The 115th Congress convened on Tuesday, 3 January. U.S. businessman Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States on Friday, January 20.
Russia –Aggression Scrutinized
At the end of December, the Obama Administration announced punitive measures targeting Russia for what President Barack Obama characterized as the “Russian government’s aggressive harassment of U.S. officials and cyber operations aimed at the U.S. election.” The measures include an updated Executive Order to expand existing legal authorities for addressing U.S. cybersecurity threats via economic sanctions, the designation of several individuals and entities under these new authorities, the expulsion of 35 Russian government officials in Washington and San Francisco as “persona non grata,” and the shutdown of two Russian-government-owned compounds in the U.S. States of Maryland and New York. President Obama said on 29 December:
“These actions follow repeated private and public warnings that we have issued to the Russian government, and are a necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm U.S. interests in violation of established international norms of behavior.”
While President-Elect Trump has made statements that the direction of the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship could be reconsidered once he is in office, including sanctions, many Members of Congress continue to be critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s perceived aggressive actions in Ukraine, in Syria, and toward Europe. Washington experts expect the Republican-controlled 115th Congress may be at odds with some of President-Elect Trump’s policies toward Russia.
On 5 January, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held a closed door hearing to examine recent Obama Administration responses to alleged Russian hacking and harassment of U.S. diplomats in Russia. The day before the SFRC hearing, Democratic Senators Ben Cardin (Maryland), Dianne Feinstein (California), Patrick Leahy (Vermont), Tom Carper (Delaware) and Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota) introduced legislation to create an independent, nonpartisan commission to comprehensively investigate the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) also held a hearing on 5 January with top U.S. intelligence officials to discuss their conclusion that Russian hackers had allegedly meddled in the 2016 election. While Chairman John McCain (R-Arizona) called the hacking “an unprecedented attack on our democracy,” he cautioned that “none of us believe” Russia had swayed the outcome of the election. During the hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) suggested that President-Elect Donald Trump should support additional sanctions against Russia, remarking that President Obama had thrown a “pebble” at the Kremlin, instead of a “rock.”
In a joint statement issued before the hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, and Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence Marcel Lettre called Russia “a full-scope cyber actor that poses a major threat to U.S. Government, military, diplomatic, commercial, and critical infrastructure and key resource networks.” In response to a media question after the hearing, Chairman McCain characterized Russia’s election hacking an act of war against the U.S., saying: “I think in the broadest context, it is an act of war,” and adding that, “it fits the definition of an act of war, but it doesn’t mean that all of a sudden you start shooting.” Senator McCain is reportedly working with Senator Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to draft new sanctions legislation targeting Russia in response to the hack of the Democratic National Committee.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is also scheduled to hold a public hearing on 10 January to further examine Russia’s alleged election hacking. Chairman Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) has said that the hearing will “follow the intelligence wherever it leads.”
On a Sunday news show, Secretary Carter said the United States needs a strong but balanced approach to Russia. Regarding the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Secretary Carter noted that Russia carried out an “influence campaign,” adding the U.S. intelligence community was “very clear – they were very unequivocal” about their assessment. According to Secretary Carter, any U.S. response to Russia’s intrusions does not have to be limited to cyber, or to a military response. He also emphasized the importance of trying to work with Russia “where we can.” Regarding Russia in Syria, Secretary Carter said that Russia has done “virtually zero” in fighting ISIL and has instead made “the ending of the Syrian civil war there harder.”
Exit Memos –Departments of State and Defense
Each cabinet department issued an “exit memo” last week ahead of the Obama Administration’s term later this month.
Outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry released a 21-page document emphasizing the foreign policy achievements and challenges during President Obama’s eight years in office. He recapped: the drawdown of U.S. Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; countering terrorism and violent extremism, including combatting the Islamic State (ISIL/ISIS); confronting North Korea’s nuclear program; nonproliferation; climate change; among other topics. Secretary Kerry also entreated that the United States should not retreat from the global community, saying:
“It is a remarkable fact that when an emergency arises almost anywhere in the world, many countries think about responding, but only America is expected to. That expectation should be a source of pride to Americans – a burden we should not just accept but welcome as an opportunity. In this time of great uncertainty in the world, it is not surprising that some Americans want to turn inward and search for ways to separate our own safety and prosperity from that of the international community. But it is folly to think we can build a more secure and prosperous future by hiding from the world or by severing our connections to it. International challenges must be confronted with honesty, determination and confidence – not isolation.”
Outgoing Secretary of Defense Ash Carter released a 19-page document that summarizes the Pentagon’s accomplishments and challenges during the Obama Administration. The exit memo highlighted the department’s achievements in countering Russian aggression in Crimea, engaging with NATO to put member countries on track to meet their defense spending goals, and the ongoing war against ISIL.
Secretary Carter also touched upon the various challenges faced over the past eight years, and provided guidance on how he believed the incoming administration should handle the “diverse and complex” security environment that exists today. Secretary Carter also mentioned that he hopes that Trump Administration will “keep up the pace of this counter-ISIL military campaign.” He further added that despite the nuclear deal, Iran remains a challenge. The memo also discusses cybersecurity, force readiness, and acquisition reform as key areas requiring further improvement.
Senate Confirmation Hearings – Incoming Trump Administration Officials
SFRC Chairman Bob Corker has scheduled a confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson to be the next Secretary of State on Wednesday, 11 January. Mr. Tillerson is expected to field questions related to his tenure as CEO of ExxonMobil, as well as his ties to Russia.
On Thursday, January 12, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is scheduled to hold a confirmation hearing on the nomination of Wilbur Ross to be Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Mr. Ross will likely face questions from Members related to the steel industry, where he made a fortune, especially given the Commerce Department’s oversight role of that industry. He is also expected to field questions related to his trade policy priorities.
SASC Chairman McCain has scheduled a confirmation hearing for retired Gen. James Mattis to be the next Secretary of the U.S. Department of Defense on Thursday, 12 January. While Gen. Mattis is popular among Republicans and Democrats, Congress will need to first pass a waiver, a complication in his confirmation process. Both chambers of Congress must pass an exemption to a law that requires retired military officers wait seven years before taking on the role of civilian head of the military. This is the second time that such a waiver has been necessary, with the last one needed in 1950 for retired Gen. George Marshall. The Congressional Research Service released a paper last week explaining the statutory restriction.
Gen. Mattis has been making the rounds on Capitol Hill, meeting last Tuesday with Senator Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island), the top Democrat on SASC. Ranking Member Reed has stated that the waiver hearing would be an important step for him to consider supporting Mattis’ nomination. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), also a SASC member, has voiced her opposition to a waiver.
The Office of Government Ethics confirmed that Gen. Mattis will divest his stock in General Dynamics and recuse himself from matters involving the defense contractor for one year, if confirmed. Gen. Mattis has already resigned from the boards of Theranos, a biotech firm, and the Center for a New American Security, as well as others.
Cyber – SASC Creates New Cyber Subcommittee
Last week, SASC Chairman McCain announced his plan to create a new subcommittee devoted to cybersecurity issues. Cybersecurity currently falls under the purview of the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats & Capabilities. Senator Graham is expected to chair the new cyber panel and would therefore relinquish his chairmanship of the Personnel Subcommittee. In creating the new subcommittee, McCain stated that “It’s [cybersecurity] just too big an issue,” adding that there are “so many different facets of it, and it’s going to go on forever. Not like one of these one-shot deals.”
Europe – Operation Atlantic Resolve
This weekend saw the arrival of an anticipated U.S. military deployment intended to reassure NATO member states in Europe. U.S. tanks and other military hardware, as well as 3,500 troops were rotated to Germany and will be further deployed to help bolster NATO’s eastern flank against possible Russian aggression.
Meanwhile, European Union (EU) leaders recently agreed to increase spending on defense research from €25 million now to €500 million beginning in 2021, which would make the EU the fourth largest investor in Europe in defense industry research after the U.K., France, and Germany. The investment program will need approval by both the European Parliament and national capitals.
Previous attempts to better coordinate defense at an EU level have been met with resistance, in part because some countries preferred to work within NATO instead. However, high-profile terror attacks in Europe, fears about Russian aggression, and concerns about President-Elect Trump’s commitment to the NATO alliance have prompted a greater push toward increased EU defense cooperation and spending.
Regarding NATO, President-Elect Trump has said that the U.S. should “be properly reimbursed for the tremendous cost of our military protecting other countries.” Only five of the twenty-eight NATO member countries – the U.S., U.K., Poland, Greece, and Estonia – currently meet the 2 percent of GDP requirement.
Israel – Condemnation of U.N. Resolution
Secretary Kerry gave a lengthy speech in Washington on the Middle East Peace Process on 28 December, reiterating the longstanding U.S. policy of advocating for a two-state solution and defending the Obama Administration’s decision to abstain and not block a U.N. Security Council vote on a resolution (2334) that condemned Israeli settlements. President-Elect Trump who has expressed strong support for Israel tweeted shortly after the vote: “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th.” In a subsequent tweet, the President-Elect noted: “The big loss yesterday for Israel in the United Nations will make it much harder to negotiate peace. Too bad, but we will get it done anyway!”
On 4 December, Senators Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Ben Cardin introduced a bipartisan Senate resolution objecting to the December passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334. The next day, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce’s (R-California) bipartisan legislation – H. Res. 11 – which opposes U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 and calls for its repeal.
North Korea – Possible ICBM Test Imminent
During his annual New Year’s address, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced that preparations for launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) have “reached the final stage.” Via Twitter, President-Elect Trump noted: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!”
GITMO – Pentagon Announces Four Guantánamo Transfers
On 5 January, the Pentagon announced that it had transferred four more inmates from the Detention Center at the U.S. military installation (GITMO) in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to the custody of Saudi Arabia. The Guantánamo transfers are part of a final push from the White House to reduce the detainee population before 20 January. President Obama pledged as a candidate but failed to secure congressional support over his eight year term to shutter the Detention Center.
The White House has notified Congress of a number of transfers that could potentially occur before President Obama leaves office. While the four transfers have reduced the prison’s current population to 55 inmates, it is possible that by the time President-Elect Trump takes office, there will be as few as 40 detainees remaining. Since it opened in 2002, there have been almost 800 suspected terrorists held at the Detention Center. President-Elect Trump tweeted earlier this week that there should no further releases and has vowed to keep the Center open.