The Early Edition: May 6, 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

At least 1.2 million cases of the novel coronavirus have been recorded in the U.S., including 71,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Across the world, more than 3.66 million cases and over 257,000 Covid-19 related deaths have been recorded. Katie Honan, Leslie Brody and Jennifer Calfas report for the Wall Street Journal.

The White House announced it would wind down its coronavirus task force in the next few weeks as the country enters into a second phase of dealing with the aftermath of the outbreak. “We will have something in a different form,” President Trump told journalists as he toured a Honeywell mask manufacturing plant in Arizona, where he donned safety goggles but no mask. The president hailed the work of the task force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, but said it was time to focus on safety and reopening the country. Pence said the group would probably start shifting coordination of the U.S. response back to federal agencies in late May. The New York Times reporting.

Ousted vaccine expert Rick Bright filed a formal whistleblower complaint yesterday alleging that top administration officials dismissed his early concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and steered contracts based on political connections, including a contract with a drug company tied to a friend of Jared Kushner’s, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. The 89-page complaint, filed with the Office of Special Counsel, a government bureau that protects federal whistleblowers, said Bright “encountered opposition” from Health and Human Services (H.H.S.) leadership — including Secretary Alex Azar — when he pushed as early as January for the rapid development of treatments and vaccines to counter the emerging coronavirus pandemic. The former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority also alleged that he was one of the few officials sounding a warning about hydroxychloroquine, the malaria medicine that the president had championed as a possible“game changer” in the treatment of the virus. Yasmeen Abutaleb and Laurie McGinley report for the Washington Post.

Bright will testify before a House panel on May 14, his lawyer told reporters yesterday. CNN reporting.

The coronavirus response being lead by Kushner has relied partly on a team of young volunteers with little expertise in the jobs they were assigned, “exacerbating chronic problems” in procuring supplies for hospitals and other needs, according to multiple government officials and a volunteer involved in the effort. Roughly two dozen employees from consulting and private equity firms have volunteered their time — some on paid holiday leave from their jobs and others without pay — to assist with the Trump administration’s coronavirus operation, according to administration officials and others familiar with the arrangement. Although some of the volunteers have suitable backgrounds and experience, many others were poorly paired with their assigned duties, including those given the task of securing personal protective equipment (PPE) for hospitals across the country, according to a complaint filed last month with the House Oversight Committee. Yasmeen Abutaleb and Ashley Parker report for the Washington Post.

“The fumbling search for new supplies … became a case study of Trump’s style of governing, in which personal relationships and loyalty are often prized over governmental expertise, and private interests are granted extraordinary access and deference,” Nicholas Confessore, Andrew Jacobs, Jodi Kantor, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Luis Ferré-Sadurní report on Kushner’s volunteer force for the New York Times.

The White House has confirmed that Dr. Anthony Fauci will testify before the Senate next Tuesday as Trump defended his decision to block America’s top infectious disease expert from appearing before what he called “a bunch of Trump haters” in the House. Rebecca Shabad reports for NBC News.

Trump’s pick to serve as the special inspector general for the Treasury Department’s $500 billion pandemic recovery fund pledged yesterday to be fair and objective in his efforts to tackle misuse of the bailout money, telling a Senate committee that he would quit if the White House pressured him to overlook wrongdoing. During two hours of intense questioning at his confirmation hearing, Brian Miller, who currently serves as a White House lawyer, tried to put out fears that he would not be independent enough for the prominent oversight role and to assuage concerns among senators and watchdog groups that he placed Trump’s interests ahead of those of American taxpayers. Alan Rappeport reports for the New York Times.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is urging congressional leaders to reverse their decision to turn down rapid coronavirus testing kits for members of Congress. In a statement yesterday, Alexander, who chairs the Senate’s health committee, said the swift expansion of the country’s testing capacity should convince Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to accept the White House offer for rapid test kits, with the Senate in session this week and the House due to return to Washington on Monday. Andrew Desiderio reports for POLITICO.

Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley yesterday maintained that available evidence suggests the coronavirus was natural and not man-made or released deliberately from a Chinese laboratory. “The weight of evidence — nothing’s conclusive — the weight of evidence is that it was natural and not man-made,” the top U.S. general said of the coronavirus. “The second issue is, was it accidentally released, did it release naturally into the environment or was it intentional? We don’t have conclusive evidence in any of that, but the weight of evidence is that it was probably not intentional,” Milley told reporters at the Pentagon. Ellen Mitchell reports for the Hill.

The U.S. Army is searching for partners to create a wearable device to pick up early signs of coronavirus infections. In a request for project proposals, the Army said: “Physiologic surveillance for COVID‐19 positive individuals that do not yet show clear medical symptoms is an ultimate goal.” The Army added that the gadgets should be easy to read by non-medical personnel, and be “minimally-invasive” for wearers. Kaelan Deese reports for the Hill.

France and Tunisia called on the U.N. Security Council yesterday to adopt a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire in major conflicts to combat the coronavirus pandemic after weeks of heated negotiations that have paralyzed the United Nations’ most powerful body. France, one of five veto-wielding permanent council members, and Tunisia, one of 10 elected members, merged their rival resolutions in hopes of winning approval for the first council resolution since Covid-19 started whirling the globe. But diplomats say a vote has been delayed mainly over a dispute between the U.S. and China on including a reference to the World Health Organization (W.H.O.). AP reporting.

The Trump administration is pushing the European Union (E.U.) to back an international probe into China’s handling of the new coronavirus, including the origins of the pandemic, as Brussels seeks to avoid choosing sides in an increasingly sour battle between Beijing and Washington over responsibility for the crisis. Laurence Norman and Sha Hua report for the Wall Street Journal.

A new genetic analysis of the virus that causes Covid-19 taken from over 7,600 patients around the world shows it has been circling in people since late last year, and must have spread extremely rapidly after the first infection. Researchers in Britain observed mutations in the virus and found evidence of quick spread, but “no evidence the virus is becoming more easily transmitted or more likely to cause serious disease.” Maggie Fox reports for CNN.

Nearly every day, at least 25,000 new coronavirus cases are identified, meaning that the total in the United States is growing by between 2 and 4 percent daily. Julie Bosman, Mitch Smith and Amy Harmon report on the statistics   and new “hot spots” for the virus at the New York Times.

Britain yesterday became the country with the second highest number of deaths from coronavirus as its toll rose to 32,000, putting it above Italy in the grim ranking of national fatalities. The milestone of having the most Covid-19 related deaths in Europe triggered calls for an inquiry into the handling of the pandemic. Denis Campbell, Frances Perraudin, Nicola Davis, and Matthew Weaver report for The Guardian.

A look at how Britain’s unique coronavirus tracing App works, including what data is collected and passed on, the security risks involved and whether the App could infringe on privacy, is provided by Tim Bradshaw and Helen Warrell at the Financial Times.

Israel is preparing a nationwide serological test of 100,000 citizens to uncover how widely the virus has spread across its population and how vulnerable it may be to a new wave of the contagion. The survey is one of the largest efforts yet to establish the prevalence of antibodies to Covid-19. The results could help in deciding how quickly businesses and schools should be permitted to return to normal operations. David M. Halbfinger reports for the New York Times.

Authorities in Houthi-held northern Yemen have recorded the territory’s first case of the novel coronavirus in the capital Sanaa, the group’s al-Masirah TV reported yesterday, citing the Houthi health minister. Masirah confirmed the infection was recorded in a Somali national. Al Jazeera reporting.

CORONAVIRUS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

The number of new coronavirus cases in states that are reopening has been increasing, Philip Bump writes in an analysis for the Washington Post.

“Is it possible that Trump knows something that the broader intelligence community in the U.S. (and our allies) and the likes of experts like Dr Anthony Fauci don’t about where the virus came from?” CNN’s Chris Cillizza acknowledges that, while that conclusion is “technically possible,” the “bulk of the intelligence gathering and science to this point all seems to point … to a natural origin for the virus.”

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.

A guide to U.S. state lockdown measures and reopenings is provided by the New York Times.

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

INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY

Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) promised during his confirmation hearing yesterday to deliver an impartial assessment of U.S. intelligence if he is confirmed by the Senate to serve as President Trump’s director of national intelligence (D.N.I.) only nine months after being forced to withdraw for having exaggerated his security experience. Ratcliffe, an outspoken Trump defender, came under pressure over whether he would politicize the intelligence process to keep the president happy; but when pressed by members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Ratcliffe resisted taking sides on a range of divisive topics, including Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether the president should have fired the inspector general for the intelligence agencies. Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.) told reporters after the hearing that he hopes to vote on Ratcliffe’s nomination next week and then work with Senate leaders to schedule a final confirmation vote shortly thereafter. Julian E. Barnes and Nicholas Fandos report for the New York Times.

During the hearing, Ratcliffe made clear that his top priority as D.N.I. would be China. “Look with respect to Covid-19 and the role China plays; the race to 5G; cybersecurity issues: all roads lead to China,” he told the panel. AFP reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

In its latest report, U.S.-based democracy monitor Freedom House warns of a “stunning democratic breakdown” across Central Europe, the Balkans, and Eurasia leading to category dips for four countries in the past two years: Poland has dropped out of the consolidated democracies group and become a semi-consolidated democracy, while Hungary, Serbia, and Montenegro have all left the class of democracies entirely to become transitional/hybrid regimes. The Nations In Transit 2020 report released today says the attacks on democratic institutions could be accelerated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but the group’s President Michael Abramowitz warned the health crisis also creates an “inflection point” after which things could become much worse, or democracy could be revived. Emerging Europe reports.

President Trump and senior administration officials are distancing themselves from Sunday’s failed attempt at capturing Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro that led to the arrest of two Americans. At the White House, Trump said the raid “has nothing to do with our government,” while other officials have also denied U.S. government involvement. Carmen Sesin and Rich Schapiro report for NBC News.

Israel was accused yesterday of instigating a series of attacks on Iran-backed militia targets inside Syria as it reportedly escalates cross-border raids. The Syrian army said in a statement Israeli aircraft struck military barracks in al-Safirah in the eastern Aleppo countryside. Earlier, state TV said a research centre was targeted. The army said it was now evaluating the damage caused by the raids. Al Jazeera reporting.

“Kim Jong-un is (apparently) alive and (presumably) well.” Paul Farhi at the Washington Post takes a look at the speculation around the North Korean dictator’s health. 

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).