The Early Edition: November 4, 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

The anonymous whistleblower whose complaint about President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine triggered an impeachment inquiry against the president has offered to answer written questions under oath from House Republicans, his lawyer Mark Zaid has confirmed, as part of an attempt to stem efforts by Trump and his G.O.P. allies to unmask the individual’s identity. Zaid said his client would provide answers in writing under oath and with penalty of perjury, but would not respond to any “inappropriate” questions, including those seeking identifying information. Zaid said the offer underscores his client’s desire to ensure his complaint is handled in a nonpartisan way, Jacqueline Alemany, Paul Kane and Felicia Sonmez report at the Washington Post.

It is not clear, however, if Republicans will take Zaid up on the proposal. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) rejected the offer, saying, “written answers will not provide a sufficient opportunity to probe all the relevant facts and cross-examine the so-called whistle-blower,” adding “you should not be able to ignite an impeachment effort and never account for your actions and role in orchestrating it.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), appearing on CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” also dismissed written testimony as insufficient for such a critical moment as impeaching a president and reiterated his desire to have the whistleblower “come forward in an open hearing.” Catie Edmondson and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

Trump and other officials on his 2016 presidential campaign had several private conversations about how they could obtain stolen Democratic emails WikiLeaks had possession of in 2016, according to newly released documents from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe obtained by BuzzFeed News and CNN through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The release includes F.B.I. interview summaries, emails and other documents related to Mueller’s report detailing Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Katelyn Polantz reports at CNN.

The new interview notes reveal that Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort spread a conspiracy theory now at the center of the impeachment investigation — that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the Democratic National Committee (D.N.C.) to help the Trump campaign — months before the 2016 election. Manafort told his deputy on the campaign Rick Gates about the theory “as the campaign sought to capitalize on the D.N.C. email disclosures and as Trump associates discussed how they could get hold of the material themselves,” Gates told investigators, according to a summary of one of his interviews. Trump’s allies later promoted that theory to undermine Mueller’s conclusions about Russian interference. The AP reports.

An overhaul of Ukraine’s General Prosecutor’s Office (G.P.O.) ordered by Zelensky is “set to derail a series of long-running criminal investigations, including two related to … Manafort,” three current and former Ukrainian prosecutors told Reuters. Zelensky insisted the makeover, which comes amid widespread scrutiny of the agency following efforts by Trump and his personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani to press Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political rivals,  is necessary “because the office is widely distrusted by Ukrainians and has been seen as a political tool for the well-connected to punish their enemies.” Reuters reports.

Top White House lawyer John Eisenberg instructed National Security Council (N.S.C.)’s director for Ukraine Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman not to discuss the contents of a controversial July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky days after he reported concerns about the call, according to his deposition last week. Vindman told investigators that when he brought his concerns to Eisenberg, he and Michael Ellis, another lawyer at the N.S.C., decided to place the transcript of the phone call into the White House’s highly classified computer system to avoid leaks, a person familiar with Vindman’s deposition said. Natasha Bertrand reports at POLITICO.

All four White House officials who are scheduled to give depositions today as part of the House’s impeachment inquiry of Trump have refused to appear before House lawmakers. According to an administration official, Eisenberg will not testify due to executive privilege, while Ellis, senior adviser to the acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney Robert Blair and associate director for natural resources, energy and science at the Office of Management and Budget (O.M.B.) Brian McCormack will not show up “because they will not be able to have an administration lawyer present.” Pamela Brown, Rene Marsh and Paul LeBlanc, report at CNN.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry will not participate in a close door deposition Wednesday, according to the Department of Energy (D.O.E.). “The Secretary will not partake in a secret star chamber inquisition where agency counsel is forbidden to be present,” D.O.E. spokesperson Shaylyn Hynes said in a statement, adding that Perry would consider a request from lawmakers to testify in an open hearing. Reuters reports.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said yesterday she did not know whether the Trump administration held up military aid to Ukraine as leverage for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, but pointed to the fact that the country ultimately received the funds. Conway maintained that the president’s conduct towards Ukraine was not an impeachable offense. Allan Smith reports at NBC News.

A growing number of Republican senators reportedly are prepared to acknowledge that Trump leveraged security aid to Ukraine in exchange for probes — but insist that does not amount to an impeachable offense. The shift in strategy runs counter to Trump’s insistence of no quid pro quo taking place and comes as House Democrats last week passed a resolution laying out the next steps in the impeachment probe. Rachael Bade and Seung Min Kim report at the Washington Post.

Senators are “scraping the bottom of the barrel for excuses,” Jennifer Rubin argues at the Washington Post, commenting on the latest “non-defense defense” from Republicans.

TURKEY AND SYRIA

At least 13 people were killed Saturday after a car bomb exploded in the northern Syrian border town of Tal Abyad, Turkish authorities said. 20 other civilians were also injured in the blast, Al Jazeera reports.

“Turkish-backed forces fighting Kurdish militias in north-east Syria have been accused of committing war crimes, with acts of brutality surfacing on mobile phone footage.” The U.N. has cautioned that Turkey could be held responsible for the actions of its allies, while the country has pledged to investigate. The BBC reports.

President Trump declared Friday that the ceasefire in northeastern Syria where Turkey has deployed troops to clear the area of Syrian Kurdish militia forces has held “very nicely.” Reuters reports.

If Trump were serious about ending endless war in Syria and elsewhere, he would offer a responsible plan for repealing the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (A.U.M.F.) in favor of a more sustainable and effective counterterrorism approach, Rita Siemion and Benjamin Haas argue at Just Security.

IRAN

Iran remains the “world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism,” according to the State Department’s Country Report published Friday. The report says that Tehran spends nearly a billion dollars a year to “support terrorist groups that serve as its proxies and expand its malign influence across the globe.” The nation also apparently personally plotted terrorist acts in Belgium, France, and Germany earlier this year, Marty Johnson reports at the Hill.

Tehran has begun operating 60 IR-6 advanced centrifuges in breach of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, Head of Iran’s nuclear program Ali Akbar Salehi said. Salehi also revealed that Tehran is “working on” a prototype centrifuge that would be 50 times faster than the first-generation IR-1s permitted under the accord. The AP reports.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week called on the Trump administration to maintain  pressure on Iran. “Iran’s brazenness in the region is rising, and it’s increasing even more due to the lack of response,” Netanyahu said at a military ceremony in southern Israel, urging the U.S. to confront Tehran. Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Five people, including local councillor Andrew Chiu, were wounded yesterday in a knife attack at the site of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Part of Chiu’s ear apparently was bitten off by the knifeman, the BBC reports.

Activists in Hong Kong are “trying harder than ever to draw the United States into their movement” in the hope that “the Trump administration might be able to make demands of Chinese leaders or Hong Kong officials,” Edward Wong reports at the New York Times.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

A U.S. government committee has launched a national security probe into Chinese firm Bytedance’s $1 billion acquisition of American App Musical.ly — that became popular video-sharing platform TikTok. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an interagency body that reviews transactions involving overseas companies on national security grounds, is examining the two-year-old deal after lawmakers raised concerns about TikTok’s data-collection and censorship practices amid its growing influence in the U.S.. Reuters reports.

“This government should pull whatever levers it can to ensure that a country that will not allow democracy in is unable to push authoritarianism outward,” the Washington Post editorial board argues, reflecting on why the TikTok App has government officials worried.

“[TikTok] relies on its users’ ignorance of its origins and practices,” Michael J. Socolow writes at POLITICO Magazine, commenting on the “battle between free expression and policing of content … playing out within TikTok,” and noting that social media giants Twitter and Facebook are also “terrific vehicles for advertising and propaganda.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

At least 53 soldiers and a civilian were killed Friday in an attack on a military post in northeast Mali, the government said. The Islamic state group (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack via its Amaq news agency, Reuters reports.

The U.S. is conducting research into the new leader of the Islamic State group (ISIS) Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi to ascertain his previous roles in the organization, U.S. counter-terrorism coordinator Nathan Sales said Friday after a U.S. special forces raid last month killed ISIS’s former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the group announced a successor had been appointed. “Any time there is a leadership transition in the terrorist organization, we want to make sure that we have the latest information that we need to have to confront the threat,” Sales told a briefing. Reuters reports.

A federal judge has temporarily blocked a rule proposed by President Trump that would require immigrants to prove they will have health insurance within 30 days of arrival in the U.S., or can afford to pay for medical care. Seven U.S. citizens and a nonprofit organization had filed a lawsuit contending the rule would block hundreds of thousands of legal migrants. Yasmeen Abutaleb, Jeff Stein and Kayla Epstein report at the Washington Post.

Trump named Chad Wolf as the next acting secretary of the Homeland Security Department, elevating him from his undersecretary position within the agency. Wolf would become the fifth person to head the department, as the Trump administration continues to struggle to fill the post on both a temporary and a permanent basis. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

“A Russian arms control official said for the first time on Friday that there was not enough time to replace the last and most important nuclear arms-limitation treaty with the United States before it expires early in 2021, raising the possibility that Washington and Moscow would then be free to expand their arsenals without limits,”  Richard Pérez-Peña, Ivan Nechepurenko and David E. Sanger report at the New York Times.

“Trump has decided to establish his legal residence in Florida, apparently at least in part to save money on his taxes.” James Barron at the New York Times explains why the president changing his legal home is “not so simple.”

A roundup of last week’s national security, human rights, and the rule of law developments at the U.N., including the commencement of talks by delegates on the U.N.-backed Syrian Constitutional Committee, is provided by Emily Shire at Just Security. 

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).