The Early Edition: January 29, 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

President Trump’s legal team wrapped up its opening arguments in the president’s impeachment trial yesterday —concluding its efforts to counter Democrats’ charges that Trump abused power and obstructed Congress, and setting the stage for two days of questioning. Trump’s lawyers rebutted claims of wrongdoing by the president and discounted the Democratic investigation as a politically motivated stunt. John Wagner, Elise Viebeck, Colby Itkowitz and Seung Min Kim report at the Washington Post.

The defense team briefly grappled with allegations reportedly appearing in an unpublished manuscript written by former national security adviser John Bolton that Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine until its government investigated his political rivals.  Trump’s lead personal attorney Jay Sekulow argued that reports about the Bolton book were “inadmissible” as evidence, owing to the secondhand nature of those reports. “You cannot impeach a president based on an unsourced allegation,” Sekulow said. Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

The White House defense team rested yesterday with a quiet plea to “end now,” hinting at a summary acquittal. Jonathan Allen reports at NBC News.

Highlights from yesterday’s trial are provided by Eileen Sullivan at the New York Times.

A growing number of Congressional Republicans are now acknowledging that Trump may have leveraged his office for a probe of a domestic rival but they contend that even that conduct does not rise to the level of impeachment. G.O.P. Senators are arguing that the latest allegations by Bolton are “likely true” but are “consistent” with the details set out by House Democratic managers in their case that Trump used official acts to press a foreign power to undermine a leading political opponent in the 2020 presidential campaign. Manu Raju reports at CNN. 

“The ramifications [of declaring that Trump’s actions are not impeachable] are striking and could have long-term implications … the argument suggests senators believe a U.S. president can use taxpayer dollars to pressure an ally to investigate an American citizen who happens to be challenging him for president, without any repercussions,” Rachael Bade, Karoun Demirjian, Mike DeBonis and Ann E. Marimow report at the Washington Post.

The trial will reconvene today at 1 p.m., and senators will be able to spend up to 16 hours over two days asking questions of each side. Lawmakers are expected to debate and vote on whether to call witnesses on Friday. The BBC reporting.

The impeachment trial is approaching a volatile and unpredictable stage as senators are allowed to ask “whatever they want” of House prosecutors and White House lawyers. “It is a moment of opportunity — and peril — for both parties,” Michale D. Shear writes at the New York Times.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) acknowledged to Republican senators during a private meeting yesterday that he did not currently have the votes to avoid calling witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial, according to people familiar with his remarks. McConnell apparently held a “whip count” of yes, nos and maybe votes, taking stock of his colleagues’ positions. With an unknown number of Republican senators still undecided on the question of calling witnesses, the leader remained optimistic that he could defeat a vote on witnesses. At least four G.O.P. senators would need to join with Democrats to produce the majority needed to call witnesses — an outcome McConnell has sought to avoid. Rebecca Ballhaus, Lindsay Wise and Natalie Andrews report at the Wall Street Journal. 

Trump’s former chief of staff John Kelly has said he “believes” Bolton’s allegations about the president detailed in his forthcoming White House memoir. “If John Bolton says that in the book, I believe [him],” the retired general said on Monday during a lecture at the Ringling College Library Association Town Hall in Sarasota, Florida. Kelly said Bolton, whose claims contradict a key element of the president’s impeachment defense, “always gave the president the unvarnished truth” and is a “man of integrity and great character.” Kaitlan Collins and Chandelis Duster report at CNN.

Republican Senator Ron Johnson (Wis.) has called again on Bolton to speak out publicly about his knowledge of the freeze on military aid to Ukraine. Johnson invited Bolton in early January to testify before the Senate, after the former national security adviser indicted he was willing to do so, but Bolton told the lawmaker he would only respond to a Senate subpoena. Alexander Bolton reports at the Hill.

A handful of moderate Senate Democrats have signaled they are undecided on the Trump removal vote. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), and Doug Jones (Ala.) are grappling with whether to vote to convict Trump in his impeachment trial — or give the president the bipartisan acquittal he seeks. Burgess Everett reports at POLITICO.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

An analysis of President Trump’s legal defense presented yesterday is provided by Aaron Blake at the Washington Post.

A breakdown of the arguments the House Democratic impeachment managers made on major points, and how the Trump team responded on the Senate floor is provided by at the Wall Street Journal.

Why did John Bolton wait until now to release damning information about Trump? Former staff member on the National Security Council Jonathan Stevenson provides some clarity at the New York Times.

If the White House decides to litigate the executive privilege question, they could very well end up with a federal court quickly deciding the President’s actions involve crimes, Co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman and Andrew Weissmann write at Just Security. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) added a last-minute rule that would allow evidence to be excluded if a “hearsay” objection was made – but there is no reason to exclude evidence for this reason in an impeachment trial, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW)’s Gabe Lezra writes at Just Security.

“Democrats have hoped this process would become a Watergate redux,” James Hohmann comments at the Washington Post, contrasting the events surrounding impeachment proceedings against former U.S. President Richard Nixon with those surrounding Trump.

A look at the opposing legal teams and how they view impeachment is fielded by Emily Cochrane and Maggie Haberman at the New York Times.  

“The case for an abuse of power may be clinched by the finding of a serious violation of law it does not depend on it,” former White House Counsel Bob Bauer writes at Just Security in response to Professor Phillip Bobbitt’s statement of the case against Trump.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

President Trump unveiled his long-awaited Middle East plan yesterday, presenting a vision that was welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but swiftly rejected by the Palestinians. The proposal supports the Israeli position on nearly all of the most contentious issues in the decades-old conflict, including borders and the status of Jerusalem and Jewish settlements, and attaches nearly impossible conditions for providing Palestinians a path to nationhood. Anne Gearan, Steve Hendrix and and Ruth Eglash report at the Washington Post.

Shortly after the announcement, the Israeli government said it would vote this weekend on annexing 30 percent of the West Bank. AP reporting.

“American and Israeli leaders have tried to help one another win elections in the past … but Trump took it to a new level [yesterday], turning a White House Middle East peace ceremony into a reelection prop for Netanyahu and himself,” Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer write.

“Trump’s Mideast peace proposal … could have the long-term effect of seriously circumscribing — at a minimum — future U.S. attempts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Nahal Toosi warns at POLITICO.

“The proposal fulfills a wishlist of Israeli demands while abandoning longstanding tenets of U.S. diplomacy,” Chris McGreal writes at The Guardian.

“[Trump’s] plan, three years in the making, is less about future negotiations and more about cementing what exists today and making deals around the edges,” David E. Sanger writes in an analysis at the New York Times, also noting, “the timing [of the announcement] is no accident.”

An explainer on the detailed peace plan is available at Reuters.

Key points of the 50-page proposal are provided by Peter Beaumont at The Guardian.

A roundup of international reaction to Trump’s Middle East plan is provided at Al Jazeera.

IRAN

The White House has warned it will veto Democratic-backed legislation aimed at limiting President Trump’s military options against Iran. The House is expected to vote tomorrow on a bill from Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) to block funding for offensive military operations in Iran and another bill from Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) to repeal the 2002 authorization for the use of military force (A.U.M.F.). In separate statements, the White House ripped into the bills, calling them “misguided,” and charging their “adoption by Congress would undermine the ability of the United States to protect American citizens, whom Iran continues to seek to harm.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

At least 50 U.S. service members suffered traumatic brain injuries from Iran’s missile strike on an Iraqi airbase launched in retaliation for the American killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, according to the the latest figures from the Pentagon. The number is up by 16 from last week, when initial estimates put the figure of those injured at 34. Of the 16 newly diagnosed patients, 15 have returned to duty in Iraq, the Defense Department said. Reuters reporting.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee said yesterday it had reached an agreement with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to testify at a public hearing on Iran and Iraq policy, after threatening a subpoena over previous refusals to appear. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said he spoke to Pompeo yesterday and he had agreed to appear at a hearing separate from the committee’s annual budget hearing. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The Soleimani killing and U.S. air strikes on Iran-backed militias in Iraq have drawn attention to the destabilizing role of these officially sanctioned groups. In an expert analysis at Just Security, Crispin Smith explores how legislative reform of the Hashd al-Sha’abi law, specifically, legal disincorporation, could give Iraqi law enforcement and policymakers additional options to counter problematic militias and “remove legal ambiguities surrounding any subsequent self-defense-based response.”

AFGHANISTAN

The United States has recovered the remains of two American service members killed in the crash of an Air Force plane in eastern Afghanistan on Monday, a U.S. defense official said. There were only two people on board the U.S. military aircraft when it crashed in the Ghazni province, over which the Taliban have total control, the official said. The identities of the two troops have not been publicly announced pending notification of their relatives. AP reporting.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan dropped a record number of bombs last year, more than at any other time in at least 10 years, according to the U.S. Air Force. The U.S. dropped 7,423 bombs on targets in Afghanistan in 2019, a nearly eightfold increase from 2015, according to new figures released by Central Command. Julian Borger reporting at The Guardian.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

A senior Pentagon official said yesterday it is not clear why North Korea ultimately decided against provocation action such as a missile test after warning the United States about a “Christmas gift” last year. “Predicting North Korea’s future behavior is always hazardous,” Undersecretary of Defense for policy John Rood told the House Armed Services Committee yesterday, adding, “we don’t know fully the reasons why the North Koreans did not engage in more provocative behavior, which they seemed to be hinting they were planning to do in December.” Rebecca Kheel 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).