The Early Edition: February 14, 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

“I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Attorney General William Barr said in an interview last night with ABC News about President Trump’s use of social media and attacks on the department. Barr’s comments were made in light of criticism of his handling of the sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone – Trump’s longtime adviser who was indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for lying to Congress and threatening a witness. Sadie Gurman and Aruna Viswanatha report at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump’s attacks on the Department of Justice make it “impossible for me to do my job,” Barr said in the interview, adding that he would not be “bullied or influenced by anybody.” In response to the attorney general’s rebuke, the White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said the president “wasn’t bothered by the comments at all, and he has the right, just like every American citizen, to publicly offer his opinions.” Katie Benner reporting at the New York Times.

Trump’s tweets about Roger Stone prompted Barr to speak out, according to sources close to the attorney general, stating that the president’s comments called into question the independence of the Department of Justice and required pushback. Barr also insisted in the interview that he had not discussed the Roger Stone case with the White House and Trump had not spoken to him about Stone’s sentencing recommendation. Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

“If the Attorney General says it is getting the way of him doing his job, maybe the president should listen to the Attorney General,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said yesterday about Barr’s comments on Trump’s tweeting. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

“This is an abuse of power – that the president is again trying to manipulate federal law enforcement to serve his political interest,” the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said yesterday of Trump’s comments in the past week about Roger Stone. Reuters reports.

The U.S. District Court judge targeted by President Trump for her handling of Stone’s case has hit back, saying in a public statement yesterday that sentencing decisions are based “on careful consideration of the actual record in the case before them… Public criticism or pressure is not a factor.” Reuters reports.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

President Trump openly admitted to sending his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine to gather information on his political rival Joe Biden, contradicting past denials – including during the impeachment inquiry – in a podcast interview released yesterday. Marshall Cohen reports at CNN.

Trump called on New York to drop “all of its unnecessary lawsuits & harassment” in a message on Twitter posted yesterday, appearing to link his administration’s policies toward New York to investigations by the State attorney general into his personal finances and the Trump Organization’s business practices. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

IRAN

The Republican-controlled Senate voted 55-45 in favor of a resolution curbing President Trump’s ability to use military force against Iran, passing the resolution in spite of opposition from Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Andrew Duehren reports at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump is likely to veto the bill which requires congressional approval before carrying out military operations against Iran. The BBC reports.

An overview of the eight Republican Senators who voted in favor of the resolution is provided by Jordain Carney at the Hill.

The U.S. Navy seized illegal weapons in the Arabian Sea designed and manufactured by Iran on Sunday, saying in a statement that the weapons were “identical” to those seized by the U.S. military in November. Al Jazeera reports.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the end of the month on U.S. policy in Iran, chairman Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) has said, adding that “we’re working out the details.” Laura Kelly reports at the Hill.

An analysis of the rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran over recent months is provided by Mark Mazzetti, Ronen Bergman and Farnaz Fassihi at the New York Times.

AFGHANISTAN

“I think there’s a good chance that we’ll have a deal, and we’ll see. We’re going to know over the next two weeks,” President Trump said in a podcast interview yesterday about the possibility of an agreement with the Taliban and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Jessica Donati and Catherine Lucey report at the Wall Street Journal.

Violent clashes between Afghan government forces and the Taliban have broken out over the past 24 hours in spite of U.S. claims of a breakthrough in peace talks. Reuters reports.

SYRIA

Suspected Israeli airstrikes targeted Iranian-backed militias last night near the Syrian capital of Damascus, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights; with the Al-Hadath news channel reporting that seven militants were killed. Haaretz, Jack Khoury and Reuters report.

An analysis of the strategic importance of the battle for the northwestern Syrian region of Idlib is provided by Robyn Dizon, Liz Sly and Kareem Fahim at the Washington Post, highlighting the conflicting interests of Russia, Syria, Turkey and NATO.

The Damascus-Aleppo M5 highway was retaken by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad this week, marking a major victory for government forces. Zeina Karam explains at the AP.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The publication of a U.N. database providing information on companies operating in Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories “only confirms the unrelenting anti-Israel bias so prevalent at the United Nations,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday. Lisa Lambert reports at Reuters.

Germany today joined the Czech Republic in submitting a request to become an amicus curiae and speak in favor of Israel at the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) by offering a legal opinion that the court does not have jurisdiction to investigate possible war crimes committed in the occupied Palestinian territories. Raphael Ahren reports at The Times of Israel.

SAUDI ARABIA

“There is no meeting planned between Saudi Arabia and Israel,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan has said in response to media speculation about normalization of relations between the two countries, adding that “there are no relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, the Kingdom stands firmly behind Palestine.” Al Jazeera reports.

Judicial proceedings have begun against military personnel fighting for the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, the coalition spokesperson Col. Turki al-Maliki has announced. The BBC reports.

“Powerful segments have decided to betray human rights for political convenience and greed,” Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi – who was killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul – writes at the Washington Post.

IMMIGRATION AND BORDER SECURITY

The Trump administration plans to repurpose $3.8bn from Pentagon funds to build the Mexico-U.S. border wall, Lara Seligman reports at Foreign Policy.

“The re-programming announced is contrary to Congress’s constitutional authority, and I believe that it requires Congress to take action,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said in response to the proposed $3.8bn transfer. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Charges of racketeering conspiracy and conspiracy to steal trade secrets were filed against Huawei yesterday in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., marking the latest Trump administration battle against the Chinese telecommunications firm which the U.S. claims is vulnerable to pressure from Beijing to spy on, or disrupt, foreign networks. Corinne Ramey and Kate O’Keeffe report at the Wall Street Journal.

A number of personnel changes has brought in more loyalists to President Trump, with former adviser Hope Hicks returning to the White House. Meridith McGraw, Nancy Cook and Daniel Lippman report at POLITICO.

The Sudanese transitional government yesterday reached a settlement with the families of the victims of the U.S.S. Cole attack in Yemen, paving the way for Sudan to be removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Noha Elhennawy reports at the Washington Post.

President Trump yesterday suggested he may end the practice of allowing other administration officials to listen in on presidential calls with foreign leaders, Deb Riechmann reports at the AP.

A rocket hit an Iraqi base where U.S. troops are stationed last night, according to sources, with the Iraqi military stating that neither Iraqi federal police nor U.S. troops sustained casualties. The AFP reports. 

About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK