The Early Edition: November 25, 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.  

THE NAVY

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer resigned yesterday at Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s request after Esper “lost trust and confidence” in him over his handling of the case of a Navy SEAL officer accused of war crimes in Iraq who later won the support of President Trump. Esper said in a statement yesterday that he was “deeply troubled” by reports that Spencer had met with White House officials and privately offered to allow the sailor in question, Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, to retire at his current rank if they did not interfere with proceedings against Gallagher that could have ousted him from the elite force, even as Spencer pushed both publicly and with Pentagon officials for a disciplinary hearing. Esper has ordered that Gallagher remain a SEAL, Ashley Parker and Dan Lamothe report at the Washington Post.

In a letter to Trump acknowledging his departure from the top Navy job, Spencer made no mention of the private proposal, and said that he and the president disagreed on the issue of the rule of law and had different views of “the key principle of good order and discipline.” Spencer in his resignation letter said he “cannot in good conscience” obey an order he believes “violates the sacred oath” he took, while not specifying the order from Trump to which he referred. Trump meanwhile suggested on Twitter that Spencer’s dismissal was related to cost overruns and the way Gallagher had been treated by the Navy, Barbara Starr and Nicole Gaouette report at CNN.

Trump said he would nominate retired Adm. Kenneth Braithwaite, the U.S. ambassador to Norway, to replace Spencer as the secretary of the Navy. Gordon Lubold and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

A report on the legal limits on the president’s authority to intervene in the military following Trump’s announcement that he would reverse the decision of the commander of the Navy SEALs to remove a convicted sailor from its ranks and order the navy to restore the sailor’s pay and rank is provided by Dave Philipps and John Ismay at the New York Times. 

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

A confidential review of Trump’s decision to withhold nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine has turned up documents that indicate an effort to justify the decision after the fact, according to three people familiar with the review. The White House Counsel’s Office research found emails from early August between acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and White House budget officials seeking to provide an explanation as to why the assistance was held up. Mulvaney asked acting Office of Management and Budget (O.M.B.) director Russell Vought how long the aid could be withheld as well as whether there was a legal rationale for the freeze; O.M.B. attorneys argued the delay was legal as long as it was considered a “temporary” hold, Josh Dawsey, Carol D. Leonnig and Tom Hamburger report at the Washington Post.

Internal State Department emails and documents released late Friday tie Secretary of State Mike Pompeo more closely to efforts this year by President Trump and his personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani to pressure Ukraine to launch investigations politically benefiting Trump. The documents provided “a clear paper trail” of contacts in March between Giuliani and Pompeo at a key point in the Ukraine affair, according to American Oversight — the self-described non-partisan ethics watchdog group which obtained the documents through a federal Freedom of Information Act request. The emails suggest that Pompeo spoke at least twice by telephone with Giuliani in March as the president’s personal lawyer was pressing Ukraine to investigate Trump’s opponents, and trying to oust U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch who had been promoting anticorruption efforts in the country. Edward Wong and Kenneth P. Vogel report at the New York Times.

Two associates of Giuliani, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, arrested on on campaign-finance charges tried to enlist the help of top Ukrainian energy official Andrew Favorov in March in a planned takeover of state oil-and-gas company Naftogaz, portraying the company’s C.E.O. Andriy Kobolyev and Yovanovitch as part of “this Soros cartel” working against Trump. Rebecca Davis O’Brienand Christopher M. Matthews report at the Wall Street Journal.

Giuliani sought out two Ukrainian oligarchs — Dmitry Firtash and Ihor Kolomoisky — to assist in his search for information damaging to Joe Biden, according to interviews with the pair as well as with several other people with knowledge of Giuliani’s dealings. Firtash apparently hired Trump-allied lawyers for $1.2m to help his legal case — which included a referral fee for Parnas. Jo Becker, Walt Bogdanich, Maggie Haberman and Ben Protess report at the New York Times.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) yesterday denied reports he met with Ukraine’s former top prosecutor in an effort to investigate former Vice President Joseph Biden and his son Hunter, insisting the allegations were part of a criminal campaign against him by a “totally corrupt” news media. Catie Edmondson reports at the New York Times.

House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said yesterday that his panel will press ahead with its report that could lead to articles of impeachment against Trump after two weeks of public hearings with testimony from a dozen current and former U.S. officials, but still could take more testimony and hold additional hearings. In an interview, Schiff said the evidence against Trump is “already overwhelming,” Kamran Rahman reports at POLITICO.

Russia ran a yearslong campaign to blame Ukraine for Moscow’s own interference with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, American intelligence officials told senators and their aides in a briefing that “closely aligned” with testimony from Trump’s former top Russia adviser Fiona Hill. Julian E. Barnes and Matthew Rosenberg report at the New York Times.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A detailed look at a key part of Trump’s former top Russia adviser Fiona Hill’s testimony last Thursday — namely, her explanation of how a “domestic political errand” supplanted U.S. national security interests and foreign policy goals in Ukraine — is provided by Kate Brannen at Just Security.

“[Giuliani’s] ties to Ukraine extend well beyond his recent efforts to persuade the Ukrainians to open select corruption investigations that could stand to aid Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign,” Amy Mackinnon argues at Foreign Policy, commenting that Trump’s personal lawyer “has been sniffing out corruption, real or not, for many years.”

“The complete and stunning silence of [Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and acting Director of National Intelligence Joe Maguire] to offer even a scant endorsement of their employees has been both shocking and has left a dark and perhaps indelible stain on their legacies,” Marc Polymeropoulos writes at Just Security, noting the “herculean ethical strength” of the public servants who testified in the impeachment inquiry.

The founders warned of the kind of bribery and foreign influence involved in Trump’s Ukraine scheme, the New York Times editorial board argues. 

“[While] the central charge Democrats … are levying against the president has evolved from “quid pro quo” to “bribery” … [the latter] doesn’t describe what is alleged to have occurred here,” Noah Rothman comments at NBC News.

An analysis of the inadequacy of the Inspector General investigation and report into political retaliation at the State Department is provided by Luke Hartig at Just Security against the backdrop of Trump’s ongoing attacks against career government employees.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

A new leak of highly classified Chinese government documents detail the repressive inner workings of detention camps in the Xinjiang region where at least one million mostly Muslim ethnic Uighurs are thought to be detained. The documents were obtained and verified by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and give the most significant insight yet into how the mass detention camps, which more closely resemble prisons, are run — including strict discipline, punishments, and “no escapes.” Emma Graham-Harrison and Juliette Garside report at The Guardian.

The press office for China’s U.K. embassy called the leaked documents “pure fabrication and fake news,” adding, “vocational education and training centers have been established for the prevention of terrorism.” Kenzi Abou-Sabe, Andrew W. Lehren, Didi Martinez and Kate Snow report at NBC News.

“The Chinese Communist Party can no longer hide its relentless campaign of mass internment against the ethnic minorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, or claim that the effort is an innocuous educational program,” Adrian Zenz, an expert on China’s ethnic policies argues at the New York Times, commenting that “what was already widely known, vastly reported and confirmed by firsthand accounts has now been proved beyond doubt by the government’s own records.”

A former C.I.A. officer, Jerry Chun Shing Lee, was sentenced to 19 years in prison on Friday for conspiring to turn over U.S. intelligence information to China’s government “in a case that touched on the mysterious unraveling of the agency’s informant network in China but did little to solve it,” Zach Montague reports at the New York Times.

Hong Kong’s C.E.O. Carrie Lam today said the government would “seriously reflect” after local elections saw massive gains by pro-democracy candidates. Record numbers voted yesterday to eject pro-Beijing politicians from district councils they had controlled across the city in a clear expression of the city’s aspirations and its anger with Lam’s leadership. The BBC reports.

President Trump refused to say Friday whether he intends to sign legislation enacting tough sanctions on China for its crackdown in Hong Kong, “cementing the impression Trump ranks the economic relationship with Beijing higher than human rights.” The bill, passed by the House and Senate, would require the U.S. secretary of state to certify annually that Hong Kong is independent enough from Beijing to retain favored trading status and also allows the U.S. to impose travel restrictions on individuals who commit human-rights abuses in Hong Kong. Kevin Liptak and Betsy Klein report at CNN.

IRAN

Iran has been ordered to pay a Washington Post reporter and his family nearly $180 million in damages “after the reporter was imprisoned for almost 18 months during which he was psychologically tortured and physically abused.” U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon in Washington entered the judgment late Friday, Christopher Mele reports at the New York Times.

The threat from Iran continues to rise and Tehran is likely to attack again, despite U.S. military buildup, Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said in a Friday interview. Lara Seligman reports at Foreign Policy.

SYRIA

A car bomb exploded on Saturday in the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad — killing at least 10 people and wounding 25 others. Reuters reports. 

Around 500 U.S. troops in east Syria are expected to continue operations against the Islamic State group (ISIS) in coming days and weeks, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said Saturday. Reuters reports.

The launch of the Syrian Constitutional Committee could be a “door-opener” to finally achieving a solution to the country’s conflict, U.N. Special Envoy Geir Pedersen said Friday in a briefing to the Security Council, describing the launch as “a sign of hope for the Syrian people.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

A dispatch on life on the front lines in northern Syria, amid fighting in recent weeks between the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.), the Syrian army, and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, is provided by Jade Sacker at Foreign Policy.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

A long-awaited report by the Justice Department’s inspector general is expected to censure lower-level F.B.I. officials as well as bureau leaders involved in the early stages of the Trump-Russia investigation, but to vindicate the top ranks of abusing their powers out of bias against President Trump, according to people briefed on a draft. Adam Goldman and Charlie Savage report at the New York Times.

An analysis of the far-right agenda of White House senior adviser Stephen Miller following the release this month of emails which reveal that he pushed white nationalist materials on staffers at the right-wing website Breitbart is provided by Ishaan Tharoor at the Washington Post.

More than a dozen U.S. utilities that were targeted in a recent hacking campaign have been identified by the Wall Street Journal. The F.B.I. is investigating the attacks. Rebecca Smith and Rob Barry reporting.

“The expanding civil war in Libya has created a potential opening for the Islamic State to revive itself in the country,” according to Libyan commanders and Western officials, Sudarsan Raghavan reports at the Washington Post.

The number of air attacks by the Saudi-led coalition battling the Houthi rebels was down by nearly 80 percent in the last two weeks, the U.N. Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths told the UN Security Council. Al Jazeera reporting.

The U.N. has condemned an attack in Kabul on one of its vehicles which killed an American national working for the agency. Two others were wounded in yesterday’s blast. The U.N. News centre reports.

A look at last week’s developments at the U.N. at the intersection of national security, human rights, and the rule of law, including the rejection by U.N. Security Council members of the Trump administration’s new policy regarding the legality of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, is provided by Sahrula Kubie at Just Security. 

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).