MATTIS ISIS UPDATE: In what will be only his second meeting with the news media in the Pentagon briefing room in his four months on the job, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, along with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, will outline progress in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Pentagon officials say the 1 p.m. briefing will review what has been accomplished in recent months, but will not reveal the new strategy to defeat the terrorist group, which was ordered by President Trump shortly after he took office. “You're going to see some incredible numbers with respect to the success of General Mattis and others with the ISIS situation,” Trump said yesterday. “The numbers are staggering, how successful they've been — the military has been.” A Pentagon official yesterday confirmed Mattis would be delivering an upbeat assessment. “The fact is we are doing pretty well,” the official said.
SYRIA ATTACK: In Syria yesterday, the U.S. bombed a convoy of military vehicles that it said was encroaching on a deconfliction zone along Syria’s southern border with Iraq. The convoy was said to comprise pro-regime Shiite militia who were heading in the direction of Tanf, where U.S. special operations forces have been training local fighters to battle ISIS. The U.S. military said the Russians, who support the Bashar Assad regime, were called on a hotline in an attempt to warn the convoy off. Eventually, U.S. warplanes fired warning shots. When the show of force was ignored, the convoy was attacked from the air. Several vehicles were destroyed, and an undetermined number of fighters on the ground were killed.
During a Pentagon event with the Swedish defense minister, Mattis said the unusual attack on Syrian pro-government forces did not reflect any change in the U.S. policy to avoid direct involvement in Syria’s six-year long civil war. “We're not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war, but we will defend our troops, that is a coalition element made up of more than just U.S. troops,” Mattis said. “And so we'll defend ourselves if people take aggressive steps against us, and that's been a going-in policy of ours for a long time.”
TRUMP’S NEW TUNE: The president departs Joint Base Andrews this morning on his first foreign trip. Trump’s first stop: Saudi Arabia, a country he excoriated on the campaign trail and during presidential debates. Saudi Arabia, Trump said last June, is a country “where being gay is also punishable by death.” And he singled out the kingdom for not paying its fair share for its own defense. “Saudi Arabia, nothing but money. We protect Saudi Arabia. Why aren't they paying?” Trump said. And he accused the Saudi government of a “pay for play” scheme saying that 2010, in order to get approval from Hillary Clinton’s State Department to buy arms from the United States, the Saudis paid off her husband. “What did Saudi Arabia do? They paid Bill Clinton a fortune to do a speech. Later that year, Clinton's State Department signed off on arm deals between the United States and Saudi Arabia, shocking, shocking,” Trump said in an October campaign event.
But that’s all in the past. Saudi Arabia is literally rolling out the red carpet for the American president, who is seen as a breath of fresh air after Obama administration's cool relations with the longtime ally. American flags are flying over the streets of Riyadh, and the Saudi government has organized a dazzling array of events to coincide with Trump’s visit. And the president is not arriving empty handed either. He comes bearing an arms deal reportedly worth in excess of $100 billion and which the New York Times said was personally negotiated by his son-in-law Jared Kushner.
BREAKING: Prosecutors in Sweden are dropping rape charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been holed up the Ecuadorean embassy in London for five years. In theory that means he would be free to leave the sanctuary of the embassy, but he may still fear extradition to the United States.
Good Friday morning and welcome to Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense, compiled by Washington Examiner National Security Senior Writer Jamie McIntyre (@jamiejmcintyre), National Security Writer Travis J. Tritten (@travis_tritten) and Senior Editor David Brown (@dave_brown24). Email us here for tips, suggestions, calendar items and anything else. If a friend sent this to you and you’d like to sign up, click here. If signing up doesn’t work, shoot us an email and we’ll add you to our list. And be sure to follow us on Twitter @dailyondefense.
HAPPENING TODAY, IRANIAN ELECTIONS: Iranians are voting today to decide whether to give incumbent Hassan Rouhani a second term, or go with his hard-line challenger cleric Ebrahim Raisi. Two other minor candidates are also in the race. Rouhani, who negotiated the nuclear deal with world powers, is seen as a moderate willing to engage with the West, while Raisi is closer to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
From the AP: “Rouhani, 68, is a moderate cleric elected in 2013 on pledges of greater personal freedoms and improved relations with the West. His government negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal, which saw Iran accept curbs on its nuclear program in exchange for relief from crippling international sanctions.
“Raisi, 56, is a hard-line cleric close to Khamenei who has vowed to combat poverty and corruption. He could pose the biggest challenge to Rouhani, especially if he can unify hard-liners.”
CHINA INTERCEPT: The U.S. military is reporting what it has termed an “unprofessional” intercept of a U.S. WC-135 plane flying in international airspace over the South China Sea Wednesday. One of the two Chinese Sukhoi Su-30 jets flew upside down over the U.S. plane, according to CNN. A U.S. military spokesman said the intercept was unprofessional because of “the maneuvers by the Chinese pilot, as well as the speeds and proximity of both aircraft,” adding that the incident was being addressed with China “through appropriate diplomatic and military channels.”
TWO CARRIERS OFF KOREA, REAGAN JOINS VINSON: The U.S. has dispatched a second aircraft carrier to waters off the Korean peninsula ostensibly to take part in training exercises. The USS Ronald Reagan has just departed Japan, and is now in the Western pacific, where the the USS Carl Vinson is already on station. Both ships are in the same general area but are “not in close proximity to each other,” according to one one official. “We don't discuss the future operations of our ships and aircraft,” said a spokesman in an statement last night. “As stated in the recent release, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), and Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5 just started their 2017 spring patrol [and] are currently focused on flight deck and carrier qualifications.” The deployment might be seen as preparation for a routine turnover with the Vinson strike group, were it not for the high level of tension with North Korea over its continued missile tests, and expected sixth nuclear test.
A REAL DENIAL DENIAL: Trump was unequivocal in his denial that he ever told the former FBI director to back off the investigation into a his former national security adviser. "In the light of a busy news week, people would like to get to the bottom of a couple things,” WJLA reporter Scott Thuman asked at yesterday’s news conference. “Did you at any time urge director James Comey in any way, shape or form to back down on the investigation into Michael Flynn?" Trump cut him off with a terse, "No, no. Next question.”
Trump also denied once again that there was any collusion with the Russians during the campaign. “Well, I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt,” he said in reaction to the appointment of former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate the Russian connection. “There is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign. But I can always speak for myself and the Russians — zero,” Trump said. “I think it divides the country. I think we have a very divided country because of that and many other things.”
The man who appointed Mueller, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, briefed senators behind closed doors yesterday. Afterward, Sen. Lindsey Graham said he thought the independent investigation would limit what Congress can do. “It was a counterintelligence investigation before now, it seems to me now to be considered a criminal investigation,” Graham said. “I find it hard to subpoena records of somebody, like Mr. Flynn, who may be subject to a criminal investigation because he has a right not to incriminate himself. As to Mr. Comey, the former director of the FBI, coming before the committee. If I were Mr. Mueller I would jealously guard the witness pool.” Graham predicted no more hearings like the recent one featuring fired deputy AG Sally Yates, or former DNI James Clapper. “So one of the losers in this decision is the public,” Graham said.
In that private briefing, Rosenstein reportedly told senators that he knew Trump would fire Comey before he ever wrote the memo laying out the case against him. It was “clear as day,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy told MSNBC. “There's no question about it. It was in his opening statement. He laid out the narrative that ultimately led to the decision to fire Comey. Now, there are lots of holes in that narrative.” But Republican Sen. Marco Rubio didn’t hear it the same way. Asked, “Is it your understanding that Rosenstein knew that Comey was going to be fired before he wrote his memo?” Rubio answered “I'm not sure he addressed that with a level of clarity that most people wanted to hear.”
WILL IT BE JOE? Trump said yesterday that he is nearing a decision on who should replace Comey, telling a group of television anchors at the White House that former Sen. Joe Lieberman is his leading candidate. "We're very close to an FBI director," Trump said, adding that he would announce the new director "soon." Lieberman, former Connecticut senator and vice presidential candidate in 2000, was among a handful of candidates who met with Trump on Wednesday at the White House, according to press secretary Sean Spicer. Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe also met with the president this week.
OUTRAGE OVER ERDOGAN: Sens. John McCain and Dianne Feinstein on Thursday blasted Turkey's president and urged him to punish his security staff for a bloody scuffle with protesters in Washington this week. "The violent response of your security detail to peaceful protesters is wholly unacceptable and, unfortunately, reflective of your government's treatment of the press, ethnic minority groups and political opponents," the two senators wrote in a letter to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The clash outside a Turkish ambassador's residence Tuesday was caught on video and showed dark-suited Erdogan staff punching and kicking the protesters while being pushed back by police. Earlier on Thursday, McCain said he would "throw the Turkish ambassador out," during an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
MILITARY HANDGUNS A CLICK AWAY? Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry wants to let the military do a whole lot more of its own shopping online to cut costly bureaucratic red tape. The Texas chairman of the Armed Services Committee unveiled new legislation Thursday that would allow it to buy everything from pens to treadmills from business-to-business sites such as Staples and Amazon, eliminating the current "expensive" and "onerous" contracting and scheduling process. But could it also work for firearms? “Maybe it's OK to get our handguns in a commercially available way in the future," Thornberry said.
An expert panel told his committee this week that military handguns are a prime example of the delays and waste of acquisition that the Republican chairman has been working to root out for the past two years. The Army spent 10 years and $15 million trying to put together a request to gunmakers for an M9 Beretta replacement. Meanwhile, U.S. small arms companies make more handguns in a month than the Army will buy in 25 years. But don’t expect to see any immediate legislative moves. "We take this step by step,” Thornberry said. This year, he’s focused on saving the Pentagon big on what he calls the less glamorous side of acquisition, such as office supplies and exercise equipment.
BRANSTAD ADVANCES: Senators voted 86-12 on Thursday to advance the nomination of Trump's pick for ambassador to China, setting up an expected confirmation vote next week. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is expected to be an important lieutenant to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has had to travel to Beijing once already for talks related to the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons.
"I will work tirelessly to represent America and her citizens to the best of my ability," Branstad told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing. "I will champion American interests in China with as much fervor and dedication as I have championed Iowa's interests during my more than 22 years as governor."
War on the Rocks: With Washington in chaos, China runs the table in Asia
Vice News: The U.S. is waging a massive shadow war in Africa, exclusive documents reveal
Wall Street Journal: NATO mulls Arctic and Atlantic command to counter Russia
Roll Call: Trump’s cyber executive order is more study than action
Defense One: In urgent request, U.S. special ops gets 350 more ‘kamikaze’ suicide drones to fight ISIS
USA Today: NATO in Afghanistan: Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford says alliance should move quickly to deploy forces
UPI Security News: Lockheed Martin lays keel for USS St. Louis
Business Insider: US Army pulls recruiting ad after learning soldier featured is a convicted rapist
FRIDAY | MAY 19
8 a.m. 300 1st St. SE. Maj. Gen. Michael Fortney, vice commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, discusses strategic deterrence. mitchellaerospacepower.org
9 a.m. Rayburn 2118. Fiscal 2018 priorities and posture of the national security space enterprise with Gen. John Raymond, head of Air Force Space Command. armedservices.house.gov
10 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Defense innovation in a change-resistant ecosystem. Csis.org
11 a.m. Pentagon Courtyard, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis hosts the portrait unveiling in honor of Chuck Hagel, 24th secretary of defense.
12 p.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. Paul A. Rahe, an historian of political philosophy, examines how ancient Sparta stood firm against a great empire. Heritage.org
1 p.m. Pentagon Briefing Room. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford provide an update on the campaign to defeat ISIS.
1 p.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Why should the United States care about Ukraine? csis.org
MONDAY | MAY 22
11 a.m. 1775 Massachusetts Avenue N.W. Rep. Mac Thornberry on military readiness, modernization, and innovation. brookings.edu
TUESDAY | MAY 23
9 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. A full day conference on civil-military relations in policy, politics and public with retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. csis.org
9:30 a.m. Dirksen G-50. Worldwide threats with Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, and Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. armed-services.senate.gov
10 a.m. House Visitors Center 210. Open and closed hearings for the Russia Investigation Task Force with John Brennan, former CIA director. intelligence.house.gov
11:30 a.m. 800 16th St. NW. A dialogue with Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan. cabc.co
2:30 p.m. Senate Visitors Center 217. Closed hearing on Navy readiness challenges, emerging threats, and the 355-ship force objective. armed-services.senate.gov
3:30 p.m. Rayburn 2118. Budget request for U.S. Cyber Command with Adm. Mike Rogers. armed-services.senate.gov
4:30 p.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Debate on the modernization of nuclear missiles with retired Gen. C. Robert Kehler, former head of U.S. Strategic Command. csis.org
WEDNESDAY | MAY 24
1800 Jefferson Davis Hwy. Breakfast keynote by Vice Adm. Terry Benedict, director of the Navy’s Strategic Systems Programs. navyleague.org
9:30 a.m. Russell 232-A. Industry perspectives from Brian Cuccias of Huntington Ingalls, John Casey of General Dynamics, and Matthew Paxton, president of the Shipbuilders Council Of America, on options and considerations for achieving a 355-ship Navy. armed-services.senate.gov
9:30 a.m. Rayburn 2154. Oversight of the FBI’s independence. oversight.house.gov
10 a.m. House 140. Testimony from Gen. Joseph Lengyel, commander of the National Guard Bureau, and the chiefs of the reserve military forces. appropriations.house.gov
10 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. The Russian military of 2035. csis.org
10 a.m. Dirksen 342. Border insecurity with the rise of MS-13 and other transnational criminal organizations. hsgac.senate.gov
10:30 a.m. Dirksen 192. Review of the 2018 budget for the Navy and Marine Corps with acting Navy Secretary Sean Stackley and Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations. appropriations.senate.gov
11 a.m. 1211 Connecticut Ave. NW. Examining the strategic implications of Trump’s first budget. stimson.org
12 p.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. The threats and challenges of the South Caucasus region for the Trump administration. heritage.org
2 p.m. Rayburn 2212. Navy Fiscal Year 2018 budget request for seapower and projection forces. armedservices.house.gov
2 p.m. Hart 216. The Kremlin's gas games in Europe and the implications for policy makers, with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. atlanticcouncil.org
2 p.m. Rayburn 2172. Nuclear deal fallout and the global threat of Iran. foreignaffairs.house.gov
2:30 p.m. Dirksen G-50. Department of Energy atomic defense activities and programs with Frank Klotz, under secretary for nuclear security. armed-services.senate.gov
3:30 p.m. Rayburn 2118. Ground force modernization budget request with Army and Marine Corps officials. armedservices.house.gov
THURSDAY | MAY 25
8 a.m. Rayburn 2212. Air Force fiscal 2018 budget request for seapower and projection forces with Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, and Lt. Gen. Mark Nowland. armedservices.house.gov
8 a.m. 300 1st St. SE. A discussion about nuclear modernization and strategic stability with Gen. Stephen Wilson, Air Force vice chief of staff. mitchellaerospacepower.org
8 a.m. 7940 Jones Branch Dr. OPNAV N4 Supply Chain Risk workshop. ndia.org
9 a.m. 1030 15th St. NW. Report launch on why Africa matters to U.S. national security. atlanticcouncil.org
9 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia with Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations. csis.org
9 a.m. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Rep. Adam Kinzinger about the way forward in Afghanistan, America’s longest war. wilsoncenter.org
9:30 a.m. Dirksen G-50. Posture of the Army with Gen. Mark Milley. armed-service.senate.gov
10:30 a.m. Dirksen 138. Review of the 2018 budget request for the Department of Homeland Security with Secretary John Kelly.