The Early Edition: January 14, 2020

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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.  

IRAN-IRAQ

President Trump asserted yesterday that it “doesn’t really matter” whether Gen. Qassem Soleimani posed an imminent threat to the United States given the military leader’s history, adding a new twist to the administration’s narrative on why it killed the top Iranian commander. In a message sent on Twitter, Trump insisted the threat posed by Soleimani was imminent and that his team was in agreement on the strike, but said that was not important “because of his horrible past!” Annie Karni reports at the New York Times.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that killing the Iranian commander was part of a larger strategy of deterrence, marking the latest revision in what is become a shifting explanation about the threat Soleimani posed to U.S. personnel in the Middle East. In his speech at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, Pompeo did not allude to the threat of imminent attacks planned by Soleimani; instead, his speech, “The Restoration of Deterrence: The Iranian Example,” concentrated on what he called an administration strategy to establish “real deterrence” against Iran following earlier Republican and Democratic policies that facilitated Tehran’s “malign activity.” The Guardian reporting.

Attorney General William Barr said yesterday that Trump “clearly had authority to kill Soleimani,” adding that the White House sought advice from his department before the operation went ahead. Barr told reporters that Soleimani was a “legitimate military target” and the strike was a “legitimate act of self-defense,” without citing any specific evidence. Reuters reporting.

The U.S. will collaborate with Iraqi leaders to “get to the right place” on American troop deployment in the country, Pompeo said yesterday, following a request from Baghdad last week to prepare to withdraw them. Reuters reporting.

Pompeo has declined to testify at a committee hearing on Iran today, the committee’s chair announced yesterday, sparking frustration amongst senior Democrats. Though the State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Pompeo’s decision not to testify, a Thursday statement suggests the secretary is on a trip to California until tomorrow, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The Senate could vote this week on a war power resolution aimed at blocking Trump from taking military action against Iran, providing they are able to finish the debate before the start of Trump’s impeachment trial. The measure, introduced by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), would call for the U.S. to “remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities against the Islamic Republic of Iran” within 30 days unless it was responding to an “imminent” threat. Marianne Levine reports at POLITICO.

The U.S. has the constitutional authority to attack Iranian proxies in Iraq and Iran on the Islamic Republic’s home soil in retaliation for attacks on American forces, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in an interview yesterday. Esper said the Authorization for Use of Military Force (A.U.M.F.) Resolution permits the U.S. military to strike Iranian-backed proxies in Iraq, adding the president’s power under Article II of the Constitution would allow the U.S. to strike Iran if U.S. interests were targeted. Bobby Allyn and Ari Shapiro report at NPR.

“Trump administration officials have issued confusing explanations, contradicting each other about how imminent a threat the Iranian general posed, whether they had specific intelligence on the threat and even what that threat was, with Trump saying one thing, then another, while officials offered varying explanations,” Zachary Cohen summarizes the latest developments at CNN, noting the shift from the Trump administration’s assertion that the strike was carried out to prevent an “imminent” attack.

U.S. commanders at the Ain al-Asad air base attacked by Iran last week have said they believe the missile strikes were intended to kill American personnel, an act that could have propelled the two powers closer to outright war. “These were designed and organized to inflict as many casualties as possible,” Lt. Col. Tim Garland, commander of Task Force Jazeera and one of the most senior officials on the base that day, said yesterday. Louisa Loveluck reports at the Washington Post.

IRAN-IRAQ: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An important explanation on how Trump is required by law to issue a public report on the legal and policy basis for the Soleimani strike is provided by Rita Siemion and Benjamin Haas at Just Security.

A look at why Gen. Qassem Soleimani mattered so much to Iran’s ambitions — and what consequences his death holds for the region is fielded by Hassan Hassan at POLITICO Magazine.

A dive into Trump’s “unfounded” allegation that Iran was planning to attack four U.S. embassies is provided by Philip Rucker, John Hudson, Shane Harris and Josh Dawsey at the Washington Post after Trump’s top advisers were unable to confirm the president’s claim of such a plot.

“After nearly three years in office, President Trump has managed to increase the risk of war, push Iran to gradually restart its nuclear program [and] provoke Iraq into asking the United States to prepare to leave,” Stephen M. Walt comments on the administration’s approach to the Middle East at Foreign Policy.

TEHRAN AIR CRASH INVESTIGATION

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said yesterday the 176 victims of the Ukrainian jetliner shot down by a missile would be alive right now if tensions had not escalated in the region. “This is something that happens when you have conflict and the war … innocents bear the brunt of it,” Trudeau said in an interview with Global News Television. The prime minister added that he would have “obviously” liked a warning before Trump ordered the killing of the Iranian general. AFP reporting.

Iran’s judiciary has arrested some people for their part in the crash of a Ukrainian plane that Tehran admitted was accidentally hit by an Iranian missile, judiciary spokesperson Gholamhossein Esmaili said today without giving any further details. Reuters reporting.

Protests against Iran’s rulers entered their third day yesterday, after the government’s admission following days of denials provoked widespread anger in the country. Erin Cunningham, Kareem Fahim and Adam Taylor report at the Washington Post.

“Iranians are furious that their top officials attempted a clumsy cover-up,” Christian Oliver comments on the protests at POLITICO Magazine, noting that the plane crash has put Khamenei “straight back on the defensive.”

“The dramatic crisis for Tehran may present an opportunity for Washington, but it is not clear the Trump administration is ready to seize it by adapting any of its own policies,” Julian Borger writes at The Guardian, citing the U.S.’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Senate Republicans indicated yesterday that they would not seek to summarily dismiss the impeachment charges against President Trump, opting instead to hold a trial that they anticipate will end with Trump’s acquittal and vindication on the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Senior Republicans said immediate dismissal could not win enough votes in the chamber, after Trump over the weekend called on the Senate simply to set aside the charges against him — without hearing arguments from House prosecutors or his own legal team. Seung Min Kim, Mike DeBonis and Elise Viebeck report at the Washington Post.

Top lawmakers continued to debate over introducing new witnesses in the impending impeachment trial of Trump, as House Democrats prepared to send the case to the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said that Democrats’ hunt for fresh evidence and testimony showed that their case for removing the president from office was “weak and rushed.” Siobhan Hughes and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) accused Trump of a “cover-up” yesterday after he slammed Democrats on Twitter calling his upcoming Senate impeachment trial a “witch-hunt.” “In the Clinton impeachment process, 66 witnesses were allowed to testify including 3 in the Senate trial, and 90,000 pages of documents were turned over,” Pelosi said in message in a direct response to the president. “Trump was too afraid to let any of his top aides testify & covered up every single document … the Senate must #EndTheCoverUp.” Dartunorro Clark reports at NBC News.

Pelosi will convene Democrats early today to discuss transmitting the impeachment charges to the Senate. AFP reporting.

Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company that is at the heart of the impeachment trial of President Trump, was hacked by Russian military spies, according to cybersecurity firm Area 1. Starting in early November, the Russian spy agency known as the G.R.U. launched a cyber “phishing” campaign designed to steal email credentials and passwords of employees at Burisma, as well as its subsidiaries and partners. The operation’s launch coincided with the congressional impeachment inquiry into Trump, who sought last year to pressure Ukraine to probe the company and its ties to Joe Biden’s son, Nicole Perlroth and Matthew Rosenberg report at the New York Times.

Attorney General William Barr announced yesterday that he would raise the threshold for opening counterintelligence probes into presidential campaigns following claims that the investigation into Trump’s 2016 campaign was flawed. Investigations into presidential candidates will now require the signature of the attorney general and the head of the F.B.I., Barr said in a news conference with F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray. Reuters reporting.

The perils of demanding witnesses in Trump’s Senate impeachment trial are explored by Jonathan Allen at NBC News.

“The McGahn case is a constitutional standoff between two branches of government and presents a question that, perhaps surprisingly, has never been definitively resolved by the Supreme Court: May Congress sue the executive branch, whether to enforce a subpoena or for anything else?” Adam Liptak at the New York Times comments on the upcoming case in which the Supreme Court will decide whether senior White House aides, such as former White House counsel Don McGahn, enjoy absolute immunity from congressional subpoenas for testimony.

A step-by-step guide to Trump’s impeachment trial is helpfully provided by Nicholas Fandos at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

The Trump administration is planning to shift an additional $7.2 billion out of military funding for border-wall construction, according to two people familiar with the plans. Nick Miroff reports at the Washington Post.

Attorney General William Barr announced yesterday the December shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., that left three dead was an “act of terrorism” and that the shooter was motivated by “jihadist ideology.” Sadie Gurman, Dustin Volz and Nancy Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

A former senior U.S. Treasury Department official pleaded guilty yesterday to conspiring to give a reporter sensitive financial information about former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and others connected to the president. Erin Durkin reports at POLITICO.

The first essay in a new series on concrete proposals for reform of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.) is provided by Elizabeth Goitein at Just Security. 

Libya’s warring leaders made some progress at indirect peace talks in Moscow yesterday but failed to agree on the terms of ceasefire between military commander Khalifa Haftar’s forces and the U.N.-recognized government headed by Fayez al-Sarraj. AP reporting.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in yesterday praised Trump for sending birthday wishes to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, describing it as “a great idea” to boost chances of restarting denuclearization talks. Reuters reporting. 

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).