SitRep: Russia Scandal Explodes; Moscow Buzzes U.S. Ship; Hill Republicans Bristle
NSA Shakeout; Mattis Reassures NATO; North Korea Weirdness; Fighting in Iraq
Another day, another bombshell. The U.S. intel community has collected phone records and intercepted calls showing that people surrounding President Donald Trump “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election,” four current and former American officials told the New York Times.
The report comes a day after National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was forced to resign after lying about his own phone conversations with the Russian ambassador in the weeks before the inauguration, and casts fresh suspicion on the administration for its ties to the Kremlin.
According to the reports, the F.B.I. has already obtained banking and travel records and conducted interviews in its investigation into three one-time Trump advisors: Carter Page, Republican operative Roger Stone, and Flynn.
Hot seat. Just days after Trump’s inauguration, the New York Times reports in another huge story, Flynn sat down with FBI agents to answer their questions about his suspect calls with the Russian ambassador, in which he discussed the potential of lifting sanctions on Moscow. Soon after, the acting U.S. attorney general went to the White House to inform the Trump team that Flynn was at risk for blackmail — or kompromat — by the Russians over the calls.
The whole thing came crashing down this week when Flynn resigned after having lied to Vice President Pence over the calls. The Washington Post has a great tick-tock of the meetings among U.S. intel officials in the days leading up to Trump being sworn in, where F.B.I. Director James Comey was reluctant to tell the White House that Flynn had lied to the veep. The team briefed the Trump administration on Jan. 26, but it appears the president kept the information from Pence, who would only find out about Flynn on Feb. 9, once it hit the media.
Last words. Just hours before he was ordered to cleared out on Monday, Flynn gave a defiant — and in retrospect, remarkable — interview to the Daily Caller, in which he claimed Trump “expressed confidence” in him. He also made his only public statement about his call with the ambassador, saying, “It wasn’t about sanctions. It was about the 35 guys who were thrown out,” Flynn said, referencing the Russian diplomats the Obama administration expelled over Moscow’s attempts to influence the presidential election. “So that’s what it turned out to be. It was basically, ‘Look, I know this happened. We’ll review everything.’ I never said anything such as, ‘We’re going to review sanctions,’ or anything like that.”
Who’s next? Flynn’s ouster “creates a possible opportunity to fix one of the glaring flaws of Flynn’s NSC,” FP’s John Hudson and Paul McLeary write in a forward-looking piece. “His chaotic management style left senior cabinet officials angry and out of the loop, and coupled with suspicions over his ties to Russia, turned off qualified job seekers recruited for the many vacancies in the Trump administration.”
The senior ranks of the NSC are not just a collection of Flynn loyalists, making it more likely that the new chief would be able to work with them, said one person who has worked with NSC officials, and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Most are not Flynn people. Some are Petraeus people, some are [Defense Secretary Jim] Mattis people, and have their own appeal to Trump and Bannon in their own right,” the person said.
Hill country. Are Republicans on Capitol Hill getting fed up? “For the first time, several senior Republicans, including the second-highest ranking member of the Senate, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, joined calls Tuesday by Democrats for a thorough inquiry into the nature of the Trump team’s contacts with Russia, and that Flynn should be investigated,” FP’s Dan De Luce reports.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has tended to avoid criticizing the Trump administration, said revelations about Flynn would “add momentum” to congressional investigations into Russia’s interference in the presidential election. And Sen. Roy Blunt (R.-Mo.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said lawmakers needed to speak to Flynn and ask: “What did he know? What did he do? And is there any reason to believe that anybody knew that and didn’t take the kind of action they should have taken?”
Russian moves. While Washington is roiled by scandal, it looks like Moscow is taking to opportunity to spread its wings a bit. Several Russian aircraft buzzed the USS Porter in the Black Sea last week, in an incident the captain of the American ship called “unsafe,” the Pentagon said Tuesday. The three passes occurred Feb. 10 as the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer was passing the coast of Romania. The planes involved were an Il-38 sub-hunting plane, which passed at high speed, followed by two Su-24 fighter-bombers and a Su-24.
FP’s Robbie Gramer reports that Russia has recently deployed recently-developed cruise missiles, a likely violation of a key arms control treaty. “The missile deployment — and the lack of immediate response from the White House — showcases how the understaffed and embattled new administration is ill-prepared to face security threats, experts and officials say.”
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The top special operations officer in the country is concerned that the U.S. government is in a bad spot right now, and his comments at a conference in Washington on Tuesday are getting lots of attention. Head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, Army Gen. Raymond Thomas said during his speech that “our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war.” Speaking with reporters, he added, “as a commander, I’m concerned our government be as stable as possible.”
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s estranged brother was assassinated on a trip to Malaysia, the New York Times reports. Accounts of Kim Jong-nam’s death differ, with some sources citing two women jabbing him with a poison-laced needle and another account saying an unknown assailant threw poison in Kim’s face. In any case, Kim reportedly fell faint and was taken away by medical personnel before he was pronounced dead. Malaysian authorities have yet to name a suspect but many suspect that the North Korean government may have had a hand in the death of Kim Jong Un’s brother because he was perceived as a threat either to the regime or to Kim’s continued rule of the country.
North Korea tested a ballistic missile but despite Trump’s tweeted bravado about getting tough with Pyongyang, the reaction from the White House so far has been less aggressive than some expected. The New York Times reports that the relatively softer tone is leading to hopes among some that the Trump administration could be open to diplomatic talks with the North. North Korea’s neighbors have increasingly shown openness to engagement with Pyongyang after the Obama administration’s attempts at isolation failed to produce a change in the country’s behavior and Trump himself hinted at a willingness to meet directly with Kim Jong Un during the presidential campaign.
NATO countries are spending more on defense, according to the Wall Street Journal. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that NATO countries spent an extra $10 billion on defense in 2016, up 3.8 percent over the previous year. The news comes amid growing anxiety over President Donald Trump’s commitment to the Atlantic alliance. Trump has repeatedly expressed skepticism about NATO, saying the alliance was a drain on the U.S. because many of its members do not live up to targets to spend two percent of their gross domestic product on defense.
Meanwhile, NATO countries are looking to James Mattis for reassurance about American commitments as he arrives on Wednesday for his first meeting with the alliance as defense secretary. Reuters reports that Mattis will echo some of Trump’s talk on defense spending, telling members they need to increase their defense budgets. But the message is also likely to be tempered with attempts to soothe frazzled nerves about whether NATO has a future in Trump’s foreign policy. Nonetheless, at least one NATO source tells the wire service that members might still be wary, knowing that Trump could easily negate anything Mattis tells them.
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White House spokesman Sean Spicer is signaling a different approach to Russia than the one candidate Trump offered during the 2016 campaign. At the White House press briefing on Tuesday, Spicer said Trump “expects the Russian government to de-escalate violence in Ukraine and return Crimea.” That’s consistent with a recent statement from U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s statement saying that American sanctions from Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian territory would stay in place until Moscow hands it over. During the 2016 campaign, Trump suggested that Russia did not have a presence in Ukraine, a statement quickly walked back.
The Iraqi military’s battle to take the remnants of Islamic State-held Mosul are underway, according to ABC News. Iraqi security forces have already managed to clear out the eastern half of the city following long and bloody house-to-house fighting with the terrorist group. The Iraqi army’s 9th Division is now moving around to the western half of Mosul in preparation for a final push but the Islamic State is still putting up a vigorous fight elsewhere, sending out waves of car bombs against Iraqi militias in the western town of Tal Afar.
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary