The Early Edition: May 4, 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

Global coronavirus cases have surpassed 3.5 million with more than 247,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The United States has recorded more than 1.1 million cases and at least 67,000 Covid-19 related deaths. Henrik Pettersson, Byron Manley and Sergio Hernandez report at CNN.

President Trump yesterday significantly revised upward his prediction of how many Americans would die from the new coronavirus, saying that anywhere between 80,000 and 100,000 people could die — after he cited a death toll of 60,000 to 70,000 a week ago. Speaking at a “virtual town hall,” Trump said: “Hopefully we’re going to come in below that 100,000 lives lost, which is a horrible number nevertheless.” Reuters reporting.

Despite that estimation, Trump expressed confidence that the United States could reopen safely, indicating again that he favored lifting stay-at-home orders and other restrictions that have shuttered the economy. The president also offered support for protesters opposed to the lockdown measures that remain in place in many states. Earlier in the day, White House coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx said protesters’ disregard of social distancing is “devastatingly worrisome.” Felicia Sonmez, Meryl Kornfield and Katie Mettler report for the Washington Post.

Trump yesterday claimed that a coronavirus vaccine would be ready by the end of the year, although scientists as well as companies developing and testing potential vaccines have repeatedly warned that it may take 12-18 months or longer. The BBC reporting.

China “intentionally concealed the severity” of the coronavirus in the early days of the outbreak so the country could hoard medical supplies such as face masks and gloves for itself, according to a four-page Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) intelligence report dated May 1. Chinese officials dramatically increased imports of medical supplies while limiting shipments of their stock by “denying there were export restrictions and obfuscating and delaying provision of its trade data,” a report analysis states. The country held off informing the World Health Organization that the virus “was a contagion” for much of January so it could stock up on protective equipment, the report further alleges. Those conclusions were based on the 95% probability that China’s changes in import and export behavior were not within normal range. AP reporting.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday said there was “enormous evidence” the coronavirus outbreak originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China, but did not provide evidence for his statement. Pompeo also said he agreed with the U.S. intelligence assessment that there was no sign that the virus was manmade or genetically modified. The theories are not mutually exclusive: some officials who have studied the intelligence reports, which remain confidential, say it is possible an animal that was infected with the coronavirus in the laboratory was destroyed, and a lab employee was accidentally infected in the process. David E. Sanger reports for the New York Times.

Chairs Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) have asked the State Department several times to offer up cables related to the Wuhan lab. “If such evidence exists, Pompeo should immediately produce it to Congress,” the House Foreign Affairs Committee said on Twitter.

The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) has repeated that the novel coronavirus was of natural origins after Trump alleged last week he had seen evidence it originated in a Chinese lab. During a virtual news conference, W.H.O. emergencies chief Michael Ryan on Friday stressed that the United Nations health agency had “listened again and again to numerous scientists who have looked at the sequences” of the virus, adding “we are assured that this virus is natural in origin.” Al Jazeera reporting.

The W.H.O. is complaining openly that China should allow it to take part in investigations into the origins of the pandemic. “We know that some national investigation is happening but at this stage we have not been invited to join,” Gauden Galea, the W.H.O.’s representative to China, told Sky News in an interview published Friday. “W.H.O. is making requests of the health commission and of the authorities,” he added. J. Edward Moreno reports for the Hill.

Five things to know as the intelligence community looks into the origins of the virus are explained by Morgan Chalfant and Olivia Beavers at the Hill.

The White House has blocked Anthony Fauci, a key member of the administration’s coronavirus task force, from testifying before the House Appropriations Committee next week, according to a spokesperson from the House committee. White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere confirmed the decision, arguing that it would be “counterproductive” for Fauci to appear next week while in the midst of participating in the government’s response to the pandemic. Caitlin Emma and Nancy Cook report for POLITICO.

The Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) has authorized emergency use of the Ebola drug remdesivir for treating the coronavirus after a recent clinical trial showed the drug helped shorten the recovery time for people who were seriously ill. The authorization means the anti-viral drug can now be used on people who are hospitalized with severe Covid-19. Michelle Hackman and Thomas M. Burton report for the Wall Street Journal.

Trump is moving to replace the Department of Health and Human Services (H.H.S.) watchdog whose office issued a report chronicling testing delays as well as severe shortages of medical supplies in hospitals amid the Covid-19 pandemic. In a Friday night announcement, the White House tapped Jason Weida as its nominee to take the permanent inspector general position currently held by Christi Grimm, who has been in that role in an acting capacity since January. Peter Baker reports for the New York Times.

White House senior adviser Stephen Miller has repeatedly tried to use a rare law that gives the president power to restrict immigration based on the threat of disease to Americans — and the coronavirus crisis has provided him with an opportunity to try again. According to one official, Miller prepared a “wish list” in the early days of the administration that included numerous authorities the president could evoke to curb immigration; now the White House is maintaining that its measures to suspend immigration, freeze green cards, and implement travel restrictions are all part of an effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Caitlin Dickerson and Michael D. Shear report for the New York Times.

Russia reported a record 10,633 new coronavirus cases yesterday, in what is becoming a “major headache” for President Vladimir Putin. The country’s overall number of cases is now 134,687, the seventh-highest number in the world, in a striking turnaround from the situation back in March. A total of 1,280 deaths has now been recorded, the country’s coronavirus response headquarters said in a statement, adding that roughly 50% of the cases were asymptomatic. Mary Ilyushina reports for CNN.

An in-depth investigation into the Trump administration’s “jarringly inconsistent” response to the coronavirus pandemic is carried out by Philip Rucker, Josh Dawsey, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Robert Costa and Lena H. Sun at the Washington Post.

The White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, Dr Deborah Birx, appeared on an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” and her words lay “bare the discord in Trump’s coronavirus response,” Aaron Blake argues in an analysis for the Washington Post.

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.

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban today claimed responsibility for a truck explosion a day earlier in southern Helmand province that killed at least five Afghan security force members, an Afghan official said, adding to weeks of increasing violence in the country. Reuters reporting.

The Pentagon has warned the Taliban that the U.S. will respond if it continues with its recent violence in Afghanistan. “If the violence cannot be reduced then yes, there will be responses … All sides must also return to the political path. Afghans should sit down now and begin talking about the future of Afghanistan together,” U.S. Forces-Afghanistan spokesperson Col. Sonny Leggett wrote in a letter to Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid that he posted a copy of to Twitter. Zack Budryk reports for the Hill. 

Iranian Guards have reportedly beaten and thrown 50 Afghan migrants into a river after they were illegally crossing into Iran, the foreign ministry of Afghanistan confirmed Saturday, with over half reported to have died. Mujib Mashal and Asadullah Timory report for the New York Times. 

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, has made his first public appearance in three weeks at a ceremony on Friday, the country’s media confirmed Saturday. Reuters reporting.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said an exchange of gunfire yesterday along the border between North and South Korean forces was “accidental [with] no loss of life on either side.” Justine Coleman reports for the Hill. 

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Iran’s recent launching of a military satellite has revealed that the country’s “very sophisticated technology” is an indication that it is willing and able to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, researchers at the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies have confirmed. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Saturday: “This week’s launch of a military satellite … makes clear what we have said all along: Iran’s space program is neither peaceful nor entirely civilian.” Sun Engel Rasmussen reports for the Wall Street Journal. 

Israel’s recently formed unity government between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, which is yet to be sworn in, is currently facing eight separate petitions in the High Court that argues the power-sharing agreement is illegal. Felicia Schwartz and Dov Lieber report for the Wall Street Journal.

Libyan government forces have conducted air raids against Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, after the U.N.-recognized government rejected Haftar’s calls for a ceasefire during Ramadan. Al Jazeera reporting.  

Yemen’s internationally-recognized government and the Southern Transitional Council (S.T.C.), a separatist militia group who recently declared self-rule in the country, reached a de-escalation agreement Friday, leading to a ceasefire on the Yemeni island of Socotra. Al Jazeera] reporting

The new U.S. ambassador to Ukraine – Keith Dayton, the current director of the George C. Marshall Center in Germany, and senior U.S. defense adviser to Ukraine – has been tapped by Trump, the White House confirmed in a press release Friday. Tal Axelroad reports for the Hill. 

Trump wishes to fire the F.B.I. director Christopher Wray, as he “has never felt like Wray was his guy,” a source who has discussed the director with the president has confirmed. However, action won’t be taken due to the impending elections. Jonathan Swan reports for Axios. 

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (O.D.N.I.)’s 2019 statutory annual transparency report, which reports on the government’s use of national security authorities, including foreign intelligence surveillance, was released Thursday, and points towards the F.B.I. violating statutory warrant provisions under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.), Elizabeth Goitein writes for Just Security.  

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)