The Cable

SitRep: McMaster Purges the NSC; Trump Furious With Generals Over Afghanistan

By Elias Groll, Adam Rawnsley and Sharon Weinberger Another one bites the dust. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster on Wednesday fired National Security Council staffer Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who was hired by McMaster’s predecessor Michael Flynn to handle the intelligence portfolio. The news of his firing comes as McMaster is purging Trump loyalists from the NSC. ...

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster (L) as his national security adviser at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on February 20, 2017. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster (L) as his national security adviser at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on February 20, 2017. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

By Elias Groll, Adam Rawnsley and Sharon Weinberger

Another one bites the dust. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster on Wednesday fired National Security Council staffer Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who was hired by McMaster’s predecessor Michael Flynn to handle the intelligence portfolio. The news of his firing comes as McMaster is purging Trump loyalists from the NSC.

According to a source familiar with the matter, McMaster is trying to dismiss anyone involved with a controversial memo arguing that the so-called “deep state” is engaged in a Maoist-style insurgency against the Trump administration. The author of that memo, NSC staffer Rich Higgins, has already been fired, and at least two other anti-globalist NSC staffers have also been forced out.

Trump is contemplating more radical personnel changes, including appointing CIA Director Mike Pompeo as national security adviser and tapping McMaster to lead U.S. forces in Afghanistan, according to the New York Times.

POTUS furious with his generals. President Donald Trump has lashed out at his top military advisers, frustrated with the options being presented to win the war in Afghanistan. According to NBC News, Trump has suggested firing Gen. John Nicholson, the American commander in Afghanistan, and has compared the effort to come up with a new strategy to renovations at a favorite New York restaurant, the 21 Club.

On Wednesday, an attack on a NATO convoy near Kandahar left two U.S. soldiers dead. The Taliban claimed responsibility. Nine U.S. troops have been killed in fighting in Afghanistan this year.  

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to elias.groll@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @eliasgroll and @arawnsley.

Merc Air. The former CEO of Blackwater is pitching the Afghan government on the idea of hiring him to set up a private air force for the country, Military Times reports. Erik Prince, who led the private security company Blackwater, has been trying to sell Afghan officials on using his company to carry out close air support and reconnaissance missions to supplement the Afghan military’s nascent air force but U.S. Defense Department is reportedly against the plan, with commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan Army Gen. John Nicholson refusing to meet with Prince.

Russia sanctions. President Donald Trump signed into law an aggressive sanctions package targeting Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The White House had opposed the measure, which requires congressional approval before the lifting of sanctions against Russia, but Trump said he signed the bill, passed by a veto-proof congressional majority, in the name of “national unity.” In a signing statement, Trump said the bill includes several unconstitutional provisions that infringes on his authority to set American foreign policy.

Begun, the troll wars have. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev laid into President Trump on Wednesday, blasting him for his “total weakness” in signing a package of sanctions against Russia passed by Congress. In statements posted to Twitter and Facebook, Medvedev said the U.S. “establishment” has “fully outwitted Trump” in getting him to sign the legislation. The legislation, he wrote, “ends hopes for improving our relations with the new U.S. administration” and marks the beginning of “a full-fledged economic war on Russia.”

Trump vs. Tillerson. The next certification review of the Iran nuclear deal coming up in September is looking to be a bureaucratic blowout between the White House and State Department. The president “and I have differences of views on things like [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s Nuclear Program], and how we should use it,“ Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said at a briefing on Monday. Foreign Policy reported last month that Trump, unhappy with Tillerson’s input, had appointed a White House team to come up with a plan to declare that Iran was noncompliant at the next 90-day review. Trump himself confirmed that was his plan for the September review. “I think they’ll be noncompliant,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal, according to a transcript of the interview published in Politico.

1-2-3-4 I declare a LARPing war. Russia’s flagship social media account got in on the sanctions-bashing on Wednesday, posting the warning that “Whoever comes to us with #sanctions, from sanctions will perish” alongside a bizarre video of Russian renaissance fair complete with cosplaying knights fighting each other. This being Twitter, Ukraine’s official account responded with its own trolling, tweeting that “If you’d respected international law, you would’ve avoided sanctions & would’ve been sending missions to Mars now, not running with sticks.”

The first transport is away. Russia is making good on its threat to slash U.S. diplomatic staff at the American mission in Moscow, seizing a dacha and a warehouse used by embassy staff.  

Casualties. Russia has lost 40 citizens fighting in Syria so far in 2017, according to reporting from Reuters, surpassing the total number of Russian casualties from September 2015 through December 2016. The Russian defense ministry says only 10 of its troops have died fighting in Syria, but the wire service uncovered more Russian military and private contractor casualties by talking to family members of those killed in combat.

On the road with Pence. The Washington Post sat down for an expansive interview with Vice President Mike Pence on his way back from a swing through to Eastern Europe. Pence said President Donald Trump has a “we’ll see” attitude toward Russia and hopes that sanctions can change Moscow’s behavior. “His decision to sign the Iran sanctions bill — or the Iran-North Korea-Russia sanctions bill — I think is reflective of a desire to make sure that freedom-loving countries around the world know that we are with them, and that Russia and the rogue regimes in North Korea and Iran know that this president and this administration expect a change,” Pence told the paper.

Chinese fireworks. In case you were wondering how China feels about the U.S. deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense battery to South Korea, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) carried out a series of missile tests over the weekend using mockup targets of a THAAD battery and F-22 stealth fighter jets for target practice. The exercise, which used a range of cruise and ballistic missiles, took place during celebrations for the 90th anniversary of the founding of the PLA.

Extraordinary rendition. Germany has expelled Vietnam’s ambassador and the top intelligence officer at the Vietnamese embassy, accusing the two of orchestrating the kidnapping of the former CEO of a state-owned oil company wanted on corruption charges. Germany accuses Vietnamese officials of grabbing Trinh Xuan Thanh in the middle of Berlin’s Tiergarten park and sending him back to Vietnam where he will now face a trial.

Mattis’s staff takes shape. The Senate approved eight nominees for senior Pentagon positions on Tuesday, including investment banker Richard Spencer to serve as Navy secretary. Per the Hill, the full list of confirmed nominations include: “Matthew Donovan as Air Force undersecretary; Ryan McCarthy as Army undersecretary; Ellen Lord as undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics; Lucian Niemeyer as assistant secretary of Defense for energy, installations and environment; Robert Hood as assistant secretary of Defense for legislative affairs; Robert Daigle as director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation; and Elaine McCusker as a principal deputy undersecretary of Defense, comptroller.”

Side gig. Secretary of Defense James Mattis worked as an unpaid adviser to the United Arab Emirates’ military after he left the Marine Corps, according to records released under a Freedom of Information Act request. Before working as an adviser for the UAE, Mattis sought and received prior approval from the Defense Department.

Org chart. The Pentagon is changing the way it gets new weapons and gear, splitting up the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics into two separate offices — one for research and engineering and another for acquisition and sustainment. The new research and engineering organization will have DARPA underneath it, as well as two newer defense research units, the Strategic Capabilities Office and the Defense Innovation Unit – Experimental.

Routine. The Air Force carried out an intercontinental ballistic missile test in the Pacific on Wednesday. Lest anyone think the launch was related to North Korea’s recent ICBM test, the Air Force is quick to point out that Wednesday’s launch was part of a routine series of tests planned years in advance.

Ain’t no party like a paratrooper party. Russia’s NTV covers a Paratrooper Day celebration in Gorky park only to have a drunken paratrooper wander into the shot and punch the correspondent while vowing “We’ll get Ukraine, motherf*****!”

Life comes at you fast. Ohio’s Terrence McNeil gets sentenced to 20 years in prison for soliciting the murder of American troops after spreading personal information about U.S. service members online.

Space. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has been talking up the service’s next steps in space after standing up a deputy chief of staff for space operations directorate. In a speech on Tuesday, Wilson said the Air Force plans to spend 20 percent more on space operations in its next budget and add 43 staff to the new space operations office. The service has faced mounting pressure from a handful of lawmakers to raise the profile of space operations, with a proposal to carve out a separate Space Corps service from the Air Force gaining traction among some in Congress.

Bad news for Jared. Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed Jared Kushner’s family real estate firm for information about the company’s use of a program that trades American visas for investment in the United States, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Trump’s bodyguards get a drone. The Secret Service will test using a drone to provide security at President Donald Trump’s New Jersey golf club, Reuters reports. The tethered drone will be used to provide overhead images during a visit by the president this month to Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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