The Early Edition: January 31, 2020

Curated summary of up-to-the-minute national security developments at home and abroad.

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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

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) came out firmly against calling more witnesses and documents at President Trump’s impeachment trial yesterday evening, declaring there was “no need for more evidence” and saying he did not think Trump’s actions were impeachable, only “inappropriate.” The Republican’s statement, which came ahead of a vote today on whether to hear new evidence in the Senate trial, dashed Democrats’ hopes of convincing at least four G.O.P. senators to back their calls for more witnesses and cleared the way for Trump’s likely acquittal as early as this weekend. Burgess Everett, Marianne Levine and John Bresnahan report at POLITICO.

Alexander’s decision contrasted with a statement by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). The Republican senator said she would back a motion for witnesses. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has also expressed support for calling witnesses, while Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), another key swing vote, has not yet announced her decision. In the event of a 50-50 tie, Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over the trial, could be called upon to end the deadlock. If he declines to vote, the motion calling for witnesses would fail. Rebecca Ballhaus, Lindsay Wise and Siobhan Hughes report at the Wall Street Journal.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said it “might be a good idea” for the House to issue a subpoena to former national security adviser John Bolton if the Senate does not call him as an impeachment trial witness. “If tomorrow’s vote fails, they will not permit him or anyone else to testify … I expect he’ll talk publicly and we will see,” Nadler said yesterday, according to message on Twitter from CNN reporter Manu Raju. Reuters reporting.

The Senate yesterday concluded 16 hours of questions to the impeachment managers and lawyers for Trump’s defense. Democrats queried a broad assertion made by Alan Dershowitz, one of the attorneys representing the president, on Wednesday, that anything a president does to help himself get re-elected is inherently in the public’s interest, including a “quid pro quo.” The lead house manager, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) challenged the argument from the White House defense team by saying if Trump’s conduct is deemed acceptable, then “there is no limit” to what a president will be allowed to do with regard to soliciting foreign help in an election. NBC News reporting.

Schiff also told the Senate that Dershowitz was calling for the “normalization of lawlessness” and said the Senate trial has witnessed “a descent into constitutional madness.” The lead impeachment manager cautioned that the Republicans’ unified determination to shield Trump instead of collecting evidence was “paving the way toward a presidency unbound by congressional oversight or any other checks and balances,” Tom McCarthy and Daniel Strauss report at The Guardian.

Dershowitz claimed yesterday in a series of tweets that his controversial legal argument was “distorted” by the media. “They characterized my argument as if I had said that if a president believes that his re-election was in the national interest, he can do anything … I said nothing like that, as anyone who actually heard what I said can attest,”the former Harvard law professor and prominent criminal defense lawyer wrote, going on to clarify his remarks before the chamber. Ann E. Marimow reports at the Washington Post.

Roberts declined to read a question from Sen. Rand Paul (R-K.y.) that would have identified the person thought to be the C.I.A. whistleblower whose complaint sparked the House’s impeachment investigation of Trump. In comments later, Paul said he had wanted to ask about two people who worked together on the National Security Council, insisting in a message sent on Twitter, that his question was “not about a whistleblower as I have no independent information on his identity.” Kyle Cheney, Burgess Everett and Andrew Desiderio report at POLITICO.

Justice Department lawyer James Burnham told a federal court yesterday that “the House can impeach a president over ignored subpoenas,” contradicting what attorneys for Trump have argued at his Senate impeachment trial this week. A few hours later, Schiff referred to Burnham’s assertion during Trump’s trial. Marshall Cohen and Katelyn Polantz report at CNN.

A new video released yesterday shows Trump associating with Lev Parnas, the indicted businessman who participated in the pressure campaign against Ukraine. It is the second such tape to emerge in a week and appears to undermine Trump’s claim that he does not know Parnas, a former associate of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. Ben Protess and Kenneth P. Vogel report at the New York Times.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“The list of ways in which [President] Trump and his legal team have pushed limits is growing,” Charlie Savage writes in an analysis of Alan Dershowitz’s theory at the New York Times in light of the scholar’s attempts to clarify or walk back his remarks yesterday.

Takeaways from yesterday’s question-and-answer session are provided by Eileen Sullivan at the New York Times.

The 7 most significant exchanges from yesterday and Wednesday’s sessions are provided by Aaron Blake at the Washington Post.

A look at some of the key Republican claims and Democratic counterclaims surrounding the witness issue is fielded by Carl Hulse at the New York Times.

“After all that back and forth? The battle lines remained exactly where they were the day the process began,” Michelle Cottle argues at the New York Times, commenting the Q. & A. session in the Senate’s impeachment trial was “was less than illuminating” and perhaps a little “tedious.”

“Key lawyers in the Trump administration … appear to be acting more like operatives helping to facilitate an illegal scheme, rather than lawyers with an obligation to end it,” Kathleen Clark comments at Just Security.

“For a president psychologically incapable of distinguishing between his own personal interests and the nation’s, [Dershowitz’s argument] amounts to the ultimate get-out-of-impeachment-free card,” George T. Conway III comments at the Washington Post.

Besides political risks to their seats and their party, “there’s also a more profound, personal consequence to [Senators’] votes on the two articles of impeachment: How they will be remembered,” Just Security’s Co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman writes at POLITICO following a study of the obituaries in major newspapers of every Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee who voted to support or oppose the articles of impeachment for Nixon in the summer of 1974.

An explainer on the “prepublication review” process and how it could apply to former national security adviser John Bolton’s forthcoming memoir is provided by Alex Abdo and Meenakshi Krishnan at Just Security. Bolton reportedly alleged in his forthcoming book that Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine to secure an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden.

Key questions about Trump’s impeachment that still need to be answered are explored by Zachary B. Wolf at CNN.

IRAN

The House approved two pieces of legislation yesterday aimed at reigning in President Trump’s war powers, a direct result of recent heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S.. The House voted nearly along party lines to pass one measure that would prohibit military action against Iran without congressional approval. The House also voted 236 to 166 to repeal the 2002 authorization for the use of military force (A.U.M.F.), which the Trump administration has used to justify its controversial drone strike that killed top Iranian commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Jesse Naranjo reports at POLITICO.

The Trump administration yesterday announced it was extending waivers for Iran to continue work at its nuclear facilities while also slapping new sanctions on Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation (A.E.O.I.) and its chief officer, Ali Akbar Salehi. U.S. envoy to Iran Brian Hook said the dual actions aim to increase transparency regarding Tehran’s atomic program and punish the agency accused of violating the limits on uranium enrichment as set under the 2015 agreement with European countries. AP reporting.

“U.S. officials who praise Iraqi Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani while denouncing Iran’s supreme leader fail to grasp that the two clerical leaders have a shared interest in resisting outside threats,” Mohammad R. Kalantari and Ali Hashem argue at Foreign Policy.

IRAQ

The United States has asked Iraq for permission to put Patriot missile systems at bases hosting U.S. troops to improve defenses against possible Iranian attacks like the Jan. 8 missile strike from Iran, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said yesterday. “We need the permission of the Iraqis,” Esper told a Pentagon news conference. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, who spoke alongside Esper, said the U.S. military was still deciding on more tactical issues, such as where best to place the defenses. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Iraq announced yesterday that its military is continuing operations with the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS), after a nearly three-week pause amid calls for foreign troops to leave. A statement from the office of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said the joint missions have resumed in light of the continued threat posed by ISIS ahead of a new U.S.-Iraqi agreement that could cut the number of U.S. troops there. Louisa Loveluck reports at the Washington Post.

14 more 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, bringing the total number to 64, the Defense Department said yesterday. Courtney Kube, Mosheh Gains and Phil Helsel report at NBC News.

“Iraq’s F-16 fighter jet program — supplied by the U.S. and, until recently, secured and maintained by foreign contractors — is [feared] vulnerable to seizure by Iranian-backed militias” after contractors evacuated the Balad Air Base in early January following indirect rocket fire, Ellen Ioanes and Lara Seligman report at Foreign Policy.

SYRIA

“There have been 200 air strikes on opposition-held territory in northern Syria in the last three days,” mostly targeting civilians, the U.S. has said. Russia denied its forces were involved in the attacks. The BBC reporting.

Turkey has threatened to launch a military offensive in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province “if the situation is not resolved immediately.” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan made the remarks today as fighting has intensified in recent weeks, risking a new wave of refugees. Reuters reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Attacks by the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan reached a record high in the final quarter of 2019, according to a new report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The report comes as the U.S. seeks a peace deal with Taliban to withdraw its troops from the country. Ryan Browne reports at CNN.

Libya’s main warring factions have resumed heavy fighting there, threatening to undo efforts to end a nearly decadelong crisis in the North African country, just two weeks after foreign backers agreed to support a truce. Jared Malsin and Benoit Faucon report at the Wall Street Journal.

The British government is considering unprecedented measures to protect members of the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defense (M.O.D.) from legal scrutiny. Nadia O’Mara explains in a piece for Just Security how these would violate the U.K.’s obligations under both international and domestic law.

The Trump administration is loosening an Obama-era ban on certain kinds of land mines in an effort to give the U.S. military another weapon during conflict, U.S. officials said. The anticipated change is expected to be announced by the White House today, John Ismay reports at the New York Times.

President Trump is set to unveil an expansion of his controversial travel ban today, Anita Kumar and Nahal Toosi report at POLITICO. 

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).