The Early Edition: February 7, 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 delivered a triumphalist, mocking and fiery speech in the White House yesterday afternoon in “celebration” of his Senate acquittal a day earlier. In remarks strethcing over an hour, Trump ranted against the “scum,” “leakers” and “very evil and sick people” he blames for his impeachment. Peter Baker reporting for the New York Times.

Trump said he “went through hell” during what he described as a politically driven investigation. Speaking in the East Room, filled with senior administration figures, Trump family members and Republican lawmakers, who repeatedly broke into applause, the president brandished a copy of The Washington Post with the headline reading: “Trump acquitted.” “This is what the end result is,” he said to a whooping audience and standing ovation. “Honey, maybe we’ll frame it,” he joked to the first lady. Caitlin Oprysko reporting for POLITICO.

Trump refused to concede any wrongdoing in asking Ukraine’s president to investigate a Democratic rival and offered no words of regret, in startling contrast from President Bill Clinton — who made a brief statement in the Rose Garden in 1999 apologizing and calling for “reconciliation” after his impeachment trial also ended in acquittal. Trump merely apologized to his own family for the “phony, rotten” ordeal that they were put through. David Nakamura reporting for the Washington Post.

The president went on to criticize the 22-month investigation by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller into his 2016 election campaign’s possible contacts with Russia, describing it, as he frequently has, as a “witch hunt.” “It was all bullshit,” Trump said, adding, “this should never happen to another president ever.” Catherine Lucey and Andrew Restuccia reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

Trump went through his “enemies list,” labeling former F.B.I. director James Comey “a sleaze bag” and saying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was a “horrible person.” The president also singled out Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) who was the lone Republican in either chamber of Congress to break with his party on impeachment, charging, the senator “can’t stand the fact he ran one of the worst campaigns in the history of the presidency.” David Smith reporting for The Guardian.

Earlier yesterday morning, Trump attacked impeachment foes at the multi-faith National Prayer Breakfast — charging that they had inappropriately invoked “their faith as justification” for calls to force him from office. In an apparent swipe at both Pelosi and Romney, Trump said: “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong … nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that that’s not so.” The breakfast is traditionally a bipartisan affair marked by talk of faith and common ground, Reuters reporting. 

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council (N.S.C.) aide who testified against Trump during House Democrats’ impeachment hearings, has told colleagues he expects to leave the White House’s council in the coming weeks to return to the Defense Department, according to a source. Vindman’s departure from the N.S.C., which could come as soon as this month, “would be well ahead of the scheduled end of his time at the White House, which was originally slated to last until July,” and follows a cutback on his duties, as well as on those of his brother, Kaitlan Collins reporting for CNN.

The White House is preparing to push out staff perceived as disloyal to the president, Josh Dawsey, Robert Costa and Greg Miller write at the Washington Post, citing two sources who confirmed Vindman will be notified by administration officials of his reassignment in the coming days.

Pelosi yesterday indicated Democrats have no immediate plans to summon former national security adviser John Bolton for testimony — but she made clear the House would continue its probes into Trump despite him being acquitted in his impeachment trial. Pelosi referred to a spate of ongoing legal battles against Trump — including to obtain his tax returns and a long-ignored subpoena connected to Mueller’s investigation — that are still moving through the courts.  Sarah Ferris reporting for POLITICO.

“[T]here are good reasons to believe that Ukraine, the reluctant focus of the impeachment battle, will continue to haunt U.S. politics for some time to come,” Julian Borger writes at The Guardian, citing renewed efforts by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to find dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden as well as Democrats’ expected push for testimony from Bolton.

The Trump administration is holding up an arms transfer to Ukraine worth $30 million, according to three current Ukrainian officials and a former senior US official who have direct knowledge of the sales. At least six commercial orders for guns and ammunition have faced delays of at least a year and continue to remain frozen. The officials have said the Trump administration has not provided any justification about why the commercial sales are being delayed. Justine Coleman reporting for the Hill.

The account of how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “held Republicans together — even in the face of stunning revelations about the president’s conduct and uneasiness in his party about Trump’s actions” — is provided by Carl Hulse, Nicholas Fandos and Emily Cochrane reporting for the New York Times, who note McConnell’s “command of procedure and keen political instincts.”

Lead House impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) stated in an interview yesterday that the months-long impeachment inquiry into Trump and Senate trial was “absolutely worth it,” despite the ultimate outcome. A transcript of his full interview is provided by NPR.

Sen. Chris Murphy is urging an independent investigation into whether the Trump administration “regularly” abused classification rules to conceal key documents from the public as a political tactic, including the transcript of  Trump’s July 25 phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart and the War Powers justification for the killing of top Iranian Commander Qassem Soleimani. In a letter sent yesterday to Gene Dodaro, the Comptroller General of the United States, Murphy specifically asked that the Government Accountability Office undertake a comparative review of documents “to ensure classification levels are consistent with the nature of material held in the executive branch,” according to a copy of the correspondence. Zachary Cohen reporting for CNN.

Fox News’ own research team has cautioned colleagues not to rely on some of the network’s top commentators’ assertions about Ukraine. An internal Fox News research briefing book accuses Fox News contributor John Solomon, regular Fox News guest Rudy Giuliani and others of spreading or amplifying disinformation on Ukraine. Will Sommer, Maxwell Tani and Andrew Kirell reporting for The Daily Beast.

A new Senate Intelligence Committee report released yesterday criticized the Obama administration’s late response to Russian election meddling in 2016, blaming Partisan divisions and Republican congressional leaders’ reluctance to publicly acknowledge foreign interference. The report portrayed the Obama administration as acting “too slowly and indecisively” to tackle the interference or to counter it, and it cited the “heavily politicized environment” in American politics in 2016 as one factor preventing a tougher response. “Though separate from its central findings, the mention of Republican congressional leaders’ role in forestalling a stronger response was notable for a report from a Republican-led committee,” Julian E. Barnes reports for the New York Times.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A factcheck on President Trump’s celebratory remarks yesterday is provided by Linda Qiu at the New York Times, who notes the president “recited a familiar litany of falsehoods and misleading assertions about the impeachment trial against him, his political enemies and his own record.”

The four logically weakest arguments — and the two best — offered up by Republican senators for their acquittal votes Wednesday, are provided by David Leonhardt at the New York Times.

“I have seen dictatorships around the world, where blind obedience is the norm and truth-tellers are threatened with punishment or death … we must not allow the United States to become a country where standing up to our government is a dangerous act,” former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted from her post by Trump, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed published yesterday.

“It was unsettlingly clear [yesterday] that Trump had not learned any lessons from his impeachment ordeal … except that he remains surrounded in his mind by political enemies,” Michael Hirsh comments at Foreign Policy.

“Our vindictive president, now unshackled by his frightened followers in Congress, may well be teed up to punish his perceived political enemies,” Catherine Rampell warns at the Washington Post, arguing Trump has weaponized his executive authority several times already.

SYRIA

Russian-led Syrian government forces yesterday entered Saraqeb, a key town in the country’s last rebel stronghold, in a push to seize the country’s last rebel stronghold, even as Turkey beefed up its troop presence in an effort to curtail the offensive, Syrian state media reported. President Bashar al-Assad’s swift military advance through the northwestern Idlib province has caused the displacement of more than a half million people in just over two months, risking a military confrontation with Turkey, whose leader has threatened to drive back the Syrian forces. AP reporting.

A Russian delegation will head to Turkey tomorrow for discussions aiming to halt the Syrian government’s offensive in Idlib region, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said today. Cavusoglu reiterated Turkey would do whatever is needed to stop a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria’s northwest. Reuters reporting.

Israel conducted airstrikes early yesterday near Damascus, wounding eight soldiers, Syrian state media said, while an opposition war monitoring group said the missiles targeted army positions as well as Iran-backed fighters, killing 23. The BBC reporting.

Syrian Kurds have announced they will hold trials for Islamic State (ISIS) fighters from over 50 nations, including about 30 from Britain, after becoming incensed by a failure to reach international agreements over what to do with them. Dan Sabbagh reporting for The Guardian.

“If the Trump administration actually wants to stem the latest bloodbath, it will need to focus its pressure not on Damascus but on Moscow,” the Washington Post editorial board argues, commenting on Russia’s role in the conflict.

IRAQ

The U.S. intends to renew a waiver allowing Iraq to import natural gas and electricity from Iran without threat of sanctions, U.S. and Iraqi officials said, as Washington and Baghdad try to calm tensions after diplomatic ties almost unraveled last month. Iraq depends heavily on Iranian natural gas for power generation but the Trump administration is pushing for the country to wean itself off that energy source. Isabel Coles and Benoit Faucon reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

Iraq and Russia talked over prospects for deepening military cooperation, Iraq’s Defense Ministry said yesterday, in the wake of fraught Baghdad-Washington relations following top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani’s killing inside Iraq. The ministry statement came after a meeting in Baghdad between Iraqi army chief of staff Lt. Gen. Othman Al-Ghanimi and Russian Ambassador Maksim Maksimov, as well as a newly arrived defense mission. AP reporting.

Iran will soon share new information about the missile attack against a U.S. base in Iraq it launched in retaliation for the American assassination of Soleimani, Head of the Guards’ aerospace division Amirali Hajizadeh said, according to the ISNA news agency. Reuters reporting.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

The United States last month killed Qassim al-Rimi, the leader of Islamist group al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch who claimed responsibility for last year’s deadly shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola, President Trump confirmed yesterday, without providing details of the counterterrorism operation carried out in the Arabian Peninsula (A.Q.A.P.). Edward Helmore reporting for The Guardian.

“Under Rimi, A.Q.A.P. committed unconscionable violence against civilians in Yemen and sought to conduct and inspire numerous attacks against the United States and our forces,” Trump said. “His death further degrades A.Q.A.P. and the global al-Qaeda movement, and it brings us closer to eliminating the threats these groups pose to our national security.” The New York Times first reported last week that the U.S. conducted an operation that was believed to have killed the leader. Brett Samuels reporting for the Hill.

AFGHANISTAN

At least 23 pro-government forces and seven civilians were killed during the last week of fighting in Afghanistan, Fahim Abed reports in a casualty report at the New York Times.

As dissidents of Kabul and Washington are attacked and killed, critics have compared the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence service with close links to the C.I.A., to the brutal intelligence service of the Afghan communists in the 1980s, Emran Feroz reporting for Foreign Policy.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

At least three Palestinians were killed in the occupied West Bank and several Israeli soldiers were wounded yesterday in a surge of violence that erupted amid Palestinian anger at President Trump’s Middle East peace plan. The blueprint heavily favors Israel on the most contentious issues of the conflict and would allow it to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank. Isabel Kershner reporting for the New York Times.

Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, the main architect of the White House proposal to resolve the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has blamed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for rising tensions and clashes in the occupied West Bank since the plan’s release last week. Kushner said leaders who are prepared for a state “don’t call for days of rage and encourage their people to pursue violence if they’re not getting what they want.” AP reporting.

The Palestinians today dismissed U.S. claims of incitement, instead connecting the violence back to Trump’s Mideast initiative. AP reporting.

CHINA

China’s state-owned Offshore Oil Corp (C.N.O.O.C.) has declared force majeure on liquefied natural gas, meaning it is going back on deals as the coronavirus constrains its ability to take deliveries, one of “the first known cases of the legal clause being invoked in commodity contracts as a result of the epidemic,” Stephen Stapczynksi reporting for World Oil.

“The United States and its allies should take controlling stakes in Nokia, Ericsson or both” to tackle Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei’s dominance of the 5G market, Attorney general William Barr said yesterday. “There are only two companies that can compete with Huawei right now: Nokia and Ericsson,” Barr said in a speech on the Chinese economic threat. AFP reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Links between Western white supremacists and the Russian government highlight that “the distinction between foreign terrorism and so-called domestic terrorism is increasingly irrelevant,” Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault and Joseph Stabile argue at Just Security.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) has been picked as the next ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee by the House Republican steering committee, a G.O.P. source said. Jeremy Herb and Paul LeBlanc reporting for CNN. 

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).