The Early Edition: May 5, 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

The global coronavirus death toll passed the quarter million mark yesterday, with more than 251,000 confirmed deaths, nearly 69,000 of which were reported in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University data. There are now 1.18 million confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. and 3.58 million cases worldwide. Jennifer Calfas, Arian Campo-Flores and Eric Sylvers report for the Wall Street Journal.

As President Trump hailed success in America’s fight against the coronavirus and continued to push for the U.S. economy to reopen, the administration is privately estimating 3,000 deaths a day by the beginning of June, nearly double the current toll. The internal projections, based on government modeling by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) and pulled together in chart form by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), forecast that with wider testing, the new-case count will surge to about 200,000 a day, almost seven times the present pace. Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Eileen Sullivan report for the New York Times.

The Trump administration has snubbed the internal government report. “This is not a White House document nor has it been presented to the coronavirus task force or gone through interagency vetting,” White House spokesperson Judd Deere said in a statement. “This data is not reflective of any of the modeling done by the task force or data that the task force has analyzed,” Deere said, adding, “The president’s phased guidelines to open up America again are a scientific driven approach that the top health and infectious disease experts in the federal government agreed with.” Alana Wise reports for NPR.

A public model used by the White House to estimate the impact of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States has also revised its projection of how many Americans are expected to die of the coronavirus to 135,000, effectively doubling its previous estimate as a result of relaxed social distancing guidelines in several states. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (I.H.M.E.) at the University of Washington previously predicted 72,433 deaths. Ali Mokdad, a professor of Health Metrics Sciences at the global health research center said yesterday that there are “several reasons” for the increased projections: “One of them is increased mobility before the relaxation, premature relaxation of social distancing, we’re adding more presumptive deaths as well, and we’re seeing a lot of outbreaks in the Midwest, for example.” Mokdad stressed that the “increase in mobility” is causing an “increase in mortality” in the country. Eric Levenson, Madeline Holcombe, Arman Azad and Steve Almasy report for CNN.

Florida and eight other U.S. states eased restrictions yesterday and allowed some businesses to reopen amid the coronavirus crisis, while California and New York detailed initial steps to reopen, as the country sped up its uneven efforts to return to normalcy from the pandemic. Matt Zapotosky, Marisa Iati and John Wagner report for the Washington Post.

A look at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) plan for how New York State’s economy might begin to restart, a set of criteria that will govern which regions allow what sectors to reopen and when, is provided by Jesse McKinley at the New York Times.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard its first oral arguments by teleconference yesterday, allowing members of the public to listen in for the first time, and Justice Clarence Thomas, who is known for making no inquiries at public hearings, asked questions. A transcript and recording of the proceedings were later posted on the court’s website, supremecourt.gov. Robert Barnes reports for the Washington Post.

U.S. senators, meanwhile, returned to Washington after a month away.  While most staff members kept masks on, senators did not always follow health guidance. Mike DeBonis reports for the Washington Post.

The White House is blocking all coronavirus task force members from accepting hearing invitations throughout May, according to an internal memo. The administration has already prevented Dr. Anthony Fauci from testifying before a House subcommittee scheduled for this week, but yesterday informed lawmakers that no member of the coronavirus task force could accept invitations to testify before congressional committees without the permission of chief of staff Mark Meadows. Emma Tucker reports for The Daily Beast.

The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) says Washington has not given any evidence to support Trump administration officials’ “speculative” claim that Covid-19 originated in a Wuhan lab, as China dismissed the theory as “insane.” Trump has repeatedly said that he has proof the virus started in a Wuhan laboratory and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that the U.S. had “enormous evidence” to back up that claim. But the administration has not produced it publicly or provided it to the W.H.O., said its emergencies director, Dr Michael Ryan. “So from our perspective, this remains speculative.” “Like any evidence-based organization, we would be very willing to receive any information that purports to the origin of the virus,” Ryan said, stressing that this was “a very important piece of public health information for future control.” AFP reporting.

Australian intelligence agencies are skeptical of the evidence promoted by U.S. government officials supposedly linking the coronavirus to a Chinese lab as concerns within the government mount that the push will undercut efforts to eliminate dangerous wildlife wet markets. Senior members of the Australian intelligence community said a research document passed round political circles under the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partnership was “mostly based on news reports and contained no material from intelligence gathering.” The Sydney Morning Herald reporting.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper yesterday said the Navy’s second coronavirus outbreak at sea may have come from a counter-drug operation. The U.S.S. Kidd destroyer — initially deployed near Central America but now in port in San Diego to be cleaned — was the second U.S. warship to be struck with a coronavirus outbreak after the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier. Ellen Mitchell reports for the Hill.

The Treasury Department announced yesterday plans to borrow a record $3 trillion over three months as the government tries to fend off economic collapse. The huge sum dwarfs the nearly $1.3 trillion that the U.S. borrowed for all of last year. The BBC reporting.

World leaders, with the notable exception of Trump, pledged nearly $8 billion to fund laboratories that have promising leads in quickly developing  vaccines and other drugs to fight the virus, pledging at a virtual summit convened by the European Union (E.U.) that the money will also be used to distribute any vaccine to poor countries on time and equitably. The U.S. state department in a statement welcomed what it described as “the pledging conference in Europe,” even though the fundraising event had always been envisaged as a global, rather than strictly European effort. Officials in Trump’s administration noted that the United States is pouring billions of dollars into its own research efforts. Patrick Winter reports for The Guardian.

U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and German partner BioNTech said today they have started delivering doses of their experimental coronavirus vaccines for initial human testing in the United States. The companies said if the vaccine proves to be “safe and effective” in trials, it could potentially be rolled out by the end of the year, trimming several years off the normal vaccine development timeline. Reuters reporting.

The Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.), under fire for allowing hundreds of coronavirus antibody tests on the U.S. market without review, has introduced rigorous precision standards on commercial test companies and said it is cracking down on “fraudulent actors.” At least 160 antibody tests for Covid-19 entered the U.S. market without prior F.D.A. scrutiny on March 16, because the agency considered then that it was most important to get them to the public swiftly. Now, the F.D.A. will require test companies to file an application for emergency-use authorization and require them to meet standards for quality and accuracy. Tests will need to be found 90% “sensitive,” or able to identify coronavirus antibodies, and 95% “specific,” or able to avoid false positive result. Thomas M. Burton reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Britain will today begin testing its own Covid-19 tracing app on the Isle of Wight, hoping that the technology combined with more testing and tracking will help curb transmission of the coronavirus. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said yesterday, however, that data privacy and security were “paramount” in the App’s development. Reuters reporting.

An internal Chinese report has warned that Beijing faces an increasing wave of hostility in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak that could tip relations with the United States into a confrontation, people familiar with the paper said. The report, presented early last month by the Ministry of State Security to senior Beijing leaders including President Xi Jinping, found that global anti-China sentiment is at its highest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the sources said. Al Jazeera reporting.

CORONAVIRUS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Depressing new death toll projections and infection data “buckled the White House narrative that the worst of the pandemic is passed and it’s time to get going again,” CNN’s Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis of the latest figures.

Australia, Britain and Canada as well as sources within the U.S. national security community are “throwing cold water” on the Trump administration’s claims of a growing consensus that Covid-19 originated from a Chinese government lab, Justin Ling comments at Foreign Policy.

Elevating the status of the U.S. pandemic response is a risky strategy that will not solve deep problems in national security policy, former White House officials Robert Malley and Stephen Pomper warn at Just Security.

Sacking the watchdogs responsible for protecting the public’s money and policing the executive branch “undermines democracy,” the New York Times editorial board argues, citing Trump’s “latest target:” Christi Grimm, the department’s principal deputy inspector general, whose office issued a report a month ago exposing the dire state of the nation’s pandemic response.

History shows how unilateral Covid-19 ceasefire declarations might be turned into “effective and durable” negotiated agreements, Asli Ozcelik Olcay explains in a piece for Just Security.

A guide to U.S. state lockdown measures and reopenings is provided by the Wall Street Journal.

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.

The INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY

Rep. John Ratcliffe, President Trump’s choice to be the nation’s top intelligence official, will face biting questions today from Senate Democrats about his credentials and his willingness to provide candid intelligence free from political considerations. Ellen Nakashima, Shane Harris and Seung Min Kim report for the Washington Post.

The White House has named Patrick Hovakimian, a top Justice Department lawyer, to serve as the new general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (O.D.N.I.), according to two senior administration officials. In his current position, Hovakimian advises Attorney General William Barr and Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen on department operations, policy and specific cases. Daniel Lippman reports for POLITICO.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said yesterday that he was lifting his two-year hold on Trump’s nomination for the top U.S. counterintelligence official. Grassley cited documents he had received from Barr and acting Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) Richard Grenell as a crucial factor in his decision to end his opposition to William Evanina’s designation to be director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. “Due to the recent actions by the O.D.N.I. and the Attorney General to finally respond to my very longstanding oversight requests, I withdraw my objection to Mr. Evanina’s nomination,” Grassley said in a statement. Jordain Carney reports for the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Sudan has appointed its first ambassador to the United States, the first such envoy in over 20 years, in the latest indication of warming ties. Authorities in both countries had agreed to boost relations following the ouster of longtime President Omar al-Bashir, who was overthrown by the military in April last year in the wake of mass protests seeking civilian rule. Al Jazeera reporting.

A bid by separatists supported by the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) to assert control over southern Yemen has reopened a perilous new front in Yemen’s civil war and pushed it nearer to fragmentation at a time when the coronavirus pandemic poses a growing threat. The separatists’ recent declaration of self-rule over the strategic port city of Aden and other southern provinces also further puts Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. on opposite sides in the conflict, now in its sixth year. AP reporting.

The U.S. Navy cruised three destroyers in the Barents Sea off Russia’s Arctic coast yesterday, the first time Navy ships have operated in the region since the mid-1980s, the height of the Cold War. The purpose of the mission was “to assert freedom of navigation and demonstrate seamless integration among allies,” U.S. Naval Forces Europe said in a statement. CNN reporting.

Venezuelan authorities arrested two U.S. citizens among a group of “mercenaries” yesterday, a day after a foiled attempt at capturing the socialist leader, President Nicolás Maduro. Eight people were killed during Sunday’s beach raid, Venezuelan authorities said. AP reporting. 

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).