President Donald Trump gave an optimistic speech last Tuesday before a Joint Session of Congress that has largely been positively received.  The President said:

“A new chapter of American Greatness is now beginning. A new national pride is sweeping across our Nation.  And a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp.  What we are witnessing today is the Renewal of the American Spirit.  Our allies will find that America is once again ready to lead.  All the nations of the world – friend or foe – will find that America is strong, America is proud, and America is free.”

President Trump outlined his priorities, which range from rebuilding U.S. infrastructure to reforming healthcare and taxes to addressing immigration and ensuring fair trade, as well as rebuilding the U.S. military and addressing national security concerns – including protecting the homeland from “Radical Islamic terrorism.”  He concluded with a unification theme, saying:

“I am asking all citizens to embrace this Renewal of the American Spirit.  I am asking all members of Congress to join me in dreaming big, and bold and daring things for our country.”

FY 2018 Budget Proposal – Increase for DoD; Decrease for State, USAID

In speaking of the impending Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 budget proposal, President Trump said it will be a “public safety and national security budget,” that will include “a historic increase in defense spending to rebuild the depleted military.”  He added, “This defense spending increase will be offset and paid for by finding greater savings and efficiencies across the federal government.  We’re going to do more with less.”

President Trump was in Norfolk, Virginia, on Thursday, where he gave remarks on the new aircraft carrier, PCU Gerald R. Ford.  President Trump said to the folks on the aircraft carrier:

“Our military requires sustained, stable funding to meet the growing needs placed on our defense.”  The President also shared:  “In fact, I just spoke with Navy and industry leaders and have discussed my plans to undertake a major expansion of our entire Navy fleet, including having the 12-carrier Navy we need.”

At a press gaggle, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer noted:  “Expanding our current fleet of ships requires a collaborative partnership between the military and industry leaders to ensure maximum efficiency for taxpayers.  The Navy is a vital part of the President’s strategy to defeat terrorism with aircraft carriers, especially important in areas where we don’t have a base, from which to launch missions, project power and protect American interest.”

Meanwhile, bipartisan Members of Congress in both chambers are objecting to reports that the White House is considering deep cuts to the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) budget for the President’s FYI 2018 Budget proposal.  Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, along with Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) and Todd Young (R-Indiana) sent a letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney expressing their concerns.  The Members noted:  “Our foreign affairs and foreign assistance budgets are every bit as essential to ensuring America’s national security as funding for the Department of Defense, the Intelligence Community, and law enforcement.”  They added:

“If we under-fund and undercut forward-deployed foreign affairs and foreign assistance programs as tools of our national security strategy, we will ultimately increase the risks to Americans.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-California) echoed his Senate colleagues, saying:  “I am very concerned by reports of deep cuts that could damage efforts to combat terrorism, save lives, and create opportunities for American workers.  The committee will thoroughly review the administration’s foreign affairs budget request when it’s made available to Congress.”  HFAC Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-New York) noted that a group of 104 House Democrats called on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a letter to push back against the Trump Administration’s budget cuts to the international affairs account.

Russia – Continued Scrutiny

Washington continues to focus on Russia, particularly as allegations of Trump campaign staff interactions continue to be reported by the media.  White House Press Secretary Spicer fielded a number of questions on Thursday regarding Attorney General (AG) Jeff Sessions and some reported contacts last year with the Russian Ambassador to Washington.  At one point, Press Secretary Spicer sought to explain that the contacts with the Russian Ambassador were done when Sessions was a seated Member of Congress, adding U.S. Senators regularly meet with foreign officials.

In a statement to the press Thursday afternoon, AG Sessions recused himself “from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.”  He also clarified:  “I have taken no actions regarding any such matters, to the extent they exist.  This announcement should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation or suggestive of the scope of any such investigation.”

President Trump also fielded questions from the press related to AG Session while in Virginia last week, expressing “total” confidence in Sessions.  On Sunday, White House Press Secretary Spicer released a statement, saying:

“Reports concerning potentially politically motivated investigations immediately ahead of the 2016 election are very troubling.  President Donald J. Trump is requesting that as part of their investigation into Russian activity, the congressional intelligence committees exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016.”

Defense Appropriations Measure Released

Last week, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees released the final version of the FY 2017 Defense Appropriations bill, which would provide $583.7 billion in total defense funding for the remainder of the fiscal year.  The House is expected to take up the measure this week, ahead of the 28 April expiration of the Continuing Resolution.  The Pentagon is also preparing a separate $30 billion supplemental spending request for FY 2017.

Administration Releases Trade Policy Agenda; NAFTA Renegotiation Ahead

Last Wednesday, The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative released the President’s National Trade Policy Agenda for 2017, as required by Congress.  The agenda discusses the following four top priorities:

  1. Defending U.S. national sovereignty over trade policy, which includes a discussion of concerns with the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) dispute settlement body;
  2. Strictly enforcing U.S. trade laws, including antidumping/countervailing duty laws;
  3. Using all possible leverage points to encourage other nations open their markets to U.S. goods and services, which details concerns with existing rules under the WTO and some bilateral and plurilateral agreements; and
  4. Negotiating “new and better” trade deals around the world, highlighting concerns following China’s accession to the WTO and with some existing deals, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS).

House Ways & Means (W&M) Committee Ranking Member Richard Neal (D-Massachusetts) reportedly said last week that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross shared with W&M Democrats in a meeting shortly after his confirmation that the Trump Administration plans to trigger the process to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by the middle of March.

State Department Releases Narcotics Control Report and Human Rights Report

Last Thursday, the State Department released its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report and held a briefing on it.  Mandated by Congress, the report describes the efforts of key countries to combat all aspects of the international drug trade.  Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield addressed press inquiries related to the opioid crisis in the United States and the transiting of narcotics across the U.S. southern border.  He also fielded questions related to Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and China.

The State Department also quietly released its 2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (HR Report) on Friday.  Unlike previous years, the Secretary of State did not attend the rollout of the report, however, Secretary Rex Tillerson did write the preface for the report.  In a Department press briefing via phone on the release of the report, an unnamed senior official said:  “By releasing the reports on time this year, we’re getting their contents into the hands of all those who use them and do the hard work to secure progress.  As Secretary Tillerson said in his confirmation hearing, U.S. leadership demands action specifically focused on improving the conditions of people the world over.  The annual Human Rights Reports are a part of that endeavor.”

Venezuela – Crisis Examined

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee convened a hearing on the political, humanitarian, and economic crisis in Venezuela last week.  Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) characterized the situation in Venezuela as “bleak,” adding “Venezuela’s president has appointed known drug traffickers to high office, such as the current vice president.”  The U.S. Department of the Treasury designated Venezuelan Vice President Tareck Zaidan El Aissami Maddah as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker for “playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking” on 13 February.  The congressional hearing also examined U.S. policy toward Venezuela, the effectiveness of unilateral U.S. sanctions, and the potential for working with regional partners and the Organization of American States to encourage change within the country.

Foreign Policy Congressional Hearings This Week

  • On Tuesday, 7 March, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Hearing on Russian Policies & Intentions Toward Specific European Countries.”
  • On Thursday, 9 March, the House Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Undermining Democratic Institutions and Splintering NATO: Russian Disinformation Aims.”
  • On Thursday, 9 March, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Resolving the Conflict in Yemen: U.S. Interests, Risks, and Policy.”
  • On Thursday, 9 March, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a business meeting on the nomination of Mr. Daniel Friedman to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Israel.
  • On Thursday, 9 March, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Democracy Under Threat in Ethiopia.”
  • On Thursday, 9 March, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Oversight of the Department of State and Foreign Operations Programs.”

Defense Congressional Hearings This Week

  • On Wednesday, 8 March, the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Global Nuclear Weapons Environment.”
  • On Wednesday, 8 March, the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Military Assessment of Nuclear Deterrence Requirements.”
  • On Thursday, 9 March, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Nuclear Deterrence – the Defense Science Board’s Perspective.”
  • On Thursday, 9 March, the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing to hear testimony from the Commanders of U.S. Central Command and U.S. Africa Command.
  • On Thursday, 9 March, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense has scheduled a Members’ Day hearing

Looking Ahead

Washington is expected to focus on the following upcoming events:

  • 14 March: President Trump hosts German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House
  • Mid-March: Release of the President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2018
  • Mid-March: Trump Administration Intends to Formally Notify Congress of Intent to Renegotiate NAFTA
  • 14-15 March: Chile to host a Pacific Trade Summit in Vina del Mar, Chile
  • 21-23 April: World Bank/International Monetary Fund Spring Meeting in Washington
  • 28 April: Federal Government funding expires