The Early Edition: November 7, 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 asked Attorney General William Barr to hold a formal news conference clearing him of legal wrongdoing with regard to his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Trump’s request reportedly occurred around the White House’s Sept. 25 release of a transcript of the call. Barr declined to hold the news conference, though the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) eventually did release a statement claiming that “no further action was warranted” after it had evaluated the rough transcript and the whistleblower complaint about the call — which raised concerns about Trump’s mentioning of his political opponent former Vice President Joe Biden to Zelensky.  Matt Zapotosky, Josh Dawsey and Carol D. Leonnig report at the Washington Post.

Top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor had a “clear understanding” that nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid for Ukraine would be withheld until the country pursued investigations — of Ukrainian energy company Burisma and its ties to Biden’s son Hunter as well as of alleged Ukrainian influence in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — that could benefit Trump politically, according to a transcript of his closed-door testimony released by House impeachment investigators yesterday. Taylor told a Congressional committee he understood that the security assistance, as well as a White House meeting for Ukraine’s new president, was conditioned on the country committing to such investigations. Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

Taylor also told House investigators that Rudolph Giuliani was behind the drive to get Ukraine to announce an investigation into the Bidens, saying it was “clear” that this “irregular” foreign policy channel was led by the president’s personal lawyer, whom he deemed to be operating on behalf of Trump. Nahal Toosi and Natasha Bertrand report at POLITICO.

Taylor testified that he believed the push for investigations was motivated by a desire to harm current Democratic frontrunner Biden. “As I understood the reason for investigating Burisma was to cast Vice President Biden in a bad light,” Taylor said, according to the transcript. Reuters reports.

Key excerpts from Taylor’s testimony, including the apparent discomfort within the State Department with U.S. Ambassador to the European Union (E.U.) Gordon Sondland’s role in Ukraine, are available at the New York Times.

House Democrats yesterday pulled their subpoena for testimony from former deputy national security adviser Charles Kupperman and asked a federal court to dismiss his lawsuit over the matter, saying the litigation could “slow down” the impeachment investigation. Kupperman filed a suit last month asking a federal judge to determine whether he is required to testify in the House impeachment inquiry or whether he has immunity as the White House claims. Byron Tau reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Giuliani has hired lawyers of his own to represent him, as federal prosecutors in New York probe his interactions with two men, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, charged with campaign finance violations. Giuliani announced the hires in a message sent on Twitter yesterday, indicating that he will be represented by New York lawyers Robert Costello, Eric Creizman and Melissa Madrigal. Reuters reports.

Public impeachment hearings in Congress will begin next Wednesday, with testimony from Taylor and deputy assistant secretary of state George Kent, House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said yesterday. AFP reports.

“[I]t’s becoming clear that [Giuliani’s] role was far more influential than [initially thought] and he was imbued with presidential authority,” Stephen Collinson comments in an analysis at CNN, noting, “testimony shows Giuliani set up a powerful alternative diplomatic track that not only bypassed official U.S. channels, it also actively inhibited work to better U.S.-Ukraine ties.”

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

At least eight people, including three civilians, were killed yesterday after Iran-aligned Houthi rebels staged missile and drone attacks on forces allied with the country’s internationally recognized government in a Red Sea town. The strikes also caused large fires, military officials said. Al Jazeera reports.

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) has charged two former Twitter employees with spying for the kingdom by allegedly gathering the company’s private data on thousands of users, including known critics of the Saudi government, and providing that information to Saudi officials in exchange for payment, “marking the first time federal prosecutors have publicly accused the kingdom of running agents in the United States.” One of those involved in the scheme, according to court papers, is an associate of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the C.I.A. has concluded likely directed the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Bensinger report at the Washington Post.

A detailed look at whether the Khashoggi case affected the way the Trump administration handles its duty to warn journalists who are under threat is provided by Edwin Djabatey at Just Security, who notes, “President Trump, many of his top officials, and his supporters have made no secret of their disdain for press freedom.”

TURKEY AND SYRIA

The U.S. is investigating whether Turkey breached agreements with Washington over the use of US-provided weapons and equipment, including whether Ankara “improperly transferred” U.S.-supplied weapons to its proxies in Syria —  including to groups that are suspected of committing war crimes as part of the Turkish-led offensive targeting America’s Kurdish allies. A U.S. defense official stated that the U.S. government at present considers the claims that Turkey has violated end-use monitoring agreements to be “credible,” prompting the review. Ryan Browne and Jennifer Hansler report at CNN.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said today the U.S. was not delivering on its promise to remove Kurdish militia from a Syrian border region and he will bring up the issue when he meets President Trump next week. Erdoğan is scheduled to discuss implementation of the agreement with Trump in Washington next Wednesday, after the two leaders spoke by phone yesterday and confirmed that the visit would go ahead. Reuters reports.

A bipartisan group of senators asked the Trump administration yesterday to respond with “tough sanctions” if reports of Turkish violations of a ceasefire agreement in northern Syria are true. “On several occasions, President Trump has threatened to ‘destroy Turkey’s economy’ should Turkey violate its obligations,” Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo adding, “[i]n keeping with this position, we ask that the Administration take swift measures to enforce the October 17 agreement with tough economic sanctions.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

A woman married to the slain Islamic State group (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been captured and is in Turkish custody, Erdoğan announced yesterday, criticizing the U.S. for a “communications campaign” over the jihadist’s death. According to a Turkish official, Asma Fawzi Muhammad al-Qubaysi, one of Baghdadi’s four wives, “volunteered a lot of information about Baghdadi and inner workings” of ISIS, which has led to a string of arrests elsewhere. Turkey declared Monday it had captured al-Baghdadi’s sister Rasmiya Awad in northwestern Syria, in what a Turkish official described as a “gold mine” for ISIS intelligence. The AP reports.

IRAN

Iran now possesses an effective military advantage over the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East due to its ability to wage war using third parties such as Shia militias and insurgents, according to a 16-month study by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The 217-page report provides unprecedented detail on the extent and reach of Iran’s operations in the region and concludes the nation’s “third party capability” has become Tehran’s “weapon of choice.” Patrick Wintour reports at The Guardian.

Iran’s recent “nuclear escalations” raise concerns that should move all nations to increase pressure on Tehran, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pomeo said today, Reuters reports.

Europe should be helping the U.S. to address the defects in the 2015 nuclear deal after Iran announced this week it is running new and advanced centrifuges and the regime would begin injecting gas into the 1,044 centrifuges at the Fordow underground nuclear facility in violation of restrictions, the Wall Street Journal editorial board argues.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

At least 17 people were killed yesterday after militants suspected to be members of the Islamic State attacked a border checkpoint in Tajikistan, the Tajik authorities said, pointing to “the resilience of the Islamic State and its longstanding aim to spread further into Central Asia from its enclave in Afghanistan,” Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Najim Rahim report at the New York Times.

The head of the main U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees Pierre Krähenbühl has resigned with immediate effect, amid a scandal involving accusations of nepotism, abuses of authority and having an affair with an employee, the U.N announced yesterday in a statement that came just hours after an internal U.N. investigation ruled out any suggestion that he engaged in “fraud or misappropriation of operational funds” but found “managerial issues that need to be addressed.” Colum Lynch reports at Foreign Policy.

A federal prosecutor yesterday told a jury that former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone lied to Congress about his efforts to contact WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign in order to protect President Trump. NBC News 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).