The Early Edition: January 15, 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.  

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

A trove of documents was made public yesterday as part of the House impeachment inquiry, shedding light on efforts made by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his associate Lev Parnas on behalf of the president. The new materials appear to show Ukraine’s top prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, offering Parnas damaging information connected to former Vice President Joe Biden if the Trump administration recalled the then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. Paul Sonne, Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger report at the Washington Post.

A previously undisclosed May 2019 letter shows that Giuliani asked for a half-hour meeting with the Ukrainian president as he was pursuing investigations targeting Biden. Giuliani made clear in the letter that he was acting with Trump’s “knowledge and consent” and in his capacity as a “personal” attorney for the president. Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

Yovanovitch has requested an investigation after the newly released records suggested her movements were being tracked and monitored during an alleged smear campaign against her by allies of Trump. In a series of text messages with Parnas in March 2019, Republican congressional candidate Robert Hyde discussed Yovanovitch’s whereabouts in Ukraine and expressed frustration that she was not already ousted from her post. Jennifer Hansler reports at CNN.

The Senate impeachment trial of Trump is likely to begin next Tuesday with key players sworn in later this week, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said yesterday after a closed-door lunch with his caucus. Rebecca Shabad, Kasie Hunt, Frank Thorp V and Allan Smith report at NBC News.

The House will vote today to send the impeachment charges against Trump to the Senate, kicking off a trial that could last through early February. It will also name the House lawmakers who will prosecute the case against Trump,  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said after a meeting yesterday with House Democrats. Brian Naylor reports at NPR.

Senate Republicans continue to “tack back-and-forth” on one of the most disputed matters of Trump’s impeachment trial — whether to call witnesses to testify in the case. Burgess Everett and John Bresnahan at POLITICO report on a private meeting yesterday of G.O.P. senators.

“The new documents released [yesterday] evening by the House Intelligence Committee were devastating to Trump’s continuing — if shifting — defense of his Ukraine extortion scandal, just days before his impeachment trial is likely to begin in the Senate,” Neal Katyal and Just Security’s Joshua A. Geltzer comment at the Washington Post, writing, “the documents demolish at least three key defenses to which Trump and his allies have been clinging.” IRAN

Three European powers moved yesterday to formally sanction Iran over claims that Tehran has violated the terms of its 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers. In a joint statement, foreign ministers from Britain, Germany and France triggered the so-called dispute settlement mechanism, a move that could lead eventually to the return of U.N. sanctions, in an effort to compel the Islamic Republic to return to compliance with its obligations under the pact, which is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (J.C.P.O.A.). Tehran announced on Jan. 5 month that it would no longer abide the deal’s limits on uranium enrichment, Steven Erlanger reports at the New York Times.

The three Western European signatories also said they would not be joining Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and rebuked the Trump administration for exiting the deal. Laurence Norman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry criticized the countries yesterday for their decision, saying any misuse of the dispute mechanism would be met with a “serious and strong response.” Lovely Morris reports at the Washington Post.

President Trump said last night he agreed with a suggestion by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to replace the Obama-era Iran nuclear pact with a new “Trump deal.” Johnson called yesterday for the Trump administration to negotiate a new accord to ensure the Islamic Republic does not acquire an atomic weapon. Brandon Conradis reports at the Hill.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif today dismissed any direct nuclear talks with the U.S. and said he was not certain how long any pact by Trump would last. “We had a U.S. deal and the U.S. broke it … if we have a Trump deal, how long will it last, another 10 months…?” he said at a security conference in New Delhi. Reuters reporting.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said yesterday that Moscow has been encouraging Gulf nations to consider a common security mechanism for the region and it was time the world disposed of unilateral measures such as sanctions. “We have been suggesting to the Gulf countries to think about collective security mechanisms … starting with confidence building measures and inviting each other to military exercises,” Lavrov told a security conference in Delhi. Reuters reporting.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) yesterday said his resolution aimed at reining in Trump’s war powers against Iran now has enough support to pass the Senate after making changes to win Republican votes. Kaine said he had at least 51 votes for a joint resolution that would require the president to seek congressional authorization for military action against Iran. Rebecca Shabad, Frank Thorp V and Julie Tsirkin report at NBC News.

Senate Democrats are demanding a classified briefing on the intelligence behind Trump’s claim that Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was plotting imminent attacks on U.S. embassies. Nine Democrats wrote to acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire calling out the apparent lack of “specific evidence” behind Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement about the alleged embassy threat, and claiming, “there was no mention of any of this classified evidence during the All Senators Briefing.” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

“The U.S. and Iran are entrenched in a middle ground of forever sanctions,” Elizabeth Rosenberg and Neil Bhatiya write at Foreign Policy, explaining, “the continued use of U.S. sanctions, in the absence of negotiations and with a heightened military posture, means that the United States and Iran are locked into a confrontational stance with no plans for de-escalation.”

IRAN: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Three key things the State Department Legal Adviser told the Senate in 2019 on the president’s power to use force against Iran, including his promise to submit a public report if the administration’s position on Iran changed, in light of his classified briefing on Iran today, are highlighted by Co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman at Just Security.

The case for introducing a resolution that would prohibit war with Iran without congressional authorization is laid out by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) at the Washington Post.

It is time for the courts to weigh in on the scope of the President’s constitutional power to engage in unilateral warmaking, Just Security’s Steve Valdeck argues at the Washington Post, citing decades of debates on the matter with no definitive resolution.

The “incoherence” of Trump’s foreign policy is explored by Charles Sykes at POLITICO, who urges Democrats to “flip the script on him by attacking his many contradictions.”

An explainer on the 2015 nuclear deal is provided by Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy.

TEHRAN AIR CRASH INVESTIGATION

A new video has emerged showing the moment two Iranian missiles hit a Ukrainian passenger plane over Tehran, sending the aircraft down in flames and killing all 176 passengers and crew on board. The new security camera footage, uploaded by an Iranian user on YouTube early yesterday and verified by the New York Times, showed two missiles being fired approximately 30 seconds apart, neither of which brought the plane down immediately. The video raises new questions about how forthcoming Iranian authorities were when, after days of denial, they admitted to the Jan. 8 strike, Malachy Browne, Evan Hill, Logan Mitchell and Barbara Marcolini report at the New York Times.

U.N. aviation watchdog I.C.A.O. will join the investigation into the crash of the Ukrainian airliner in Iran, following an invitation from the Iranian authorities, the I.C.A.O. said in a statement yesterday. The watchdog said that it has appointed senior and expert technical staff, who will now act as advisors and observers. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Two unexamined questions in the tragedy of the Iran plane crash whether Iran violated international humanitarian law by targeting the plane, and could the downing of the aircraft be considered a war crime are explored by Evelyne Schmid at Just Security.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

The Trump administration is weighing slashing $250 million in military aid to Iraq, funds already approved by Congress, if the government ousts U.S. troops, and is reconsidering a wide spectrum of other economic and military assistance that is not yet committed. Emails from the State Department and the Department of Defense suggest that the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs is preparing to cut all $250 million in funds under the U.S. foreign military financing program for Iraq for the current fiscal year. Vivian Salama reports in an exclusive at the Wall Street Journal.

Two thousand Syrian fighters have been deployed from Turkey or will arrive imminently to support the Libyan government’s fight against military commander Khalifa Haftar, Syrian sources in all three countries have said, in an unprecedented development that threatens to further complicate the country’s intractable civil war. Bethan McKernan reports at The Guardian.

President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn is seeking to withdraw his guilty plea “because of the government’s bad faith, vindictiveness, and breach of the [2017] plea agreement [with him],” his lawyers said in a court document filed yesterday. Flynn was charged with lying to investigators in former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Adam Goldman reports at the New York Times.

A proposal for structural reform of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.), that the F.I.S.C. (the Court that oversees the F.I.S.A. process) could implement now on its own, and that would provide a measure of increased outside scrutiny, is put forward by former F.B.I. General Counsel and lead prosecutor in Mueller’s Special Counsel’s Office, Andrew Weissmann at Just Security. 

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).