The Early Edition: November 26, 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 federal judge yesterday ruled that former White House counsel Don McGahn must testify before House impeachment investigators about Trump’s possible obstruction of justice related to the Russia probe — despite claims by the administration that he had “absolute immunity” as a top presidential adviser. The ruling is the first by a federal judge in the Trump era ordering an ex-White House official to comply with a Congressional subpoena. Charlie Savage reports at the New York Times.

U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson declared in her 118-page ruling that “presidents are not kings” and that “no one is above the law.” Jackson called absolute immunity “a fiction” that has been maintained by a succession of presidential administrations by simply repeating it as a fact without testing the principle in court, adding, “however busy or essential a presidential aide might be, and whatever their proximity to sensitive domestic and national-security projects, the President does not have the power to excuse him or her from taking an action that the law requires.” The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) said it will appeal the decision and will seek a stay of Jackson’s order while it does so. Spencer S. Hsu and Ann E. Marimow report at Washington Post.

Yesterday’s ruling could have implications for other key witnesses called before Congress. Democrats may use Jackson’s decision to summon figures such as former national security advisor John Bolton, Bolton’s deputy Charles Kupperman and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who are among the small cadre of current and former senior administration officials who White House lawyers assert cannot be forced to testify about matters related to the president. Ed Pilkington reports at The Guardian.

Federal prosecutors in New York are seeking records and information related to Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani and two of his recently-arrested associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, as part of an active criminal investigation into the pair. Prosecutors have issued subpoenas to figures with ties to Giuliani, seeking information on his consulting firm Giuliani Partners as well as a company co-founded by Parnas that paid Giuliani for legal and business advice. The subpoenas listed numerous potential charges under consideration including money laundering, obstruction of justice, conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and making false statements to the federal government. Rebecca Davis O’Brien, Rebecca Ballhaus and Shelby Holliday report at the Wall Street Journal.

Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said yesterday that House investigators would send a report on Trump’s conduct related to Ukraine to the House Judiciary Committee after lawmakers return on Dec. 3 from Thanksgiving recess. In a letter to members of Congress, Schiff also said the report would include a catalogue of White House refusals to cooperate with the inquiry, and that the Trump administration’s failure to cooperate could form the basis for a separate article of impeachment against the president. Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

An analysis of Jackson’s “stunning rebuke of the White House” is provided by Stephen Collinson at CNN. 

While Trump has vowed to challenge his impeachment in the Supreme Court, the Constitution and precedents seem to exclude the court from the impeachment process, Adam Liptak writes at the New York Times.

“For their counter-narrative [to the U.S. Intelligence Community’s unanimous conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential elections] to stick, Trump and his associates need to destroy all trust in the Intelligence Community,” Alex Finley argues at Just Security, commenting on Attorney General Bill Barr’s now criminal investigation.

TRUMP TAXES

The Supreme Court has temporarily stayed a House Oversight Committee subpoena for President Trump’s financial records from his accounting firm Mazars U.S.A.. In a brief order, the court said the subpoena would remain on hold until the president’s lawyers file their appeal and the court acts on the case. The court instructed Trump’s lawyers to file a petition by Dec. 5. If accepted, the case probably will be heard this term, with a decision before the court adjourns at the end of June; if the petition is denied, the lower court ruling granting Congress access to the documents will go into effect. Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

A helpful explainer on the Constitutional questions at play in the two Mazars subpoena cases before the Supreme Court is provided by Marty Lederman at Just Security.

U.S. MILITARY

President Trump ordered the Pentagon to allow a Navy SEAL convicted of battlefield misconduct to remain a member of the elite force, instead of holding a review board, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said yesterday. The disclosure, which came amid a controversy that prompted the ouster of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer on Sunday, illustrates how Trump intervened repeatedly in the case of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher who was involved in a war-crimes case. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

It will do “grievous damage” to our armed services if Trump’s values become those of our military, Richard J. Danzig and Sean O’Keefe argue at the New York Times, commenting on the president’s direction to Spencer to prevent the naval officers charged with oversight of the SEALs from disciplining one of their own and noting, “the military is not an extension of the White House.”

CHINA AND HONG KONG

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the American ambassador to Beijing, Terry Branstad, yesterday to object to the passing by Congress of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, warning that the United States should stop interfering in China’s internal affairs. The U.S. House passed the Act last Wednesday in support of the pro-democracy movement in the semi-autonomous territory. Reuters reports.

Hong Kong’s C.E.O. Carrie Lam acknowledged today that public dissatisfaction with her government triggered a landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates in local elections, but showed little intention to compromise with the city’s pro-democracy movement. In China, state media tried to downplay and discredit the weekend ballot, with an editorial late yesterday from state news agency Xinhua blaming “rioters,” supported by “external forces,” for tipping the election. Emma Graham-Harrison and Lily Kuo report at The Guardian.

The German Foreign Ministry has urged China to give U.N. human rights officials “unhindered access” to detention camps in the Xinjiang region, after leaked documents suggested they are used to forcibly re-educate minorities. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Adebahr yesterday said Germany was “following with great concern” recent reports about the centers, where around one million mostly Muslim ethnic Uighurs are thought to be held. The AP reports.

“Hong Kong’s 2019 district council elections may be the most important in the city’s history,” Benny Tai Yiu-ting argues at the New York Times, noting the record turnout rate and the mandate of district councils.

An explainer on Hong Kong’s elections, which saw a defeat for pro-Beijing candidates, is provided by Michael Delaney at Foreign Policy.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels said yesterday they have detained several U.N. humanitarian workers on suspicion of spying, importing expired drugs and withholding fuel shipments. The Houthis were responding to U.N. claims that the rebels have diverted donations of food, medicine, fuel and money from Yemenis during the country’s five-year civil war. The AP reports.

The Israeli military said yesterday that a rocket had been launched from the Gaza Strip toward Israel less than two weeks after a ceasefire ended hostilities with Palestinian militants. The AP reports.

U.S. military personnel have resumed large-scale counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State group (ISIS) in northern Syria, according to military officials, almost two months after President Trump’s abrupt order to pullout American troops cleared the way for a Turkish cross-border offensive. The new missions indicate that Trump will retain some 500 troops in the country, many of them in action, for the foreseeable future. Eric Schmitt reports at the New York Times.

A Chinese woman was sentenced to eight months in prison in a federal court yesterday after she was convicted in September of trespassing at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, sparking fears she could pose an intelligence threat. NBC News reports.

The U.N. launched a 16-day campaign against gender-based violence yesterday, targeting the often-unpunished crime of rape that afflicts women and girls in every nation and has been utilized as a weapon in wars. The AP reports. 

About the Author(s)

Nat O'Connell

Associate 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).