The Early Edition: February 25, 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.  

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other senior Senate Democrats yesterday urged the Treasury and State departments to impose sanctions on Russian actors found to be meddling in U.S. elections following reports of new interference efforts. In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the Senate Democrats cited concerns about reports last week that Russian individuals are already interfering in the run-up to the 2020 U.S. elections in order to improve the campaigns of President Trump and Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “In light of this information, we urge you to immediately and forcefully impose sanctions on the government of the Russian Federation, any Russian actors determined to be responsible for such interference, and those acting on their behalf or providing material or financial support for these election interference efforts,” Schumer and Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) wrote. Maggie Miller reporting for the Hill.

A senior F.B.I. official has warned that Russia’s influence campaign is motivated by a desire to watch Americans “tear ourselves apart” as the U.S. heads toward elections. Speaking at a conference on election security in Washington, David Porter, the assistant section chief of the F.B.I.’s Foreign Influence Task Force, accused Russia of conducting “brazen and disruptive” operations aimed at spreading disinformation, dividing the population and sowing uncertainty about the integrity of U.S. elections. Zachary Cohen, Phil Mattingly, Alex Marquardt and David Shortell reporting for CNN.

Social media giant Facebook recently looked into suspicious content on its platform intended to support the campaign of Bernie Sanders, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Senior officials at Facebook were notified of the probe, which was sparked by two independent outside researchers who told Facebook they found evidence that pro-Sanders content was being circulated by Russian agents and Trump supporters. The company was unable to substantiate the activity it reviewed. Emily Glazer and Dustin Volz reporting for the Wall Street Journal.

The Pentagon is trying to modernize and strengthen America’s nuclear arsenal efforts which have included the introduction of a new nuclear weapon for the first time in decades, moves that some observers and Democratic lawmakers have denounced as contributing to a new nuclear arms race similar to those that characterized the height of the Cold War. However the Defense Department has snubbed the suggestion that the U.S. is engaging in an arms race or expanding its nuclear arsenal, saying its latest moves are merely a response to Russian efforts. Ryan Browne reporting for CNN.

The West is obsessively fixated on “foreign interference” in Western democracies and the use of digital tools by authoritarian states such as China and Russia. However, this focus “tends to externalize an internal problem and has produced a flawed and frustrating debate among foreign-policy think tanks about the [current crisis of liberal democracy in the West], which suggests that our democracies were in great shape before the Chinese and Russians and social media ruined everything,” Hans Kundnani argues at Foreign Policy, trying to connect the dots between the external and internal aspects of the crisis and specifically, the way in which the policies that Europe and the United States have pursued in the past few decades have made their societies “so vulnerable.”

ROGER STONE CASE

The federal judge who oversaw longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone’s trial has scheduled a pair of hearings for today regarding his defense request for a new trial based on allegations of juror misconduct and motion to make the matter public. The order came a week after U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentenced Stone to more than three years in prison and one day after Jackson dismissed his demand that she be taken off the case as a baseless charge. Josh Gerstein reporting for POLITICO.

“Attorney General Barr has fed President Trump’s most outrageous visions of executive power … [and now he has] cast aside the independence of the Justice Department,” Neil Kinkopf, who previously served in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and testified at Barr’s Senate confirmation hearing, writes in a piece for Just Security, commenting, “Barr’s tenure has been … far worse than I predicted,” and calling on the attorney general to resign in protest. 

TURKEY-SYRIA

Syrian rebels supported by the Turkish military have captured the town of Nairab in northwest Syria’s Idlib, Turkish and rebel officials said today, the first area to be seized back from Syrian government forces advancing in the province. Reuters reporting.

The Kremlin said today it was working to hold a summit with Turkey and Iran to discuss the situation in northwest Syria, but was not arranging a separate mooted four-way summit that would gather France, Germany, Turkey and Russia. The comments, made by Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, came after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said earlier yesterday that that he would meet with the leaders of Russia, Germany and France on March 5 to discuss the conflict in Idlib region. Reuters reporting.

IRAN

To preserve Shi’ite power in Iraq after the U.S. killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, Iran-aligned Shi’ite Muslim parties and militias turned to populist Shi’ite cleric Sayyed Moqtada al-Sadr, who commands a following of millions of Iraqis. According to senior Iraqi officials and militia insiders, the Tehran-backed groups promised Sadr greater involvement in establishing a new Iraqi government and an augmented spiritual leadership role among Shi’ite paramilitary groups. In exchange, he would draw on his mass following to minimize the anti-government and anti-Iran dissent that has broken out on Iraqi streets, and redirect the unrest toward demands for the ouster of U.S. forces from Iraq, the sources said. Reuters reporting.

“Iran’s constitutional design places the Islamic Republic in a win-win position … high voter participation helps legitimize the regime and a boycott invariably leads to a conservative victory,” Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar argues at the New York Times, commenting on the recent parliamentary elections in Iran which set the stage for the ascendance of a hard-liner as president.

IMMIGRATION

New federal rules that deny legal residency to migrants who have received public assistance took effect yesterday. The policy, known as the “public charge rule” and dubbed a “wealth test” by critics, was cleared by the Supreme Court last month. Under the new regulations, some recipients of “non-cash” benefits like Medicaid, food stamps and housing vouchers can be turned down for green cards — on the basis that they are “a public charge.” The BBC reporting.

Legal immigration in the U.S. has fallen more than 11 percent and the Trump administration’s new policies will accelerate the trend. The New York Times’ Zolan Kanno-Youngs takes a look at President Trump’s tough policies — ranging from travel bans and visa restrictions to refugee caps and asylum changes — and how they will reshape immigration in the years to come.

CORONAVIRUS

The U.S. and South Korea have said they may cut back joint military exercises on the Korean peninsula due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus illness known as COVID-19 that has killed more than 2,600 people in mainland China, officials said yesterday, in one of the first signals of the epidemic’s fallout on global U.S. military activities. The disclosure came after a meeting at the Pentagon between South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Jeong described the epidemic as “quite serious” in South Korea and said there have been 13 confirmed coronavirus cases in his country’s military. Reuters reporting.

The White House has asked Congress for $2.5 billion in funding to respond to coronavirus, with more than $1 billion going toward developing a vaccine, with other funds earmarked for therapeutics and the stockpiling of personal protective equipment such as masks. House Democrats immediately called the request inadequate, indicating a clash in Congress over the emergency aid. Nancy Cook and Caitlin Emma reporting for POLITICO.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS 

A House committee probing potential surveillance of former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch is struggling to obtain records and text messages from Robert Hyde, the G.O.P. congressional candidate who alleged to have her under surveillance, according to emails obtained by NBC News. Hyde, in response, is blaming the House Foreign Affairs Committee for “trying to set me up.” Josh Lederman and Anna Schecter reporting for NBC News.

President Trump criticized Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a pair of messages sent on Twitter late yesterday, days after Sotomayor delivered a dissent critical of both the Trump administration’s legal strategy and the court’s majority for allowing it. The president also urged the two judges to recuse themselves in “all Trump, or Trump related, matters!” Meagan Flynn reporting for the Washington Post.

A publicly accessible, searchable database of the reporting practices of every president since the War Powers Resolution was enacted 45 years ago, enabling assessment of key questions about presidential exercise of war powers, was unveiled yesterday at Just Security by Tess Bridgeman, the project’s lead author and researcher, and Rachel Goldbrenner, the executive director of the Reiss Center on Law and Security at N.Y.U. School of Law. The new online resource, designed for policymakers, legislators, scholars, journalists and the general public, features interactive graphics, methodology and analysis and can be explored at The War Powers Resolution Reporting Project website.

The United States would like Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to postpone his second-term inauguration over concerns it could ignite an election feud with his political opponent and jeopardize U.S.-led peacemaking efforts, two sources familiar with the matter said. Ghani claimed victory last week in a contested Sept. 28 election and plans to take the oath of office on Thursday, an Afghan official said; his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s former deputy, also declared himself the winner and is planning a parallel inauguration, according to Afghan media reports. Reuters reporting.

The U.N. Security Council yesterday repeated its support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in its first statement following the release of the Trump administration’s plan for resolving the decades-old struggle three weeks ago. AP reporting.

The United States Agency for International Development (U.S.A.I.D.) said late yesterday that it will stop sending aid to Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen, where most of the country’s people live, if the rebels do not lift barriers obstructing aid operations. In a statement, the agency said the suspension will start in late March if Houthis take no action. AP reporting.

India will purchase defense equipment worth more than $3 billion from the United States, Trump announced yesterday during his two-day visit to the South Asian nation. Morgan Chalfant reporting for the Hill. 

About the Author(s)

Nat O'Connell

Associate 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).