Allegations that President Trump abused his power are growing. The U.S. president told his acting chief of staff to hold up $391 million in aid to Kyiv just days before Trump called Ukraine’s president and asked him to investigate Joe Biden’s son, the Washington Post reported on Monday in a story whose details were shortly afterward confirmed by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and AP.
The controversy, in short: “Congress had approved sending military aid to Ukraine to help the country defend against Russian aggression,” the Journal writes. Then the U.S. never sent the money, something U.S. lawmakers don’t appear to have confirmed until mid-August — after two notifications (Feb. 28 and May 23) it would be released came and went without the money being released. At which point, the Post reports, “Administration officials were instructed to tell lawmakers that the delays were part of an ‘interagency process’ but to give them no additional information — a pattern that continued for nearly two months, until the White House released the funds on the night of Sept. 11.”
Said Trump of the phone call allegations on Monday: “I didn’t put any pressure on [Ukraine] whatsoever.” But, he added, “I think it would probably, possibly have been OK if I did.”
What the money buys: A $250 million chunk provided through the Pentagon covers sniper rifles, counter-artillery radar systems, grenade launchers, and ammo. Another $141 million covers “maritime security, NATO interoperability and various initiatives to help Ukraine’s military fend off Russian aggression,” via the State Department, according to the Post.
Why these developments are a problem for POTUS45: The reports “fuel suspicions on Capitol Hill that Trump sought to leverage congressionally approved aid to damage a political rival,” the Post writes. The Times adds that, “Even before news of Mr. Trump’s involvement in freezing the aid, a flood of Democrats had said that the president’s actions could warrant impeachment.”
New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez said Tuesday morning that he supports a probe into the matter, writing in a letter to Mick Mulvaney, “we must immediately understand whether, and to what extent, the President and his team converted duly-appropriated United States foreign assistance funds for his personal and political benefit, and what role federal agencies may have played in it.”
“If these allegations are true, we believe these actions represent an impeachable offense,” seven first-term Democratic lawmakers wrote in a Washington Post op-ed Monday evening. The signatories include Reps. Gil Cisneros of Calif., Jason Crow of Colo., Chrissy Houlahan of Penn., Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria of Va., Mikie Sherrill of N.J, and Elissa Slotkin of Mich.
Their advice on what to do now: “We must preserve the checks and balances envisioned by the Founders and restore the trust of the American people in our government. And that is what we intend to do… we call on our colleagues in Congress to consider the use of all congressional authorities available to us, including the power of ‘inherent contempt’ and impeachment hearings, to address these new allegations, find the truth and protect our national security.”
Tweeted former NSC staffer, Loren DeJonge Schulman: “Their backgrounds do not make this remarkable. Their purple districts do. THAT is a signal to [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi, not years at the NSC or DOD.”
A note on timing: Mid-August — when lawmakers learned of the White House’s efforts to pause the money — is “also when a whistleblower from the intelligence community filed a complaint regarding Trump and Ukraine to Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson,” the Post reports. “Capitol Hill has not been briefed on the details of the whistleblower complaint, on orders of the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, who after consulting with the Justice Department and the White House declined to transmit the complaint to lawmakers.”
Next in that saga: Maguire goes before the House Intelligence Committee for an open hearing on Thursday; then he heads behind closed doors for classified testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
From Defense One
On Iran, Trump Needs UN Help. He May Even Have Realized It. // Jon B. Alterman, CSIS: Maximum pressure isn't working. Tehran isn't backing down. Can the president woo a body that laughed at him last year?
The Most Dangerous Moment of the Trump Presidency // Richard Fontaine, The Atlantic: The U.S. president has never clarified what he wants from Iran. Now all of his real options are bad.
A New Joystick For the Brain-Controlled Vehicles Of the Future // Patrick Tucker: An innovative sensor strip promises a far better way to connect human brains to machines.
For Saudi Arabia, What Now? // Bilal Y. Saab, Middle East Institute: Riyadh has military options for retaliating against Iran. The Trump administration needs to persuade Saudi leaders not to use them.
DHS Is Finally Going After White Supremacists. That Won't Be Simple. // Kathy Gilsinan, The Atlantic: A new strategy prioritizes domestic terrorism, especially of the extreme right. Now the agency has to actually tackle the problem.
Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not a D Brief subscriber, sign up here. On this day in 1789, the U.S. Supreme Court was established as the nation's highest tribunal.
President Trump is in New York today for his big speech at the UN General Assembly. There he will “try to square his ‘America First’ approach to foreign policy with his administration’s hope for a multinational response to Iran’s escalating aggression,” AP reports in a preview.
Trump’s counter-Iran push got some new momentum Monday with a joint statement from Britain, France and Germany insisting “there is no other plausible explanation” for the Sept. 14 Saudi oil refinery attack than that “Iran bears responsibility,” but that further investigation is still required,” AP reported separately on Monday. The three nations’ leaders also “reaffirm[ed] their support for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal” while also encouraging Tehran “to accept negotiation on a [new] long-term framework for its nuclear program as well as on issues related to regional security, including its missiles program and other means of delivery.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson backs a new deal (he called it a “Trump deal”) to replace the 2015 nuclear agreement the White House abandoned, The Guardian reports. But Johnson is facing his own heated opposition at home today since Britain’s Supreme Court just ruled Johnson’s plan “to shut down parliament in the run-up to Brexit was unlawful,” Reuters reports, calling it “a humiliating rebuke that thrusts Britain’s exit from the European Union into deeper turmoil.”
And Iran’s reax to all this? To launch what they call a “Hormuz Peace Initiative” through the UN. President Hassan Rouhani took to state TV to tell Iranians he's invited Persian Gulf nations to join this Iran-led coalition “to guarantee the region’s security.” Expect to hear a bit more on this since Rouhani takes the UNGA podium on Wednesday.
What to watch for in the next 48 hours: Whether or not Trump secures a meeting with Iran’s Rouhani or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, as the president has teased like a geopolitical boxing promoter in recent weeks. More from the UNGA via AP, here, or Reuters, here.
Hundreds of Afghans protested in Helmand province today, which is where “at least 40 wedding party guests who were caught in the crossfire of a clash between U.S.-backed government forces and Islamist militants” were killed late Sunday night, Reuters reports today from Helmand’s Lashkargah. “Though the protest was peaceful as it wound through the city’s main bazaar, anger was palpable as demonstrators chanted a call for death to the civilians’ killers.”
About the raid: Reuters writes that it’s still “not immediately clear who was responsible for each of the deaths.” Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, said Monday that Afghan forces “killed six al Qaeda and 17 Taliban members and arrested 14 others” in the Sunday evening assault, including "five Pakistanis and a Bangladeshi national."
Subtle reminder: Afghans go to the polls to elect their president on Saturday. The election has already been postponed twice (once in March, and again in July).
And ICYMI: The U.S. State Department last week took back “$100 million intended for an Afghan energy infrastructure project, citing unacceptably high levels of corruption in the Afghan government,” AP reported one week ago today. In addition, “Washington is withholding another $60 million in additional aid, saying [President Ashraf] Ghani’s government has been neither transparent nor accountable in its public spending.”
Said SecState Pompeo of the decision: “Afghan voters who risk their lives to participate in elections deserve to know the outcome accurately reflects the voters’ choice ... We hold all candidates accountable to the code of conduct they signed.”
U.S., Poland reveal destinations of additional troops. Trump and Polish President Andrzej Duda met on the UNGA sidelines Monday to sign a Joint Declaration on Advancing Defense Cooperation, expanding on the leaders’ July agreement to add about 1,000 U.S. troops to the 4,500 that now rotate through deployments to Poland.
Locations: Per the declaration, the main combat training area will be outside the northwestern town of Drawsko Pomorskie; the main debarkation point will be the southwest’s Wrocław Airport; etc.
Still TBD: the destination of an armored brigade combat team.
Why the extra troops — is it because of the Russian threat? a reporter asked the U.S. president Monday. “No, I don’t think so at all,” Trump responded. “I think it’s just because we have a President of Poland who I like, who I respect. And he asked whether or not we'd be willing to do that.”
The more you know: climate change and nuclear energy edition. Nuclear power “reactors are increasingly seen as less economical and slower to reverse carbon emissions,” Reuters writes today off an annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report. That assessment, in short: “It meets no technical or operational need that low-carbon competitors cannot meet better, cheaper and faster.”
Two big drawbacks: “The extra time that nuclear plants take to build,” and maintenance costs. In contrast, “The cost of generating solar power ranges from $36 to $44 per megawatt hour (MWh), the WNISR said, while onshore wind power comes in at $29–$56 per MWh. Nuclear energy costs between $112 and $189.”
Bigger picture: "Global nuclear operating capacity has increased 3.4% in the past year to 370 gigawatts, a new historic maximum, but with renewable capacity growing quickly, the share of nuclear in the world’s gross power generation has stayed at just over 10%. In the decade to 2030, 188 new reactors would have to be connected to the grid to maintain the status quo, which is more than three times the rate achieved over the past decade." More here. Or read the report for yourself, here.
And finally today: The FBI arrested an Army E-4 in Kansas on Monday “who allegedly discussed plans to bomb a major U.S. news network, discussed traveling to Ukraine to fight with violent far-right group, and allegedly distributed info online on how to build bombs,” ABC News’ Mike Levine reported after the Justice Department announced the arrest.
The soldier in question: Spc. Jarrett William Smith, age 24, and stationed at Fort Riley. He was arrested over the weekend with help from military law enforcement. “Court documents portray Smith as a young man who has been active in the far right for years, predating his joining the Army in 2017,” NPR reports.
Said an Army spox to NPR: "These allegations violate our Army values so we take them very seriously."
Wider consideration: “The case is the latest in a string of recent arrests and investigations related to attempted far-right extremist infiltration of the U.S. military, prompting calls for more thorough screenings of enlistees.” More here.