The Early Edition: December 17, 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’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani has admitted that he saw former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch as an obstacle in his efforts to dig up dirt on the president’s potential rival — former Vice President Joe Biden — ahead of the 2020 election. Giuliani said in an interview that he needed Yovanovitch “out of the way,” and that she “was going to make the investigations difficult for everybody.” The ex-ambassador testified in the impeachment hearings that Trump directly pressured the State Department to remove her in May after Giuliani helped lead a smear campaign against her based on what she described as “unfounded and false claims.” Kenneth P. Vogel reports at the New York Times.

Republicans have dismissed Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)’s proposals for a Senate impeachment trial, saying that decisions about witnesses should not be made before the trial commences. “If we’re going to have witnesses … then you’re going to have allow the defense to call witnesses that they believe are exculpatory … if that’s the direction [Democrats] want to go, then that’s what we’ll do,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) stated, adding, “you can’t have a process where only side gets to call unlimited witnesses.” Marianne Levine and Burgess Everett report at POLITICO.

Several congressional centrists, including some representing Republican-leaning districts, announced yesterday they will now support Trump’s impeachment, a boost for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s effort to present a united front in her chamber’s vote. Two days before a historic vote on a pair of impeachment articles, around a half-dozen first-term Democrats in districts that Trump won in 2016 — who had all previously been reticent about impeachment — said they had been persuaded that they had no choice but to advance with formal charges of high crimes and misdemeanors against the president. Michael D. Shear reports at the New York Times.

A group of more than 700 historians and scholars urged the House of Representatives to vote to impeach Trump, writing in a statement that the president’s disregard for the rule of law represents a “clear and present danger to the Constitution.” “Trump’s numerous and flagrant abuses of power are precisely what the Framers had in mind as grounds for impeaching and removing a president,” the open letter, signed by Robert Caro and Ken Burns, says, adding, “[c]ollectively, the President’s offenses … arouse once again the Framers’ most profound fears that powerful members of government would become, in Hamilton’s words, ‘the mercenary instruments of foreign corruption.’” Felicia Sonmez reports at the Washington Post.

Twenty former Republican lawmakers, officials and legal experts are calling on a federal appeals court to rebuff Trump’s assertion that his former White House counsel Don McGahn can overlook a House subpoena. The bloc of prominent G.O.P. figures contends that the country’s founders did not mean for presidents and their advisers to enjoy such unhampered authority to reject congressional oversight, arguing “the idea that a president and his current and former advisors enjoy absolute immunity from subpoena — particularly during impeachment proceedings — finds no support in early American practice.” House Democrats are pushing for testimony from McGahn relating to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

“Trump doesn’t just want to be acquitted in the Senate trial … he hopes to be vindicated,” Michael C. Bender and Lindsay Wise report at the Wall Street Journal.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

The evidence produced by the impeachment inquiry shows President Trump committed several federal crimes in his dealings with Ukraine including bribery and honest services fraud, leading experts Andrew Weissmann, Sam Berger, Randall Eliason, Barbara McQuade, Paul Seamus Ryan, Susan Simpson, Gary Stein and Michael Stern write in a detailed analysis at Just Security.

“The new report from House Judiciary Democrats is notable because it makes the case that [Trump’s Ukraine pressure campaign] constituted a federal crime, in addition to an impeachable offense,” Greg Sargent argues at the Washington Post.

“It’s better for the House and for the country to hit pause, and turn now to the courts for resolution,” Philip Bobbitt at Just Security proposes an alternative path to a swift Senate trial, which sees the House “immediately [voting] for subpoenas for testimony, and subpoenas duces tecum for documents, from the Cabinet level officials and former officials who are likeliest to possess first-hand knowledge of the president’s actions and state of mind.” 

Trump’s conduct toward Ukraine offers revelatory insight into his foreign-policy methods, Robert B. Zoellick comments at the Wall Street Journal.

A comprehensive guide to where every House member stands on impeaching Trump, including, where possible, their publicly stated position on the two articles of impeachment, is provided by Sarah Almukhtar, Larry Buchanan, Jonathan Corum, Denise Lu, Alicia Parlapiano, Joe Ward and Karen Yourish at the New York Times.

AFGHANISTAN

At least 10 civilians, including children, were killed and 18 others were wounded after two separate bombs exploded in Afghanistan early today. Reuters reporting.

The violence came as a new United Nations report says that “even by Afghanistan’s grim standards, 2019 has been particularly deadly for children” and described the country as “the world’s most lethal war zone.” The rate of child casualties has gone up by some 11 per cent since 2018, which the study attributes to factors including “a surge in suicide bomb attacks and ground engagements between pro and anti-government forces.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said yesterday that he would back Trump drawing down to 8,600 American troops in Afghanistan. Speaking to reporters in Kabul, Graham said a pullout of U.S. forces in Afghanistan “this coming year is possible,” adding, “with 8,600 American forces aligned in the right configuration, we would have a very lethal punch.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump yesterday said he would be “disappointed” if something is “in the works” in North Korea as Kim Jong-Un’s end-of-year deadline for Washington to change its approach to stalled denuclearization talks looms. Trump also said that the United States is monitoring activities in the Asian nation “very closely.” The Guardian reporting.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said yesterday North Korea would probably conduct unspecified tests if they “don’t feel satisfied,” amid concerns the two nations could “return to the collision course” they had been on before initiating diplomacy. “I’ve been watching the Korean Peninsula for maybe a quarter of a century now … so I’m familiar with their tactics, with their bluster and I think we need to get serious and sit down and have discussions about a political agreement that denuclearizes the Peninsula,” Esper said. Reuters reporting.

The U.N. Security Council should not be weighing “premature sanctions relief” for North Korea as it is “threatening to conduct an escalated provocation, refusing to meet to discuss denuclearization,” a State Department official said yesterday after China and Russia suggested that the Council lift a prohibition on North Korea exporting certain goods. Reuters reporting.

Reviewing the U.S.’s missile defense stance, as well as its overall force stance more broadly, is “critical” given that Kim is not likely going to denuclearize, Samantha Vinograd argues at CNN, calling on Trump to rethink his strategy.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS 

“The independence of both the F.B.I. and its director [of political influence of any kind] is critical and should be fiercely protected by each branch of government,” former federal judge and former director of both the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. William Webster writes in an op-ed at the New York Times, warning, “[t]he country can ill afford to have a chief law enforcement officer dispute the Justice Department’s own independent inspector general’s report and claim that an F.B.I. investigation was based on ‘a completely bogus narrative.’”

A federal judge yesterday dismissed arguments by President Trump’s first national security adviser Michael Flynn that he was targeted by politically motivated federal agents, setting a sentencing date of Jan. 28 for Flynn, who has pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about his interactions with Russia’s ambassador after the 2016 U.S. election. Katelyn Polantz reports at CNN.

Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates is scheduled to be sentenced this morning for his role in a criminal financial scheme. Pete Williams reports at NBC News.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper called on Iraq to halt attacks on bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq and urged Baghdad “to take steps” to get the situation “under control.” Reuters reporting.

“The Trump administration needs to drop its unrealistic demands for massive increases in funding and shift instead to more moderate, incremental increases as part of a larger negotiation on roles, missions and capabilities needed to secure regional peace,” Bruce Klingner, Jung Pak and Sue Mi Terry comment on Trump’s approach to two key allies, South Korea and Japan, at the Los Angeles Times.

Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday offered his support for Hong Kong C.E.O. Carrie Lam, praising her courage in governing the city amid ongoing protests calling for her resignation, among other demands. Chun Han Wong reports at the Wall Street Journal. 

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).