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Early Edition: December 17, 2020


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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

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was forced to cancel his State Department holiday reception with foreign ambassadors yesterday after being exposed to someone who tested positive for Covid-19, according to a State Department official and a diplomat who were invited to the private event. The name of the person Pompeo came into contact with has not been identified, nor have any details been confirmed about when he was exposed. A State Department spokesperson said that Pompeo would quarantine, adding “The secretary has been tested and is negative … He is being closely monitored by the department’s medical team.” William Maudlin reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Requests for President Trump to exercise his powers of clemency have flooded the West Wing, to the point that a spreadsheet has been created to track requests. “Because Trump has shown little interest in using the Justice Department’s Pardon Attorney system for assessing requests for executive clemency, petitioners are approaching the White House directly, calling or emailing senior adviser Jared Kushner, chief of staff Mark Meadows or White House counsel Pat Cipollone — when they can’t get ahold of Trump himself,” report Pamela Brown, Kevin Liptak and Jeremy Diamond for CNN.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-NY) told a federal appeals court yesterday that he intends to re-authorize a subpoena to compel Don McGahn to testify in the next congressional term, stressing that McGahn’s testimony is “essential” to understanding a number of important issues related to the Justice Department and FBI, particularly as he was a key witness in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump. “Numerous questions and concerns remain unanswered regarding the President’s apparent interference with the activities and operations of these agencies,” Nadler said, adding, “Mr. McGahn’s testimony remains essential in the 117th Congress to inform the Committee’s understanding of these important issues so that it may properly consider legislative responses and other proposals to restore historical norms going forward … I expect to promptly reissue the Committee subpoena to Mr. McGahn to ensure this Committee’s litigation and corresponding legislative and oversight efforts continue uninterrupted.” Kyle Cheney reports for POLITICO.

If President-elect Joe Biden halts the construction of the Mexico border wall project when he takes office, he would save the country around $2.6 billion, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates reviewed by The Washington Post. “U.S. Army Corps commanders met with members of the Biden transition team last week to discuss the border wall project, Corps spokeswoman Raini Brunson said. She declined to comment on the estimates reviewed by The Post, referring additional questions to the president-elect’s office,” reports Josh Dawsey and Mick Miroff for the Washington Post.

Federal prosecutors are expected to soon unseal criminal charges against Abu Agila Mohammad Masud, a suspect in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing which killed 270 people, mainly Americans, in a flight from London to New York. Masud is alleged to have built the device that exploded on Pan Am Flight 103 as it flew over Lockerbie, Scotland. The Justice Department is reportedly planning extradition proceedings against Masud who is currently in Libyan custody. Sadie Gurman and Aruna Viswanatha report for the Wall Street Journal.

Ten state attorneys general yesterday filed a lawsuit against Google accusing it of entering a secret agreement in 2018 with Facebook in an effort to illegally stifle competition in the advertising technology market, with both technology companies colluding to fix prices and share the market for ads on websites and apps. Lead Nylen reports for POLITICO.

“Legislation to give federal judges the power to take down internet and social media posts containing personal information about them hit a stumbling block Wednesday, after a Republican senator insisted the measure be broadened to give similar protection to details about members of Congress,” reports Josh Gerstein for POLITICO.

Thomas Bossert, former homeland security adviser to Trump and deputy homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, writes in in an op-ed for the Washington Post that the magnitude of the ongoing attack by Russians responsible for the hacking operation on US federal agencies is “hard to overstate,” adding, “The logical conclusion is that we must act as if the Russian government has control of all the networks it has penetrated.” 

PRESIDENT-ELECT JOE BIDEN’S TRANSITION TO POWER 

President-elect Joe Biden is set to choose Brenda Mallory, a longtime expert in environmental law and regulation, to lead the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, according to several people close to the Biden transition team who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Lisa Friedman reports for the New York Times.

Two names have emerged as top potentials for Biden’s education secretary: Leslie T. Fenwick, dean emeritus of the Howard University School of Education and a professor of educational policy and leadership, and Miguel Cardona, the commissioner of schools in Connecticut, people familiar with the matter said. Laura Meckler and Valerie Strauss report for the Washington Post.

Although Senate Republican support for Biden’s victory has reached new heights, President Trump’s claims of voter fraud continue to be a focal point of debate in the Senate. A Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing yesterday, led by its soon-to-depart chair Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), revisited Trump’s claims of voter fraud and criticized the courts for throwing out the Trump campaign’s lawsuits on mere “technicalities,” warning that until their concerns are properly addresses, public trust and confidence in the election will not be restored. Karoun Demirjian reports for the Washington Post.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said today that he has “no doubt” the incoming Biden administration will rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal between world powers and Iran, which Trump left May 2018  he also said that he expects the administration to remove US sanctions that are currently impacting on Iran’s economy. “I have no doubt that the heroic national resistance of Iran is going to compel the future U.S. government to bow … and the sanctions will be broken,” Rouhani said during a videoconference. His comments come after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei yesterday said that if U.S. sanctions “can be lifted in a correct, wise, Iranian-Islamic [and] dignified manner, this should be done.” Eric Cunningham reports for the Washington Post.

US RELATIONS

Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley this week met with Taliban negotiators in Doha, the second such meeting, in an effort to help assist ongoing peace settlement negotiations between the insurgent group and the Afghan government. Katie Bo Williams reports for Defense One.

The US yesterday imposed sanctions on Chinese and UAE companies over accusations that they supported the sale and export of Iranian petrochemical products by Triliance Petrochemical Co. Ltd, which was sanctioned by the US earlier this year. Daphne Psaledakis reports for Reuters.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said today that Turkey will not return its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems, despite the US imposing sanctions on the country on Monday. Reuters reporting.

China failed to attend a scheduled virtual meeting with the US scheduled for Monday to Wednesday on aviation and maritime safety  a dialogue process that was established between the two countries’ militaries in a 1998 pact  prompting Adm. Phil Davidson, the commander for US Indo-Pacific Command, to rebuke China’s People’s Liberation Army, stating that the no-show was “another example that China does not honor its agreements, and this should serve as a reminder to all nations as they pursue agreements with China going forward.” Chun Han Wong reports for the Wall Street Journal.

The Treasury Department yesterday accused Vietnam and Switzerland of being currency manipulated, stating that both US trading partners have met all three criteria set out by Congress for determining when countries are preventing markets from setting their currency values, a 71-page report revealed. Tal Axelrod reports for The Hill.

The US and the UK yesterday signed an agreement on customs to ensure trade between the two countries continues to run smoothly after the UK finally leaves the EU. “This is an important agreement that ensures continuity post EU exit, and demonstrates the strength of the US-UK customs relationship,” British Treasury minister Jesse Norman said in a statement, adding, “This deal will allow us to continue to cooperate in combatting customs offences by sharing information and good practice, and provides the legal underpinning for schemes to ease trade flows for importers and exporters.” Reuters reporting.

The UN Security Council intends to discuss Western Sahara on Monday after Trump recently recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over a disputed region between the two African nations. Michell Nichols reports for Reuters.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 16.98 million and now killed over 307,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 74.34 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 1.651 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

The US yesterday recorded the highest number of new coronavirus cases, more than 230,000, and the most Covid-19 deaths since the pandemic began, over 3,600. Jaclyn Diaz reports for NPR.

Lawmakers are reportedly closing in on a $900 billion Covid-19 relief bill which will include another round of stimulus payments. “The package under discussion was expected to include, along with direct checks, $300 a week in enhanced unemployment insurance, funding for vaccine distribution, schools, small businesses and health-care providers, rental assistance and other relief measures. Its size, at just under $900 billion, marked a compromise between the two parties’ stances: more than the roughly $500 billion Republicans had backed and less than the $2.4 trillion bill Democrats passed in the House earlier this year,” report Kristina Peterson and Andrew Duehren for the Wall Street Journal.

Paul Alexander, a former top Trump appointee and former Health and Human Services (HHS) senior adviser, repeatedly urged top officials at HHS and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to pursue a “herd immunity” strategy to the Covid-19 pandemic and allow millions of Americans to be infected by the virus, internal emails obtained by the House watchdog revealed. On July 4., Alexander wrote to HHS assistant secretary of public affairs Michael Caputo and six other senior officials that: “There is no other way, we need to establish herd, and it only comes about allowing the non-high risk groups expose themselves to the virus. PERIOD.” Kristin Wilson, Daniella Diaz and Betsy Klein report for CNN.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has confirmed that the extra doses that can be squeezed out of vials of Pfizer’s vaccine can be used, after confusion increased among pharmacists, with some throwing away leftover vaccine in fear of violating FDA rules set last week. Sarah Owermohle reports for POLITICO.

President Trump will not receive the COVID-19 vaccine until it is recommended by the White House medical team, a White House official told CNN yesterday, with Vice President Mike Pence set to receive his vaccination tomorrow. Jim Acosta and Caroline Kelly report for CNN.

President-elect Joe Biden is expected to receive a coronavirus vaccine next week, with reports stating he will receive his shot in public. Jeff Zeleny and Kate Sullivan report for CNN.

The FDA vaccine-advisory panel will meet today and will likely recommend that the FDA authorize the emergency-use of the new Covid-19 vaccine from Moderna Inc. Thomas M. Burton and Peter Loftus report for the Wall Street Journal.

Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt, 51, yesterday tested positive for the virus, a department spokesperson confirmed, although he is not currently displaying any symptoms of the disease. Anthony Adragna reports for POLITICO.

French President Emmanuel Macron, 42, has tested positive for Covid-19, his office said today, after Macron recently started showing symptoms of the disease. Noemie Bisserbe reports for the Wall Street Journal.

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.

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