Today's D Brief: Trump knew COVID was deadly; DHS whistleblower: I was ordered to downplay threats; DoD’s international AI plan; And a bit more.

“I wanted to always play it down,” President Donald Trump said of the coronavirus to book author Bob Woodward during an interview on March 19 — an interview whose contents the public first learned about on Wednesday, when CNN aired the audio of Trump and Woodward talking. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic,” Trump said to Woodward. 

More than a month before that, on Feb. 7, Trump told Woodward the coronavirus is “deadly stuff” and “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”

Why this matters: That’s not at all what Trump told the public. “[I]n the weeks that followed, the president routinely compared the virus to the flu and predicted it would soon disappear,” the Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus reports. In addition, “Public-health experts have said the president’s mixed messages on the threat posed by the virus, combined with his initial reluctance to wear a mask and urge others to do so, hampered the effort to slow its spread.”

For the record: The coronavirus has killed more than 190,000 Americans so far, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University. At least 1,176 died on Wednesday, after three weeks when the average number of deaths remained under 1,000, according to the New York Times.

FWIW, Ballhaus writes that “Nearly half the country believes Mr. Biden would be better at handling the pandemic, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll taken last month, while a third believe Mr. Trump would be better.”

“[Trump] knowingly and willingly lied about the threat posed to the country for months,” Joe Biden told a crowd in Michigan after learning of the Woodward tapes. “He failed to do his job on purpose. It was a life-and-death betrayal of the American people.”

The U.S. will stop screening incoming international air passengers, reports Yahoo News and CNN, citing unnamed White House sources. “A TSA official told CNN that a draft public affairs guidance memo lays out the rationale for ending airport screening: Of the 675,000 passengers screened at 15 airports, fewer than 15 had been identified as having Covid-19.”

Four out of every 10 small businesses in California are facing possible closure because of the pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsome said this week. And so, the Journal reports separately, “He signed three bills Wednesday aimed at helping them, including one that will give up to $100 million in tax credits for small businesses that hire or rehire employees in the next three months.” 

West Virginia is getting hit hard right now, and has the nation’s highest reproduction rate for the virus.

The Trump campaign has canceled two rallies in Nevada because state officials refuse to relax COVID-related bans on gatherings of more than 50 people. More from CNN.

Meanwhile, the UK  government is banning gatherings of more than six people after a new surge in coronavirus cases, AP reported Tuesday from London. The new rules go into effect next Monday.

What’s going on: “The U.K. has Europe’s worst death toll from the pandemic,” AP writes, and “A sharp spike in new cases across the U.K. has been largely blamed on party-going young adults disregarding social distancing rules.” More here.

And India just reported its largest single-day surge in cases and deaths, “with 95,735 new infections and 1,172 deaths,” the Journal reports. Meanwhile, “India’s total number of confirmed cases surpassed 4.46 million, the second-highest level behind the U.S.” A bit more, here.

From Defense One

US Announces Troop Cut In Iraq // Katie Bo Williams: The announcement makes public plans that have been in the works for months.

New Pentagon Initiative Aims to Help Allies, Contractors Work Together on AI // Patrick Tucker: New tools are planned to help various militaries and defense companies cooperate and interoperate on artificial intelligence.

DoD Explains How Contractors Will Get Reimbursed for COVID Expenses — If Congress Cuts a Check // Marcus Weisgerber: Ellen Lord says the bill would come to $10 billion to $20 billion.

Ep. 74: U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville // Defense One Staff : “The job of the American military is to protect the nation, not to police the nation," McConville said.

Assessing Trump’s National Security Record // Joseph J. Collins: How has he done against four main threats our nation faces?

Could Trump Deploy U.S. Cyber Command Against Protestors? // Jason Healey: It’s time to set better limits on the U.S. military’s ability to operate against Americans.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1942, Allied forces launched their first large-scale, combined arms operation of WWII, known as “Stream Line Jane.” The goal: capture Madagascar from its German-occupied French leadership and deny the Japanese navy any foothold on the island country. 

‘Downplay Russian interference in the U.S. election and the rising threat of white supremacy.’ That’s what Brian Murphy, the Department of Homeland Security’s former principal deputy under secretary in the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, alleges he was unlawfully told to do before he was demoted in August, according to a whistleblower complaint (PDF) filed with the DHS Office of Inspector General.
“Cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the United States, and instead start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran,” Murphy was instructed by Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf in May of this year, according to the complaint, which added, "these instructions specifically originated from White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien."
Then in July, it happened again. From the complaint: 

  • DHS Chief of Staff John "Gountanis sent an e-mail to Mr. Murphy directing him to cease any dissemination of an intelligence notification regarding Russian disinformation efforts until Mr. Murphy had spoken with Mr. Wolf. The two men met on July 8, 2020, at which time Mr. Wolf stated to Mr. Murphy the intelligence notification should be 'held' because it 'made the President look bad'. Mr. Murphy objected, stating that it was improper to hold a vetted intelligence product for reasons for political embarrassment. In response, Mr. Wolf took steps to exclude Mr. Murphy from relevant future meetings on the subject.”

And about downplaying the white supremacy threat, Murphy says was told sometime between May and June “to specifically modify the section [of a “Homeland Threat Assessment” report] on White Supremacy in a manner that made the threat appear less severe, as well as include information on the prominence of violent ‘left-wing’ groups. Mr. Murphy declined to make the requested modifications, and informed [Acting Deputy DHS Secretary Kenneth] Cuccinelli that it would constitute censorship of analysis and the improper administration of an intelligence program.”
FWIW: “We flatly deny that there is any truth to the merits of Mr. Murphy’s claim,” said Alexei Woltornist, a DHS spokesman, told the Washington Post in an email.
Next steps: “[W]e will let the investigations, whether done internally at the department or externally with Congress — let the investigations determine what the true facts are. And we welcome it,” Murphy’s lawyer, Mark Zaid told NPR on Wednesday. Hear that conversation with Ailsa Chang, here. Or read AP’s coverage, here.

BTW: Russian state-backed hackers have targeted one of Joe Biden’s main election campaign firms, Reuters reports, citing an alert from Microsoft. “The hacking attempts targeted staff at Washington-based SKDKnickerbocker, a campaign strategy and communications firm working with Biden and other prominent Democrats, over the past two months,” Reuters writes.
Worth noting: “The attacks included phishing, a hacking method which seeks to trick users into disclosing passwords, as well as other [unspecified] efforts to infiltrate SKDK’s network.”
Fortunately, as far as anyone is saying publicly, “the hackers failed to gain access to the firm’s networks,” Reuters reports. Tiny bit more, here.

President Trump will spend the evening campaigning in Michigan, according to the White House’s public schedule for the day. He’s slated to deliver a speech sometime around 7 p.m. ET from the premises of Avflight Saginaw, which is “an aviation company located at the MBS International Airport in Freeland,” Michigan’s Booth newspaper reports.
What one Trump supporter said in anticipation: Some Michigan voters "might not like something about [Trump], but it’s all external stuff, it’s not what is going to make a difference and now we got socialism. In 2016, we had anti-Hillary vote and now we have the anti-socialism vote that is bringing in those extra votes.”
BTW: Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden met with steelworkers in Michigan on Wednesday before visiting Detroit.
What one union worker told Biden: “The promise of building manufacturing jobs in Michigan just hasn’t happened here. If you can find a job, it’s $12 an hour. For people that have been working 20-30 years, working hard, in a steel mill they’ve earned the right to a union wage. What I believe you can bring to Michigan Joe, is good-paying union jobs.” Read a bit more from local coverage of his stop in the battleground state, here.

Fear, fear, fear: Tensions across the U.S. are presently “dominated by three fears,” writes Fred Kaplan of Slate, after speaking to David Kilcullen, a scholar and former infantry soldier in the Australian army. He was also a counterinsurgency adviser to the U.S. Army. Those three fears dominating America’s sour political discourse: 

  1. “fear of other social groups”; 
  2. “fear that those other groups are encroaching on one’s territory”; 
  3. “and fear that the state no longer has the ability to protect the people,” Kaplan writes. 

Why this matters: Kilcullen suggests the U.S. may be in the middle of an “incipient insurgency,” which involves “extremists—left and right—who have tagged alongside [this summer’s George Floyd] protests and counterprotests, exploiting the disorder.” Supporting data include this finding from analysts with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (which in some ways cut its teeth tracking airstrikes in Yemen): 

  • “In June, there were 17 counterdemonstrations led by right-wing militant groups, one of which sparked violence. In July, there were 160 counterdemonstrations, with violence in 18.”

One related trend that’s hard to ignore: “FBI background checks for gun sales hit 3.9 million in June—an all-time high,” Kaplan writes. After all, he adds, “It takes just a few trigger-pullers to set off a conflagration; even in intense insurrections, such as the postwar rebellion in Iraq, only 2 percent of insurgents actually fired their weapons.”
One saving grace for the U.S. (so far) has been this: “When violence has occurred during protests, it has been confined to just a few blocks; it hasn’t spread throughout a city,” despite the heated rhetoric from Republican leaders like President Trump, who has a long record of stoking fear “of violence, disorder, change,” Kaplan writes, “to paint himself as the bastion of law and order.”
The big problem: These fears can easily “spark a self-reinforcing cycle of violence, retaliation, and retaliation for that,” Kaplan warns. “It doesn’t matter what the original grievance is,” Kilcullen says. “It becomes self-sustaining.” Continue reading, here.

Lastly today: VP Pence will speak at an event sponsored by QAnon backers in Bozeman, Montana, next week, AP reported Wednesday.
So what? “ The baseless conspiracy theory posits that Trump is fighting entrenched enemies in the government and also involves satanism and child sex trafficking,” AP reminds us.
Bigger picture: “While many Republicans have dismissed QAnon, the fundraiser is another sign of how the conspiracy theory is gaining a foothold in the party,” AP reports. Read more about the GOP embrace of QAnon, via the New York Times from August 20, here.