The Early Edition: November 15, 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 second official at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv was present when U.S. Ambassador to the European Union (E.U.) Gordon Sondland spoke on a July 26 phone call with President Trump that more directly ties the president to the pressure campaign on Ukraine’s new government. Top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor testified Wednesday that one of his staffers overheard a call between Trump and Sondland during which Trump asked Sondland “about the investigations.” Kyiv-based foreign service officer Suriya Jayanti also overheard the call, it was reported yesterday. Desmond Butler, Michael Biesecker and Matthew Lee report at the AP.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday said Trump’s apparent decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine in exchange for investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden and the 2016 U.S. election amounted to bribery, an impeachable offense. Pelosi said that Wednesday’s testimony by Taylor and deputy assistant secretary of state  George Kent “corroborated evidence of bribery” by Trump and highlighted how the president had abused his power. The speaker’s remarks suggest that Democrats were advancing toward a more specific set of charges in their impeachment case against Trump, Nicholas Fandos and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

Trump yesterday sought to have a judge dismiss a lawsuit filed by his former deputy national security adviser Charles Kupperman who is seeking a ruling on whether he should comply with a congressional subpoena to testify in the impeachment inquiry. Trump’s filing in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., contends that the president’s direction should override any prospective court ruling, and that the “proper course” would be for Kupperman to comply with Trump’s stance that his administration should not cooperate with the impeachment process, rather than whatever a judge determines. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Top official at the White House Office of Management and Budget (O.M.B.) Mark Sandy indicated yesterday he was willing to break ranks and testify in the House impeachment inquiry about his knowledge of the holdup of military aid to Ukraine. Sandy, a longtime career employee, would be the first O.M.B. employee to appear before Congressional investigators, after O.M.B. acting director Russell Vought and two other political appointees at the agency defied subpoenas and refused to testify. Erica Werner reports at the Washington Post.

Sondland’s phone call to Trump from a restaurant in Kyiv was likely intercepted by Russian and other foreign intelligence agencies, in an apparent stunning breach of security that raises significant counterintelligence concerns, several former officials said, citing widespread reports of Russian spying within Ukraine. While it remains unclear if Sondland’s phone was encrypted, American ambassadors do not normally have that kind of protection on their mobile devices, according to U.S. government officials. Zachary Cohen and Kevin Collier report at CNN.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s aide Andriy Yermak was seen meeting with a former Trump adviser, Bryan Lanz, in Kyiv on Wednesday evening, it was reported yesterday. Yermak, the principal intermediary for Zelensky in efforts by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani and others to press the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens and unproven allegations of Ukrainian election interference in 2016, is a central figure in the impeachment inquiry into Trump. Allison Quinn reports at The Daily Beast.

Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch will testify today in the second day of public impeachment hearings. Yovanovitch, who was abruptly removed from her post this year, described in detail the “concerted campaign” against her during her closed-door deposition hearing last month. Michele Keleman reports at NPR.

An account of what happened in relation to Zelensky’s planned interview with C.N.N., during which the Ukrainian president was reportedly set to publicly announce investigations into Biden and the 2016 election, which was subsequently cancelled, is provided by C.N.N. news show host Fareed Zakaria at the Washington Post.

A look at House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.)’s “preposterous” claim that that White House officials’ refusal to testify in his committee’s impeachment inquiry could lead to “obstruction of Congress” charges against Trump is fielded by David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey at the Wall Street Journal.

SYRIA

Over 11 million people across Syria need aid — half the country’s estimated population, the top U.N. humanitarian official said yesterday. Mark Lowcock told the Security Council that the U.N. and other organizations are reaching an average of 5.6 million people a month, and stressed that renewal of resolution authorizing cross-border aid, set to expire in December, is “critical.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

The scope of the U.N. special inquiry into attacks on medical facilities in rebel areas of Syria has so far been restricted to just seven sites among the many targeted, diminishing hope of some accountability. At the same time, and while evidence is building that the Syrian government’s Russian allies are to blame for some of those bombings, diplomats claim Russia has sought to pressure Secretary General António Guterres to keep the findings of even this narrow investigation confidential. Whitney Hurst and Rick Gladstone report at the New York Times.

ISIS

Members of a global coalition trying to defeat the Islamic State group (ISIS) had a “difference of opinion” at a gathering in Washington yesterday on whether jihadi prisoners should be repatriated, U.S. Special Representative for Syria Jim Jeffrey told a news conference. Foreign diplomats met yesterday for the second time this year to discuss its strategy against the backdrop of recent developments in northeast Syria, including the death of the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Reuters reports.

Europe may be forced to take back citizens who joined ISIS as landmark court decisions give European governments little choice and Turkey has begun deporting prisoners with suspected ISIS ties that it separately detains, including German, French, U.S., Irish and Danish nationals. Loveday Morris and Souad Mekhennet report at the Washington Post.

“The threat posed by the Islamic State – as well as the local conditions and the dogma that fuels it — are far from eliminated,” Eric Rosand and Alistair Millar comment at Just Security, reflecting on our current approach to countering terrorism and what needs to change, and citing data that reveals “the number of Islamist extremist fighters in 2018 was 270 percent higher than 2001.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Over 130 attacks on hospitals and other health care centers in Yemen’s civil war could amount to war crimes by all parties to the conflict, a database project said yesterday. The Yemen Archive said that the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition was allegedly responsible for 72 attacks, while the Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels were blamed for at least 52 attacks. The AP reports.

A ceasefire between the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad and Israel was teetering early today after Israel launched fresh airstrikes in the Palestinian territory. The agreement was reached after heavy fighting this week killed 34 Palestinians. AFP reports. 

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper today pressed longtime ally South Korea to pay a bigger share of the cost of having U.S. troops on its soil, arguing Korea “is a wealthy country and could and should pay more” for the U.S. military deployment. Reuters reports.

A planned prisoner exchange between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s government has been postponed, an Afghan government official said today. Taliban sources said the group had moved the two Western hostages to a “new and safe place.” Reuters reports.

The U.S. warned Egypt of potential sanctions over Cairo’s decision to press ahead with a purchase of Russian Su-35 warplanes in a letter sent Wednesday to Egypt’s defense minister sent by U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Vivian Salama reports at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani is under investigation by federal prosecutors over possible campaign finance violations and accusations he failed to register as a foreign agent, Bloomberg reports.

Trump asked the Supreme Court yesterday to block a subpoena from New York prosecutors that seeks to obtain his tax returns. Jess Bravin, Brent Kendall and Corinne Ramey report at the Wall Street Jounral.

A State Department watchdog yesterday rebuked Trump’s top diplomat on Iran Brian Hook for sidelining career employee Sohar Nowrouzzadeh after her loyalty was questioned by officials who cited her Iranian-American heritage and her work under the previous administration. The inspector general’s report recommended that Pompeo consider disciplining anyone who breaches rules for assessing staffers based only on their merit. Lara Jakes reports at the New York Times. 

Esper today dismissed any suggestion of bias in a Pentagon decision to award Microsoft Corp an up to $10 billion cloud computing deal, after Amazon announced plans to contest it. Reuters reports. 

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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).