The Early Edition: July 23, 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

A Chinese researcher charged with lying to the FBI about her connection to the military in order to obtain entry into the US has taken refuge in China’s San Francisco consulate, according to court documents, further escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing. The standoff in San Francisco follows the forced closure by Washington of China’s consulate in Houston, on grounds of involvement in theft of “American intellectual property and private information.” The researcher, Juan Tang, is named in a prosecutorial memo filed on Monday at the federal district court in San Francisco calling for the continued detention of another Chinese researcher at Stanford who is also indicted for lying about ties to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on her visa application. Julian Borger reports for The Guardian.

The Trump administration’s decision to shut Beijing’s consulate in Houston yesterday came after years of FBI intelligence-gathering revealed it was a “hot spot” of Chinese spying in the US, and President Trump has been kept updated about its activities since soon after he took office, U.S. officials told NBC News. Several American officials said that the Houston consulate has long been used by the Chinese government to pinch valuable medical research and that it was involved in attempts to access the oil and natural gas industries. The president has been “well briefed” about the concerns, they said. Tom Winter and Carol E. Lee report for NBC News.

Speaking at a press conference yesterday, Trump said it was “always possible” he would order the closure of more Chinese consulates in the United States. Reuters reporting.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has stated that Washington is expecting Asian partners to help constrain an increasingly aggressive China, as two of the U.S. Navy’s most powerful warships carried out tests with allies in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Esper accused Beijing of bullying nations around the Pacific, denying countries with claims in the South China Sea of their fishing rights and trillions of dollars of oil and gas revenue. He also accused China of “brazen disregard of international commitments.” Adm. Philip Davidson, the head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, kept up the hard rhetoric against China yesterday. “It’s important to keep Beijing from achieving its goal of overturning the rules-based international order in the pernicious manner in which they’re trying to do it,” Davidson told the Defense Writers Group in Washington. Brad Lendon reports for CNN.

“Strong pushback is needed to counter China’s cyber and industrial espionage, its human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and aggressive expansion in the South China Sea — but [lawmakers, former officials and experts have] suggested the Houston consulate was a politically driven and very carefully calibrated target, one chosen to create the appearance of toughness while avoiding the risk of a major clash,” CNN’s Nicole Gaouette, Vivian Salama and Kylie Atwood write in an analysis.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

President Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, was returned to prison because of his “antagonistic” behavior with probation officials and not as an attempt to prevent him from releasing a tell-all book about Trump, the U.S. attorney’s office argued yesterday. According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Allison Rovner, Cohen, who has filed a lawsuit against the government claiming that he was returned to prison in retaliation to the book he wrote, was arrested two weeks ago “because he was antagonistic during a meeting with probation officers at which he was supposed to sign the agreement that would have allowed him to complete the remaining portion of his criminal sentence in home confinement.” Shayna Jacobs reports for the Washington Post. 

Trump has denied allegations made yesterday that he asked US Ambassador to the UK Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson 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. The New York Times reported yesterday that Johnson had told a number of his colleagues about Trump’s request; however, Trump, said to reporters at the White House: “I read a story about it today, and I … never spoke to Woody Johnson about doing that, no.” Peter Baker reports for the New York Times. 

The House Judiciary Committee has prepared a bill that would criminalize a presidential pardon dangled in return for anything of value — such as a witness’ silence — a major addition to legislation already scheduled for consideration that would empower Congress to probe potential abuse of the pardon power. Under the updated proposal from House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a presidential pardon granted — or offered — to obtain a “thing of value” would be punished under federal bribery laws. The restriction would include not just pardons but commutations — reprieves that shorten prisoners’ prison sentences but maintain their convictions. The wide-ranging measure is aimed at limiting abuses of the pardon power that Democrats allege were committed by President Trump in the commutation granted to his longtime confidant Roger Stone. Kyle Cheney reports for POLITICO.

A Senate committee investigating the son of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has secured a deposition with a top-level State Department official, George Kent, who was a key impeachment witness against President Trump. Kent, who has served as the deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs since September 2018, is scheduled to appear before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), for an interview as soon as tomorrow, according to people familiar with the panel’s plans. Natasha Bertrand reports for POLITICO.

PROTESTS AND RACIAL INJUSTICE REFORM 

The House yesterday voted to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol in a 305-113 vote, with all “no” votes coming from GOP lawmakers, the latest effort by Congress to respond to the nationwide protests over police brutality and systemic racism and injustice. Those who voted “yes” were predominantly Democrats, although 72 Republicans voted in favor of the statutes’ removal. Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, said, “Let’s continue to correct the division that exists today, not just on this floor, but in this country. And if we can stand together in this instance, we can surely stand together and make this country, at a time in places of civil unrest, a better place for every single American.” Cristina Marcos reports for The Hill. 

The Senate is set to pass its 2021 defense bill policy which includes provisions requiring the Pentagon to change the names of military bases named after Confederate leaders, despite warnings from the White House that it would veto similar legislation in the House. The White House has argued the proposals are an “effort to erase from the history of the Nation those who do not meet an ever-shifting standard of conduct.” Unlike the House’s bill which will require the names to be changed within a year, the Senate will allow three yeas. The final version of the defense bill has yet to be passed in the Senate but it likely that some requirement to remove statutes will be included, potentially setting off a battle between Congress and the White House. Karoun Demirjian reports for the Washington Post. 

President Trump warned yesterday that the Department of Justice (DOJ) plans to send a “surge” of federal officers into Democratic-run cities to crack down on a “surge” of violent crime. As part of the DOJ’s Operation Legend, federal enforcement will be sent to Chicago and Albuquerque, into what Trump called “communities plagues by violent crime.” Vanessa Romo reports for NPR. 

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler yesterday stood with a group of protesters outside a federal courthouse in Portland that was set on by federal agents who fired tear gas into the crowd, leaving Wheeler choking on the explosives’ fumes and chemicals. He reported that although he had on a face mask and put on lab goggles after tear gas canisters were thrown, his face burned and his eyes watered. “It’s hard to breathe — it’s a little harder to breathe than I thought … This is abhorrent. This is beneath us,” Wheeler told The Washington Post. Marissa J. Lang reports for the Washington Post. 

15 mayors from US cities have sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr and Homeland Security’s acting secretary, Chad Wolf, demanding that there be a stop to federal agents being used to police protests in Portland, Oregon. The letter, which was signed by the mayors of Seattle, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington DC and many others, stressed that federal forces were not consulting with local police before conducting law enforcement activities and likened the tactic to “authoritarian regimes.” “Federal officers have not been trained for urban community policing, including critical crowd management and de-escalation techniques. There is no oversight of the actions of federal forces,” the letter said. Lauren Aratani reports for The Guardian. 

The United Nations and its specialized agencies, particularly the International Labour Organization (ILO), can and should take action to redress anti-black racism within the U.N. and beyond, writes Professor Adelle Blackett for Just Security. 

IMMIGRATION

A Canadian federal court ruled yesterday that sending asylum seekers back to the US violates their rights by exposing them to likely detention and possible deportation from the US. Under the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), refugees must request protections in the first country they reach and so it allows either country to refuse attempted crossings at their borders. However, Justice Ann Marie McDonald wrote in her decision that: “I have concluded that the actions of Canadian authorities in enforcing the [Safe Third Country Agreement] result in ineligible STCA claimants being imprisoned by U.S. authorities … I have concluded that imprisonment and the attendant consequences are inconsistent with the spirit and objective of the STCA.” She added that the agreement violated the rights to “life, liberty and security of the person” guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, part of Canada’s constitution. BBC reporting. 

The House yesterday passed legislation that would repeal travel restrictions introduced by Trump that attempted to block refugees, asylum-seekers and visitors from certain countries. The bill, which was passed by a vote of 233-183 and was delayed by four months, prohibits religious discrimination immigration orders and limits the president, State Department and Homeland Security from imposing new restriction unless they are justified by a “compelling government interest” and are drafted as clearly and narrowly as possible to serve that interest. It is, however, likely to be blocked by the GOP-controlled Senate. Kyle Cheney reports for POLITICO. 

CORONAVIRUS

The United States’ overall death toll surpassed 143,000 yesterday, and new cases surged by more than 71,000, the biggest daily increase since July 16, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been 15.2 million confirmed coronavirus cases and nearly 624,000 deaths. David Hall reports for The Wall Street Journal.

Across America, 59,628 individuals were being treated in hospitals yesterday, according to the Covid Tracking Project, approaching a previous peak of 59,940 on April 15, when the center of the outbreak was New York. The country is averaging more than 66,000 fresh infections per day, more than twice as many as a month ago, and deaths have also started trending upward, with an average of at least 800 daily. But hospitalizations may be the most clear-cut measure of how widely the virus is causing the most serious illnesses, and could offer a glance of what is ahead. Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Sarah Mervosh report for the New York Times.

Senate Republicans announced yesterday evening that they have “reached a fundamental agreement” with White House negotiators on how to advance with a coronavirus relief bill. A group of top Senate Republicans finished a meeting with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows yesterday, with Mnuchin and Meadows saying they are “completely on the same page” and “in good shape.” The plan will include $16 billion for testing and more than $100 billion for schools, colleges and universities. There was however no consensus on a payroll-tax cut, a key priority for the administration but for only a handful of Senate Republicans. Julie Tsirkin, Leigh Ann Caldwell and Sahil Kapur report for NBC News.

The Trump administration and Pfizer have struck a $1.95 billion deal to produce 100 million doses of a Covid-19 vaccine in the United States. The vaccine will need emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before it can be distributed. Sydney Lupkin reports for NPR.

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) told Congress yesterday the United States has “a ways to go” on getting adequate protective gear for health workers battling coronavirus, though he said the situation has been improving. “I want to be clear: We have a ways to go on making sure we have enough PPE,” Administrator Pete Gaynor testified, referring to personal protective equipment. “This is not as simple as just throwing a light switch and we just magically make more.” Hospitals and doctors have been reporting shortages of masks, gowns and other protective supplies for months as the pandemic rampages. Peter Sullivan reports for The Hill.

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. 

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS 

Yesterday’s Afghan military airstrikes in western Herat province killed 45 people, including Taliban insurgents and civilians. Al Jazeera reporting.

Iran’s foreign ministry said today foreign states may have carried out recent cyberattacks on Iranian facilities, but played down the possibility of them having a part in a series of fires and explosions at military and other sites. Reuters reporting.

Twitter has confirmed an elected Dutch official was among 36 account holders whose direct message inboxes were infiltrated in a recent high-profile hack as the social media giant disclosed more details of the intrusion late yesterday after completing a review of the 130 accounts that were targeted. The politician, anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders, said today that he was informed by Twitter that his account was accessed by a hacker, who posted tweets on his account and sent false direct messages, or DMs, in his name. AP reporting.

The US and UK have agreed to “new arrangements” surrounding immunity agreements that allowed the wife of an American diplomat to leave Britain after being involved in a fatal traffic accident. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that the changes had “closed the anomaly that led to the denial of justice in the heartbreaking case of Harry Dunn.” BBC News reporting.

Republican chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), has expressed support for Trump’s plan to withdraw many troops from Germany. Inhofe said that he reached his decision after being briefed by Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Anderson and U.S. European Command chief Gen. Tod Wolters. “After this morning’s briefing with the Department of Defense, I believe the concept for realigning U.S. military posture in Europe, as the president has approved, is sound,” Inhofe said in a statement, adding: “The department is doing a good job of following the guiding principles I’ve described as the ‘three Fs’ — forward presence, force projection and families.” Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill. 

The Women, Peace, and Security Act is “the world’s most comprehensive law in support of women’s leadership in ending wars and building peace.” Jamille Bigio and Melanne Verveer argue that making progress on the issue of promoting women’s meaningful participation in conflict prevention and resolution offers “immense opportunities” in a piece for Foreign Policy that comes as the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on National Security this week will hold its first-ever hearing assessing how well the executive branch is implementing the  act. 

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

Associate 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)