The Early Edition: October 29, 2019

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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

The top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council (N.S.C.) Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman plans to tell House impeachment investigators today that he twice reported concerns to his superiors and lawyers about President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, including his demands that the country investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. Vindman, who listened in on the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is expected to testify privately today before the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight and Reform Committees as part of their impeachment inquiry, in defiance of a White House order not to cooperate with the probe. Danny Hakim reports at the New York Times.

“I was concerned by the call … I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen … and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine,” Vindman’s planned opening statement says. Vindman said he believed if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the energy company where Biden’s son sat on the board, Ukraine would lose bipartisan support — and the investigation would “undermine all U.S. national security,” according to the opening statement. Vindman considered the request, and suspected subversion of U.S. foreign policy, by the White House so damaging that he raised an internal alarm. Greg Jaffe reports at the Washington Post.

The House will hold its first formal vote this week on the impeachment inquiry into Trump, marking a change in strategy by Democrats who had long-insisted that they did not need a floor vote to proceed with the inquiry. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a letter that the vote on a resolution would “affirm” the existing probe, now in its sixth week, as well as “ensure transparency, and provide a clear path forward” by establishing the terms for public hearings, the disclosure of deposition transcripts and due process rights for Trump. Senior Democratic aides said the resolution — which appears aimed in part at stifling Republican criticism that the investigation was not providing Trump with due process — will be released tomorrow, and the House is expected to vote on it Thursday, Alex Moe and Rebecca Shabad report at NBC News.

Pelosi said the move would “eliminate any doubt” as to whether the White House can withhold documents, disregard subpoenas or prevent witnesses from giving testimony, after several administration officials have failed to testify to committees involved in the inquiry. The speaker also said it would “eliminate any doubt” about whether Trump acted properly in blocking his administration from cooperating with Democrats’ investigation into the president’s alleged efforts to pressure Ukraine for his own political benefit. Sarah Ferris, Heather Caygle and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said the vote supported Trump’s contention “that Democrats were conducting an unauthorized impeachment proceeding,” adding that Pelosi’s party was “refusing to give the President due process, and their secret, shady, closed-door depositions are completely and irreversibly illegitimate.” Natalie Andrews and Byron Tau report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Trump administration is appealing a judge’s ruling ordering the Justice Department to turn over to the House Judiciary Committee grand jury materials related to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report detailing Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. A motion submitted to Chief Judge Beryl Howell yesterday seeking a stay of her decision challenges the judge’s claim Friday that the Mueller grand jury materials bear on events “central to the impeachment inquiry,” and also argues that Howell’s ruling represented “an extraordinary abrogation of grand jury secrecy.” Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO. 

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a top ally of President Trump in the Senate, spoke with a Ukrainian official — former diplomat Andrii Teilzhenko — about unsubstantiated claims of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election just days before Trump told the Ukrainian president he thought he should investigate Biden, it was reported yesterday. Elise Viebeck and Dalton Bennett report at the Washington Post.

The White House apparently was alerted as early as mid-May that Zelensky had concerns about Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his pressure campaign. The National Security Council was informed of Giuliani’s efforts to push for a “shake up” of the leadership at the state-owned energy company Naftogaz and for an investigation into Biden and his son, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. Josh Lederman and Dan De Luce report at NBC News. 

A federal judge ruling on a “potentially critical” impeachment inquiry case will hear from lawyers for the Trump White House, the House of Representatives and from impeachment witness Charles Kupperman on Thursday after the former national security aide filed a lawsuit asking the federal court to decide whether he was required to testify. Katelyn Polantz and Paul LeBlanc report at CNN.

Trump’s effort to block Kupperman from testifying in Democrats’ impeachment inquiry is “strengthening the case [against the president] for impeachment based on obstruction of Congress,” House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said yesterday. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

“As the Senate reckons with the growing possibility of an impeachment trial of President Trump, lawmakers have yet to address 12 must-pass spending bills,” Emily Cochrane reports at the New York Times, writing that the uncertainty of impeachment could complicate Congress’s spending debate and “further muddle the already fraught process of trying to prevent another government shutdown.”

A detailed look at why administration officials keep testifying before Congress despite White House counsel Pat Cipollone’s letter contending that the House’s impeachment inquiry is “constitutionally invalid and a violation of due process” is provided by top congressional oversight expert Michael Stern at Just Security.

 “Wittingly or unwittingly, the president and his allies are helping to propagate another disinformation campaign — one that will most likely aid Russia, yet again, in its efforts to intervene corruptly in the American electoral process,” Zach Dorfman argues at the New York Times, commenting on the efforts of Giuliani and other Trump affiliates.

AL-BAGHDADI DEATH

President Trump yesterday said his administration may release video footage of the U.S. special operations raid that resulted in the death of Islamic State group (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “We’re thinking about it,” Trump told reporters adding, “we may take certain parts of it and release it.” Reuters reports.

Top Pentagon leaders yesterday released new details of the weekend raid, announcing that the U.S. military captured two men during the operation who are in U.S. custody and who potentially could provide intelligence about the group. Baghdadi’s remains, which were tested to confirm his identity, were disposed of at sea within 24 hours of his death in accordance with Muslim custom, one official said. Pentagon leaders also suggested yesterday that the U.S. plans to conduct more operations targeting ISIS figures, “aided by video and other information” gathered during Saturday’s raid in Syria. Dan Lamothe and Karen DeYoung report at the Washington Post.

“The intelligence material that commandos seized from the compound in northwest Syria where Baghdadi was hiding is likely to contain new details about the group’s operations,” and “the trove of information [as well as the two ISIS fighters in U.S. custody] could nonetheless shed critical light on how the Islamic State operated, including planning and financial information,” Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley said yesterday that he does not know the source of Trump’s information that Baghdadi died “screaming, crying and whimpering.” Speaking at a Pentagon news conference, Milley said that he does not have similar information, but acknowledged that the president had planned to talk to military personnel on the ground who were involved in the raid. Asawin Suebsaeng and Erin Banco report at The Daily Beast.

Kurdish-led forces gave the U.S. key DNA evidence, including Baghdadi’s used underwear and blood, prior to the raid that targeted him Saturday, the leader of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) Gen. Mazloum Abdi said yesterday in an interview. Abdi added that the intelligence service’s informant, deep in al-Baghdadi’s inner circle, was able to describe a room-by-room layout of the leader’s compound, including the number of guards, floor plan, and tunnels. Richard Engel and Daniel Arkin report at NBC News.

Turkish police today detained three suspected ISIS militants who were allegedly plotting a “sensational” attack in the aftermath of the killing of Baghdadi, Turkey’s state-run news agency said. The AP reports. 

Trump’s decision to remove troops from Syria “upended a 5-year alliance and threw the plans against al-Baghdadi into disarray,” Ben Hubbard and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times, noting that American officials have acknowledged that the Kurds’ role in locating Baghdadi was “essential” — “more so than all other countries combined.”

Vice President Mike Pence yesterday insisted Trump’s decision to pull troops from northern Syria “had no impact” on the high-level operation that resulted in Baghdadi’s death. Justine Coleman reports at the Hill.

AL-BAGHDADI DEATH: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A look at where the Islamic State group (ISIS) is likely headed next following the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death is provided by Frank Gardner at the BBC.

With his performance Sunday, Trump missed an opportunity to have a “unifying” moment and quietly demonstrate competent leadership, Luke Hartig argues at Just Security, commenting that, instead, the president “politicized the raid’s aftermath and jeopardized our foreign policy and military operations in the process.”

Autocratic regimes that continue to hold sway in the Middle East are tied to the grievances that Islamic State propagandists “play on” to gain recruits, H. A. Hellyer argues at Foreign Policy, urging us to “consider carefully the conditions that led to [Baghdadi’s] rise and how to ensure that they are prevented from ever arising again in the future.”

TURKEY AND SYRIA

Kurdish YPG forces “have still not fully withdrawn” from an area of land in northeast Syria from which Ankara says they must depart, Turkey’s defense minister was quoted today as saying, hours before the expiry of deadline for their removal, under a deal reached a week ago between the presidents of Turkey and Russia. Reuters reports.

The accord between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “can’t last,” Chris Miller argues at Foreign Policy, predicting that “since neither leader can enforce the terms, the country’s war will wear on.”

The international community now needs to take decisive action to hold ISIS fighters accountable for their crimes in Syria, Matthew Krause comments at Just Security, writing that, “without effective prosecutions, there is a danger of ISIS members going free … [o]r worse, ISIS members with no prospect of criminal trial may be subjected to a more “political” disposition in Syria: extrajudicial killing.”

IRAN

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin vowed yesterday to increase sanctions against Iran, claiming the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” is stopping alleged Iranian aggression in the Middle East. Mnuchin made the remarks during a meeting in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called on Washington to “impose additional sanctions” to end what he called Iran’s “plunge for everything” in the region. The AP reports.

“If [President] Trump is serious about stopping an Iranian bomb … he should cancel or suspend nuclear waivers for the Fordow [Fuel Enrichment Plant] and Arak [heavy water reactor] facilities,” Andrea Stricker and Behnam Ben Taleblu argue at Foreign Policy.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.) Chair Ajit Pai yesterday unveiled a two-part proposal that would prohibit the use of F.C.C. funds for equipment from firms deemed national security threats, including Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. The first proposal would “bar U.S. telecom providers from using money from the F.C.C.’s $8.5 billion Universal Service Fund (U.S.F.) to purchase equipment from telecom companies deemed national security threats,” while the second proposal would “require U.S. telecom providers that have used money from the U.S.F. to rip out equipment from designated companies.” Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

Hundreds of Facebook employees have asked the company to reverse its policy of not fact-checking political advertisements paid for by elected officials or political candidates, calling the controversial rules a betrayal of the social-media giant’s values. In a letter to Facebook C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg, the employees raised sharp concerns over the company’s policy allowing misinformation in political ads, arguing that exempting candidates’ ads from fact checking “allows politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy.” Mike Isaac reports at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

The United States’s Afghan peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad remained in Pakistan today as part of efforts to negotiate an end to Afghanistan’s 18-year war, notwithstanding the fact that President Trump has not indicated any interest in continuing talks with the Taliban. The AP reports.

The U.N. special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen is set to meet the foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran and Russia in Geneva today, ahead of talks tomorrow aimed at “mapping out the war-torn country’s post-conflict political arrangements.” Al Jazeera reports. 

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).