The Early Edition: May 14, 2020

Curated summary of up-to-the-minute national security developments at home and abroad.

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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.  

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Former Vice President and Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden and former F.B.I. director James Comey are among the official names who may have been involved in the “unmasking” of President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, which leads the Trump administration to increase criticisms of an “Obamagate” conspiracy. Philip Ewing reports for NPR.

U.S. judge Emmet Sullivan has signaled yesterday that he is considering holding Flynn in contempt for perjury after he initially testified under oath that he was guilty of lying to F.B.I. agents and then later changed his mind. Sullivan has asked retired judge John Gleeson to oppose the Department of Justice (D.O.J.)’s decision to drop charges and consider “whether the Court should issue an Order to Show Cause why Mr. Flynn should not be held in criminal contempt for perjury.” Spencer S. Hsu, Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett report for the Washington Post.

Former head of F.B.I. intelligence Bill Priestap, whose recently uncovered official notes were used to support the D.O.J.’s decision to drop charges against Flynn, was questioned by prosecutors two days before the department submitted a motion to the court requesting the case be dropped. The court was not, however, made aware of this interview, although the Department is currently in the process of writing up a report on the interview, which will soon be filed with the court, a D.O.J. official confirmed. Flynn’s lawyers have argued that the notes point to the F.B.I. trying to entrap their client, although Priestap has refuted such allegations. Adam Goldman and Katie Benner report for the New York Times.

The Senate Homeland Security Committee will vote next Wednesday on a request to subpoena the Democratic public relations company Blue Star Strategies as part of the committee’s investigations into allegations of corruption against the son of Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, and the Obama-era state department. Andrew Desiderio reports for POLITICO.

Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, currently serving a seven-year sentence after being charged in 2008 in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, was released from a federal prison in Pennsylvania yesterday, after his lawyers argued that he was at high risk for coronavirus due to his age and pre-existing medical conditions. Manafort is to serve the remainder of his sentence in home confinement. Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.

House Judiciary Chair Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) yesterday demanded that U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr testify before the committee in June and warned that subpoena powers would be considered if necessary.  We’re prepared to do whatever we have to do — we will consider all those methods,” Nadler said, adding, “We cannot have a situation where the attorney general just thumbs his nose and the administration holds Congress in contempt.” Ari Melber, Diana Marinaccio and Calder McHugh report for NBC News.

Bill Barr’s intervention in prosecutions against Trump’s allies is a “new low,” comment Emily Bazelon and Eric Posner for the New York Times, adding that Barr’s “loyalty to a president stands ahead of his fidelity to the rule of law.”

What “unmasking” means, when it can be used and how often it has been used, is explained by the AP.

CORONAVIRUS

The coronavirus death toll in the United States stands at more than 84,000 with 1.4 million confirmed cases, according to Johns Hopkins University data. More than 4.3 million people around the world have been infected by Covid-19, with over 297,000 deaths, but over 1.55 million people have recovered. Henrik Pettersson, Byron Manley and Sergio Hernandez report for CNN.

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court yesterday overturned Governor Tony Ever’s stay-at-home order, the first time a high court has struck down a governor’s mandate intended to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. The 4-3 decision means that all future statewide restrictions to tackle the coronavirus must be approved by the legislature’s rule-making committee before they can be implemented. The verdict came after several thousand people protested the lockdown at the Wisconsin Capitol building last week. Hanna Hagemann reports for NPR.

Guidelines to reopen the country prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) that were shelved by the Trump administration are far more strict and detailed than the White House’s own plan released last month. While some of the advice is consistent with the White House’s “Opening Up America Again” road map, the agency’s 63-page document contains additional details on what is needed for businesses, institutions and travel to resume successfully. One major difference between the White House and C.D.C. guidelines surrounds nonessential travel: in the White House plan, nonessential travel can continue as early as Phase 2; the C.D.C., however, recommends that travel be avoided until Phase 3, and even then is cautious and advises only a “consideration” of the resumption of nonessential travel. AP reporting.

The White House is privately questioning whether the U.S. Covid-19 death count is being exaggerated in official statistics, according to people familiar with the matter, even as the President publicly affirms the accuracy of the figures and top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci projects the opposite. Inside the West Wing, officials said there have been steady doubts about coronavirus numbers coming from the C.D.C., either because they are “behind” or “potentially skewed.” In meetings of the White House task force, senior officials have raised questions about how the agency is pulling together and tracking its data. The death toll questions show the degree to which Trump and his allies have begun to analyze the data and advice emerging from government sources. Kevin Liptak and Jim Acosta report for CNN.

The U.S. economy could be permanently damaged by the coronavirus pandemic if Congress does not take further action, the chair of the Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, warned yesterday. Powell said that America faces a slow and painful economic recovery without additional government relief, adding that further measures would be “costly but worth it.” Jeanna Smialek, Jim Tankersley and Emily Cochrane report for the New York Times.

Federal law enforcement yesterday seized Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.)’s cellphone after they served a search warrant on the lawmaker at his residence in the Washington area as part of the Justice Department’s probe of his stock sales. Burr, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, along with his brother-in-law, dumped millions of dollars in stock after a closed-door Senate briefing on the coronavirus in February. The seizure represents a serious escalation in the investigation into whether Burr violated a law preventing members of Congress from trading on insider information they have garnered from their official work. Del Quentin Wilber and Jennifer Haberkorn report for the Los Angeles Times.

The speedy Abbott coronavirus test used by the White House may be failing to detect at least a third of positive cases when compared with a rival test, the Cepheid Xpert Xpress, according to a preliminary study by New York University. The findings have not yet been peer reviewed, however, and the test’s maker disputed the study. Carolyn Y. Johnson and Steven Mufson report for the Washington Post.

President Trump took a swipe at Fauci yesterday, claiming it was not “acceptable” for the disease expert to say schools were not yet ready to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic. Asked by reporters what his thoughts were on the White House coronavirus task force member’s comments, Trump first said Fauci “wants to play all sides of the equation.” Lauren Egan reports for NBC News.

Chinese hackers are targeting organizations researching the Covid-19 pandemic in a bid to steal intellectual property related to treatments and vaccines and the intrusions may be threatening progress on medical research, the F.B.I. and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (C.I.S.A.), a division of the homeland security department, said in a rare joint warning yesterday. The Chinese Embassy in Washington condemned the allegations as “lies.” The alert came as U.S. officials allege that China and Iran since at least Jan. 3 have waged cyberattacks against American companies and institutions that are working on a vaccine for Covid-19, officials said. Gordon Lubold and Dustin Volz report for the Wall Street Journal.

Sanofi, the french drug company working with the Department of Health and Human Services (H.H.S.) to develop a coronavirus vaccine, indicated that Americans will get first access to the vaccine should the company be successful. “The U.S. government has the right to the largest pre-order because it’s invested in taking the risk,” Sanofi C.E.O. Paul Hudson told Bloomberg. Bloomberg reporting.

The U.S. announced yesterday it is halting the use of a batch of Russian ventilators, pending inquiries into two deadly hospital fires. The ventilators have been linked to blazes that killed five patients in a coronavirus intensive care unit in St Petersburg on Tuesday, and one at a hospital in Moscow last week. The BBC reporting.

Federal regulators said yesterday they refused certification earlier this month of the N95 masks that California had ordered from a Chinese firm in a huge $990 million purchase, a more blunt characterization of what transpired than Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) gave last week. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health did not spell out its reasons for denying the company BYD, saying an on-site evaluation of the company’s N95-model respirators deemed the equipment “not acceptable” on May 4. BYD can modify its design and again seek approval under an expedited review process, federal regulators said. Jeremy B. White and Katy Murphy report for Politico Magazine.

A government whistle blower, Dr. Rick Bright, is set to warn Congress today that “2020 will be the darkest winter in modern history” unless leaders act decisively to prevent a resurgence of the coronavirus, according to his prepared testimony. “Our window of opportunity is closing … If we fail to develop a national coordinated response, based in science, I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged, causing unprecedented illness and fatalities,” Bright — who says he was ousted from his job for warning the Trump administration to prepare for the pandemic — said in prepared remarks. Jeremy Diamond and Kaitlan Collins report for CNN.

The Trump administration’s emergency coronavirus restrictions have closed the U.S. immigration system so tight that since March 21 only two migrants have been permitted to remain in the country to pursue asylum, according to unpublished U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data. Citing the threat to public health from the coronavirus, the Trump administration has halted most due-process rights for migrants, including children and asylum seekers, while “expelling” over 20,000 unauthorized border-crossers to Mexico under a provision of U.S. code known as Title 42. Nick Miroff reports for the Washington Post.

The Trump administration is seeking to extend limits on crossing the Mexican and Canadian borders indefinitely, progressing the crackdown through broad public health authorities that have more or less sealed the United States to migrants seeking protection from persecution, according to officials and a draft of a public health order. Michael D. Shear and Zolan Kanno-Youngs report for the New York Times.

“Public health specialists are mystified by the C.D.C.’s low profile as the pandemic has swept across the country.” Oliver Milman takes a look at the public health agency sidelined by Trump at The Guardian.

Public Health England has given the go-ahead for an antibody test, made by the pharmaceutical company Roche, which may now be used to find out how much of the population has been infected by Covid-19. Antibody testing could be extremely useful as the country emerges from lockdown as the presence of antibodies to the virus in a person’s blood proves they have had it. However, whether the person is immune and if so, how long that immunity lasts, remains to be known. Sarah Boseley reports for The Guardian.

At least one community in the Chinese city of Wuhan plans to start testing residents for the novel coronavirus today after officials were given 10 days to test everyone in the city where the pandemic began, Chinese media reports said. Roughly 1,000 residents of a compound in Qiaokou district were to be tested in groups, according to a website of Hubei TV, the official provincial broadcaster. The short order followed the discovery last weekend of a cluster of six infected people at a residential complex in the city, the first new cases in over a month. AP reporting.

CORONAVIRUS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

The “gulf” between President Trump’s approach and scientific rationality is expected to be further accentuated today with House testimony from Dr. Rick Bright, CNN’s Stephen Collinson predicts in an analysis,

“Have we formally retreated from a goal of containing Covid-19 to one of harm reduction?” Leana S. Wen at the Washington Post notes, “due to a late start, inconsistent state actions and a lack of federal direction, most states have yet to see a consistent decline in cases, [and] no state has achieved sufficient testing and contact tracing.”

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.

AFGHANISTAN 

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for killing five people today in a truck bomb near a court in the eastern Afghan city of Gardez, Tariq Arian, an interior ministry spokesperson confirmed. Reuters reporting. 

The Taliban yesterday warned that it is “fully prepared” to respond to any strikes by Afghan forces, after it denied involvement in the recent attack on a maternity ward. “From now onwards the responsibility of further escalation of violence and its ramifications shall fall squarely on the shoulders of the Kabul administration,” the group stated. AFP reporting. 

IRAN

U.S. special envoy to Iran Brian Hook has threatened a return of all United Nations (U.N.) sanctions against Iran if the U.N. Security Council does not extend the embargo on Iran which is due to expire in October.  Hook warned that “one way or another,” the U.S. will ensure the arms ban remains in place. Al Jazeera reporting. 

Iran’s Foreign Minister today rebuffed as “foolish claims” U.S. threats to trigger a return of all U.N. sanctions, state media reported. Reuters reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Armed conflict in Sudan left 26 people dead in 48 hours, including parliamentary forces, Sudanese officials confirmed yesterday. AP reporting. 

Israel’s newly formed unity government between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz is to be sworn in this evening, which will potentially see an end to political deadlock. Oliver Holmes reports for The Guardian. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed yesterday that Russia targeted her in hacking attacks. “I can honestly say that it pains me … Every day I try to build a better relationship with Russia and on the other hand there is such hard evidence that Russian forces are doing this,” she told parliament. AFP reporting. 

The Senate yesterday approved additional legal protections for some individuals targeted by a federal surveillance court. The 77-19 vote, which will add text to a House-passed bill, represents a win for privacy hawks who have raised red flags about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.) court for years. However it also adds a hitch to getting the bill to Trump’s desk: because senators voted to modify the House bill, once it is passed by the Senate, which is expected to happen today, it will have to detour back to the House to be passed for a second time. Jordain Carney reports for the Hill. 

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

Assistant 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)