The Early Edition: May 28, 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.  

CORONAVIRUS

The U.S. has surpassed 100,000 deaths in the new coronavirus outbreak in under four months   meaning that around as many Americans have died from Covid-19 than from the Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. Confirmed U.S. deaths stood at 100,442 early this morning, more than any other country, with nearly 1.7 million infections, accounting for about 30% of the worldwide total, according to the tally compiled by Johns Hopkins University. More than 5.7 million cases of the coronavirus have been recorded worldwide as well as at least 356,000 global deaths. BBC News reporting.

New projections of the number of asymptomatic individuals with the coronavirus suggest that “silent” Covid-19 is much more rampant than once thought, according to two studies published yesterday. The first study, published in JAMA Network Open, found that 42 percent of a group of 78 patients who tested positive for Covid-19 in Wuhan, China, had no symptoms of the illness. The second study, published in Thorax, examined 217 people on a cruise bound for Antarctica and found that over half (59 percent) tested positive, but only 19 percent of those patients displayed symptoms; the other 81 percent were symptom-free. Erika Edwards reports for NBC News.

House lawmakers cast congressional floor votes remotely for the first time yesterday though “under a legal cloud” after Republican leaders filed a federal lawsuit disputing the constitutionality of the arrangement. The new system of voting by proxy was advanced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and fellow Democratic leaders this month as a temporary measure that would enable lawmakers’ full participation during the coronavirus pandemic, which has made travel and in-person meetings unsafe. The House approved the resolution — calling for sanctions against Chinese officials for grim treatment of the Uighur ethnic minority in the Xinjiang region — on a 413-to-1 vote, with 69 yes votes cast by proxy. Mike DeBonis reports for the Washington Post.

The European Union (E.U.) yesterday unveiled a $2 trillion coronavirus response plan to help the bloc recover from its deepest-ever recession brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. The proposal, compiled of a €750 billion ($824 billion) recovery fund and €1.1 trillion budget over the next seven years, must overcome divisions between member states over the conditions that should be attached for access to the money. However, if supported by all 27 nations, the plan would represent a historic step in pooling together national finance resources across the region. Laurence Norman reports for the Wall Street Journal.

A Covid-19 test and trace scheme will begin today in England to allow the relaxing of lockdown measures for most of the population, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said. The service, which will have a task-force of 40,000 experts to test those with symptoms and establish their contacts, will not initially include the App that is key to finding anonymous contacts. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the App, which is being trialled on the Isle of Wight, would be launched when the system was “bedded in.” Reuters reporting.

A step-by-step reconstruction of events reveals a long streak of mistakes and blunders by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) in handling the coronavirus crisis, argues Salvatore Babones 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.

CHINA

China’s legislature – The National People’s Congress – today approved plans to impose new national security laws on Hong Kong, after an overwhelming majority 2,878 lawmakers voted in favor of the legislation, with one dissenting, six abstaining and a further one choosing not to cast a vote. The new laws have been claimed to “establish and enhance the legal framework and enforcement mechanisms for national security [in Hong Kong],” state broadcaster China Central Television said. Chun Han Wong reports for the Wall Street Journal. 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress yesterday that Hong Kong can no longer be viewed as autonomous from China, a statement which is likely to have significant implications for the special trade relation between the U.S. and the Hong Kong. “The State Department is required by the Hong Kong Policy Act to assess the autonomy of the territory from China. After careful study of developments over the reporting period, I certified to Congress today that Hong Kong does not continue to warrant treatment under United States laws in the same manner as U.S. laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1997,” he said in his statement. Edward Wong reports for the New York Times. 

The U.S. and China argued over Hong Kong at the United Nations (U.N.) yesterday after President Trump’s administration called for a virtual U.N. Security Council meeting to be held to discuss “a matter of urgent global concern ​that implicates international peace and security.” China rejected such calls, with the country’s U.N. ambassador Zhang Jun stating in a post on twitter: “China categorically rejects the baseless request of the US for a Security Council meeting. Legislation on national security for Hong Kong is purely China’s internal affairs. It has nothing to do with the mandate of the Security Council.” Reuters reporting. 

The House yesterday passed legislation – The Uighur Human Rights Act – that authorizes sanctions against Chinese officials thought to be responsible for human rights violations against Uighur Muslims and other Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region of China. The Bill, introduced by Sen Marco Rubio (R-Fla), was passed by a 413-1 vote and has now been sent to Trump for approval. Al Jazeera reporting. 

President Xi Jinping “plays a dangerous game of chicken” with his plans to force through new laws in Hong Kong, and his “lack of concern should worry democratic nations everywhere,” argues Doug Bandow for Foreign Policy.

IRAN

The U.S. said yesterday it will terminate the last remaining sanctions waivers enshrined in the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, eliminating key provisions intended to encourage the transition of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions to civilian use. In a statement posted to Twitter, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “Iran’s continued nuclear escalation makes clear this cooperation must end … Further attempts at nuclear extortion will only bring greater pressure on the regime.” The waivers had previously allowed some work to proceed at Iranian nuclear facilities without fear of U.S. sanctions. Activities were supposed to include repurposing nuclear sites for peaceful means and boosting infrastructure to ensure compliance with safety regulations; yet Trump administration officials argue it enabled Tehran to advance its efforts to pursue a nuclear weapon. Laura Kelly reports for the Hill.

Iran’s parliament elected a former mayor of Tehran linked to the Revolutionary Guard as its next speaker today, cementing hard-line control of the body as tensions between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic remain high over its failed nuclear deal. Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf’s assumption of power follows a string of unsuccessful presidential bids and 12 years as the leader of Iran’s capital city. Many, however, remember Qalibaf for his support as a Revolutionary Guard general for a bloody crackdown on Iranian university students in 1999. AP reporting.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Attorney General William Barr has asked U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas John Bash to review the practice of “unmasking” before and after the 2016 presidential election, Department of Justice (D.O.J.) spokesperson Kerri Kupec said yesterday, adding that although Barr had already tapped John Durham to conduct investigations, the practice required further review. Rebecca Klar reports for the Hill. 

Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will testify next week as part of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s probe, chaired by Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.), into the origins of the F.B.I. investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Graham confirmed Rosenstein will address “new revelations” in D.O.J. Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report on surveillance warrant applications linked to Trump’s former campaign aide Cater Page, and stated: “This will be the first in a series of oversight hearings regarding all things Crossfire Hurricane and the Mueller investigation.” Jordain Carney reports for the Hill. 

Eli Lake’s essay about the “railroading” of former national security adviser Michael Flynn has been called “the best summary of the pro-Flynn argument you’ll ever read.” But Lake’s analysis omits and mischaracterizes important parts of the record, writes former U.S. Attorney and Professor Barbara McQuade for Just Security. 

F.I.S.A.

The House’s plan to vote on major changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.) was postponed yesterday after opposition from Republicans and the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) and threats by President Trump to veto the bill. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s office announced “Members are advised that votes are no longer expected in the House tonight,” but did not confirm if and when the bill will be reconsidered. Ellen Nakashima and Mike DeBonis report for the Washington Post. 

The head of the D.O.J. John Demers expressed concerns over the proposed changes to F.I.S.A. which saw the department withdraw support after a further amendment was added by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), which Demers argued: “would give the amicus access to all kinds of information in the F.B.I. files and the court files that we believe would put at risk our productive relationships with foreign partners and their willingness to share information with us.” Betsy Woodruff Swan reports for POLITICO. 

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

President Trump is preparing to direct a review of a law that has long protected tech giants Twitter, Facebook and Google from being responsible for what gets posted on their platforms, according to a draft executive order seen by Reuters. It comes after he threatened to shut down social media platforms he accused of suppressing conservative voices, after Twitter added a fact-check warning to his tweets for the first time. Reuters reporting.

Senate Democrats yesterday released a new report on Republican efforts to fill the courts with conservative-leaning judges and the vast influence of one conservative activist. “Our report exposes a twisted web of dark money, and special interest groups who behind the scenes are investing millions and millions to plant ideological activist judges completely remake the courts, and ultimately rewrite the Constitution,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). In their report, the senators pointed to activist Leonard Leo, the former chief of the conservative Federalist Society, as the impetus behind the many of the president’s appointments, including Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch. Julie Tsirkin reports for NBC News.

The U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan is considerably ahead of schedule, with troop strength down to almost 8,600, partly due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, U.S. and NATO officials said. A main provision of the Feb. 29 agreement between the Taliban and the United States, to which the Afghan government was not a party, involved a U.S. pledge to reduce its military presence in Afghanistan from about 13,000 to 8,600 by mid-July and, conditions allowing, to zero by May 2021. Reuters reporting.

Taiwan plans to purchase land-based Boeing-made Harpoon anti-ship missiles as part of its military modernization efforts, its defense ministry said today, the latest purchase from the United States to tackle a growing threat from China. Reuters reporting.

The Trump administration is tossing aside one nuclear weapons treaty after another in order to pursue more ambitious nuclear arms control talks — but “such bravado ignores the fact that the White House doesn’t approve federal spending, no country can afford an all-out nuclear arms race, and no one “wins” arms races,” Daryl G. Kimball comments for Just Security. 

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)