The Early Edition: July 22, 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. 

CHINA

The United States has ordered the abrupt closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston “in order to protect American intellectual property and American’s private information,” the State Department has confirmed, a dramatic escalation in bilateral tensions that Beijing strongly condemned as unprecedented. Without discussing specifics, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus indicated that China had violated the Vienna Convention, which required diplomats to “respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State” and “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.” Beijing threatened to retaliate against the order. Anna Fifield reports for the Washington Post.

The Justice Department yesterday accused China of sponsoring hackers who are targeting defense contractors and Covid-19 researchers. In an 11-count indictment, U.S. officials charged two Chinese nationals with hacking governments, dissidents, human rights activists and private firms, alleging that Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi operated for their own gain but also for the main Chinese intelligence service, the Ministry of State Security (MSS). They were aided in that effort by an MSS officer, authorities charge. Officials said it marks the first federal charges related to alleged theft of coronavirus research. Ken Dilanian and Pete Williams report for NBC News.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday praised Britain for taking a harder line on China amid rising geopolitical tensions between western nations and Beijing. “I wanted to take this opportunity to congratulate the British government for its principled responses to these challenges,” Pompeo told reporters. Britain announced Monday it would suspend an extradition treaty with Hong Kong and extend an arms embargo to the territory, and last week reversed its stance toward the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. In “candid” meetings yesterday with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other top U.K. politicians, Pompeo called on Britain to join a “broad alliance” against China as the U.K. government faces new pressure to sanction Chinese officials responsible for the oppression of Muslim Uighurs. Laura Hughes, George Parker and Katrina Manson report for the Financial Times.

ETHICS COMPLAINT AGAINST ATTORNEY GENERAL BARR

Four former presidents of the District of Columbia Bar Association, along with 23 other distinguished non-partisan leaders and members of the D.C. Bar, have signed a letter urging the group to look into whether Attorney General William Barr has violated his attorney’s oath of office and rules of professional conduct. The D.C. Bar authorizes lawyers to practice in the city and has the power to discipline them for breaking its rules and to revoke their law licenses. The complaint points to four episodes in Barr’s time as attorney general to make the case: his characterization of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s 2016 election interference, his critique of an inspector general report on the Russia investigation, his criticism of FBI officials in a TV interview, and his part in the disbursement of peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square, outside the White House. Betsy Woodruff Swan reports for POLITICO.

Former Attorney General of Massachusetts, Scott Harshbarger, explains why two members of the Lawyers Defending American Democracy (LDAD), the organization he co-founded, filed the “meticulously researched” ethics complaint against Barr in a piece for Just Security.

US DEVELOPMENTS

The US ambassador to the UK, Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson, told several colleagues in February 2018 that President Trump had appealed to him to see if the British government could help steer the world-renowned and lucrative British Open golf tournament to the Trump Turnberry resort in Scotland, according to three people with knowledge of the episode. The ambassador’s deputy, Lewis A. Lukens, advised him against such a move, warning that it would be an unethical use of the presidency for private benefit, these people said. But Johnson reportedly felt pressured to try. A few weeks later, he raised the suggestion of Turnberry playing host to the Open with the secretary of state for Scotland, David Mundell. Mark Landler, Lara Jakes and Maggie Haberman report for the New York Times.

Trump signed a memorandum yesterday that aims to bar undocumented immigrants living in the country from being counted when US congressional voting districts are next redrawn, prompting swift censure from Democrats and threats of litigation. Trump said in the memo that it will be the “policy of the United States to exclude from the apportionment base aliens who are not in a lawful immigration status under the Immigration and Nationality Act.” Reuters reporting.

Twitter announced sweeping measures aimed at cracking down on accounts and content related to the QAnon conspiracy theory yesterday, citing its policies against “behavior that has the potential to lead to offline harm.” The social media giant said it would block URLs associated with QAnon from being shared on the platform, and would no longer recommend accounts and content associated with QAnon or highlight them in features like trends and search. These restrictions will impact about 150,000 accounts, a Twitter spokesperson confirmed. Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny report for NBC News.

PROTESTS OVER RACIAL INJUSTICE 

The US’s first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) who served in the George W Bush administration, Tom Ridge, yesterday rebuked his former agency’s current actions in Portland, slamming the Trump administration’s decision to send federal officers in unmarked vehicles into the streets of Portland, Ore. to stamp out protests, saying it was “counterproductive,” and that it was not the office’s mission to act as domestic law enforcement. “The department was established to protect America from the ever-present threat of global terrorism,” Ridge said on an interview with Sirius XM. “It was not established to be the president’s personal militia.” The Pennsylvania Capital-Star reporting.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said federal agents in Portland “will not retreat” as law enforcement deals with demonstrations and violent protests in Oregon’s largest city. At a press conference yesterday, Wolf vigorously defended the DHS’s quest in Portland amid condemnation over reports of officers in unmarked vehicles arresting demonstrators without identifying themselves. “What is occurring in Portland in the early hours of every morning is not peaceful protesting,” Wolf said. “We have been forced because of local law enforcement presence to take measures such as arrests to protect our officials.” Tal Axelrod reports for The Hill.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has expressed concern within the administration about federal law enforcement officers wearing military-style uniforms while responding to protests, his spokesperson said yesterday. After nationwide protests over racial injustice and police violence broke out in June, Esper voiced concern that in some cases, federal law enforcement officers were being confused with soldiers because of their similar uniforms, said Jonathan Hoffman, chief Pentagon spokesperson. Esper urged efforts to more clearly differentiate between the two, Hoffman said. Lara Seligman reports for POLITICO.

The administration is working to develop a “playbook for using federal forces without state consent,” founding Co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman and Danielle Schulkin explain in a piece for Just Security, referring to Attorney General Barr’s distortion of the historical record centered on a major event in 1989: the deployment of federal troops to the Virgin Islands after Hurricane Hugo.

“Trump’s deployment of federal law enforcement into Democratic-led cities is every bit as devoted to manufacturing and sustaining a campaign attack on Biden as his manipulation of national security policy in the Ukraine scandal was,” Greg Sargent argues for the Washington Post.

The DEFENSE DEPARTMENT

The Pentagon’s top legislative official will depart the agency on Friday, two officials familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy, matching the Trump administration’s record for civilian vacancies as the White House struggles to get more nominees through confirmation. The exit of Robert Hood, assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, will leave the Pentagon without a point person to help guide eight Trump administration nominees for high-ranking civilian roles through confirmation. That includes Anthony Tata, President Trump’s controversial pick to head the Pentagon’s policy shop, who is targeted for a confirmation hearing next week notwithstanding offensive and conspiratorial tweets revealed by CNN.  Jack Detsch reports for Foreign Policy.

The House approved its annual defense policy bill in a 295-125 vote yesterday, hours after Trump formally threatened to veto the legislation, paving the way for a potential showdown between the White House and Congress over a bipartisan effort to rename several military bases honoring the Confederacy. The president’s threat — and House lawmakers’ response — is a moment of reckoning for Senate Republican leaders, who must decide whether to allow votes on key bipartisan changes to their version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that might incur a similar veto warning, or attempt to alter their legislation to stay closer in line with Trump’s wishes. Karoun Demirjian reports for the Washington Post.

A look at some of Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s “rare” displays of independence from Trump is fielded by Lara Seligman at POLITICO Magazine, who comments, “the man known derisively in some national security circles as “Yes-per” has started to show some backbone.”

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected 3.9 million and killed over 142,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been nearly 15 million confirmed coronavirus cases and almost 617,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

President Trump said the coronavirus pandemic will probably “get worse before it gets better,” in a marked change of tone during his first White House coronavirus press briefing in nearly three months, as the country’s daily death toll rose above 1,000 for the first time in weeks. In several notable reversals, he called on people to wear face masks, vowed his administration was developing a “strategy” and wrapped up in less than half an hour, steering clear of his digressions in past briefings that culminated in a proposal to inject disinfectant in Covid-19 patients. David Smith reports for The Guardian.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert and key member of the White House coronavirus task force, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said yesterday he was not invited to join Trump at a news briefing on the administration’s pandemic response. Scott Stump reports for NBC News.

Despite severe shortages in coronavirus testing supplies and delays in results, the Trump administration is still sitting on billions of dollars in unused funding that Congress apportioned months ago. Lawmakers from both parties have questions about why the money has not been utilized as testing continues to fall well short of the national need. “It’s probably a logistical problem as much as anything else, but yeah, it’s a concern,” said Republican. Sen. John Cornyn (Texas). Lauren Fox reports for CNN.

Negotiations on a new coronavirus relief package made little progress yesterday as both sides and the White House are at odds over how much it should cost and what its aims should be. Kelsey Snell, Susan Davis and Deirdre Walsh report for NPR.

Representatives of five firms working on coronavirus vaccines testified before a House panel yesterday about their mission to produce shots in record time — and distribute them worldwide. Five major messages from the hearing are provided by Sarah Owermohle for POLITICO.

Key takeaways from yesterday’s White House coronavirus briefing are provided by Amber Phillips for the Washington Post.

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. 

RUSSIAN ELECTION INTERFERENCE: UK

Britain’s government is planning to give security services more powers to stop foreign interference in the UK after rejecting calls for an inquiry into Russian meddling in the wake of a damning report exposing the impact of Russian influence in Britain and accusing the government of “badly” underestimating the threat posed by the Kremlin. Under the new security legislation, foreign agents would have to register in the U.K. in a move modeled on similar rules in the U.S. and Australia. Simon Murphy reports for The Guardian.

Key takeaways from the long-awaited report on Russian interference in Britain are provided by Amy Mackinnon for Foreign Policy.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS 

The Pentagon is weighing “adjustments” to its military presence in South Korea and around the world as it transitions from years of countering insurgencies and armed groups in the greater Middle East to focusing on China, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said yesterday. Esper said he has given no order to withdraw from South Korea. Esper did not elaborate on those plans, but said he prefers more emphasis on rotational deployments, as opposed to permanent stationing, of American troops “because it gives us, the United States, greater strategic flexibility in terms of responding to challenges around the globe.” Al Jazeera 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).