The Early Edition: November 8, 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

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent told congressional investigators that President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani waged a “campaign full of lies” against Marie Yovanovitch before she was recalled from her post as ambassador to Ukraine, according to a transcript of his testimony released yesterday. He called Giuliani’s attacks “untrue, period” and testified that the then chief prosecutor of Ukraine Yuriy Lutsenko was also involved in the smear campaign. Nahal Toosi, Andrew Desiderio and Natasha Bertrand report at POLITICO.

Kent also described being briefed about an early September conversation between Trump and U.S. ambassador to the European Union (E.U.) Gordon Sondland in which the president demanded that his Ukrainian counterpart publicly commit to investigating the 2016 U.S. election, Trump’s former rival Hillary Clinton and former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump “wanted nothing less than [Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky] to go to microphone and say investigations, Biden and Clinton,” Kent told investigators, explaining the word “Clinton” was shorthand for 2016, and that it was his understanding that Trump wanted the Ukrainian leader to publicly mention the three words in order to unlock a White House meeting sought by Zelensky. Greg Jaffe and Mike DeBonis report at the Washington Post.

Kent testified that he regarded Trump’s insistence that Ukraine open investigations — led by Giuliani — as “injurious to the rule of law,” and to decades of American foreign policy. Kent said that he was disturbed by Trump’s demands for “politically motivated prosecutions” and documented his concerns that the Trump administration was withholding a White House visit, and possibly the security aid, in a mid-August official State Department memo, weeks before the public release of a whistle-blower complaint about a July 25 call, which is at the center of the ongoing impeachment inquiry. Michael D. Shear and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

Later in his testimony, however, Kent said it was his “personal opinion” that only the White House meeting, not the military assistance, was part of a quid pro quo. Adam Edelman reports at NBC News.

The House Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena late yesterday to compel acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to appear for a closed-door interview today, just two days after the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight committees sent Mulvaney a letter requesting he appear for a private deposition. Several administration officials have reportedly testified that Mulvaney carried out Trump’s request to withhold military aid from Ukraine, a move Democrats say was aimed at pushing Zelensky into launching the probes sought by Trump. Caroline Kelly and Jim Acosta report at CNN.

The Government Accountability Office (G.A.O.) said yesterday it is reviewing the Trump administration’s decision this summer to hold up hundreds of millions of dollars in security aid for Ukraine to determine whether officials violated appropriations law by not notifying Congress of the freeze. Andrew Duehren reports at the Wall Street Journal.

House Republicans’ latest plan to defend Trump from impeachment is to concentrate on at least three deputies — Sondland, Giuliani, and possibly Mulvaney — who they claim could have acted on their own to shape Ukraine policy. Advancing the case that the majority of the testimony against Trump is based on flawed secondhand information, Republicans are sowing doubts about whether Trump’s top lieutenants on Ukraine policy were actually representing the president or “freelancing to pursue their own agendas,” as part of a G.O.P. strategy that “hopes to undermine the reliability of otherwise incriminating testimony” from several administration officials by effectively “offering up the three to be fall guys,” Karoun Demirjian and Rachael Bade report at the Washington Post.

Former national security adviser John Bolton has threatened to sue if congressional committees issue a subpoena to require him to testify in their impeachment inquiry, the House Intelligence Committee said yesterday. Reuters reports.

Trump yesterday denied a report that he wanted Attorney General William Barr to hold a news conference to declare no laws were broken during his July phone call with Zelensky. The BBC reports.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A comprehensive guide to the many witnesses being called upon to testify in the House impeachment inquiry of President Trump, including background information and links to available testimony, is helpfully provided by Kate Brannen at Just Security.

“Republicans … are conceding that, yes, there may have been a quid pro quo, but there’s no proof Trump himself was behind it.” Greg Sargent at the Washington Post dissects the latest “deeply absurd” defense of the president.

Key excerpts from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent’s testimony last month as part of the impeachment inquiry are available at the New York Times, following the release yesterday of his interview transcript. 

TURKEY AND SYRIA

The U.S. envoy to Syria William Roebuck wrote a highly critical memo rebuking the Trump administration over its withdrawal of troops from northern Syria prior to a Turkish invasion of the region, saying that the administration could have explored a number of options — including economic sanctions, military patrols and diplomatic options — to potentially dissuade the offensive on U.S.-allied Kurdish forces. While noting that there was no way to know if more pressure on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would have stopped the operation, Roebuck raised concerns in the memo about the possibility that Turkish-backed militias taking part in the operation could commit atrocities amounting to war crimes, including “ethnic cleansing.” Eric Schmitt reports at the New York Times.

U.S. Defense Department officials yesterday defended the latest deployment of hundreds of infantry soldiers and armored vehicles to protect oil fields in northeastern Syria — arguing that the mission is essential to the ongoing effort to defeat the Islamic State, “despite questions being raised about its legality and credibility,” Lara Seligman reports at Foreign Policy.

Revenue from rich oil fields that U.S. forces are guarding in northeast Syria will go to U.S. partner forces in the region and not the U.S., the Pentagon’s top spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said yesterday. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Choosing Turkey to host the Interpol General Assembly in 2021 is a “bizarre” decision for many reasons — but primarily because the state is “notorious for abusing Interpol’s Red Notice system to target political opponents of the regime,” Ben Keith comments at Just Security.

IRAN

Iranian air defense forces downed an “unknown” drone in the country’s southwest today, the official I.R.N.A. news agency reported. The AP reports.

The U.S. has accused Iran of “intimidating” nuclear inspectors after a woman from the U.N. atomic agency was prevented from entering the country’s main nuclear site last week and briefly stopped from leaving the country. U.S. Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) Jackie Wolcott labeled the move an “outrageous provocation” and “harassment of the agency’s monitoring work.” Laurence Norman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Iran claimed yesterday that the inspector it blocked from entering an enrichment facility tested positive for explosives. The I.A.E.A. contested Iran’s claim, the AP reports.

A U.S.-led naval coalition formally launched operations in Bahrain yesterday to guard shipping in the Persian Gulf, following a series of attacks that Washington and its allies blamed on Iran. Al Jazeera reports.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

“The indictment of two former Twitter employees accused of spying for the Saudis highlights the platform’s power and the kingdom’s efforts to control it,” Ben Hubbard writes at the New York Times, exploring how, as “Twitter has become a kind of town square … where citizens meet to swap information and debate the latest issues,” Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy “has taken extensive measures to shape the information that appears there and to silence or drown out dissidents who use it to post critical views.”

“The Saudi government’s attempts to control Twitter have mirrored a broader crackdown on dissent in the kingdom, where the authorities have put on trial women’s rights activists and Saudi religious clerics, and jailed wealthy families in an anticorruption campaign that was perceived as a power grab,” Rory Jones writes at the Wall Street Journal.

AFGHANISTAN

At least 29 pro-government forces and 34 civilians were killed during the last week of fighting in Afghanistan, Fahim Abed reports in a casualty report at the New York Times.

Night raids, carried out by Afghan paramilitaries and backed by the C.I.A., are surging in Afghanistan. An account of the many cases of atrocities being conducted by these forces and documented by Human Rights Watch is provided by Patricia Gossman at Just Security.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

A New York judge yesterday ordered President Trump to pay $2 million in damages to settle claims alleging the Trump Foundation charity improperly used funds to further his 2016 presidential campaign. NPR reports.

The role of U.S. special envoy to Ukraine will likely be “discontinued altogether,” according to current and former U.S. officials, in “one of the first tangible signs that fallout from the impeachment probe has left a lasting impact on U.S. policy toward Ukraine,” Foreign Policy reports.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said today that the world is becoming “increasingly unstable” because the U.S. declines to abide by arms control regimes, making the remarks at a conference on disarmament in Moscow. The AP reports.

North Korea called Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe an “idiot and villain” in a statement yesterday, after Abe criticized last week’s weapons test by the North. The AP 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).