Early Edition: August 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 federal judge yesterday dismissed President Trump’s latest attempt to block a subpoena for his tax records from the district attorney of Manhattan. The ruling, given by U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero, was in response to a filing made by the president’s lawyers that tried to prevent Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance from getting access to eight years of Trump’s tax records. Marrero said Trump’s lawyers were unable to show that the subpoena was issued in “bad faith,” and stressed that “Justice requires an end to this controversy.” Trump’s position was described by Marrero “as unprecedented and far-reaching as it is perilous to the rule of law.” Kyle Cheney reports for POLITICO.

Over 70 top Republican national security officials have said they will vote for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Hours before Biden gave his nomination acceptance speech, a letter from the officials was released that said Trump “would be the most reckless president in American history.” The letter sets out ten points against Trump’s actions, denouncing him for undermining the rule of law, aligning himself with dictators, and engaging “in corrupt behavior that renders him unfit to serve as president.” The letter also accuses Trump of “spreading misinformation” during the coronavirus pandemic, making him “unfit to lead during a national crisis.” J. Edward Moreno reports for The Hill.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chair Ron Johnson (R-WI) has subpoenaed former State Department official Jonathan Winer for his links to the controversial “Steele Dossier” that accused Trump’s campaign of being compromised by Russia. Winer wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in 2018 that former British spy Christopher Steele, the author of the highly-controversial dossier, had approached him in 2016 with reports that Trump had been compromised. Winer is the first person subpoenaed as part of Johnson’s wider probe. Jordain Carney reports for The Hill.

New York state prosecutors are pushing to reinstate charges against Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort after charges were thrown out of court in December for violation of New York’s double jeopardy law. As Manafort had already been indicted in early 2019 for related crimes that were uncovered as part of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office’s charges were tossed out of court; however, the office now appeals that decision and argues that the charges it brings at a state level focus on different elements of the crimes that were prosecuted at federal level. Tom Winter and Adiel Kaplan report for NBC News.

Trump yesterday warned that the US will hit “so hard” any country that is found to have paid bounties to Taliban-linked groups to kill US troops in Afghanistan, following recent reports that both Russia and, more recently, Iran had offered bounties. Whether Trump’s skepticism of recent intel reports remains was not clarified by the president when making his comments. Reuters reporting.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) will today ask the US Supreme Court to allow the reinstatement of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence for his involvement in the 2013 attack that killed three and injured hundreds more, according to Attorney General William Barr. AP reporting.

US POSTAL SERVICE

US Postal Service (USPS) Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has set out plans for an overhaul of the Postal Service after the November elections, with changes more far-reaching than once anticipated, which could lead to severe delays in mail deliveries nationwide and an increase in prices for some postal services, those familiar with the plans have confirmed. The changes proposed include: higher package rates; higher prices in Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico; limiting discounts for non-profit organizations; a requirement for all election ballots to be sent first class; and leasing free space in USPS facilities to other government agencies and companies. Jacob Bogage, Lisa Rein and Josh Dawsey report for the Washington Post.

DeJoy’s selection as the Postal Service’s postmaster general was “highly irregular” and he was not among the original candidates considered for the position, House Oversight Committee Democrats revealed yesterday. In a three-page letter to John Barger, a member of the Postal Service’s Board of Governors and the person Democrats have said put DeJoy’s name forward, Democrats argued that Barger’s recommendation of DeJoy outside the formal search process was not in-line with normal practices. “The appointment of Mr. Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General was highly irregular, and we are concerned that his candidacy may have been influenced by political motivations,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) said in a statement. Kyle Cheney and Zach Montellaro report for POLITICO.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had a number of private meetings with members of USPS’s Board of Governors prior to DeJoy’s selection, a number of people familiar with the secret meetings have said. Neither the Treasury Department, USPS or the three Republicans on the Board of Governors would respond to NBC News requests for further details on the meetings. An anonymous person told NBC that the board was aware of the meetings and that there was a “need to move quickly” on a selection. Heidi Przybyla reports for NBC News.

An email sent to USPS managers instructed them not to reconnect mail sorting machines, despite DeJoy’s announcement that he was halting his highly-criticized changes to the service, which included disconnecting some sorting machines. An excerpt from the email, which was sent from the service’s director of maintenance operations Kevin Couch, read: “Please message out to your respective Maintenance Managers tonight … They are not to reconnect/reinstall machines that have been previously disconnected without approval from HQ Maintenance, no matter what direction they are getting from their plant manager.” Kristen Holmes and Paul P. Murphy report for CNN.

A timeline of the “pivotal events” that have shaped the Postal Service and led us to the current crisis is provided by Chris Shenton for Just Security

President Trump plans to send law enforcement officials to polling stations to ensure voter fraud does not take place, although many are skeptical that he has the power to do so. “We’re going to have sheriffs, and we’re going to have law enforcement, and we’re going to have, hopefully, US attorneys, and we’re going to have everybody and attorney generals,” Trump said during an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. Professor Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine, made clear that Trump does not have the authority to send law enforcement to monitor election voting. Fredreka Schouten reports for CNN.

Republicans are pushing forward on mail-in voting despite Trump’s warnings against its use. The Republican Party in Iowa mailed absentee ballot applications to all its voters without first waiting to see who may request them. In Pennsylvania, the Republican’s website promotes voting by mail: “Vote Safe: By mail. From home.” The Republican Party in Ohio sent mailers with photos of Trump saying “Join President Trump and Vote by Absentee Ballot.” Anita Kumar reports for POLITICO.

STEVE BANNON

Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former campaign adviser, was yesterday arrested and charged with defrauding donors of a fundraising campaign for Trump’s highly-controversial border wall with Mexico. Bannon was arrested yesterday morning aboard a yacht off the coast of Connecticut and was brought to New York hours later after being accused of committing wire fraud and money laundering. Three others have also been arrested, alleged to have “defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalizing on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretense that all of that money would be spent on construction,” Acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said. Prosecutors in New York said that Bannon used a non-profit organization that he controlled to receive “over $1m from the ‘We Build the Wall’ online campaign, at least some of which he used to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in [his] personal expenses,” although Bannon and his lawyers denied the charges and entered a not guilty plea in a federal court in downtown Manhattan. Matt Zapotosky, Josh Dawsey, Rosalind S. Helderman and Shayna Jacobs report for the Washington Post.

How Bannon and his business partners “cashed in on Trump” is explained by Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Eric Lipton, Stephanie Saul and Scott Shane for the New York Times. The authors argue that Bannon, along with the three other indicted men, Brian Kolfage, Timothy Shea and Andrew Badolato, all have “a history of monetizing conservative causes.”

The indictment of Bannon should worry the president and his associate Jared Kushner, as Bannon’s cooperation could raise serious implications for them both, argues former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Barbara McQaude for NBC News.

US ELECTION INTERFERENCE

Former head of the National Counterterrorism Center Russ Travers said he would not be surprised if right-wing domestic terrorist groups stage attacks in the US during the presidential election. Travers said that President Trump’s “political rhetoric” around voter fraud could “very easily see some backlash” from white supremacist groups and other right-wing terror groups. Sean D. Naylor reports for Yahoo News.

Former national security advisor Susan Rice said yesterday that she is “100 percent convinced” that Russia will seek to interfere in the November election. Rice, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, further added: “we need to be concerned also about what efforts it might make again to infiltrate our voting systems, and corrupt either our voting rolls or even potentially the voting count itself.” Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 5.57 million and killed more than 174,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there is more than 22.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 794,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The third phase of a federal study on developing an antiviral drug for Covid-19 has started, which will examine whether the drug “beta interferon” will improve the effects of remdesivir, an antiviral drug that has been touted as helping Covid-19 patients recover. The trial, known as ACCT, is expected to move quickly and will focus on whether beta interferon, which is an approved drug for multiple sclerosis treatment, will have any positive effects on the recovery of coronavirus patients. Gina Kolata reports for the New York Times.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will again take responsibility for data collection on the coronavirus, after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said it will reverse a policy that stopped the requirement for hospitals to report important information on the virus to the CDC. “CDC is working with us right now to build a revolutionary new data system so it can be moved back to the CDC, and they can have that regular accountability with hospitals relevant to treatment and PPE,” Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus coordinator, said. Robbie Whelan reports for the Wall Street Journal.

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.

IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL         

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday notified the UN that the US is starting the process of reinstating all UN sanctions on Iran and will use a “snapback” provision to ensure an arms embargo that is set to end in October will be extended.  Pompeo’s announcement was set out in a letter to the U.N. Security Council’s president and came after the Security Council voted against any further sanctions. Sanctions could be applied in 30 days if the government’s plans go ahead. “The United States will never allow the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism to freely buy and sell planes, tanks, missiles and other kinds of conventional weapons … These U.N. sanctions will continue the arms embargo,” Pompeo told reporters at the United Nations. Matthew Choi reports for POLITICO.

The UK, France and Germany said yesterday that they cannot support the US’s plans to force sanctions on Iran as it goes against efforts to support the Iran nuclear deal. “In order to preserve the agreement, we urge Iran to reverse all measures inconsistent with its nuclear commitments and return to full compliance without delay,” the three countries said in a joint statement. Reuters reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS          

President Trump has pledged to bring all US troops home from Iraq “shortly.” Speaking at a meeting with Iraq’s new prime minister, Trump said: “We have been taking our troops out of Iraq fairly rapidly, and we look forward to the day when we don’t have to be there.” No specific timeframe was given but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said U.S. troops would leave “as soon as we can complete the mission.” Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.

Russian doctors have been accused of blocking Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny from being transferred to another clinic for treatment after he was yesterday hospitalized after allegedly being poisoned, sparking critics to say that the Kremlin is intentionally trying to put Navalny’s life in danger. Mike Ives reports for the New York Times.

The US yesterday imposed Syria-related sanctions on six Syrian government officials and leaders of military units. Reuters reporting.

 

 

  

About the Author(s)

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)