The Early Edition: May 20, 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 5 million people worldwide have been infected with the novel coronavirus and at least 323,600 people have died. More than 1.52 million cases and almost 92,000 Covid-19 related deaths have been recorded in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University data. Henrik Pettersson, Byron Manley and Sergio Hernandez reports for CNN.

The World Health Organization (W.H.O.)’s member states adopted a resolution yesterday calling for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive” assessment of the W.H.O.-coordinated international response to the coronavirus pandemic, with member nations rejecting President Trump’s angry demands for punitive action against the U.N. organization and largely ignoring his calls for an overhaul. The outcome left the United States on its own as officials from China, Russia and the European Union (E.U.) lambasted Trump over his heated threats even as they acknowledged the need for an evaluation of how the W.H.O. acted as the virus spread from China to the rest of the world. Michael D. Shear and Andrew Jacobs report for the New York Times.

A leaked Pentagon memo yesterday revealed that senior Department of Defense (D.O.D.) officials have been preparing for the prospect that the military could be dealing with a “globally-persistent” coronavirus pandemic well into 2021. The memo, obtained by Task & Purpose, also warned of the “real possibility” that a vaccine for Covid-19 will not be ready for use until “at least the summer of 2021.” Ellen Mitchell reports for the Hill.

The United States, Mexico and Canada announced yesterday they would extend a ban on non-essential cross-border travel by an additional 30 days amid the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said the land-border restrictions, introduced in mid-March and previously due to expire today, would now be extended until June 22 for both Canada and Mexico. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexico’s Foreign Ministry confirmed the 30-day extension. Reuters reporting.

The Trump administration extended a public-health order allowing it to turn away migrants crossing U.S. borders — including unaccompanied children and anyone asking for humanitarian protection — without giving them access to the asylum system until the government determines the new coronavirus no longer poses a threat to the public. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) issued the indefinite extension yesterday. The order was first imposed in March for a duration of 30 days and extended in April for a further 30 days. Michelle Hackman and Andrew Restuccia report for the Wall Street Journal.

Three House G.O.P. lawmakers are urging the Trump administration to issue sanctions against various top Chinese government officials over their initial response to the coronavirus outbreak, saying the officials concealed information during the early stages of the crisis. In a letter sent to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Republicans called for the Trump administration to target specific individuals whom they believe are “responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” by using the authority granted in the Global Magnitsky Act. The law enables the government to freeze the funds of foreign officials held in U.S. banks in addition to preventing them from obtaining visas. Juliegrace Brufke reports for the Hill.

Brazil, India and Indonesia, together with Mexico, Russia and South Africa, have started to relax lockdowns despite rising coronavirus infection numbers, as pressure mounts to reopen businesses and curb increasing poverty. The decisions of their governments to loosen virus-related measures highlight the greater pressure on low and middle-income economies to restore people’s livelihoods and ramp up exports as the U.S., Europe and China lift their own restrictions. The Financial Times reporting. 

CORONAVIRUS: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

The contrast between the initial [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] C.D.C. guidelines and what actually was released demonstrates how much this ambiguity seems to be a deliberate strategy,” Drs. Megan Ranney, Dara Kass and Esther Choo write in an essay for NBC News Think, commenting, “the language of the newly published official guidelines is not simply nonspecific, it’s harmful.”

Nine questions to ask White House physician Dr. Conley about President Trump’s use of anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, including ones that touch on his potential abuse of his office, are provided by Sidney Blumenthal at Just Security.

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

The lawyers of President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn yesterday asked a federal appeals court for an order forcing the trial judge presiding over his case to dismiss it as the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) had requested. Flynn’s attorneys argue that the trial judge, Emmet Sullivan, who recently requested retired judge John Gleeson to advise on whether Flynn should face an additional charge for perjury, overstepped his authority: “[he] has no authority to adopt the role of the prosecutor,” Flynn’s lawyers wrote, adding that his attempt to appoint the retired judge shows “a disturbing lack of appreciation of the court’s limited role.” Pete Williams and Tom Winter report for NBC News.  

The Trump administration yesterday declassified an email sent from former national security adviser Susan Rice to herself about a meeting that discussed “sensitive information related to Russia” and Michael Flynn. The email was sent on Trump’s inauguration and details conversations had at an Oval Office meeting on Jan 5, 2017 between herself, former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden, former F.B.I. Director James Comey and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. Betsy Woodruff Swan reports for POLITICO. 

Susan Rice has again called for the Trump administration to release transcripts of phone calls between Flynn, Trump and Sergey Kislyak, the former Russian ambassador to the U.S.. “In the interest of transparency, Ambassador Rice again calls upon the Director of National Intelligence to release the unredacted transcripts of all Kislyak-Flynn calls … The American people deserve the full transcripts so they can judge for themselves Michael Flynn’s conduct,” spokesperson Erin Pelton said in a statement on behalf of Rice. Tal Axelrod reports for the Hill. 

A member of Ukraine’s parliament Andriy Derkach released yesterday recordings of private phone calls between Joe Biden and former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, alleging they were recorded by Poroshenko. The recordings, however, reveal little new light on Biden’s connection to Ukraine, which was a focus point during Trump’s impeachment last year. Paul Sonne and Rosalind S. Helderman report for the Washington Post. 

An inquiry by trial judge Emmet Sullivan into the D.O.J.’s decision to drop charges against Michael Flynn will not suffice; what is needed is an investigation by the D.O.J.’s office of Professional Responsibility (O.P.R.), which was “established to act in moments like these,” writes Melanie Sloane for Just Security.

IRAN

The U.S. Navy warned yesterday it will take “lawful defensive measures” against vessels in the Mideast that come within 100 meters (yards) of its warships, in an alert that appeared aimed directly at Iran after a close encounter last month with Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf. “Armed vessels approaching within 100 meters of a U.S. naval vessel may be interpreted as a threat,” according to the text of the notice, which came after President Trump’s recent threat to fire on any Iranian vessels that harass U.S. Navy warships. Reuters reporting.

The Iranian navy will maintain routine operations in the Gulf, the I.S.N.A. news agency reported today, a day after the United States issued new guidelines for mariners. “The naval units of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman will continue their regular missions in accordance with professional principles as in the past,” I.S.N.A. quoted an unnamed military official as saying. Reuters reporting.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared yesterday that the country’s government will pull out of long-standing peace agreements and security arrangements with Israel and the U.S., including the 1993 Oslo Agreement, after the new Israeli unity government said it plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. “The Palestine Liberation Organization and the State of Palestine are absolved, as of today, of all agreements and understandings with the American and Israeli governments,” Abbas said during an emergency meeting in Ramallah. David M. Halbfinger and Adam Rasgon report for the New York Times. 

The conflict between the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah and Israel forces is set to reignite as each side threatens the other with the prospect of war. Although Israeli troops were forced by the militia group to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000, tensions have recently intensified, with Israel striking Hezbollah forces in Syria and both sides seemingly preparing its forces for war; “We are preparing seriously for the next war … We’re not taking any shortcuts because we understand we have to be extremely strong to defeat the enemy,” said Col. Israel Friedler, an Israeli commander. AP reporting.

LIBYA

Libyan National Army (L.N.A.) forces, commanded by Khalifa Haftar, have decided to retreat 1.2 miles-1.9 miles from all front lines in Tripoli from midday, their spokesperson said early today, after suffering sharp turnarounds in their campaign to seize the city. “We decided to move our forces in all battlefronts in Tripoli a distance of 2-3 kilometers” to allow citizens to move more liberally during the end of Ramadan and in the run-up to the Eid al-Fitr holiday, Ahmed al-Mismari said. Mismari urged the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (G.N.A.), whose forces the L.N.A. is battling, to do the same but did not say whether its own withdrawal was conditional on it doing so. Reuters reporting.

The top U.N. official in Libya warned yesterday that the conflict in the North African country will “intensify, broaden and deepen” because of increasing foreign intervention and the “influx” of weapons, military supplies and mercenaries to both sides. Acting U.N. special envoy Stephanie Williams said the escalation will have “devastating consequences for the Libyan people” who are “getting lost in the mix, their voices crowded out.” She called on the U.N. Security Council to apply “consistent and credible pressure on those regional and international actors that are fueling the conflict.” AP reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Gunmen opened fire in a mosque in central Afghanistan last night, killing at least seven worshippers and injuring five others, officials said. Parwan province’s police chief Haroon Mubarez said yesterday the gunmen stormed the mosque and fired on people praying after breaking their Ramadan fast. The Taliban denied responsibility. Al Jazeera reporting.

The Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday advanced the nomination of John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) to serve as President Trump’s director of national intelligence. Committee members voted 8 to 7 along party lines in favor of Ratcliffe, following a remarkable hearing earlier this month held under social distancing guidelines. Ratcliffe is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate in a vote likely to take place after Memorial Day, according to congressional aides. Shane Harris reporting for the Washington Post.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s exclusive “Madison Dinners” have raised new concerns after an NBC News investigation found that the elite guest lists featured few diplomatic invitees and that “every single member of the House or the Senate who has been invited is a Republican.” When the dinners began, two State Department officials said, concerns were raised internally to the State Department’s legal adviser, who apparently responded by saying events held by the secretary should be related to foreign policy. However, many of those invited seem to have little connection to the world of diplomacy, like country singer Reba McEntire, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and N.A.S.C.A.R. driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. On Capitol Hill, several committees have also been investigating the dinners, congressional aides said. Josh Lederman, Laura Strickler and Dan De Luce report for 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).

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)