Early Edition: October 28, 2020

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

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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 has had over $270 million in debt wiped clear since 2010 following a failure to repay his lenders for a Chicago skyscraper development project, The New York Times reported yesterday. Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago faced significant financial problems until banks and hedge funds granted him more time to pay off the debt, with much of it eventually forgiven altogether. Trump would usually be expected to pay a huge tax bill on those debts; however, the Times has said that he was able to avoid paying almost anything, in part because of the dire financial situation his other businesses faced. Deutsche Bank loaned $640 million to the skyscraper project and Fortress Investment Group loaned $130 million; it led to an eventual lawsuit after Deutsche Bank refused to grant a further extension, although a privately settled agreement was eventually reached in July 2010, with around $270 million in debt being forgiven. David Enrich, Russ Buettner, Mike McIntire and Susanne Craig report for the New York Times.

Millions of government and GOP dollars have been paid to Trump’s companies throughout his presidency for hosting private meetings with world leaders at Trump-owned properties, billing the government and taxpayers for its costs. Analysis by the Washington Post shows that Trump has received over $8 million from taxpayers and political supporters since taking office, lawsuit documents and publicly available records shows, and at least $2.5 million from the government. Trump’s campaign and fundraising committee has paid in excess of $5.6 million to Trump companies since January 2017. The money flows from Trump using his personal companies and properties to host events and meetings, then charging significant amounts for the costs  incurred. The Post reports that taxpayers have paid for “hotel rooms, ballrooms, cottages, rental houses, golf carts, votive candles, floating candles, candelabras, furniture moving, resort fees, decorative palm trees, strip steak, chocolate cake, breakfast buffets, $88 bottles of wine and $1,000 worth of liquor for White House aides.” In addition, Trump met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in April 2018 at Mar-a-Lago to host his summit, billing the U.S. government $13,700 for guest rooms, $16,500 for food and wine, and $6,000 for roses and other floral displays. David A. Fahrenthold, Josh Dawsey, Jonathan O’Connell and Anu Narayanswamy report for the Washington Post.

The National Treasury Employees Union filed a lawsuit Monday against Trump’s recent executive order that removes long-held civil service protections from those in policy-making positions, arguing that the order will “radically reshape the civil service by drastically increasing the number and type of employees who are subject to dismissal without adverse action rights.” The order allows the government much more flexibility in hiring and firing “employees in confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating positions” and prompted Federal Salary Council Chair Ron Sanders, a Trump appointee, to resign Monday, warning that the order was “clearly an attempt to require the political loyalty of those who advise the President.” Rebecca Rainey reports for POLITICO.

A federal judge has rejected the Justice Department’s attempt to intervene on behalf of Trump in a defamation lawsuit filed by E. Jean Carroll who alleged that he raped her in the 1990s. The department had argued that Trump had been acting within the scope of his office as President when he denied during interviews last year that he had raped Carroll in a New York Department store, thus could be defended by government lawyers and therefore funded by taxpayer money. However, in a 61-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan rejected such arguments, stating: “The president of the United States is not an ‘employee of the government’ within the meaning of the relevant statutes,” adding, “Even if he were such an ‘employee,’ President Trump’s allegedly defamatory statements concerning Ms. Carroll would not have been within the scope of his employment.” Ryan Lucas reports for NPR.

A federal judge yesterday ordered that Sabirhan Hasanoff, the former New York accountant that was sentenced to 18 years for aiding al-Qaeda in scoping out the New York Stock Exchange, be released from prison early on compassionate release grounds and “striking and unique efforts” to rehabilitate himself. Reuters reporting.

ELECTION DAY AND ELECTION INTERFERENCE

President Trump’s campaign website was yesterday defaced by hackers who wrote a message stating that “US citizens have no choice” in the election and also claimed that they had successfully compromised “multiple devices” and acquired “strictly classified information.” Hackers posted on the website that the data they had stolen could prove the president “is involved in the origin of the corona virus” and is cooperating “with foreign actors manipulating the 2020 elections.” However, the Trump campaign has refuted this, stressing that no valuable information had been taken: “There was no exposure to sensitive data because none of it is actually stored on the site,” said communications director Tim Murtaugh in a post on Twitter. Who’s responsible remains unclear, although the possibility of a foreign adversary seems unlikely due to the hackers requesting that readers send cryptocurrency to virtual addresses to encourage hackers to release the data, or withhold it. Eric Geller reports for POLITICO.

A Michigan judge yesterday ruled that voters are allowed to openly carry firearms at polling stations on Election Day, rejecting an order by Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson that prohibited such displays on the grounds of voter intimidation and potential election interference. State Attorney General Dana Nesselhas said they intend to promptly appeal the ruling, stating “this issue is of significant public interest and importance to our election process.” Reuters reporting.

The US Postal Service (USPS) must reverse mail collection limits brought in by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, Judge Emmet Sullivan of the District Court for the District of Columbia ruled yesterday in a comprehensive order, instructing the Postal Service to notify its employees by today of the ordered changes. Sullivan granted an emergency application brought by plaintiffs that urged Sullivan’s previous injunction related to USPS services to be enforced and monitored. Sullivan said: “USPS personnel are instructed to perform late and extra trips to the maximum extent necessary to increase on-time mail deliveries, particularly for Election Mail … To be clear, late and extra trips should be performed to the same or greater degree than they were performed prior to July 2020 when doing so would increase on-time mail deliveries.” He also instructed USPS to provide him with daily updates on the number of extra and late trips occurring each day at national, regional and local levels. Colby Bermel reports for POLITICO.

Social media giant Facebook has removed three networks linked to Iranian foreign influence efforts that violated the platform’s government interference policies, including 12 Facebook accounts, six pages and 11 Instagram accounts, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, announced in a blog post yesterday. The accounts were removed after the FBI informed the platform of the activity, with Gleicher stating that one account was removed because it attempted “to seed false claims and unsubstantiated election-related threats as part of an influence operation carried out primarily via email.” Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.

Iranian hackers responsible for the recent email threats sent to US voters have operated since 2019 when they focused their target on the Middle East, Facebook confirmed yesterday. Reuters reporting.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 8.77 million and now killed close to 227,00 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there has been over 44.05 million confirmed coronavirus cases and close to 1.17 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN  

The White House coronavirus task force yesterday expressed deep concern over the White House’s recent announcement that it has succeeded in ending the coronavirus pandemic, stating that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s statement suggesting President Trump had achieved an end to the virus was “mind-boggling.” Four task force officials said they viewed the statement as a personal insult and public rebuke of their efforts to try and fight the virus, and that it highlighted the administration’s refusal to accept the worrying state of affairs the country currently faces over the pandemic. Erin Banco reports for the Daily Beast.

The State Department’s director of policy, Peter Berkowitz, has tested positive for Covid-19 after a trip to the UK, Hungary and France, prompting concerns that the virus may have been spread to senior Europe officials, according to four U.S. and foreign officials familiar with the matter. One official said that Berkowitz’s mask-wearing and social distancing practices were slack and that U.S. embassy officials had expressed unease about him travelling to Europe during the pandemic. John Hudson reports for the Washington Post.

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 

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) yesterday authorized the National Guard to deploy troops in Philadelphia to assist police officers in protecting federal property and quelling unrest following mass demonstrations over the fatal police shooting of 27-year-old Black man Walter Wallace. West Philadelphia saw the second night of protests, with over 1,000 taking to the streets, looting shops, damaging buildings and leaving at least 30 officers injured. Robert Klemko, Katie Shepherd and Maura Ewing report for the Washington Post.

A Virginia judge has ruled that Richmond’s statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee can be removed under the governor’s order, but made clear that the state cannot immediately action the order until a group of residents are given the opportunity to appeal the decision. AP reporting.

US RELATIONS

A Turkish employee of the American consulate in Istanbul was yesterday sentenced to more than five years in jail over claims he knowingly aided a terrorist group, although US diplomats argue the charges are baseless. The employee worked as a security guard and is one of three Turkish staffers at the consulate who face similar charges, all of whom have been jailed since 2017, a move that many have rebuked as political hostage-taking. The New York Times reporting.

The Trump administration has conducted over 190 armed attacks, mainly airstrikes, in Yemen since 2017, resulting in a minimum of 86 civilian deaths, revealed a new study by UK-based watchdog group Airwars. The study shows that U.S. activity in the country, which started in 2001, has been at an all-time high since President Trump took office in 2017. Missy Ryan reports for the Washington Post.

Six gunmen kidnapped an American citizen, Philip Walton, from his home in Niger yesterday, multiple sources have confirmed. Reuters reporting.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Iran is currently building a new underground centrifuge nuclear facility after its previous plant exploded July, Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said during an interview with the Associated Press yesterday. AP reporting.

Russia’s parliament today approved a bill that would give precedence to national legislation over international treaties and rulings from international courts and bodies. The State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, said the legislation would include a “provision stating that the decisions of interstate bodies … contradicting the constitution of the Russian Federation are not subject to execution in Russia.” The bill will now progress to parliament’s upper house and then to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Reuters reporting.

The defense ministry of the Nagorno-Karabakh region confirmed today that there have been a further 59 casualties among its military, upping the military death toll to 1,068 since the conflict between Armenian and Azeri forces broke out Sept. 27. 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)