The Early Edition: February 12, 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.  

ROGER STONE CASE

Four federal prosecutors withdrew from the case against Roger Stone yesterday, with one resigning as an assistant U.S. attorney, after the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) overruled their sentencing recommendation and pushed for more lenient treatment of the longtime ally of President Trump. The Stone case was one of the most high-profile criminal prosecutions stemming from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s nearly two-year investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and the move raises new questions about potential White House interference at the agency, which is meant to operate independently of the White House in criminal probes and prosecutions. Katie Benner, Sharon LaFraniere and Adam Goldman reporting for the New York Times.

In a new court filing, the Department backed off a previous recommendation for a seven-to-nine-year sentence for Stone for impeding federal investigations into ties between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia. The revised recommendation does not ask the court for a particular prison sentence but argues the one that the lawyers had initially recommended “does not accurately reflect the Department of Justice’s position on what would be a reasonable sentence in this matter” and that the actual sentence should be “far less.” The filing was not signed by any of the prosecutors who worked the case, Dartunorro Clark, Michael Kosnar, Dareh Gregorian and Tom Winter reporting for NBC News.

The surprising reversal came just hours after Trump publicly criticized the sentencing recommendation as “horrible and very unfair” in a message sent on Twitter. A senior Justice Department official called the timing of Trump’s tweet an “inconvenient coincidence,” explaining that the decision to challenge the initial sentencing memo was made Monday night, before Trump’s tweet. BBC reporting.

Speaking in the Oval Office yesterday afternoon, Trump denied any involvement in the case but claimed he had the “absolute right to” ask for a sentencing revision if he wanted, a break from long-standing efforts to protect prosecutions from political influence. The president did not say whether he was weighing a pardon or commutation for Stone, but people with knowledge of the matter have said the President has considered such a step. Kevin Liptak reporting for CNN.

Democrats railed against the decision and called for the Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz to investigate what they described as a “dangerously politicized and corrupt” justice department. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to Horowitz yesterday saying the D.O.J. decision has “all the indicia of improper political interference in a criminal prosecution.” The Democrat asked the inspector general to determine “how and why the Stone sentencing recommendations were countermanded, which Justice Department officials made this decision, and which White House officials were involved.” David Smith. And Martin Pengelly reporting for the Guardian.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) yesterday urged Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to call Attorney General William Barr to testify before the panel over the Justice Department’s handling of the sentencing of Stone. In a letter to Graham, Harris argued the hearing was necessary “so that the committee and the American people can understand the Justice Department’s decision to overrule its career prosecutors in this case.” Jordain Carney reporting for the Hill.

Trump yesterday decided to revoke the nomination of Jessie Liu, the former U.S. attorney who headed the office that oversaw Stone’s prosecution, to serve in a top Treasury Department position. In the job, Liu also oversaw the prosecutions of Trump allies like Rick Gates and former national security adviser Michael Flynn arising from Mueller’s special counsel investigation. Spencer S. Hsu, Josh Dawsey and Devlin Barrett reporting for the Washington Post.

Senior officials also stepped in last month to adjust Flynn’s sentencing recommendation. Top officials at the D.O.J. apparently pressured prosecutors to advise the court probation was a “reasonable” punishment for Flynn after he withdrew his guilty plea for lying to the F.B.I. on Jan. 7. Prosecutors initially recommended no jail time for Flynn because he was cooperating in Mueller’s probe, but then suggested a sentence with possible prison time when Flynn changed his plea. Carol E. Lee, Ken Dilanian and Peter Alexander reporting for NBC News.

“The Justice Department’s decision to water down a recommendation by its own prosecutors … that outraged the President … appears to reflect Trump’s redoubled determination to escalate pressure on core institutions of the U.S. government to pursue his personal and political priorities,” CNN’s Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis. 

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

A review of unredacted Ukraine-related emails showing top officials in the White House Office of Management and Budget (O.M.B.) communicating about the hold on military assistance for Ukraine confirms that the O.M.B. misled congressional investigators, Kate Brannen reports in an exclusive at Just Security.

President Trump suggested yesterday that the Pentagon should review the conduct of Lt. Col. Alex Vindman, a former White House National Security Council (N.S.C.) aide who played a key role in the Democrats’ impeachment case, and potentially consider additional disciplinary action against him. “The military can handle him any way they want,” Trump said of Vindman, who was ousted from his job on the N.S.C. last Friday and reassigned to the Pentagon, just two days after the Senate acquitted Trump on abuse of power and obstruction of justice charges. Asked whether he was recommending the military take further action against Vindman for his House testimony that led to the. president’s impeachment, Trump replied, “they’re going to certainly, I would imagine, take a look at that.” Myah Ward reporting for POLITICO.

National security adviser Robert O’Brien rejected claims that the removal of Vindman from the N.S.C. marked retaliation for his testimony during the House impeachment investigation. O’Brien noted that Vindman and his twin brother, Yevgeny, were not fired and have returned to the Army. “The President is entitled to a staff that he has confidence in,” the adviser added. Nikki Carvajal and Paul LeBlanc reporting for CNN.

“The suggestion that Vindman should now face punishment by the Pentagon was one sign of how determined the [“aggrieved and unbound”] president is to even the scales after his impeachment,” Peter Baker writes at the New York Times.

AFGHANISTAN

The U.S. is close to finalizing a peace deal with the Taliban that would withdraw the last American troops from the country, with hopes of  finding a resolution to Afghanistan’s 18-year war, America’s longest conflict — but the agreement will be signed only if the Taliban abide by its offer of a seven-day reduction of violence, according to Afghan and American officials briefed on the talks. The two sides have recovered the same draft accord that came close to being signed in September, which calls for a timetable for a U.S. troop pullout in return for the Taliban agreeing to cut ties with terrorist groups and entering into peace talks with their foes in the Afghan government. Dan De Luce and Abigail Williams reporting for NBC News.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo informed Afghanistan’s top leaders, President Ashraf Ghani and Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, in separate phone calls yesterday that Trump gave preliminary approval to sign a peace deal with the Taliban if the militants can demonstrate their commitment to reducing violence in Afghanistan, according to a U.S. official briefed on the calls. American and Taliban negotiators are gathering in Doha today following the conditional decision from Trump, according to officials. Karen DeYoung and Susannah George reporting for the Washington Post.

TURKEY-SYRIA RELATIONS

Turkey-backed Syrian rebels shot down a regime helicopter yesterday, killing its crew members, in an escalation of violence in Idlib province that threatens to incite full-blown war between Turkey and President Bashar al-Assad. Al Jazeera reporting.

“A humanitarian crisis with potentially far greater consequences [than the spiraling escalation of U.S.-Iran tensions] is rapidly unfolding in Idlib province in northwestern Syria.” In a piece for Just Security, Sana Sekkarie reflects on how “indecision and inconsistent policymaking” contributed to the current situation and proposes steps Washington could take to prevent further catastrophe for the Syrian people.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formally denounced the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan in a speech at the U.N. yesterday, but failed to get enough backing for a vote on a Security Council resolution that would have implicitly criticized the White House effort, in a symbolic victory for the Trump administration. Waving a proposed map, Abbas warned the proposal would weaken peace in the region and said it would make “Swiss cheese” of land Palestinians claim for a state. Abbas Felicia Schwartz reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

An account of White House efforts to head off a vote on the polarizing resolution and behind-the-scenes diplomatic bickering at the U.N. and in Washington that draws on interviews from a dozen diplomats and other officials familiar with the matter is provided by Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer at Foreign Policy.

“The Trump peace plan … bears striking resemblance to another plan published more than 40 years ago,” Yehuda Shaul comments at Foreign Policy, citing a proposal unveiled by the World Zionist Organization in 1979, titled “Master Plan for the Development of Settlements in Judea and Samaria, 1979–1983.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit against President Trump over not maintaining legally required records of his meetings with foreign leaders. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, an Obama appointee, ruled in a 22-page decision that past legal precedents do not allow her to police the White House’s enforcement of laws on how executive branch records are kept. Justine Coleman reporting for the Hill.

A deep dive of how the C.I.A. was able to read the encrypted messages of allies and adversaries for decades is provided by Greg Miller at the Washington Post, who explores the agency’s highly classified partnership with West German intelligence.

Chinese telecommunication giant Huawei has the ability to secretly access mobile-phone networks around the world through “back doors” intended for use by law enforcement and has had this capability for over a decade, U.S. officials said. Huawei rejected the claims. Bojan Pancevski reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

A scrutiny of the use of international law to counter Iran and other states’ malicious cyber activities, following Chatham House’s recent report on the international law rule of non-intervention and the principle of sovereignty, is provided in an article at Just Security by Colonel (Retired) Gary Corn.  

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).