Early Edition: October 5, 2020

Curated summary of up-to-the-minute national security developments at home and abroad.

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A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours. Here’s today’s news.

US DEVELOPMENTS

Robert O’Brien, President Trump’s national security advisor, yesterday said that he had warned Russia’s Security Council secretary, Nikolai Patrushev, that “there would be absolutely no tolerance for any interference” in the upcoming presidential election, but made no mention of past assessments and evidence that had pointed to Russian disinformation campaigns. Speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” O’Brien said he issued the warning during a meeting with Patrushev in Geneva, where he insisted that the United States would not tolerate any interference with Election Day, voting, or vote tallies. He added that Russians have “committed” to not interfering. David E. Sanger reports for the New York Times.

Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe’s scheduled testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow has been postponed due to concerns McCabe expressed about the coronavirus, a spokesperson for committee chair Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has said. McCabe was set to testify before the panel over the FBI’s “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation into Trump’s campaign links to Russia; however, McCabe’s attorney sent a letter to Lindsey stating he would not testify before the panel because Republican Sens. Mike Lee (UT) and Tom Tillis (NC) recently tested positive for the virus. “Mr. McCabe is willing, able, and eager to testify in person about Crossfire Hurricane at any time in the future when it is safe to do so. But he is not willing to put his family’s health at risk to do so,” the letter read, adding: “for reasons of fairness, we are unwilling to testify remotely. A fair and appropriate hearing of this kind — which is complex and contentious — simply cannot be conducted other than in person.” Jeremy Herb and Evan Perez report for CNN.

Joseph Maher, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A), told lawmakers Friday that he agrees with previous assessments that White supremacists poses a threat to the US and that Russia had interfered in the November election — he also made clear that he had not been influenced by Trump officials to distort intelligence on the threats posed. Maher said he agreed with FBI chief Christopher Wray’s warning that a particular threat is posed by White supremacy and added that he “will not have anybody taking political directions on any intelligence products.” He also said he does not disagree with the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center William Evanina’s findings that Russia is attempting to “denigrate” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Reuters reporting.

Maher also confirmed that he had heard about a request sent to his office calling for information to be extracted from protesters’ cellphones following demonstrations and unrest in Portland, OR.
 Testifying during a much-anticipated hearing before the House Intelligence Committee, Maher confirmed that although he was aware of the request, he did not know who made it, now did his office did not act on it. He noted that the DHS inspector general is currently investigating the issue and has “specifically” asked Maher not to interview officials in his office about the matter, which he suggested has limited his owns inquiries into the matter. Olivia Beavers reports for The Hill.

Andrew Weissmann, a former deputy on special counsel Robert Mueller’s team which investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election, and who recently accused the office of not going far enough in its investigations, said yesterday that the New York Times report on Trump’s finances support his criticisms of Mueller’s limited investigation. In Weissman’s new book, “Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation,” he accuses Mueller of not doing enough to “uncover the truth,” in which he himself had urged for a more in-depth look into the president’s finances. Speaking to POLITICO during an interview, Weissman raised concerns about Trump’s 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow, which was looked into by the special prosecutor’s team, noting that, “It seems like that pageant was unusually profitable and also the people who put up the money got no profit, but then civilian Trump made a couple million dollars … So I’d be curious about that.” Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein report for POLITICO.

TRUMP: POSITIVE COVID-19 TEST

Confusion increases over the accuracy of President Trump’s medical team’s briefings on his health condition following a positive Covid-19 test last week. His medical team, led by Dr. Sean Conley, a Navy commander, said yesterday that Trump was doing well enough to potentially return to the White House today or tomorrow, despite confirmation Trump was given the steroid dexamethasone, which is only administered for those who are particularly sick. Criticism has been levied at Conley for not being clear about Trump’s health, including that he had been given oxygen, with several current and former military officials warning that Conley’s positive characterisation of Trump’s health condition had raised concerns about his credibility and the credibility and reputation of the Navy’s medical team. AP reporting.

Briefings by Trump’s medical team have revealed that the president’s condition is worse than initially thought, with confirmation that Trump was given dexamethasone, has received a second dose of the antiviral treatment remdesivir, and that his oxygen levels had fallen to concerning lows. Lauren Morello, David Lim and Joanne Kenen report for POLITICO.

Trump yesterday briefly left the hospital where he is being treated to wave at supporters from inside an armored SUV. Trump left Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland yesterday and drove along roads to cheers and flag-waving from his supporters. Toluse Olorunnipa, Josh Dawsey and Amy Goldstein report for the Washington Post.

Trump did not disclose his initial positive Covid-19 test result on Thursday, instead awaiting confirmation from a more thorough screening and then confirming Friday. Trump received a positive result Thursday evening; however, he still appeared on Fox News following that result, revealing nothing, instead confirming that one of his top aides had tested positive and that he himself was awaiting the results of a test he had done that evening. Michael C. Bender and Rebecca Ballhaus report for the Wall Street Journal.

After three senators tested positive for Covid-19, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) confirmed Saturday that the Senate will not return until Oct. 19; however, he and other top Republicans have made clear that Amy Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings will go ahead as planned, with the Senate Judiciary Committee expected to begin its confirmation hearing Oct. 12. Burgess Everett, Marianne Levine and Sarah Ferris report for POLITICO.

The positive Covid-19 tests of three senators will not knock of course the Senate’s confirming of Barrett, writes Caroline Fredrickson for Just Security, explaining why quorum requirements, closure votes, and other procedures will not stop or even hamper with the nomination process.

An explainer of who Dr. Conley, Trump’s physician, is, is provided by Jason Slotkin for NPR.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected close to 7.42 million and has now killed close to 210,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there has been over 35.21 million confirmed coronavirus cases and now over 1.03 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The White House has not called on the CDC to trace the contacts of people who were present at Trump’s Sept. 26 announcement of his nomination of Judge Amy Barrett, an event that many have pointed to as the cause for many officials recently testing positive for the virus, confirmed Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, during an interview yesterday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” casting doubt over Dr. Sean Conley’s comments Saturday that his team was working with the CDC. According to Gottlieb, the White House has not sought assistance from the CDC, although the agency has a team of experts on standby. He also noted that no contact tracing had been attempted at all, confirming that he had spoken to a number of officials who had attended the Rose Garden event who had not been contacted by tracers. Al Drago reports for the New York Times.

Vice President Mike Pence instructed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s top officials to use emergency powers — Title 42 of the Public Health Service Act — to effectively close the US borders, although the agency’s top scientists stressed there was no evidence this would help slow the spreads of the virus, former health officials have said. The measure, which has resulted in close to 150,000 children and adults being deported from the country, was initially rejected by the agency; however, following intervention by Pence, Dr. Robert Redfield, the CDC’s director, ordered his top officials to follow the instruction. AP reporting.

Several house subcommittee chairs have started an investigation into the Pentagon’s decision to redirect the majority of its $1 billion in coronavirus-related funding it received from Congress, in which most of the money was instead funnelled to defense contractors and used to fund the making of new jet engine parts, body armor and dress uniforms. A letter — signed by Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis Chair Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC); Committee on Financial Services Chair Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA); Committee on Oversight and Reform Chair Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY); and Subcommittee on National Security Chair Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) — was sent Friday to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, confirming that an investigation had been launched and requesting Esper to provide lawmakers with documents that detail how the Pentagon spent the funds, including the recipient of every contract funded by the money, the amount, the date the award was made, what was included, and which senior contracting officer signed off on the matter. Ellen Mitchell 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

Armenia and Azerbaijan today accused each other of attacking civilian regions, inflaming a conflict that has stretched over nine days and killed over two hundred people. A ceasefire seems less likely as fighting intensified over the weekend, with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev stating yesterday that his country was making advances on Armenians and taking back contested land. He also made clear that military action would not cease until Armenia withdraws from Nagorno-Karabakh, the region that has sparked the recent conflict. Reuters reporting.

Lebanese officials have called for the arrest of the owner and the captain of the ship responsible for bringing huge amounts of ammonium nitrate to the Beirut port which caused the devastating explosion Aug. 4. The judge investigating the matter has asked Interpol to execute the arrest of the two men. BBC News reporting.

Germany’s foreign minister called for sanctions on Russia over the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, speaking during an interview Saturday. “Sanctions must always be targeted and proportionate. But such a grave violation of the International Chemical Weapons Convention cannot be left unanswered. On this, we’re united in Europe,” Heiko Maas said. Tal Axelrod reports for The Hill.

The Sudanese government and multiple rebel groups have signed a landmark peace deal aimed at quelling years of conflict that has resulted in thousands of people dying and millions being displaced.Chad, Qatar, Egypt, the African Union, European Union and United Nations all signed the agreement. However, two notorious rebel groups did not sign the deal, indicating there will be challenges ahead. Al Jazeera reporting.

The third and final Iranian fuel tanker arrived in Venezuela yesterday, according to Refinitiv Eikon data and people familiar with the matter. 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)