SitRep: Huge Changes in Trump NatSec Team; Pentagon Pick Likely This Week
Some New Faces; Senate Troubles; And Lots More
Big day. Tuesday was a quite a day in the transition effort of President-elect Donald Trump. The announcements of ousters and new faces came fast and with little notice, giving the impression that the inner circle ensconced inside Trump Tower is either in chaos, or making good on its promise to smash the entrenched system to pieces.
First, former Republican congressman Mike Rogers was forced out from his role heading the national security transition team. A respected national security figure and former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rogers was considered a top pick for heading CIA, a nomination now unlikely. Several other lower-level staffers were also sent packing in a move widely seen as a cutting of ties with people associated with Chris Christie, who was demoted on Friday from his perch running the transition process.
New faces on the team. Frank Gaffney, a prominent birther who has long questioned whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States, was brought in to assist on national security issues, as were GOP U.S. Reps. Pete Hoekstra and Devin Nunes. Gaffney has long railed against Muslim immigration and warned that the Muslim Brotherhood has its tentacles deep in the U.S. government. He once said the new logo for the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency was proof of Muslim infiltration.
Waiting on the SecDef. The list of potential Defense Secretary nominees has narrowed considerably since the speculation last week that a wide variety of Republicans, including longtime national security officials Stephen Hadley and James Woosley were in the mix, along with people like Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and recently ousted Republican senator from New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte.
A source with knowledge of thinking inside the transition team played down those stories, telling SitRep that the team appears to be waiting for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to make a decision as to whether he wants the Pentagon job or not. The long-time Trump backer has his pick of several Cabinet positions. The source added that they expect an announcement on the SecDef nomination to come this week.
Pentagon officials told SitRep Tuesday that the Trump team has yet to reach out to start the transition process, but that the department has office space set aside, and has materials prepped for the upcoming meetings. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has put his chief of staff, Eric Rosenbach, in charge of the process.
Flynn in the mix. Retired U.S. Army three-star general Mike Flynn is still in the running for a top national security post, the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller tell us, but he’s beginning to experience some pushback. Any Senate confirmation hearing could be rough, given that he was forced out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency by the Obama administration due to concerns over his leadership, “and he has potentially problematic connections to foreign governments.”
More from the Post: “Flynn has admitted that he accepted money for appearing at a lavish gala with Putin in Moscow last year. He recently criticized the Obama administration’s treatment of Turkey in an opinion column, without disclosing to the Trump campaign that his consulting firm has financial ties to that country.”
Where are the “Never Trumpers?” There’s increasing speculation over what role, if any, the much-publicized “Never Trump” coalition of veteran national security hands might play in the Trump administration. While any incoming administration values loyalty and rewards allies, “there aren’t enough people as it is, you can’t just start eliminating people,” one long-time Republican national security hand tells SitRep. The think tanker added that plenty of conservative analysts have been contacted by the transition team, but few have been interested in joining a Trump administration.
State competition. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton, former undersecretary of state and ambassador to the U.N. in the George W. Bush administration, are fighting it out for the nod to lead the State Department. But both face confirmation issues. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Tuesday that he would oppose both men for the job, given their vocal support for the war in Iraq, calls to bomb Iran, and other hawkish views.
Republican policy hands worried. Politico’s Michael Crowley and Shane Goldmacher have taken the temperature of several prominent Republican foreign policy leaders, and found them “newly alarmed over the emerging shape of Donald Trump’s national security team, after signs that Trump is passing over well-regarded establishment figures in favor of controversial and less experienced political allies.”
For how this is all playing out in the minds of some long-time Republican foreign policy hands, read this scathing take on the Trump team by Eliot Cohen, who had some contact with the transition team, but was repelled by what he saw.
Business as usual. Trump sent out a Tweet late Tuesday night bragging that when it comes to his Cabinet nominations, “I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!”
Putin, Assad, Trump, McCain. Another thorny problem in the Senate for the Trump administration might be Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who sent a shot across the President elect’s bow Tuesday on the issue of the incoming administration’s desire for closer ties with Russia, and doubts about U.S. intervention in Syria.
The Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said in a statement that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has plunged his country into tyranny, murdered his political opponents, invaded his neighbors, threatened America’s allies, and attempted to undermine America’s elections. The price of another ‘reset’ would be complicity in Putin and Assad’s butchery of the Syrian people.”
Good morning and as always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: email@example.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley
The U.S. is still waiting on that next North Korean missile test. USA Today reports that American forces as well as those of Japan and South Korea are expecting yet another missile test from North Korea. Some observers thought that Pyongyang might conduct a test of its road-mobile Musudan ballistic missile to coincide with the U.S. election, but election day passed without a launch. The U.S. has moved its Sea-Based X-Band Radar off the coast of the Korean peninsula in a potential bid to collect intelligence on any new launches.
With Asian countries watching and waiting with uncertainty about what a Trump administration will bring, Pacific Command commander Adm. Harry Harris is trying to send out soothing vibes, according to Breaking Defense. Harris said he won’t comment on what a Trump foreign policy will look like but said he has “no doubt we’ll continue our steadfast commitment to our allies and partners in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.” On the Philippines and recent comments from President Rodrigo Duterte calling for a pivot away from the United States, Harris said the statements are “concerning” but that he’s “optimistic” joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises will continue as usual despite Duterte’s calls for a reduction.
Meanwhile, there’s at least one sign of normalcy in the military relationship between Washington and Manila. The AP reports that American and Philippine special operations troops will go ahead with the planned annual Balance Piston exercise in Palawan. Duterte has called for the ouster of U.S. special operations personnel from the Philippines as part of his turn towards China and Russia and away from the United States. In a nod to the slightly frostier relations, the exercises this year won’t use live ammunition.
The European Union (EU) wants to be less dependent on the U.S. military, and now it’s ponying up a little more cash to make that happen. Reuters reports that EU members inched up the 2017 budget for the European Defence Agency by 1.7 percent or about $33 million. The money’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the needs of offsetting what European militaries would need to replicate American capabilities, but it is a signal of intent.
Russia renewed its air offensive against Aleppo on Tuesday. The opening salvo involved Kalibr NK cruise missiles launched from the Admiral Grigorovich in the eastern Mediterranean, K-300P Bastion-P coastal defense missiles converted into a land attack role as well as airstrikes from jets launched by the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. The strikes reportedly hit targets in Aleppo and Idlib.
Canadians are more involved in the fight against the Islamic State than officials initially let on. CBC News reports that Canadian special operations troops have shot at Islamic State forces in order to defend nearby civilians and Peshmerga forces from imminent harm. Canadian commandos are in Iraq to train and advise Iraqi forces, but Canadian commanders say they’ve opened up on the jihadist group while on the front lines when Iraqi forces aren’t able to respond to incoming suicide vehicles.
President-elect Trump campaigned on a promise to ditch the nuclear deal President Obama signed with Iran and renegotiate a new one. Nonetheless, a few of national security experts are hoping to convince the as yet unformed Trump administration to hold onto the agreement. The National Iranian American Council produced a report signed by 76 experts urging Trump to build on the agreement and seek cooperation with Iran in other areas, rather than blowing it up.
Israel has kept cordial if slightly wary relations with Russia as it intervenes on behalf of the Assad regime and, by extension, Israel’s sworn enemies, Iran and Hezbollah. But some in the Israeli government are starting to question whether that approach is sustainable. Reuters reports that Avi Dichter, chairman of Israel’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, warned that “the gap between [Israel] and [Russia] is large and disturbing” on Syria. Dichter said the Russians view Iran and its proxies like Hezbollah as stabilizing forces and underestimated the threat they pose to Israeli and regional security.
The Center for a New American Security releases a new report, “Power and Order in the South China Sea,” on the South China Sea.
Photo Credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary
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