The Early Edition: November 6, 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

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union (E.U.) Gordon Sondland revised the testimony he gave to investigators last month with a 4-page “supplemental declaration” to admit he told a top Ukraine official that nearly $400m in U.S. military aid was conditioned on Kiev publicly announcing anti-corruption investigations that could be used to damage former Vice President Joe Biden, according to a newly released deposition transcript from Sondland. The three House committees leading the impeachment inquiry into President Trump yesterday also released the interview transcript from former special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker. Michael S. Schmidt reports at the New York Times.

“I now recall speaking individually with [top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Andriy Yermak], where I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Sondland said in an addendum to his sworn earlier testimony, explaining the proposed arrangement was the culmination of months of pressure placed on Kiev, primarily via Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani. Sondland, who originally told investigators he took Trump at his word that there was never a quid pro quo attaching aid or a White House visit to investigations, offered new details to lawmakers on Monday after his memory was “refreshed”  by testimony from other witnesses. Sondland said that by the beginning of September, he “presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement.” Rebecca Ballhaus and Dustin Volz report at the Wall Street Journal.

“The last-minute alteration undercuts the central argument from Trump and his G.O.P. allies, who have insisted throughout the impeachment inquiry that the president had never threatened to withhold the aid as leverage to secure political favors.” Olivia Beavers and Mike Lillis report at the Hill.

Sondland told impeachment investigators that he assumed Giuliani’s campaign to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens was improper and illegal. Describing how plans to fight corruption generally transformed into more politically focused investigations, Sondland, in his testimony, said the allegations Giuliani was pushing “kept getting more insidious.” Natasha Bertrand, Nahal Toosi and Caitlin Oprysko report at POLITICO.

Volker told investigators several times during his testimony that he saw the push for probes on Biden as “separate and distinct” from demands to investigate Burisma, the energy company that employed Biden’s son Hunter. The envoy said he made the connection between Burisma and the Bidens only in September, after reading the transcript of Trump’s phone call with Zelensky, saying it became clear in retrospect that Giuliani’s press for the Burisma investigation was “an effort to serve Trump’s political interests and not the interests of the country.” Volker said he had never believed that the freeze on U.S. military aid was tied to Trump’s demands for politically motivated investigations. Felicia Sonmez, John Wagner and Colby Itkowitz report at the Washington Post.

Volker testified to House lawmakers that Trump had dismissed his positive assessments about Ukraine because of the “negative narrative” about the country being “amplified” by his personal lawyer. “[The president] gave the example of hearing from Rudy Giuliani that they’re all corrupt, they’re all terrible people,” Volker said, according to the transcript of his interview. The impeachment committees also released further text messages chronicling communications among Sondland, Volker and top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor, which revealed that on Aug. 13, Volker sent a message to Sondland setting out the exact language that he wanted Zelensky to use in a public statement announcing an investigation into Burisma and into Trump’s unfounded belief that Ukraine assisted the Democrats in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Jeremy Herb and Marshall Cohen report at CNN.

Yesterday’s disclosure provided new insight into the Trump administration’s Ukraine policy — particularly the outsize role of Giuliani, whose name appears more than 430 times in the documents, Allan Smith reports at NBC News. 

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham played down the importance of the latest transcripts, arguing that they “show there is even less evidence for this illegitimate impeachment sham than previously thought.” Grisham noted that Sondland “squarely states that he ‘did not know, (and still does not know) when, why or by whom the aid was suspended’ … he also said he ‘presumed’ there was a link to the aid – but cannot identify any solid source for that assumption.” The testimony of Volker “confirms there could not have been a quid pro quo because the Ukrainians did not know about the military aid hold at the time,” Grisham said in her statement, adding, “no amount of salacious media-biased headlines, which are clearly designed to influence the narrative, change the fact that the President has done nothing wrong.” Tom McCarthy reports at The Guardian.

Trump pledged “unwavering” support to Ukraine in a May 29 letter congratulating its new president on his election victory and invited Zelensky to the White House, as evidence of the United States’ “commitment” to the young democracy, it was reported yesterday. “Trump’s letter … points to a sharp contrast between Trump’s official, warm communications with Zelensky and the moves he actually wanted from Kyiv,” Betsy Swan and Erin Banco report at The Daily Beast.

A Washington-based consulting firm, Blue Star Strategies, hired by Burisma Group “mentioned that … Biden’s son served on the Ukrainian gas company’s board so the firm could leverage a meeting with the State Department,” according to email exchanges between State Department staff members made public this week and a former U.S. official, Jessica Donati reports at the Wall Street Journal.

House impeachment investigators yesterday called on the White House’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to testify this week in their inquiry into Trump. Mulvaney is unlikely to cooperate with investigators, Reuters reports.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An analysis of U.S. Ambassador to the European Union (E.U.) Gordon Sondland’s “careful effort” not incriminate President Trump while also shielding himself from culpability is provided by Philip Bump at the Washington Post.

Key excerpts of Sondland’s and former special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker’s testimonies are available at the New York Times.

5 takeaways from the testimonies of two diplomats who “were instrumental in managing President Trump and [his personal lawyer] Rudolph Giuliani’s insistence that Ukraine launch investigations that could benefit Trump politically” are provided in an analysis by Aaron Blake at the Washington Post.

12 questions to ask John Solomon about his part in the disinformation campaign surrounding former Vice President Joe Biden and corruption in Ukraine are suggested by Sidney Blumenthal at Just Security. 

TURKEY AND SYRIA

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) announced plans yesterday to introduce a resolution to force the Trump administration to provide Congress a report on whether Turkey has committed human rights abuses in its incursion into northern Syria. The resolution invokes a rare provision under the Foreign Assistance Act (F.A.A.), meaning it receives expedited consideration in the Senate; if it passes the Senate with a simple majority, the Secretary of State would be required to produce the report in 30 days. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

President Trump has given permission for an expanded military operation to secure an expanse of oil fields in eastern Syria, according to U.S. officials. The new plan, which would have hundreds of U.S. troops protect land that is currently controlled by Kurdish forces, raises the legal question of whether American forces would be able to attack Syrian or Russian forces if they threatened the security of the oil. The AP reports.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Yemen’s government has signed a power-sharing deal with separatists in the south of the country, known as the Southern Transitional Council (S.T.C.), that is intended to end months of infighting. The U.N. hailed the Riyadh Agreement as an “important” step towards ending Yemen’s civil war and reaching a “peaceful settlement” to the conflict. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Experts say Yemen’s peace initiative “is unlikely to bring a merciful end to the conflict,” Al Jazeera reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Hong Kong’s C.E.O. Carrie Lam today denounced violent action against pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho after he was stabbed and wounded by an anti-government assailant while election campaigning. Reuters reports.

Iran’s expansion of uranium enrichment activities in violation of key nuclear commitments is “a big step in the wrong direction,” a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said yesterday, after Tehran declared it would begin injecting uranium gas into over a thousand centrifuges at its underground Fordow enrichment facility. Reuters reports.

Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) wrote to the Trump administration yesterday requesting an “assessment of the threat” the Islamic State group (ISIS) presents to the U.S. amid reports that several captured members of the extremist group “escaped” detention in northeastern Syria. Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

Popular video App TikTok is struggling to assuage U.S. lawmakers’ concerns over its ties to the Chinese government. The company sent a letter assuring its independence from Beijing, but failed to persuade Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who chaired a hearing yesterday on the security of U.S. citizens’ personal data. Reuters reports.

The U.S. Supreme Court will rule in a matter of days on President Trump’s “bold” assertion that he is absolutely immune from criminal investigation while he remains in office. “If the court agrees to hear the case, its decision is likely to produce a major statement on the limits of presidential power — and to test the independence of the court itself,” Adam Liptak reports at the New York Times.

An in-depth look at the U.N. Charter — and whether it allows one State to use armed force on the territory of another State, without the territorial State’s consent, targeting a non-State actor — is provided against the backdrop of Turkey’s incursion into Syria and the U.S. fight against the Islamic State group by leading expert Adil Ahmad Haque 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).