The Early Edition: October 30, 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 Ukraine expert on the National Security Council Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman told impeachment investigators yesterday that the White House transcript of a July call between the presidents of the U.S. and Ukraine at the center of an ongoing impeachment inquiry left out important words and phrases — including President Trump mentioning recordings of former vice-president Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky making explicit reference to Burisma, the energy company that had Biden’s son Hunter on its board. Vindman, who listened in on the phone call, testified that he tried to edit the rough White House reconstruction of the call to include details that were omitted, but his two corrections about Biden tapes and Burisma were not made. Julian E. Barnes, Nicholas Fandos and Danny Hakim report at the New York Times.

Vindman said during his ten-hour testimony that Trump acted improperly in demanding politically motivated investigations, describing in specific, direct terms the campaign launched by the president and his allies. Rachael Bade, Karoun Demirjian, Mike DeBonis and Seung Min Kim report at the Washington Post

The substance of Vindman’s testimony was at times overshadowed as Trump and his defenders repeated a pattern of attacking witnesses. Trump dismissed Vindman as one of many “Never Trumpers” who have gone before congressional investigators to complain “about a perfectly appropriate phone call,” while some allies questioned the Purple Heart recipient’s patriotism. Top Democrats, meanwhile, said Vindman’s testimony was “extremely disturbing” and called him “very credible.” Adam Edelman and Rebecca Shabad report at NBC News.

House Democrats yesterday released a resolution laying out procedures for the next phase of the impeachment inquiry against Trump that will include public hearings, ahead of a full vote scheduled for tomorrow. The eight-page resolution sets out a two-stage process: in the first, the House Intelligence Committee would continue its investigations and hold public hearings and would then compile its findings in a report; in the second stage, the compiled transcripts and evidence would be sent to the House Judiciary Committee for review, where the White House will have the opportunity to challenge it and present its own evidence. Nicholas Fandos and Charlie Savage report at the New York Times.

A related set of procedures unveiled later yesterday by the Judiciary Committee for its phase would allow the president and his counsel to attend hearings, question witnesses and provide evidence, but would also empower the Committee’s Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) to block the president’s lawyers from cross-examining witnesses if Trump continued to try to stonewall congressional subpoenas. Cristina Marcos reports at the Hill.

A federal appeals court in Washington said yesterday the Trump administration does not have to immediately release to Congress certain grand jury materials from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. The court order temporarily puts on hold a ruling from last week that required the Justice Department to turn over materials the House Judiciary Committee is seeking as part of its impeachment inquiry into Trump. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

“Ukrainian officials will not testify in the U.S. Congress in the impeachment inquiry into Trump without an official summons because Kyiv does not want to get involved in the internal affairs of another country,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko declared yesterday. “We don’t have any connection to this,” Prystaiko told reporters, adding, “they should deal with it themselves … we won’t go there, we won’t comment.” Andrew Roth reports at The Guardian.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“The Intelligence Committee is tasked with organizing what could become blockbuster and historic open hearings,” Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis at CNN of a resolution setting out the scope and regulations of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump released yesterday amid “damaging” new testimony.

Top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, “more than any previous witness, corroborated in detail the account of the original whistleblower” andthe defense of [him] offered up by some of the Republican Party’s seniormost figures illustrates how difficult a target he will be for Trump’s allies to undermine,”  Elias Groll and Amy Mackinnon comment at Foreign Policy, noting “while Vindman immediately became a target of Trump and his minions … he may well be more immune to the sort of discrediting perfected by the Trump team.”

Five key takeaways from Vindman’s testimony, including the conflict with U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland’s “claims to ignorance about any effort to negotiate a deal with Ukraine involving a Biden investigation,” are suggested by Tom McCarthy at The Guardian.

AL-BAGHDADI DEATH

President Trump said yesterday that the U.S. had killed the “number one replacement” to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS)’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in a U.S. raid over the weekend. “Just confirmed that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s number one replacement has been terminated by American troops,” Trump wrote in a message sent on Twitter, adding “Most likely would have taken the top spot — Now he is also Dead!” The president did not identify the person or give more detail on how the individual was killed, however, a senior State Department official confirmed on Monday the killing of ISIS spokesperson Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, who was a high-ranking figure within the group. Zachary Cohen reports at CNN.

An analysis of data from jihadi websites suggests that Baghdadi’s death will not “meaningfully undermine the popularity of [his] militant ideas,” Santiago Segarra, Ali Jadbabaie and Richard Nielsen write at Foreign Policy.

TURKEY AND SYRIA

The House voted overwhelmingly yesterday for a resolution calling on President Trump to impose sanctions and other restrictions on Turkey and Turkish officials over its incursion into northern Syria. The measure, which was approved 403 to 16, is part of an effort by both Democrats and many Republicans in Congress to push Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government to halt its offensive against Kurdish forces who helped U.S. troops in the fight against the Islamic State group (ISIS). Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The last remaining Kurdish fighters exited Syria’s northern border territory as a ceasefire period ended yesterday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said, clearing the way for Russia and Turkey to secure the area. According to the official T.A.S.S. news agency, Shoigu noted that the withdrawal from the area where a safety corridor is supposed to be created was “completed ahead of schedule,” Al Jazeera reports.

43 people suspected of belonging to ISIS and of planning attacks targeting celebrations of Turkey’s national day were detained yesterday by Turkish authorities, police and state media said, two days after Trump declared that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed in a raid by U.S. special forces in northwest Syria, near the Turkish border. Reuters reports.

IRAN

Iran is apparently prepared to engage with the international community including the U.S. over its nuclear program, according to remarks by Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who warned, however, that Tehran would not participate in discussions that “did not take into account the Iranian interests.” Al Jazeera reports.

The U.N.’s atomic agency’s board selected a new leader yesterday with strong U.S. backing who has vowed to “shake up” the body and “strictly monitor” Iran’s nuclear activities. Argentine diplomat Rafael Grossi is likely to be formally elected when he gains the support of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s full membership, which is expected in the next few weeks. Laurence Norman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“The 80-year-old [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] is now looking for the second generation of the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] I.R.G.C. to safeguard the regime after he is gone Alex Vatanka comments at Foreign Policy, arguing, “giving a carte blanche to the generals … has a big chance of backfiring.”

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp sued Israeli surveillance firm N.S.O. Group yesterday, accusing it of helping government spies infiltrate the phones of around 1,400 users across four continents to conduct cyberespionage on diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and senior government officials. Reuters reports.

“Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to shift funds designated for civilian purposes to military spending to meet any threats from Iran,” a government official said yesterday. Reuters reports.

IMMIGRATION

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (C.B.P.) agents arrested more than 851,000 people crossing the southern border in the past year — more than double the previous year’s total — including a “record-breaking” number of families, C.B.P.’s acting commissioner Mark Morgan said yesterday. The figures released by the Department of Homeland Security show a 342 percent increase in the total number of family units apprehended at the border, with more than 473,000 people traveling as families detained as well as 76,000 unaccompanied immigrant children. Michelle Hackman and Alicia A. Caldwell report at the Wall Street Journal.

The White House is weighing legal options that could allow President Trump to choose whomever he wants to lead the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.), according to an administration official. The White House is exploring a loophole in the law that would give the president a way to bypass a federal statute that dictates who can fill secretary positions; “under this route, the White House would tap someone to be the assistant secretary of the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, which is vacant, and then elevate that person to be the acting secretary of homeland security.” Zolan Kanno-Youngs reports at the New York Times.

DEFENSE

The Department of Defense (D.O.D.) finalized an agreement to purchase 478 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters from Lockheed Martin in a deal totaling $34 billion, “a record amount for the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program.” The contract will lower the cost of each advanced fighter jet, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord told reporters at the Pentagon. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chair James Inhofe (R-Okla.) yesterday officially introduced his “skinny” defense policy bill, which he presented as a “backup plan” in the event that lawmakers fail to agree on a larger bill by the end of the year. The “skinny” bill “extends necessary authorities for military operations, takes care of the servicemembers and their families, and authorizes essential military construction and acquisition programs,” Inhofe said, introducing the proposed legislation amid stalled negotiations on a more comprehensive National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.) Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

The House voted overwhelmingly yesterday to recognize the mass killings of Armenians a century ago as a genocide, a symbolic but historic vote instantly denounced by Turkey. AFP reports.

The first meeting between the Syrian government and the opposition in years will take place today in Geneva, presenting a “unique opportunity” for peace, according to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The AP reports.

The Afghan government has insisted on a one-month cease-fire as precondition for talks with the Taliban, saying a truce would indicate whether the leaders negotiating on behalf of the Taliban still had the power to order an end to fighting. Mujib Mashal reports at the New York Times.

Guterres declared yesterday that women are still excluded from many peace negotiations nearly two decades after the U.N. adopted a landmark resolution calling for women to be included in decision-making positions at all levels of peacemaking. Guterres told the Security Council that sexual and gender-based violence remain weapons of war, a growing number of armed groups promote misogyny as “part of their core ideology,” and women and girls continue “to pay the consequences of conflict.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

“Under current doctrine, federalism concerns do not preclude Congress from criminalizing [female genital mutilation] F.G.M. as a means of implementing Article 24(1) of the [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] I.C.C.P.R.,” Daniel Rice explains at Just Security, in a detailed analysis on what Congress can do to regulate the practice of F.G.M.

A new report commissioned by international organization Korea Peace Now argues that the Trump administration’s global sanctions regime on North Korea has “directly contributed to the deaths of innocent civilians” and urges the removal of restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Courtney McBride reports at the Wall Street Journal. 

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).