The Early Edition: May 19, 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.  

WATCHDOG FIRING

The State Department Inspector General (I.G.) Steve Linick, who was dismissed by President Trump Friday, was investigating the Trump administration’s use of an emergency declaration to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, according to House Foreign Affairs Chair Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). “[Linick’s] office was investigating — at my request — Trump’s phony declaration of an emergency so he could send weapons to Saudi Arabia,” Engel said in a statement to POLITICO, adding, “We don’t have the full picture yet, but it’s troubling that Secretary Pompeo wanted Mr. Linick pushed out before this work could be completed.” Andrew Desiderio reports for POLITICO. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has denied that his recommendation to Trump to fire Linick was a retaliatory move, as at the time he did not know he was being investigated. “I’m not briefed on it … I usually see these investigations in final draft form 24 hours, 48 hours before the I.G. is prepared to release them,” he told the Washington Post yesterday, stressing, “So it’s simply not possible for this to be an act of retaliation. End of story.” BBC News reporting. 

The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), confirmed yesterday that he intends to introduce legislation to limit Trump’s ability to fire inspector generals within the administration, which would only allow dismissal “for cause,” such as misuse of funds, abuse of power and position or breaking the law. “This latest action by the President calls for an immediate response from Congress. That is why I will be introducing new legislation to create additional protections against removing an Inspector General, and to prevent a President from carrying out an unjustified—or worse, politically motivated—removal,” Menendez said in a statement. Jordain Carney reports for the Hill. 

Trump’s latest “purge” of Linick “is a blatant attempt to shield Pompeo from accountability” and “makes a mockery of Congress’s attempt to protect the independence of inspectors general,” writes the Washington Post editorial board.

CORONAVIRUS

The official number of people who have died from the coronavirus in the United States passed the grim 90,000 benchmark yesterday, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The United States has more than 1.5 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus. Globally, more than 4.8 million coronavirus cases and over 318,000 Covid-19 related deaths have been reported. Jennifer Calfas and Margherita Stancati report for the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump has threatened to permanently cut off funding to the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) and revoke U.S. membership if the U.N. agency does not make “major” changes in the next 30 days. In a four-page letter sent yesterday to W.H.O. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, which was posted to Trump’s Twitter account, the President criticized the organization for its initial coronavirus response and levied a series of allegations that the global health body overlooked or ignored various “credible” warning signs about the pandemic spreading in Wuhan, China, and failed to share information with other countries. The letter also accused the organization of showing an “alarming lack of independence” from China, including shunting Taiwanese health assessments and caving into pressure from Chinese President Xi Jinping. The BBC reporting.

Xi yesterday agreed to cooperate with an independent, W.H.O.-led probe into the origins of Covid-19 — but only once the pandemic is over. At the W.H.O.’s annual assembly, China also pledged $2 billion in aid over two years to help other countries fight the virus. Gerry Shih, Emily Rauhala and Josh Dawsey report for the Washington Post.

Moderna, the Massachusetts-based biotechnology company behind a leading effort to create a coronavirus vaccine, announced positive early results yesterday from its first human trials, a sign of encouragement for experts and governments anxious for a breakthrough. These results showed that each of the eight participants produced an antibody response on a level with that seen in people who have had the disease. The data have not been published in a scientific journal and are only an early step toward showing the experimental vaccine is safe and effective. Sarah Boseley reports for The Guardian.

Trump yesterday revealed that he has been taking hydroxychloroquine for about a week and a half to protect against the novel coronavirus, even though the anti-malarial drug is not proven to prevent or treat Covid-19 and can have potentially fatal side effects. Trump’s own government has warned that the drug should only be administered for Covid-19 in a hospital or research setting because it could lead to serious heart problems and other complications. The White House physician said in a statement last night that after he and Trump discussed hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the coronavirus, they decided that the drug’s “potential benefit” outweighed the “relative risks.” Annie Karni and Katie Thomas refit for the New York Times.

A new Congressional Oversight Commission report released yesterday found that the Treasury Department has barely spent any of the $500 billion set aside to help businesses and local governments. Senators are expected to question Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell about this during a hearing this morning. Erica Werner reports for the Washington Post.

The United States will announce today that it has signed a $354 million four-year contract with a firm based in Virginia to make generic medicines and pharmaceutical ingredients in the country needed to treat Covid-19. The move is part of efforts to bring pharmaceutical manufacturing to the United States from abroad. Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Katie Thomas report for the New York Times.

The Oregon Supreme Court late yesterday suspended a rural judge’s order earlier in the day that had thrown out statewide coronavirus restrictions imposed by Democratic Gov. Kate Brown. Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew Shirtcliff had ruled that Brown erred by not seeking the Legislature’s approval to extend the emergency orders past a 28-day limit. The Supreme Court’s ruling stays Shirtcliff’s decision until a review by all the high court justices has been carried out. AP reporting.

A Chinese laboratory has been working on a drug it believes has the power to bring the coronavirus pandemic to an end. A medicine being tested by scientists at China’s prestigious Peking University could not only cut the recovery time for those infected, but even offer short-term immunity from the virus, researchers say. Sunney Xie, director of the university’s Beijing Advanced Innovation Center for Genomics, told reporters that the drug has been “successful” at the animal trialling stage. AFP reporting.

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

Attorney General William Barr said yesterday that he does not expect the Department of Justice (D.O.J.)’s review of the origins of the F.B.I. investigation into Russian election interference will result in criminal investigations into either former Vice President and Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden or former President Barack Obama, further stressing that the review will not be a “tit-for-tat exercise.” Dustin Volz reports for the Wall Street Journal.

“‘Obamagate’ is here to stay,” writes Hugh Hewitt in an op-ed for the Washington Post, describing Republicans’ use of the word as “The intentional interference with the peaceful transition of power.”

AFGHANISTAN 

Afghan security forces today held off a brutal Taliban attack on Kunduz, officials said, a key city in northern Afghanistan that had briefly fallen to the militants twice in the past. Taliban fighters attacked multiple outposts of Afghan forces on the edges of the city at around 1:00 am, sparking fierce fighting, a defense ministry statement said. “With the support of air force their attack was repelled. Eleven Taliban were killed and eight wounded,” it said, adding that the scuffle went on for several hours. AFP reporting.

The United Nations (U.N.) today called for an immediate stop to the violence in Afghanistan, after over 380 innocent civilians were killed in April by either the Taliban or Afghan forces.  The U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, said “I call for a halt to the fighting and for parties to respect humanitarian law that is there to protect civilians.” Reuters reporting. 

U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad is to meet with the leaders of the Taliban and the Afghan government to push for the start of peace talks, the U.S. State Department confirmed. Khalilzad is expected to discuss with the Taliban the agreement by both sides to release prisoners, and to meet with government officials “to explore steps the Afghan government needs to take to make intra-Afghan negotiations begin as soon as possible.” Al Jazeera reporting. 

President Trump yesterday rejected The Wall Street Journal Editorial’s cautioning of his “impulsive” decision making on Afghanistan. “The Wall Street Journal Editorial states that it doesn’t want me to act in an ‘impulsive’ manner in Afghanistan. Could somebody please explain to them that we have been there for 19 years, and while soldier counts are way down now, hardly impulsive,” Trump said in a post on Twitter, further adding, “Besides, the Taliban is mixed about even wanting us to get out … They make a fortune $$$ by having us stay, and except at the beginning, we never really fought to win. We are more of a police force than the mighty military that we are, especially now as rebuilt. No, I am not acting impulsively!” Missy Ryan reports for the Washington Post. 

SYRIA

The United Nations Syria mediator has called on the United States and Russia to take advantage of “some calm” in the war-torn country and talk to each other about a push for peace. “With some calm, with the common threats of Covid-19 and ISIS, and with the Syrian people continuing to suffer, I want to stress that renewed and meaningful international cooperation, building trust and confidence between international stakeholders and with Syrians … is essential,” U.N. Syria envoy Geir Pedersen told the 15-member U.N. Security Council yesterday. Al Jazeera reporting.

Warring parties in the Syrian civil war have agreed to engage in talks in Geneva about the country’s constitution, the U.N. Special Envoy Geir Pedersen said today. “We need this to start somewhere,” he said, “The Constitutional Committee could be that arena where confidence starts to build.” Reuters reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

In a unanimous decision yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court said victims of al-Qaeda’s 1998 bombings on U.S. embassies in Africa were entitled to billions in punitive damages from Sudan, which was found to have assisted the terror group. Jess Bravin reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Iran’s busy Shahid Rajaee port terminal was the target of a significant cyberattack on May 9 that U.S. and foreign government officials say appears to have originated with Iran’s foe, Israel. The attack, which messed up traffic around the port for days, was carried out by Israeli spies, presumably in retaliation for an earlier attempt to infiltrate computers that operate rural water distribution systems in Israel, according to intelligence and cybersecurity officials familiar with the matter. Joby Warrick and Ellen Nakashima report for the Washington Post.

The Saudi military student behind last year’s Pensacola Naval Air Station shooting had “significant ties” to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (A.Q.A.P.), the Justice Department and the F.B.I. announced yesterday. U.S. investigators uncovered the al-Qaeda connection after the F.B.I. cracked the encryption on the Saudi attacker’s iPhone and have been able to use the information on the devices to conduct a recent counterterrorism operation in Yemen, Attorney General William Barr and F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray said at a news conference. David Shortell and Evan Perez report for CNN. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) yesterday picked Sen. Marco Rubio (R-F.L.) to serve as the acting intelligence committee chair after Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) stepped down last week amid a Justice Department probe into allegations of insider trading. “I am glad to announce that Senator Marco Rubio has accepted my invitation,” McConnell wrote in a statement. Emma Tucker reports for The Daily Beast. 

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

Associate 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)