The Early Edition: November 27, 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

President Trump ordered the hold on Ukraine security assistance in mid-June, not July — essentially as soon as the Pentagon publicly announced it was releasing the funds, according to documents reviewed by Just Security. Kate Brannen reporting.

The White House Office of Management and Budget (O.M.B.) made its first official move to withhold the military aid to Ukraine on July 25, the same day Trump spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky by phone, according to a summary of O.M.B. documents produced by the House Budget Committee. The O.M.B. documents show that while that first withholding letter was signed by a career official, subsequent letters to freeze the aid were signed by O.M.B. political appointee Michael Duffey. Duffey defied a Oct. 25 subpoena to testify before House impeachment investigators, Jeremy Herb, Manu Raju, Sara Murray and Rene Marsh report at CNN.

Two officials at the O.M.B. resigned after expressing concerns over the unexplained hold on Ukraine aid, the agency’s deputy associate director for national security programs Mark Sandy told impeachment investigators, according to a closed-door transcript of his Nov. 16 testimony released yesterday. Sandy testified that one unnamed official from the agency’s legal division had a “dissenting opinion” about how the Ukraine aid could be held without violating the law; another unnamed official who resigned in September had “expressed some frustrations about not understanding the reason for the hold,” Sandy said. Erica Werner and Felicia Sonmez report at the Washington Post.

Trump had already been briefed about the existence of a whistleblower complaint concerning his dealings with Ukraine when he lifted the hold on nearly $400 million of security aid for the country, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. White House counsel Pat Cipollone and John Eisenberg, an attorney with the White House National Security Council, told Trump in late August about the whistleblower’s complaint — a new timing detail which indicates that Trump was aware at the time that the whistleblower had accused him of wrongdoing in potentially dangling the aid while pressing Zelensky to launch investigations politically benefiting the U.S. president. The lawyers told Trump they were trying to determine whether they were legally obligated to give it to Congress; Trump finally released the funds in September, Michael S. Schmidt, Julian E. Barnes and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

House Democrats yesterday released the witness transcript from their interview with Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of State in charge of European and Eurasian Affairs. The transcript is available at the Hill.

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday will hold its first public impeachment hearing part of a new phase of the investigation that will seek to determine whether Trump’s actions amount to “high crimes and misdemeanors” as defined in the U.S. constitution, Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. The witnesses at next week’s hearing are expected to include legal and constitutional experts who will “discuss the historical and constitutional basis of impeachment,” as well as the “procedural application of the impeachment process.” Trump and his legal team are invited to attend and participate in the hearing, according to the rules approved by the House last month. Kyle Cheney, Andrew Desiderio and Heather Caygle report at POLITICO.

The Justice Department asked a federal judge yesterday to put a temporary pause on a ruling that orders former Trump White House counsel Don McGahn to testify in the House impeachment probe, saying it needs the delay to pursue an appeal to a higher court. Reuters reports.

A lawyer representing former national security adviser John Bolton and former deputy national security adviser Charles Kupperman said his clients would continue to resist congressional subpoenas, arguing that Monday’s ruling did not apply to their situation because it does not answer whether presidential communications involving issues of national security are subject to “absolute testimonial immunity.” It is not clear that Charles Cooper’s position will hold up in courts — the judge in former White House counsel Don McGahn’s case indicated that national security does not offer protection from congressional oversight. Leigh Ann Caldwell and Carol E. Lee report at NBC News.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani represented a Venezuelan businessman, Alejandro Betancourt López, in discussions with the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) about heading off criminal charges against the businessman in a money laundering and bribery case, according to people familiar with the representation. Giuliani reportedly traveled to Spain with at least one other lawyer to meet with Betancourt in August before making the case to top lawyers in the D.O.J.’s criminal division a month later for why Betancourt should not be charged. Rosalind S. Helderman, Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky and Tom Hamburger report at the Washington Post.

“The representation … is another example of Giuliani pursuing business around the world with clients who have interests before the United States government, even as he continues to represent Trump.” It also shows the ways in which Giuliani “mixed his private business with the Ukrainian pressure campaign” that is at the center of the congressional impeachment inquiry into Trump, and a separate probe by prosecutors in Manhattan into whether Giuliani violated lobbying laws. Kenneth P. Vogel and Ben Protess report at the New York Times.

A legal defense fund established to support career State Department officials testifying in the impeachment inquiry against Trump has gained over a quarter of a million dollars from donors around America, offering a “financial lifeline” to the government employees and indicating a widespread show of support for the U.S. diplomatic corps. Robbie Gramer reports at Foreign Policy.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared yesterday to back a debunked conspiracy theory promoted by Trump — that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee (D.N.C.)’s emails during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. “Anytime there is information that indicates that any country has messed with American elections, we not only have a right but a duty to make sure we chase that down,” Pompeo said in a news conference at the State Department when was asked if the U.S. and Ukraine should probe the conspiratorial claim. John Hudson reports at the Washington Post.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An analysis of the recent developments in the Ukraine scandal timeline, emerging from transcripts of witness testimony and news reports, is provided by Maeve Reston at CNN.

The newly released transcripts offer “more evidence that the hold on Ukraine assistance wasn’t because of concern over general ‘corruption.’” Amber Phillips at the Washington Post suggests three key takeaways from testimony from acting assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Philip Reeker and Mark Sandy, the deputy associate director for the National Security Office of Management and Budget (O.M.B..) 

A detailed explanation as to why the hold on Ukraine aid was illegal and its implications for the impeachment process is fielded by expert and former O.M.B. official Sam Berger at Just Security, who explains, “the Trump White House created an irregular budgetary process to match its irregular foreign policy process with respect to Ukraine.” 

A comprehensive chronology of Rep. Devin Nunes (R.-Ca) and his top aide Derek Harvey’s alleged work with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani and his indicted associate Lev Parnas to find dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden is provide by co-editor-in-chief Ryan Goodman and Viola Gienger at Just Security.

TURKEY AND SYRIA

At least 17 people were killed and 20 others were wounded after a car bomb exploded in a Turkish-controlled area of northeastern Syria yesterday, Turkey’s Defense Ministry said. The ministry blamed the attack, which took place near the city of Ras al-Ayn, on Syrian Kurdish fighters. Al Jazeera reports.

Turkey is not wiling to support a N.A.T.O. defense plan for the Baltics and Poland until the alliance offers Ankara more political backing for its fight against Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria, according to four senior alliance sources. Ankara reportedly instructed its N.A.T.O. envoy not to sign off on the plan, requesting the alliance recognize the YPG as terrorists in the formal wording, the sources said. Reuters reports.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said yesterday it has released 200 Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels part of a U.N.-brokered accord aimed at ending the nearly five-year war in Yemen. Coalition spokesperson Col. Turki al-Malki said in a statement that the move was aimed at clearing the way for a larger and long-delayed prisoner exchange agreed upon last year. The AP reports.

The State Department is investigating reports alleging the transfer of U.S.-made weapons by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) to armed Yemeni groups with possible terrorist connections, according to a Nov. 19 letter released yesterday by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “The Department of State takes these allegations very seriously and is working closely with partner nations to determine whether there were any such unauthorized transfers,” the letter from Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Mary Elizabeth Taylor said. The State Department’s letter came following Warren’s queries on the matter last month. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

South Korea’s military fired warning shots today to ward off a North Korean merchant ship after it crossed into their disputed western sea boundary, Seoul officials said, the second such incident in two months. Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that it believes the North Korean ship violated the sea boundary “due to bad weather and an engine problem.” The AP reports.

Sanctions are having a negative impact on ordinary North Koreans, and there is a real possibility that sanctions pressure may even strengthen the country’s regime, Kevin Gray argues at Just Security, commenting, “there is an urgent need for alternative approaches to diplomacy with North Korea” to resolve the nuclear crisis.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Recently leaked documents confirm that China is committing “very significant” human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims and other minority groups in mass detention, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday, urging the Chinese government to “immediately release all those who are arbitrarily detained and to end its draconian policies that have terrorized its own citizens in Xinjiang.” The AP reports.

The Chinese government is not likely to demolish the Xinjiang camps and apologize, notwithstanding a cache of leaked documents which exposed human rights violations inside the camps and sparked serious concern among several foreign governments, Ben Westcott writes in an analysis at CNN.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif yesterday held talks in Tehran with a Taliban delegation led by the group’s politburo chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the official I.R.N.A. news agency reported today. The parties discussed Tehran’s willingness to help facilitate dialogue between all Afghan parties with the participation of the Afghan government. The AP reports.

Russia intends to finalize a deal to supply Turkey with more S-400 missile systems in the first half of next year, according to reports by Russian news agency R.I.A.. Reuters reports.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee sued Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in federal court in Washington yesterday for refusing to hand over subpoenaed documents related to the administration’s failed effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. Janet Adamy reports at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump said he would legally designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist groups for their role in trafficking narcotics and people, prompting a request for urgent talks by Mexico. AFP reports.

Ten takeaways from Trump’s long-running campaign to protect Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, who was accused of serious war crimes, are provided by Peter Feaver at Foreign Policy. 

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).