The Early Edition: July 21, 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. 

US DEVELOPMENTS

A whistleblower complaint from a State Department official about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s conduct, made public for the first time through a lawsuit and obtained by McClatchy, reveals that eyewitnesses repeatedly sought to raise concerns with executive leadership and legal advisers about his “questionable activities.” The whistleblower said they had additional evidence to support their allegations against Pompeo, according to a redacted complaint to the State Department inspector general’s hotline. The complainant said concerned individuals were “blocked” from reporting the activity to the department’s Office of Legal Affairs. Michael Wilner and Bryan Lowry report for McClatchy.

Michael Cohen is suing Attorney General William Barr, alleging he was put back in prison because of a tell-all book he is writing about his years as the President’s fixer. In court papers filed yesterday against Barr, the head of the Bureau of Prisons and the warden at the Otisville, New York, federal prison, Cohen’s lawyers alleged that the Justice Department retaliated against Cohen for penning a book about the years he worked for Trump, violating his First Amendment right to free speech. The American Civil Liberties Union joined Cohen in the suit. Kara Scannell reports for CNN.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is targeting a July 30 confirmation hearing for Anthony Tata, Trump’s pick to be undersecretary of defense for policy who was recently forced to take back a string of offensive and conspiratorial tweets uncovered by CNN, two people familiar with the move told Foreign Policy, despite unusually forceful resistance to the choice from Senate Democrats and rights groups. The push to install Tata in a new position at the Pentagon comes as the Trump administration is pushing the department to hire Rich Higgins, a former National Security Council staffer later fired for promoting fringe conspiracy theories and known for Islamophobic tweets, to serve as chief of staff to the undersecretary of defense for policy. Jack Detsch reports for Foreign Policy.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have requested an urgent counterintelligence briefing from the FBI, citing concerns that members of Congress are being targeted by a “concerted foreign interference campaign” intended to influence the 2020 presidential election. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), and the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), sent a letter dated July 13 to FBI Director Christopher Wray asking that the all-members briefing take place before the August congressional recess. Among the Democrats’ concerns is that a Senate investigation headed by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has become a vehicle for “laundering” a foreign operation to harm Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, according to two people familiar with the demand. Natasha Bertrand, Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio report for POLITICO.

The Senate yesterday confirmed former conservative activist Russ Vought to lead the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), a role he has held in an acting capacity since March. Vought’s tenure as interim OMB director has drawn scrutiny from Democrats who have voiced concern about his part in holding up U.S. security aid to Ukraine and his devising of White House budgets that prioritized spending and tax cuts. Paul Kiernan reports for The Wall Street Journal.

The US Supreme Court yesterday rejected a bid by House Democrats to speed up its attempt to enforce subpoenas seeking Trump’s financial records. The one-sentence order means that the case will not return to lower courts before Aug. 3. Pete Williams reports for NBC News.

A United States federal judge in Maryland is permitting dozens of Muslim plaintiffs to advance with a lawsuit against Barr and other federal employees challenging the constitutionality of the government’s watchlist of people identified as “known or suspected terrorists.” Government attorneys had asked U.S. District Judge Paula Xinis in Greenbelt to throw out the lawsuit. But in a 65-page ruling posted yesterday, she allowed it to proceed. Al Jazeera reporting.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) is holding a hearing today on the nomination of C.J. Mahoney to be the Legal Adviser at the U.S. State Department — a crucial role responsible for ensuring the United States upholds its international legal obligations. Co-Editor-in-Chief Tessa Bridgeman and Danielle Schulkin published a list of questions at Just Security that the SFRC should consider asking Mahoney.

WHITE HOUSE RESPONSE TO PROTESTS OVER RACIAL INJUSTICE 

President Trump has vowed to send more federal enforcement officers to several American cities led by Democrats to control ongoing protests over the death in police custody of African-American man George Floyd in what Governors and other officials say is an attempt to boost Trump’s re-election chances. The president’s threat came after a federal crackdown on anti-racism protests in Portland, Ore., that involved unmarked cars and unidentified forces in camouflage. Speaking to reporters at the White House yesterday, Trump said officers sent to Oregon had done a “fantastic job” restoring order amid days of protests in Portland. He identified New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland as places in need of federal agents, describing those cities’ mayors as “liberal Democrats.” Peter Baker, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Monica Davey report for the New York Times.

In a 215-190 vote, the Democratic-controlled House yesterday approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would add limits to the Insurrection Act after President Trump threatened to invoke it to deploy active-duty troops against recent demonstrations over racial injustice. The vote fell mainly along party-lines, though 14 Democrats voted with Republicans against the change. One Republican, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (Wash.), voted in favor of the amendment. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

“[Trump] is leveraging a manufactured excuse to use military and quasi-military forces for his political benefit — just as the White House ordered a group of peaceful protesters to be cleared from a plaza in Washington so Trump could visit a church for a photo opp,” Philip Bump writes in an analysis for the Washington Post of the “dubious” deployment of armed enforcers within the U.S..

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected 3.8 million and killed nearly 141,000 people in the United States, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been 14.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 610,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

Following a marathon summit, European Union (EU) leaders yesterday agreed on a €750 billion ($858 billion) spending package to fight the virus-induced recession. Under the stimulus plan, the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, will for the first time issue debt on a large scale to fund grants and loans for hard-hit countries. Daniel Boffey and Jennifer Rankin report for The Guardian.

Two potential vaccines to protect against the novel coronavirus — one from Oxford University and the British-Swedish drug maker AstraZeneca and the other from China’s CanSino Biologics — have triggered immune responses in hundreds of humans without dangerous side effects, according to two studies published yesterday in the British medical journal The Lancet. A third different type of vaccine, a joint venture between drug giant Pfizer and the German company BioNTech, also showed promise in a pre-print paper released yesterday that has not yet been peer-reviewed, adding to hopes that at least one will prove safe and effective. David D. Kirkpatrick reports for the New York Times.

President Trump yesterday announced plans to bring back the White House coronavirus task force briefings, likely starting today, as infection rates rise across the country. The regular briefings have been on hiatus since April. Shannon Pettypiece reports for NBC News.

Trump said yesterday that wearing a face mask was “patriotic,” a marked change from his previous rhetoric. Justin Baragona reports for The Daily Beast.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) yesterday restored public access to Covid-19 hospitalization data that officials said offers a more accurate picture of the outbreak than the data previously compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Hospitals are now instructed to report data to the government through a new system with the HHS. Rachel Roubein, Dan Diamond and Darius Tahir report for POLITICO.

A map and analysis of all confirmed cases of the virus in the US is available at the New York Times.

US 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. 

CHINA

The US Commerce Department added 11 Chinese companies to a trade blacklist over alleged human rights violations regarding China’s treatment of Uighurs in the western Xinjiang region. The move, which leaves the firms unable to buy parts from American companies without U.S. government approval, triggered an accusation of slander from China, which pledged to take measures to protect its companies’ rights. Reuters reporting.

China said today it would respond strongly to Britain’s suspension of its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and called on the U.K. to immediately correct its mistakes. The British government suspended its extradition agreement with Hong Kong yesterday following a new Chinese national security law that critics say devastates the city’s autonomy from Beijing. BBC News reporting.

Beijing is weighing retaliating against the Chinese operations of two major European telecommunication-equipment makers, Nokia and Ericsson, should European Union members follow the lead of the U.S. and U.K. in purging China’s Huawei gear from 5G networks, according to people familiar with the matter. China’s Ministry of Commerce is mulling export controls that would block Nokia and Ericsson from sending products it manufactures in China to other countries, the people said. Liza Lin, Stu Woo and Lingling Wei report for The Wall Street Journal.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will discuss avenues to tackle the growing strength of China when he meets Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson today, just a week after London barred Huawei from the 5G network. Reuters reporting.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS 

A long-awaited report published today on Russian influence in British politics has found that Russia weaponized information as part of a widespread and persisting campaign to meddle in the British political system and sow discord, and those efforts were widely ignored by successive British governments, raising a major question: who is protecting the country’s democratic process? But the report from the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee also stopped short of definitively saying the Kremlin interfered in either the 2016 Brexit referendum that rejected membership of European Union or a 2014 referendum in which Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. Stephen Castle and Mark Landler report for the New York Times.

At least eight troops were killed and nine more were wounded in a suicide blast yesterday in central Afghanistan that targeted a convoy of Afghan army soldiers, the defense ministry said, while Taliban Islamist militants claimed responsibility for the incident amid a nationwide escalation of violence. 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).