The Early Edition: May 1, 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.  

CORONAVIRUS

More than a million people have now recovered from coronavirus infection, with the total currently at 1,014,524, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Worldwide, confirmed coronavirus infections have topped 3.26 million — with 1.07 million in the U. S. — and the death toll has risen to more than 233,000. As of today, confirmed U.S. fatalities surpassed 63,000. The Guardian reporting.

President Trump said yesterday that he had seen evidence that gave him a “high degree of confidence” the new coronavirus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China, supporting conspiracy theories floated by his White House team. Pressed to explain what evidence he had seen that the virus began in a Chinese lab, Trump responded, “I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that.” Reuters reporting.

Trump’s assertion contradicted a public statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (O.D.N.I.) just hours earlier that stated no such assessment has been made and it continues to “rigorously examine” whether the outbreak “began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.” The O.D.N.I. said yesterday that it sees the coronavirus as a natural phenomenon. “The Intelligence Community … concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified,” it said in a statement. Zachary Cohen, Alex Marquardt, Kylie Atwood and Jim Acosta report for CNN.

The Trump administration is exploring retaliatory actions against China over the country’s handling of the coronavirus. Senior officials across several agencies, including the intelligence community, were expected to meet yesterday to discuss possible steps such as demanding financial compensation or having the United States cancel part of its debt obligations to China, two people with knowledge of the meeting said. Trump yesterday threatened the country with fresh tariffs as he stepped up his attacks on Beijing over the origins of the contagion. Jeff Stein, Carol D. Leonnig, Josh Dawsey and Gerry Shih report for the Washington Post.

The president yesterday announced the creation of an independent commission to review the response of nursing homes to the coronavirus pandemic and recommend improvements. The move comes after nursing home operators have been shouting out for more supplies and testing. In remarks at a White House event, Trump acknowledged that nursing homes were “a spot that we have to take care of … I guess you could call it a little bit of a weak spot, because things are happening at the nursing homes that we’re not happy about.” The panel will be known formally as the Coronavirus Commission for Safety and Quality in Nursing Homes. Ina Jaffe reports for NPR.

As the White House’s social distancing guidelines expired yesterday, and states were left mostly in charge of deciding how to advance, Dr Anthony Fauci cautioned local leaders to avoid “leapfrogging” critical milestones in an effort to restart their economies amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. “Obviously you could get away with that, but you’re making a really significant risk,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said last night. Fauci, who has repeatedly warned against prematurely relaxing restrictions, said he already noticed that some states and cities are not following the steps laid out in the White House’s recently issued guidance on reopening — a plan that administration officials say will now replace the expired federal social distancing measures. Allyson Chiu reports for the Washington Post.

There is mounting anticipation over the content of an upcoming whistleblower complaint by Dr Rick Bright, who last week was suddenly removed as the head of the federal government office working on a vaccine for Covid-19. It is understood that Bright is still finalizing the details of the complaint before filing it with the Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general. “I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science – not politics or cronyism – has to lead the way,” Bright said in a statement, adding he was worried about “efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections.” Oliver Milman reports for The Guardian.

Federal prosecutors are scrutinizing the communications of a Long Island family doctor who appears frequently on Fox News and has been in contact with the White House to promote an anti-malarial as a treatment for the novel coronavirus, according to people approached as part of the inquiry. Rosalind S. Helderman and Matt Zapotosky report for the Washington Post.

Hundreds of demonstrators, some carrying firearms, gathered outside Michigan’s State Capitol building in Lansing yesterday to protest against Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s request to extend the state of emergency to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. The protests came a day after a Michigan court ruled that stay-at-home directives issued by Whitmer on March 24 do not infringe on residents’ constitutional rights. The governor last night extended the state’s coronavirus emergency declaration by executive order after state legislators refused her request and voted to authorize a lawsuit challenging her authority and actions to combat the pandemic. Dartunorro Clark reports for NBC News.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, making him the first high-ranking Russian official with a confirmed infection, as the nation’s number of confirmed cases climbed past 100,000 after its largest daily increase. Mishustin publicly announced the news in a video conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin. AFP reporting.

The United Nations (U.N.) chief said he hopes other countries across the globe will follow the “remarkable example” of South Korea, which he said has been “extremely successful” in confronting the coronavirus pandemic. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pointed to yesterday’s declaration “that there was no new case in the Republic of Korea,” the country’s official name. AP reporting.

Britain’s official death count from the novel coronavirus is quickly rising toward that of Italy, Europe’s worst-hit country so far, increasing the scrutiny of the government’s efforts to combat the disease. Critics have connected the high death toll to government decisions to delay imposition of a lockdown until March 23, after many other nations took action. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, appearing yesterday at his first press conference in weeks after being absent for much of April with a severe case of Covid-19, said that Britain is “past the peak” and that his government would present a road map to loosen restrictions next week. Max Colchester and Jason Douglas report for the Wall Street Journal.

CORONAVIRUS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A fact check on the “tale” that the new coronavirus was accidentally released from a lab in Wuhan is provided by Meg Kelly and Sarah Cahlan for the Washington Post. 

Vietnam’s control of the pandemic “offers tough lessons for U.S.,” Adam Taylor writes in an analysis for the Washington Post.  

What U.S. states can learn from Georgia’s relaxing of social distancing measure, which “it screwed up,” is explained by Keren Landman for the New York Times. 

China has resorted to bullying other states in order to circumvent accountability, the Washington Post editorial board argues, and “it may be working on Europe.” 

A map and analysis of all confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. is available at the New York Times.

U.S. and worldwide maps tracking the spread of the pandemic are available at the Washington Post.

Latest updates on the pandemic at The Guardian and NBC News.

MICHAEL FLYNN

President Trump yesterday raged about the F.B.I.’s “unfair” treatment of Michael Flynn following the release of government documents and recent media reports relating to the bureau’s 2017 investigation into his former national security adviser and Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. “Look at what they did to the guy,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “What they did to this man, they tormented him.” Trump later said he would “certainly consider” bringing Flynn back into his administration. Quint Forgey reports for POLITICO.

Despite claims by Flynn’s supporters that the new material exonerates him, legal experts appeared doubtful that the documents might convince a judge that agents coerced the former national security adviser into pleading guilty as part of the F.B.I. probe. Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky report for the Washington Post.

AFGHANISTAN

Attacks on Afghan forces by the Taliban have been “above seasonal norms” after the group signed a peace deal with the U.S. on Feb. 29, the American watchdog Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (S.I.G.A.R.) confirmed in a quarterly report released yesterday. The country’s national security council has said there have been, on average, 55 attacks since March 1: “The numbers show Taliban doing nothing for peace and everything to continue their campaign of terror against Afghans,” a spokesperson from the council said; the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin Miller, urged the group to stop attacks: “If the Taliban continue to attack, then what they should expect is a response.” AP reporting. 

The U.S.-led N.A.T.O. mission in Afghanistan has, since signing a peace deal with the Taliban in February, refused to release further data on the number of Taliban attacks on Afghan national defense forces, the S.I.G.A.R. report released yesterday has said, which has been dubbed by some as a strategic move by President Trump’s administration to ensure the “agreement [is] seen as successful [and] Trump can meet his commitments on pulling troops out of Afghanistan.” Special Inspector General at S.I.G.A.R. said that the data “was one of the last remaining metrics SIGAR was able to use to report publicly on the security situation in Afghanistan;” however, N.A.T.O.’s Resolute Support mission said that the withheld data is “now a critical part of deliberative interagency discussions regarding ongoing political negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban. AP reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Libyan internationally-recognized government – Government of National Accord (G.N.A.) – yesterday rejected the Libyan National Accord leader Haftar Khalifa’s call for a ceasefire during the holy month of Ramadan. Calls for a truce follow recent comments by Haftar that the U.N. brokered unity deal is a “thing of the past;” the G.N.A said: “We confirm our fixed position that we will continue with our legitimate self-defense and strike the source of threat wherever it is.” Al Jazeera reporting.

Trump yesterday authorized the Pentagon to call select U.S. armed forces reservists to active duty as part of a counternarcotics operation announced in April. In an executive order, the president directed Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to call up to 200 personnel from the reserve at a time to serve as part of the military’s enhanced operation against drug cartels in the eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The executive order limits the term of service to one year. Brian J. Karem reports via Twitter. 

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).

Siven Watt

Associate News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK. Follow him on Twitter (@SivenWatt)