The Early Edition: February 6, 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

The Senate voted almost entirely along party lines to acquit President Trump on two articles of impeachment, capping a three-week impeachment trial and a five-month push by House Democrats to investigate and impeach Trump for allegedly withholding U.S. military aid from Ukraine to pressure its leaders to investigate his Democratic rivals, including former Vice President Joe Biden. Nicholas Fandos reporting for the New York Times.

In a stunning break with his own party, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) voted to convict the president on the abuse of power charge, siding with Democrats in a 52-48 tally and denying Trump a unanimous not guilty verdict. The second article, obstruction of Congress, failed 47-53 — a straight party-line vote. Rebecca Ballhaus and Natalie Andrews reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

Romney cast his vote as one of conscience and rooted in his religious beliefs. “Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine,” Romney said in his Senate floor speech announcing his vote. The Senator explained that Trump was “guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust,” calling the Ukraine pressure campaign “a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security and our fundamental values.” Burgess Everett reporting for POLITICO.

All Democratic senators voted to convict Trump on both counts, including the trio of moderates who were considered potential swing votes, denying Trump a bipartisan acquittal vote in the Senate. Marianne Levine and James Arkin reporting for POLITICO.

Trump immediately claimed “VICTORY” and announced in a message on Twitter that he would speak about the twin acquittal votes at the White House today. The president also shared a video featuring a fake magazine cover with signs showing him staying in office far beyond the two terms allowed under the Constitution. Trump’s 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale professed that he had been “totally vindicated.” Seung Min Kim reporting for the Washington Post.

Trump also tweeted an attack ad against Romney that called the senator a “democrat secret asset” after he voted to convict Trump on the abuse of power article of impeachment. The video described the former 2012 Republican presidential candidate as “slick, slippery, stealthy” and indicated he had posed as a Republican and “tried to infiltrate the Trump administration as secretary of state” — referring to Romney being considered for the position in 2017. Julia Arciga reporting for The Daily Beast.

The White House declared the vote a full “exoneration:” “Today, the sham impeachment attempt concocted by Democrats ended in the full vindication and exoneration of President Donald J. Trump,” press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement. Grisham described the articles of impeachment as “yet another witch-hunt” that “was based on a series of lies” and discounted Romney as “one failed Republican presidential candidate.” Jeremy Herb reporting for CNN.

“The defection of Romney was a rare cliffhanger in the impeachment proceedings and also a kind of moral sideshow … [h]is vote cast into relief the rapid evolution of the Republican Party into an entity that has wholly succumbed to the vise grip of Trump … it deprives the president of the monolithic Republican support he had craved,” Mark Leibovich writes at the New York Times.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said the House expects to continue its probes into Trump’s conduct and “will likely” subpoena former national security adviser John Bolton. Nadler told CNN “I think it’s likely, yes,” that their investigations would continue and that a subpoena for Bolton was also “likely.” Bolton, who claimed in a book manuscript that the president conditioned aid to Ukraine on investigations into Biden, had previously said he would comply with a Senate subpoena during the impeachment trial, but the Senate voted against calling witnesses. CNN reporting.

The White House’s decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine without explanation last year concerned top Pentagon officials, who unsuccessfully tried to persuade Trump to lift the funding freeze in the days leading up to his controversial July phone call, it was reported yesterday. According to emails and other internal documents reviewed by CNN, defense officials like John Rood were worried by the Office of Management and Budget’s (O.M.B.) direction to halt the congressionally approved money, writing that the aid was at “serious risk,” and questioning if the move was legal. Vivian Salama reporting for CNN.

White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien denied yesterday that Trump had sought assistance from Ukrainian in investigating Biden and his son, Hunter, despite evidence to the contrary. O’Brien also asserted that the Senate impeachment trial has emitted “a terrible pall” that hindered U.S. foreign policy. Anne Gearan and Ellen Nakashima reporting for the Washington Post.

A look at the critical role, both in shaping the big picture strategy and handling the minutiae, that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) played throughout the impeachment trial is provided by Jeremy Herb, Phil Mattingly, Lauren Fox, Alex Rogers and Kaitlan Collins at CNN.

A recap of Trump’s Senate impeachment trial as it was told through tweets is provided by Darren Samuelsohn at POLITICO.

A look at Trump’s next legal challenges, including leftovers from the Mueller investigation and “Ukraine probe 2.0,” is provided by POLITICO’s Darren Samuelsohn and Kyle Cheney who note, “the president is hardly in the clear.”

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Key takeaways from President Trump’s impeachment and acquittal are provided by Amber Phillips at the Washington Post.

“From Trump’s point of view, the trial was simply the latest chapter in a campaign by his enemies to nullify his election that started before he even took office,” Peter Baker writes in an analysis at the New York Times.

A bipartisan majority of senators — including at least six Republicans – found that the factual allegations for Trump’s impeachment were proven, Just Securitys co-editor-in-chief Ryan Goodman writes, citing statements from those senators.

In private, many Republicans agree that the president is “reckless” and “unfit,” hinting that they acquitted him out of fear, Democratic senator Sherrod Brown writes at the New York Times.

Impeachment was worth it, Max Boot argues at the Washington Post, noting, “ignoring Trump’s attempt to rig the election wasn’t a serious option” and the president “would have been emboldened if there had been no consequences.”

“The impeachment trial in the Senate [illustrated] how beholden Republicans are to Trump and his destructive approach to leadership … in that sense, the trial provided an important service to Americans, clarifying the stakes in the coming election,” the New York Times editorial board argues.

Now that the impeachment process is over, there is only one way to hold Trump accountable: The 2020 election, Noah Berlatsky writes at NBC News, commenting, “the ball’s in America’s court.”

“Both Republicans and Democrats said their positions on impeachment were intended to protect the 2020 election … yet, as it ends, the process looks like it could have the opposite effect,” Edward. B. Foley comments at POLITICO Magazine.

An annotated version of Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) speech announcing his vote to convict President Trump is provided by Amber Phillips at the Washington Post.

“Romney joins that honorable pantheon of lawmakers … who put principle over party,” Dana Milbank comments at the Washington Post.

SYRIA

Syrian government forces clashed with rebels and withstood Turkish artillery barrages today as they tried to capture Saraqeb town in northwestern Idlib province in a new effort to reclaim the last rebel stronghold, witnesses and a war monitor said. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s offensive in Idlib province, backed by Russian air strikes, intensified in January, culminating in the killing of eight Turkish military personnel on Monday and prompting Turkish forces to retaliate. Reuters reporting.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said today that Ankara expected Russia to immediately stop the Syrian government assault, stressing the need for cooperation with Moscow to resolve problems in the region. “We conveyed our determination to our Russian counterparts,” Cavusoglu said, adding that Ankara was determined to curb the “humanitarian drama” in Idlib. Turkey and Russia back opposing sides in Syria’s nine-year civil war, Reuters reporting.

Turkey sent additional reinforcements into northwestern Syria today, setting up new positions in an effort to halt the Syrian government offensive there, the media and opposition activists said. AP reporting.

In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry announced that Russian soldiers have been killed in Syria’s Idlib, its first confirmation of deaths in the current round of fighting. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said there was no intention at present for President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to meet to reduce tensions in Idlib but that such a meeting could be quickly organized if necessary. Reuters reporting.

Russian military personnel are engaging in potentially hazardous standoffs with U.S. soldiers on highways in northeastern Syria in breach of agreements between Washington and Moscow to keep out of one another’s way in the war-ravaged country, the top U.S. envoy to Syria James Jeffrey said yesterday. Images shared on social media have depicted U.S. military trucks blocking civilian vehicles that local journalists say are transporting Russian contractors on the highways. Jessica Donati reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

“The crisis in Idlib, which threatens to be among the worst in a nine-year-long war full of them, is a reminder that the Syrian war hasn’t gone away — and that it has the capacity to worsen,” Adam Taylor warns in an analysis at the Washington Post.

The KINGDOM

Saudi Arabia is using a terrorism tribunal as a “political tool to silence critics and rights defenders,” notwithstanding reforms introduced by the kingdom in recent years, a new report by human rights watchdog Amnesty International has concluded. In its report, Amnesty said the Specialized Criminal Court (S.C.C.), set up in 2008 for terror-related crimes, has been using anti-terror and anti-cybercrime laws to hand down prison sentences of up to 30 years and in some cases the death penalty to human rights activists, writers, economists, journalists, religious leaders and political activists. Al Jazeera reporting.

Amnesty claims that the court has morphed into a “mockery of justice” that “targets freedom of speech and peaceful political activity,” citing court documents, government statements and national laws, as well as interviews with activists, lawyers and individuals linked to the cases documented. Bethan McKernan reporting for The Guardian.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

The Justice Department (D.O.J.) is reviewing House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff’s request to launch an investigation into allegations that Trump ally Erik Prince repeatedly misled Congress during the committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to a Feb. 4 letter. The Department of Justice letter to Schiff apologizes for the delayed response to the request filed 10 months ago, adding, “the Department acknowledges receipt of your letter and will refer your request for investigation to the proper investigative agency or component for review.” Kyle Cheney reporting for POLITICO.

F.B.I. Director Chris Wray warned yesterday that Russia is employing “information warfare” tactics going into the 2020 presidential election, though he said law enforcement has not seen ongoing attempts by Russia to hack into America’s election infrastructure. Wray testified to the House Judiciary Committee that Russia, like it did in 2016, is “relying on a covert social media campaign aimed at dividing American public opinion and sowing discord.” AP reporting.

A senior Russian diplomat voiced concern yesterday about the United States redistributing a new sea-based nuclear weapon, saying the decision indicated Washington’s belief that it could wage a limited nuclear conflict. The Pentagon argued this week that the low-yield nuclear warhead was necessary to reduce the risk of nuclear war by helping dissuade Russia from initiating a limited nuclear conflict. Moscow has denied U.S. allegations that Russia was considering such a conflict. AP reporting.

The Pentagon’s move to deploy a new, submarine-launched nuclear warhead capability is dangerous and the rationale behind the decision is flawed, Daryl G. Kimball argues at Just Security.

D.O.J. INSPECTOR GENERAL REPORT

F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray yesterday pushed back on disapproval from House Republicans that he had not gone far enough to reform the law enforcement agency after the publication of a watchdog report that outlined the bureau’s failures in the Russia investigation. A handful of conservative lawmakers were not impressed by Wray’s censure of the officials accused of wrongdoing in the report or his pledge to change protocol at the agency, and demanded a “thorough and complete public house cleaning” and a “clear, unambiguous expression of moral outrage.” David Shortell reporting for CNN.

Attorney General William Barr released new restrictions yesterday over the opening of politically sensitive probes, following the omissions identified in inspector general report. Katie Benner reporting for the New York Times.

A look at how the Justice Department might respond to the F.I.S.A. court’s recent order to protect the information collected during the surveillance of Trump campaign adviser Carter Page is provided in an analysis by Asha Rangappa at Just Security.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Some members of N.A.T.O. are weighing pulling out thousands of their forces from Afghanistan once the United States begins to officially reduce its own troop presence in the country, according to American and European officials. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Julian E. Barnes reporting for the New York Times.

The Iraqi government has ordered its military not to seek help from the U.S.-led coalition in operations against the Islamic State group (ISIS), two senior Iraqi military officials said, suggesting that while Baghdad’s demands for the immediate exit of American forces have cooled, Iraqi leaders are serious about reconsidering the strategic relationship. AP reporting.

The new head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) has cautioned Iran of “serious consequences” if there is any repeat of last year’s detention of an I.A.E.A. inspector. Julian Borger reporting for The Guardian.

President Trump met with Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó at the White House yesterday and repeated the U.S.’s intention to oust the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro. Andrew Restuccia reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s political allies-turned-ambassadors are “quietly pushing out” career diplomats abroad, a “growing trend in the Trump administration,” Robbie Gramer reports in an exclusive at Foreign Policy.

The key foreign-policy takeaways from Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday are provided by Michael Hirsh, Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer at Foreign Policy. 

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).