The Early Edition: May 8, 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.  

MICHAEL FLYNN

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) has dropped its criminal case against Michael Flynn in a stunning reversal more than two years after the former national security adviser pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I.. The Department said in its filing it was no longer persuaded that the F.B.I.’s January 2017 Flynn interview that underpinned the charges was conducted with a “legitimate investigative basis” and did not think his statements were “material even if untrue.” Notably, the court filing was signed only by Washington U.S. Attorney Timothy Shea, a former aide to Attorney General William Barr —  it wasn’t signed by the prosecutors involved in the case, as is customary. Josh Gerstein and Kyle Cheney report for POLITICO.

The Department’s decision to suddenly drop all criminal charges against Flynn “was extraordinary and had no obvious precedent,” a range of criminal law experts said yesterday. Charlie Savage reports for the New York Times.

The D.O.J.’s decision to abandon its prosecution of Flynn yesterday was welcomed as a triumph by President Trump and his allies, who have argued for years that Flynn was framed, but it was viewed with “dire alarm” by Trump’s rivals, who decried the move as an attack on the rule of law, according to Rosalind S. Helderman, Robert Costa and Shane Harris, who report on the reaction for the Washington Post.

“Barr is now saying he cannot prove charges to which Flynn has twice pleaded guilty in court — and for which there is ample evidence,” the New York Times editorial board comments.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

The House Intelligence Committee yesterday released the long-awaited transcripts connected to the Republican-led probe by the panel into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The committee released the transcripts of 57 private witness interviews from 2017-2018 that uncover what was said as lawmakers tried to determine whether members of the Trump campaign and Russia coordinated to boost Trump’s election prospects. While the committee has already released a report on its findings from the investigation, the transcripts have since been held up in a classification review. Olivia Beavers, Morgan Chalfant and Maggie Miller report for the Hill.

The Trump administration yesterday asked the Supreme Court to temporarily halt the release of material from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s grand jury to Congress. In a 35-page filing, Noel Francisco, the solicitor general, asked the justices to freeze a lower court order that paved the way for the release of the grand jury secrets to the House Judiciary Committee, arguing that the executive branch would “suffer irreparable harm” if the evidence is disclosed. Charlie Savage reports for the New York Times.

CORONAVIRUS

The global death toll from the coronavirus outbreak passed 269,500 today, with roughly a third of those (75,000) in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University data. More than 3.86 million cases of the coronavirus have been recorded worldwide, again led by America which accounts for over 1.25 million cases. Jennifer Calfas, Phred Dvorak and Georgi Kantchev report for the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump said yesterday that both he and Vice President Mike Pence tested negative for coronavirus after they were informed that a member of the U.S. military who works at the White House, reportedly as one of Trump’s personal valets, had tested positive. “We were recently notified by the White House Medical Unit that a member of the United States Military, who works on the White House campus, has tested positive for coronavirus … The President and the Vice President have since tested negative for the virus and they remain in great health,” White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley said in a statement. Reuters reporting.

A 57-year-old man from El Salvador has become the first to die of the coronavirus while in Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) custody. The man, detained at Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego since January, had been hospitalized in April after showing virus-related symptoms and passed away on Wednesday, according to a statement from the San Diego public health department. Max Rivlin-Nadler reports for NPR.

Detailed guidelines for safe reopening drafted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) were blocked from publication after Trump administration officials called them “too prescriptive,” a White House spokesperson said. “There were some conversations that maybe C.D.C. can find a way to revise this, that is perhaps in the same vein as the president’s guidelines … so it’s not the federal government dictating down to states,” the spokesperson said, explaining the guidance amounted to “counter messaging” as the administration presses governors to devise their own plans for restarting businesses, schools, churches and other institutions. Brianna Ehley reports for POLITICO.

The United Nations Security Council appears to have reached a compromise in its latest draft coronavirus resolution that has been stuck in suspended animation due to what diplomatic sources described as a dispute between Washington and Beijing on including a reference to the World Health Organisation (W.H.O.): instead of naming W.H.O. the measure cites U.N. specialized health “agencies.” But the World Health Organization is “the only such agency,” Michelle Nichols reports via Twitter.

Secretary of State Pompeo is moving forward with his attacks on the Chinese government over the novel coronavirus outbreak — even as he further walks back his claim that the U.S. has “enormous evidence” the first human infection came from an accidental or intentional release at a biomedical laboratory in Wuhan, China. Pompeo asserted Sunday that there was “enormous evidence” supporting the theory that the virus originated in a Chinese lab, before shifting somewhat Wednesday to say there’s “significant” evidence, but the U.S. does not have “certainty” yet. However, in interviews yesterday, Pompeo retreated further, telling a conservative talk radio host, “There’s evidence that it came from somewhere in the vicinity of the lab, but that could be wrong.” “We’ve seen evidence that it came from the lab … That may not be the case,” he said in a second talk radio interview. Conor Finnegan and Josh Margolin report for ABC News.

Congressional investigators in Washington are asking for information about loans and other aid that the Trump Organization has requested from foreign governments, including Britain, in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. The request for information follows a media report last month that said the Trump Organization was seeking U.K. and Irish bailout money to cover wages of staff who had been furloughed from the company’s golf properties in Europe due to the pandemic. In a letter to Eric Trump, the president’s son and vice president of the Trump Organization, Carolyn Maloney, the Democratic chair of the House oversight and reform committee, suggested the move to seek funding in the U.K. was questionable and potentially a breach of the U.S. constitution, which obliges a president to have undivided loyalty to the U.S.. Stephanie Kirchgaessner reports for The Guardian.

The distribution of the first and only treatment for Covid-19 is being blasted by doctors across the country as “confusing, unfair and marred by incomplete medical information,” only a week after its producer, Gilead Sciences, and the Trump administration raised hopes by declaring that the drug cut down hospital stays of some patients. Doctors in numerous hospitals say they cannot gain access to remdesivir for their patients — and that they do not comprehend the process for obtaining the drug. Christopher Rowland and Laurie McGinley report for the Washington Post.

Trump in recent weeks has tried to block or minimize information about the severity of the coronavirus pandemic as he calls for a return to normalcy and the reviving of an economy that has been wrecked by public health measures aimed at mitigating the outbreak. In an effort to tightly control the narrative about the ongoing crisis, his administration has sidelined or replaced officials not deemed as loyal, refused congressional requests for testimony, snubbed jarring statistics and models, hailed states for reopening without observing White House guidelines and, briefly, pushed to break up a task force designed to fight the virus and communicate about the public health crisis. Toluse Olorunnipa reports on the Trump administration’s “messaging campaign” for the Washington Post.

The Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) has given the go-ahead to a new diagnostic tool that uses CRISPR gene-editing technology to find out if someone is infected with the coronavirus in just one hour. Joel Achenbach and Laurie McGinley report for the Washington Post.

United Nations chief António Guterres has said the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a “tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering,” and called for a full-blown effort “to end hate speech globally.” The U.N. secretary-general said anti-foreigner sentiment has “surged” online and on the streets, and highlighted the spread of antisemitic conspiracy theories and Covid-19-related anti-Muslim attacks. AP reporting.

Moscow’s Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced yesterday that the real number of coronavirus cases in the Russian capital could be three times higher than official reports. He said that the true number of cases in Moscow is likely around 300,000 after earlier reports indicated there were 92,676 in the capital and 177,160 nationwide, according to the TASS news agency. Reuters reporting.

CORONAVIRUS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Both the White House’s rejection of new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) guidance on safely reopening the nation and the Michael Flynn case “show how Trump disdains government structures meant to dispense independent and fact-based policymaking, science and justice free from corrupting political influences,” CNN’s Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis.

After Hungary, which democracy will be the next to “fall from an autocratic power grab?” Steven Feldstein assesses the “democratic victims of the coronavirus” in a piece 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.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Senate yesterday failed in its attempt to rein in President Trump’s ability to wage war against Iran, after lawmakers fell short in a vote to override his veto of war powers legislation. The vote was 49-44 in favor of the resolution, but that was below the two-thirds majority needed to overcome a presidential veto. Jordain Carney reports for the Hill.

Iranian border guards killed 45 Afghan migrant workers attempting to enter into Iran this month by forcing them into a stormy mountain torrent at gunpoint, according to two Afghan lawmakers investigating the deaths. Reuters reporting.

The Department of Defense’s third annual report to Congress on civilian casualties in U.S. military operations globally “provides a dose of much-needed transparency in an area that is all too often shrouded in unnecessary secrecy” — however it “very likely understates the extent of harm caused in U.S. wars, especially in Iraq and Syria,” Daniel R. Mahanty and Rita Siemion write in a piece for Just Security.

The U.S. military is removing Patriot antimissile systems, along with other military assets, from Saudi Arabia as part of a shift of forces and capabilities in the region following a large-scale buildup last year in response to Iranian threats, U.S. officials said. Gordon Lubold and  Michael C. Bender report for the Wall Street Journal.

An analysis of the Israeli High Court’s Wednesday ruling that the law does not specifically prevent an indicted member of Knesset, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, from leading the country is provided by Oren Liebermann at CNN.

Members of Venezuela’s opposition in October negotiated a $213 million deal with Florida-based security company SilverCorp to invade the country and overthrow President Nicolás Maduro, according to a seven-page “general services agreement” obtained by the Washington Post. The document deals a blow to the credibility of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who has strongly denied any ties to SilverCorp or involvement in the attempt to oust Maduro by force. Anthony Faiola, Karen DeYoung and Ana Vanessa Herrero report for the Washington Post.

President Trump’s pick to be the U.S. Navy’s civilian leader Kenneth Braithwaite would take the position “with limited influence” over the commander in chief’s top military campaign pledge: expanding the U.S. fleet to 355 ships. Jack Detsch reports on Braithwaite’s confirmation hearing for Foreign Policy. 

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).