Trump’s War on Congressional War Powers Isn’t Over
The U.S. president has vetoed a measure that would block military action against Iran without congressional approval. But lawmakers aren’t finished yet.
Welcome to Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Trump vetoes an Iran war powers resolution, inside the massive backlog in Pentagon vacancies, and what to make of a bizarre botched Venezuela coup attempt.
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Trump Vetoes Iran War Powers Resolution
On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump vetoed a bipartisan war powers resolution that would have required congressional approval to carry out military strikes against Iran, the latest in an ongoing battle between the White House and Capitol Hill over war powers authorities. The move sets the stage for a Senate vote today to override the veto that is all but certain to fail: The resolution passed the Senate by a 55-45 vote, short of the necessary two-thirds majority.
War of attrition. Wednesday’s veto is not the first time that Trump has batted away congressional attempts to restrict his ability to use military force without a legislative greenlight. Lawmakers advanced similar measures to stop U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s war last year, which Trump also vetoed. But the lawmakers backing the latest resolution are undeterred, saying they’re playing the long game and inching their way closer to getting war powers authorities on the books.
“It used to be that we couldn’t get the time of day on this issue,” one senior Democratic congressional aide told Foreign Policy. “But now we can get multiple war powers resolutions passed in a Republican-controlled Senate, with some Republican backing, so the trendlines are going in the right direction.”
What We’re Watching
Pentagon vacancies. Congress is reviewing nominees for two top Pentagon jobs today, part of its push to close a massive gap in U.S. Defense Department leadership under Trump. According to data from a spokesperson, the Pentagon has a backlog of 20 Senate-confirmed roles that are vacant or filled only in acting capacities—that’s one-third of all top Pentagon civilian jobs. Many have sat unfilled for months, and lawmakers have voiced concerns that the empty seats undercut U.S. national security.
Here are the vacancies:
12 senior Pentagon jobs with no White House nominee, including the undersecretary of defense for policy, Pentagon comptroller, deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and deputyunder secretary of defense for intelligence and security.
One nominee awaiting vote by committee after a confirmation hearing: Victorino Mercado, tapped to be assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans, and capabilities.
Two nominees with confirmation hearings scheduled in the Senate this week: Kenneth Braithwaite as secretary of the Navy and James Anderson as deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.
Four nominees with no confirmation hearings scheduled in the Senate: Jason Abend as inspector general, John Whitley as director of cost assessment and program evaluation, Shon Manasco as undersecretary of the Air Force, and Michele A. Pearce as general counsel of the Army.
One intended nomination yet to be announced by the White House: Louis Bremer to be assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict.
A botched raid in Venezuela. Think Bay of Pigs meets reality TV. In one of the more bizarre chapters of 2020, a former U.S. Green Beret allegedly mounted an attempted coup against embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro with a ragtag group of exiled militants and several U.S. citizens working for Silvercorp, his U.S.-based private security firm. The U.S. government has denied any involvement in the plot, which unsurprisingly failed. Maduro announced this week he had captured 13 of the plotters, including two U.S. citizens.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday added, “If we had been involved, it would have gone differently.” But with the reports of detained U.S. citizens, the State Department has a new diplomatic headache on top of the quagmire that is its Venezuela policy. “If, in fact, these are Americans that are there… If the Maduro regime decides to hold them, we’ll use every tool to try to get them back. It’s our responsibility to do so,” Pompeo said. U.S. News and World Report’s Paul Shinkman has more on the story.
Failure to communicate. The Senate Armed Services Committee hosted its first hearing since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday, with a new and unusual turf battle between two different parts of the Trump administration: the Pentagon and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Top Pentagon officials have slammed the FCC’s decision to give Ligado, a Virginia-based telecommunications company, permission to deploy a nationwide 5G broadband network—saying it could disrupt the military’s access to critical GPS signals. “If you’ve ever tried to talk to a friend while standing next to the speakers at a rock concert, you get the point,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
New tensions in Kashmir. India announced this week that its forces killed a top commander of one of Kashmir’s largest paramilitary groups in a firefight, part of a surge in counterinsurgency operations during the coronavirus lockdown. The development could fuel new tensions in the disputed territory. Riyaz Naikoo, of the indigenous rebel group Hizbul Mujahideen, was reportedly killed in a raid on Tuesday. Tensions between the Indian government and Kashmiri rebel groups have risen sharply since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government revoked the Indian-administered Kashmir’s special autonomous status in August 2019, bringing it under tighter central control.
Movers and Shakers
A loyalist at the Pentagon. Michael Cutrone, a former top aide to Vice President Mike Pence, is moving to the Pentagon to take on a role aimed at vetting defense officials for their loyalty to the White House, as Foreign Policy reported in an exclusive on Wednesday.
Shake-ups in the intel community. Trump’s nominee for the next head of U.S. intelligence, Rep. John Ratcliffe, faces a divided Senate confirmation process after his hearing this week, as Foreign Policy’s team reports. Meanwhile, Trump has nominated Patrick Hovakimian to be general counsel at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
New U.S. envoy to Venezuela. Trump this week nominated veteran U.S. diplomat James Story to be the new U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. Last year, the United States withdrew its diplomats from Venezuela after it recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the rightful president. Pompeo has said the United States is ready to reopen its embassy in Caracas “as soon as Maduro steps aside.”
McMaster joins Zoom. Zoom—the teleconferencing service that everyone seems to be using during the pandemic lockdown—has hired Trump’s former national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, to serve on its board of directors.
Top USAID pandemic expert to leave post. Timothy Zeimer, a well-regarded senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development and a former Navy rear admiral, is stepping down from his post next month after reportedly being sidelined during the pandemic crisis, Politico reports.
Former SecNav leads new investment fund. Richard Spencer, Trump’s former secretary of the Navy, is taking the helm of a new private investment fund set up by Pallas Advisors. The fund, called Pallas Ventures, will provide capital to technology companies working in the national security field.
Odds and Ends
COVID-19 conspiracies. Seventy-seven cell phone towers have been set on fire in the United Kingdom due to an online conspiracy theory claiming that 5G internet is responsible for spreading the coronavirus. Most of the towers were not even 5G-enabled, and some attacks have even targeted telecommunications engineers.
The Week Ahead
Pompeo will reportedly travel to Israel on May 12 to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his former rival Benny Gantz, days before the new Israeli government is due to be sworn in. It will be the first foreign trip for Pompeo since March, with most international travel for U.S. diplomats halted during the coronavirus pandemic.
On May 12, the U.S. Senate holds a hearing on the coronavirus response by the Trump administration, with one of the president’s top task force leaders, Anthony Fauci, set to testify.
The next court date for Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen detained in Russia on charges of espionage, is May 13. The U.S. government insists Whelan is wrongfully detained on false charges. He was imprisoned without trial for over 15 months.
That’s it for today.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch