SitRep: Flynn Out; Uncertainty Grips NatSec Community; Trump Promises Action on North Korea
Trump’s Unsecured Phone Draws Attention; Gitmo is Back, Maybe
Flynn flop. Twenty-five days. That’s how long Michael Flynn lasted as President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor before resigning Monday night, making his tenure the shortest in NSA history.
His ouster comes as a growing cloud of scandal envelopes the White House over its reported ties to the Kremlin. The former three-star general leaves after a series of stories were published in recent days outlining his communications with Russia’s ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, and as his story changed as to what those conversations entailed. FP’s Dan De Luce has more on the resignation here.
In his resignation letter, Flynn explained, “unfortunately, because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador. I have sincerely apologized to the president and the vice president, and they have accepted my apology.”
Flynn became the second top Trump official to resign over linkages to the Kremlin. In August, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort stepped down amid questions over his work for pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs. Perhaps unhelpfully, Russian lawmakers mounted a fierce defense of Flynn Tuesday from Moscow.
Flynn is also being investigated by the Army, which is looking into whether he received money from the Russian government during a trip he took to Moscow in 2015. Any payment could violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits former military officers from accepting money from a foreign government without an OK from Congress. In August, Flynn told the Washington Post that he was paid by RT — a Kremlin-funded mouthpiece — to appear at the event, in which he was seated next to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
How we got here. The big story of Monday evening came from the Washington Post, which reported that just after Trump’s January 20 inauguration, acting attorney general Sally Q. Yates informed the White House that she believed Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with Kislyak. Yates would later be fired by Trump for refusing to carry out his executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. “It is unclear what the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, did with the information,” the paper reported. Yates argued to the administration that Flynn’s evasions could make him a blackmail risk.
The story. Flynn had initially denied that sanctions came up in his conversations, but later walked that back, insisting he couldn’t recall if the subject came up or not. Vice President Mike Pence was reportedly furious that Flynn had misled him on the issue, causing Pence to defend Flynn on national television in the days before the inauguration.
Let’s try this again. Trump has replaced Flynn with Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg on an interim basis, and K.T. McFarland, a former Fox News host and White House aide will continue to serve as his deputy. Kellogg, a retired three-star U.S. Army general worked at a variety of defense contractors since retiring in 2003, and served at the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, Iraq, helping oversee the disastrous early days of the U.S. occupation of that country in 2003 and 2004.
The front-runner to take over the NSC is retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Bob Harward, who served as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ deputy at the U.S. Central Command. Former CIA director David Petreaus is also in the running, and is slated to visit the White House this week. But the Petraeus nod would be complicated by the fact that he remains on probation until April after resigning from his job at the CIA for sharing secrets with his biographer Paula Broadwell, with whom the general was carrying on an affair. In 2015, he was convicted and sentenced to two years probation and a $100,000 fine.
NSA chaos. Reports have indicated that many NSC staffers have decided to go back to their home agencies rather than work for Flynn, and Buzzfeed reported Monday that existing “members are acting without the benefit of an organizational chart to inform them of precisely to whom they’re reporting.”
And the confusion has spread to the Pentagon, where most deputy-level jobs remain empty. SitRep reported earlier this month that Mattis and the White House are still wrangling over who gets the critical Under Secretary of Defense for Policy job. Mattis wants to appoint Mary Beth Long, who served as assistant secretary of defense in the Bush administration, but Trump advisor Steve Bannon insists that Mira Ricardel, who is running the Pentagon transition team, get the job.
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North Korea is farther along in developing its arsenal of ballistic missiles than some might think. The AP reports that the North’s test of Pukguksong-2 appears to have relied on solid fuel instead of liquid fuel. The move from a mostly liquid-fueled missile arsenal to solid fuel allows the North to make a mobile, land-based missile to complement its KN-02 submarine-launched ballistic missile. During a joint press conference at the White House with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday, president Trump made his second very brief comment in two days about the launch, telling reporters, “obviously North Korea is a big, big problem and we will deal with that very strongly.”
France and Germany are kicking off a series of defense initiatives in a sign that NATO countries might be spending more on defense. Reuters reports that the two countries have agreed to a joint purchase of American C-130J cargo planes. Separately, Germany is also signaling that it will join a consortium of European countries purchasing Airbus A330 tankers, alongside the Netherlands and Luxembourg with other European militaries hinting they might join as well. While the initiatives like the C-130J purchase date to before the U.S. presidential election, the moves come in the context of President Trump’s oft-repeated skepticism about the alliance and the failure of some members to hit their defense spending targets.
The Assad regime used chlorine gas against civilians in the assault that recaptured the city of Aleppo from rebels, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch. The human rights monitor spoke with witnesses and reviews footage of the operation posted on social media and concluded that regime forces used the chemical weapon at least eight times from mid-November through mid-December, killing nine civilians. In reports submitted to the United Nations, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has concluded that the Assad regime has used chlorine gas at least three times prior to the assault on Aleppo.
The Trump administration may have to show its cards on its approach to terrorist detention because of an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula suspect currently being held in Yemen. The New York Times reports that an unknown country is holding Abu Khaybar, believed to be a Sudanese al Qaeda member, in Yemen. The Obama administration had hoped to bring him to New York to be prosecuted by the civilian court system where he’s wanted on terrorism charges but the clock ran out before the beginning of the Trump administration. Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has previously said he’d like to try terrorists in military courts and keep the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention facility open, but it remains to be seen how the administration will handle Khaybar and other suspects’ detention.
Tweeter in chief
President Trump’s phone has once again gained the attention of Congressional Democrats, this time for his continued use of a commercial handset. The Hill reports that Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Tom Carper (D-DE) have written a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis warning of the “national security risks” if the president were indeed using a hackable commercial device. McCaskill and Carper are asking the Defense Information Systems Agency to tell them whether they’ve provided Trump with a more secure phone and, if not, what they’re doing to make sure the president’s phone doesn’t get owned by hackers.
A guest at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago private club posted a picture he took with Trump’s military aide in charge of handling the “football,” the bag of authentication codes and nuclear strike plans that follow the commander-in-chief everywhere he goes. The Washington Post reports that the picture of the aide, identified by his co-selfie “Rick the Man,” isn’t a violation of any Defense Department rules, however gauche it comes off. Football-carrying aides have been photographed by the news media and identified by name before and the Pentagon told the Post that the outrage to the incident on social media was overblown.
There’s another new study out on the future of the Navy’s fleet architecture. Breaking Defense reports that a Navy Project Team study calls for a fleet of 321 manned ships combined with a whopping 138 unmanned vessels, divided up roughly as two thirds surface and one third underwater vessels. The surface vessels would take the form of fast attack boats armed with anti-ship cruise missiles and torpedoes.
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary