Early Edition: November 16, 2020

A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the weekend.

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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’S TRANSITION OF POWER

President-elect Joe Biden is considering tapping Sen. Angus King (I-ME) to serve as director of national intelligence (DNI) in his administration, according to three officials with knowledge of the discussions. “The senator from Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, is a prominent member of the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees. His appointment as Biden’s intelligence chief would give the president-elect someone in the position that both he and the intelligence community know well. But it would also vacate a Democratic Senate seat in a state that just overwhelmingly reelected a Republican, Susan Collins, to its other Senate seat.” Natasha Bertrand and Lara Seligman report for POLITICO.

As President Trump continues to refuse Biden’s victory or allow for a smooth transition of power, federal agencies sit idle, “effectively twiddling their thumbs” until the General Services Administration (GSA) completes its affirmation process. A staffer from the Department of Energy said, “We had a call yesterday and talked quite a bit about this, and the direction we received was to expect a transition, start planning for it, think about the things that the Biden team would likely want to see and start brushing up on those documents and start thinking about how do we frame our programs, and our work in a way that is attractive to the Biden administration” — but made clear the message was not from Trump-appointees but professional staff, and was communicated via telephone, and not memo, to avoid a paper trail. “State Department officials are growing anxious and frustrated as they are prevented from interacting with Biden’s transition team. ‘It is frustrating on one hand, but on another it is also damaging to the morale at the department,’ said one current official familiar with the pause that has been put in place.” Jeremy Herb reports for CNN.

Trump suggested Sunday that Biden had “won” the US election but maintained that the election was rigged. “He won because the Election was Rigged,“ Trump said in a post on Twitter, adding: “NO VOTE WATCHERS OR OBSERVERS allowed, vote tabulated by a Radical Left privately owned company, Dominion, with a bad reputation & bum equipment that couldn’t even qualify for Texas (which I won by a lot!), the Fake & Silent Media, & more!” Not long later Trump again took to Twitter, this time ramping up his refusal to concede. “RIGGED ELECTION. WE WILL WIN!” he posted, adding, “He only won in the eyes of the FAKE NEWS MEDIA. I concede NOTHING! We have a long way to go. This was a RIGGED ELECTION!” David Cohen reports for POLITICO.

President-elect Joe Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, has warned that the Trump administration’s refusal to officially recognise Biden’s victory — namely, General Services Administration (GSA) Administrator Emily Murphy signing a letter of “ascertainment,” the formal recognition of Biden’s win — could impact on Biden’s efforts to distribute a coronavirus vaccine. Klain said that the transition team would this week pressure GSA to allow transition health officials to meet with Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials. Until the transition team is formally recognised, Biden’s coronavirus advisor board is prohibited from contacting the White House coronavirus task force or Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious-disease expert and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Kristina Peterson reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Former President Barack Obama has said that Trump’s refusal to concede is another “breach of basic democratic norms,” speaking in an interview with NPR that will air today. Jason Breslow reports for NPR.

Former national security advisor Susan Rice also criticized the Trump administration’s refusal to meet with members of President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team as putting US “national security at risk,” writing for a New York Times op-ed.

Health officials have warned that Trump’s refusal to concede could cripple the country’s ability to control the ever-growing pandemic, with Dr. Fauci stating, “of course it would be better” if public health officials began working with Biden’s transition team, speaking said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Eleanor Mueller reports for POLITICO.

European leaders indicate they are ready for Biden to take over the presidential office, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s foreign affairs chief, all expressing a want to get on with constructively working with the Biden administration. Ishaan Tharoor reports for the Washington Post.

China finally acknowledged Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ election victory last Friday, with China’s congratulations coming just 24 hours after Biden’s team confirmed he had had phone calls with Australia, Japan and South Korea. “We respect the American people’s choice,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin at a news conference. “We congratulate Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris.” Eva Dou reports for the Washington Post.

An explainer on where Biden stands on his biggest foreign policy challenge – China, is provided by Ben Westcott for CNN.

TRUMP AND THE US ELECTION

The Trump Organization “faces a reckoning” once President Trump leaves office: a pair of investigations by New York Attorney General Letitia James and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. will continue into Trump financial records; his looming debt exposed by the New York Times and others is expected to come knocking on the organization’s door; he himself owes a history of debt, from his dealings with Deutsche Bank and debts at his firm’s real estate holdings. “In China — a market long eyed by Mr. Trump — the president has become deeply distrusted after his trade war damaged U.S.-China relations. In Europe, some of the Trump trademarks have been eliminated by legal challenges … The Trump Organization might soon slim down. Several properties are for sale, including its Washington hotel and two skyscrapers in New York and San Francisco that are part-owned by the Trump Organization. The organization also has been considering selling its Seven Springs estate outside of New York City, The Wall Street Journal previously reported.” Brian Spegele and Caitlin Ostroff reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Camilo Sandoval, the federal government’s chief information security officer, has admitted to taking leave from his post to help the private voter fraud investigation group, “Voter Integrity Fund,” a recently formed Virginia-based group that is analyzing ballot data and cold-calling voters in an effort to evidence the president’s continuing claims about voter fraud. Sandavol is reported to be one of several Trump-appointed federal government officials offering their expertise to the group, according to group leaders. Although the Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities while on official duty, the officials have taken leave to offer their support. “All it would take is a slip of a few words … Even if they stay on the right side of the law, they could be treading in dangerous territory,” said Nick Schwellenbach, a senior investigator at the nonprofit watchdog group Project on Government Oversight and an Obama-era spokesperson for the Office of Special Counsel OSC, speaking to the Washington Post. Greg Clary reports for CNN.

Sixteen assistant US attorneys specially assigned to monitor 2020 election malfeasance have informed Attorney General William Barr in a letter Friday they saw no evidence of substantial voting irregularities, and urged him to rescind his recently memo policy change that authorized investigators 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.” The letter said that Barr’s policy change “thrusts career prosecutors into partisan politics, [and] was not based in fact.” “The letter was signed by assistant U.S. attorneys in 15 different federal court districts: Western Pennsylvania, Western North Carolina, New Mexico, Maryland, Southern Ohio, Eastern Kentucky, Southern Iowa, Western Arkansas, Southern New York, Eastern New York, Oregon, Kansas, Northern California, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. Two signers were from Oregon.” Matt Zapotosky and Tom Hamburger reports for the Washington Post.

The Trump campaign yesterday dropped a major part of its federal lawsuit challenging the election result Pennsylvania abandoning allegations that poll watchers were stopped from properly carrying out their important roles in Democrat-heavy counties — narrowing the case to a small number of ballots, a revised version of the lawsuit filed yesterday morning revealed. The suit appears to focus its attention on a few thousand votes or less, focusing “solely on varying practices by county officials for handling mail-in ballots that lacked an internal secrecy envelope or otherwise ran afoul of the state’s election rules.” The campaign argues that the president’s constitutional rights were violated as some counties attempted to contact voters who had incorrectly cast their mail-in bellot, while some counties did not take those steps. Josh Gertsein reports for POLITICO.

Thousands of Trump supports rallied Saturday, Washington, in protest of the election results which saw violence between left- and right- wing activists surge, with over 20 arrested and numerous people injured, including someone who was stabbed and four injured police officers. Trump did briefly pass by the rally — before the clashes started — but featured most heavily when he later took to Twitter denouncing anti-fascist group Antifa. “ANTIFA SCUM ran for the hills,” he said in a Twitter post Saturday, urging the DC Police to “get going — do your job and don’t hold back!!!” Rachel Levy, Gordon Lubold and Andrew Restuccia report for the Wall Street Journal.

PENTAGON UPHEAVAL

Theories swirl around the Pentagon following President Trump’s ousting of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the subsequent influx of resignations from Defense Department officials questions centre on whether the drama is a coup, an attempt to expediate US troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, or some other score-settling reason. “All this speculation about, ‘Is Trump going to do something with the Insurrection Act, is he going to invade some country?’ No,” said Mark Cancian, a former defense official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, adding, while “it’s not impossible that he would try some precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan,” the military “could slow roll him” on anything he tried to push through. Rebecca Kheel and Ellen Mithcell report for The Hill.

Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who recently took over from ousted Mark Esper, said Friday that the military “remains strong” following a string of Trump-firings and following resignations at the Pentagon over the last week. “I want to assure the American public and our allies and partners that the Department of Defense remains strong and continues its vital work of protecting our homeland, our people and our interests around the world,” Miller said at the Pentagon ahead of a meeting with his Lithuanian counterpart. Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.

Former CIA Director John Brennan said Friday that Trump’s recent changes to his top defense personnel team was “score settling.” “He wants people to be personally loyal to him … So therefore the firing of Mark Esper and the decapitating of civilian leadership within the Pentagon, I think clearly is score-settling on the part of Mr. Trump,” Brennan said in an interview on CNN. Jordain Williams reports for The Hill.

Former national security advisor John Bolton denounces Trump’s defense shake-up as “destructive.” Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” Bolton said: “There are rumors about other things, perhaps creating facts on the ground for the … Biden administration, by withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, releasing documents relating to the Russia collusion charge … It’s hard to say, but it’s destructive.” He added, “when you decapitate the office of the secretary of Defense with less than 10 weeks to go in the administration, really it’s very damaging, not just for the current administration, but for the incoming administration as well.” Allie Bice reports for POLITICO.

Miller has signaled in an email to agency staffers that a potential reduction in US troops in the Middle East is on the cards, saying “all wars must end,” and adding, “this is the critical phase in which we transition our efforts from a leadership to supporting role.” “Ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home,” Miller wrote. Celine Castronuovo reports for The Hill.

The incoming Biden Administration will aim to restore some stability in the Pentagon and bring greater predictability, analysts have said however, the task won’t be easy, as Biden will need to plan his strategy for responding to the ever-growing threat from China, and face, like Trump did, challenges from Defense Department leaders who seem intent on winding down US military presence in Arab nations. Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said the Biden administration “will be more graceful about those things, but I think with the same end point that a Trump administration and for that matter an Obama administration would have wanted.” Missy Ryan reports for the Washington Post.

OTHER US DEVELOPMENTS

A federal judge ruled Saturday that a July memo that banned new applicants to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) was unlawful — a program which protects immigrants living in the US since childhood without legal permission — after ruling that Chad Wolf was not legally serving as the acting secretary of homeland security when he issued the ban. Judge Nicholas Garaufis of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of New York ruled that the memo was invalid. “The most immediate beneficiaries of the court ruling are likely to be immigrants who are eligible for DACA but did not apply before the Trump administration cut off applications in September 2017. The decision could also lead DHS to restore a DACA benefit the administration largely halted at the same time: the ability for Dreamers to leave the country and return, without losing their quasi-legal status and work permits … But the import of the judge’s decision is unclear at the moment as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office and usher in a profoundly different attitude towards immigration. Biden is widely expected to limit deportations and to press for legislation to legalize so-called Dreamers, but any moves he takes by executive action could face the same kinds of court challenges that targeted Obama’s policies and later ones that went after Trump’s,” writes Josh Gerstein for POLITICO.

CIA Director Gina Haspel was reportedly absent from President Trump’s daily in-person intelligence briefing Friday, fanning the flames for growing speculation over Trump’s intention to eventually fire the CIA chief. The meeting was organized by Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe, and some officials have said Haspel was deliberately excluded, although the agency refused to comment. Brooke Seipel reports for The Hill.

The US and Israel conducted a bold intelligence operation in which “Israeli agents acting at the behest of American officials assassinated al-Qaeda’s second-in-command in August, in a brazen drive-by shooting in Iran’s capital, according to a senior US official.” The New York Times first reported on the story Friday, in which Abu Mohammed al-Masri, one of al-Qaeda’s top commander, was killed by assassins in the Iranian capital in August; although no country has yet claim responsibility, officials have said that the United states located Masri, and Israel coordinated the operation — with substantial help from the CIA. “The CIA, FBI and Pentagon declined to comment, and the White House did not respond to a request for comment. The Israeli prime minister’s office and intelligence ministry also declined to comment.” Ellen Nakashima reports for the Washington Post.

White House national security advisor Robert O’Brien reportedly led the US delegation at two Southeast Asian virtual summits over the weekend, the White House announced in a statement Friday. “The White House said O’Brien would represent the U.S. at a summit with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) starting Friday evening U.S. time … He is then scheduled to take part Saturday in an East Asia Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. The discussion is expected to include the signing of the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by 15 Asia-Pacific economies, which could become the world’s largest free trade agreement, according to Reuters.” Celine Castronuovo reports for The Hill.

President Trump is planning a last-minute crackdown on China in his final weeks in office, including a litany of sanctions and restrictions expected to target “Chinese companies, government entities and officials for alleged complicity in human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, or threatening US national security,” senior administration officials with direct knowledge of the plans tells Axios, a move that will make the relationship between President-elect Joe Biden and China potentially untenable. It is expected that Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe will announce detailed intelligence on China’s actions in the United States. Officials say no big moves are expected relating to Taiwan or more closures of Chinese consulates in the United States. Jonathan Swan, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian report for Axios.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected close to 11.04 million and killed over 246,200 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there has now been over 54.49 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.318 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

Co-chair of President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus taskforce, Vivek Murthy, said yesterday that national lockdown is a “measure of last resort” amid growing cases in the US. The former general surgeon argued that a more nuanced approach is needed, stressing, “We have got to approach this with the position of a scalpel rather than the blunt force of an ax,” while speaking on “Fox News Sunday.” Eleanor Mueller reports for POLITICO.

Biden plans to bring back daily coronavirus press briefings, with Kate Bedingfield and Symone Sanders in line for top communications roles in the new administration. “Kate Bedingfield is seen as having the inside track to become either White House communications director or press secretary. Symone Sanders could be offered the role of incoming press secretary, or slot into another position before winding up ‘at the podium’ down the line, Biden aides and other people in and around the transition said.” Christopher Cadelago, Natasha Korecki and Marc Caputo report for POLITICO.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is self-isolating after being exposed to the Covid-19 virus. Tim Stelloh reports for NBC News.

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.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan yesterday called for a “two-state” solution in Cyprus during a visit to the Turkish-Cypriot north of the island for commemorations for the 37th anniversary of a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence on war-divided Cyprus. “There are two separate peoples, two separate democratic systems and two separate states in Cyprus today,” Erdoğan said in a speech, casting doubt on the Cyprus reunification talks, proposing a two-state deal rather than the long-established federal framework. AP reporting.

Israel is advancing its plans in an illegal East Jerusalem settlement, watchdog group said yesterday, stating that the country is moving forward with new construction of hundreds of homes that threatens to cut off parts of the city claimed by Palestinians from the West Bank. Al Jazeera reporting.

At least two rockets were fired from Ethiopia by militias into neighboring Eritrea Saturday night as the conflicts intensified between Ethiopia’s northern Tigray state and the federal government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Nicholas Bariyo reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Armenia’s National Security Service prevented an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and the seizure of power by a group of former officials, it was reported Saturday. Reuters reporting.

Libya’s peace talks were yesterday adjourned without naming a new transitional government to oversee a transition to possible elections in the country next year, with acting UN envoy Stephanie Williams making clear there was a lot of work still to do. 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)