The Early Edition: November 20, 2019

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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

Officials and a former top U.S. diplomat testified before the House’s impeachment inquiry yesterday in relation to President Trump’s request for his Ukrainian counterpart Volodomyr Zelensky to launch an investigation into his political opponent Joe Biden in exchange for military aid. A key moment centers on a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky which officials said raised concerns about an abuse of power, Nicholas Fandos and Michael D. Shear report at the New York Times.

“Frankly, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” the White House top Ukraine expert Lt. Col. Alex Vindman told the hearing yesterday of the July 25 call, stating that Trump’s demand of Zelensky was “improper.” Patricia Zengerle, Karen Freifeld and Jonathan Landay report at Reuters.

“What I heard was inappropriate and I reported it,” Vindman told lawmakers about the phone call, stating “without hesitation, I knew that I had to report this to the White House counsel.” Tim McCarthy and Laren Gambino report at the Guardian.

Vindman told the inquiry that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was a “disruptive” actor who was undermining Ukraine policy by “promoting false narratives.” Demetri Sevastopulo and Kadhim Shubber report at the Financial Times.

Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, testified before the inquiry yesterday and said the phone call was “unusual” because “it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter.” Williams also expressed surprise that President Trump named her directly in a message on Twitter over the weekend. Karoun Demirjian, Mike DeBonis and Matt Zapotosky report at the Washington Post.

The former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker dismissed the claims made by Trump and Republicans about the Bidens and their alleged corrupt activity in Ukraine, telling lawmakers at the hearing yesterday that the claims were based on a “conspiracy theory.” Olivia Beavers and Mike Lillis report at the Hill.

“I feared at the time of the call on July 25th how its disclosure would play in Washington’s political climate. My fears have been realized,” the former National Security Council Tim Morrison said in testimony yesterday, adding that he did not believe Trump’s push to get Zelensky to launch an investigation was illegal, but was concerned by the request and consequently reported it to a White House lawyer. Rebecca Ballhaus and Dustin Volz report at the Wall Street Journal.

There is plenty of expectation surrounding today’s scheduled testimony by U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Gordon Sondland due to his first-person account of President Trump’s efforts to get the Ukrainians to launch investigations that could benefit him politically. A number of discrepancies have been exposed since the closed-door testimony he provided to congressional investigators on Oct. 17 and there is speculation that he could change his account. Aaron C. Davis and Rachael Bade report at the Washington Post.

U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson said yesterday that she intends to rule by the end of Monday on whether White House counsel Don McGahn must appear as a witness before the impeachment inquiry under a congressional subpoena. Spencer S. Hsu reports at the Washington Post.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION & ANALYSIS

An overview of the key moments in yesterday’s impeachment inquiry is provided by Natasha Bertrand, Caitlin Opyrsko and Abbey Marshall at POLITICO.

An explanation of the significance of today’s testimony by Ambassador Gordon Sondland is provided by Stephen Collinson at CNN.

The White House attacked the witnesses at yesterday’s hearings even though they still work for the White House. Peter Baker explains the extraordinary attacks and what this tells us about the Trump administration at the New York Times.

HONG KONG

The U.S. Senate yesterday unanimously passed a bill compelling the government to support Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and requiring sanctions against officials responsible for human rights abuses in the semi-autonomous territory. Edward Wong reports at the New York Times.

China “strongly condemns and firmly opposes” the U.S Senate bill, Beijing said today. Simon Denyer, Tiffany Liang and Casey Quackenbush report at the Washington Post.

China today issued a summon to a U.S. embassy official over the Senate bill, Reuters reports.

A former employee of the U.K.’s consulate in Hong Kong, Simon Cheng, said today that he was tortured in China when he was detained while on a trip to the mainland, prompting outrage from British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab who has summoned the Chinese ambassador. The Chinese foreign ministry has declined the summon and issued their own summon for the U.K. ambassador. John Sudworth reports at the BBC.

Cheng said he felt he needed to speak out to show Hong Kong citizens that their fear about Chinese encroachment on the territory “was not ungrounded,” making the comments as protests continue in Hong Kong. Wenxin Fan reports at the Wall Street Journal.

SYRIA

Israel has struck dozens of Iranian and Syrian government targets in Syria, the Israeli Defense Forces (I.D.F.) said in a statement today, explaining that the attack was “carried out in response to the launching of rockets by an Iranian force from Syria’s territory into Israel” on Tuesday. Yaniv Kubovich, Amos Harel, Jack Khoury, Noa Landau and the AP report at Haaretz.

Syrian state media have said that Israel’s overnight strikes on the outskirts of the capital Damascus killed at least two civilians and wounded several others. Al Jazeera reports.

The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 11 mostly non-Syrians were killed in the strikes. Steve Hendrix and Sarah Dadouch report at the Washington Post.

Russia has said the Israeli strikes were a wrong move, according to Interfax. Reuters reports.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said today that Turkey has given assurances it does not plan to launch a new military operation in Syria, Reuters reports.

A report released by the Pentagon yesterday stated that President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria has allowed the Islamic State group to “reconstitute capabilities and resources within Syria” and “strengthen its ability to plan attacks abroad.” Aime Williams reports at the Financial Times.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

“I admit I am very moved,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told settler leaders at a gathering yesterday following the Trump administration’s announcement on Monday to no longer view Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal under international law. Steve Hendrix and Ruth Eglash report at the Washington Post, also providing an overview of what the U.S. policy shift means for Israeli settlers.

A number of Democratic candidates running for president in 2020 denounced the Trump administration’s announcement on settlements, highlighting the potential impact on achieving a peace deal between Israel and Palestine. Tal Axelrod reports at the Hill.

The U.N. “very much regrets” the U.S. policy shift and remains “committed to a two-State solution based on the relevant U.N. resolutions,” the U.N. spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said yesterday. The U.N. News Centre reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement on settlements further isolates Washington from an international consensus, confuses policy in the region, and is unlikely to have a real impact in Israel. Noga Tarnopolsky writes at The Daily Beast.

The United States “is now implicitly endorsing a one-state solution,” David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post.

IRAN

A report by Amnesty International yesterday said that more than 100 protestors have been killed by Iranian security forces following demonstrations that were sparked by fuel price increases. Information about the protests have been suppressed through a nationwide Internet shutdown. Erin Cunningham reports at the Washington Post.

“We are deeply concerned by reported violations of international norms and standards on the use of force, including the firing of live ammunition, against demonstrators in Iran,” the U.N. human rights spokesperson Rupert Colville said yesterday. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Republican and Democratic Senators yesterday expressed support for the protestors in Iran but did not take measures to back up their statements. Laura Kelly reports at the Hill.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani today claimed victory over the unrest and said the Iranian people have “shown they will not let enemies benefit from the situation.” Reuters reports.

Iran will look to Russia and China to procure fighter jets, weaponry and tanks, a senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters yesterday. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

“If the rulers in Tehran care about their long-suffering people, they would show some flexibility to ease the crisis with the U.S.,” the Financial Times editorial board writes, explaining how the protests fit within the context of events in the region and the U.S.-Iran relationship.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A helicopter crash in Afghanistan today has led to the death of two U.S. service members, the U.S. military has said, adding that “preliminary reports do not indicate it was caused by enemy fire.” David Zucchino reports at the New York Times.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been looking for a smooth exit route from the Trump administration in order to run for Senate in Kansas, according to top Republicans. John Walcott and W.J. Hennigan report at TIME Magazine.

The Swedish authorities yesterday announced that they have dropped their investigation into WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange over allegations of rape and sexual assault. The decision increases the possibility of Assange being extradited to the U.S. over the publication of classified information, Ben Quinn reports at the Guardian.

A U.S. drone strike yesterday killed a senior al-Shabab extremist in Somalia, according to a Somali intelligence official. Abdi Guled reports at the AP.

“We strongly oppose violations of international law by China and excessive claims in the South China Sea,” the U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said today while in Vietnam, also announcing that the U.S. would provide a ship to Vietnam’s coast guard. Robert Burns reports at the AP.

“These pardons send a disturbing signal to military forces all around the world,” the U.N. human rights spokesperson Rupert Colville said yesterday in relation to President Trump’s decision to pardon Lt. Clint Lorance who was tried and convicted for ordering attacks on civilians in Afghanistan in 2013. The U.N. News Centre reports. 

Filed under:
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