The Early Edition: February 20, 2020

Curated summary of up-to-the-minute national security developments at home and abroad.

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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 offered to pardon WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange if he said that Russia had nothing to do with the 2016 hack and leak of emails from the Democratic National Committee, one of Assange’s lawyers, Edward Fitzgerald, told a London court yesterday. Fitzgerald referred to a witness statement by Jennifer Robinson, a lawyer for WikiLeaks who says she was present when former Republican Representative Dan Rohrabacher made the offer on behalf of the president. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham denied the assertion. William Booth and Ellen Nakashima reporting for the Washington Post.

The Pentagon’s top policy official, John Rood, is leaving his post following pressure from the White House, the latest member of Trump’s national security team involved in the Ukraine matter to be pushed out of the government following Trump’s acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial. Rood played a role in initially certifying to Congress that Ukraine had made the necessary changes to justify sending the country aid, undermining a key argument — concerns about corruption in Kiev — made by Trump’s defense team during his impeachment battle. There is no evidence that Rood’s ouster is related to the Pentagon’s handling of Trump’s order to freeze $250 million in security assistance, and officials familiar with the situation believe numerous issues may have been involved, Jim Sciutto, Barbara Starr and Zachary Cohen reporting for CNN.

Senate Democrats are requesting that the Justice Department (D.O.J.)’s top watchdog extend its probe into Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to include interactions with Department officials. Ten Democrats sent a letter to Justice Department Inspector General (D.O.J. I.G.) Michael Horowitz asking that an ongoing investigation into Giuliani’s contacts with F.B.I. officials also examine whether he had “improper communications” with top D.O.J. officials that “may have unduly influenced or created conflicts of interests with regard to D.O.J. activities.” Jordain Carney reporting for the Hill.

Former national security adviser John Bolton said yesterday he was amazed that Senate Republicans turned down his offer to testify in President Trump’s impeachment trial, but added that even if he had testified, it would not have changed Trump’s acquittal in the Senate because of how House Democrats handled their investigation. “I think the House committed impeachment malpractice,” Bolton said at an event at Vanderbilt University with Susan Rice, who was national security adviser during the administration of former President Barack Obama, denouncing the proceedings against Trump as “grossly partisan.” Bolton also continued to stay quiet on the details of his forthcoming book, Carol E. Lee reporting for NBC News.

The JUSTICE DEPARTMENT

A group of federal judges yesterday postponed a widely-anticipated emergency meeting in which they were expected to discuss concerns over intervention by the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) in politically charged cases, including that of Roger Stone, a longtime ally of President Trump. The Federal Judges Association put off the meeting without elaborating on why and when it will be rescheduled. Ariane de Vogue reporting for CNN.

President Trump continued to ignore requests from Attorney General William Barr to stop posting on social media about the D.O.J. yesterday, taking to Twitter to amplify criticisms of the agency made by fellow conservatives. With a string of retweets, Trump appeared to back the suggestion that Barr “clean shop” at the department; the president also shared posts describing a “seditious conspiracy” against him and demanding he target those involved in the Russia probe that once threatened his presidency. John Wagner, Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett reporting for the Washington Post.

An explainer on the disagreement over Roger Stone’s sentence, ahead of his scheduled sentencing today for lying to Congress and obstruction, is provided by Aruna Viswanatha at the Wall Street Journal.

It was Barr’s duty to intervene in the sentencing recommendation for Stone, deputy attorney general and acting attorney general George J. Terwilliger III argues at the Washington Post, commenting, “imagine a government agency, or any organization, where there is no supervision of front-line personnel and no ultimate authority bearing responsibility for institutional decisions … that would be absurd anywhere … but that is especially true in the case of the Justice Department.”

TRUMP PARDONS

The White House is working to take more direct command over pardons and commutations, with President Trump seeking to restrict the role of the Justice Department in the clemency process as he considers a spate of additional pardon announcements, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Trump, who granted clemency Tuesday to a group of 11 people that included multiple political allies and supporters, has gathered a team of advisers to “recommend and vet” applicants for pardons, according to several people. The group, in essence an informal task force of at least a half-dozen presidential allies, has been convening since late last year to debate a revamped pardon system in the White House and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, is playing a leading part in the new clemency initiative. Toluse Olorunnipa, Josh Dawsey and Neena Satija reporting for the Washington Post.

“The clemency orders that the president issued [Tuesday] came about through a typically Trumpian process, an ad hoc scramble that bypassed the formal procedures used by past presidents and was driven instead by friendship, fame, personal empathy and a shared sense of persecution,” Peter Baker, J. David Goodman, Michael Rothfeld and Elizabeth Williamson report for the New York Times, writing, the timing “reinforced Trump’s antipathy toward the law enforcement establishment.”

TURKEY-SYRIA RELATIONS

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reported progress today in talks with Russia on reducing tensions in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, but added that discussions were not at a desired level yet. The remarks came a day after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan warned of an impending military assault to force the Syrian government forces to retreat. AP reporting. 

An analysis of the German government’s stance on various legal questions relating to the presence of Russian and U.S. troops on Syrian territory is written by Eliav Lieblich at Just Security.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

The Kremlin today accused the United States of causing difficulties for Russian diplomats by not issuing them visas in good time, something it alleged was “hindering” their work at the United Nations. Reuters reporting.

Putin will continue to attack U.S. presidential elections and the United States has not done anything to deter his meddling, Alex Finley, John Sipher and Asha Rangappa warn at Just Security, proposing how to neutralize the Russian threat.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS 

A U.S. judge in Arizona yesterday handed a legal victory to migrants who argued that U.S. Border Patrol facilities in the state hold detainees in cold, overcrowded, unsanitary, and inhumane conditions. U.S. District Court Judge David Bury ruled that the Customs and Border Protection (C.B.P.) holding cells, particularly those that make sleep impossible over several nights, violated the Constitution. His order makes permanent a 2016 preliminary injunction mandating the Tucson Sector to issue clean mats and thin blankets to migrants held for longer than 12 hours, and to allow them to clean themselves. AP reporting.

President Trump yesterday named Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, as acting director of national intelligence. Grenell, a staunch loyalist with little experience in intelligence, will replace the current acting director, Joseph Maguire, whose temporary term expires in March. Julian E. Barnes and Maggie Haberman reporting for the New York Times.

The U.N. called on Libya’s warring factions yesterday to return to the negotiating table, hours after the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (G.N.A.) withdrew from ceasefire talks after an attack on Tripoli’s port. Sudarsan Raghavan reporting for the Washington Post.

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad held talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani yesterday on a U.S.-Taliban deal on a seven-day reduction in violence, meeting the day after Ghani was re-elected following a contested presidential poll. Reuters reporting.

Iran has developed a new kind of antiaircraft missile and exported it to Houthi rebels in Yemen, Pentagon officials announced yesterday. The weapons were captured by U.S. Navy warships in two separate shipments in the Arabian Sea. John Ismay and Thomas Gibbons-Neff reporting for the New York Times.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman today to discuss regional security and human rights issues, the diplomat’s first trip to the kingdom since the U.S. killing of a top military commander of Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran. AP reporting. 

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).