SitRep on Inauguration Day: Infighting Between Mattis, Trump Team; Obama Staffers Staying; Intel Agencies Investigating Trump/Russia Ties
Gitmo Dwindles; B-2 Hits ISIS in Libya; Ukraine’s Defense Industry; And Lots More
Inauguration Day. Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America on Friday. But beyond that basic fact, there’s little we can say for sure about what his policies will be on critical national security issues like the fight against the Islamic State, American involvement in Afghanistan, Washington’s role in NATO, relations with Russia, China, military modernization, and a host of other issues. But here we go.
This Defense Department document obtained by the U.S. Naval Institute lists the names of over 50 Pentagon officials who have stepped in to assume temporary positions in critical offices in the building until the Trump team makes its appointments. But lots of top-tier seats remain unfilled as Trump enters the White House, a vacancy list that few have seen before, FP’s Dan De Luce and John Hudson report.
As of midnight, Deputy Defense Secretary and Obama appointee Robert Work will act as Secretary of Defense until the Senate confirms James Mattis for the top spot, a vote expected to come on Friday. Work has been asked to stay for the next several months until Mattis and Trump’s top advisors can decide on a replacement.
Naming names? The team putting together the appointment list is being led by Trump advisor Steve Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus, and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, according to published reports and conversations that FP staffers have had with people close to the process. One source says Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is also heavily involved in offering suggestions for who might work in a Trump Pentagon. There have been building tensions between Mattis and the Trump team for weeks, with the retired Marine general vetoing suggestions from New York, and the trio rejecting several people Mattis wanted to bring aboard, several sources say.
According to sources, Mattis met with Bannon and Priebus last week in New York to express his frustration with the stalled staffing process, but there appears to have been little movement since then. One person coming into the building is Justin Johnson, who has left the Heritage Foundation where he was a defense budget analyst to take what SitRep hears is a budget-related job at the Pentagon.
Continuity in ISIS fight. It has also been confirmed that Brett McGurk, an Obama administration appointee working as an envoy to allies involved in the fight against the Islamic State, has been asked to stay in his position after Trump takes office. Other officials sticking around include Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center; Tom Shannon, undersecretary of state for political affairs; and Adam Szubin, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence in the Treasury Department.
Planning. Trump will have, if his campaign promises are to be believed, a very busy first day in office. He has pledged a slew of ambitious actions right out of the gate, including overturning a bevy of President Barack Obama’s executive orders, tearing up trade deals, overturning domestic regulations on energy and the environment, deporting undocumented immigrants, and, of course, repealing the Affordable Care Act. The FP staff came together to offer a host of things to look for not just on the first day, but the critical first 100 days.
Intel looking at Trump-Russia ties. Trump enters office in the middle of an ongoing investigation by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies “examining intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials” and Trump associates, the New York Times’ Michael Schmidt, Matthew Rosenberg, Adam Goldman, and Matt Apuzzo report.
“It is not clear whether the intercepted communications had anything to do with Mr. Trump’s campaign, or Mr. Trump himself,” the Times team writes. “It is also unclear whether the inquiry has anything to do with an investigation into the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computers and other attempts to disrupt the elections in November.” Washington’s intelligence community has concluded that the Russian government was responsible for a string of hacks on the Democratic party and top Clinton officials with the purpose of swinging the election Trump’s way.
Gitmo. On his last full day in office, President Barack Obama released four more prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, but “of the 41 men who remain as of Thursday, only 10 have been charged with war crimes,” FP’s Molly O’Toole reports. The vast majority have been detained for more than a decade, and none were captured by the U.S. military, but “if the rest do not make it onto a military plane by Friday, lawyers say, they will likely die at Guantánamo along with the 26 other men known as “forever prisoners” — including the alleged plotters of the 9/11 attacks — the U.S. has determined will be detained indefinitely. The 26 are eligible for their cases to be reviewed periodically.”
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The Huffington Post has a story up claiming President-elect was hoping for an old-school Soviet Victory Day military parade during Friday’s inauguration, complete with tanks and missiles cruising down Pennsylvania Avenue. A source told the Post that the Defense Department nixed the idea, nominally on the grounds that heavy weaponry like tanks and armored vehicles could damage Washington’s streets. Inauguration day will, however, feature flyovers by Navy and Air Force fighter jets, Army helicopters, a Marine Corps V-22 Osprey as well as the more traditional military color guards.
In public, the Islamic State and the Assad regime hate each other, but in private, business is business and there’s a growing oil trade between the two. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Assad regime has been buying up oil from the Islamic State, making the Assad regime’s energy trade the Islamic State’s top source of income after the loss of territory and the U.S.-led coalition targeted the group’s oil infrastructure. American and allied warplanes have tried to hit Islamic State fuel smuggling convoys in Syria, but the group has managed to shift some of its operations to areas patrolled by Russian aircraft, limiting the reach of and appetite for allied airstrikes.
Lost in the Pentagon’s announcement about B-2 stealth bombers hitting the Islamic State in Libya was an announcement by Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook that a U.S. killed senior Islamic State leader Abu Anas al-Iraqi on Jan. 8 as he was en route to the city of Raqqa. Cook described al-Iraqi as overseeing “media and financial operations” for the group and being a “member of ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s inner circle.” Though mum on details about how al-Iraqi died, the Pentagon earlier admitted that a special operations raid in Deir Ezzor province killed a senior Islamic State leader.
With the more Moscow-friendly Trump administration being sworn in on Friday, the Ukrainian government is hedging its bets and turning inward to kickstart an indigenous defense industry as Western powers take a dim view towards annoying Russia by supplying Kiev with weapons. The Wall Street Journal reports that Ukraine has been pouring money into refurbishing its own tanks and developing their own drones as requests to the United States for advanced equipment like anti-tank missiles have been rebuffed and others, like the delivery of American RQ-11 drones, have failed to meet expectation.
Gambia is in the midst of a political crisis as Senegalese troops move into the country in order to back recently-elected President Adama Barrow, according to the BBC. Gambia’s previous leader, President Yahya Jammeh refuses to leave office the country’s current parliament is backing his decision not to yield power to Barrow. The Economic Community of West African States, a multilateral organization of West African countries, as well as the United Nations Security Council have both backed Barrow’s claim to leadership following the election.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declassified and translated another tranche of documents captured during the May 2011 raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. At CNN, Bin Laden biographer Peter Bergen takes a look through the documents and finds Bin Laden juggling the business of leading a global terror empire with the demands of staying in touch with distant family on the run. The al-Qaeda leader wrote a number of letters to his sons and daughter, Khadija, while they hid out in Iran and in Pakistan’s tribal lands. He also stayed in contact with al Qaeda various global affiliates in Yemen, Algeria, and Nigeria, instructing them to stay focused on the task of attacking the United States.
The Army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment will add its first ever female Ranger. Army Times reports that an unnamed female soldier made it through the rigorous Ranger Assessment and Selection Program II (RASP) and will join the special operations unit in the spring. At least three women have made it through Ranger School, a demanding leadership school distinct from membership in the Ranger Regiment proper. One other woman, a noncommissioned officer, attended RASP in the summer of 2016 but failed to pass.
Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary