The Early Edition: December 18, 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 yesterday accused Democrats of pursuing an “illegal, partisan attempted coup” and declaring “open war” on American democracy, on the eve of his likely impeachment. Trump’s remarks came in a blistering six-page letter addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that charges the architects of the impeachment process with engaging in an “unprecedented and unconstitutional abuse of power” and “[cheapening] the importance of the very ugly word, impeachment!” as they seek to remove him from office for pressing Ukraine to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden. Alex Leary reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“The letter on White House stationery called the impeachment process “invalid,” “spiteful,” “egregious,” “meritless,” “terrible,” “disingenuous,” “baseless,” “preposterous,” “dangerous,” “fake,” “fantasy” and “illegal” … and was in many ways another version of Trump’s rally speeches and tweetstorms,” Philip Rucker, Elise Viebeck and John Wagner report at the Washington Post.

Trump wrote that he had been “deprived of basic Constitutional Due Process from the beginning of this impeachment scam” and “denied the most fundamental rights afforded by the Constitution, including the right to present evidence.” Referring to a famous miscarriage of justice in 17th century U.S. history, Trump said he had been afforded less rights than “those accused in the Salem Witch Trials.” POLITICO 

“[T]he letter was a rambling diatribe that played loose with facts … sometimes disregarding them outright,” Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

Trump’s letter was released as House leaders met to set the rules for debate before today’s planned vote on two articles of impeachment charging Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress over his dealings with Ukraine. The House Rules Committee agreed yesterday night to allow six hours of debate on the House floor after Republicans called for even more time — at least 12 hours. Sarah Ferris and Heather Caygle report at POLITICO.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) told reporters yesterday that he would not strive to be “impartial” during Trump’s impeachment trial “in a strikingly public rejection of the oath senators take during an impeachment trial to “do impartial justice.” “I’m not an impartial juror, this is a political process … I’m not impartial about this at all,” McConnell told reporters. Michael D. Shear reports at the New York Times.

Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, whose testimony helped build the case for impeaching Trump, is to leave his post next month. Taylor, an important witness in the House impeachment inquiry who criticized the White House’s decision to withhold aid to Ukraine, will step down in January when his temporary appointment is due to expire, Lara Jakes reports at the New York Times.

Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.) accused Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday of “unceremoniously recalling” Taylor. “I am extremely concerned that this suspect decision furthers the president’s inappropriate and unacceptable linking of U.S. policy to Ukraine to his personal and political benefit, and potentially your own,” the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote in a letter to Pompeo. John Hudson reports at the Washington Post.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Five highlights from President Trump’s impeachment-eve letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are provided by Adam Gabbatt at The Guardian.

The 30 most blistering lines from Trump’s letter are suggested in an analysis by Chris Cillizza at CNN.

A fact-checker of the president’s “most powerful protest” against the impeachment process is provided by the New York Times.

House Democrats have enough votes to impeach Trump, according to an analysis by JM Rieger and Kevin Schaul at the Washington Post.

Trump’s impeachment reveals “a deeper threat to our constitutional system, and a pathway forward for legislators to guard against abuses by this and future presidents,” former Legal Adviser of the Department of State Harold Hongju Koh comments at Just Security.

A guide on what to look out for before the House vote today on two articles of impeachment against Trump is provided by Peter Baker at the New York Times.

INSPECTOR GENERAL REPORT

A secret surveillance court issued a rare public order yesterday rebuking the F.B.I. for its omissions and errors contained in applications to wiretap former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Judge Rosemary Collyer, the presiding judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, accused the F.B.I. of misleading the court about the rationale for monitoring Page, and called the bureau’s actions “antithetical to the heightened duty of candor” owed to the court by government agents. Devlin Barrett reports at the Washington Post.

“The frequency with which representations made by F.B.I. personnel turned out to be unsupported or contradicted by information in their possession, and with which they withheld information detrimental to their case, calls into question whether information contained in other F.B.I. applications is reliable,” Judge Collyer wrote, referring to the behavior of F.B.I. personnel criticized in a recent Justice Department watchdog report. The judge ordered the F.B.I. to propose changes in how investigators seek their permission for national security surveillance targeting Americans by Jan. 10. John Kruzel reports at the Hill.

Judge Collyer’s order “underscores how the F.I.S.A. process dilutes political accountability,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board comments, arguing that “injecting judges into secret executive-branch national security decisions …abets abuse more than prevents it.

DEFENSE SPENDING BILL

The Senate yesterday approved a $738 billion defense policy bill that establishes a Space Force and includes provisions aimed at holding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime to account for crimes against civilians through new punitive measures. President Trump last week signaled his intention to sign the National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.), saying the bill included all his priorities. Courtney McBride reports at the Wall Street Journal.

A helpful breakdown of what the N.D.A.A. includes is provided by Daniel R. Mahanty and Benjamin Haas at Just Security, who comment that “for all the ways that the [bill] falls short on various human rights issues, there are some bright spots that should not be overlooked.”

“[It] is hardly an isolated occurrence” that the defense spending bill “was stripped of a number of measures that lawmakers hoped would restrict American support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen,” Ishaan Tharoor writes in an analysis of Trump’s record on foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia at the Washington Post.

SYRIA

A series of air strikes and artillery attacks in the opposition-held Syrian province of Idlib killed twenty-four civilians yesterday, according to first responders. The BBC reports.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan yesterday said that the resettlement of 1 million Syrian refugees into the “peace zone” that the Turkish military drove Kurdish forces out of in October should happen in “a very short period of time.” “We need to find a formula that will allow the refugees to remain in their homelands and the ones who have already traveled to Turkey to be peacefully returned and resettled in their homelands,” Erdoğan told the Global Forum on Refugees in Geneva. Reuters reporting.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

U.S. special envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun will visit Beijing tomorrow and Friday, the U.S. State Department said yesterday, after China and Russia recommended lifting certain U.N. sanctions on North Korea. Biegun will meet Chinese officials “to discuss the need to maintain international unity on North Korea,” the State Department said in a statement. Al Jazeera reporting.

A top U.S. Air Force general believes North Korea’s cryptic “Christmas gift” to the U.S. could be a long-range missile test. “Does it come on Christmas Eve? Does it come on Christmas Day? Does it come after the New Year? One of my responsibilities is to pay attention to that,” Gen. Charles Brown, commander of Pacific Air Forces and air component commander for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said, while acknowledging it was also possible that the end of 2019 could pass without a major launch by the North Koreas. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

The State Department plans to significantly downsize the number of U.S. personnel in Iraq — a decision that runs counter to the Trump administration’s stated goals of countering Iranian influence in the country and undermines Washington’s efforts to stabilize the Iraqi government, according to critics. Robbie Gramer reports at Foreign Policy.

A Russian spy ship is conducting “erratic maneuvers” while operating off the southeast coast of the United States, two officials said. Ryan Browne reports at CNN.

A lawyer for Dmitry Firtash, the Ukrainian oligarch who faces criminal charges in the U.S., made a $1 million payment to Lev Parnas, an associate of President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, just a month before he was arrested for allegedly violating campaign finance laws, prosecutors said in court yesterday. Reuters reporting.

Former Trump campaign deputy Richard Gates yesterday was sentenced to 45 days in jail and three years of probation after pleading guilty to charges involving financial fraud and lying to federal investigators. Darren Samuelsohn and Josh Gerstein report at POLITICO. 

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).