Early Edition: October 21, 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

President Trump’s tax records reveal that he spent years pursuing business projects in China and even has a Chinese bank account, New York Times reported. The bank account has never been reported in Trump’s public financial disclosures as it is held under a corporate name, Trump International Hotels Management, with the account set up “to explore the potential for hotel deals in Asia,’ according to Trump Organization lawyer Alan Garten, who added: “No deals, transactions or other business activities ever materialized and, since 2015, the office has remained inactive … Though the bank account remains open, it has never been used for any other purpose.” The Chinese bank account paid out $188,561 in local taxes between 2013 and 2015. Mike McIntire, Russ Buettner and Susanne Craig report for the New York Times.

Trump told White House chief of staff Mark Meadows that his recent tweets complaining about the slow release of documents related to the origins of the Russia investigation were not an order to declassify or release those documents, Meadows wrote in the declaration filed in federal court in Washington. Meadow’s declaration follows an order by a federal judge last week that called for the White House to clarify whether Trump’s tweets prompted the government’s decision to declassify documents relating to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and other related FBI reports that were the subject of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. “The President indicated to me that his statements on Twitter were not self-executing declassification orders and do not require the declassification or release of any particular documents,” Meadows wrote. “The President’s statements do not require altering any redactions on any record at issue in these or any other cases, including, but not limited to, any redactions taken pursuant to any discretionary FOIA exemptions,” he added. Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.

Igor Danchenko, a key source of the “Steele Dossier” that accused Trump’s campaign of being compromised by Russia, has rejected claims by Trump’s allies that he is a Russian agent. “I am exactly what the Department of Justice National Security Division, the FBI, the FBI Inspector General, the Special Counsel and the Republican Senate Intelligence Committee has determined; an experienced expert in Russian affairs who has spent more than a decade in business intelligence,” Danchenko said in an email to Reuters, making clear that his “academic and business intelligence work in Russia has always been on behalf of Western clients and never on behalf of Russia.” Reuters reporting.

Elliott Broidy, a longtime GOP and Trump fundraiser, yesterday pleaded guilty to recent criminal charges that accused him of violating foreign lobbying laws by illegally lobbying the Trump administration to drop its investigation into the Malaysian 1MDB corruption scandal. Washington D.C. federal Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly set a sentence hearing date for February. Reuters reporting.

The fiancée of slain Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi has filed a lawsuit in the US against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other Saudi officials alleging that they were responsible for ordering the killing. The civil suit was filed by Khashoggi’s fiancée and a human rights organization he set up not long before his death, and argues that the journalist’s torture, murder and dismemberment was “pursuant to a directive of Defendant Mohammed bin Salman,” adding that the prince and over 20 co-defendants “saw Khashoggi’s actions in the United States as an existential threat to their pecuniary and other interests and, accordingly, conspired to commit the heinous acts that are the subject of this suit.” Spencer S. Hsu and Kareem Fahim report for the Washington Post.

The parents of 545 migrant children, who were separated under a 2017 Trump administration pilot program, cannot be found, with over two-thirds of the 1,000-plus parents being deported to Central America without their children before a federal judge had chance to order the parents be found, a filing yesterday from the American Civil Liberties Union has said. The pilot program precedes the 2018 “zero tolerance” policy and has been the focus of a court-appointed “steering committee” probe by the ACLU and other organizations, who point to Department of Homeland Security data as the source of their findings. Julia Ainsley and Jacob Soboroff report for NBC News.

The Justice Department has pledged $3 million to support a new initiative, a National Response Center Program, aimed at strengthening police reforms and reducing the use of excessive force by law enforcement, federal officials announced yesterday in Minnesota. Brakkton Booker reports for NPR.

A US federal appeals court yesterday rejected a bid to block North Carolina’s deadline extension for counting absentee ballots that come in after Election Day. The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 12-3 decision, rejected efforts to halt the North Carolina State Board of Elections from tallying ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 that arrive before Nov. 12. Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.

The White House, particularly Meadows, is pressuring the Pentagon to lease its “mid-band spectrum” to 5G company Rivada Networks, a move that if approved would be “the biggest handoff of economic power to a single entity in history,” senior officials from multiple departments and agencies have warned. The Trump administration is pressuring the Pentagon to fast track Rivada’s “Request for Proposal,” skipping a competitive bidding process; the pressure has been firmly applied since September, and Meadows has reportedly been assisted in his pressure campaign by an unnamed top financial management official in the U.S. Army. Jake Tapper reports for CNN.

The Justice Department yesterday filed a lawsuit against Google alleging that its search and advertising empire violated federal antitrust laws. Five key takeaways are provided by Heather Kelly for the Washington Post.

NEW YORK POST STORY: THE BIDENS

President Trump has asked Attorney General William Barr to investigate Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, following a series of New York Post stories that revealed emails and documents alleged to be from Hunter’s laptop and which embroil both Bidens into an alleged long history with a Ukrainian energy company. Speaking in an interview with Fox News yesterday, when asked whether he supported a special prosecutor probe into the Bidens activities in Ukraine and China, Trump said “We’ve got to get the attorney general to act. He’s got to act, and he’s got to act fast. He’s got to appoint somebody. This is major corruption and this has to be known about before the election,” which follows similar calls by House Republicans for Barr to appoint an “unbiased special counsel” to investigate allegations. The Justice Department and Biden’s campaign have refused to comment. Andrew Restuccia and Sadie Gurman report for the Wall Street Journal.

FBI Assistant Director Jill Tyson told Congress last night that the agency has “nothing to add at this time” to Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe’s statement which claimed there’s no evidence to suggest Russia was behind the discovery of the laptop and hard drive that prompted the Post story. Tyson sent a letter to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, responding to the chair’s call for more information on the laptop and the events that followed. Devlin Barrett reports for the Washington Post.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 8.27 million and now killed over 221,00 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there has been over 40.84 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.12 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

UK drugmaker AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine trial in the US is expected to resume as early as this week, numerous anonymous sources have said, following the completion of a review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after a study participant in the UK trials fell seriously ill. 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.

US RELATIONS

The State Department has welcomed recent proposals by Russia’s Foreign Ministry to extend the 2010 New START arm controls treaty between the countries, which expires February, and freeze its total number of nuclear warheads if the US does too. Following the ministry’s announcement yesterday, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement: “We appreciate the Russian Federation’s willingness to make progress on the issue of nuclear arms control … The United States is prepared to meet immediately to finalize a verifiable agreement. We expect Russia to empower its diplomats to do the same.” However, Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the negotiations still have major hurdles to overcome, which are “not small details,” adding: “It’s not a dramatic breakthrough by any means … but it would avoid the total collapse of the U.S.-Russian arms control system and would give Washington and Moscow time to continue to engage in further complex and lengthy talks.” John Hudson and Isabelle Khurshudyan report for the Washington Post.

Russia yesterday called for a joint effort to prevent a large-scale war in the Persian Gulf – they received strong and unanimous support from all UN Security Council members expect the US, who argued Iran was the main culprit for the growing conflicts and stressed that the nation must be held to account. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told the Security Council that “if we work together openly and impartially, and if we pool our political will and our creative potential, we will be able to help the states of the Persian Gulf overcome this difficult historic period and create an effective system of collective security.” In response, U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft said: “Respectfully, I think the solution is much easier: This council must simply muster the courage to hold Iran accountable to its existing international obligations.” AP reporting.

The search for International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s successor is being overshadowed and stalled by US financial sanctions placed on Bensouda and other ICC officials. The court’s member countries are expected to meet in New York in December to choose Bensouda’s successor – four candidates have been shortlisted; however, some countries have expressed concern that these candidates lack the authority to stand up to the Trump administration’s attack on the court. Reuters reporting.

Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez (NJ) and Dianne Feinstein (CA) have introduced a bill, dubbed the “Secure F-35 Exports Act,” aimed at limiting the Trump administration’s efforts to sell F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, requiring the administration to first certify that Israel’s military power in the region would not come under threat by the arms sale. “Ensuring that the United States and its crucial partner in the Middle East, Israel, maintain their critical qualitative military advantages over all potential adversaries is enshrined in law and must be one of the highest priorities of any president and Congress; this rush to close an F-35 deal by President Trump before the end of his term could well undermine that objective,” Menendez (NJ), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH CONFLICT

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to meet separately this week with Azeri and Armenian top diplomats. Azerbaijan’s minister for foreign affairs, Jeyhun Bayramov, will meet with Pompeo Friday, the country’s foreign ministry said, with the invitation coming from the State Department, Azeri ambassador to the U.S. confirmed. Armenia’s ambassador has also told The Hill that plans are in place for Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan to visit Washington. Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

Armenian President Armen Sarkissian is set to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with NATO and EU officials, his office said today. Sarkissian left for Brussels and is expected to meet with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and European Council President Charles Michel. Reuters reporting.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Stephanie Turco Williams, the UN envoy for Libya, today expressed “optimism” about the ongoing peace talks in Geneva between Libya’s warring sides, with agreements reached that “directly impact the lives and welfare of the Libyan people.” AP reporting.

Russia will open a defense ministry office in Serbia, a move that will vastly expand its military power and ties to its Balkan ally. 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)