Last Wednesday, the U.S. Senate approved Mr. Rex Tillerson to serve as the next Secretary of State. On his first day as Secretary of State, he met with German Vice Chancellor and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sigmar Gabriel. Secretary Tillerson also spoke by phone with Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, and the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu. According to the State Department: “In all of his conversations, Secretary Tillerson stressed America’s steadfast commitment to its key allies and partners as it works to protect the interests and safety of the American people.”
Vice President Mike Pence also met with German Vice Chancellor Gabriel and shared that he plans to attend the Munich Security Conference and visit Brussels later this month. According to the White House, Vice President Pence’s trip will focus on engaging European Allies and partners about how to deepen and strengthen the Transatlantic Alliance.
This Friday, President Trump will welcome Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the White House. Topics of discussion will include trade and security matters.
Iran – Put on Notice and Sanctioned
On Friday morning, President Trump tweeted:
“Iran is playing with fire – they don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”
The U.S. Department of the Treasury announced new sanctions later that day against twenty-five individuals and entities involved in procuring technology and/or materials to support Iran’s ballistic missile program, as well as for acting for or on behalf of, or providing support to, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF). National Security Advisor (NSA) Michael Flynn also issued a statement regarding new U.S. sanctions, saying:
“The international community has been too tolerant of Iran’s bad behavior. The ritual of convening a United Nations Security Council in an emergency meeting and issuing a strong statement is not enough. The Trump Administration will no longer tolerate Iran’s provocations that threaten our interests. The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over.”
Earlier in the week, NSA Flynn had issued a statement detailing Iran’s provocative activities that concluded with a warning: “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.”
Ukraine – A Call (Again) to Provide Defensive Weapons
With increased fighting in Eastern Ukraine, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Arizona) urged President Trump to send defensive weapons to Ukraine in a letter last Thursday. Chairman McCain wrote that the resurgence in violence between Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists is a clear indication that “Putin is moving quickly to test you as commander-in-chief.” The Chairman pushed the President to exercise his authority to provide defensive lethal assistance to Ukraine to “defend its territory against further violations by Russia and its separatist proxies,” and also voiced his support for maintaining sanctions against Russia.
Congress previously authorized sending defensive weapons to Ukraine, but the Obama Administration elected to provide non-lethal assistance. President Trump has expressed hope at improving relations with Russia and on 28 January, spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time since Inauguration Day in what was described as a “positive call” that “was a significant start to improving the relationship.”
Last week in a statement to the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said the U.S. Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place, “until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.” On Saturday, President Trump spoke with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko. The two leaders addressed a variety of topics, “including Ukraine’s long-running conflict with Russia,” according to the White House. President Trump was also quoted as saying: “We will work with Ukraine, Russia, and all other parties involved to help them restore peace along the border.” The two leaders also discussed the potential for a meeting in the near future.
- On Thursday, 9 February, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “The United States, The Russian Federation and the Challenges Ahead.”
NATO – Reaffirming U.S. Commitment
On Sunday, President Trump spoke with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. According to White House readout of the call, the two discussed U.S. commitment to the Alliance, how to encourage all NATO allies to meet their defense spending commitments, and continuing cooperation to address security challenges facing NATO. President Trump agreed to join in a meeting of NATO leaders in Europe in late May. The two also discussed the potential for a peaceful resolution of the conflict along the Ukrainian border.
Yemen – Congressman Requests Briefing on Raid
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Arizona) has asked for an “urgent briefing” on the recent SEAL Team Six raid in Yemen that resulted in the deaths of a SEAL operator and civilians on the ground. Rep. Gallego, a Member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), sent a letter last week to HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) requesting a briefing from the Trump Administration “on the planning and execution of this mission as well as on the decision-making process that preceded its approval.” The raid was designed to yield intelligence on operations being planned by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The raid had been approved in December by the Pentagon, and the Obama Administration recommended greenlighting the operation, but the next moonless night, which the military sought for the raid, was not until after President Trump had been sworn into office. President Trump ultimately approved the mission.
Syria – Congresswoman To Reimburse Cost of Trip
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) said last Tuesday she will personally cover the cost of her recent trip to Syria. Gabbard met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while on the trip. She was met with outrage from fellow Members of Congress upon her return to Washington. A release sent out by her office late Tuesday said she will reimburse a group called AACCESS-Ohio, or the Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services, for the expenses “because it has become a distraction.” She said the important issue at hand is whether Americans “want their taxpayer dollars to continue to be used in support of militant groups” that she said are working with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) to overthrow the Syrian Government.
- On Tuesday, 7 February, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “The Plan to Defeat ISIS: Key Decisions and Considerations.”
Israel – White House Statement
Last Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer released a statement on Israel, saying:
“While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal. . . . The Trump Administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity and looks forward to continuing discussions, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visits with President Trump later this month.”
Recap of Mattis’ First Overseas Trip
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pledged to uphold a commitment to defend Japan in a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last Friday, after giving a similar guarantee to South Korea’s leadership. Secretary Mattis told reporters that the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty “is as real today as it was a year or five years ago, and as it will be a year or 10 years from now” and Prime Minister Abe called Secretary Mattis’ decision to make his first overseas visit to the region a “testament to the new administration’s emphasis on the Japan-U.S. alliance.”
In Seoul, Secretary Mattis told his South Korean counterpart that the U.S. defense commitment was “ironclad,” and warned North Korea against using a nuclear weapon, saying such an act would be met with a response that is “effective and overwhelming.” During the Secretary’s talks with South Korean officials, the two sides also affirmed that they would move ahead with plans developed under the Obama Administration to deploy a new antimissile system to counter North Korea’s medium-range missiles. China has objected to the deployment of the system, known as Thaad, which stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. While seeking to reassure U.S. allies in the region, Secretary Mattis played down the likelihood of U.S. military action in the South China Sea at news conference in Tokyo, stressing that the focus should be instead on diplomacy. South Korea and Japan were the only two stops on Secretary Mattis’ first overseas trip since taking office.
- On Tuesday, 7 February, the House Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Countering the North Korean Threat: New Steps in U.S. Policy.”
NDAA – Markup May be Delayed
HASC Chairman Thornberry has suggested that the committee may mark up the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) later than in recent years. Chairman Thornberry said a date for the markup was not set but shared that several factors will likely force the panel to hold its markup later than it did last year. The HASC held April markups of the defense policy bill in both 2015 and 2016. The 2014 markup occurred in early May, while a 2013 markup took place in early June. Chairman Thornberry also mentioned the need to complete “last year’s business” and pass appropriations measures to fund the remainder of the current fiscal year.
Other Congressional Hearings This Week
- On Tuesday, 7 February, the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a closed hearing on cyber threats.
- On Thursday, 9 February, the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Situation in Afghanistan.”
Washington is expected to focus on the following upcoming events:
- 10 February: President Trump to host Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
- ~14 February: Release of the President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2018
- 15 February: President Trump to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
- 17-19 February: Munich Security Conference
- 28 February: President Trump to address a joint session of Congress
- 28 April: U.S. Federal Government funding lapses