The Early Edition: May 7, 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.  

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

President Trump yesterday vetoed a resolution aimed at limiting his ability to take military action against Iran without congressional signoff. In a White House statement, Trump called the resolution “very insulting” and argued the measure was “based on misunderstandings of facts and law.” He also claimed the resolution was “introduced by Democrats as part of a strategy to win an election on November 3 by dividing the Republican Party.” The Senate is scheduled to vote today to override the veto but it’s expected to fall short of the two-thirds support needed. Andrew Restuccia reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Israel’s top court ruled yesterday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form a government while facing criminal indictments, removing a critical legal hurdle in the incumbent’s bid to remain in power as he goes on trial later this month on corruption charges. The Supreme Court also dismissed a separate petition that argued that last month’s controversial coalition agreement between Netanyahu and his chief political rival, Benny Gantz, violated basic Israeli law. Oliver Holmes reports for The Guardian.

Iraqi lawmakers yesterday approved a new government after six months without one as parties bickered until the last minute over cabinet seats in backroom deals. The new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s intelligence chief and a former journalist, will head the new government but will begin his term without a full cabinet, however, after several ministerial candidates were rejected. Kadhimi is regarded as being acceptable to both the U.S. and Iran. Al Jazeera reporting.

Afghanistan and Iran have opened a joint inquiry into allegations that dozens of Afghan migrants who crossed illegally into Iran were tortured by Iranian border guards and thrown into a river, where at least 16 drowned. Afghanistan’s foreign ministry announced the launch of the joint investigation yesterday after reports of the torture and killings materialized this week. Susannah George reports for the Washington Post.

U.S. military operations killed at least 132 civilians and injured 91 others in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia last year, according to a Pentagon report released yesterday, though outside watchdog groups say that count is much higher. The Department of Defense (D.O.D.) assessed that no civilians were killed in Libya or Yemen, the report said. Rebecca Kheel reports for the Hill.

The United States yesterday announced it will provide $225 million in emergency funds to Yemen to support food programs, and urged the Houthis to do more to allow aid operations to operate “independently and neutrally.” Reuters reporting.

U.S. DEVELOPMENTS

Transcripts related to the House Republican-led investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election could be publicly released soon, more than two years after the panel concluded its probe. The release of the transcripts of the 53 private witness interviews conducted in 2017 and 2018 turned into a political battle between the Democratic-led House Intelligence Committee and the Trump administration’s Office of the Director of National Intelligence (O.D.N.I.) over their declassification and whether the White House could survey them. The decision comes after acting Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.) Richard Grenell informed lawmakers Tuesday that the long-delayed interagency classification review of the last 10 transcripts had been finished. Zachary Cohen and Jeremy Herb report for CNN.

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) has provided a less redacted version of a memo laying out the extent of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) after the current and former Judiciary Committee chairs requested it. The memo, “The Scope of Investigation and Definition of Authority,” was sent on Aug. 2, 2017, to Mueller by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general at the time. Daniel Lippman and Kyle Cheney report for POLITICO.

The Senate voted yesterday to confirm President Trump’s counterintelligence chief after the nomination was stuck in limbo for almost two years over a Republican request for documents related to the investigation of Russia and Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Senators voted 83-7 on William Evanina’s nomination to be the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. Reuters reporting.

CORONAVIRUS

More than 1.2 million cases of the novel coronavirus and over 73,000 Covid-19 related deaths have been recorded in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University data. Worldwide, more than 3.7 million cases, including at least 264,000 deaths, have been recorded. Henrik Pettersson, Byron Manley and Sergio Hernandez report for CNN.

President Trump yesterday insisted that his coronavirus task force would remain in place – less than 24 hours after suggesting it would be disbanded – promising that health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx would remain part of the group even as he added other members. In messages sent on Twitter, Trump hailed the task force, which was convened to manage the U.S. response to the outbreak, and said it would “continue on indefinitely with its focus on SAFETY & OPENING UP OUR COUNTRY AGAIN.” Trump added the group would now be “very focused on Vaccines & Therapeutics.” Matt Zapotosky and John Wagner report for the Washington Post.

Trump has described the coronavirus pandemic as a worse “attack” on the United States than either Pearl Harbor or 9/11, taking swipe once again at China, which he said should have stopped the disease in its tracks. The BBC reporting.

Russia said the U.S. must provide evidence to support its allegations that the coronavirus originated in a Chinese laboratory instead of a wet market in Wuhan, as many researchers believe. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow could not “show any solidarity” with the claims, which have been mostly promoted by Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom have said they have seen proof concerning the virus’s origins but have declined to provide any such materials. “We consider it not a proper time, being somewhere in the middle of a severe crisis, an unprecedented crisis, to try to blame everything on the international health organization [the World Health Organization] or, the next day, on China,” Peskov said in an interview released yesterday. Tal Axelrod reports for the Hill.

Republican leaders for the Michigan state House and Senate have brought a lawsuit against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, arguing that her extension of the state’s state of emergency was “unlawful and goes against the Michigan Constitution.” “The Legislature did not approve an extension of the state emergency declaration and as such we expected the declaration to end,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said in a statement, adding, “Instead, we saw the governor ignore the law, unilaterally extend the emergency, and write new executive orders. … If left unchecked, the governor could extend her authority indefinitely.” Rebekah Riess and Paul LeBlanc report for CNN.

A model that the Trump administration is relying on as it advances with plans to reopen the U.S. economy warns that even if states take the necessary steps to relax social distancing restrictions, counties across the country will see a significant spread of coronavirus. The study, compiled by PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, estimates that if officials move too swiftly and too aggressively to reopen in mid May, individual counties could see hundreds, if not a thousand-plus, more coronavirus cases reported each day by August 1. Just two weeks additional social distancing, the study projects, could cut infections substantially — with potentially hundreds of thousands of fewer cases if the projections are conservatively extended out to all 3,000-plus counties across the country. Erin Banco reports for The Daily Beast.

Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) prepared detailed step-by-step guidance for how to reopen the nation during the pandemic but its publication has been blocked by the White House. The nation’s top infectious-disease investigators wrote a 17-page report to help leaders, business owners, educators, and state and local officials decide when and how to reopen. It was slated to be published last week, but, according to a C.D.C. official, the agency’s scientists were told the guidance “would never see the light of day.” AP reporting.

Trump bragged on May 1 that his success in responding to the health crisis has confined ventilator, test kit and mask shortages to the past — but that same day, his own health and emergency management officials were quietly warning that states were still facing a paucity of masks, gowns and other medical gear, according to a recording of an interagency meeting between F.E.M.A. and H.H.S. officials across the country. Alice Miranda Ollstein and Adam Cancryn report for POLITICO.

The Defense Department has awarded science-based tech company 3M a $126 million contract to speed up production of N95 respirator masks in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Pentagon announced yesterday. Under the contract, 3M will expedite the existing delivery schedule “and increase N95 respirator production by at least 312 million annually within the next twelve months,” Defense Department spokesperson Lt. Col. Mike Andrews said in a statement. Ellen Mitchell reports for the Hill.

Trump said yesterday an ousted vaccine expert who filed a whistleblower’s complaint accusing the administration of retaliating when he expressed concerns about the coronavirus in January seemed to be a “disgruntled employee” who wants to aid Democrats. The president told reporters at the White House that he “did not hear good things” about Rick Bright, who was removed last month from his role as the director of a U.S. agency responsible for developing drugs to fight the coronavirus outbreak. Reuters reporting.

The United Nations declared today it is increasing its appeal to combat the coronavirus pandemic in fragile and vulnerable nations from $2 billion to $6.7 billion. U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock repeated that the peak of the pandemic is not due to hit the world’s poorest countries for three to six months. But he said there is already signs of incomes diving and jobs disappearing, food supplies falling and prices rising, and children missing vaccinations and meals. AP reporting.

CORONAVIRUS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

President Trump’s cure-can’t-be-worse-than-the-disease reasoning is clear: As awful as the virus may be, the cost of the virtual national lockdown has grown too high, Peter Baker writes in an analysis for the New York Times.

“A democratic republic needs both of its legislative bodies working” — especially “at a moment when potential scandals, inefficiencies and just plain incompetence are breaking out across the Trump administration,” E.J. Dione Jr. argues for the Washington Post, commenting, “half a Congress isn’t enough.”

The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) “is a compromised institution” but it can be reformed, Jennifer Prah Ruger argues for the Financial Times, writing that the U.N. body “lacks independence from its member countries” and needs “to be more accountable, transparent and fair” as well as increased funding.

The Taliban is using the coronavirus pandemic for “propaganda” — with potentially grim consequences for those living under its control, Ashley Jackson argues for Foreign Policy.

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 state-by-state guide to lockdown measures and reopenings is provided by the New York Times.

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

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).