Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Thursday, April 6, 2017, 1:00 PM

CNN reports that President Donald Trump told members of Congress that he is considering military action in Syria in retaliation for this week’s chemical attack, allegedly by the Assad regime. While Trump has not firmly decided to go ahead with military action, he is discussing a number of options with Defense Secretary James Mattis and will rely on Mattis’s judgement.

Speaking in a joint press conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan in the White House Rose Garden yesterday, President Trump said that the chemical weapons attack crossed “many, many lines, beyond a red line” for him and was a “terrible front to humanity,” the Wall Street Journal writes. Trump said that his “attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much, indicating the possibility of a change to the administration’s recently stated policy of not prioritizing President Bashar al Assad’s removal. Speaking hours after Trump, Tillerson said that the Russians “need to think carefully about their continued support for the Assad regime,” while Vice President Mike Pence said “all options are on the table,” in an interview with Fox News. And during her speech as chair of the U.N. Security Council emergency session responding to the attack, Haley also called out Russia for its continued support of Assad, saying that Russia “cannot escape responsibility,” asking “how many more children have to die before Russia cares?” The New York Times adds that Haley also said that the United States may take action of its own if the U.N. Security Council fails to act.

Russia still continues to deny that the Assad regime is responsible for the attack, rejecting a push in the U.N. Security Council by the United States, Britain, and France to pass a resolution condemning the attacks as “completely unacceptable,” and forcing Assad to disclose information on the actions of its air force on the day of the attack, Foreign Policy notes. The Russian government has offered differing accounts of what it thinks might have happened, ranging from the narrative that the victims faked their injuries to one in which a stray Syrian regime bomb struck a rebel chemical weapons cache. The Times provides a list of the numerous holes in those accounts.

The Post tells us that the U.N. Security Council will visit Washington later this month and meet with Trump at the White House. The 15 members of the U.N.’s most powerful body will also meet with congressional leaders when they convene on Washington on April 24. The members have also asked for a briefing from White House peace process envoy Jason Greenblatt, who is charged with trying to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that collapsed over two years ago.

CNN tells us that House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes is stepping aside from the committee’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Nunes cited a series of ethics complaints filed against him alleging that he violated the terms of discussing classified material following his secret meeting on the White House grounds with NSC officials two weeks ago, though he gave no credence to the substance of the complaints. Representative Mike Conaway (R-TX), assisted by Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC), and Representative Tom Rooney (R-FL) will now lead the investigation. HPSCI Ranking Member Adam Schiff, who previously called for Nunes’s recusal, indicated his support for Nunes’s decision.

Foreign Policy informs us that the removal of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council Principals Committee may signal that Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, has managed to assert his authority by ending an unorthodox arrangement that raised concerns among lawmakers and foreign policy experts from both parties. Even so, the White House has offered different accounts as to whether Bannon will actually still be a part of the NSC, with one official saying that Bannon will still attend NSC meetings, while others have said he never attended one while he was listed as a regular attendee.

The Hill reports that as Trump meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping today as part of a two-day summit at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, the main topics of discussion will be economic and security issues. Trump will likely focus on the “reshaping” of trade relations that he referenced on the campaign trail, to handle what Trump sees as the “massive trade deficits,” between the United States and China. North Korea is also expected to be a major topic of discussion, as Trump has continued to press China to do something to quell North Korea’s erratic behavior and continued missile tests. However, as Politico adds, Trump faces a seasoned Chinese diplomatic team in the Chinese delegation with few besides Secretary of State Tillerson, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to guide him. Reuters notes that U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Scott Swift said in advance of the summit that the diplomatic and economic measures against North Korea have not had the desired effect.

The Guardian tells us that Chinese coastguard vessels are maintaining a near constant presence around reefs claimed by Malaysia in the South China Sea. The presence of the vessels shows the extent of Beijing’s military ambitions far south of its borders, ambitions which are antagonizing southeast Asian countries and deepening a potentially explosive foreign policy crisis for Trump.

Defense News writes that Randall Schriver, a George W. Bush-era State Department official with experience in the Pentagon is a leading candidate to be undersecretary of defense for policy. While a final decision has not been made, Schriver has gone through extensive vetting by the White House and has had at least a preliminary discussion with Defense Secretary James Mattis about the role. If tapped, Schriver brings a wealth of Pacific experience to the role, having served in Pacific-focused jobs at the Pentagon before joining the State Department. Meanwhile, the Hill notes that the Senate Armed Services Committee approved former New Mexico Representative Heather Wilson’s nomination to serve as Secretary of the Air Force. Wilson is expected to easily win confirmation.

Defense One reports that Trump’s defense hike of $54 billion in his proposed budget would run afoul of the 2011 Budget Control Act that equally caps defense and nondefense spending. A Congressional Research Service report dated April 3 that was leaked to the Federation of American Scientists states clearly that the proposed defense hike would not comply with the law’s caps set at $549 billion for FY 2018. Trump’s budget has often been called “dead on arrival,” on Capitol Hill, including by Senator John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

Newsweek notes that Germany will be adding a cyber division to its military amid concerns over the nation’s vulnerability to electronic attacks by foreign powers. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen revealed plans to recruit up to 13,500 cyber soldiers in addition to the 500 civilian workers capable of defending the military’s electronic intelligence as part of the new Cyber and Information Space Command.

Russian banker Evgeny Buryakov has been deported back to Russia after being convicted last year for his involvement in a spy ring operating in New York City, according to Reuters. Buryakov was arrested in January 2015 and charged with two others whom U.S. prosecutors said had worked to gather economic intelligence on behalf of Russia, including information about U.S. sanctions against Russia, and to recruit New York City residents as intelligence sources.

The Post writes that Russian police have arrested seven suspected ISIS militants as part of a sweeping hunt for any accomplices of the St. Petersburg suicide bomber. However, investigators have found no immediate evidence of their involvement in the attacks. The Investigative Committee, Russia’s top criminal investigation agency, said it is looking into the possibility that Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, who carried out Monday’s deadly attack, could have been linked to the militant group.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Benjamin Wittes wrote an essay in memory of former Atlantic editor and Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly.

Stewart Baker posted the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, featuring an Interview with Joshua Corman and Justine Bone.

Caroline Lynch discussed Capitol Hill’s love-hate relationship with FISA.

Steve Vladeck highlighted the Court of Military Commissions Review’s peculiar request in the al-Qosi litigation.

Ammar Abdulhamid examined Trump’s Syrian conundrum.

Quinta Jurecic flagged the revised National Security Presidential Memorandum organizing the National Security Council.

Jordan Brunner summarized the relevant provisions of NSPM-4 dealing with Steve Bannon’s removal from the NSC Principals Committee and Homeland Security Adviser Thomas Bossert’s new status.

John Bellinger added that NPSM-4 also adds Dina Powell, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy, to the Principals and Deputies Committees.

Quinta posted an emergency edition of the Lawfare Podcast, condensing the testimony of experts in the first hearing about Russian active measures by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

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