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A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours. Here’s today’s news.
PRESIDENT-ELECT JOE BIDEN: TRANSITION OF POWER, TRUMP CAMPAIGN CHALLENGES AND FOREIGN NATION RELATIONS
Attorney General William Barr yesterday authorized US attorneys to open election-fraud investigations “if there are clear and apparently-credible allegations of irregularities that, if true, could potentially impact the outcome of a federal election in an individual State,” a memo read, further suggesting that he had already authorized 2020 election probes “in specific instances,” although provided no further details and did not confirm if any such probe was still active. Barr accepted that his directive was not in-line with standard Justice Department practice of not investigating allegations of fraud or launching overt investigations until after the election vote was officially certified, but maintained that such a policy was not always advisable in instances where fraud was suspected to affect the election result. Barr’s announcement prompted the speedy resignation of Richard Pilger, director of the Election Crimes Branch in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, who made clear in an email sent to Department staffers that his stepping-down was due to “the new policy and its ramifications,” describing Barr’s directive as “an important new policy abrogating the 40-year-old Non-Interference policy of ballot fraud investigations in the period prior to elections becoming certified and uncontested.” Although Barr did say “specious, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched claims should not be a basis for initiating federal inquiries,” his memo has sparked much criticism, with Vanita Gupta, the former head of Justice’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama and current president of the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, saying: “how grossly politicized and partisan the Barr DOJ is, in service of [President] Trump,” adding, “Let’s be clear — this is about disruption, disinformation, and sowing chaos.” Josh Gerstein reports for POLITICO.
Despite the Presidential Records Act requiring Trump and the White House to preserve and eventually disclose all records relating to the performance of his official duties, President-elect Joe Biden will likely face difficulty in digging up Trump’s national security and foreign policy secrets. The Act has an ineffective, and arguably non-existent, enforcement mechanism for requiring a president to keep and eventually make public all records relating to the performance of their official duties, ultimately relying on the president’s good will, stated Kel McClanahan, the executive director of the law firm National Security Counselors. With Trump’s record of destroying documents and hiding transcripts of calls he had with foreign leaders, many have expressed concern that Biden’s access to key issues faced by the country could be hindered; a White House official was asked about compliance with record preservation laws, and stated, “We preserve everything we have to preserve,” although when questioned on whether anything from the National Security Council (NSC)’s code word classified system had been deleted, replied: “I’m not going to talk about any of that. But we comply with everything. Like, we’re really actually not criminals.” Even if all records have been preserved, which is certainly not the case, Biden’s right of access to them is limited under current legislation — “the current administration does not have carte blanche access to the records of prior administrations …It’s not just an open book,” said a lawyer who served in the Obama White House counsel’s office. Natasha Bertrand reports for POLITICO.
The White House yesterday ordered senior government officials not to cooperate with Biden’s transition team until the election result was confirmed by the General Services Administration (GSA), the government agency that officially starts the transition and which is in charge of federal buildings and government officials’ access to government funds. The GSA Administrator Emily Murphy has refused to affirm Biden’s victory, and so the transition team is currently unable to access a $6.3 million share of nearly $10 million in transition resources, or gain access to agency officials and information. Transition officials indicated that they have been prevented from accessing State Department-facilitated calls with foreign leaders and access to secure facilities in order to review classified information. Among the government agencies refusing to cooperate with Biden’s team until GSA officially affirm the result are: the U.S. Agency for International Development to Veterans Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Office of Management and Budget. Lisa Rein, Matt Viser, Greg Miller and Josh Dawsey report for the Washington Post.
Biden’s transition team has called on GSA to his victory, with Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (FL) and Mitt Romney (UT) joining the calls and arguing that any further delay to the transition of power will affect US national security. “There’s a very likely prospect that there will be a change in administration,” Romney told reporters yesterday, adding, “For the purposes of smooth transition and national security, we have a national interest in the transition proceeding as rapidly as can be done.” Rubio said: “I don’t think allowing the GSA to move forward on some of the transition work prejudices in any way any of the legal claims the president intends to make.” Jennifer Epstein reports for Bloomberg.
Concern about undermining the electoral system has intensified among some lawyers at the law firms, Jones Day and Porter Wright, representing Trump in his election lawsuits, with a number of senior lawyers from Jones Day suggesting that a lack of evidence supporting their arguments may undermine the integrity and legitimacy of the nation’s elections, according to interviews with nine partners and associates, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Similar concerns have been voiced by lawyers at Porter Wright. Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Rachel Abrams and David Enrich report for the New York Times.
Top Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), are continuing to support Trump’s refusal to concede, getting behind election lawsuits and declining to recognize Biden’s victory. McConnell said from the Senate floor yesterday that the president is “100 percent within his right” to call for recounts and action legal challenges; although he did not specifically speak on unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, he said he had spoken to Barr earlier and supports Trump’s right to investigate potential wrongdoing. Further, other GOP officials are supporting Trump’s actions, including two Georgia senators, who have called for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) to resign after he said there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the state. Amy Gardner, Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Emma Brown report for the Washington Post.
70 percent of Republicans do not believe the election was free and fair, a POLITICO and Morning Consult poll has found, indicating that since Biden’s victory was announced, Republicans’ trust in the U.S. election system plunged, while Democrats’ trust rocketed. Prior to the election, 35 percent of Republicans expressed distrust in the election system, therefore doubling post-Election Day, whereas trust among Democrats soared from 52 percent pre-Election Day to 90 percent after. Among the Republicans who expressed distrust, 78 percent believed mail-in votes had led to widespread voter fraud and 72 percent thought ballots were tampered with. Catherine Kim reports for POLITICO.
A breakdown of the world leaders who have not acknowledge Biden’s victory is provided by Rick Noack for the Washington Post, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa.
President Trump announced yesterday that he had fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper, with Christopher Miller, the director of the National Counter Terrorism Center, confirmed as the new Acting Secretary of Defense, “effective immediately”. Miller is a former Army Special Forces officer and Pentagon official; he reportedly met yesterday with Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and other top officials, reassuring them to not expect “significant changes at this time,” a senior defense official said. Ryan Browne reports for CNN.
Michael Ellis, a White House official and former GOP political operative, has been named by the Pentagon as the new general counsel at the National Security Agency (NSA), U.S. officials speaking on the condition of anonymity have confirmed, although the appointment has yet to be officially announced. The NSA, Pentagon and White house have all declined to comment. Ellis will no longer be a presidential appointee, but instead a senior civil servant with civil service protections. A future Pentagon general counsel will also be able to reassign him to a different civil service position if they chose to. Ellen Nakashima reports for the Washington Post.
James Jeffrey, the State Department’s special envoy for Syria engagement and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, will retire from his role this month, according to an announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, with Ambassador Nathan Sales, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, to take over Jeffrey’s responsibility on ISIS. Matthew Choi reports for POLITICO. .
The parents of 666 migrant children, who were separated under a 2017 Trump administration pilot program and during its “zero tolerance” policy, cannot be found, lawyers working with the families have said, a significantly higher number than the previously reported 545 children, according to an email obtained by NBC News. Jacob Soboroff and Julia Ainsley report for NBC News.
The novel coronavirus has infected over 10.11 million and killed over 238,250 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there has now been over 50.91 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.263 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.
Pfizer Inc’s experimental Covid-19 vaccine is more than 90 percent effective based on initial trial results, the drugmaker confirmed yesterday, a significant victory for fighting against the worldwide pandemic. However, the vaccine still requires regulatory approval for mass roll out, which is not expected until next year. Pfizer and German partner BioNTech have said that they can roll out close to 50 million doses this year, enough to protect 25 million people, and then produce up to 1.3 billion doses next year. Michael Erman and Julie Steenhuysen report for Reuters.
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.
The Treasury Department yesterday announced new sanctions on a number of Syrian government officials and entities that do business with Damascus’s petroleum industry, which largely operates under the control of Syrian President Bashar Assad. “Today’s action complements the international effort to compel the Assad regime to cease the war it is waging against its own people and reinforces the U.S. government’s continued effort to achieve a peaceful, political resolution of the Syrian conflict in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. With these actions, the U.S. government is endeavoring to disrupt and dissuade regime loyalists from continuing to support Assad and to hamper the flow of future oil-derived revenue to Assad’s war chest,” the Treasury Department said. John Bowden reports for The Hill.
The US is set to place sanctions next week on Iranians involved in a violent and bloody crackdown against anti-government demonstrators in Iran last year November, three sources familiar with the matter and speaking on the condition of anonymity said yesterday. Humeyra Pamuk, Arshad Mohammed and Matt Spetalnick report for Reuters.
The Taliban today urged for President-elect Joe Biden to commit to the February agreement to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. “The Islamic Emirate would like to stress to the new American president-elect and future administration that implementation of the agreement is the most reasonable and effective tool for ending the conflict between both our countries,” the militant insurgent group said in a statement. Reuters reporting.
The US was yesterday subject to a review by the UN Human Rights Council, which focused its concerns on the detention of children and the killing of unarmed Black people by police officers during the Trump administration era. AP reporting.
A Russian-brokered ceasefire has been reached between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced earlier today. Close to 2,000 Russian forces were deployed to the disputed enclave earlier today, with announcement triggering outrage and protests in Armenia, although it was largely welcomed in Azerbaijan. Robyn Dixon reports for the Washington Post.
The UK House of Lords yesterday rejected UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s highly-criticized Internal Market Bill, with lawmakers voting, 433 to 165, to remove measures that seek to “disapply” parts of the Northern Ireland protocol which many said would put at risk the Good Friday Agreement. However, Johnson is expected to continue on with his Brexit bill despite the recent defeat, risking a major breakdown between himself and President-elect Joe Biden. Lisa O’Carroll and Jessica Elgot report for The Guardian.