The Early Edition: November 5, 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 three House committees leading the impeachment inquiry into President Trump yesterday released interview transcripts from the depositions of two early witnesses former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Michael McKinley — officially moving the inquiry into a public phase. The interview transcripts “show that a cadre of career, non-political officials were deeply concerned by … Trump’s posture toward Ukraine” as well as revealing “his allies’ ultimately successful efforts to take down Yovanovitch,” Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio report at POLITICO.

Yovanovitch told impeachment investigators that she felt personally threatened by Trump — specifically, after he described her during his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as “bad news” and said she would “go through some things.” Reacting to the transcript, Yovanovitch said she did not know what Trump meant, adding: “I was very concerned … I still am.” Nicholas Fandos and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

Yovanovitch also testified that when she sought advice from Sondland on what to do when she was being publicly discredited, he recommended that she tweet-praise Trump to save her job. Yovanovitch rejected the idea, saying she did not feel that such an approach, as a diplomat, would be inappropriate. Yovanovitch described the extent to which the shadow campaign being pushed by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani and others ran counter to U.S. policy toward Ukraine. At one point, she said Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov told her that two of Giuliani’s associates who were indicted last month, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, wanted to see a different ambassador in the post, possibly because of their business interests in Ukraine. Sam Brodey and  Betsy Swan report at The Daily Beast.

McKinley described how his dawning awareness of the whistleblower complaint and other details of Trump’s interactions with Ukraine, combined with the failure of the state department to support Yovanovitch amid a smear campaign by Trump allies, motivated him to resign from the state Department. Rebecca Ballhaus, Dustin Volz and Natalie Andrews report at the Wall Street Journal.

The transcripts revealed repeated efforts by McKinley to get Pompeo to come to Yovanovitch’s defense or issue a public statement supporting her as she came under fire from the president’s allies. That testimony contradicted Pompeo, who has publicly denied having heard any concerns from McKinley about the treatment of the ambassador. Greg Miller, Karoun Demirjian and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

The transcripts of interviews with Sondland and former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker will be made public today, House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told reporters. Reuters reports.

Lev Parnas, who was indicted on campaign-finance charges, is willing to provide documents and testimony to House impeachment investigators, his lawyer Joseph Bondy confirmed. “We will honor and not avoid the committee’s requests to the extent they are legally proper, while scrupulously protecting Mr. Parnas’ privileges including that of the Fifth Amendment,” Bondy said, referring to his client’s constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination. Parnas denied a request from Congress last month to provide documents and testimony, with his lawyer John Dowd apparently writing to lawmakers that the request was “overly broad and unduly burdensome.” Reuters reports.

Trump yesterday rejected an offer made a day earlier by the lawyer for the anonymous whistleblower at the center of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry to submit written answers to questions from Republican lawmakers. “The Whistleblower gave false information & dealt with corrupt politician Schiff,” Trump wrote in a message sent on Twitter, referring to one of the leaders of the inquiry, adding, “he must be brought forward to testify … written answers not acceptable!” The Guardian reporting.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Five takeaways from the interview transcripts from the depositions of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Michael McKinley are available at the Hill and Foreign Policy.

“Executive privilege is not an impediment to the appearance of any witness before the House Intelligence Committee in the context of an impeachment inquiry,” Lawrence Friedman writes at Just Security, citing three reasons, including the Supreme Court’s 1974 decision in United States v. Nixon.

A look at why Ukrainian President Zelensky continues to insist that he felt “no pressure” from President Trump — a denial Trump and his allies are using as evidence against a quid pro quo — is provided by Anders Åslund at Just Security.

ISIS

Turkish forces in northern Syria have captured the sister of killed Islamic State group (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and are interrogating her and her husband and daughter-in-law, who were also detained, a senior Turkish official said yesterday. The official said Rasmiya Awad, who is suspected of being connected with the extremist group, was seized yesterday along with her five children during a raid near the Turkish-controlled northern Syrian town of Azaz. The AP reports.

“We hope to gather a trove of intelligence from Baghdadi’s sister on the inner workings of ISIS,” the official said, adding that the arrest could be “an intelligence gold mine.” “What she knows about ISIS can significantly expand our understanding of the group,” help us catch more members and “help Turkey to better protect itself and the rest of Europe from terrorists,” he said. AFP reports.

“Just months after [ISIS] lost the last of its territory in Syria, and days after its leader … was killed in a U.S.-led raid, the group has found safe haven in a remote, ungoverned space in Iraq, as foreign fighters move across the border from Syria,” according to military officials, Courtney Kube reports at NBC News.

IRAN

The Trump administration issued new sanctions yesterday against Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s closest advisers and added $20 million to a reward for information about a former F.B.I. agent who went missing in Iran 12 years ago. Among those sanctioned were Khamenei’s second son, Mojtaba Khamenei, who often represents his father at official functions, newly appointed head of Iran’s judiciary Ebrahim Raisi, and Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, the supreme leader’s chief of staff. Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

Iran will begin injecting uranium gas into over a thousand centrifuges at a fortified nuclear facility, President Hassan Rouhani announced today, in Tehran’s latest step away from its commitment to a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers since the U.S. withdrew from the deal over a year ago. Al Jazeera reports.

An explainer on Iran’s nuclear program and its obligations under the accord is provided by the AP.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Chinese President Xi Jinping today expressed a “high degree of trust” in Hong Kong’s C.E.O. Carrie Lam as the pair met for official talks for the first time since the increasingly violent protests began in the semi-autonomous city in June. Xi reportedly said Lam and her government had done “a lot of hard work” to control the unrest in Hong Kong. The Guardian reports.

“It’s hard to imagine another political system where a senior politician could — by their own admission — have created the level of unrest that Carrie Lam has wrought in Hong Kong, and still keep their job,” James Griffiths writes in an analysis at CNN, commenting that, “in a city where many see the hand of China in most government policies and pronouncements … Xi’s full-throated endorsement could risk underlining for protesters just how much Lam is Beijing’s instrument.”

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Facebook’s digital currency Libra has “potentially disastrous consequences,” Saule Omarova and Graham Steele argue at the New York Times, noting, “there is currently very little information about how the [scheme] will conduct its monetary operations” and it “could spin up an entire shadow banking system.”

A look at the main fears surrounding crypto-currencies, including their use by criminals, is provided by AFP.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

North Korea said today the U.S. redesignation of Pyongyang as a sponsor of terrorism “proves once again” that the United States maintains a “hostile policy” toward North Korea and is dimming prospects for nuclear diplomacy between the countries. The comments from North’s Foreign Ministry came after the release last week of the State Department’s terrorism blacklist report. Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. notified the U.N. yesterday that it would officially withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement next fall, marking the first formal step in a one-year process to exit the global pact to fight climate change and making the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases the sole outlier from the agreement. The BBC reports.

Jury selection begins today in the trial of former Trump campaign adviser Roger J. Stone Jr., one of the last outstanding criminal prosecutions resulting from the nearly two-year investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. Sharon LaFraniere reports at the New York Times.

A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that President Trump’s tax returns must be turned over to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance as part of an investigation into the payoffs to two women who alleged affairs with Trump. Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow said he would appeal the case to the Supreme Court. Brian Naylor reports at NPR.

The Ukrainian prosecutor who led the investigation into the energy company where the son of former Vice President Joe Biden previously served on the board, Kostiantyn Kulyk, is expected to be fired for failing to attend an exam last month required of all General Prosecutor’s Office employees and neglecting to provide justification for his absence. Reuters 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).