The Early Edition: November 14, 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

A State Department staffer overheard a July 26 phone call between President Trump and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union (E.U.) Gordon Sondland in which Trump mentioned “the investigations” to Sondland — who then reassured the president that the Ukrainians were “ready to move forward,” top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor told Congress yesterday in the first public impeachment hearing. Taylor later clarified to lawmakers that “investigations” meant probes desired by Trump and his personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani into former Vice President Joe Biden, whose son Hunter was a director at a Ukrainian energy company, as well as unproven allegations that Ukraine conspired with Democrats to interfere in the 2016 election. The revelation is a significant new development that Taylor learned of only after his Sept. 22 closed-door testimony, and that places Trump “more squarely in the middle of the swirling Ukraine scandal,” Karoun Demirjian, Toluse Olorunnipa and Rachael Bade report at the Washington Post.

The staffer asked Sondland after the call what Trump thought about Ukraine and was told that “Trump cared more about the investigations of Biden” than he did about Ukraine, Taylor recounted. At a news conference yesterday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump said he had no recollection of speaking to Sondland the day after his July 25 call with Zelensky, in which Trump allegedly personally pressed his Ukrainian counterpart to open the probes. Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Taylor “delivered a remarkable rebuke of the actions taken by the president and his allies inside and outside of the government who placed Trump’s political objectives at the center of American policy toward Ukraine,” Nicholas Fandos and Michael D. Shear report at the New York Times.

Taylor appeared alongside George Kent, a senior State Department official in charge of Ukraine policy. Both officials described the “irregular channel”  used by Giuliani, and testified that the president’s personal lawyer was undermining the country’s interests in his interactions with officials in Kyiv. In his opening statement, Kent said he had concluded by mid-August that Giuliani’s efforts to coerce the Ukraine leader to announce investigations into Trump’s political opponents “were now infecting U.S. engagement with Ukraine, leveraging Zelensky’s desire for a White House meeting.” Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio report at POLITICO.

The House Intelligence Committee yesterday shot down an effort by Republicans to subpoena the whistleblower whose complaint triggered the impeachment inquiry for closed-door testimony, voting 13 to 9 to deny G.O.P. members their motion to make the anonymous individual a witness in the investigation. Reuters reports.

The Defense Department watchdog declined yesterday to launch a probe into the Pentagon’s hold on military aid to Ukraine, at least while the House impeachment inquiry is ongoing. In a letter to Democratic senators, the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General (O.I.G.) Glenn Fine wrote that he did not want to open an investigation that duplicated or otherwise could interfere with an existing congressional inquiry, adding that a probe into the delay could be opened in the future as the impeachment inquiry moves forward. Courtney Kube and Adiel Kaplan report at NBC News.

Democrats yesterday unveiled two further planned closed-door depositions amid their first public impeachment hearing, indicating investigators are intent on conducting more private interviews even as the inquiry enters its public phase. According to an official, former staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine David Holmes is expected to testify in closed session tomorrow, while Mark Sandy, an official at the White House Office of Management and Budget (O.M.B.), is due to testify privately on Saturday. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Key takeaways from William Taylor’s and George Kent’s impeachment testimony yesterday, with critical insights from top experts on Ukraine, congressional oversight and rule of law, are provided by Kate Brannen, Tess Bridgeman and co-editor-in-chief Ryan Goodman at Just Security.

The two witnesses during their testimony “delivered a wide-ranging discourse on America’s interests in Eastern Europe, diplomatic protocol and democratic norms — and how they believe [President] Trump subverted all of them in service of political goals,” Jonathan Allen comments at NBC News.

Arguments and distractions offered by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee at yesterday’s impeachment hearing do not hold up to “even the briefest scrutiny,” Noah Bookbinder argues at the New York Times, commenting that the witness testimony was “clear” and evidence of wrongdoing by Trump is “overwhelming.”

Republicans cannot possibly overcome the “abundant evidence” Democrats possess to prove their central point that Trump made military assistance to Ukraine conditional on a public announcement that his political rival, Joe Biden, was under investigation, Renato Mariotti comments at POLITICO Magazine.

“[T]he role of the many diplomatic officials slated to appear at the high-profile congressional hearings … is to help define whether the president crossed the line [of the legitimate practice of diplomacy] into making demands for personal or political favors,” former director of global engagement in the Obama White House Brett Bruen explains at NBC News.

TURKEY AND SYRIA

A long-awaited meeting between President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan concluded yesterday leaving unresolved the main issues on which the two sides have been divided, including Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 air-defense missile system from Russia and the U.S. partnership with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Vivian Salama and Michael R. Gordon report at the Wall Street Journal.

Instead, Trump announced that both countries would begin negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal, hailed Erdogan for increasing Turkey’s contributions to N.A.T.O. and thanked him for his country’s assistance in the battle against the Islamic State group (ISIS.) Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

“Trump seemed unbothered by [Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria] and gave Erdogan a warm welcome, offering little sign of frustration … over an incursion that scrambled American policy in the region,” Michael Crowley reports on the Erdogan-Trump White House meeting at the New York Times.

Erdogan said yesterday he personally returned the letter Trump sent warning him against launching an offensive into Syria last month. In a news conference alongside Trump, Erdogan said he returned Trump’s Oct. 9 letter — which warned him not to be a “tough guy” or a “fool” about Syria — earlier that day in a White House meeting. Abbey Marshall reports at POLITICO.

Turkey’s government apparently used a Washington law firm to collect information about its critics, including U.S. residents, who it believed were allied with a movement that Erdogan views as a key enemy. The information, gathered under the instruction of the Turkish Embassy in Washington, was forwarded to public prosecutors in Turkey, according to two Turkish government memorandums marked “secret.” Activists are concerned the compiled data is being used in probes of Erdogan’s perceived adversaries, Warren P. Strobel reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. troop withdrawal from the Kobani area in northeastern Syria near Turkey’s border is expected to take “another week or so” to finish, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said yesterday, as the U.S. military repositions and reduces its forces in Syria. Esper said that once the partial U.S. pullout was completed, around 600 troops would remain in Syria, down from about 1,000 before Trump’s withdrawal order last month. The secretary also said America continues to back the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.), which Turkey sees as a terrorist group. Reuters reports.

Trump said yesterday that the U.S. mission in Syria is focused solely on securing oil-rich territory there, contradicting the Pentagon’s assertion that countering ISIS is the priority. “We’re keeping the oil, we have the oil, the oil is secure, we left troops behind only for the oil,” Trump said at the White House ahead of a meeting with Erdogan, making the remarks after a senior official insisted the primary role of the relatively small deployment of American military personnel in northeast Syria was to fight ISIS. David Brown reports at POLITICO.

Trump’s “policy whiplash” is discouraging allies, according to several diplomats trying to persuade allies that the U.S. is committed to defeating ISIS ahead of a high-level State Department meeting between diplomats from 35 nations and international organizations scheduled for today. Lara Jakes and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

The American ISIS suspect trapped for three days at the border between Turkey and Greece will be transferred to the U.S., Turkey’s Interior Ministry said today. The AP reports.

It is not clear what Trump got out of the White House meeting with Erdogan, Lara Seligman writes in an analysis at Foreign Policy.

Trump’s “weakness for ruthless authoritarians” was evident during the meeting with his Turkish counterpart, the New York Times editorial board argues, noting there was no proof that the gathering had been “wonderful and productive,” as Trump touted.

AFGHANISTAN

The number of civilians killed in yesterday’s car bomb explosion in Kabul has risen to 12, officials said. 20 other people were also wounded in the blast, Al Jazeera reports.

The planned prisoner exchange between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s government did not take place yesterday, according to a diplomat and a former Afghan official. The Afghan government this week agreed to the “conditional release” of three high-ranking Taliban figures in the hope of getting the insurgents to free two university professors — an American and an Australian — they abducted three years ago. Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

A ceasefire between the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad and Israel has largely held in the Gaza Strip since early this morning, amid reports of cross-border fire exchange. The agreement, announced by an Islamic Jihad spokesperson, seeks to end two days of heavy fighting with Israel, Oliver Holmes and Hazem Balousha report at The Guardian.

Germany, France and Britain on Wednesday denounced the dozen sets of ballistic missile launches by North Korea since May and called on Pyongyang in a joint statement to engage in “meaningful negotiations” with America on its nuclear and missile programs, it was reported yesterday. The AP reports.

Chad Wolf was promoted to acting Homeland Security secretary yesterday, making him the fifth person to head the third largest department in the federal government under President Trump. CNN reports.

Several key Democrats have urged White House senior adviser Stephen Miller to resign after emails released Tuesday revealed that he pushed white nationalist materials on staffers at the right-wing website Breitbart. Ben Collins reports at NBC News.

A federal appeals court yesterday refused to reconsider a ruling that allowed a House committee to subpoena Trump’s financial records from his longtime accounting firm, a decision that moves “the separation-of-powers conflict one step closer to the Supreme Court.” Ann E. Marimow reports at the Washington Post. 

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).