The Early Edition: July 10, 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. 

TRUMP TAXES

The US Supreme Court has ruled that a Manhattan grand jury may have access to some of President Trump’s financial and tax records, firmly rejecting Trump’s claims of “absolute” immunity under the law and dealing a major blow to the president in his fight to keep his tax records secret – although it seems unlikely the documents will be turned over before the November election. Prosecutors in New York had sought the documents as part of a probe into hush-money payments to two women, including one to the pornographic film actor star Stormy Daniels, while House Democrats sought financial records from the Trump Organization’s accounting firm and two banks to determine if foreign governments, including Russia, hold sway over him. The twin 7-2 rulings authored by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts send the cases back to lower courts for further review of the subpoenas at issue. Adam Liptak reports for the New York Times.

Key questions on the Supreme Court’s decisions are answered by David A. Fahrenthold at the Washington Post.

A perceptive and succinct analysis of the pair of rulings affirming Trump’s accountability to state criminal law and to Congressional oversight is provided by Norman L. Eisen and Victoria Bassetti at Just Security.

“The Supreme Court’s dismissal of President Trump’s claims of immunity was a reminder that institutional prerogatives still matter in Washington, even in a time of extreme partisanship,” Peter Baker writes in an analysis for the New York Times.

The wins for Trump and Chief Justice Roberts make clear that Congress must buttress its critical oversight role — it certainly cannot lean on the courts to help out, Josh Chafetz argues for the New York Times.

“The court effectively rewarded Trump’s policy of total noncooperation with Congress and other investigators, allowing him to foil attempts to scrutinize his behavior before the November election,” the Washington Post editorial board argues, commenting, by unnecessarily drawing out the dispute, the justices increased the incentive for future presidents to challenge subpoenas until courts force compliance.

RUSSIAN BOUNTY INTELLIGENCE

Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress yesterday that the Trump administration was “perhaps not” doing “as much as we could or should” to prevent Russia and other foreign powers from supplying weapons to and supporting America’s adversaries in Afghanistan. Questioned at a House Armed Services hearing about the long history of Russia’s support for the Taliban, Milley said Russia was among many U.S. enemies that for years have been providing “training, money, weapons, propaganda … and a lot of other things” to the Taliban and the Haqqani network, an Afghan guerrilla group. The military has hit back on the ground, he said, but “the issue is higher than that.” Milley said the Pentagon was committed to discovering whether the Russians had paid for attacks on American troops in Afghanistan and promised a response if the reports were confirmed. Courtney Kube and Ken Dilanian report for NBC News.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who also testified, confirmed yesterday that he had received a briefing about intelligence that Russia was making payments to Taliban-linked militants, seemingly acknowledging that Russia’s support for the militant group in Afghanistan is not a “hoax,” as President Trump has claimed. However, Esper also made clear that he has not seen intelligence that corroborates claims that the “bounty” payments caused specific military casualties, walking a tightrope between acknowledging a well-known threat and potentially clashing with the President. Zachary Cohen reports for CNN.

Esper told lawmakers yesterday he has opened an investigation into leaks across the Pentagon, in response to a spate of “bad” disclosures of classified information to the news media over the past year and amid reports that Russians paid militants in Afghanistan to kill U.S. soldiers. “We are aggressively pursuing leaks within the Defense Department,” Esper told the House Armed Services Committee. “It’s bad and it’s unlawful and it needs to stop.” Lara Seligman reports for POLITICO.

GEOFFREY BERMAN

Attorney General William Barr repeatedly pressured Manhattan’s former top federal prosecutor to quit during a June 18 meeting at a New York hotel and in a subsequent phone call, the ousted prosecutor, Geoffrey Berman told lawmakers yesterday, detailing for the first time the sequence of events that led to his departure the next day. Berman, in a written statement to the House Judiciary Committee, said Barr persistently tried to tempt Berman into resigning his post by proposing he consider other positions in government, including the chairmanship of the Securities and Exchange Commission or the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. Berman’s testimony prompted a suggestion from Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), chair of the Judiciary Committee, that Barr’s offer of a different post in exchange for stepping down could amount to criminal activity. Kyle Cheney reports for POLITICO.

Senior administration officials directed Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Ryan McCarthy, the Secretary of the Army, to sift for misconduct that would warrant blocking Vindman’s promotion. They were unable to find anything, according to multiple sources, writes Robin Wright for The New Yorker.

ROGER STONE

President Trump suggested in a pair of interviews yesterday that he was prepared to grant clemency to Roger Stone, his friend and ally who was convicted of, among other things, lying to Congress in a case related to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russian election interference investigation and is headed to prison this month. Trump is broadly anticipated to pardon or commute Stone’s sentence, according to at least half a dozen sources close to the President. Kevin Liptak and Kaitlan Collins report for CNN. 

That use of pardon power could create legal liability for Trump himself, argues Sam Berger for Just Security.

CORONAVIRUS

The United States reported more than 65,500 new Covid-19 cases yesterday, setting a new single-day record, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The U.S., with a total of 3.1 million cases and 133,300 deaths, accounts for roughly a quarter of the world’s 12.2 million cases and 555,000 deaths. Blake Montgomery reports for The Daily Beast.

As the US shattered the world record for most Covid-19 cases in one day, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, yesterday said states needed to pause reopening efforts. “Rather than think in terms of reverting back down to a complete shutdown, I would think we need to get the states pausing in their opening process,” the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and key member of the White House coronavirus task force, told the Hill. Fauci’s comment marked a retreat from one he made a day earlier in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, when he said states should consider shutdowns. Peter Sullivan reports for The Hill.

California will become the first state to challenge the Trump administration’s decision to bar international students from remaining in the US if their coursework is entirely online when classes resume in the fall, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced yesterday afternoon. The lawsuit, which was expected to be filed yesterday in U.S. District Court for Northern California, seeks a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the new visa policy issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Alicia Victoria Lozano reports for NBC News.

Almost 100 members of Congress are demanding the Trump administration halt the new visa policy, according to a letter shared exclusively with NBC News yesterday. Led by Massachusetts Democrats Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, lawmakers sent the letter, which calls the proposed policy “irrational and xenophobic,” to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE. “This new policy would effectively punish international students at colleges, universities, and other institutions that have decided to move their courses online in order to protect their communities from COVID-19,” the letter said. Daniella Silva reports for NBC News.

The World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday announced the creation of a panel to lead a probe and evaluation of how the world responded to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The panel, which will select the investigators for the review, will be expected to publish an interim report of its investigation by November. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement the world deserves an assessment for its handling of the pandemic and that “now is the time for self-reflection.” Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

The WHO yesterday unveiled new guidelines on the spreading of the novel coronavirus that acknowledge some reports of airborne transmission of the virus that causes Covid-19, but stopped short of confirming that the virus spreads through the air. In its latest transmission guidance, the WHO recognized that some outbreak reports related to indoor crowded spaces have suggested the possibility of aerosol transmission, such as during choir practice, in restaurants or in fitness classes. But the WHO said further research is “urgently needed to investigate such instances and assess their significance for transmission of COVID-19.” Reuters 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.

Latest updates on the pandemic at The Guardian. 

OTHER US DEVELOPMENTS

America’s intelligence agencies risk returning to “dangerous” pre-9/11 habits, a recently departed top counterterrorism official is warning in his first public comments on the matter. Russell Travers, the former head of the U.S. government’s hub for analysis of counterterrorism intelligence, was so troubled that he shared his concerns with the intelligence community’s inspector general in his last weeks on the job. About a week later, he was summarily ousted, he says — and the Trump administration official who sacked him did not give reasons explain why. Betsy Woodruff Swan reports for POLITICO.

A federal judge has requested that a full appeals court review an order telling him to throw out the case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn. A three-judge panel had ruled in favor of Flynn, saying U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan was obligated to grant the government’s motion to dismiss the charges. The full appeals court has the option to rehear the case, but it rarely does so. Any active judge on the court could call for a vote on whether to reconsider the issue. Byron Tau reports for the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, was returned to prison yesterday, less than two months after being released early to home confinement over concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. In a statement, the federal Bureau of Prisons said that Cohen had been sent back to jail after he “refused the conditions of his home confinement,” which include requirements that he obtain approval for any media interviews. Ryan Lucas reports for NPR.

The military’s top officer yesterday depicted Confederate leaders as “traitors” and said he is taking a “hard look” at renaming 10 Army installations that honor them, despite the president’s objection to any changes. “The Confederacy, the American Civil War was fought, and it was an act of rebellion,” the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, told members of the House Armed Services Committee. “It was an act of treason at the time against the Union, against the Stars and Stripes, against the U.S. Constitution, and those officers turned their back on their oath.” Alex Horton reports for the Washington Post.

A female National Guard soldier graduated from the Army’s elite Special Forces training yesterday and earned the title of Green Beret, the first woman to do so since the Pentagon opened up all combat roles, including those in the Special Operations community, to women in 2016. The soldier’s socially distant graduation is a historic moment, as the Green Berets were one of the last assignments in the Army without any women. Thomas Gibbons reports for the New York Times.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS 

The Trump administration yesterday imposed sanctions on senior Chinese officials over human rights abuses against the largely Muslim Uighur minority. The sanctions apply to three Chinese Communist Party officials, the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau and a former government official. The move is likely to ratchet up already high tensions between the U.S. and China. BBC News reporting.

At least 47 pro-government forces and 17 civilians were killed during the last week of fighting in Afghanistan, Fahim Abed writes in a war casualty report for the New York Times.

“All drone strikes ‘in self-defense’ should go before Security Council,” a senior UN-appointed independent rights expert argued yesterday. The increasing use of weaponized drones risks destabilizing global peace and security and creating a “drone power club” among nations, that face no effective accountability for deploying them as part of their “war on terror,” Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The UN News Centre reporting.

Japan has unveiled plans to construct one of the world’s most sophisticated stealth jet fighters, likely a twin-engine aircraft designed to take over the country’s key air defense role sometime in the next decade. The Ministry of Defense this week told members of the Diet, the country’s parliament, that the new sixth-generation fighters would start production in fiscal year 2031 and replace the country’s aging fleet of almost 100 F-2 jets, single-engine fourth-generation fighters modeled after American F-16s, according to Japan’s national broadcaster NHK News. Brad Lendon reports for CNN.

A blast was heard in western Tehran today, state broadcaster IRIB said, citing online reports that a senior official in that area of the city denied. IRIB said power went out in the part of the city suburbs where the explosion occurred. It provided no further details about the cause of the blast or possible casualties. Reuters 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).