The Early Edition: January 17, 2020

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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

The Trump administration violated the law by withholding security aid for Ukraine approved by Congress, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (G.A.O.) said in a new report, dealing a fresh blow to President Trump ahead of a Senate trial centered on the allegation that he withheld military funding and a White House meeting to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political opponents, including former vice president Joe Biden. The independent nonpartisan federal watchdog said in a decision issued yesterday that the Office of Management and Budget (O.M.B.) held up the appropriated funds last summer not as a programmatic delay but in order to advance the president’s own agenda. By doing so, the watchdog concluded, the White House violated a 1974 law that protects the spending decisions of Congress, known as the Impoundment Control Act (I.C.A.). Emily Cochrane, Eric Lipton and Chris Cameron report at the New York Times.

“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” the report said. “O.M.B. withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted under the I.C.A. … therefore, we conclude that O.M.B. violated the [Act].” Andrew Duehren reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Just Security’s Sam Berger wrote in November that Trump’s hold on Ukraine military aid was illegal. 

Democrats claimed the ruling bolstered their case, saying it undercuts Trump’s defense that freezing the aid was a lawful exercise of the president’s authority. Andrew Desiderio, Kyle Cheney and Caitlin Emma report at POLITICO.

The White House quickly rejected the report’s conclusions, slamming the opinion as an “overreach” and accusing the agency of trying to insert itself into “the media’s controversy of the day.” The White House “complied with the law at every step,” acting director of the O.M.B. Russell Vought wrote in a message sent on Twitter. He also blasted the G.A.O., saying the agency’s “opinion comes from the same people who said we couldn’t keep National Parks open during the shutdown” 12 months ago. Jeff Stein, Ellen Nakashima and Erica Werner report at the Washington Post.

The Senate formally opened the impeachment trial of Trump yesterday, swearing in the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to preside over the proceedings as the 100 senators – 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats and two independents – took an oath to deliver “impartial justice.” House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead House impeachment manager, read aloud the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress against Trump in the chamber while senators looked on from their desks. Jeremy Herb reports at CNN.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) issued a formal summons for Trump, informing him of the charges and inviting him and his legal team to respond by Saturday evening. Senators set a series of deadlines for Trump’s team and the House managers, and adjourned the trial for a long weekend. Michael D. Shear and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

Democrats remain hopeful that the stream of new details emerging about Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine via Lev Parnas, an indicted associate of Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, will ramp up pressure on Senate Republicans considering whether to seek witnesses and documents in the trial. “Evidence is coming in every day that supports our case,” Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), one of seven impeachment managers who will be prosecuting the case against Trump in the Senate trial said; “all of this continues to underscore the need for witnesses and documents,” another impeachment manager, Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), added. Parnas gave a series of television interviews this week implicating the president in Guiliani’s pressure campaign on Ukraine, Kyle Cheney, Andrew Desiderio and Burgess Everett report at POLITICO.

“These allegations are being made by a man who is currently out on bail for federal crimes and is desperate to reduce his exposure to prison,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement yesterday as Republicans seek to challenge and undermine Parnas’s credibility. Robbie Gramer and Laura Seligman report at Foreign Policy.

The Ukrainian police announced a probe yesterday into the possible illegal surveillance of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, following the release this week of communications involving Parnas which appeared to show that Yovanovitch was being closely monitored before she was removed from her post last spring. A statement by the Interior Ministry said Ukrainian police “are not interfering in the internal political affairs of the United States.” However, recent reports indicated the possible violation of Ukrainian and international law, it said. Yuliya Talmazan and Oksana Parafeniuk report at NBC News.

“The [criminal investigation] was a remarkable departure from past practice for the new government of President Volodymyr Zelensky, which has tried hard to avoid any hint of partisanship in its dealings with Washington,” Anton Troianovski and Richard Pérez-Peña report at the New York Times.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has so far has brushed off the series of allegations leveled against Trump, Pence and others. The State Department has not publicly acknowledged any developments. The lack of a response is “striking,” Jennifer Hansler reports at CNN.

F.B.I. agents yesterday visited the home and business of Robert Hyde, a Republican congressional candidate who sent the text messages to Parnas that suggested Yovanovitch was under surveillance. The exact nature of the bureau’s activities could not immediately be determined. Mark Morales and Frank Bivona report at CNN.

Ukrainian authorities also launched a criminal investigation into a suspected Russian hack into computers at Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company caught up in the impeachment of Trump, and noted that authorities were seeking the help of the F.B.I. in pursuing the case.  The proceedings were opened following a report by the New York Times earlier this week based on findings by cyber group Area 1 Security. Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

Parnas alleged that Trump tried multiple times to fire the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, including during a dinner they had together at the Trump hotel near the White House, making the claim yesterday in the latest installment of a wide-ranging interview. Phil Helsel reports at NBC News.

Vice President Pence on Thursday denied knowing Parnas, dismissing as “completely false” the Giuliani associate’s claim that he was aware of efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter. In a Wednesday interview, Parnas alleged that Pence’s visit to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inauguration in May was canceled because Ukraine had not announced a probe into the Bidens. He also indicated Pence was “in the loop” on the push for the investigation, asserting, “he couldn’t have not known.” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“There are still so many loose threads to be pulled that the story [about President Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine dig up dirt on his political rivals] feels incomplete,” Peter Baker writes in an analysis at the New York Times, predicting the emergence of new and damning evidence during the trial in the Senate.

It is unclear whether the F.B.I. visit to the home and business of Republican congressional candidate Hyde “was spurred by the newly released documents or if it was a bid to ensure that the G.O.P. operative didn’t destroy potential evidence as they continue to investigate the case,” Natasha Bertrand and Darren Samuelsohn take a look at the impact of the Parnas revelations on Trump’s impeachment at POLITICO.

The Senate needs to defend the Constitution’s carefully balanced separation of powers, Patrick Leahy argues at the Washington Post, explaining that Congress, not the president, controls the “power of the purse,” after an independent watchdog confirmed that the administration broke the law in withholding millions of dollars in military aid for Ukraine as part of an effort to compel Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political rivals.

The decision by the Government Accountability Office (G.A.O.) is significant for four reasons, Jennifer Rubin argues at the Washington Post.

IRAN

Nearly a dozen American troops were injured in the Iranian missile strike on two bases in Iraq last week, Defense Department officials said, after initially stating that there were no casualties in the strikes. The U.S. treated 11 of its troops for symptoms of concussion following the attacks that were launched in retaliation for the U.S. killing of top Iranian commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, according to a statement by U.S. Central Command spokesperson Captain Bill Urban. AFP reports.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei led Friday prayers today in Tehran for the first time in eight years as the Islamic republic struggles with the fallout from the killing of its senior commander in a U.S. airstrike and widespread angry protests over its “accidental” shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane last week. AP reporting.

During his sermon, Khamenei said that three European states who were party to the 2015 nuclear deal “could not be trusted,” and their moves to place pressure on Iran would not work, after Britain, France and Germany triggered a formal dispute mechanism in response to Tehran’s violations of the terms of the agreement, which could lead to U.N. sanctions being reimposed. He also accused Iran’s “enemies,” a term that typically refers to Washington and its allies, of trying to use Iran’s unintentional dowing of a Ukrainian airliner to “overshadow” a public show of grief following the U.S. killing of an Iranian general. Reuters reporting.

Iran’s conservative Judicial Chief Ebrahim Raisi will head the investigation into the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its part in the downing of the flight last week. “Raisi … now face[s] a delicate balancing act: answering calls for accountability from foreign governments and their own citizens without undermining one of the country’s core institutions — the military — or the Islamic Republic itself,” Aresu Eqbali and Sune Engel Rasmussen report at the Wall Street Journal.

Iran is now enriching more uranium than it did before the country signed a nuclear deal with world powers in 2015, President Hassan Rouhani said yesterday. Rouhani, in a televised speech, said “pressure has increased on Iran but we continue to progress” after the three European powers triggered a dispute resolution. Al Jazeera reporting.

Germany has confirmed that European governments faced a threat from the Trump administration of harsh sanctions if they declined to initiate proceedings against Iran for breaching the nuclear accord. President Trump reportedly threatened to impose 25% tariffs on cars to persuade European signatories to trigger the dispute resolution under the terms of the crumbling pact with Iran, a claim the German defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, confirmed yesterday. Patrick Wintour reports at The Guardian.

After triggering the dispute resolution process, European leaders “have a limited window” to provide Iran with “meaningful economic relief” and seek to calm tensions between Tehran and Washington, Ali Vaez warns that the clock is ticking at Foreign Policy.

Iran’s use of international law to justify its retaliation after the killing of Soleimani is a deliberate blending of international and Islamic law that allows them to legitimize their actions while protecting Iranian interests, Anicée Van Engeland writes at Just Security.

The lack of air defense units  capable of intercepting short-range ballistic missiles at the base attacked by Iran highlights how little forethought the U.S. put into the consequences of killing Soleimani,” Sébastien Roblin argues at NBC News.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Federal prosecutors in Washington are investigating a leak of classified information on a Russian government document and are focusing on whether former F.B.I. director James Comey was a part of that leak to the press. Adam Goldman reports at the New York Times. 

House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has called on Acting Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) Joseph Maguire to testify at a public hearing next month over security threats facing the U.S. and its allies amid reports that intelligence officials are trying to move the annual Worldwide Threat hearing behind closed doors. Julian E. Barnes reports at the New York Times.

Taliban and American peace negotiators are meeting in Qatar for “fruitful discussions” that are expected to last for “several days,” according to Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen. Susannah George reports at the Washington Post.

“South Korea can and should contribute more to its own national defense,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper argue in an op-ed at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. has received $500 million from Saudi Arabia to help cover the cost of American troops stationed in the kingdom, a U.S. official said. Barbara Starr reports at CNN. 

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).