The Early Edition: December 3, 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

House Republicans released a draft impeachment report yesterday, saying that the evidence from the last several weeks of public hearings and private depositions does not prove Democrats’ allegations that President Trump pressured Ukraine to initiate investigations in an effort to benefit his 2020 re-election bid, and that his hold on nearly $400 million in security assistance was “entirely prudent.” They argued in the 123-page report that there was “nothing wrong with asking serious questions” about former Vice President Joe and his son, Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, or about “Ukraine’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election.” Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

The Republican report largely reiterates their previous defenses of the president. “It directly contradicts the testimony of career diplomats and makes little attempt to get to grips with the devastating evidence of Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who spoke about the existence of a quid pro quo, or Fiona Hill, former top Russia expert at the White House, who warned against falling for Moscow’s propaganda about Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election … instead it spins the affair as a Democratic plot,” David Smith reports at The Guardian.

The G.O.P. report also claims that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani was not acting at the president’s order and did not speak on his behalf — a phrase repeated several times in the report, reflecting a key strategy of distancing Trump from the Ukraine controversy. The Republicans suggest that Giuliani might have been responsible for reinforcing the president’s “negative” attitudes about Ukraine, suggesting the Ukrainians viewed Giuliani as “someone who had the president’s ear and was worth influencing — not someone trying to relay Trump’s demands,” Sam Brodey reports at The Daily Beast.

The report is intended to counter an imminent report from Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee making the case for Trump’s impeachment. The committee is set to vote on the release of their report today. Siobhan Hughes and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) yesterday disclosed the lineup of witnesses set to testify in the committee’s first impeachment hearing tomorrow as the panel weighs whether to draft articles of impeachment. The constitutional scholars called are Noah Feldman, a Harvard Law professor, Pamela Karlan, a law professor at Stanford, and Michael Gerhardt, a law professor at the University of North Carolina. Republicans on the panel will call Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, Caitlin Oprysko and Darren Samuelsohn report at POLITICO.

U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson yesterday denied the Justice Department’s request to stay testimony from former Trump White House counsel Don McGahn. Jackson wrote in a 17-page opinion that a long-term stay on her opinion last week requiring McGahn appear before the House Judiciary Committee could cause “grave harm” to the investigation. The judge ruled last week Trump could not claim “absolute immunity” to block his former aides from testifying under oath. Darren Samuelsohn and Josh Gerstein report at POLITICO.

The G.O.P.-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee “thoroughly investigated” and cleared Ukraine of an election interference campaign in 2016 after some Republican senators questioned whether Kyiv tried to meddle with Trump’s election bid. The committee found little evidence to back the theory: testimony from Alexandra Chalupa, a Ukrainian-American activist who served as co-chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Ethnic Council, was considered “fruitless,” sources said, and Republicans opted not to follow up or call more witnesses related to the matter. Natasha Bertrand reports at POLITICO.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a wide-ranging interview published yesterday criticized the U.S. for withholding aid and for its frequent labeling of the country as corrupt. Zelensky again sought to distance himself from the impeachment inquiry centered on whether Trump dangled military aid and a potential White House visit to pressure the Ukrainian leader to launch investigations into the Bidens and events surrounding the 2016 election, insisting that he did not see his conversations with Trump “from the lens of a quid pro quo.” Caitlin Oprysko reports at POLITICO.

New charges are likely in a criminal campaign finance case against two associates of Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, a prosecutor said yesterday, without specifying if any new indictment would include additional charges or additional defendants. The two men are already charged with funneling foreign money to U.S. political candidates as part of a plot to oust the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. Tom Winter and Rich Schapiro report at NBC News.

House Democrats are weighing whether to expand articles of impeachment against Trump to include charges beyond abuse of power in the Ukraine controversy — including obstruction of justice or other “high crimes” they consider are clearly detailed in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. Rachel Bade reports at the Washington Post.

Attorney General William Barr reportedly disagrees with one of the main findings in the Department of Justice (D.O.J.)’s inspector general’s report on the origins of the Russia investigation, which states that the F.B.I. had enough information in July 2016 to launch a probe into Trump campaign members. Barr apparently has told D.O.J. officials that he does not agree with Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s conclusion that the investigation was launched on a legal and factual basis, and believes that Horowitz does not have sufficient information to draw that conclusion. Devlin Barrett and Karoun Demirjian report at the Washington Post.

“Barr’s skepticism could place more pressure on John H. Durham — the federal prosecutor who is conducting a separate criminal inquiry into the roots of the Russia investigation — to find evidence backing Barr’s position,” and the attorney general’s apprehensions “are significant because they could be perceived as the nation’s top law enforcement officer siding with Trump, who has long cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Russia investigation,” Katie Benner and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

While Trump has claimed Mueller applied to be F.B.I. director and was “turned down,” the documents do not support the president’s version of events. Dareh Gregorian at NBC News reports on newly released documents which give fresh insight into the circumstances of Trump’s May 16, 2017 meeting with Mueller in the Oval Office.

“The 123-page document written by GOP members on three House committees formalized the President’s own cycle of distraction and denial that he used out to ride out the Russia scandal,” Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis at CNN, describing the Republican report released yesterday as “less a defense of Trump on the merits but rather an endorsement of his counterfactual denials.”

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Beijing is weighing imposing a ban on all U.S. diplomatic passport holders from entering northwest China’s Xinjiang region, where at least one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are thought to be detained in camps, in response to U.S. legislation that would punish Chinese officials for human rights abuses, according to the editor of the state-run Global Times, Hu Xijin. President Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act last week, Lily Kuo reports at The Guardian.

China has suspended U.S. warship visits and sanctioned several American non-governmental human rights organizations in retaliation to the legislation passed in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. “In response to the unreasonable behaviors of the U.S. side, the Chinese government has decided to suspend reviewing the applications for U.S. warships to go to Hong Kong for [rest and] recuperation as of today,” foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a news briefing yesterday. Brad Lendon reports at CNN.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Popular video-sharing app TikTok has been accused in a class-action lawsuit of transferring private user data to servers in China, despite the company’s assurances that it does not store personal data there. The lawsuit filed in a Californian court last week alleges TikTok “clandestinely … vacuumed up and transferred to servers in China vast quantities of private and personally-identifiable user data.” The BBC reports.

The F.B.I. has designated FaceApp as a counterintelligence threat due to its links to Russia, with the F.B.I. stressing that it will “take action” if it determines the face-editing App is involved in election meddling efforts. In classifying FaceApp as a threat, assistant director of the F.B.I.’s Office of Congressional Affairs Jill Tyson drew attention to the ability of the Russian Federal Security Service to “remotely access all communications and servers on Russian networks without making a request to [internet service providers].” Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said yesterday that any future troop pullouts in Afghanistan were “not necessarily” related to a ceasefire agreement with Taliban insurgents, indicating a reduction in troop levels may occur irrespective of the ongoing peace push.  Reuters reports.

A further five years of fighting in Yemen would cost as much as $29 billion just to sustain the present level of humanitarian aid, relief group International Rescue Committee said yesterday, a figure that exceeds the entire annual humanitarian budget globally. The AP reports.

The Trump administration has released $105 million in military aid to Lebanon after months of unexplained delay that led some lawmakers to compare it to the hold on assistance for Ukraine at the center of the impeachment inquiry. Catie Edmondson and Edward Wong report at the New York Times.

Turkey has denied allegations it is blackmailing N.A.T.O. by blocking a military proposal for the Baltics and Poland unless it receives support for its effort to defeat Syrian Kurd forces on its borders. Patrick Wintour reports at The Guardian.

N.A.T.O. leaders, including President Trump, are meeting in London today for a summit to mark the alliance’s 70th anniversary. Updates at CNN.

The House is set to vote today on a resolution expressing objection to including Russia in future Group of Seven (G-7) summits, “a move seen as a rebuke of President Trump’s repeated efforts to include the country at meetings of the world’s top leaders.” Cristina Marcos reports at the Hill.

The Navy is facing serious problems right now, Colonel (ret.) Bob Wilson argues at Just Security, commenting that Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher’s case points to a number of organizational culture problems within the SEALs “that undercut their effectiveness at conducting counterterrorism operations, where the force remains in high demand.” 

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).