The Early Edition: November 21, 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

The U.S. Ambassador to the European Union (E.U.) Gordon Sondland delivered bombshell testimony at yesterday’s House impeachment inquiry, which is looking into President Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to launch an investigation into his political opponent Joe Biden in exchange for military aid. The BBC reports.

“We followed the president’s orders,” Sondland told lawmakers, stating that he was asked by the president to work with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to pressure Ukraine to publicly announce investigations into the Bidens. Nicholas Fandos and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

There was a “quid pro quo” with regard to an opportunity for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to visit the White House in exchange for a commitment to investigate Biden, Sondland testified, adding that other senior officials – including Vice President Mike Pence, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – had knowledge of the attempts to pressure the Ukrainians to launch the desired investigations. Rachael Bade, Aaron C. Davis and Matt Zapotosky report at the Washington Post.

“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” Sondland said of the efforts, explaining that he had sent an email before the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky to Trump administration officials. Sondland added that he told Zelensky in advance that it was necessary to make “assurances to ‘run a fully transparent investigation’ and turn over every stone’ … in his call with President Trump,” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

“Mr. Guiliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/D.N.C. server and Burisma,” Sondland told lawmakers, referring to the claim – usually dismissed as a conspiracy theory – that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 president election to help Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Jonathan Allen reports at NBC News.

Sondland told lawmakers he spoke to Pence about his concerns “that the delay in [military] aid had become tied to the issue of investigations,” expressing his view before Pence met with Zelensky on Sept. 1 and stating that Pence had nodded in response but did not reply. Patricia Zengerle, Susan Cornwell and David Morgan report at Reuters.

“I don’t recall any discussions with Ambassador Sondland before my meeting with President Zelensky that had to do with investigations,” Pence told a Wisconsin television station yesterday. Zeke Miller and Jill Colvin report at the AP.

Sondland’s testimony has turned attention on Pompeo’s role in the Ukraine pressure campaign, including his contacts with Giuliani and his attitude towards career diplomats who work under him. Robbie Gramer reports at Foreign Policy.

“I didn’t see a single thing today. I was working,” Pompeo responded yesterday when asked whether he had seen Sondland’s testimony. Rachel Frazin reports at the Hill.

Sondland said he did not recall telling Trump that Zelensky was ready to announce an investigation into the Bidens when they spoke on the phone on July 26 – a call which another witness, U.S. diplomat David Holmes, said was the most incredible call he had ever heard. Demetri Sevastopulo reports at the Financial Times.

David Holmes will today appear before the impeachment inquiry answering further questions following his closed-door testimony on Nov. 15. Reuters reports.

The impeachment inquiry heard from two other witnesses yesterday: deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia and Ukraine, Laura Cooper, and senior State Department official David Hale. Cooper revealed that Ukrainian officials may have known about U.S. military aid in July rather than in August, Natasha Bertrand, Nahal Toosi and Caitlin Oprysko report at POLITICO.

Lawmakers will also hear today from Trump’s former top Russia adviser Fiona Hill, Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio report at POLITICO.

The White House Counsel’s Office and Fiona Hill’s lawyer exchanged letters on the eve of her testimony over a dispute between the two sides’ views of executive privilege. A report is provided by Just Security, which obtained the letter.

President Trump said yesterday that Sondland “is not a man I know well,” and the White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham sought to present the ambassador’s testimony as being based on “his presumptions and beliefs, rather than hard facts.” Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney report at POLITICO.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION & ANALYSIS

Key moments from the testimony given by Ambassador Sondland, Laura Cooper and David Hale are provided by the New York Times.

Yesterday was a “disastrous day for Trump,” Stephen Collinson writes at CNN, providing an analysis of Sondland’s testimony and the implication that the president has abused his power.

“The House impeachment hearings roll on, but the most important news is how little new we are learning about President Trump and Ukraine,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board, dismissing the idea that Sondland’s testimony was explosive and arguing that nothing changes the “fundamental narrative or suggest crimes or other impeachable offenses.”

Sondland’s testimony was damning and implicated the President and all of his top men, the New York Times editorial board writes.

HONG KONG

The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in support of the pro-democracy movement in the semi-autonomous territory. There has been unrest in Hong Kong for months sparked by a now-suspended bill allowing extradition of citizens to mainland China. The AFP reports.

China today reacted furiously to the U.S. bill – which is yet to go before President Trump before consideration – with an editorial stating that “China will take effective measures to resolutely counteract it, and all consequences must be fully borne by the U.S.” Ben Westcott reports at CNN.

An explanation of the U.S. bill on Hong Kong is provided by Reuters.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The Pentagon today strongly denied a report by a South Korean paper that the U.S. is considering removing any troops from the Korean Peninsula, Reuters reports.

There would be no reason for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in under “beclouded air,” North Korea said today in a statement carried by K.C.N.A. news agency, explaining that Kim had turned down an offer to meet Moon due to Seoul’s failure to uphold agreements made during previous summit meetings. Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the AP.

North Korea could return to taking “provocative” actions as we approach the end of the year, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun said yesterday. David Brunnstrom and Daphne Psaledakis report at Reuters.

SYRIA

Volunteer medics claim that at least 22 civilians were killed yesterday in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib province by a Syrian government forces, with at least 16 people killed after a missile strike on a camp for internally displaced people. Al Jazeera reports.

Airstrikes by the Syrian government and their Russian allies have killed 1,300 people and displaced almost 1 million since April, according to the U.K.-based charity The Syria Campaign. Bethan McKernan reports at the Guardian.

Turkey and Russia have been engaged in talks over the presence of Kurdish Y.P.G. fighters in northeastern Syria, the Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said today. Reuters reports.

An explanation of who controls oil supplies in Syria and who benefits from its production is provided by the BBC.

IRAN

The U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) said today that Iran must “promptly” work to provide additional details about uranium particles of man-made origin found at an undeclared location, the AP reports.

The Tehran Revolutionary Court yesterday sentenced six Iranian conservationists to prison on charged of collaborating with the U.S., with the verdict coming amid unrest in the country over fuel price rises. Erin Cunningham reports at the Washington Post.

I.S.I.S.

The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for an attack in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula this week, the AP reports.

An attack on Monday which killed 30 soldiers in Mali has been claimed by the Islamic State group, the AP reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The other 14 members of the U.N. Security Council strongly opposed the U.S. decision to no longer consider Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank to be in violation of international law, warning that the announcement – made on Monday – undermines the two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with foreign ministers at N.A.T.O. yesterday amid increasing concerns about the future of the military alliance. Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

An undisclosed meeting took place between President Trump, Facebook C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook board member Peter Thiel at the White House in October, Dylan Byers and Ben Collins reveal at NBC News. 

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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