The Early Edition: November 12, 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 defense responsible for Ukrainian policy Laura Cooper told House impeachment investigators last month that the White House Office of Management and Budget (O.M.B.) directed a mid-July freeze on hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid for Ukraine against the judgment of career officials at both the defense and state departments, according to a transcript of her closed-door testimony released yesterday. “All of the senior leaders of the U.S. national security departments and agencies were all unified … in their view that this assistance was essential,” Cooper said, adding that officials questioned whether the O.M.B. had the legal authority to hold the money, which had been authorized by Congress. Lisa Mascaro and Mary Clare Jalonick report at the AP.

Cooper said it was “unusual” to have congressional funds abruptly halted that way, and said the Pentagon was “concerned” about the freezing of funds and “any signal that we would send to Ukraine about a wavering in our commitment.” When Cooper sought clarification from the administration for the hold-up of funds, she said the White House initially declined to give it. The reason was revealed in a July 26 meeting: the president’s concerns about corruption in Ukraine. Andrew Duehren reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Cooper’s testimony highlights that Trump was concentrated upon the provision of Ukraine’s security assistance at least a month before administration officials were told it was frozen. “It also underscored the efforts underway throughout the administration to persuade the president and his staff to release the assistance to Ukraine,” Michael D. Shear and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

Democrats also released the transcripts of the testimony of Catherine Croft and Christopher Anderson, two advisers to former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker. Both officials described their concerns about the Trump administration’s Ukraine policy and the hold on military aid. Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

Croft revealed in her testimony that a previously unknown hold was placed on a transfer of javelin missiles to Ukraine. She told investigators that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney expressed concerns that “Russia would react negatively” to the provision of javelins to Ukraine, and added that, in her judgment, refusing to provide the missiles would benefit Russia. Betsy Swan reports at The Daily Beast.

Croft’s closed-door testimony indicates that Ukrainian officials knew that nearly $400 million in congressionally approved aid had been held well before that information became public, “undercutting a key point of President Trump’s ‘no quid pro quo’ defense,” Karoun Demirjian, Elise Viebeck and Rosalind S. Helderman report at the Washington Post.

Mulvaney plans to file his own lawsuit challenging a congressional subpoena for testimony in the impeachment inquiry, rather than join a case focused on the same question already in progress. Mulvaney had earlier sought to join an existing suit filed late last month by Trump’s former deputy national security adviser Charles Kupperman, but withdrew from that effort yesterday evening after Kupperman and the House both objected to adding Mulvaney as a plaintiff and a judge indicated he would likely deny Mulvaney’s request to intervene. Byron Tau reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The strongest points for and against impeaching Trump in light of all the current available evidence are advanced by Marshall Cohen at CNN.

“[I]t appears that House Republicans, out of slavish fealty to the president, are going to use high-profile hearings to amplify [Ukraine conspiracy theories],” Michelle Goldberg comments at the New York Times, predicting  an embrace by Republicans of Russian disinformation.

TRUMP TAXES

A federal judge yesterday dismissed Trump’s lawsuit to prevent the House Ways and Means Committee from using a recently passed New York law to request his state tax returns. Judge Carl Nichols of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that his Washington, D.C., court was not the proper jurisdiction to sue the New York officials named in the lawsuit — Attorney General Letitia James and commissioner of the state’s Department of Taxation and Finance Michael Schmidt — leaving open the option that Trump do so in New York. In his lawsuit, Trump sued to preemptively block the Committee from requesting the returns, arguing his suit was necessary to prevent his state returns from being disclosed to Congress before a court could hear his opposition. Spencer S. Hsu reports at the Washington Post.

Nichols’ ruling is available at POLITICO.

IRAN

Inspectors at the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) discovered uranium particles at a site in Iran that had not been declared by the Iranian authorities, the U.N. watchdog said yesterday in its latest report. The agency did not name the site in question, but inspectors are believed to have taken samples from a location in the Turquzabad district of Tehran. The BBC reports.

The I.A.E.A.’s report also confirmed a litany of violations by Tehran of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (J.C.P.O.A..) The report found Iran had resumed uranium enrichment at its underground Fordo facility, is increasing its stockpile of processed uranium, and is exceeding the allowable enrichment levels, all in breach of commitments under the nuclear deal with world powers. Laurence Norman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

France, Germany, Britain and the European Union (E.U.) issued a joint statement yesterday saying they are “extremely concerned” by Iran’s decision to restart nuclear activities at one of its key sites. The countries said that the Islamic republic’s action was “inconsistent” with the 2015 accord under which Tehran had agreed to curb some of its nuclear activities — notably uranium enrichment — in return for a lifting of economic sanctions. Iran maintains that all its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes and has said it no longer feels bound by the J.C.P.O.A. after the U.S. unilaterally pulled out of the accord last year. Reuters reports.

TURKEY AND SYRIA

Three car bombs, exploding nearly simultaneously in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli, killed at least six people yesterday. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blasts, which came after the Islamic State group (ISIS) said it shot dead a priest from the city and his father. AFP reports.

Turkey said yesterday that it has deported a U.S. national ISIS militant, as part of a drive to repatriate foreign-born jihadist fighters captured in Turkey. The interior ministry said more than 20 IS fighters from Germany, France, Ireland and Denmark would also be expelled in the coming days. Kareem Fahim and Loveday Morris report at the Washington Post.

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers is urging President Trump to disinvite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from a planned White House visit tomorrow. In a letter led by House Foreign Affairs Chair Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the 15 House Democrats and two Republicans said Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria last month “has had disastrous consequences for U.S. national security, has led to deep divisions in the N.A.T.O. alliance and caused a humanitarian crisis on the ground.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Congress needs to act to undo some of the damage done by abandoning our allies in Syria. Bishop Garrison and Benjamin Haas argue at Just Security, proposing, “Congress should pass comprehensive legislation mirroring the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act to provide these same options for our Kurdish partners and others in Syria who are in danger” after America “opened the door for Turkish-backed forces to commit atrocities against [them].”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Israeli security forces killed a senior leader of the Iranian-backed Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad (PIJ) Baha Abu al-Ata in a targeted airstrike in the Gaza Strip early today, triggering retaliatory rocket fire from the enclave and raising fears of escalating reprisals. An Israeli missile attack also targeted the home of an Islamic Jihad official in Damascus, killing two people including one of his sons, Syrian state media said. Oliver Holmes reports at The Guardian.

Jordanian intelligence recently thwarted a plot by two suspected militants to launch terror attacks against U.S. and Israeli diplomats alongside U.S. troops deployed at a military base in the south of the country, state-owned al-Rai newspaper reported today. Reuters reports.

The logic underpinning the new peace agreement in South Sudan is “flawed,” Jon Temin agues at Foreign Policy, also commenting that “the recent push by the United States and others for the parties to adhere to the Nov. 12 deadline was potentially destabilizing.”

Trump aides are drafting proposals to make U.S. humanitarian aid to other countries contingent on how well they treat their religious minorities, two White House officials said. The plan, which could also be widened to include American military aid to other countries, could have a major impact on U.S. aid in a range of places, from Iraq to Vietnam. POLITICO reports.

The U.S. held “nearly 70,000 migrant children in government custody over the last year — up 42 percent in fiscal year 2019 from 2018.” The AP reports.

Social media giant Twitter yesterday unveiled its proposals for tackling deepfake videos and other manipulated media, and requested feedback from the public, in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election in November 2020. 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).