The Early Edition: November 18, 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

U.S. ambassador to the European Union (E.U.) Gordon Sondland kept several top Trump officials apprised of his efforts to get Ukraine to launch an investigation that would undermine Joe Biden, according to emails reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, which identified acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Energy Secretary Rick Perry as being kept up-to-date on the investigation push. Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, told lawmakers that President Trump’s phone call to Ukrainian President Volodomir Zelensky was “inappropriate” in a transcript released by the House of Representatives on Saturday, with Williams calling the July 25 call – which is at the center of the impeachment inquiry – “more political in nature” than discussions with other world leaders. Jan Wolfe and Nandita Bose report at Reuters.

President Trump yesterday hit out at Jennifer Williams for her closed-door testimony in a message on Twitter, telling Williams to “read BOTH transcripts of the presidential calls, & see the released ststement [sic] from Ukraine” and then figure out a “better presidential attack!” Aris Folley reports at the Hill.

Sondland spoke to President Trump on July 26 while at a restaurant in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, according to congressional testimony by embassy staffer David Holmes and another source familiar with the situation. Holmes claimed that Sondland told Trump that President Zelensky “loves your ass” and that Zelensky would launch the investigation to undermine Biden. Paul Sonne and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

President Trump and former national security adviser John Bolton had a “one-to-one meeting” in August to discuss the withholding of military assistance to Ukraine, according to a transcript of former National Security Council (N.S.C.) official Tim Morrison released Saturday. Morrison stated that the “extent of my recollection is that Ambassador simply said he wasn’t ready… [to withhold the aid].” Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

Morrison said in his testimony that Sondland kept in regular contact with the president and claimed to be acting on his orders, Kyle Cheney and Blake Hounshell report at POLITICO.

The relationship between President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suffered a setback as a consequence of the impeachment inquiry, current and former senior administration officials have said, claiming that Trump has been angered that State Department officials hired by Pompeo have given congressional testimony detrimental to his presidency. Carol E. Lee, Courtney Kube and Andrea Mitchell report at NBC News.

President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Guiliani called the House’s impeachment inquiry “a travesty” in a message on Twitter, casting doubt on the public testimony provided by officials last week. David Cohen reports at POLITICO.

“This would have been far better off if we would’ve just taken care of this behind the scenes,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said yesterday, stating in an interview that the whistleblowers’ sources “exposed things that didn’t need to be exposed.” Felicia Sonmez, Karoun Demirjian and Douglas MacMillan report at the Washington Post.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said yesterday that she has “no idea” whether the impeachment inquiry would be concluded by the end of December, making the comments in an interview with CBS that aired yesterday. Heather Caygle reports at POLITICO.

The full impeachment inquiry calendar is provided by Harry Stevens, Dan Keating, Kevin Uhrmacher and Chris Alcantara at the Washington Post.

An overview of the highlights from last week’s testimony and the main takeaways are provided by Domenico Montanaro at NPR.

HONG KONG

Violent clashes have erupted between protestors and police at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University (PolyU) as a group of around 100 people tried to leave the campus and were surrounded. The escalation follows months of protests that were sparked by a bill allowing Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to mainland China and evolved into broader anti-government demonstrations, the BBC reports.

“If you are viewing the facts with an impartial view you can see that what is happening is no longer a simple demonstration, it is a handful of violent criminals conducting violence against civilians,” the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said in a briefing today, emphasizing that no one should underestimate China’s willingness to protect its sovereignty. The comments follow sightings of Chinese troops on Saturday helping to clear up debris, Jessie Pang and James Pomfret report at Reuters.

Live updates from Hong Kong and the situation at PolyU are provided by Michael Safi, Naaman Zhou, Kate Lyons and Sarah Marsh at the Guardian.

Hong Kong’s High Court today struck down a ban on the wearing of face masks in public, finding that the ban – enacted in October – violated the territory’s Basic Law. Elaine Yu and Russell Goldman report at the New York Times.

The U.S. Senate has put forward an expedited bill to support the Hong Kong protestors, but the bill may fail to gain White House approval if the Trump administration chooses to prioritize a trade deal with China over the situation in the semi-autonomous territory. Shibani Mahtani, Timothy McLaughlin and David Nakamura report at the Washington Post.

“Some Western countries have publicly supported extreme violent offenders,” the Chinese ambassador to the U.K. said today, denouncing interference by the U.S. House of representatives and by the British government. Estelle Shirbon reports at Reuters.

The bill before U.S. Congress “should be brought to a vote without further delay,” the New York Times editorial board writes, stating that incidents of violence must be condemned, but there must be no doubt that the “people of Hong Kong hold the moral high ground in their determination to decide their own fate and to reject the animal farm that China would put them in….”

CHINA

Documents shared with the New York Times reveal China’s extensive crackdown on the ethnic Uighur population in Xinjiang province. Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley report at the New York Times.

A Chinese aircraft carrier is en route to the South China Sea after sailing through the Taiwan Strait, in a move condemned by Taipei. Reuters reports.

China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe today urged his U.S. counterpart Mark Esper to “stop flexing muscles in the South China Sea” and cease provocative actions that would lead to an escalation. Phil Stewart reports at Reuters.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced yesterday that joint U.S.-South Korea air drills would be delayed as a “good faith” gesture to North Korea and allow “more space for our diplomats to strike an agreement on the denuclearization of the peninsula…” Simon Denyer reports at the Washington Post.

“You should act quickly, get the deal done,” President Trump said in a message yesterday on Twitter directed at North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, also responding to North Korea’s disparaging description of Joe Biden: stating “Joe Biden may be sleepy and very slow, but he is not a ‘rabid dog.’” Justin McCurry reports at the Guardian.

“If the U.S. does not really want to let go of its dialogue with us, it should make a decision to withdraw its hostile policy of viewing us as an enemy,” the North Korean state K.C.N.A. news agency said in a statement today. Reuters reports.

IRAN

Leaked intelligence reports show Iran’s attempts to wield influence in Iraq and infiltrate every aspect of Iraqi life, detailing episodes of espionage and providing an insight into Iran’s secretive regime. Tim Arango, James Risen, Farnaz Fassihi, Ronen Bergman and Murtaza Hussain reveal at the New York Times.

Iranian Supreme leader Ali Khamenei yesterday expressed support for his government’s decision to cut fuel subsidies and called on citizens to separate from “thugs” who have sought to exploit the chaos. The government policy has led to demonstrations across Iran, Erin Cunningham reports at the Washington Post.

The White House issued a statement yesterday condemning the use of “lethal force” against demonstrators in Iran and denounced the “severe communications restrictions” imposed by Tehran. Reuters reports.

Iran’s foreign ministry today hit back at the U.S., stating that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has expressed support for “a group of rioters.” The AFP reports.

An explanation of the protests in Iran – including how it relates to U.S. sanctions – is provided by Al Jazeera.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli military struck a series of Palestinian Hamas group sites in the Gaza Strip on Saturday after rockets were fired from the territory into southern Israel. The strikes followed a week of hostilities and an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire on Thursday between Israel and the Islamic Jihad group based in Gaza. Steve Hendrix and Hazen Balousha report at the Washington Post.

The Israeli Defense Forces said yesterday that they are investigating whether an intelligence failure led to its airstrike that killed eight Palestinian civilians. Dov Lieber reports at the Wall Street Journal.

TURKEY AND SYRIA

A car bomb in the Turkish-controlled Syrian town of al-Bab killed at least 10 people on Saturday, highlighting the security risks faced by Turkey in its attempt to establish a “safe zone” along its border with Syria. Kareem Fahim and Sarah Dadouch report at the Washington Post.

A Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. fighter was captured yesterday by Turkish authorities in relation to the attack in al-Bab. Reuters reports.

Turkey has begun to deport European Islamic State fighters detained in northern Syria to Western Europe, forcing the countries to face up to a problem they have tried to avoid. Norimitsu Onishi and Elian Peltier report at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A plan for a prisoner swap between the Afghan government and the Taliban has been delayed, stalling attempts to restart peace talks between the Taliban and the U.S., Susannah George reports at the Washington Post.

Yemen’s internationally recognized government today returned to the country for the first time since being forced out by U.A.E.-backed southern separatists. The AP reports.

France will host a summit on Dec. 9 aimed at ending the conflict in Ukraine, the office of French President Emmanuel Macron said Friday. Ann M. Simmons reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The former Sri Lankan defense chief Gotabaya Rajapaska has won the country’s presidential election. Rajapaska is a highly controversial figure and has been accused of carrying war crimes during the Sri Lankan civil war. The BBC reports.

The International Criminal Court may open a formal investigation into the British military for alleged war crimes committed by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The BBC reports. 

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About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK