The Early Edition: February 10, 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 fired two government officials who had delivered damaging testimony against him during the impeachment inquiry, dismissing the duo two days after his acquittal by the Senate. Trump recalled Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union (E.U.), just hours after Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert at the National Security Council (N.S.C.), was ordered out of the White House on Friday. Both officials provided key information about Trump during public hearings, with Sondland saying the president sought a “quid pro quo” with Ukraine and Vindman criticizing Trump’s conduct during a July phone call as “improper.” Kaitlan Collins, Kristen Holmes, Katelyn Polantz, Gloria Borger, Kevin Liptak, Jim Acosta and Devan Cole reporting for CNN.

Trump on Saturday defended Vindman’s ouster from the White House National Security Council, calling him “insubordinate” and saying he had incorrectly reported the contents of Trump’s “perfect” telephone calls. In a series of messages sent on Twitter, the president added that Vindman was “given a horrendous report by his superior, the man he reported to, who publicly stated that Vindman had problems with judgement, adhering to the chain of command and leaking information … in other words, ‘OUT.’” Tal Axelrod reporting for the Hill. 

Vindman’s lawyer disputed Trump’s comments and said in a statement that it was clear his client was fired for testifying in the impeachment probe. “There is no question in the mind of any American why this man’s job is over, why this country now has one less soldier serving it at the White House … Vindman was asked to leave for telling the truth,” attorney David Pressman said in a statement. Vindman’s twin brother Yevgeny, a N.S.C. lawyer, was also removed from his post and escorted out of the White House; both men were reassigned to the Army. Kyle Cheney, Natasha Bertrand and Meridith McGraw reporting for POLITICO.

The dismissals drew condemnation from Democrats. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, denounced the move as “clear political retaliation, the likes of which is seen only in authoritarian countries around the world.” Hallie Jackson and Adam Edelman reporting for NBC News.

A handful of senators urged the president not to dismiss Sondland but Trump went ahead anyway, according to people briefed on the discussions. The Republican senators were concerned about political backlash and argued that the ambassador’s ouster was unnecessary, since he was already having discussions with senior officials about leaving after the Senate trial, however “Trump evidently was not interested in a quiet departure,” the people said. “When State Department officials called Sondland on Friday to tell him that he had to resign that day, he resisted, saying that he did not want to be included in what seemed like a larger purge of impeachment witnesses,” Peter Baker, Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman reporting for the New York Times.

The Justice Department has begun examining information on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, obtained by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Sen. Lindsey Graham said yesterday. Appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Graham said Attorney General William Barr told him earlier yesterday that the department has “created a process that Rudy could give information and they would see if it’s verified.”  Alison Main and Chandelis Duster reporting for CNN. 

“Trump’s moves … were a clear sign that those who cross him will pay a price — in a way that could send a chill through the government and stifle dissent and accountability,” CNN’s Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis.

“The transfer of Vindman out of the National Security Council … is just one part of a campaign by the national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, to trumpify one of the most powerful and important institutions in government,” John Gans argues at the New York Times, commenting that the official’s dismissal is more than “simply ridding the staff of resistance to the president.”

IRAN

Iran tried but failed to put a domestically-built satellite into orbit yesterday, state television reported, the latest setback for a program the United States says helps Tehran develop its ballistic missile program. The launch of a Simorgh rocket in Semnan Province, about 145 miles southeast of Tehran, failed to put the communications satellite into orbit because of low speed, Iranian state TV reported. Defense Ministry spokesperson Ahmad Hosseini still described the failure as a “remarkable” achievement for Iran’s space program. AP reporting.

Jerusalem and Washington have split up the fight against Iran, with Israel taking responsibility for blocking the Islamic Republic’s efforts in Syria and the U.S. in Iraq, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said Saturday after a working visit to Washington, in which he met Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other senior American officials. “I met with my colleague the American defense minister Mark Esper, and we sorted out the coordination exactly — they’re taking Iraq, and we’re taking Syria,” Bennett said in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givat Shmuel. Nati Yefet and Judah Ari Gross reporting for the Times of Israel.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for the country to bolster its military to “prevent” war, rejecting the U.S. sanctions on the country as “criminal act.” “We should be strong to prevent any war against the county … being weak will encourage our enemies to attack Iran,” Khamenei told air force commanders on Saturday according to state news agency I.R.N.A.. Reuters reporting.

AFGHANISTAN

Two U.S. service members were killed and six others wounded in an attack on a joint U.S.-Afghan operation in the Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, the U.S. military announced in a brief statement. The Pentagon yesterday identified the two soldiers who died from wounds sustained during combat operations as Sgt. 1st Class Javier Jaguar Gutierrez and Sgt. 1st Class Antonio Rey Rodriguez. The shootout has been described as a possible insider attack, Wynne Davis reporting for NPR.

Afghan and U.S. officials fear that the Islamic State group (IS) fighters who fled Afghanistan are now regrouping and preparing for a resurgence, citing the group’s “history of persevering despite territorial and leadership losses,” Susannah George, Siobhán O’Grady, Sharif Hassan reporting for the Washington Post.

SYRIA-TURKEY

The Syrian army seized a key northwestern crossroads town on Saturday, its latest gain in a weeks-long assault against the country’s last major rebel holdout of Idlib. The advance on Saraqeb came as Turkey sent more reinforcements into Idlib and threatened to retaliate if its military observation posts in the area, set up under a 2018 truce, come under attack. Al Jazeera reporting.

Syria’s military pledged yesterday to continue its campaign to take control of the whole country, days after capturing dozens of towns and villages from the last rebel holdout in northwestern Syria. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government soldiers were just a few kilometers from seizing full control of a strategic highway, know as M5, that connects the national capital of Damascus with the country’s north, which has for years been divided between government and opposition forces. AP reporting.

A Russian delegation returned to Turkey today for further discussions over heightening tensions in Idlib province, after an initial round last week failed to achieve results, Turkey’s foreign minister said. AP reporting.

Ankara’s latest intervention in Syria might slow advances in Idlib by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Russian-backed forces, “but the tyrant will remain on the throne so long as the world turns a blind eye,” Kareem Shaheen argues at Foreign Policy.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman has warned Israel against voting to annex parts of the West Bank that are the sites of Israeli settlements. In a pair of messages posted on Twitter early yesterday, Friedman cautioned that unilaterally annexing the territory in defiance of Palestinian criticism could jeopardize the Trump administration’s plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the latter of which have already rejected the plan outright. Felicia Schwartz reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

More than 100 House Democrats have rejected President Trump’s Middle East peace proposal, writing in a letter sent Friday that it would “hurt Israelis and Palestinians alike, pushing them toward further conflict.” The open letter, led by Democratic Reps. Alan Lowenthal (Calif.) and Andy Levin (Mich.), warned that the White House plan “paves the way for a permanent occupation of the West Bank.” Laura Kelly reporting for the Hill.

Tunisia’s United Nations ambassador, Moncef Baati, was fired last week after leading diplomatic negotiations on a Palestinian draft Security Resolution declaring Trump’s Middle East peace plan in violation of international law, according to three diplomats. Baati’s ouster is viewed as part of an effort by the country’s newly elected President Kais Saied to maintain positive relations with Washington as resistance to the Israeli-Palestinian scheme builds. Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer reporting for Foreign Policy.

The Israeli military has obstructed Palestinian agricultural exports through Jordan in the most recent escalation of a months-long trade war that comes amid worries of renewed violence in the region over the controversial Middle East plan. Following Defense Minister Naftali Bennett’s order, the Israeli military said it would not permit the Palestinians to transfer their products through their land crossing to Jordan, the occupied West Bank’s only direct export route to the outside world. Al Jazeera reporting.

RUSSIA

Backers of a major arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia are increasing pressure on the Trump administration to renew the pact after the one-year deadline to do so passed. Democratic lawmakers, arms control advocates and at least one Republican have called on Trump to renew the New START Treaty, which they worry he will allow to lapse. Administration officials have said they would like to “update” the pact by including China and expanding it to cover new weapons, but there has been no apparent progress on talks as the agreement’s expiration looms. Rebecca Kheel reporting for the Hill.

The case for extending the New START Treaty is made out by two former diplomats, from Russia and America, Madeleine Albright and Igor Ivanov at the New York Times, who cite “the possible worldwide consequences of an accelerating global arms race, the increased risk of military incidents and the degradation of arms reduction and nonproliferation agreements.”

IMMIGRATION

The administration has purchased access to commercial databases and software that charts the movements of millions of citizens’ cellphones from a location data company called Venntel, according to sources familiar with the matter and documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal. Federal agencies are using the information in  law-enforcement operations, in particular to crack down on undocumented immigrants in the U.S., and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) has made arrests based on the data. Byron Tau and Michelle Hackman reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

“Now it turns out that it’s not only advertising companies and other private entities who end up buying information en masse from brokers … the U.S. government is doing it, too,” the Washington Post editorial board comments.

A look at Chief Justice Roberts’ 2018 Carpenter ruling and how it applies to the government’s location tracking is provided by the New York Times editorial board.

President Trump’s expansion of his immigration ban is not likely to improve national security, Doug Rand argues at Just Security.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Federal prosecutors are looking to move back the sentencing date for President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, charging that his request to withdraw his guilty plea may call for testimony from his former lawyers. “The pair of prosecution filings submitted on Sunday do not bear the signature of Brandon Van Grack, a former member of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team who has been the lead attorney on the case since its outset [but are instead] signed by an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, Jocelyn Ballantine, who has helped handle Flynn’s case since Mueller’s office shut down last May. The filings are the first in the case submitted under the authority of Tim Shea, the new, interim U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia appointed last month by Attorney General William Barr. Shea, a former aide to Barr, previously worked as an attorney at major law firms and counsel for Republican-led House and Senate committees. … It is possible Van Grack was left out of the latest submissions because he, like the Covington lawyers, could wind up as a witness at a hearing that [U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan] is considering holding on Flynn‘s request,” Josh Gerstein reporting for POLITICO.

A federal appeals court threw out a lawsuit by 215 Congressional Democrats accusing Trump of violating the Constitution by accepting profits from foreign governments’ spending at his luxury Washington hotel and other businesses, saying that individual lawmakers cannot sue the president on behalf of the entire Congress. Josh Gerstein reporting for POLITICO.

Libya’s warring parties will continue talks this month to try to achieve a lasting ceasefire in a war for control of the capital Tripoli, the United Nations said on Saturday, after a first round in Geneva last week ended with no breakthrough. The U.N. News Centre reporting.

A roundup of notable national security developments at the United Nations last week, including reactions to Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, is provided by Randi Michel at Just Security.

The Trump administration is weighing suspending much of its humanitarian assistance to Yemen “as part of an international response to new restrictions imposed by Iranian-linked Houthi rebels,” officials said. Missy Ryan and John Hudson reporting for the Washington Post.

The White House plans to unveil a $4.8 trillion budget proposal today that indicates the administration’s priorities in spending negotiations for the next fiscal year. The blueprint is expected to slash spending on foreign aid and social safety net programs while boosting funds for the military, Kate Davidson and Andrew Restuccia reporting for the Wall Street Journal. 

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).