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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 Trump associates — including a top fundraiser of his, Elliott Broidy, and the lawyer of his son-in-law Jared Kushner — were being investigated by the Justice Department since this summer in a suspected bribery scheme which sort clemency for someone convicted of tax crimes, according to two people familiar with the matter. “A billionaire real estate developer from the San Francisco area, Sanford Diller, enlisted their help in securing clemency for a Berkeley psychologist, Hugh L. Baras, who had received a 30-month prison sentence on a conviction of tax evasion and improperly claiming Social Security benefits, according to the filing and the people familiar with the case. Under the suspected scheme, Mr. Diller would make “a substantial political contribution” to an unspecified recipient in exchange for the pardon. He died in February 2018, and there is no evidence that the effort continued after his death.” A Justice Department official has confirmed that no one was charged in the inquiry, with no government official “currently a subject or target of the investigation disclosed in this filing.” The court documents which revealed the investigation said that someone had approached the White House Counsel’s Office to “ensure” that the “clemency petition reached the targeted officials.” Michael S. Schmidt, Kenneth P. Vogel, Katie Benner and Adam Goldman report for the New York Times.
Trump is considering pre-emptive pardons for up to 20 aides and associates before he leaves office next month — a plan that has received raised eyebrows and hesitance from Republicans, although they don’t seem to be telling him to stop. “That is in a category that I think you’d probably run into a lot of static,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN), adding, “That’s charting new territory, I’m guessing. I don’t think that’s ever been attempted before.” Anita Kumar and Andrew Desiderio report for POLITICO.
The White House has held several pardon-related meetings since Election Day, involving the White House Counsel’s Office, who is said to have led the conversations, two senior Trump administration officials have said, with sources saying that the Trump White House acts quickly once Trump makes a decision, at times without Justice Department involvement. Pamela Brown and Gloria Borger report for CNN.
US prosecutors yesterday called for up to a six-month prison sentence for former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith who pleaded guilty Aug. 19 to altering an email the bureau relied on when seeking court authorization to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page during the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election. Josh Gerstein and Kyle Cheney reports for POLITICO.
The federal government used Section 215 of the Patriot Act — which allows the FBI to secretly seek court orders to collect business records related to national security issues — to collect website visit logs in 2019, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) revealed in letters made public yesterday; the letters were between Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), where Ratcliffe said the Act was not used to get internet search terms, although, on the advice of the Justice Department, he later backtracked and said that it had been used once to collect logs showing which computers “in a specified foreign country” had visited “a single, identified U.S. web page” last year. Chris Mills Rodrigo reports for The Hill.
The Senate will vote next week on whether to block the Trump administration’s $23 billion arms sale to the UAE, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said; a bill that would see the sale of “up to 50 F-35s worth $10.4 billion, up to 18 MQ-9B drones worth $2.97 billion and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions worth $10 billion.” Jordain Carney reports for The Hill.
Army Gen. Mark Milley said yesterday that the US should rethink its policy on permanently stationing US troops and their families in allied countries that are at risk of war, including South Korea and in the Persian Gulf, but not Afghanistan and Iraq. Milley did say that a presence is needed, just not a permanent one, suggesting a “rotational” presence. “Large permanent U.S. bases overseas might be necessary for rotational forces to go into and out of, but permanently positioning U.S. forces I think needs a significant relook for the future,” said Milley, adding that this was not just based on cost implications but due to the risks posed to military families. AP reporting.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY) has been elected the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, making him the first African American to lead the committee. Al Jazeera reporting.
House Democrats yesterday elected Rep. Rosa DeLauro (CT) as the next chair of the House Appropriations Committee. Caitlin Emma reports for POLITICO.
The US will temporarily withdraw some of its personnel from its embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, US Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller confirmed yesterday on a video uploaded to the U.S. Embassy’s Facebook following reports that the withdrawal was prompted over concern that Iran would retaliate around the one-year anniversary of the U.S.-ordered airstrike and killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.
The Justice Department is discussing a possible deal with lawyers acting for Huawei’s finance chief Meng Wanzhou, who is currently under house arrest in Canada after being arrested in 2018 for charges related to bank and fire fraud, and who also faces UU charges for alleged violations of sanctions on Tehran. If a deal is struck then Wanzhou could be released from Canada to China, although it is reported that she must first admit her wrongdoing. Jacquie McNish, Aruna Viswanatha, Jonathan Cheng and Dan Strumpf report for the Wall Street Journal.
TRUMP CAMPAIGN AND US ELECTION RESULTS
The Justice Department’s White House liaison, Heidi Stirrup, has been banned from the building after she pressured department staffers to give her sensitive investigative information, including on election fraud matters, so she could pass that information back to the White House, three people familiar with the matter said. AP reporting.
President Trump has raised around $495 million since mid-October, including $207.5 million since Election Day, an average of nearly $3 million a day — “a massive amount fueled by a deluge of email and text fundraising appeals sent out by the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, a joint fundraising committee that raises money for the president’s campaign, the Republican Party and Trump’s new leadership PAC, Save America,” report Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Anu Narayanswamy for the Washington Post.
White House communications director, and longtime staffer in the Trump administration, Alyssa Farah has resigned from her role. Ashley Parker reports for the Washington Post.
“Attorney General William Barr’s decision on Tuesday to name John Durham, the U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut appointed by President Trump, as special counsel to investigate matters surrounding the 2016 election violates the rules for special counsels as well as fundamental democratic principles,” Neal K. Katyal, law professor at Georgetown, writes in an op-ed for the New York Times.
PRESIDENT-ELECT JOE BIDEN’S TRANSITION TO POWER
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will soon officially name Tina Flournoy as chief of staff, the Biden transition team said yesterday. Chelsea Janes reports for the Washington Post.
President-elect Joe Biden has chosen Vivek Murthy, a former US surgeon general, to help lead the Covid-19 White House response team, according to an individual familiar with the decision, who also said that Biden had offered a key role to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the current US government’s top infectious-disease expert and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Toluse Olorunnipa and Amy Goldstein report for the Washington Post.
“More than several” Republican senators have privately called Biden to congratulate him on his election victory, Biden said yesterday, although most have not publicly expressed such sentiment. Devan Cole reports for CNN.
Speaking on China yesterday, Biden said that Beijing must adhere to “international norms.” “The president’s approach to China has been backwards,” said Biden about President Trump. “I met with [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] more times than anybody had up until the time we left office that I’m aware of,” Biden added. Joseph Choi reports for The Hill.
Trump said that he would leave the White House if the Electoral College formally elects Biden but didn’t commit to attending the inauguration ceremony. Alex Leary reports for the Wall Street Journal.
The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) is “starved of resources,” which the incoming Biden administration must get to grips with and not allow to “fester,” writes David Ignatius in an op-ed for the Washington Post. Ignatius writes that the Center is in a state “decline and demoralization.” After speaking with Russell Travers, the former acting director of the NCTC, Ignatius reveals that, Travers “filed a “whistleblower” complaint about his agency’s plight with Congress in June 2020. Paraphrasing the complaint, he said it warned that lack of funds and personnel was “steadily, almost imperceptibly undermining the center and increasing the risk” of another attack like that on Sept. 11, 2001, which the NCTC was created to prevent,” adding, “Travers revealed new details of the infighting that took place this year under acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell, who served from February to May, when he was replaced by John Ratcliffe. Travers’s complaint, as he outlined it, portrays an intelligence community foundering under mismanagement and political backbiting.” Ignatius also said: “One chilling example: Travers described an NCTC so weakened by budget and personnel shortages that it couldn’t adequately collate information into what’s known as its Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, leaving the country potentially vulnerable to undetected attackers. Travers and other experts said this data analytics problem could be handled by private companies with adequate resources that are lacking at the NCTC.”
DEFENSE POLICY BILL
The bipartisan defense policy bill includes a number of rebukes to President Trump’s actions. The bill includes provisions limiting US troop drawbacks in Germany and South Korea; a reduction in troops below 34,500 in Germany would have to certified by the Defense Secretary 120 days before acting, and by 90 days in South Korea before levels can go below 28,500 — these reductions were included in the House’s version of the bill and was endorsed by a group of Senate Republicans. The bill also directs that the president sanction Turkey within 30 days over its purchase of S-400 missile systems from Russia, and also takes issue with forces been deployed to Syria. The bill also contains provisions regarding use of the military on home soil, limiting the amount of military construction funding that could be diverted to domestic projects though a national emergency order to an annual $100 million. Karoun Demirjian reports for the Washington Post.
The bill also creates a national cyber director role at the White House, said Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI), who added that the Senate-confirmed position would be responsible for coordinating federal cyber security priorities. It doesn’t, however, include any provision regarding Section 230, despite Trump’s insistence that he would veto the bill if it wasn’t included. The also removes conflicting provisions put forward by the House and the Senate regarding nuclear testing language; and seeks to prevent the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan to 2,500 by mid-January by blocking the funding.
The novel coronavirus has infected over 14.14 million and now killed over 276,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 65.32 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.508 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.
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.