The Early Edition: February 19, 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 PARDONS

President Trump yesterday commuted the 14-year sentence of Rod Blagojevich, a former Illinois governor accused of attempting to sell a U.S. senate seat, and pardoned several convicted white-collar criminals — including financier Michael Milken and former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik — in a sweeping display of executive clemency affecting nearly a dozen cases. The wave of pardons and commutations came as Trump has been flexing his presidential power in recent days after being acquitted by the Senate on two impeachment charges. Kevin Liptak and Kaitlan Collins reporting for CNN.

Trump bypassed the Justice Department (D.O.J.)’s established pardon process to grant clemency to celebrity convicts recommended by his friends, allies and political donors, risking further politicization of the law enforcement system, Peter Baker, Katie Benner and Sharon LaFraniere report at the New York Times.

“The White House says all 11 actions help people who were treated unfairly or had repaid society through good works … most are white men with connections to power and, in some cases, to Trump himself,” Anne Gearan, Josh Dawsey, Beth Reinhard and Colby Itkowitz report at the Washington Post.

A rundown of the 11 people who benefited from the executive grants of clemency that Trump signed yesterday is provided by Derrick Bryson Taylor, Heather Murphy and Mariel Padilla at the New York Times.

“The President’s relish in unveiling a new set of clemency decisions in highly sensitive political cases — days after his meddling in the Roger Stone sentencing recommendations — is only exacerbating a Justice Department credibility crisis,” CNN’s Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis.

JUSTICE DEPARTMENT

Attorney General William Barr has told confidants he considered resigning over Trump’s interference with Justice Department (D.O.J.) matters, including the president’s tweets about pending criminal investigations that he said last week made it “impossible” for him to do his job, according to three administration officials. So far, Trump has ignored Barr’s warning about posting on social media about D.O.J. activities, though some inside the administration have raised questions about whether the attorney general is seriously contemplating quitting or whether he was instead trying to pressure Trump to not post provocative tweets about the Department. A D.O.J. spokesperson said late yesterday that the attorney general had no plans to resign. Matt Zapotosky, Josh Dawsey, John Wagner and Rachel Weiner reporting for the Washington Post.

Trump said yesterday that he was considering suing those involved in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and demanded a new trial for his longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone who was convicted of witness tampering and obstruction. “Everything having to do with this fraudulent [Mueller] investigation is badly tainted and, in my opinion, should be thrown out … if I wasn’t President, I’d be suing everyone all over the place … BUT MAYBE I STILL WILL,” Trump wrote in a series of Twitter posts, criticizing the prosecutors, judge and jury foreperson in the case against Stone. Miranda Bryant and Joan E. Greve reporting for The Guardian.

The president also claimed, falsely, that he was “the chief law enforcement officer” of the U.S.. Toluse Olorunnipa and Beth Reinhard reporting for the Washington Post.

Stone’s sentencing will go ahead as planned tomorrow, notwithstanding the Trump associate’s last-minute request for a new trial and ongoing presidential ranting about a miscarriage of justice. Darren Samuelsohn and Josh Gerstein reporting for POLITICO

The leaders of a group of federal judges will convene an emergency session today over rising concerns about the recent intervention of Trump and the D.O.J. in politically sensitive cases, the executive director of the group, Megan Cruz, said. Trump and Barr sparked fresh concerns about the objectivity of the Department last week when Barr pulled back a recommended sentence for Stone after the President slammed it on Twitter. Devan Cole and Ariane de Vogue reporting for CNN.

A roundup of over three dozen questions that Barr must be asked by Congress and the news media about the treatment he gave to Stone, his handling of the Ukraine whistleblower complaint and other Justice Department investigations is provided by Joshua Geltzer, Ryan Goodman and Asha Rangappa at Just Security.

IRAN

A small instrument inside the drones that hit Saudi oil facilities last year and those in the weaponry of Yemen’s Houthi rebels match up with components recovered in downed Iranian drones in Afghanistan and Iraq, two reports say, further linking Iran to the Saudi attack and also connecting Iran to the arming of the rebel Houthis in Yemen’s civil war. AP reporting.

Iran’s foreign policy does not always fit squarely into contemporary left- or right-wing narratives — particularly when it comes to Afghanistan, however Tehran’s goals may align with Washington’s,Mohammed Harun Arsalai and Will Patrick argue at Foreign Policy.

AFGHANISTAN

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani won a second term leading the country, an independent election commission announced yesterday after five months of delayed results and bitter debate. However, Ghani’s opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, also claimed victory and pledged to form his own parallel government, which could threaten the country’s stability and U.S. efforts to reach a peace deal with the Taliban. Mujib Mashal, Najim Rahim and Fatima Faizi reporting for the New York Times.

“The agreement [between the U.S. and Taliban] will break the logjam of the Taliban’s longstanding unwillingness to sit in talks with the Afghan government and other Afghan power brokers without first achieving an American commitment to withdraw forces,” Laura Miller comments at the New York Times, writing, “the most important task now is to start and generate traction in intra-Afghan negotiations.”

TURKEY and SYRIA

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned today that the military would launch an operation against Syrian government forces in the Idlib region by the end of the month if Damascus neglects to withdraw behind Turkish military posts. Al Jazeera reporting.

Erdogan condemned the European Union (E.U.)’s move to launch a new maritime mission focused on enforcing the U.N. arms embargo around Libya, accusing European countries that agreed to begin the operation of “interfering in the region.” The Turkish president also praised a decision by Libya’s U.N.-supported government to pull out of talks with rivals after an attack yesterday on the sea port of the Libyan capital, Tripoli. AP reporting.

“[As] is ever the case in the Syrian war, the world is largely looking away … the Trump administration is laser-focused on disengaging from the conflict … N.A.T.O. officials have reiterated that the alliance won’t back Turkey should it embark on another foray into Syria,” Ishaan Tharoor writes in an analysis of the clashes between Turkey and regime forces at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS 

Israel’s Judiciary Ministry announced yesterday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s court case will begin March 17. Netanyahu, the first sitting Israeli prime minister to be charged with a crime, has rebuffed allegations of wrongdoing in the three corruption cases against him. Reuters reporting.

As the United States retreats from the Middle East, it appears to be deploying a significant number of troops in Europe, Al Jazeera reports.

A federal judge yesterday dismissed a lawsuit filed by Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei challenging a U.S. law that limited its ability to do business with federal agencies, ruling that the company did not have any legal ground to sue the American government. In a 57-page decision, District Judge Amos Mazzant ruled in favor of the United States, concluding that Congress acted within its powers by including the restriction in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. Steven Overly reporting for POLITICO.

The top intelligence community lawyer, whose initial decision to block the Ukraine whistleblower complaint from reaching Congress helped trigger the House impeachment inquiry into Trump, will resign from his post, officials said. Jason Klitenic will step down as General Counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence early next month, an agency spokesperson confirmed. Kyle Cheney reporting for POLITICO.

A look at how dissent by a senior U.S. official contributed to U.S. landmine policy in the past, is fielded by the author of that dissent cable, Ambassador Donald Steinberg, at Just Security, after the Trump administration announced earlier this month plans to scrap longstanding policy that has severely restricted the use of landmines. 

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).