The U.S. Congress is in session this week; the Senate is expected to vote on Mr. Rex Tillerson’s nomination to be Secretary of State. Nikki Haley was sworn in last week to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Gen. James Mattis was also sworn in as the next U.S. Secretary of Defense. Last Monday, President Trump signed an Executive Order (EO) formally withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), among other numerous presidential actions last week.
U.K.-U.S. Special Relationship
United Kingdom (U.K.) Prime Minister Theresa May visited Washington on Friday, meeting with President Trump. Prime Minister May and President Trump held a bilateral news conference after their meeting, where President Trump praised Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Both leaders also discussed Syria and the importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
- On Wednesday, 1 February, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade and Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats are scheduled to hold a joint hearing titled “Next Steps in the ‘Special Relationship’ – Impact of a U.S.-U.K. Free Trade Agreement.”
Mexico – Tension Flares
President Trump spoke with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Friday, after tensions flared earlier in the week. President Trump signed an EO to build a wall along the U.S. Southern Border and stated Mexico would pay for it. Shortly thereafter, President Nieto cancelled a scheduled visit to Washington this week. According to the White House: “The two had a productive and constructive call [on Friday] regarding the bilateral relationship between the two countries, the current trade deficit the United States has with Mexico, the importance of the friendship between the two nations, and the need for the two nations to work together to stop drug cartels, drug trafficking and illegal guns and arms sales. With respect to payment for the border wall, both presidents recognize their clear and very public differences of positions on this issue but have agreed to work these differences out as part of a comprehensive discussion on all aspects of the bilateral relationship.”
Middle East – EO Seeks to Address Terrorist Concern
President Donald Trump signed an EO on Friday that pertains to protecting the United States from foreign terrorists, including temporarily banning refugees from Syria. Among other things, the EO directs the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to submit to the President a list of countries recommended for inclusion on a Presidential proclamation that would prohibit the entry of foreign nationals, with some exemptions, from countries that do not provide requested information. On Sunday, the President issued a statement on the “extreme vetting” EO, after many objected, saying:
“To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting. This is not about religion – this is about terror and keeping our country safe. There are over 40 different countries worldwide that are majority Muslim that are not affected by this order. We will again be issuing visas to all countries once we are sure we have reviewed and implemented the most secure policies over the next 90 days.”
In a presidential memorandum authorized last week, President Trump directed his Administration to develop a comprehensive plan to defeat ISIS. Within 30 days, a preliminary draft of the plan is to be submitted to the President by the Secretary of Defense.
Russia – Trump, Putin Speak
President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on Saturday. According to the White House, the call lasted approximately one hour and “ranged in topics from mutual cooperation in defeating ISIS to efforts in working together to achieve more peace throughout the world including Syria.” The call was also touted as a “start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair.”
A bipartisan group of Senators is seeking to ensure that President Trump does not lift U.S. sanctions on Russia without approval from Congress. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) have said they would soon introduce legislation to ensure congressional approval.
South Korea, Japan – Mattis’ First Foreign Trip
Defense Secretary Mattis is set to meet with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts during his first foreign trip this week. Secretary Mattis will leave on 1 February for Seoul, where he will meet with South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-goo, before traveling to Tokyo for meetings with Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada. The trip is meant to “underscore the commitment of the United States to our enduring alliances with Japan and the Republic of Korea” and “strengthen U.S.-Japan-Republic of Korea security cooperation,” according to a statement released by the Pentagon. Mattis’ four-day visit also comes amid recent reports about North Korea’s efforts to develop and test a long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
President Trump spoke with South Korean Acting President Hwang Kyo-Ahn on Sunday, reiterating the U.S. commitment to defending South Korea. The two leaders also agreed to take steps to strengthen joint defense capabilities to defend against the North Korean threat. There are approximately 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan and about 28,000 in South Korea.
- On Tuesday, 31 January, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Confronting the North Korea Threat: Reassessing Policy Options.”
Yemen – U.S. Service Member Killed
On 29 January, the Pentagon confirmed that a U.S. service member had been killed, while three others were injured, in a raid against Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen. This is the first death of a service member in the Trump Administration. In a statement from the White House, President Trump said the successful raid had captured “important intelligence that will assist the U.S. in preventing terrorism against its citizens and people around the world,” but added that Americans are “saddened…with news that a life of a heroic service member has been taken.” The raid killed 14 Al Qaeda members, including three senior Al Qaeda leaders, according to an Associated Press report.
Pentagon’s Arctic Strategy
On 24 January, Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) previewed the Pentagon’s Arctic Strategy, which was last updated in 2013. The strategy discusses the need for new capabilities for search and rescue, greater investment in icebreakers, and outlines greater opportunities for energy exploration due to melting ice caps, according to Senator Sullivan, who spoke at a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Senator also noted that “there’s an entire section on Russia.”
Senator Sullivan has frequently argued the United States is ceding its influence in the Arctic region. He shared that the report, which is required by National Defense Authorization Act, will soon be made public, adding that he is “certainly hopeful that the new administration seems to understand the importance of the Arctic, including its energy potential.”
Other Congressional Hearings This Week
- On Wednesday, 1 February, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Fencing Along the Southwest Border.”
- On Thursday, 2 February, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa and Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations are scheduled to hold a joint hearing titled “Israel, the Palestinians, and the United Nations: Challenges for the New Administration.”