The Early Edition: February 5, 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

Republican Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) said yesterday that she will vote to acquit President Trump on both articles of impeachment, despite her doubts about the president’s “wrong” behavior, dimming the prospects of a bipartisan condemnation of Trump. Collins said Trump’s efforts to press Ukraine to launch an investigation into a Democratic presidential candidate were “improper and demonstrated poor judgment” but did not justify forcing him from office, siding with a handful of Republican lawmakers — Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Rob Portman (Ohio) — who have criticized his conduct while arguing it is not impeachable. Collins was one of only two Republicans who voted last week to hear witnesses at the Senate impeachment trial, in a vote that failed 49-51. Burgess Everett reporting for POLITICO.

“I do not believe the House has met its burden of the showing the president’s conduct, however flawed, warrants the extreme step of removal from office,” Collins, who faces a tough re-election battle, said of the abuse of power charge in a speech yesterday on the Senate floor. “This decision is not about whether you like or dislike this President or agree with or oppose his policies or approve or disapprove of his conduct in other circumstances … rather it is about whether the charges meet the very high constitutional standard of treason, bribery or other high crimes or misdemeanors,” the senator added. Jeremy Herb reporting for CNN.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) rejected the two charges against Trump — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — as “constitutionally incoherent” and called on all senators to vote to acquit the president. Dareh Gregorian and Julie Tsirkin reporting for NBC News.

The Senate is set to vote at 4 p.m. today on the two articles of impeachment. With 67 votes needed to convict, Trump is all but guaranteed to be acquitted. Jordain Carney reporting for the Hill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) both made clear yesterday that censuring Trump, as some key Democratic figures have proposed, is not an option. “We have impeached the President … our house has spoken,” Pelosi told reporters in advance of the President’s State of the Union address, while Schumer explained, “for most of us, and just about all of us, [Trump] should be convicted and we don’t want a halfway measure.” Dana Bash and Manu Raju reporting for CNN.

Rudy Giuliani says the president should “absolutely, 100 percent” investigate Biden even after Trump’s expected acquittal by the Senate today. “I would have no problem with him doing it,” the president’s personal lawyer said in an interview. “In fact, I’d have a problem with him not doing it … I think he would be saying that Joe Biden can get away with selling out the United States, making us a fool in the Ukraine.” Giuliani also labeled Trump’s expected acquittal “a total vindication.”  NPR reporting.

The impeachment inquiry, President Trump’s own public statements and other revelations establish a narrative establishing his involvement in the pressure campaign — regardless of the Senate’s verdict, Kenneth P. Vogel writes at the New York Times.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

“The president’s actions were not ‘perfect’ … some were inappropriate,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) writes in an opinion article published yesterday in the Philadelphia Inquirer, arguing why, ultimately, Trump’s actions did not rise to an impeachable offense.

“Of all the amazing things that Republican senators have said in defense of their impending votes to acquit Trump, it is that a president who has been unwilling to or incapable of learning lessons will somehow have learned a lesson by being … not punished by them,”  Ruth Marcus comments on Sen. Susan Collins’s (R-Maine) floor speech at the Washington Post.

Blocking first-hand witnesses from testifying and new documents from being entered into evidence is very typical of how trials of many black Americans were conducted, David Love argues at CNN, comparing impeachment to Jim Crow jurisprudence and noting a common thread: “going through a trial that has already been decided before it even began.”

An analysis of Attorney General William Barr’s “pattern of biased actions and his failure to comply with Justice Department norms, rules and standards of conduct,” particularly evident in the Ukraine affair and the Mueller investigation, is provided by Fred Wertheimer at Just Security.

STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS

President Trump delivered his third State of the Union address to a bicameral session of Congress yesterday night. He praised his accomplishments: the killing of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani; his “peace plan” for the Middle East; and peace talks that might allow him to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan making no mention of impeachment trial. David Nakamura reporting for the Washington Post.

Key takeaways from Trump’s State of the Union address are provided by the Washington Post, the New York Times and The Guardian.

Annotated transcripts of Trump’s speech are provided by reporters at CNN and POLITICO.

Fact-checks of the president’s claims during his speech last night are helpfully provided by reporters at NBC News, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

SYRIA-TURKEY RELATIONS

Turkey will not let Syria’s government gain more ground in the opposition stronghold of Idlib province, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday, a day after strained relations between the two countries escalated into some of their deadliest clashes in years. Erdogan also told reporters that Russian-backed pro-government forces were “driving innocent and grieving people in Idlib towards our borders.” Kareem Fahim reporting for the Washington Post.

The president also said Turkey and Russia, who back opposing sides in Syria’s nine-year civil war, should seek to resolve their differences. Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, in a phone call initiated by Turkey, stressed the need to follow Russia-Turkey accords on Syria’s Idlib that envisage increasing cooperation to “neutralize extremists,” the Kremlin said. Reuters reporting.

The U.S. has ended a secretive military intelligence cooperation program with Turkey that for years assisted Ankara to target Kurdish PKK militants, which both the U.S. and Turkey designate as terrorists, four U.S. officials told Reuters. The U.S. move to indefinitely suspend the program, which has not been previously reported, came “in response to Turkey’s cross-border military incursion into Syria in October,” the U.S. officials said, showing the extent of the damage to ties between the N.A.T.O. allies from the incident. Reuters reporting.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday denounced the attack on the Turkish soldiers, and expressed America’s “full” support for Turkey following Syria’s mortar attacks on a Turkish observation post on Monday. In a statement, Pompeo blamed the Syrian government and its allies, including Russia and Iran, for their “continued, unjustifiable, and ruthless assaults on the people of Idlib,” adding, “we stand by our N.A.T.O. ally Turkey in the aftermath of the attack, which resulted in the death of multiple Turkish personnel serving at an observation post used for coordination and de-escalation, and fully support Turkey’s justified self-defense actions in response.” Reuters reporting.

More than half a million people have fled their homes since the government launched an offensive in Idlib in December, as renewed bombardment of the last rebel enclave has caused one of the war’s largest displacements, David Swanson, spokesperson for the United Nation’s humanitarian coordination office (O.C.H.A.), said yesterday. 80 percent of those displaced were women and children, Swanson said. AFP reporting.

A look at Russia-Turkey ties in light of the recent escalation is fielded by Andrew Wilks at Al Jazeera.

“The twisted geopolitics of the Middle East may be taking another turn,” David Gardner comments at the Financial Times, noting the unaligned interests of Moscow and Ankara.

IRAQ

A U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq would “likely” mean an ISIS resurgence, according to an intelligence assessment revealed in an inspector general report yesterday. The latest quarterly report from the lead inspector general for Operation Inherent Resolve comes as U.S.-Iraqi relations continue to falter following the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. Rebecca Kheel reporting for the Hill.

Head of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. met with Iraq leaders in Baghdad yesterday, the highest-level trip to Iraq by a senior U.S. military official since an American airstrike there killed a top Iranian general, enraging the Iraqis. On a day-long unannounced visit, McKenzie also saw U.S. troops at al-Asad military base, one of the targets of an attack that Iran carried out in retaliation for the death of Soleimani. McKenzie told reporters after his visit that he discussed “the future of the foreign military presence” and other issues with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, President Barham Salih and parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi. Missy Ryan reporting for the Washington Post.

IRAN

Iran-linked hackers have been impersonating journalists through an email scam, as the U.S. government has warned of Iranian cyber threats in the aftermath of the U.S. air strike that killed Iran’s second most powerful official, Major-General Qassem Soleimani. Reuters reporting.

During lunch with television anchors yesterday, President Trump remarked that war with Iran was “closer than you thought,” without elaborating further, after one attendee asked him how close the U.S. came to going to war with the Islamic Republic earlier this year, after the U.S. killed a senior Iranian military commander. Andrew Restuccia and Rebecca Ballhaus reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A draft U.N. Security Council resolution yesterday criticized an Israeli plan to annex its settlements in the West Bank in a reprimand of President Trump’s pro-Israel peace proposal. The draft text, passed around by Tunisia and Indonesia to council members, would likely face a U.S. veto and negotiations on it are expected to begin later this week, diplomats said. Reuters reporting.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said yesterday that the world body is committed to its established position of a two-state solution with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The U.N.’s position on the two-state solution has been defined throughout the years by relevant Security Council and General Assembly resolutions by which the U.N. Secretariat is bound, Guterres said, adding, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains key to sustainable peace in the Middle East. Guterres said. The U.N. News Centre reporting.

LIBYA

U.N. envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, has said representatives of the country’s warring factions attending talks in Geneva agree in principle to start negotiations over a permanent ceasefire, as he condemned ongoing breaches of an arms embargo by both sides and their supporters. Salame said the meetings of the 10-member body, comprised of five delegates from the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (G.N.A.) and five appointed by renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, which began Monday, were critical in ending the military escalation. Al Jazeera reporting.

Syrian militants linked to groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group (ISIS) are currently being deployed by Turkey to fight on behalf of the U.N.-supported government in Libya, two Libyan militia leaders and a Syrian war monitor said. Both sides in Libya’s civil war receive equipment and support from foreign countries, but Turkey has in recent months been sending hundreds of them over to “a new theater of war” in Libya. AP reporting.

BORDER SECURITY AND IMMIGRATION

The number of U.S. border apprehensions is down for the eighth straight month, following tough measures by the Trump administration that include forcing asylum seekers back over the U.S.-Mexico border to wait out their claims, a Homeland Security official said. The official said the tally over the past four months was 165,000, down from 242,000 a year earlier during the same period. AP reporting.

Nigeria has started working on the security and information sharing conditions for the lifting of a U.S. visa ban on prospective immigrants from the African nation, Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said yesterday. Speaking at a joint news conference in Washington with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Onyeama said Nigeria was “blindsided” by the U.S. move on Friday to add it and five other nations to an expanded version of the U.S. travel ban. Reuters reporting.

It’s obvious that Trump’s new Nigerian immigration ban was not about security issues, as the administration claimed, Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún argues at Foreign Policy.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Trump administration has deployed its controversial submarine-launched low-yield nuclear warhead, the first new U.S. weapon in decades, the Pentagon confirmed yesterday. The administration argues the warhead is necessary to deter Russia. Gordon Lubold reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

“Under Trump, the Department of Defense is attempting to redefine landmines as ‘non-persistent area denial systems’ … like ‘smart mines’ and other weasel words, such terminology won’t convince anyone,” Mary Wareham comments at Just Security, arguing for the administration to rethink its policy. 

An Afghan media watchdog called on the government today to consider a demand for additional media freedoms after 30 local media outlets said in a joint statement that authorities were increasingly curbing their access to information. AP reporting.

The National Archives is letting millions of documents, including many related to immigrants’ rights, be destroyed or deleted — without so much as a congressional hearing. Matthew Connelly at the New York Times discusses the consequences of “this mad rush to delete or destroy the historical record.”

Manhattan federal prosecutors opened their case yesterday in the trial of a former computer engineer for the C.I.A., Joshua Schulte, who is charged with handing over a trove of classified information on the spy agency’s hacking operations to WikiLeaks, causing “catastrophic” harm to national security. Nicole Hong reporting for the New York Times. 

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).