President Donald Trump signed two Executive Orders last Thursday, one related to strengthening the cybersecurity of federal networks and critical infrastructure and the other related to establishing a presidential advisory commission on election integrity. He also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday, discussing Syria, Ukraine, and other topics.
President Trump fired Director James Comey last Tuesday, amid an ongoing FBI investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election and alleged contacts between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. Subsequently, Members of Congress remain focused on the Comey news and continued scrutiny of President Trump’s perceived connections to Russia.
President Trump will welcome His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, to the White House on Monday. He will welcome President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey to the White House the next day. On 18 May, he will welcome Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. President Trump expected to depart Washington later this week for his first overseas trip that will include stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Europe.
While the House of Representatives was in recess, the Senate approved Ambassador Robert Lighthizer as the new U.S. Trade Representative by a vote of 82-14 last week, installing the final outstanding member of President Trump’s Cabinet. Both chambers of Congress are in session this week.
Russia, Syria and Ukraine – Discussion at the White House
President Trump met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last Wednesday. According to the White House: “President Trump emphasized the need to work together to end the conflict in Syria, in particular, underscoring the need for Russia to rein in the Assad regime, Iran, and Iranian proxies. The President raised Ukraine, and expressed his Administration’s commitment to remain engaged in resolving the conflict and stressed Russia’s responsibility to fully implement the Minsk agreements. He also raised the possibility of broader cooperation on resolving conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere. The President further emphasized his desire to build a better relationship between the United States and Russia.” The President also met with Henry Kissinger, ahead of the meeting with the Foreign Minister.
Combating ISIS – Pentagon Briefing Ahead
During an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt last Thursday, President Donald Trump shared that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis would hold a “major” press conference to “inform the public and the world how well we’ve done against ISIS.” Defense Department Spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis confirmed on Friday that the Pentagon plans to host a press briefing this week to provide an update on the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). When asked specifically whether Secretary Mattis would brief, Capt. Davis said, “We’ll have details on that soon.” A time and date for the press briefing has yet to be announced.
Syria – President Trump Authorizes Arms for Syrian Kurds
On 8 May, the Pentagon confirmed that President Trump authorized the Defense Department to arm Kurdish militias in Syria in the effort to seize control of Raqqa from the Islamic State. “Yesterday, the president authorized the Department of Defense to equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS in Raqqa, Syria,” spokeswoman Dana White said. “The SDF, partnered with enabling support from U.S. and coalition forces, are the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.”
The Kurdish fighters, who are aligned with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are fighting under the umbrella of the SDF, a U.S.-backed coalition that also includes Arab militias. There are also several hundred U.S. troops operating in Syria to support local forces.
Despite the move to arm the YPG, the Pentagon insisted that it is prioritizing its support for Arab elements of the SDF, with White stating, “Raqqa and all liberated territory should return to the governance of local Syrian Arabs.” U.S. support for the YPG has drawn criticism from Turkey, which conducted limited strikes against the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria in recent weeks. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis acknowledged the issue last week while speaking to reporters in Vilnius, Lithuania, expressing his confidence that Ankara’s concerns could be addressed.
President Trump’s Upcoming Overseas Trip
President Donald Trump’s upcoming overseas trip to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Europe could open the door for more foreign military sales, according to a recently released Cowen and Company report.
Israel is buying at least 50 Lockheed Martin F-35s, but can buy up to 25 more, while Saudi Arabia has several potential deals in the works for a range of U.S. capabilities, including Lockheed Martin’s theater high-altitude area defense and BAE Systems’ Bradley fighting vehicle. The President will also confer with NATO, where his emphasis on U.S. partners boosting their defense spending could have long-term, positive impacts for the U.S. defense industry.
Last week, the State Department announced that it had approved a $2 billion arms sale to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE was the second-biggest destination for U.S. arms exports from 2012 to 2016, ranking only behind Saudi Arabia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Institute.
Recap of Defense Secretary Mattis’ Recent Overseas Trip
Last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis traveled to Denmark, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom to meet with U.S. partners and reaffirm key military alliances. While in Denmark, Secretary Mattis and the Danish defense minister co-hosted a meeting of senior leaders from 15 countries that are key contributors to the fight against ISIS.
While in Lithuania, Secretary Mattis reassured U.S. allies in the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia of U.S. solidarity with them and U.S. determination to defend Baltic and other NATO territory against any aggression. The Secretary then traveled to the United Kingdom to meet with his British counterpart, Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, to discuss defense trade, defense posture issues, Afghanistan, NATO, and North Korea. During his visit to London, Secretary Mattis also met with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and reiterated the United States’ defense commitment to Turkey, according to chief Pentagon spokesperson, Dana White.
Arctic Council Ministerial Concludes with Declaration
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson chaired the 10th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska, last Thursday, which concluded with the signing of the Fairbanks Declaration. The Declaration reaffirms the Councils members’ commitment to maintain peace, stability, and constructive cooperation in the Arctic, and to sustainable development and the protection of the Arctic environment. The declaration also includes references to climate change and impacts to the Arctic Circle.
Afghanistan Update – No Decision on U.S. Forces Yet
On 9 May, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford told reporters that no decisions on whether to increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan have been made yet. He shared the President had yet to receive the Afghanistan troop recommendations for 2017 and beyond. In an interview, Gen. Dunford said that “[o]ne of the key discussions we are going to have is what are the horizons for the mission in Afghanistan and how do we articulate it,” adding that he expects Secretary Mattis and others to brief the President “soon.”
Congressional Hearings This Week
- On Wednesday, 17 May, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing to consider the nomination of the Honorable Scott Brown to serve as U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa.
- On Wednesday, 17 May, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Revitalizing U.S.-ASEAN Relations.”
- On Wednesday, 17 May, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Energy Opportunities in South America.”
- On Wednesday, 17 May, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “The Balkans: Threats to Peace and Stability.”
- On Thursday, 18 May, the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “The Balkan Peninsula: Strengthening Democracy and Countering Malign Foreign Influence.”
- On Thursday, 18 May, the Senate Banking Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Domestic and International Policy Update.” Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin is scheduled to testify.
- On Thursday, 18 May, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing to consider the nomination of Mr. William Francis Hagerty IV to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Japan.
- On Thursday, 18 May, the House Foreign Affairs Global Human Rights Subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Disappeared, Jailed, and Tortured in China: Wives Petition for Their Husbands’ Freedom.”
- On Thursday, 18 May, the House Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “U.S. Interests in Africa.”
Washington is expected to focus on the following upcoming events:
- May: Formal notification to Congress of intent to renegotiate NAFTA expected
- 15 May: President Trump will welcome His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces
- 16 May: President Trump will welcome President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey
- 18 May: President Trump welcomes Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos
- 19 May: President Trump departs Washington for Saudi Arabia, Israel and stops in Europe
- 25 May: President Trump to attend the NATO Leaders Meeting in Belgium
- 26-28 May: President Trump to attend the G-7 Leaders’ Summit in Taormina, Sicily
- 18-20 June: SelectUSA Investment Summit in National Harbor, Maryland