The Cable

SitRep: Congress Tells Trump They’re Watching Russia; Pence Wades into Pentagon Transgender Fight

  With Adam Rawnsley and Robbie Gramer House vs. Moscow, and Trump in the middle. In a rare display of bipartisan comity, the House on Tuesday passed a measure that would slap new sanctions on Moscow. The package, which sailed through 419 to 3 despite objections from both the White House and Secretary of State ...

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29:  U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R) attend a panel discussion on an opioid and drug abuse in the Roosevelt Room of the White House March 29, 2017 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R) attend a panel discussion on an opioid and drug abuse in the Roosevelt Room of the White House March 29, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images)

 

With Adam Rawnsley and Robbie Gramer

House vs. Moscow, and Trump in the middle. In a rare display of bipartisan comity, the House on Tuesday passed a measure that would slap new sanctions on Moscow. The package, which sailed through 419 to 3 despite objections from both the White House and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, targets specific Russian officials in retaliation for that country’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, and adds penalties against Iran and North Korea.

The bit the White House most objects to requires the president to obtain congressional approval before relaxing any sanctions against Moscow. The Senate is expected to quickly pass a similar measure. Trump hasn’t committed to signing the bill, and any presidential veto would easily be overturned on the Hill. On Wednesday, the Kremlin fired back that it could retaliate if the bill goes through.

Messaging. European diplomats have raised concerns about the sanctions effect on gas projects but Republicans have explained it’s less about Russia and more about Congress sending a message to Trump, one western diplo said.

Kush. FP’s Moscow correspondent Amie Ferris-Rotman takes a deeper look at the man the Kremlin sent to meet with Jared Kushner, armed with a bag of dirt.

Russia looks to profit on Syria war. Moscow has stepped up a campaign to get the United Nations to demine Syria’s Roman ruins in Palmyra, FP’s Colum Lynch tells us that some Western diplomats fear the Kremlin is only seeking to get other countries to help it exploit the city’s rich natural resources:

“The Russian government’s push to protect Syria’s ancient ruins, these diplomats note, coincides with reports of an effort by Russia to convince private security companies to secure territory around Palmyra from Islamic State militants in exchange for the rights to lucrative gas and mining rights.” More from Colum here.

House Republicans feel VP pressure in transgender bill. Vice President Mike Pence and his team have taken an active role in trying to overturn a Pentagon policy that funds medical medical procedures for transgender service members, sources tell FP’s Paul McLeary. The calls to the Hill come amid a flurry of last-minute activity in which House Republicans have submitted three separate but identical amendments to the 2018 defense spending bill that would prohibit the Pentagon from using government money to “provide medical treatment related to gender transition.” Votes on the amendments are expected Wednesday.

North Korea could have ICBM by next year. Pyongyang is expected to be able to field a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile as early as 2018, the Defense Intelligence Agency says in a confidential assessment obtained by the Washington Post. The new assessment “shaves a full two years off the consensus forecast for North Korea’s ICBM program, was prompted by recent missile tests showing surprising technical advances by the country’s weapons scientists, at a pace beyond what many analysts believed was possible for the isolated communist regime.”

Another vacant seat at State Department. Rex Tillerson’s State Department has forced out the top State Department official in charge of preventing another Benghazi-style attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities. On Tuesday, CBS News reported Bill Miller, the acting assistant secretary for diplomatic security, will leave this week, with no word on his replacement. Two insiders tell FP he was forced out by the administration.

Current and former State officials see some irony in the exit under a Republican administration. “It is absolutely bizarre that a party that was so obsessed with Benghazi suddenly does not give a damn about the security of our people overseas,” Tom Countryman, a former State Department official for 35 years who retired earlier this year, told FP.

Don’t Discount the Boy Scouts. President Trump gave a very Trump-ian speech before the National Boy Scout Jamboree on Monday, sparking inevitable controversy, shock, and ire. But lost in that debate is the impact on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a former Eagle Scout and national president of the Boy Scouts. Several State Department sources tell FP Trump’s treatment of the scouts and political grandstanding discouraged the secretary, and could have added another layer of discord between the president and his secretary of state. This, already at a time when rumors of a “Rexit” are swirling.

Mattis wants to reform military training. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently told military leaders he wants to reduce the amount of mandatory training service members undergo, and focus more on how to “equip more ready and lethal forces,” Fox News reports. The goal will be to “regain a concentration on the art and science of warfighting.”

Guns of July. The Pentagon released footage of an incident in the Persian Gulf on Tuesday when an Iranian naval vessel came within 150 yards of the USS Thunderbolt, leading U.S. sailors to fire warning shots near the craft. Video here. The incident comes several weeks after Iranian forces harassed the USS Bataan and USS Cole, shining floodlights on them from a distance of 800 yards and pointing a laser at an airborne U.S. helicopter.

Friends! Or something. U.S. Army Europe released pictures of Russian military observers invited to observe NATO exercises in Eastern Europe this week. The pics might be a bit of a shot at Moscow just before its upcoming Zapad exercises, which will unlikely include NATO observers on the invite list. FP’s Paul McLeary has more here about those exercises, and why NATO is concerned.

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Sanctions. The Trump administration could drop more sanctions against Chinese entities for trading with North Korea sometime in the next month. Acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia Susan Thornton told lawmakers on Tuesday that the department was also considering whether or not to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism after taking Pyongyang off the list in 2008.

Russia. It’s not just China whose companies are trading with North Korea. Chosun Ilbo reports that Russia has doubled its trade of oil and other goods to the North in the first five months of 2017, with data from the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency showing that Russian trade had jumped from $24 million through May of 2016 to $48 million in the same period this year. South Korean officials tell the paper they suspect Russia has increased its trade with Pyongyang in order to gain leverage against the U.S. and South Korea.

Iran. President Trump is hinting that his administration may scuttle the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran by refusing to certify that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the agreement in the next three months. Under the terms of the deal, the administration has to periodically certify Iran is living up to its end of the deal but in an interview with the Wall Street Journal President Trump said he’d be “very surprised if they will be” in compliance, saying that “If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago.”

Afghanistan. The Taliban is racking up more progress, taking control of three new districts across the country, Long War Journal reports. Insurgents claim to have seized districts in Faryab in the north, Paktia in the east, and Ghor in central Afghanistan, demonstrating an ability to take territory across the country. President Trump has recently expressed some interest in Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, a promise of riches that no one has yet been able to fully prove out.

Djibouti. New satellite photos of China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti show the People’s Liberation Army hardening the facility with new perimeter security features and an underground facility that can store vehicles and hide activities from prying eyes overhead.

Bomb heist. Someone stole dozens of grenades, explosive charges, and other assorted weapons from a Portuguese military arsenal in June and now European counterterrorism officials are worried that the cache could find its way into the hands of terrorists.

Libya. French President Emmanuel Macron has helped negotiate a ceasefire between forces loyal to Libya’s internationally-recognized government and Khalifa Haftar, a warlord based in the country’s east. Haftar and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj agreed to hold U.N.-monitored elections in the near future. Libya has been plagued by fighting between various factions since the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi, and France fears that further violence could undermine gains made against the Islamic State in Libya.

Hacking. A new report says that an Iran-linked hacking group has been targeting the U.S., Israeli, German, Jordanian, and Turkish governments with relatively basic tools. ClearSky Cybersecurity and Trend Micro released a report linking a group dubbed “CopyKittens” to a campaign of hacks, including the use of fake social media accounts to spread malicious links on Israeli social media.

Iraq. Iraq may be buying Russia’s latest tank, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iraqi Vice President Nuri al-Maliki discussing a possible T-90 purchase in a recent meeting. Russia has been looking to export the T-90 to countries across the Middle East, sending them to help Assad regime forces and trying, thus far in vain, to interest Iran’s military.

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