SitRep: Flynn’s FBI Trouble; Trump Cabinet Forges Own Path; Harward Out; Purges at State Department
Lawmakers Worried About Empty Pentagon; ISIS Blasts in Iraq and Pakistan; More Details on Yemen Raid
Double trouble. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn appears to have mislead FBI officials over the content of his conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, according to a new revelation from the Washington Post. (Flynn has already been stripped of his security clearance over the incident.) His comments to FBI investigators that he didn’t talk about sanctions with the Russian official mirror Flynn’s misstatements to Vice President Mike Pence, which got him fired in the first place.
Presser. In a contentious press conference on Thursday, President Trump lashed out at the leaks over the Flynn affair, as well as stories that have come pouring out of the White House from anonymous staffers portraying an administration in constant chaos. The president said the real issue wasn’t Flynn, but the spilling of classified information. “It’s an illegal process, and the press should be ashamed of themselves,” he said. FP’s Emily Tamkin and Robbie Gramer have more on Thursday’s fun here.
Harward out. Retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward rejected president Trump’s offer to serve as national security advisor late Thursday after the White House reportedly refused his request to pick his own team, dealing an embarrassing setback to the administration. There were several issues involved, both professional — and according to Harward himself — personal. He demanded that he be able to pick his own staff, something the White House refused. Specifically, the retired SEAL didn’t want to keep Fox News pundit turned Deputy National Security Adviser K. T. McFarland as his No. 2, a request the administration denied.
Harward told the AP that the Trump administration was “very accommodating to my needs, both professionally and personally,” and the decision was “purely a personal issue,” since after 40 years of military service he wanted some personal time. But he refused to answer questions over personnel discussions. FP’s Dan De Luce observes that Harward’s unwillingness to enter the administration “highlights how Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, has entrenched himself as a powerful figure in the White House, wielding influence over every aspect of decision-making.” Bannon’s seat on the NSC “was an unprecedented move for a body that is supposed to steer clear of political considerations.”
We’re ok, you’re ok. At any other time, a U.S. Defense Secretary affirming Washington’s commitment to NATO wouldn’t be news. But this isn’t any other time. SecDef Jim Mattis told the alliance at a meeting in Brussels this week that the American commitment remains strong, but can be scaled back unless Europeans begin to pay more for their own defense.
He also threw some cold water on the Trump administration’s goals of working with Russia to fight the Islamic State. “We are not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level. But our political leaders will engage and try to find common ground,” he told reporters in Brussels. He added that he believes Russia has interfered in democratic elections around the world, saying, “there’s very little doubt that they have either interfered or they have attempted to interfere in a number of elections in the democracies.”
The comments come as other cabinet officials like U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and State Department chief Rex Tillerson openly break with the White House’s stated policies — or at least the president’s off the cuff remarks — leaving allies fumbling in the dark over what Washington’s real policy goals are.
Lonely at the top. The inability — or unwillingness — of the White House to staff the Pentagon is having real consequences, according to a top Republican lawmaker. House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told reporters Thursday that Mattis is “doing a great job, but so far he doesn’t have anybody else in a Senate-confirmed position.”
Thornberry is concerned that the lack of staffing is hurting plans to increase the defense budget. “The problem is it’s Secretary Mattis alone right now.” Defense News’ Aaron Mehta recently reported that 75 percent of political appointee jobs inside the Pentagon remain vacant three weeks into the Trump administration, amid continued wrangling between Mattis and the White House over who he can bring on.
Things aren’t much better at the State Department, where there’s more turmoil in the foreign policy bureaucracy as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is being forced to confront more vacancies in the already sparse upper ranks of his department. CBS News reports that Tillerson’s aides told career diplomat, Counselor of the Department Ambassador Kristie Kenney that she was fired and that her position would remain unfilled for the foreseeable future. Tillerson’s aides have also laid off a number of staffers in the Counselor’s office as well the office of the deputy secretary of state for management and resources.
Well, this is something. The brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — who happens to be Blackwater founder Erik Prince — is apparently offering his military expertise to the Chinese government, and is building training camps throughout the country. Buzzfeed’s investigative reporter Aram Roston reports that Prince “has been offering his military expertise to support Chinese government objectives and setting up Blackwater-style training camps in two Chinese provinces, according to sources and his own company statements. The move could put him at odds with Trump, who has often taken a hard line against China, and could also risk violating US law, which prohibits the export of military services or equipment to China.”
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Tillerson is also finding that the Trump White House has a habit of keeping the State Department out of the loop on foreign policy. The Guardian’s Julian Borger reports that the White House isn’t asking for the department’s input on key decisions like Trump’s travel ban, and State officials are finding themselves being forced to ask foreign diplomats about their interactions with the White House in order to suss out the administration’s thinking. Tillerson, himself, was reportedly shocked to discover that the White House had nixed his choice for deputy secretary of state, Elliott Abrams over Abrams’s criticism of Trump during the campaign.
Another day, another sign that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is making good on his pledge to pivot away from Manila’s relationship with the U.S. and embrace new patrons, like Russia and China. Reuters reports that Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana says Moscow is is willing to share an intelligence database on crime and terrorism with the Philippines. Lorenzana also says Russia has offered training for Philippine troops protecting the president and the two countries are now discussing joint training to deal with piracy.
The AP has more details on the Trump administration’s controversial special operations raid in Yemen which claimed the lives of a U.S. Navy SEAL as well as Yemeni civilians. American commandos killed Sheikh Abdel-Raouf al-Dhahab in the operation, and while the Defense Department has classified him as one of 14 al Qaeda planners killed during the raid, the AP writes that al-Dhahab was a supporter of the Saudi-backed government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and was helping in the fight against Houthi militants. Members of al-Dhahab’s extended family have previously been associated with al Qaeda, but locals in the area where the raid took place told the wire service that the U.S. must’ve been misinformed, claiming al Qaeda has a stronger presence in the nearby mountains.
The Islamic State carried out a massive car bomb attack in Iraq’s capital on Thursday, killing 55 people even as U.S. and Iraqi forces tighten the net around the group’s last remaining stronghold in Mosul. The attack struck the Shiite neighborhood of al-Bayaa, adding a further sectarian dimension to the attack. The Islamic State continues to lash out at Iraqi civilians and troops well outside the Mosul, with Baghdad bearing the brunt of the attacks.
Pakistan suffered one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in recent memory on Thursday, the Guardian reports. A suicide bomber targeted a Sufi shrine in the country’s Sindh province, killing 88 people. Pakistani officials are blaming Afghan militants for the attack and demanding the extradition of 76 suspected terrorists to Pakistan, adding a further wrinkle to the often strained relationship between the two countries. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack and Pakistan’s military reportedly carried out an artillery barrage in Nangargar Province in neighboring Afghanistan, which is home to an Islamic State affiliate group.
Photo Credit THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary