TRUMP THE WEDGEMASTER: In a wide-ranging interview with the Wall Street Journal yesterday, President Trump argued he’s not “bending” to North Korea by agreeing to delay military exercises until after the Olympics. “I don’t think anybody thinks that I’m bending. I think that people that, if anything, I’m being too tough,” Trump said, according a transcript provided by the Journal. “I think it sends a good message to North Korea, not a bad message. I think it would be totally inappropriate to do that during the Olympics.”
Asked if he believes North Korea is trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul by taking a conciliatory tone with the South while issuing threats against the U.S., Trump said that’s what he’d do. “If I were them I would try. But the difference is I’m president; other people aren’t. And I know more about wedges than any human being that’s ever lived.” Trump said he holds the advantage because South Korea needs American business. “When you talk about driving a wedge, we also have a thing called trade,” Trump said. “We have a trade deficit with South Korea of $31 billion a year. That’s a pretty strong bargaining chip to me.”
GOOD RELATIONSHIP WITH KIM: Curiously, Trump included North Korea’s Kim Jong Un as one of the world leaders with whom he enjoys a good relationship. He mentioned China’s Xi Jinping, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, and then for good measure threw in Kim. “I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. I have relationships with people, I think you people are surprised.”
The Journal reporters were surprised, because as far as anyone knows Trump has never spoken to Kim, who he has derided as “little rocket man” among other derogatory appellations. Has Trump had any secret back-channel communications? “I don’t want to comment, I’m not saying I have or I haven’t.” But Trump said just because he calls Kim names in public doesn’t mean they can’t be friends. “You see that a lot with me and then all of a sudden somebody’s my best friend. I could give you 20 examples. You give me 30. I’m a very flexible person.”
THANKS OBAMA, BUSH, CLINTON! Once again Trump took the opportunity to complain bitterly that his predecessors left a huge mess for him to clean up. “President Obama felt ... his biggest problem is North Korea. He said that openly. He said that to me, but he said that openly. It is a big problem, and they should not have left me with that problem. That should have been a problem that was solved by Obama, or Bush, or Clinton or anybody, because the longer it went, the worse, the more difficult the problem got. This should not have been a problem left on my desk, but it is, and I get things solved. And one way or the other, that problem is going to be solved.”
WILL THEY STAY OR WILL THEY GO? Trump’s flexibility was on display when he was asked about the futures of some of the key members of his team, in particular two names that have been the subject of speculation. “Do you expect Rex Tillerson to stay on?” the Journal asked. “Yeah, Rex and I are getting along very well,” Trump replied. “H.R. McMaster?” “You know what? I like him,” Trump replied. “I like them all.”
SMALLER NUKES, BETTER DETERRENCE: The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, due to be released at the end of the month, already has critics up in arms because it includes references to adding smaller-yield nuclear weapons to the U.S. arsenal. Small “battlefield” nukes would in theory be more “usable” because they would not necessarily bring about nuclear Armageddon. But officials we talked to at the Pentagon argue the opposite, that smaller nukes, being more usable, make for a more credible deterrent (since deterrence is the agreed-upon best use of nuclear weapons). You can’t deter adversaries with a weapon they know you can’t use, without ending life on the planet as we know it, the argument goes.
The Huffington Post has obtained and published a pre-decisional draft of the new policy that notes supplementing the current arsenal with low-yield versions of current weapons “will enhance deterrence by denying potential adversaries any mistaken confidence that limited nuclear employment can provide a useful advantage over the United States and its allies.” That language is aimed specifically at Russia, which is said to have the idea that its greater number and variety of tactical nuclear systems provides “a coercive advantage” in crises. “Correcting this mistaken Russian perception is a strategic imperative,” the draft NPR says.
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 — THE IRAN DECISION: The White House is expected to announce Trump’s decision on whether to extend sanctions relief to Iran under the nuclear agreement that Trump has called “the worst deal ever.” The New York Times is the latest to report that Trump’s national security team has convinced him to work to improve the deal rather than rip it up, as he promised on the campaign trail.
The Times says while Trump will stop short of reimposing punishing sanctions, “he is expected to give Congress and European allies a deadline to improve the deal or the United States will pull out of it.” Trump has reportedly signed off on limited sanctions that target several Iranian government officials for corruption and human rights abuses.
ALL CONFUSION ON THE BUDGET FRONT: A group of senators thought for a brief time yesterday that they had hammered out a bipartisan agreement on immigration reform, including protections for an estimated 700,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. But the White House and key Republicans quickly doused the enthusiasm with a shower of cold water. Sen. Tom Cotton, an immigration hardliner, called the so-called bipartisan agreement “a joke” and said “it’s not even a fig leaf, it’s a pine needle,” writes Susan Ferrechio and Laura Barrón-López.
The impasse, including funds for Trump’s border wall, remains the major stumbling block to Congress passing a 2018 defense spending bill by the Jan. 19 deadline. Democrats have demanded protections for the immigrants be included in any 2018 omnibus spending bill and Trump countered with a demand for wall funding.
ABOUT THAT WALL: In that Wall Street Journal interview, Trump again said the wall could be built in pieces, and doesn’t have to stretch the entire length of the border. “The wall’s never meant to be 2,100 miles long. We have mountains that are far better than a wall, we have violent rivers that nobody goes near,” Trump said. “You don’t need a wall where you have a natural barrier that’s far greater than any wall you could build, OK?”
LOOMING DEADLINE: Lawmakers now have just one week to strike an agreement and pass the budget legislation, which is already more than three months late. Congress instead looks to be veering toward its fourth stopgap budget measure since September, though some hope for a deal remains. “If we can reach an agreement by the end of this week or over the weekend, we can pass it into law as part of a global deal on the budget by next Friday,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said. “I believe that is still the best way to resolve the issue and I’m hopeful, hopeful, hopeful, that we can get this done. Any later than that, and we won’t have enough time to do it by the 19th.”
RYAN MESSAGING ON DEFENSE SPENDING: As Congress wrangles over the current year’s budget, House Speaker Paul Ryan appeared to be laying the groundwork for defense spending next year. When the House returned from the holiday break earlier this week, Ryan called together the chamber’s GOP leaders for a press conference and he underscored the need to rebuild the military. He brought it up again on Thursday during his regular weekly press conference.
“Why do we spend so much time talking about this?” Ryan asked. “Let me just say a few things: Less than half of the Navy’s planes can fly. Less than 10 percent of our Army’s combat brigade teams are ready to fight. Our Air Force is the smallest that it has ever been.” On the heels of those comments, Ryan’s office announced he will give an address on military readiness and the state of defense at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank on Thursday at 8:45 a.m..
Defense hawks such as Rep. Mac Thornberry, the House Armed Services chairman, have been talking tirelessly about a military readiness crisis and the need to invest more in defense. Ryan, who quoted Thornberry during the press conference, is starting off the new legislative session literally speaking their language. It comes just before a crucial moment for 2019 defense spending. The White House and Pentagon are wrapping up their fiscal 19 budget request to Congress, which is expected to be released next month and include some type of hike. “Every day that goes by without adequate funding is another day we are pushing our military past the breaking point and it is a shameful situation,” Ryan said Thursday. “We have a duty to address it and do right by the men and women who put their lives on the line to protect us here and abroad. And that is exactly what we are going to do.”
DETERRENCE MISSION: The Air Force has deployed three nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers and 200 air personnel as a regular rotation of long-range bombers at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam.
The Pentagon said while the deployment was routine, and not aimed specifically at North Korea, it nevertheless reinforces the U.S. deterrence mission. “I think, when we move bombers across the globe, we send a signal to everyone,” said Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie at a Pentagon briefing yesterday. “It doesn't have to be an unscheduled mission to deliver a message. So I would say that we are sending a message by executing scheduled deployments.”
The last time three of the radar-evading batwing B-2 bombers were deployed to Guam was in 2016. The planes supplement conventional B-1 bombers at Andersen and are part of Pacific Command's bomber assurance and deterrence mission.
NEW ARMY UNIT HEADS TO AFGHANISTAN: The Army announced yesterday that one of its newly-configured security force assistance brigades has been given orders to deploy to Afghanistan in the coming months. The Fort Benning, Ga.-based 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade is the first of what will eventually be six of the units that are specifically designed for train, advise and assist missions. They will also accompany partner forces in combat operations.
"These units will help us achieve the national security objectives by, with, and through allied and partnered indigenous security forces for the next 25-50 years,” said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley in an Army press release.
NUKE LAUNCH OFFICERS AGAINST TRUMP: A group of 17 former nuclear launch officers is warning that Trump has put the U.S. on a collision course with North Korea and is asking Congress to rein in his ability to conduct a nuclear first strike. The warning was made in an undated open letter to lawmakers this month organized by the group Global Zero, which advocates for the elimination of nuclear weapons, and is the latest outcry from Trump critics over the way the president is handling the growing threat of a nuclear North Korea. “We and our nation cannot abide being hostages to the mood swings of a petulant and foolish commander-in-chief. No individual, especially Donald Trump, should hold the absolute power to destroy nations,” wrote the former officers, who all oversaw nuclear weapons at U.S Air Force bases and whose service ranged from 1965 to 2013.
“Every American president has absolute authority to order the first use of nuclear weapons,” the officers wrote in the open letter. “No one — not the secretary of defense, not the attorney general, not Congress — can veto that order. There are no reliable safeguards in place to contain this power.”
THE ZUMA ENIGMA: Yesterday’s Pentagon briefing was not a satisfying experience for anyone trying to figure out what happened to the Zuma payload launched into space Sunday atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The super-secret satellite appears not to have made it into orbit, but no one is saying what happened to it. Not the Pentagon. Not SpaceX. Not Northrop Grumman, which made the billion dollar satellite. No one will even confirm what the Zuma satellite does, or which U.S. government agency controls it. It all resulted in a frustrating exchange between a reporter and the Pentagon briefers, which we dutifully recount here.
Defense News: Corker touts ‘progress’ to replace war authorizations
New York Times: She Left France to Fight in Syria. Now She Wants to Return. But Can She?
Washington Post: Pentagon investigating video that appears to show a service member opening fire on a civilian
USNI News: Navy’s Top Weapons Buyer Geurts Spells Out Acquisition Philosophy
War on the Rocks: Stripping the Altars of Long-Term Defense Planning
USA Today: Former general says he knows how powerful North Korea's military is
PBS.org: Biden addresses possible link between son’s fatal brain cancer and toxic military burn pits
USA Today: North Korea praises 'Fire and Fury' book for foretelling 'Trump’s political demise'
Task and Purpose: SNAFU Strands US Army Howitzers At German Rest Stop
Reuters: Bannon to appear before Congress committee for Russia probe
Defense One: The Pentagon’s Secrecy Is Undermining Its Quest for a Bigger Budget
Air Force Times: Air Force nurse refused to provide contraception to patients on religious grounds
FRIDAY | JAN. 12
11 a.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. Assessing the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy. heritage.org
11 a.m. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. All You Need to Know about Russian Hackers. wilsoncenter.org
1 p.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Book discussion of “Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony” with author Kori Schake. csis.org
TUESDAY | JAN. 16
8 a.m. 2401 M St. NW. Defense Writers Group breakfast with Rep. Mac Thornberry. defensewriters.gwu.edu
10 a.m. 1775 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Pakistan, America, and extremism: The path ahead
12 p.m. 1800 M St. NW. National Security in the Age of Blockchain. defenddemocracy.org
12:15 p.m. 740 15th St. NW. The Future of Euro-Atlantic Conditionality. newamerica.org
12:30 p.m. 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Iran Protests: Consequences for the Region and Opportunities for the Trump Administration. hudson.org
3 p.m. 1211 Connecticut Ave. Emergency Management in Japan: Prospects for US-Japan Cooperation. stimson.org
5:30 p.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. The View of the U.S. from Abroad: A Conversation with International Ambassadors. csis.org
WEDNESDAY | JAN. 17
6:45 a.m. 1800 Jefferson Davis Hwy. Special Topic Breakfast with Gloria Valdez, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for ship programs. navyleague.org
8:30 a.m. 1789 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Congress and the 2018 national security landscape: A conversation with Sen. Lindsey Graham. aei.org
9:30 a.m. 1211 Connecticut Ave. NW. Getting Ahead of the Threat Curve: Duty of Care and Organizational Accountability for Nuclear Security with Michael Chertoff, former Homeland Security secretary. stimson.org
10 a.m. Rayburn 2154. Battlefield successes and challenges with recent efforts to win the war against ISIS. oversight.house.gov
11:30 a.m. Hart 216. Open Hearing on the Nomination of Michael Atkinson to be Inspector General of the Intelligence Community and Jason Klitenic to be General Counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. intelligence.senate.gov
12 p.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream Is the New Threat to World Order. heritage.org
2 p.m. Rayburn 2172. Joint Subcommittee Hearing. More Than a Nuclear Threat: North Korea’s Chemical, Biological, and Conventional Weapons. foreignaffairs.house.gov
2 p.m. 1030 15th St. NW. NATO's maritime frontier and a view from its maritime command with Vice Adm. Clive Johnstone, Royal Navy commander Allied Maritime Command. atlanticcouncil.org
THURSDAY | JAN. 18
8 a.m. 2121 Crystal Dr. Electronics Division Meeting. ndia.org
8:45 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Defending Defense: A Conversation with House Speaker Paul Ryan on Military Readiness. csis.org
11 a.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave NE. Crashback: The Power Clash Between the U.S. and China in the Pacific. heritage.org
3:30 p.m. Rayburn 2118. Surface warfare at a crossroads with Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations. armedservices.house.gov
5 p.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave NE. The Importance of the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent. heritage.org
FRIDAY | JAN. 19
9 a.m. 1030 15th St. NW. Iran Looks East conference. atlanticcouncil.org