The Early Edition: October 31, 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

President Trump’s top adviser for Russian and European affairs Tim Morrison is resigning his post at the White House ahead of his scheduled testimony tomorrow before House impeachment investigators, a senior administration official said yesterday. Morrison, a senior National Security Council (N.S.C.) official who apparently had been expected to leave the N.S.C. for some time, is a key witness in the impeachment inquiry into whether Trump used the office to press the Ukrainian government to launch investigations aimed at damaging his political opponents. Morrison will be replaced by Andrew Peek, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, Franco Ordoñez reports at NPR.

“[While] it was not clear whether Morrison’s imminent departure from the White House is a resignation or a sacking … either way, it suggests his testimony to the House committees holding impeachment hearings is unlikely to be helpful to the president’s cause, and is being given in defiance of a White House order not to participate in the inquiry.” Julian Borger reports at The Guardian.

Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan testified yesterday that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani “was involved in a smear campaign to oust the ambassador to Ukraine,” confirming previous testimony about the role Giuliani had played in the removal of Marie Yovanovitch. In response to questions from Senate Foreign Relations Committee members during his confirmation hearing to become the next U.S. ambassador to Russia, Sullivan said Trump’s requests for investigations into political rivals were not “in accord with our values.” Catie Edmondson reports at the New York Times.

Impeachment investigators privately questioned two more witnesses yesterday — Christopher Anderson and Catherine Croft, both foreign service officers who worked closely on Ukraine policy at the White House, advising former U.S. special envoy to that country Kurt Volker. Croft said in her opening remarks that former Republican congressman-turned-lobbyist Robert Livingston repeatedly urged that Yovanovitch be fired because of what he saw as her association with Democrats, although it was not clear “at whose direction or at whose expense” Livingston was seeking her removal. Anderson told lawmakers that “senior officials in the White House” blocked the State Department from issuing a statement condemning Russia for seizing Ukrainian military vessels in 2018; instead, Anderson recalls, “Volker drafted a tweet condemning Russia’s actions, which I posted to his account.” John Hudson and Elise Viebeck reports at the Washington Post.

White House lawyer John Eisenberg apparently was informed about the July call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the legal concerns it raised. In response he ordered the transcript to be moved to a highly classified server, restricting who had access to it, according to two sources familiar with the testimony yesterday of top Ukraine adviser in the White House Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. Carol D. Leonnig, Tom Hamburger and Greg Miller report at the Washington Post.

House investigators yesterday invited Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton to testify next week in their impeachment inquiry. White House lawyers Eisenberg and Michael Ellis were also sent interview requests for Nov. 4. Bolton is scheduled to be deposed on Nov. 7, Rebecca Ballhaus, Siobhan Hughes and Warren P. Strobel report at the Wall Street Journal.

“In late July, the Pentagon alerted the White House that if [its portion of the $400 million in military aid for Ukraine] wasn’t released in time, the Pentagon would be at risk of violating the Impoundment Control Act, which punishes the executive branch when it doesn’t spend money that Congress has appropriated,” Kate Brannen reports in an exclusive at Just Security.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted yesterday that Trump’s July 25 phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart was “consistent” with the administration’s policies. Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

The House will vote today on a resolution laying out a process to move impeachment from closed-door depositions to open hearings. Tom McCarthy reports at The Guardian.

“Procedures like [those in the resolution] aim to fulfill Congress’s obligation to be as deliberative, fair and open as possible … of course, no matter how many concessions the Democrats make, Republicans will cry foul,” the New York Times editorial board argues, commenting, “the White House is not interested in transparency or accountability, which explains its efforts to stop potential witnesses from appearing.”

AL-BAGHDADI DEATH

The U.S. military yesterday released the first footage of the raid in northern Syria that resulted in the death of the leader of the Islamic State group (ISIS) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Brief black-and-white video showed U.S. troops approaching the walls of the compound where Baghdadi was holed up. The Pentagon also published newly declassified video of airstrikes on the site. Zachary Cohen, Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne report at CNN.

Head of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said the destroyed buildings were left looking like “a parking lot with large potholes.” McKenzie said two children had died with Baghdadi in the tunnel — not three as previously reported — and he was unable to confirm Trump’s claim that the ISIS leader was “crying, whimpering” in the moments before his death. AFP reports.

The member of Baghdadi’s inner circle who helped lead American soldiers to his compound in Northern Syria was motivated mainly by “revenge.” “His relatives were subjected to harsh treatment by ISIS and he no longer believed in the future of ISIS … he wanted to take revenge on ISIS and al-Baghdadi himself,” Commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) Gen. Mazloum Abdi said. NBC News reports.

“The U.S. special operations raid … was almost perfect … but the Trump administration’s recent actions could make the al-Baghdadi raid one of the last of its kind for many years,” former deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy at the Department of Homeland Security Thomas S. Warrick comments at NBC News.

TURKEY AND SYRIA

At least eight people were killed and 14 others wounded after a car bomb exploded today in a market in a northern region of Syria held by Turkish-led forces. The AP reports.

Members of the Syrian constitutional committee met for the first time yesterday in Geneva, inside the Council Chamber of the U.N. office, to chart a political settlement to end the eight-and-a-half-year civil war. A total of 150 delegates representing the government, opposition and civil society attended the meeting, Al Jazeera reports.

The talks were held against the backdrop of fresh fighting in northeastern Syria, as Turkish forces clashed with Syrian government troops yesterday, indicating that a peace deal brokered by Russia between Kurdish forces in the region and Ankara may not hold. Reuters reports.

As American troops withdraw from northeastern Syria every day under President Trump’s order, “a separate wave of American troops from the opposite direction is pouring back in,” Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper report at the New York Times, writing “once the comings and goings are done, the total number of United States forces in Syria is expected to be about 900 — close to the 1,000 troops on the ground when Trump ordered the withdrawal of American forces from the country.”

U.S. deterrence in the Middle East has collapsed over the past few months, and “the withdrawal from Syria is part of a broader pattern of weakness,” John Hannah comments at Foreign Policy, noting, “that’s especially the case in the aftermath of Iran’s drone and cruise missile attack against Saudi oil facilities last month.”

AFGHANISTAN

C.I.A.-backed Afghan strike forces have committed abuses amounting to “atrocities” and possible “war crimes,” including forced disappearances, attacks on healthcare facilities and extrajudicial killings, a new report by New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch said. The 50-page report released yesterday documents 14 individual cases over the last two years in which Afghan forces trained and funded by the U.S. intelligence agency have shown little concern for civilian life or accountability to international law. The BBC reports.

“Casualties among Afghanistan’s security forces increased by 5 percent from June through August this year compared with the same period last year,” Susannah George reports at the Washington Post.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Social media giant Twitter yesterday said it would ban all political advertising worldwide, saying that the reach of such messages “should be earned, not bought.” “While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions,” C.E.O. Jack Dorsey announced, amid ongoing controversy over rival Facebook’s decision to allow misinformation in political advertising, a move decried by top Democrats over recent weeks. Nancy Scola and Steven Overly report at POLITICO.

Facebook C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg yesterday defended his company’s controversial political advertising policy, just over an hour after Twitter’s announcement. “Although I’ve considered whether we should not carry [political] ads in the past, and I’ll continue to do so, on balance so far I’ve thought we should continue,” Zuckerberg told investors on a quarterly earnings call, explaining, “ads can be an important part of voice — especially for candidates and advocacy groups the media might not otherwise cover so they can get their message into debates.” Emily Birnbaum reports at the Hill.

“[Dorsey’s move] was a bold and epic poke that seemed aimed directly at Mark Zuckerberg,” Kara Swisher argues at the New York Times, commenting, while “cleaning up political ads is only a start … it is yet another example … of social media … beginning to understand the major responsibility it has to the well-being of society at large, well beyond just making money.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Sudan has recently downsized its forces taking part in a Saudi-led coalition at war with Yemen’s Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels, according to two senior Sudanese officials. The AP reports.

North Korea today fired two projectiles toward its eastern sea, according to officials in South Korea and Japan, in an apparent resumption of weapons tests aimed at increasing pressure on Washington over an impasse in nuclear negotiations. Reuters reports.

“Egypt has been seeking to undermine longstanding consensus [at the U.N.] on norms for human rights in countering terrorism.” Andrew Smith and Matt Pollard at Just Security propose a way for member states to take a principled and strategic position.

Authorities in Hong Kong are bracing for tonight’s demonstrations after protestors called for people to mark Halloween by wearing masks depicting government officials or scary characters, testing a government prohibition on face coverings at public rallies introduced this month to help suppress the increasingly violent protests now in their fifth month. The AP reports.

Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) pressed law enforcement and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials on their efforts to combat threats posed by white supremacist groups in a House Homeland Security Committee hearing yesterday. Zack Budryk reports at the Hill.

A group of 11 Senate Democrats have urged the Trump administration to drop reported plans to collect DNA from migrants at the border, calling the proposals “unnecessary, unjustified and invasive.” Zack Budryk reports at the Hill.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) blocked a House-passed election and ethics reform bill yesterday, arguing the measure would “give the federal government unprecedented control over elections in this country.” The objection marks “the latest of several failed attempts by Democrats to advance election-related legislation ahead of 2020,” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill. 

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).