Security Brief

Impeachment Fallout Continues as Former Officials Speak Out

John Kelly joins a chorus of former officials criticizing Trump for withholding military aid to Ukraine and then sacking officials who testified.

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks at a meeting with then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and cyber security experts at the White House on Jan. 31, 2017, in Washington.
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks at a meeting with then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and cyber security experts at the White House on Jan. 31, 2017, in Washington. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Ex-Chief of Staff John Kelly joins other former officials criticizing Trump over Ukraine, Trump approves a tentative Afghanistan peace deal, and Esper and Pompeo head to Munich for major security conference.

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Dan Haverty contributed to this report.

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Former Trump Officials Speak Out

Now that President Donald Trump has been acquitted of his impeachment charges, former U.S. officials are speaking out against the president’s actions that led to his trial, reinvigorating the long-running scandal centered on U.S. relations with Ukraine. To start, former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council (NSC) staffer the White House sacked after he testified in the impeachment investigation, was just doing his job.

When Vindman heard the president push Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, one of Trump’s political rivals, it was akin to hearing an officer hearing an “illegal order,” Kelly said in a speech at Drew University in New Jersey on Wednesday, per The Atlantic. “We teach them, ‘Don’t follow an illegal order. And if you’re ever given one, you’ll raise it to whoever gives it to you that this is an illegal order, and then tell your boss,’” Kelly said.

Trump wants discipline for Vindman. Kelly’s comments came a day after Trump said the military will likely consider disciplinary action against Vindman, an Iraq war veteran. Both Vindman and his twin brother, an NSC lawyer, were escorted from the White House last week and will be transferred back to the Pentagon. Vindman’s lawyer condemned the move as political retribution.

Yovanovitch speaks out. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch also spoke publicly for the first time since testifying in the impeachment trial on Wednesday. In a speech accepting an award at Georgetown University, Yovanovitch warned that senior State Department leaders “lack policy vision, moral clarity, and leadership.” She didn’t mention Trump by name, but said “an amoral, ‘keep them guessing’ foreign policy that substitutes threats, fear, and confusion for trust cannot work.”

Refresher. Yovanovitch was ousted from her job amid a smear campaign by Trump associates, including his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani after they realized she stood in the way of pressuring Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. Yovanovitch, a career foreign service officer, served under six presidents—both Democrats and Republicans.

When Yovanovitch was first from her job last year—months before the issues in the impeachment trial ever came to light—the State Department misled Congress, Foreign Policy, and other media outlets about why she was departing her post. Pompeo’s silence on her ouster created a morale crisis at the State Department and drew sharp criticism from current and former diplomats.


What We’re Watching 

Tentative peace? U.S. President Donald Trump has given conditional approval to a deal with the Taliban that would see U.S. troops leave Afghanistan if the Taliban commits to a reduction of violence over a seven-day period later this month. If the cease-fire holds, the United States would begin gradually withdrawing troops, and the United States and the Taliban would sign an agreement within 10 days to restart peace talks between Afghan leaders and the Taliban. Other conditions include the Taliban agreeing not to associate with al Qaeda, the Islamic State, or other terrorist organizations. “The best if not only way forward is a political agreement,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Thursday, as Defense News reports.

‘We’re not walking away.’ Despite reports that Esper is preparing to reduce the U.S. military’s footprint in Africa, where it has roughly 6,000 troops, U.S. Army Africa commander Maj. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier Jr. said Wednesday that the United States is not abandoning its African partners. Cloudier cited a number of upcoming exercises on the continent as evidence that the United States is “not walking away.”  The news came as the U.S. Army announced plans to deploy the first Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) to the continent to replace elements of an infantry brigade of the 101st Airborne Division in the coming weeks. The SFAB is a relatively new concept, previously used in Afghanistan, designed to take on the train-and-assist mission that has bogged down conventional troops.

Officials gather at Munich Security Conference. This weekend, around 500 top policymakers will descend on Munich for a flurry of public panels and behind-the-scenes meetings at the annual Munich Security Conference. Among the attendees this year: Esper, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and a slew of other world leaders and business executives.


Movers and Shakers

Pentagon moves. Trump has tapped William Jordan Gillis to be assistant secretary of defense for sustainment and Kathryn Wheelbarger to be deputy under secretary of defense for intelligence and security. Gillis is currently the principal deputy assistant secretary of U.S. Army installations, energy, and environment. Wheelbarger, who is technically the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, has been acting in the job for more than a year. She is a former senior staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Conflicting reports. The New York Post reported this week that Elaine McCusker, the nominee for the Pentagon’s comptroller and top finance officer, will be pulled from her post amid White House efforts to sack or reassign people roped into Trump’s impeachment trial. But as Defense One reports, it’s not clear whether that is accurate; McClusker herself has cast doubt on the report.

Envoy to Canada. Trump this week nominated Aldona Z. Wos to be the next U.S. ambassador to Canada. Wos, a former physician, is a fundraiser for the Republican party and the former U.S. ambassador to Estonia from 2004 to 2006. She replaces Kelly Knight Craft, who left her post over the summer to become Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations.


Quote of the Week

“Not to get angry and keep a smile on your face.”

Chitetsu Watanabe, Japanese resident, World War II veteran, and the world’s oldest living man at 112 years old, when asked about his secret to living a long life


Foreign Policy Recommends

How the CIA collected intel on U.S. allies. During the Cold War, governments around the world trusted the company Crypto AG to protect the communications of their spies, soldiers, and diplomats. As the Washington Post reports, the company was secretly owned by the CIA and was used to collect intelligence on U.S. allies. The company was dismembered and claims to no longer have connections to any intelligence agencies, but it serves as a blueprint for the U.S. appetite for mass surveillance today.


Odds and Ends

Space marriage proposal. U.S. Air Force Capt. Stuart Shippee made arguably the greatest wedding proposal ever when he launched a weather balloon 96,000 feet into the air with a (decoy) engagement ring for his girlfriend. The balloon popped at high altitude and the ring descended back down to earth before landing in a Missouri cornfield, where Shippee popped the question.


That’s it for today.

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Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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