The Cable

SitRep: Senate Moving on Trump’s Pentagon Nominees

Drama among Navy brass, Iran rejects Trump meeting, Navy SEALs investigated in Green Beret death.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) during a press conference October 25. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) during a press conference October 25. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)


By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Empty seats at DoD. As of Monday, only 16 of the top 59 civilian jobs in the Defense Department have been filled by the Trump administration, but a flurry of activity this week in the Senate might start to flip that ratio.

On the docket for full Senate votes this week are Charles “Cully” Stimson, for Navy general counsel; Owen West, for assistant secretary of defense for special operations; John H. Gibson II, for deputy chief management officer; and Robert P. Storch to be Inspector General of the National Security Agency.

That’s only a drop in the bucket, however. Twenty-three nominees are still waiting for their Senate hearings, while the Trump administration has failed (refused?) to nominate anyone for 18 other positions.

McCain getting his answers. Some of the delays are the work of Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has refused to move on nominees in a show of frustration over the lack of information on U.S. strategy in the Middle East, and the Oct. 4 ambush in Niger that killed 4 U.S. soldiers.

But briefings last week on the Hill appear to have changed things. When asked about more hearings to put nominees in their seats, McCain told reporters on Thursday that, “we are certainly talking about that and we’re making progress and I will lift some of those [holds].”

And viola! On Nov. 2, McCain’s SASC will hold a nomination hearing for four critical posts: secretary of the Army; under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness; under secretary of defense for intelligence; and assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological programs. Last week, the Senate also approved David Trachtenberg as the new principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.

Drama among U.S. Navy brass. Last week, acting Navy undersecretary Thomas Dee told a conference in Washington that the Trump administration’s plan to build a 350-ship navy would take another 30 years, at least, throwing serious cold water on one of Trump’s signature pledges to build lots of ships, very quickly. (The fleet currently has 274 ships.)

But his boss, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer appeared on MSNBC’s Hugh Hewitt show on Saturday to chide Dee, using his “acting” status as a cudgel.

The promise of the 350-ship fleet is still there, Spencer said. “Mr. Dee, unfortunately, being an acting placeholder, I don’t know whether he was speaking for his own accord, but this is one more reason we need to get our politically-appointed people in the Pentagon and working for us. I need to get my team there who are aligned with our vision,” he said.

One man’s strategic assets is another man’s…The United States and South Korea keep talking about deploying more “strategic assets” to the peninsula. But during visits by Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford to Seoul over the weekend, leaders remained vague about their plans. The term normally refers to as submarines, aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons, and bombers, all of which have appeared in the skies or the waters around South Korea in recent months.

One thing we know is that three of the U.S. Navy’s 10 aircraft carriers will conduct exercises in the Western Pacific next month, aligned with president Trump’s visit to South Korea and China that kicks off late this week.

Who’s where when. Defense Secretary Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at 5:00 p.m. on Monday to answer questions over drafting a new authorization for the use of military force for the campaign against Islamic State and other militant groups.

Trump shut down. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Sunday that he rejected a request from the White House to meet Trump at the United Nations in September, a day after Trump made a speech highly critical of Iran. “A request indeed was made by the U.S. side but it wasn’t accepted by President Rouhani,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi said. The White House hasn’t commented.

Tehran sticking to nuke deal. International Atomic Energy Agency’s director-general Yukiya Amano said Monday that Iran is sticking to the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal with Western powers. “Nuclear-related commitments are being implemented,” told a news conference in Abu Dhabi following a trip to Iran on Sunday where he met Iran’s president.

Rouhani said over the weekend that despite increasingly harsh rhetoric coming from the White House over his country’s missile program — which was not part of the nuclear deal — his country will keep building missiles.

Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to or via Twitter: @paulmcleary.

Bombshell. Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigators are looking into the possibility that two Navy SEALs murdered an American Green Beret, Staff Sgt. Logan J. Melgar, who was found dead in a U.S. embassy compound in Mali back in May, the result of “a homicide by asphyxiation” according to an autopsy. Navy investigators have identified two roommates of Melgar’s, members of SEAL Team 6, as “persons of interest” in the case, were removed from the country and are currently on administrative leave.

Political litter. North Korea’s propaganda leaflet littering campaign across the demilitarized zone continues, and it seems pretty clear that Pyongyang is standing by its use of “dotard” as the slightly arcane insult of choice for President Trump.

HMS Rails. The British Navy has relieved nine sailors serving aboard a nuclear-armed submarine after they tested positive for cocaine. The personnel aboard the HMS Vigilant, which carries Trident nuclear missiles, reportedly used cocaine partying in the U.S. while their submarine was docked.

To arm or not to arm. The Trump administration still can’t make its mind up whether it wants to deliver lethal aid to Ukraine to help it deal with Russian interference in its civil conflict. After a National Security Council meeting, the administration is getting ready to provide Trump with a list of possible options to respond to the Russian-backed insurgency in the country but so far it has stuck with the Obama administration’s policy of holding off on transfers of lethal aid.

Referendum fallout. Masoud Barzani has stepped down from his role as Kurdistan’s president, leaving the region’s parliament to dissolve the powers of the presidency among the Kurdish legislative and judicial branches. Barzani had championed the Kurdish independence referendum that provoked Baghdad’s fury and saw Iraqi Security Forces and Iranian-backed Shia militias take over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk as forces loyal to Barzani’s political rivals fled the city.   

Kushner. White House advisor and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner made a secret trip to Saudi Arabia last week, his third visit to the kingdom this year. Politico reports that the White House won’t say what Kushner is in Saudi Arabia to discuss or who he’s meeting with, but it did say he was accompanied by Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell and the Trump administration’s Middle East envoy.

Pusherman. The Taliban is moving to become a vertically-integrated one-stop shop for producing heroin, moving beyond its role as an opium provider and into refining poppies into heroin. Refining opium into heroin makes the product more efficient to smuggle out of the country and allows the militant group to squeeze more profit out of its product along the way.

Death toll. The Russian government has issued at least 131 death certificates for Russian citizens in Syria so far this year, according to documents obtained by Reuters, suggesting that the death toll for Moscow’s war in Syria is much higher than the official tally of 16. Among the death certificates reviewed by the wire service is that of Sergei Poddubny, who reportedly worked as a private military contractor in Syria and was killed during combat in Tiyas.

Virulently viral. Buddhist ultranationalists in Myanmar have turned to Facebook to broadcast their brand of virulent bigotry against the country’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, raising thorny questions about whether and how the social media company should regulate speech among its users around the world.

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