Early Edition: August 25, 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

The Trump Organization is under investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) for potentially inflating the value of its assets to mislead lenders and taxing authorities – but neither President Trump’s company nor his son Eric Trump have complied with James’ requests, prompting the attorney general to file a court order last Friday before the State Supreme Court in Manhattan to force compliance from the both the president’s company and son, according to court filings revealed yesterday. James accused the Trump Organization of withholding or redacting “thousands of responsive, non-privileged documents” that were requested as part of her civil investigation into the organization and of not complying with a subpoena for Eric. David A. Fahrenthold, Jonathan O’Connell and Joshua Partlow report for the Washington Post.

A State Department memo sent to the department’s employees by Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun instructed “Senate-confirmed Presidential appointees” against attending any party convention or related event, and was specifically bolded in the memo, although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo still intends to deliver his own remarks this week’s Republican National Convention (RNC). Biegun made clear in his email that he himself, as a Senate-confirmed official, would not be attending any political events, including national conventions. The memo does make exception for political appointees who intend to attend party conventions as a “spectator,” but this allowance does not cover Senate-confirmed officials. Nahal Toosi reports for POLITICO.

The Department of Justice is to charge a NASA researcher with conspiracy, making false statements and wire fraud over concealing his links to the Chinese government during the years he led NASA-related research, a criminal complaint unsealed yesterday has revealed. Zhengdong Cheng was apprehended Sunday and has been accused of “willfully” taking steps to “obscure” his relationship with a Chinese university and at least one Chinese-owned company, and made false statements about “his affiliation with the Chinese government.” Federal prosecutors also alleged that Cheng participated in China’s Talents program, which tried to recruit exceptional talent to help support and grow China’s scientific and economic growth. Olivia Beavers reports for The Hill.

Mark S. Zaid, the lawyer of the government whistle-blower that prompted impeachment proceedings against Trump, has been dropped by his malpractice insurer after his underwriter said it had no “appetite” for his “high-profile” and “ineligible” work. Zaid said that his insurer, the Hanover Insurance Group, sent a letter last month that said Zaid’s practice area was “ineligible” for professional liability coverage, although he makes clear the company had long been aware of his whistle-blower practice. A spokesperson for Hanover, Emily Trevallion, said, “This decision did not relate in any way whatsoever to any particular client of Mr. Zaid or the role that any such client may have played in the president’s impeachment proceedings,” and added, “We determined that it was not aligned with our underwriting guidelines and consequently decided not to renew his policy.” Maggie Haberman reports for the New York Times.

The US’s top cyber official, Gen. Paul Nakasone, the commander of US Cyber Command and the director of the National Security Agency, defended a more proactive and aggressive approach to cyber threats, in an op-ed written for Foreign Affairs and expected to be published today. Nakasone, writing with his senior adviser Michael Sulmeyer, said that the mission over the last decade has evolved from a “reactive and defensive posture.” They added: “We learned that we cannot afford to wait for cyber attacks to affect our military networks. We learned that defending our military networks requires executing operations outside our military networks. The threat evolved, and we evolved to meet it.” AP reporting.

Former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials have formed an anti-Trump group. Miles Taylor, the former DHS chief of staff, and Elizabeth Neumann, a former senior DHS official, have joined together to start the Republican Political Alliance for Integrity and Reform (REPAIR), comprised of a handful of current and former Trump administration officials and other Republican leaders, which opposes Trump’s re-election in November. Two current administration officials are said to be supporting the effort but will remain anonymous until closer to the election over fears of being fired, according to an individual familiar with the alliance. “This organization will be planning for a post-Trump Republican Party and working with other groups to repair the GOP and repair our republic. In the coming weeks, we’ll be announcing a range of Republican talent that will be helping drive the effort, as well as new initiates to bring the GOP back to its roots, away from the corruption of Trumpism, and toward a more forward-looking agenda,” Taylor said in a statement to POLITICO. Daniel Lippman reports for POLITICO.

Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, is set to release a series of anti-Trump ads to be ran during the RNC. Cohen, who is currently serving a three-year sentence in home confinement due to Covid-19 after being convicted in 2018 for federal crimes, stated that Americans should “not believe a word he utters” and that Trump thinks Americans are all “a bunch of fools.” Dareh Gregorian reports for NBC News.

Short video app TikTok yesterday filed a federal lawsuit against President Trump’s administration for an executive order it passed Aug. 6 that ultimately banned the company from operating in the US.  The lawsuit, which was filed in the Federal District Court for the Central District of California, argued that the order abused the company’s rights, including: the right to free speech, with the company’s attorneys arguing that computer code is a type of expression protected under the First Amendment; and the right to due-process, arguing that the administration is violating the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on executive seizures of property without due-process. Steven Overly reports for POLITICO.

US POSTAL SERVICE

US Postal Service (USPS)’s Postmaster General Louis DeJoy yesterday defended his management of the service before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, arguing that recent policies he had implemented did not lead to current delays in the service. He further insisted that the removal of blue collection boxes and mail-sorting machines, which have been the focus of criticism, were implemented prior to him taking office, but did add that they would not be restored. Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) also put to DeJoy recently released figures that show a drop in on-time mail deliveries, which DeJoy, again, refused to take responsibility for. “There are a lot of reasons for delays besides the action I took to run your trucks on time,” DeJoy said, adding, “There are other reasons for delays in the nation.” Catie Edmondson reports for the New York Times.

A updated 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.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 5.74 million and more than 177,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there is close to 23.68 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 813,000 deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “grossly misrepresented” data about the use of convalescent plasma for hospitalized Covid-19 patients, scientists have argued, following an announcement by the FDA that it was authorizing the emergency use of plasma as a coronavirus treatment. At a conference Sunday, President Trump and his top health officials said that the use of plasma in treatments had reduced deaths by 35 percent; however, such conclusions were based on a small study of patients in a Mayo Clinic and so does not warrant such concrete assertations. Dr. Walid Gellad, who leads the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing at the University of Pittsburgh, said it was a “big problem” that the government would “exaggerate data.” Katie Thomas and Sheri Fink report for the New York Times.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also expressed reservation over the US’s move to use plasma as a treatment for Covid-19 patients, stating that evidence of its effectiveness is “low quality.” Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO’ chief scientist, said that as only a few trials has so far been conducted, the evidence was not convincing enough to endorse the widespread use of the treatment. Reuters reporting.

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.

PROTESTS AND RACIAL INJUSTICE REFORM

The Wisconsin National Guard has been deployed to Kenosha, WI, after an unarmed Black man was shot in his back several times by police officers Sunday while his three sons looked on, with the whole altercation caught on video, sparking outrage and unrest across the state, with buildings set ablaze. The shooting of Jacob Blake left him hospitalized but now in a stable condition. Gov. Tony Evers said that there was a “limited mobilization” of the National Guard to support local law enforcement with protecting “critical infrastructure,” but made clear that “every person should be able to express their anger and frustration by exercising their First Amendment rights and report on these calls to action without any fear of being unsafe.” Brakkton Booker and Emma Bowman report for NPR.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, CA, yesterday unanimously limited the use of the Anti-Riot Act, concluding that language used in the Act was unconstitutionally broad. The court said language within the act that makes it a crime to “encourage,” “promote” or urge of riots was too broad as it covered speech protected by the First Amendment. However, the court did use the legislation against two Californian men convicted of spurring violence and unrest in connection to a white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va, in August 2017. Also, the ruling does not cover individuals who “organize” or “incite” a riot, and so federal authorities can still use the Act to pursue those offenders. Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.

UAE-ISRAEL RELATIONS

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday urged other Arab nations to follow the UAE’s suit and normalize relations with Israel. Pompeo further pledged that the United States would ensure Israel retained a military advantage, after speaking to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. BBC News reporting.

The UAE cancelled a meeting with the US and Israel over a dispute on the possible sale of American F-35 fighter jets to the UAE that Netanyahu has strongly opposed, according to reports by Axios. Al Jazeera reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS          

A meeting yesterday between Iranian officials and Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s atomic watchdog, was “constructive,” Iran’s top nuclear official Ali Akbar Salehi said. “Our conversation today was very constructive. It was agreed that the agency will carry out its independent and professional responsibilities and Iran will fulfil its legal commitments … A new chapter of cooperation between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency will start,” said Salehi, adding that “Iran will not accept any additional demands beyond its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal.” Reuters reporting.

Tests have indicated that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned, a German hospital he is currently receiving treatment at has confirmed in statement. Navalny, who is currently in an induced coma after collapsing on a plane in Serbia, is being treated by The Charité Hospital, which said: “clinical evidence suggests an intoxication through a substance belonging to the group of cholinesterase inhibitors.” BBC News reporting.

A Taliban truck bomb and other attacks in Afghanistan yesterday killed 12 and injured many more. A Taliban truck bombing reportedly targeted a commando base of Afghan forces in the northern Balkh province, killing three, including a civilian and Afghan troops, according to Munir Ahmad Farhad, the spokesperson for the provincial governor. AP reporting.

Over 10,000 Islamic State fighters are thought to remain active in Iraq and Syria, with the number of attacks significantly increasing this year, despite the fact the group was thought to have been defeated two years ago, Vladimir Voronkov, the UN counter-terrorism chief said yesterday. AP reporting.

The US and China have reaffirmed their commitment to a Phase-One trade deal, after senior officials from both countries discussed the accord yesterday evening. The conference between the countries saw officials, including Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, sit down to discuss the deal that was signed January. “Both sides see progress and are committed to taking the steps necessary to ensure the success of the agreement,” the U.S. Trade Representative’s office said in a statement. Bob David and Lingling Wei report for the Wall Street Journal 

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)