The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Pressure Builds On Trump To Soften Pro-Russia Rhetoric

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President-elect Donald Trump is finding himself caught between his desire to improve relations with Russia and fellow Republicans who are pushing for a harsher response to what American spy agencies say was the Kremlin’s meddling in the U.S. presidential election.

The tacit acknowledgement on Sunday by his incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, that Russia was behind the hacking of Democratic Party organizations suggests that Trump’s maneuvering room could be shrinking.

Trump has long been dismissive of the U.S. intelligence conclusion that Russia was behind the election hacks, which Russia has denied, or was trying to help him win the November ballot, saying the intrusions could have been carried out by China or a 400-pound hacker sitting on his bed.

But following a report from U.S. intelligence agencies last week blaming Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia experts say Trump will face growing calls for a stiff military, diplomatic, economic, and perhaps also covert response after his Jan. 20 inauguration.

“The new U.S. administration will need to adopt a significantly tougher line,” said Nile Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington that is an influential voice in Trump’s transition team.

Republicans in Congress wary of Trump’s push for detente with Putin could pressure the new president to withhold the thing the Russian leader wants most: a rapid easing of the economic sanctions imposed after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the Russia experts said.

U.S. intelligence agencies say that since the election, Russian spies have turned to hacking other individuals and organizations, including prominent think-tanks, in what analysts think is an effort to gain insights into future U.S. policies.

Washington’s Brookings Institution, which is headed by prominent Russia expert Strobe Talbott, “received a big wave of attacks the day after the election,” but there is no reason to believe its systems have been compromised, said David Nassar, the think tank’s vice president for communications.

SHOWDOWN WITH CONGRESS?

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said he and fellow Republican John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, would introduce legislation with stronger sanctions than the ones now in place.

“We’re going to introduce sanctions that … will hit them in the financial sector and the energy sector, where they’re the weakest,” Graham told NBC television’s Meet the Press.

Retired Marine General James Mattis, the nominee for secretary of defense who will face a Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday, is expected to advocate a stronger line against Moscow than the one Trump outlined during his election campaign.That could put him at odds with Trump’s national security adviser, retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who has had warmer relations with Putin’s government, and with Rex Tillerson, the nominee for secretary of state, who as CEO of ExxonMobil had extensive business ties with Russia.

If Mattis does push for a tougher approach to Russia, that could empower U.S. advocates for strengthening the American military presence in Europe. That could include reinforcing U.S. troops in the Baltic states and Poland, analysts say.

NATO already plans to deploy 4,000 additional troops, planes, tanks and artillery to the three former Soviet republics in the Baltics and Poland this year.

“There is nervousness about Trump among Europeans at NATO,” said one European diplomat. “Any grand bargain with Russia would fundamentally change NATO’s course and threaten Europe with disunity,” the diplomat said. “But we don’t expect that. NATO is seeking to reassure Baltic allies, and the United States is a big part of the deterrent.”

Some advocates of a sterner response to the Russian hacking say it should include cyber counterattacks, perhaps by leaking financial information embarrassing to some of Putin’s aides and close associates.

So far, the Obama administration has refrained from such action, at least publicly, for fear that it could lead to an escalating cyberwar that could threaten critical infrastructure such as financial transactions and energy transmission.

TRUMP RUSSIA POLICY STILL A BLUR

Although Trump has said the nation needed to “move on to bigger and better things” following the U.S. disclosure of alleged Russian hacking, it appears that Republican and Democratic lawmakers are unlikely to drop the issue anytime soon.

McCain told NBC he wanted to create a select committee to investigate the Russian hacking, if he can convince the Republican-controlled Senate’s leaders to charge their minds.

In the meantime, he said, key Senate committees, including Armed Services and Intelligence, will investigate.

Experts say the close scrutiny of Russia’s actions will come just as Trump’s administration starts to craft a comprehensive strategy on the former Cold War foe. It is likely to be weeks or longer before a clear sense of Trump’s actual Russia strategy comes into view.

“Until there’s a team in place, until there’s a little more organization … I tend to think we’re not going to have clear answers,” said Heather Conley, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Warren Strobel, Patricia Zengerle, Arshad Mohammed and John Walcott in Washington and Robin Emmott in Brussels, editing by Ross Colvin)

IMAGE: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U.S. October 28, 2016.  REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

China’s Navy Seizes American Underwater Drone In South China Sea

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A Chinese Navy warship has seized an underwater drone deployed by an American oceanographic vessel in international waters in the South China Sea, triggering a formal diplomatic protest from the United States and a demand for its return, a U.S. defense official told Reuters on Friday.

The incident, the first of its kind in recent memory, took place on Dec. 15 northwest of Subic Bay off the Philippines just as the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, was about to retrieve the unmanned, underwater vehicle (UUV), the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The UUV was lawfully conducting a military survey in the waters of the South China Sea,” the official said.

“It’s a sovereign immune vessel, clearly marked in English not to be removed from the water – that it was U.S. property.”

The Chinese seizure will add to concerns about China’s growing military presence and aggressive posture in the disputed South China Sea, including its militarization of maritime outposts.

A U.S. think tank reported this week that new satellite imagery indicated that China has installed weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea.

The seized underwater drone was part of an unclassified program to collect oceanographic data, including salinity, temperature and clarity of the water, the official added.

Such data can help inform U.S. military sonar data, since sound is affected by such factors.

The United States issued the formal demarche, as such protests are known, through diplomatic channels and included a demand that China immediately return the underwater drone.

The Chinese have acknowledged the demarche but not responded to it, the official added.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and James Dalgleish)

IMAGE: The USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, is seen in this undated U.S. Navy handout photo. U.S. Navy via REUTERS

Trump Will Nominate Retired Marine Corps General Mattis for Pentagon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President-elect Donald Trump said on Thursday night he would nominate retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, known as “Mad Dog” and renowned for his tough talk and battlefield experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to lead the Pentagon.

“We are going to appoint ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis as our secretary of defense,” Trump told a rally in Cincinnati. He said the formal announcement would be made on Monday.

The choice of a seasoned military strategist would be another indication that Trump, a Republican, intends to steer U.S. foreign policy away from Democratic President Barack Obama’s increased reliance on U.S. allies to fight Islamist militants and to help deter Russian and Chinese aggression in Europe and Asia.

Mattis is a revered figure in the Marine Corps and known for his distrust of Iran.

The Washington Post and CNN reported earlier that Trump had chosen Mattis, but Trump spokesman Jason Miller said earlier on Twitter that “no decision has been made yet with regard to Secretary of Defense.”

While the nomination of the 66-year-old Mattis would likely be popular among U.S. forces, it would have to clear a bureaucratic hurdle.

Because he retired only in 2013, Mattis would need the U.S. Congress to waive a requirement that a defense secretary be a civilian for at least seven years before taking the top job at the Pentagon. His impressive combat record, however, may deter some Senate Democrats from trying to block his nomination.

Trump has described Mattis as “a true general’s general.”

The New York real estate magnate famously asserted last year: “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.”

Mattis, whose past assignments include leading Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East and South Asia, is known for his colorful expressions that unashamedly embrace the job of the U.S. armed forces: fighting wars.

In one famous line in 2003 attributed to Mattis, the general told Marines in Iraq: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”

In a 2016 question-and-answer session, Mattis appeared to be moved by a Marine’s question about how far out he could inflict casualties with his knife hand, known as a “kill-casualty radius.”

“Once you get to be a high-ranking officer, the kill-casualty radius is whatever your Marines make it, and by the time I got up to the senior ranks it was hundreds of miles,” he said in a video for the Marine Corps.

Still, such tough talk has gotten him in hot water. He was once rebuked for saying in 2005 that “it’s fun to shoot some people.”

His talk, however, belies a more thoughtful side. Mattis once said the most important 6 inches in a combat zone was “between your ears.”

Now a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Mattis is also a scholar who was praised by then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2010 as one of the country’s great strategic thinkers.

Mattis reads avidly, frequently quotes history, and is proud that he grew up with a large library and no television.

After meeting Mattis on Nov. 19, Trump described him as a strong, dignified man who persuasively argued against waterboarding, an interrogation tactic that involves pouring water over someone’s face to simulate drowning.

Trump had promised during the campaign he would not only revive use of waterboarding, which is widely regarded as torture and was banned under President Barack Obama, but bring back “a hell of a lot worse” if elected.

“[Mattis] said: ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.’ And I was very impressed by that answer,” Trump told The New York Times.

The Senate Armed Services Committee will consider Mattis’ nomination. In a statement on Thursday night, its chairman, Republican John McCain, called him “one of the finest military officers of his generation and an extraordinary leader.”

Mattis would be the first former U.S. general to become defense secretary since George C. Marshall took the job in 1950.

The decision adds to Trump’s national security team another Pentagon veteran who served during the Obama administration but often had a testy relationship with it.

Officials who knew him before he retired in 2013 said Mattis clashed with top administration officials when he headed Central Command over his desire to better prepare for potential threats from Iran and to win more resources for Afghanistan.

Trump has given the job of national security adviser to Michael Flynn, a retired three-star Army general who was pushed out of the top job at the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 by Obama’s administration.

Flynn was fiercely critical of Obama during the 2016 campaign, adopting much of Trump’s rhetoric.

Along with Flynn and Trump’s choice for CIA director, U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo, Mattis has been critical of the deal to curb Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, saying the threat from Tehran should outrank more immediate concerns about Islamic State or al Qaeda.

“The Iranian regime, in my mind, is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East,” Mattis said.

Speaking about the Iranian nuclear deal, Mattis said: “Hoping that Iran is on the cusp of becoming a responsible, modern nation is a bridge too far.”

If Mattis wins Senate confirmation, he will work side by side with another Marine – General Joseph Dunford, who is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Having two Marine generals in those top jobs would be highly unusual for a service that prides itself on being the most elite U.S. fighting force. It would also raise questions about how Mattis and Dunford might divide up tasks.

Both Dunford and Mattis share battlefield experience, including in Iraq. In 2003, Mattis led the 1st Marine Division during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

He has said one of the toughest things he had to do was oversee the retreat of his forces from the city of Falluja in 2004, something he feared would hurt morale, but did not.

“We just don’t take refuge in self-pity or any of that kind of stuff. And so as a result, the Marine Corps remains a very feared organization in this world. As it should be,” he said.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson in Cincinnati and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Sandra Maler and Peter Cooney)

IMAGE: General James Mattis testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, July 27, 2010, REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Picture