The Early Edition: January 24, 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

House impeachment managers, led by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), continued to make their case yesterday that President Trump abused the power of his office — one of two charges against him — by pressuring Ukraine in a bid to improve his re-election prospects at home. During nine hours of arguments, Schiff, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and the other Democratic impeachment prosecutors focused on two main goals — outlining why Trump’s Ukraine dealings met the constitutional threshold for removal from office and preempting the line of attack the White House defense counsel is likely to take. Seung Min Kim, John Wagner and Karoun Demirjian report at the Washington Post.

Democrats pushed back against a central Trump claim that there needs to have been criminal conduct for impeachment. The managers played a series of clips, including decades-old videos of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and Harvard Law Prof. Alan Dershowitz, now a member of Trump’s legal defense team in which each argued that certain acts warrant impeachment even if they are not illegal under criminal statutes. Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio report at POLITICO.

“The impeachment managers sought to expose the hypocrisy, as they framed it, in Trump’s defense by using Republicans’ own past words against them,” David Smith and Tom McCarthy report at The Guardian.

House Democrats also sought to debunk Trump’s claims that former Vice President Joe Biden was engaged in corruption in Ukraine while highlighting the president’s interest in taking down a formidable political foe. Democrats said there was no evidence that Biden did anything improper in his dealings with Ukraine, charging that his push for the ouster of a Ukrainian prosecutor was not to benefit his son Hunter but was in accordance with official American policy. Andrew Duehren reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“In focusing on the Bidens, Democrats took a strategic risk,” Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes at the New York Times.

Pressing their case for a second day, Schiff and his team detailed a self-serving campaign on the part of Trump to press Ukrainian leaders to open investigations that would help him politically, even at the expense of national security. Schiff concluded last night’s arguments by pleading with senators to convict the president, arguing that Trump cannot be trusted to “do what’s right for the country” and that he will only “do what’s right for himself” because he’s done it before. Justin Baragona reports at The Daily Beast.

The Senate will reconvene today at 1:00 p.m. for the trial, where Democrats will wrap up their case, focusing on obstruction of Congress, the second impeachment article. Beginning tomorrow, Trump’s legal defense team will have up to 24 hours — spread over three days — to mount his defense. Meanwhile, the debate over whether senators should call additional witnesses in the trial will continue. Mike Lillis and Olivia Beavers report at the Hill.

Senate Republicans are citing Trump’s threat to invoke executive privilege as a reason not to issue subpoenas sought by Democrats for key witnesses and documents, a development that could boost Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s goal of a swift end to the impeachment trial. G.O.P. senators apparently see little reason for issuing subpoenas — to top officials including acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton and for documents blocked by the White House — saying legal battles “may ultimately not be successful and could force the courts to rule on hugely consequential constitutional issues about the separation of powers between the branches of government,” Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb report at CNN.

House lawyers told a federal appeals court yesterday that arguments put forward by Trump’s legal team in the Senate trial this week contradict the Justice Department (D.O.J.)’s position in two pending cases over subpoena testimony from Don McGahn and materials from the Mueller grand jury cases. In a two-page letter, the House’s top counsel Douglas Letter said remarks made Tuesday by Trump’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow run counter to one of the central arguments the D.O.J. has made that federal judges should stay out of disputes between Congress and the executive branch. Darren Samuelsjohn reports at POLITICO.

The White House declined to provide documents to a congressional watchdog investigating Trump’s decision to withhold military assistance to Ukraine, according to documents released yesterday by Sen. Chris Van Hollen. The administration responded to an inquiry from the Government Accountability Office with a one-page letter on Dec. 20, citing a previous legal memo from the Office of Management and Budget (O.M.B.) that defended the freeze on military aid as “appropriate” so as to avoid “conflict with the President’s foreign policy.” Paul LeBlanc reports at CNN.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A review of Democrats’ attempts to methodically dismantle four of Trump’s main defenses is provided by Amber Phillips at the Washington Post.

“Receiving a ‘personal political benefit’ does not transform an otherwise legal action — requesting an investigation — into impeachable conduct,” Josh Blackman argues at the New York Times.

The Ukraine allegations amount to an impeachable abuse of power — but not the way some have framed it, Philip Bobbitt comments at Just Security, clarifying the first article of impeachment which turns on Trump’s request that President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine announce an investigation of Hunter Biden’s role with the energy company Burisma. 

“The managers threw themselves — with gusto — into explaining the constitutional ins and outs of impeachment,” Michelle Cottle comments on yesterday’s trial at the New York Times.

“The Constitution is not a suicide pact … it does not leave us stuck with presidents who abuse their power in unforeseen ways that threaten our security and democracy,” Nadler stated yesterday. Eileen Sullivan at the New York Times presents highlights from the second day of the opening arguments.

Six key takeaways from the third full day of Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate are provided by Tom McCarthy at The Guardian.

FISA

The Justice Department (D.O.J.) has admitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.) court that it did not have sufficient evidence to justify continued surveillance of one of President Trump’s former campaign advisers, Carter Page, in 2017. The D.O.J. believes that at least two of its four secret surveillance warrants against Page lacked “probable cause,” according to a two-page order from the presiding judge on the F.I.S.A. court to the department demanding that it provide more details about how it will protect Page’s information. The order by Judge James E. Boasberg was dated Jan. 7 but declassified yesterday, Charlie Savage reports at the New York Times.

“The acknowledgment to the surveillance court is the latest fallout from December’s scathing inspector general report” and suggests the F.B.I. on occasion went too far when it probed Russian influence in the 2016 election, David Shortell and Evan Perez report at CNN.

“Let’s hope there is more transparency and accountability to come, including the public release of much more information related to the F.I.S.A. warrants and the genesis of the counterintelligence probe of the Trump campaign,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board comments.

“Accountability can’t become a partisan issue … so it’s especially important for President Trump’s critics to recognize that the bureau abused some of its most sensitive powers when it authorized intrusive surveillance on … Page,” David Ignatius argues at the Washington Post.

“None of the proponents of the various reform proposals has yet identified a subsisting defect in the F.I.SA. statute itself signaling a new need for legislative change prompted by the findings of the DoJ inspector general,” former senior counsel at the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) George Croner argues at Just Security that critics are rushing to “reform” the Act in the wake of the damning Horowitz report. 

IRAN

European powers will hold off on reimposing international sanctions on Iran and killing the 2015 nuclear deal — so long as Tehran curbs expansion of its nuclear work, diplomats said, risking a clash with the Trump administration. European diplomats do not expect Iran to reverse violations of the nuclear deal that it has made in recent months and privately say they are willing to tolerate those steps and continue discussions with Iran for the foreseeable future. France, Britain and Germany last week triggered the dispute-settlement mechanism in the 2015 deal, Laurence Norman reports at the Wall Street Journal. 

The United States aims to avoid a conflict with Iran but will keep up an expanded military footprint in the Middle East amid escalating tensions, the head of U.S. Central Command said yesterday during a visit to the region. Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie Jr. said that new air, naval and troop deployments were meant to restore deterrence and send a message to Tehran following a period in which tit-for-tat Iranian and U.S. attacks pushed the region closer to war. Missy Ryan reports at the Washington Post.

The co-chair of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force has requested more information on injuries U.S. service members sustained in Iran’s attack on an Iraqi military base after President Trump minimized their concussion symptoms as “headaches.” In a Thursday letter to two top Pentagon officials, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said Trump’s characterization of the injuries “expressed that he does not consider brain injury and concussion to be a serious combat wound.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

U.S. sanctions on Tehran have helped spark a refugee crisis in Turkey, one of the “unintended consequences” of President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign,” Erin Cunningham and Mohammad Mahdi Sultani report at the Washington Post.

A look at Iran’s new strategy of building and maintaining its power in the region and the challenges the U.S. faces, in light of the U.S. killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani earlier this month, is fielded by Matthew Levitt at POLITICO Magazine.

There’s a real risk the administration’s attempted deterrence of increasing Iranian aggressiveness will “backfire,” Ethan Bueno de Mesquita argues at Foreign Policy, explaining, the “partial independence of [Tehran-connected groups] makes it difficult to attribute responsibility for attacks undertaken by such proxies.”

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

President Trump said he expects to release his long-awaited Middle East peace plan prior to his meeting with Israel’s prime minister and leader of the opposition on Tuesday at the White House. “We have both candidates coming — unheard-of,” Trump told reporters, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former army chief Benny Gantz, as he returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. David M. Halbfinger, Isabel Kershner and Katie Rogers report at the New York Times.

The most vexing issues as to whether the International Criminal Court (I.C.J.) has jurisdiction to hear Palestine’s case regarding “the situation in Palestine” are explored by Todd Buchwald in the second of a two-part piece at Just Security.

An explainer on Trump’s Mideast peace plan is provided by Reuters.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Defense Secretary Mark Esper indicated yesterday he could be prepared to begin a long-awaited global force repositioning this year as part of an effort to refocus the Pentagon on threats from China and Russia. Reuters reporting.

Afghanistan is ready for a “major” U.S. troop reduction, President Ashraf Ghani said last night, adding that he had already notified  Trump, “a step toward winding down the costly American military presence as diplomats struggle to finalize a peace deal with the Taliban,” Rebecca Blumenstein and Mujib Mashal report at the New York Times.

Thousands of Iraqis rallied in Baghdad today calling for American troops to leave the country, after a prominent cleric urged a million people to join the protest against U.S. military presence there, following the U.S. killing of top Iranian military commander Gen Qasem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia chief. The BBC reporting.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (O.D.N.I.) failed to meet a deadline this week to turn over a report to Congress on the murder of Washington Post columnist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Justine Coleman reports at the Hill.

The U.N.’s top court ruled yesterday that Myanmar must implement emergency measures to protect Rohingya Muslims against further violence and preserve evidence of alleged atrocities. Reuters reporting.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has penned an op-ed setting out his foreign policy platform, which would aim to undo Trump’s doctrine. Julia Manchester reports at the Hill. 

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).