The Early Edition: May 15, 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

More than 300,000 people around the world have now died from the new coronavirus, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. More than 4.4 million cases have also been recorded and over 1.59 million people have recovered. In the U.S., more than 1.4 million individuals have contracted Covid-19 and nearly 86,000 people have died from it. Talal Ansari and Jennifer Calfas report for the Wall Street Journal.

Former top U.S. vaccine official Dr. Rick Bright testified yesterday before Congress that lives were lost because of missteps by the Trump administration in its early handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Bright said that his superiors dismissed urgent warnings to stock up on masks and other supplies to fight the crisis, and failed to level with the public about the severity of the threat. The ousted whistleblower also warned the virus outbreak would “get worse and be prolonged” if the U.S. did not quickly adopt a national testing strategy. Bright said the government needed to develop a vaccine distribution plan right away to avoid shortages. “There’s no one company that can produce enough for our country or the world,” he said. “It’s going to be limited supplies.” Dereh Gregorian reports for NBC News.

President Trump brushed off Dr. Bright yesterday as a “disgruntled employee.” “Everything he is complaining about was achieved,” added H.H.S. Secretary Alex Azar. Democrats, meanwhile, hailed the doctor as courageous, and deplored that his early warnings were not heeded. “It all adds up to one inescapable conclusion,” said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.). “It didn’t have to be this way.” Aaron C. Davis, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Felicia Sonmez and John Wagner report for the Washington Post.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is stepping aside temporarily as chair of the Intelligence Committee amid a Justice Department investigation of his stock trades, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced yesterday. Burr later told reporters that he had decided to do so because he did not want the investigation to distract the committee from its work. His decision to step down comes one day after federal investigators seized Burr’s cellphone as part of a probe into alleged insider trading. Jordain Carney and Alexander Bolton reporting for the Hill.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) yesterday issued six flow charts to guide schools, workplaces, restaurants, transit systems  and other business into the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic. The checklists come weeks after some states have started to lift restrictions on their own. The advice, mostly composed of basic tips, is less detailed than draft recommendations the agency sent to the White House for review last month. Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs reports for the New York Times.

Democrats are set to push a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill through the House today in a bid to soften the economic impact of the pandemic. But Republicans have declared the House Democratic package “dead on arrival,” and some have voiced doubts about the need for any more individual payments. Erica Werner reports for the Washington Post.

Trump announced yesterday a plan to revamp the government’s chronically undersupplied stockpile of emergency gear to help fight the coronavirus pandemic, speeding up production and broadening the variety of supplies it houses. The president said his administration is launching what he called a “groundbreaking initiative” to “replenish and modernize” the government’s stores of masks, ventilators and other critical pandemic-fighting medical equipment to create a 90-day reserve. Amy Goldstein reports for the Washington Post.

Trump has picked a former pharmaceutical executive and a four star general, Army Gen. Gustave Perna, to lead “Operation Warp Speed,” an effort to accelerate development of a vaccine for Covid-19 and get it to as many Americans as quickly as possible. The president also said he would prepare the U.S. military to distribute Covid-19 vaccines when they are ready: “Our military is now being mobilized so at the end of the year we’re going to be able to give it to a lot of people very, very rapidly.” Trump added that he expects a ready vaccine by the end of 2020; however, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and coronavirus task force member Anthony Fauci warned earlier this year that a vaccine could take 12 to 18 months. Kaelan Deese reports for the Hill.

The Pentagon official in charge of working with private industry to increase production of medical equipment needed in the battle against the coronavirus has been removed from her position, the Defense Department confirmed yesterday. “The Department can confirm that Ms. Jennifer Santos is moving from her current position as the Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Industrial Policy to the Department of the Navy,” Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Mike Andrews said in a statement. Lara Seligman and Daniel Lippman report for POLITICO.

The Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) said yesterday that it was reviewing data on the accuracy of Abbott Laboratories’ speedy coronavirus test, after an early study suggested the test could deliver potentially inaccurate results, particularly by failing to detect people who have the illness. Abbott has agreed to carry out multiple studies of the test that will each include at least 150 Covid-19-positive patients in a range of healthcare settings, the F.D.A. said. Reuters reporting.

The U.S. seems to be shifting its strategy from trying to completely eliminate coronavirus to reducing infection risks as the nation reopens, a health expert says. “We had a strategy before [to] reduce the number of infections and at the same time build up our capabilities to do testing, tracing, isolation,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an ER physician and the former health commissioner for Baltimore, last night. However, “we are reopening before those capabilities are in place. So in essence, we’re saying it’s too hard … We’re not going to be able to get there … And so we’re switching to a new phase,” Wen added. Faith Karimi reports for CNN.

Over half of Moscow’s deaths of coronavirus patients are not being counted as part of the overall death toll, according to a report in The Moscow Times, citing health officials. The officials said more than 60 percent of patient deaths from “alternate causes” have not been documented in the city’s Covid-19 death toll. Moscow has experienced far fewer deaths compared with other major world capitals, causing critics to argue the reported numbers should be doubled. Rebecca Klar reports for the Hill.

The U.S. is dialing up military pressure on China amid heightened tensions over the South China Sea and accusing Beijing of trying to leverage the coronavirus pandemic to expand its sphere of influence in the area. Over the last few weeks, Amercian Navy ships and Air Force B-1 bombers have conducted operations aimed at sending a very public message that the U.S. military intends to maintain a presence in the region and reassure allies. Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne report for CNN.

It would be “unacceptable” for French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi to give Americans first access to a possible coronavirus vaccine, French government officials said yesterday. The resistance came after comments by Sanofi chief executive Paul Hudson a day earlier that “the U.S. government has the right to the largest preorder because it’s invested in taking the risk.” James McAuley reports for the Washington Post.

Wuhan, the original epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in China, has tested over 3 million residents for the pathogen since April, and will now direct its testing efforts to the remainder of its 11 million population, according to state media. Al Jazeera reporting.

CORONAVIRUS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

5 key points from former top U.S. vaccine official Dr. Rick Bright’s testimony yesterday, including the Trump administration’s “rushed out” advice about the drug hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus, are provided by Melissa Macaya, Adrienne Vogt, Alex Rogers and Maggie Fox at CNN.

The mind-blowing number of deaths occurring in nursing homes warrants “extreme measures” by federal officials and states, the Washington Post editorial board argues, noting, “so far, both have balked.”

The success of China’s coronavirus response “comes from very clear roots of state control, not public trust or civil society,” James Palmer comments 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.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) yesterday rebuffed President Trump’s pleas for the Judiciary Committee chair to call former President Barack Obama to testify as part of oversight on the origins of the Russia investigation and the F.B.I.’s handling of the probe into Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn. “I think it would be a bad precedent to compel a former president to come before the Congress. That would open up a can of worms, and for a variety of reasons, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Graham told reporters. Andrew Desiderio reports for POLITICO.

In response to the Justice Department’s move to throw out the case against Flynn, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan has taken some “unusual steps.” Randall D. Eliason argues that the judge’s opposition is “appropriate” in an opinion piece for the Washington Post. 

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Senate voted yesterday to renew a set of expired F.B.I. tools used to investigate terrorism and espionage that lapsed earlier this year amid a G.O.P. stalemate, adopting modest new privacy protections for Americans caught up in national security cases. The 80-16 vote mostly brings to a conclusion a rare, monthslong debate in Congress over the nation’s surveillance laws that has been shaped by Republican ire over disclosures of mistakes by the F.B.I. in applications to wiretap Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser, during the initial stages of the Russia investigation. Charlie Savage and Nicholas Fandos report for the New York Times.

A lawsuit accusing President Trump of violating anti-corruption provisions of the Constitution with his ownership of a hotel in Washington while in office can proceed to fact-gathering about Trump’s profits, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday. The Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals voted, 9-6, to reject Trump’s bid to end the lawsuit the governments of Maryland and the District of Columbia brought alleging violations of the Constitution’s “emoluments” clauses that prohibit a president from accepting gifts or payments from foreign governments without congressional consent. Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.

Trump yesterday indicated that he may move to bring more of the F-35 supply chain to America, citing what he termed the “stupidity” of having work carried out overseas. Ellen Mitchell reports for the Hill.

The United States yesterday blamed Islamic State militants — not the Taliban — for a grim hospital attack in Kabul this week that killed two newborn babies, and it reiterated calls for Afghans to embrace a troubled peace effort with the Taliban insurgency. Reuters reporting.

The swearing in of Israel’s new unity government has been delayed until Sunday due to disagreement over the allocation of ministries. Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party has offered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu more time to divide up cabinet posts among members of his Likud party. The BBC reporting.

The Senate has approved a bill urging the Trump administration to strengthen its response to China’s crackdown on the Uighur Muslim minority. The bipartisan bill, introduced by Republican Senator Marco Rubio, calls for “visa and property-blocking” penalties against Chinese officials responsible for the repression of Uighurs and other Muslim groups in the country’s western region of Xinjiang. Al Jazeera 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).