TRUMP CHALLENGES HIS GENERALS: President Trump, unhappy with the lack of progress in the nearly 16-year war in Afghanistan, and displeased with the options presented by his national security team, has reportedly considered firing Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. That’s just one jaw-dropping detail provided in an account from NBC News, which draws back the curtain on a mid-July meeting in the White House situation room, in which it was expected that Trump would sign off on a plan proposed by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to send roughly 4,000 additional military trainers to shore up the NATO “Resolute Support” mission as well as the joint U.S.-Afghan counterterrorism mission targeting the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
“Trump left the national security meeting without making a decision on a strategy. His advisers were stunned,” the NBC report asserts, quoting senior administration officials. “Two Pentagon officials close to Mattis said he returned from the White House that morning visibly upset. Mattis often takes a walk when grappling with an issue. That afternoon, the walk took longer than usual, the officials said.”
The NBC report is packed with the kind of detail that could only come from someone in the room. It portrayed Trump as far more impressed with the informal advice he got during a White House luncheon he hosted for Afghanistan war veterans, than the detailed plans developed by his top advisers. And he discounted the wisdom of his national security team, comparing it to owners of an upscale New York restaurant that listened to expensive consultants, instead of talking to the wait staff who had a better idea of what improvements were needed.
“Over nearly two hours in the situation room, according to the officials, Trump complained about NATO allies, inquired about the United States getting a piece of [Afghanistan’s] mineral wealth and repeatedly said the top U.S. general there should be fired,” NBC reported. Both Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford reportedly stood up for Nicholson, and Dunford was said to have offered to set up a meeting with the general, who testified before Congress this year about his need for more troops, but has never discussed his recommendations directly with the president.
THE COMMANDER IN CHIEF’S PREROGATIVE: The right of the president to relieve battlefield commanders who aren’t getting the job done is a bedrock principle of our American democracy. Abraham Lincoln fired Gen. George McClellan for his timidity, Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur for his temerity, and more recently Barack Obama fired his Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal for allowing his aides to trash the president.
Trump famously campaigned on the assertion that he knows more than the generals, but Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has no shortage of advice for Trump, is warning against the move. “I don’t think Gen. Trump’s going to be a good general,” Graham told the Washington Examiner. “Here is my advice to the president, listen to people like Gen. Nicholson and [national security adviser H.R.] McMaster and others who have been in the fight.” Graham, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said he was briefed on an administration Afghanistan strategy that included an additional 3,000-4,000 U.S. service members as well as more NATO troops and a diplomatic component devised by McMaster that focused on “fixing” Pakistan. “You’ll never fix Afghanistan unless you fix Pakistan and that was part of the McMaster plan,” Graham said. He called the strategy proposal excellent and sound. “Now, I don’t know where we’re at.”
MCMASTER DOWNRANGE? And then there’s this tidbit from the New York Times: “Mr. Trump, according to several administration officials, has been considering a shake-up that could include appointing Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director, to take over as national security adviser, while sending General McMaster to command forces in Afghanistan. Such a move could earn General McMaster a fourth star.” McMaster for his part gave Nicholson a public vote of confidence in a separate interview on MSNBC. “I've known him for many years," McMaster said. "I can't imagine a more capable commander in any, on any mission." And when pressed about whether the president had confidence in Nicholson, McMaster answered "absolutely."
CONVOY ATTACK KILLS 2 U.S. TROOPS: The news about the behind-the-scenes turmoil came on the same day the Pentagon confirmed two U.S. service members were killed when a suicide bomber attacked a NATO convoy in Kandahar. Four other Americans were wounded. The Taliban has claimed responsibility. The attack brings to 11 the number of U.S. troops who have been killed in Afghanistan this year. Details are being withheld until all the next-of-kin notifications have been completed.
MATTIS, TILLERSON OPEN TO AUMF: The Trump administration said in a letter to Congress that it doesn’t need a new war authorization nor is it requesting one. The State Department letter to Sen. Bob Corker, Foreign Relations chairman, reasserts the administration position that it has the legal authority it needs to fight the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and affiliated groups around the world based on the existing 9/11-era Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF. The authorization has been used by three administrations and Corker’s committee has been wrestling over a replacement.
However, the administration also appeared to be leaving the door open for a new AUMF. As the letter arrived on Capitol Hill, so did Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to give the Foreign Relations members a classified war authorization briefing. "They wouldn't be opposed to one that was written in the appropriate way but actually Mattis was very helpful in talking through some of the caveats they might want to put in place," Corker said afterward. It was unclear exactly what those caveats were because senators declined to talk details of the classified briefing. "They were very open to the idea of working on an authorization, not because they feel like they legally have to have it, but they think for the mission itself it would be good to have Congress engaged in that way," said Sen. Tim Kaine, a longtime advocate for a new AUMF who is sponsoring legislation to replace the existing authorization.
Good Thursday 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: Live from Baghdad, Col. Ryan Dillon, the chief military spokesman in Iraq, will update progress in the war on ISIS by announcing another list of HVTs or “high-value targets” who have been taken off the battlefield recently. He’ll also have an update on those two groups of U.S.-backed Syrian fighters who have been advancing on opposite axes south of Raqqa, and were at last report just 250 meters away from joining up and forming an unbroken line of control in the south. Dillon reports that while 45 to 50 percent of Raqqa is now under control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the ISIS resistance is less coherent, there have been a lot more car bombs and static bombs than Iraqi forces fighting ISIS faced in Mosul. The brief will be live streamed at 11 a.m. on www.defense.gov/live.
PENTAGON PLEDGES REFORM: It’s a war that never ends. Every administration takes office with a promise to reform the Pentagon’s flawed acquisition process, in which billions of dollars are wasted on weapons that are overdue, overpriced and often abandoned after it’s clear they won’t work as advertised or the brass changed its mind on what it wanted. In the last two defense policy bills, Congress gave the Pentagon detailed marching orders to shape up, along with an Aug. 1 deadline to submit a report on how it would comply. In response, the DoD has submitted its "901 report," so named because it is mandated by section 901 of the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.
The Pentagon proposal drastically redraws the organizational charts, which can be found in the report here. Among the proposed changes is the elimination of the Pentagon's top weapons buyer and creating two new undersecretaries: one for research and engineering and one for acquisition and sustainment. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, who is home in Arizona receiving medical treatment for brain cancer, issued a statement calling the proposed changes "a step in the right direction."
"For too many years, the defense acquisition system has taken too long, cost too much, and produced too little, while America's military technological advantage continues to erode," McCain said. "Congress has shown that we will not tolerate business as usual, with tens of billions of dollars wasted on weapons that deliver too late, or never deliver at all."
ABOUT THAT U.S. ICBM TEST: The U.S. successfully test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile from an Air Force base northwest of Los Angeles early yesterday. But unlike North Korea’s tests, which are aimed at acquiring a new capability, the U.S. launch was designed to show the stockpile of Cold War-era Minuteman missiles is still safe and reliable.
An unarmed Minuteman III missile was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 2:10 a.m. local time and traveled about 4,200 miles to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The U.S. made a point of saying the test — the fourth this year — was a routine reliability check, but said it sends a message nevertheless. "While not a response to recent North Korean actions, the test demonstrates that the United States' nuclear enterprise is safe, secure, effective and ready to be able to deter, detect and defend against attacks on the United States and its allies," said a statement from Air Force Global Strike Command. See video of the launch here.
MEANWHILE IN CHINA: China performed a series of missile tests this weekend as all eyes were focused on the intercontinental ballistic missile launched Friday by North Korea, according to Fox News. On Saturday, the Chinese military launched 20 missiles at targets that looked like mockups of Terminal High Altitude Air Defense missile batteries and U.S. Air Force F-22 fighter jets. U.S. spy agencies detected the activity from the Chinese military.
LAWSUIT ALLEGES BREACH OF FAITH: Some U.S. Army Reserve soldiers are suing the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security for stalling their applications for American citizenship, putting them at risk of deportation. The plaintiffs joined the military through a program promising a path to naturalization. "Each plaintiff-soldier has kept his/her end of the bargain," their lawsuit claims.
The 10 reservists who filed the lawsuit were recruited to the Army through the Pentagon's Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, known as MAVNI, which gives fast-track citizenship to legal immigrants who have critical language skills or cultural skills. The lawsuit, first reported by McClatchy, charges the recruits have "suffered irreparable harm" as they face uncertainty about this job status.
HE SIGNED IT: Trump on Wednesday morning signed legislation imposing sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea. His signature caps a months-long process of passing a sanctions bill that began in the Senate as an effort to rein in Iran, but quickly expanded to target Russia. Democrats in the Senate insisted on including Russia as a way to retaliate against Russia's meddling in the 2016 election, and its move into Ukraine in 2014.
BUT HE DIDN’T LIKE IT: Trump said the bill he signed into law is "significantly flawed" and even includes some "unconstitutional provisions."
"In its haste to pass this legislation, the Congress included a number of clearly unconstitutional provisions," Trump said in a formal statement after signing the bill, the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. In a separate, less formal statement, Trump said the bill "encroaches on the executive branch's authority to negotiate," and said he could do a better job than Congress negotiating these issues. "I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars," he said. "That is a big part of the reason I was elected. As president, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress."
AND THEY DIDN’T LIKE THAT HE DIDN’T LIKE IT: Democrats in the House and Senate were left frustrated after Trump’s comments, Pete Kasperowicz writes. "Even as the president signed the new sanctions bill rather than face an almost certain veto override, his statements cast doubt on his commitment to enforcing these new measures," said Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"We passed this legislation along with a clear message for the White House: if you don't hold Russia accountable, we will," Engel said. "I hope Congress doesn't need to invoke the review provisions written into this law, but if the president continues to cozy up to Russia, lawmakers won't hesitate to act."
THEN CAME THE TAUNTS: Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not mincing words when it comes to its response to newly-announced sanctions against Moscow and is warning America Russia has no intention to change its course.
"It is high time the American fans of sanctions, which have plunged the United States into Russophobic hysteria, got rid of their illusions and realised that no threats or attempts to exert pressure will compel Russia to change its course or sacrifice its national interests," Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted on Facebook.
The warnings follow Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s terse rebuff of the sanctions on social media in which he said that Congress sees Trump as "an incompetent player" who must be "liquidated." And on Twitter, he wrote: “The Trump administration has shown its total weakness by handing over executive power to Congress in the most humiliating way. The US establishment fully outwitted Trump. The President is not happy about the sanctions, yet he could not but sign the bill.”
PLEAS TO TILLERSON: Tillerson's hesitance to tap into a fund for countering Russian and terrorist propaganda is drawing bipartisan Senate criticism, Joel Gehrke writes. A pair of lawmakers urged Tillerson to make use of about $80 million authorized for spending to counter disinformation campaigns launched by American enemies. Tillerson's team says the State Department lacks an effective plan for the program, but anonymous diplomatic critics claim that Tillerson worries about upsetting Russia.
The senators joined the chorus by echoing the need for Tillerson to ramp up the messaging efforts. "It is very concerning that progress on combating this problem is being delayed because the State Department isn't tapping into these resources," said Republican Sen. Rob Portman, a Foreign Relations Committee member who co-authored legislation enhancing counter-propaganda efforts in 2016.
KEEPING KIM AWAKE: In McMaster’s MSNBC interview, he suggested that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un should not be sleeping easily at night and said the evolving situation with the North Koreans constitutes a "grave threat" to the U.S.
"No, I think he should not be," McMaster told MSNBC's Hugh Hewitt. “Because he has the whole world against him, right? He's isolated. He's isolated on this. Since 1953 the Korean peninsula has been in a state of armistice. The war never formally ended and there's been no aggression, no aggression from the United States, South Korea, any of our allies."
NSC HOUSE CLEANING: Another top official at the National Security Council is departing his position, the latest shake-up in recent upheaval under McMaster. The White House confirmed that Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence programs, who was hired by former national security adviser Mike Flynn, "has left the National Security Council,” something the Conservative Review reported earlier in the day.
"General McMaster appreciates the good work accomplished in the NSC's Intelligence directorate under Ezra Cohen's leadership," the White House said in a statement. "He has determined that, at this time, a different set of experiences is best-suited to carrying that work forward. General McMaster is confident that Ezra will make many further significant contributions to national security in another position in the administration."
NOMINEE SENT: Last night, the White House announced that the nomination of John Henderson to be an assistant secretary of the Air Force had been sent to the Senate. He would replace Miranda A. A. Ballentine, who resigned.
LAPAN’S PLAN: WAIT AND SEE: Retired Marine Col. Dave Lapan, who worked for current White House Chief of Staff retired Marine Gen. John Kelly at DHS, is responding on Facebook to all the speculation Kelly might bring him to White House to be communications director. “To say things have been a whirlwind since Friday afternoon would be an understatement. Since then, I have heard from many friends and colleagues asking what's next for me, with some suggesting I might end up in the West Wing,” Lapan posted on his personal Facebook page. “I have not been asked to consider a position in the White House. I remain at DHS and truly don't know what comes beyond that. But I am humbled and grateful for the outpouring of support I've received just based on speculation of what might happen.”
Politico: Congress readies Round 2 with Trump on Russia
Wall Street Journal: Pence Rejects Direct Talks With Pyongyang
Bloomberg: North Korea’s Missiles May Be Too Advanced For More Sanctions, Experts Say
Reuters: U.S. Bans Travel To North Korea From Sept. 1, Says Americans Should Leave
Military Times: Blackwater founder wants to boost the Afghan air war with his private air force
Washington Times: Trump Opts Not To Pull All Troops From Afghanistan
Navy Times: New GI Bill Passes Senate
USNI News: Norfolk aircraft carriers seeing success in OFRP schedule, with Truman out of maintenance early
Newport News Daily Press: Nerves, Then Celebration, As USS Gerald R. Ford Passes Test
Foreign Policy: Is the U.S. ready for Russia’s largest military exercises since the Cold War?
New York Times: Qatar buys Italian warships as Persian Gulf crisis deepens
Wall Street Journal: An arms deal becomes a jobs deal in Australia
Defense One: U.S. Army boosts spending on genetically engineered spider silk for body armor, underwear
War on the Rocks: North Korea and the ‘blink’ of war
Reuters: New website aims to track Russian-backed propaganda on Twitter
THURSDAY | AUGUST 3
11 a.m. Pentagon Briefing Room. Army Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman, Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve briefs the media live from Baghdad to provide an update on operations against ISIS. Live streamed on www.defense.gov/live
TUESDAY | AUGUST 8
8 .m. 5701 Marinelli Road. Global explosive ordnance disposal symposium and exhibition. ndia.org
8 a.m. 11790 Sunrise Valley Dr. How Washington works workshop - Navigating the DOD. ndia.org
10 a.m. 529 14th St. NW. CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou and former State Department official Matthew Hoh discuss a petition to Congress and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis calling for removal of all U.S. military aircraft from Syrian skies. press.org
11 a.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. Defending the homeland and the future of the U.S. countering violent extremism policy with Katharine Gorka, senior advisor for the Department of Homeland Security. heritage.org