that the Ukrainians were, by then, certainly aware of the cutoff and raised the issue directly with [Vice President Mike] Pence,” Luskin wrote in an email to The Washington Post. Taylor’s testimony challenges Sondland’s contention that he had no knowledge of an alleged quid pro quo, Aaron C. Davis reports at the Washington Post.

Pressure is apparently building against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo following Taylor’s deposition Tuesday which pulled Pompeo deeper into the Ukraine scandal. House Democrats are reportedly redoubling their efforts to get the secretary of state to answer their questions, Spencer Ackerman and Erin Banco report at The Daily Beast.

A federal judge said yesterday that he will order the State Department to begin releasing Ukraine-related documents within 30 days. The sensitive records and communications were sought under a Freedom of Information Act request by government watchdog group American Oversight and, if made public, could potentially shed light on matters at the center of an ongoing House impeachment inquiry into Trump. The AP reports.

Senior national security officials — including former White House senior director for European and Russian affairsFiona Hill — apparently have raised the alarm about Kash Patel, an intelligence committee aide in the first years of the Trump administration who had been involved in Republicans’ efforts to undermine the Russia investigation, over his role in Ukraine issues. Julian E. Barnes, Adam Goldman and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

TURKEY AND SYRIA

President Trump announced yesterday that his administration would lift sanctions imposed on Turkey this month after a “permanent” cease-fire had been established in northern Syria, drawing a line under American involvement in “bloodstained” Syria, even as Russian forces began moving into territory previously controlled by the U.S. and its Syrian Kurdish allies. Trump said the sanctions, which had been announced Oct. 14 and targeted top officials and agencies in Ankara, will be lifted unless something happens that “we’re not happy with.” The BBC reports.

Trump declared the halt in fighting a major diplomatic victory for his administration shortly after his special envoy to Syria told Congress Turkey’s assault was a “tragedy” and that Ankara-backed forces are likely liable for several war crimes. Nicole Gaouette reports at CNN.

Several critics voiced concerns over whether Turkey will abide by its end of the bargain, citing fears of further military operations on U.S.-allied Kurdish forces and the likelihood of an Islamic State group (ISIS) resurgence. Karen DeYoung, Erin Cunningham and Kareem Fahim report at the Washington Post.

Russian security forces in Syria began patrolling near the Turkish border yesterday to ensure Kurdish fighters withdraw in accordance with the agreement between Moscow and Ankara driving them out from the country’s north. AFP reports.

An assessment of Turkey’s “resettlement” plans in Syria under the international law of occupation is provided by Eyal Benvenisti and Eliav Lieblich at Just Security, who argue that Turkey’s plans in Syria are unlawful on a number of grounds. 

An analysis of the Turkey-Russia ceasefire accord, including the United States’ response and implications of the deal for the Kurds and America’s adversaries, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ISIS, is provided by Lara Seligman, Elias Groll and Robbie Gramer at Foreign Policy.

“[Russian] President Vladimir Putin’s new pact with Turkey expands Moscow’s role as a power broker in the Middle East … again showing his skill at building up Russia’s sway while weakening U.S. influence,” Ann M. Simmons writes at the Wall Street Journal, commenting on Putin’s deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Facebook C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress yesterday about his company’s plans to launch Libra — a new, global digital currency. During the hearing, Zuckerberg defended the controversial cryptocurrency project, which has faced pushback from regulators and politicians since Facebook announced its plans over the summer, saying the project could help bring financial services to billions of people worldwide. The C.E.O. found himself under attack over a host of other issues, Jason Abbruzzese and Jo Ling Kent report at NBC News.

Key takeaways and revelations from Zuckerberg’s testimony are helpfully provided by Hannah Murphy and Kiran Stacey at the Financial Times and Zachary Warmbrodt and Cristiano Lima at POLITICO.

An internal cybersecurity memo dated Oct. 17 and released this week has warned that the “White House is posturing itself to be electronically compromised once again.” The memo, written by senior White House cybersecurity director Dimitrios Vastakis, states that the decision in July to “fold” the Office of the Chief Information Security Officer into the Office of the Chief Information Officer was “alarming.” Jessica Campisi reports at the Hill.

The House Homeland Security Committee yesterday approved a bill aimed at tackling extremist content online despite ongoing pushback from civil liberties groups and Republicans on the panel. The National Commission on Online Platforms and Homeland Security Act would establish a 12-member bipartisan commission of experts to explore “how online platforms have been exploited to carry out mass-casualty targeted violence” — including acts of domestic and international terrorism as well as “covert foreign state influence campaigns” — and marks one of the first legislative efforts to combat internet extremism after a series of mass shooters were connected to white supremacist online footprints this year. Emily Birnbaum and Chris Mills Rodrigo report at the Hill.

A detailed look at the impact of high-quality deepfake video and audio on politics is provided by Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan at the Financial Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Two associates of President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani entered not guilty pleas yesterday to a federal indictment accusing them of funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars in foreign money into U.S. elections, including a pro-Trump super PAC. One of the men, Lev Parnas, raised the issue of executive privilege during the court proceeding, arguing it could apply to some of the evidence gathered in his campaign-finance case in New York. Parnas claims to have been working with Giuliani as he worked for Trump. Nicole Hong and William K. Rashbaum report at the New York Times.

Trump’s private attorney William S. Consovoy said yesterday that the president could not be investigated or prosecuted as long as he is in the White House — even for shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue. Lauren Aratani reports at The Guardian.

The House yesterday passed a bill aimed at preventing foreign interference in U.S. elections, marking the latest attempt by Democrats to advance election security legislation ahead of 2020. Sarah Ferris reports at POLITICO.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said yesterday that his government is taking “all international legal measures” in response to the recent entry in Iraq of U.S. troops pulling out of northeast Syria. “We have [already] issued an official statement saying that and are taking all international legal measures … we ask the international community and the United Nations to perform their roles in this matter,” Mahdi said in a statement, reaffirming Baghdad’s position shortly after meeting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who visited the country yesterday unannounced. Reuters reports. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un yesterday hailed his “special” relationship with Trump in a statement that “was surprisingly optimistic given working-level talks between Washington and Pyongyang in Sweden collapsed earlier this month,” Joshua Berlinger and Yoonjung Seo report at CNN.

Former military chief Benny Gantz received an official mandate yesterday to try to establish Israel’s next government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to do so, Reuters reports.

A rare look by New York Times journalists inside Islamic State group (ISIS) prisons has exposed an “enormous” legal and humanitarian crisis, “one that the world has largely chosen to ignore,” Ben Hubbard reports at the New York Times. 

About the Author(s)

Nat O'Connell

Associate 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).