As usual, Trump comes up short on facts

With apologies to Netflix.

President Donald Trump muddled the facts Wednesday on America’s withdrawal from Syria and the conditions on the ground there, as he distanced himself and the U.S. from the ongoing Turkish invasion into Syria.

He suggested incorrectly that the Syrian Kurds who fought alongside U.S. forces against the Islamic State group deliberately released IS prisoners and wrongly said Americans have been in the Syria conflict for 10 years.

A look at his claims and the reality:

U.S. INTERVENTION IN SYRIA

TRUMP: “We were supposed to be in Syria for one month. That was 10 years ago.”

THE FACTS: Previous administrations never set a one-month timeline for U.S. involvement in Syria.

The U.S.-led coalition began airstrikes on Islamic State militants in Syria in September 2014. About a year later, the Pentagon said that teams of special operations forces began going into Syria to conduct raids and start up efforts to partner with the Kurdish forces. Then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter made it clear to Congress at that time that the Pentagon was ready to expand operations with the Kurds and would continue to do so as needed to battle IS, without setting a specific timeline for completion.

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PRISON RELEASE

TRUMP: Speaking about IS detainees, Trump said: “People let some go. They opened a couple of doors to make us look as bad as possible.” Later he described the IS detainees as “people that probably the Kurds let go to make a little bit stronger political impact.”

THE FACTS: That’s an exaggeration. There is no evidence that Kurdish forces, who fought IS for years with U.S. and coalition troops, deliberately opened prison doors to let militants out.

According to U.S. and defense officials, fewer than 100 prisoners have escaped and Kurdish fighters are still guarding the prisons. Officials say that some of the Kurdish forces have moved north to fight the invading Turks, but many remain to secure the prisons, which hold about 2,000 foreign fighters and another 10,000 Iraqis and Syrians who fought with IS. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe ongoing military operations.

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LEAVING SYRIA

TRUMP: “Our soldiers are mostly gone from the area.”

THE FACTS: They’re actually mostly still there.

Trump is correct that close to 30 U.S. troops moved out of two outposts near the border area where the Turkish attack was initially centered. But the bulk of the roughly 1,000 U.S. troops deployed to Syria are still in the country.

According to officials, most of the U.S. troops have largely been consolidated into two locations in the north, including an airfield facility in the western part of the country known as the Kobani landing zone. A small number of troops left in recent days with military equipment, and more recently the withdrawal of forces began but so far not in large numbers. Officials say the withdrawal will take weeks.

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COMING HOME

TRUMP: “It’s time to bring our soldiers back home.”

THE FACTS: Despite what Trump suggests, American forces in Syria won’t be returning home in mass numbers anytime soon.

While the U.S. has begun what the Pentagon calls a deliberate withdrawal of troops from Syria, Trump himself has said that the 200-300 U.S. forces deployed to a southern Syria outpost in Al-Tanf will remain there. Also, while the U.S. forces are leaving Syria, that doesn’t mean they are automatically coming home. Instead, military officials are developing plans to station U.S. forces in nearby locations, including Iraq and possibly Jordan, where they will still be able to monitor and, if needed, continue to conduct operations against IS.

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Pentagon defers billions to build Trump’s border wall

Construction crews replace a section of the primary wall separating San Diego, above right, and Tijuana, Mexico, below left, seen from Tijuana, Mexico. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper approved the use of $3.6 billion in funding from military construction projects to build 175 miles (282 kilometers) of President Donald Trump’s wall along the Mexican border.

Pentagon officials would not say which 127 projects will be affected but said details will be available Wednesday after members of Congress are notified. They said half the money will come from military projects in the U.S. and the rest will come from projects in other countries.

Esper’s decision Tuesday fuels what has been a persistent controversy between the Trump administration and Congress over immigration policies and the funding of the border wall. And it sets up a difficult debate for lawmakers who refused earlier this year to approve nearly $6 billion for the wall but now must decide if they will refund the projects that are being used to provide the money.

Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon comptroller, said the now-unfunded projects are not being canceled. Instead, the Pentagon is saying the military projects are being “deferred.” The Defense Department, however, has no guarantee from Congress that any of the money will be replaced, and a number of lawmakers made it clear during the debate earlier this year that they would not fall for budget trickery and sleight of hand to build the wall.

“It is a slap in the face to the members of the Armed Forces who serve our country that President Trump is willing to cannibalize already allocated military funding to boost his own ego and for a wall he promised Mexico would pay to build,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. He said the funding shift will affect the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Congress approved $1.375 billion for wall construction in this year’s budget, same as the previous year and far less than the $5.7 billion that the White House sought. Trump grudgingly accepted the money to end a 35-day government shutdown in February but simultaneously declared a national emergency to take money from other government accounts, identifying up to $8.1 billion for wall construction.

The transferred funds include $600 million from the Treasury Department’s asset forfeiture fund, $2.5 billion from Defense Department counterdrug activities and now the $3.6 billion pot for military housing construction announced Tuesday.

The Pentagon reviewed the list of military projects and said none that provided housing or critical infrastructure for troops would be affected, in the wake of recent scandals over poor living quarters for service members in several parts of the country. Defense officials also said they would focus on projects set to begin in 2020 and beyond, with the hope that the money could eventually be restored by Congress.

“Canceling military construction projects at home and abroad will undermine our national security and the quality of life and morale of our troops, making America less secure,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.

The government will spend the military housing money on 11 wall projects in California, Arizona and Texas, the administration said in a filing Tuesday in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. The most expensive is for 52 miles (84 kilometers) in Laredo, Texas, at a cost of $1.27 billion.

The Laredo project and one in El Centro, California, are on private property, which would require purchase or confiscation, according to the court filing. Two projects in Arizona are on land overseen by the Navy and will be the first to be built, no earlier than Oct. 3. Seven are at least partly on federal land overseen by the Interior Department.

The 175 miles (282 kilometers) covered by the Pentagon funding represents just a small fraction of the 1,954-mile (3,145-kilometer) U.S.-Mexico border.

Army Lt. Gen. Andrew W. Poppas, director of operations for the Joint Staff, told reporters that shoring up the wall could eventually lead to a reduction in the number of troops who are deployed along the border. About 3,000 active-duty troops and 2,000 members of the National Guard are being used along the border to support Homeland Security and border patrol efforts. About 1,200 of the active-duty troops are conducting surveillance in mobile truck units.

Pappas and other officials couldn’t say how soon or by how many the troop numbers could go down. Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said the troops would remain at the border for as long as they are needed. It could depend in part on the number of attempted border crossings by migrants and other issues.

The ACLU said Tuesday that it would seek a court order to block spending the military money. It sued earlier over the use of Defense Department counterdrug money, but the Supreme Court lifted a spending freeze on that money in July, allowing the first Pentagon-funded wall project to break ground last month in Arizona.

ACLU attorney Dror Ladin said, “We’ll be back in court very soon to block Trump’s latest effort to raid military funds for his xenophobic wall.”

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Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.

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Pentagon: Lousy place to depend on ‘acting’ leaders

Secretary of the Army Mark Esper. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

It’s a perilous time to have temps running the Pentagon.

President Donald Trump’s brinkmanship with Iran is on the boil, spilling beyond diplomacy to a planned air attack on Iran that Trump said he ordered, then pulled back at least for now. This, as the U.S. undertakes an unusual troop deployment to the Mexican border , tends its nearly two-decade-old war in Afghanistan and grapples with stalled talks with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.

Through it all, the U.S. has no defense secretary , but rather an acting one who is taking over from another acting one, who suddenly quit.

And the latest one, Army Secretary Mark Esper, who takes over Sunday, might only be able to serve as acting Pentagon chief for less than two months under the rules, requiring yet another short-term boss before it’s all sorted out. On Friday night, Trump officially announced he intended to nominate Esper for the permanent job.

Temporary leadership is a hallmark of Trump’s administration . “It gives me more flexibility,” Trump has said of the many people in acting leadership jobs, not always by his choice.

The practice lets Trump quickly, if temporarily, install allies in important positions while circumventing the Senate confirmation process, which can be risky with Republicans running the chamber by a slim 53-47 margin.

But the Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, says it’s out of hand.

“With everything going on in Iran and all the provocations and counteractions, and to have no secretary of defense at this time is appalling,” he said. “It shows the chaos in this administration. They have so many empty positions, revolving doors, in the most sensitive of security positions.”

Tensions with Iran quickly escalated this week after an attack on freighters at sea that the U.S. blamed on Iran. Tehran announced it was breaking from commitments it made under the accord that restrains its nuclear ambitions — a deal Trump withdrew from last year. Iran then downed a U.S. drone, prompting Trump to order a retaliatory strike that he said he shelved 10 minutes before Iran was to be hit.

As the situation grew more dangerous this week, the acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, stepped down, saying he wanted to spare his family a public airing of domestic problems linked to his messy divorce nearly a decade ago. Trump said months ago he would nominate Shanahan for the defense job and seek his Senate confirmation but he never did. Officials said repeatedly that the vetting of Shanahan was dragging on.

Trump immediately named Esper as the new acting secretary, but because of limitations laid out in court decisions and legislation governing how top vacancies are filled, he may only be able to serve for six weeks. Inside the Pentagon, lawyers are debating how to get Esper through what would be a difficult legal and congressional confirmation process. Defense officials said Thursday they had yet to find a clear way forward.

For the moment both Shanahan and Esper have been attending White House and other meetings and taking part in debates over how to respond to Iran’s destruction of the drone.

Esper is slated to take over as acting defense secretary at midnight Sunday, then head out Tuesday to a meeting of NATO defense ministers. There it will be critical for Esper to convince allies that he is now in charge, and that the U.S. national security leadership is stable and able to make decisions in crises.

While lawmakers have expressed initial support for Esper, who is well known on the Hill and previously served on committees as legislative staff, there is no guarantee he’ll get quick approval.

As a former executive at defense contractor Raytheon, Esper may have to excuse himself from decisions involving the company. That could include sensitive, top-level negotiations with Turkey over its decision to buy a Russian missile defense system, and America’s counteroffer of the Raytheon-made Patriot surface-to-air weapon.

The law prohibits Esper from being nominated for the job while also serving as acting secretary. If he is nominated, he’ll have to step down and move to another job until the Senate votes on his confirmation. So that would mean yet another acting secretary meantime.

Anyone chosen to fill in temporarily won’t have all of the decision-making power that a defense secretary needs when the nation is at war in several countries and conducting major military operations in dozens.

If the administration’s churning leadership suits Trump’s style, it’s not always his intent.

Appointments have been marked by missteps and confusion: Trump has withdrawn 63 nominees, compared with 31 pulled back by President Barack Obama at this point in his first term, according to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. He’s also decided against nominating some candidates he favored after realizing the Republican-led Senate would reject them.

Altogether, 22 of the top 42 people in Cabinet jobs have been acting, or slightly over half, from the 2017 start of Trump’s presidency through mid-April, according to data compiled by incoming Yale political science professor Christina Kinane.

That’s well above the average. From the 1977 start of Jimmy Carter’s presidency through Obama’s administration, 224 people held Cabinet posts and 57 were acting, or just 1 in 4, Kinane’s figures show.

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Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.

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Shanahan withdraws from Defense Secretary chief’s job

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan stepped down Tuesday before his formal nomination ever went to the Senate, citing a “painful” family situation that would hurt his children and reopen “wounds we have worked years to heal.”

President Donald Trump announced Shanahan’s departure in a tweet, and said Army Secretary Mark Esper would be the new acting Pentagon chief.

“I believe my continuing in the confirmation process would force my three children to relive a traumatic chapter in our family’s life and reopen wounds we have worked years to heal,” Shanahan said in a statement. “Ultimately, their safety and well-being is my highest priority.”

His withdrawal from one of the most critical positions in the government comes at a time of escalating tensions in the Middle East, a day after the U.S. authorized sending additional troops to the region, and after months of unexplained delays in the confirmation process.

The acting defense secretary did not provide specifics, but court records show a volatile family history around the time of his 2011 divorce. The couple had been married since 1986.

His ex-wife, Kimberley, was arrested several times on charges that included burglary, property damage and assault. The assault charge was a misdemeanor for domestic violence in August 2010 when, according to police records, she hit Shanahan a number of times, giving him a bloody nose and black eye. The police report said she was not injured, and he was not charged.

There was also a separate November 2011 incident in which the couple’s son, who was 17 at the time, struck his mother with a baseball bat in the home where he lived with her in Sarasota, Florida, according to court records. He pleaded guilty to battery and was sentenced to four years of probation.

In an interview with The Washington Post shortly before Trump announced that Shanahan was withdrawing his nomination, Shanahan spoke about the circumstances surrounding his 2011 divorce and said he didn’t want to drag his children through the experience again.

“Bad things can happen to good families … and this is a tragedy, really,” Shanahan told the Post.

In his statement, Shanahan said he asked to be withdrawn from the nomination process and would work on an “appropriate transition.”

The Pentagon, in a statement, said Esper will take over the job at midnight Sunday. Esper and Shanahan met at length Tuesday to begin transition planning.

In his tweet, Trump simply said Shanahan had done “a wonderful job” but would step aside to “devote more time to his family.” Later, Trump told reporters at the White House that he heard about the problems for the first time Monday.

“I didn’t ask him to withdraw, but he walked in this morning,” said Trump. “He said it’s going to be a rough time for him because of obviously what happened.”

In noting Esper’s move, Trump added, “I know Mark, and have no doubt he will do a fantastic job!” He said it’s “most likely” he will nominate Esper for the job “pretty soon.”

The post atop the Pentagon has not been filled permanently since retired Gen. James Mattis abruptly stepped down in December after delivering a blunt letter to Trump outlining a list of foreign policy differences and a warning that the administration should not allow relations with allies to fray.

Shanahan was put in place as acting secretary, but it wasn’t until May that Trump announced he would nominate Shanahan. That formal nomination has never come, inexplicably delaying the Senate process.

On Capitol Hill, the Shanahan news was met with mixed reactions.

Top Democrats said his sudden withdrawal underscores the shortcomings of White House vetting for key Trump administration jobs.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that “this Shanahan fiasco” shows that the administration’s national security policy is “a shambles.”

Senators said they were largely unaware of allegations involving Shanahan’s family situation when he was confirmed as deputy defense secretary in 2017.

Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal raised the possibility that Shanahan deliberately concealed the domestic problems, and he called for an investigation by the Defense Department’s inspector general. Shanahan, he said, “had an obligation to reveal it himself. This is potentially a violation of law.”

Trump defended the vetting process, calling it “great,” and said the Shanahan issues were “very unfortunate,” and they “came up a little bit over the last short period of time.”

Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Trump called him about Shanahan on Tuesday. The president didn’t offer any specifics, Inhofe said, but mentioned “allegations that would be very uncomfortable and really not worth making sacrifices for.”

Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, has been leading the Pentagon as acting secretary since Jan. 1, a highly unusual arrangement for arguably the most sensitive Cabinet position.

His prospects for confirmation have been spotty due in large part to questions about his lengthy work as former Boeing executive and persistent questions about possible conflicts of interest.

The Defense Department’s Inspector General cleared Shanahan of any wrongdoing in connection with accusations he had shown favoritism toward Boeing during his time as deputy defense secretary, while disparaging Boeing competitors.

In Shanahan’s tenure at the department he’s had to deal with a wide array of international hotspots, ranging from missile launches by North Korea to the sudden shift of military ships and aircraft to the Middle East to deal with potential threats from Iran.

Shanahan, 56, had extensive of experience in the defense industry but little in government. In more than six months as the acting secretary, he emphasized a shift from the resources and tactics required to fight small wars against extremist groups to what Shanahan called “great power” competition with China and Russia.

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Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Matthew Daly in Washington; Gene Johnson in Seattle; and Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.

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Pettiness? White House attempt to hide McCain ship

President Donald Trump gestures to U.S. servicemen at U.S. Navy multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Wasp. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

The White House told the U.S. Navy to keep a warship named for the late Sen. John McCain, with whom Trump long feuded, out of Trump’s sight during his trip to Japan, three U.S. officials said.

A Republican, McCain nevertheless broke with the president in key areas. He incensed Trump with his thumbs-down vote foiling the effort to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law. Trump also mocked McCain’s military service, which included years of imprisonment and torture during the Vietnam War.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that a U.S. Indo-Pacific Command official wrote an email to Navy and Air Force officials about Trump’s arrival in Japan over Memorial Day weekend. It included instructions for preparations for the USS Wasp, the ship on which Trump was to speak.

“USS John McCain needs to be out of sight,” according to the email, obtained by the Journal and whose existence was confirmed to The Associated Press by three U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss private email correspondence.

When a Navy commander expressed surprise at the instruction, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command official answered, “First I heard of it as well,” the Journal reported. The official said he would talk to the White House Military Office to get more information about the directive, the newspaper reported.

Late Wednesday, Trump tweeted that he “was not informed about anything having to do with the Navy Ship USS John S. McCain during my recent visit to Japan.”

Trump notably didn’t say that he was not informed about the ship before his visit to Japan. A message seeking clarification was left late Wednesday for White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.

In Jakarta, Indonesia, on Thursday morning, Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters, “When I read about it this morning, it was the first I heard about it.” He told reporters traveling with him to a security conference in Singapore he would look into the reports.

Shanahan said he would never dishonor the memory of a great American like McCain or disrespect the young men and women in the crew of the ship.

“I never authorized, I never approved any action around the movement or activities regarding that ship,” Shanahan said. He said the military “needs to do their job” and stay out of politics.

The Journal, citing photos it reviewed, reported that a tarp was placed over the USS John S. McCain’s name before Trump’s arrival and that sailors were instructed to remove any coverings from the ship that included its name.

Asked if the tarp was meant to block Trump’s view of the ship, the officials said the tarp had been placed on the ship for maintenance and removed for the visit. U.S. Navy Cdr. Clay Doss, spokesman for U.S. 7th Fleet, told the AP that the tarp was on the ship on Friday but was removed by Saturday morning, the day Trump arrived.

“All ships remained in normal configuration during the President’s visit,” he said.

Two U.S. officials told AP that all the ships in the harbor were lined up for Trump’s visit, and they were visible from the USS Wasp. The officials said most of their names probably could not be seen since they were side by side but that the name of the USS John S. McCain could be seen from the pier.

Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, Navy public affairs officer, tweeted Wednesday night: “The name of USS John S. McCain was not obscured during the POTUS visit to Yokosuka on Memorial Day. The Navy is proud of that ship, its crew, its namesake and its heritage.”

A paint barge was in front of the USS John S. McCain on Saturday morning when 7th Fleet officials walked the pier to see how everything looked for the visit. The barge was then ordered to be moved and was gone by the time Trump arrived, the officials said.

The Journal reported that sailors on the USS John S. McCain, who usually wear hats with the ship’s name on it, were given the day off when Trump visited.

Two U.S. officials told the AP that sailors on the USS John S. McCain were not told to stay away but that many were away for the long weekend. The officials also said that about 800 sailors from more than 20 ships and Navy commands were on the USS Wasp during the president’s visit, and all wore the same Navy hat that has no logo, rather than wearing individual ship or command hats.

McCain, who died in August of 2018, established himself as a leading Trump critic, opposing Trump’s immigration-limiting order, warning him against coziness with Moscow and lecturing him on the illegality of torture

Trump was not welcome at McCain’s funeral and raised the White House’s U.S. flag back to full-staff shortly after McCain’s death, despite U.S. Flag Code stating that it should remain at half-staff for another day. The flag returned to half-staff later in the day.

McCain’s daughter Meghan tweeted Wednesday that Trump will “always be deeply threatened by the greatness of my dad’s incredible life.”

She added, “There is a lot of criticism of how much I speak about my dad, but nine months since he passed, Trump won’t let him RIP. So I have to stand up for him.

“It makes my grief unbearable.”
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Debate over diverted Pentagon projects to fund Trump’s wall

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Top defense leaders are expected to get a barrage of questions when they face worried lawmakers on Capitol Hill for the first time since the Pentagon spelled out the military construction projects that could lose funding this year to pay for President Donald Trump’s border wall.

A number of Congress members have already expressed unhappiness with Pentagon plans that could divert funding from as many as 150 projects, totaling more than $4.3 billion, across the country and the world.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is slated to testify Tuesday at a House Armed Services Committee hearing along with Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Early last week Shanahan sent Congress a detailed list of projects that could be tapped.

Defense officials have repeatedly said that any projects that lose funding this year could be refunded next year. But some lawmakers have said they oppose any use of military construction money for barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Both the House and Senate voted to overturn Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to use construction money to fund the wall. Trump vetoed that bill.

A number of lawmakers also objected to the Pentagon’s assumption that Congress would simply refund the affected projects next year, calling it a political maneuver to get Congress to pay for the wall.

“We take our oversight role very seriously, and will act as necessary to defend Congress’ constitutional prerogatives in this matter,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the chairman of the House panel. He said the committee looks forward to hearing Shanahan explain “how he intends to pilfer the military construction accounts, circumvent the intended nature of the law, while simultaneously abusing the trust of the American people.”

Other lawmakers, such as the entire New Jersey congressional delegation, have written to Shanahan to defend the projects in their state. In their letter, they told Shanahan that they “adamantly oppose” diverting any money for a border barrier, adding that Congress, not the executive branch, has the power to appropriate funds for specific projects.

A plan to spend $41 million at the Picatinny Arsenal’s munitions disassembly complex in New Jersey is on the list of projects that could be affected.

The list Shanahan sent to the Hill included more than 400 projects worth about $13 billion. But Shanahan has said that any money for military housing or barracks would not be touched, as well as any projects that will have contracts awarded before the end of this fiscal year, Sept. 30. When those projects are removed, about 150 remain.

Shanahan has also said that projects deemed necessary for military readiness or other high priorities will be protected. But those haven’t been identified yet.

On Monday, Army Secretary Mark Esper told The Associated Press that he and other military service leaders will go through the list and work to protect critical projects.

“I will prioritize based on readiness, lethality and things like that,” he said, noting that something like a training complex could be protected if it’s designed to help soldiers face emerging threats from competitors such as Russia and China.

Esper added, however, that there are clearly some projects that could be used.

“I can tell you what’s not a priority. It’s the parking garage, the cemetery,” Esper said, referring to two projects planned at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York.

The garage could be affected, but the cemetery money would not be touched because the contract award date is June, and would therefore be exempt under rules set up by Shanahan.

At least half of the $4.3 billion in vulnerable projects would affect U.S. military bases overseas or in Puerto Rico and Guam. And they include a vast cross-section of facilities, ranging from schools and maintenance facilities to shooting ranges, a cybersecurity center and a military working dog kennel.

Meanwhile, Shanahan has authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to begin planning and building 57 miles of 18-foot-high fencing in Yuma, Arizona, and El Paso, Texas, along the U.S. border with Mexico. The Pentagon says it will divert up to $1 billion to support the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection. The funding would also go toward installing lighting and constructing roads in those areas.
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Mattis promises ‘further action’ over Khashoggi murder

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listens to a question on the Department of Defense budget posture during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi “undermines regional stability” and the U.S. State Department plans to take further action in response to the killing, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Saturday at an international conference in the Middle East.

Mattis never mentioned Saudi Arabia directly in connection with the Oct. 2 slaying of Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. But he noted that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revoked visas of Saudis implicated in the killing of the Washington Post writer, and he said additional measures will be taken.

Turkish officials have said that a Saudi team of 15 men tortured, killed and dismembered the writer and in a premeditated act. The kingdom initially said it knew nothing about what happened to Khashoggi, but on Thursday said evidence shows that the killing was premeditated.

Mattis made no move to directly blame Saudi and did not refer to the calls from members of Congress to cut arms sales to Saudi Arabia or impose sanctions on the kingdom. But his broader mention of the matter toward the end of his speech underscores the serious national security ramifications the incident poses for relations with a key U.S. ally.

“With our collective interests in peace and unwavering respect for human rights in mind, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in a diplomatic facility must concern us all greatly,” Mattis told international officials and experts at the Manama Dialogue. “Failure of any one nation to adhere to international norms and the rule of law undermines regional stability at a time when it is needed most.”

He added that he will continue to consult with President Donald Trump and Pompeo as they consider the broader implications of the matter.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir, who spoke after Mattis at the conference, said hysterical media are rushing to judgment in the Khashoggi case.

“Unfortunately there has been this hysteria in the media about Saudi Arabia’s guilt before the investigation is completed,” he said, in response to questions about the killing. “What we say to people is wait until everything is done” then decide if the investigation was serious or not.

He said that the kingdom will hold those responsible accountable and put mechanisms in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again. “We will overcome” the consequences of the Khashoggi killing, he added.

Still, Mattis’ speech also reflected the difficult dilemma this has caused. In one section deeply critical of Iran, he referred to the ongoing attacks on Saudi by Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen.

“I reiterate U.S. support for our partners’ right to defend themselves against Iranian-supplied Houthi attacks on their sovereign territory, and at the same time call for an urgent end to the fighting,” Mattis said.

Others in the U.S., however, have condemned the Saudis for what has been called indiscriminate bombings that have slaughtered civilians. Mattis and others, meanwhile, have said the U.S. is providing key support to the Saudi-led coalition, and that the assistance is helping the kingdom improve its targeting.

The U.S. he said, wants to continue to build the capacity of the Yemeni security forces who are batting the Houthis in a brutal civil war.

Mattis also later talked about America’s shared interests with its Arab and Israeli partners, adding that “our respect for the Saudi people is undiminished.”

But, he cautioned that respect “must come with transparency and trust.”

Saudi Arabia’s slow shift to reveal more details about the killing also reflects the kingdom’s acknowledgement that the killing could have a serious diplomatic, and possibly economic impact.

Khashoggi lived in self-imposed exile in the U.S. for the past year and wrote editorial columns for The Washington Post that were critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s heir apparent. He lived in self-imposed exile in the United States for nearly a year before his death, had written critically of Prince Mohammed’s crackdown on dissent.

More broadly, Mattis’ speech Saturday, focused on regional cooperation and the U.S. commitment to the Middle East.

He repeated his frequent criticism of Iran’s “outlaw regime,” which has fueled insurgencies in Yemen and Iraq, backed Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brutal government and fostered proxy terrorists across the region.

And he made clear that the U.S. commitment to the region outpaces any presence by Russia, which he said lacks essential moral principles.

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Trump’s $92 million on-again, off-again military parade delayed

Military units participate in the inaugural parade in Washington in 2017. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

The Defense Department says the Veterans Day military parade ordered up by President Donald Trump won’t happen in 2018.

Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday that the military and the White House “have now agreed to explore opportunities in 2019.”

The announcement came several hours after The Associated Press reported that the parade would cost about $92 million, according to U.S. officials citing preliminary estimates more than three times the price first suggested by the White House.

According to the officials, roughly $50 million would cover Pentagon costs for aircraft, equipment, personnel and other support for the November parade in Washington. The remainder would be borne by other agencies and largely involve security costs. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss early planning estimates that have not yet been finalized or released publicly.

Officials said the parade plans had not yet been approved by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

Mattis himself said late Thursday that he had seen no such estimate and questioned the media reports.

The Pentagon chief told reporters traveling with him to Bogota, Colombia, that whoever leaked the number to the press was “probably smoking something that is legal in my state but not in most” — a reference to his home state of Washington, where marijuana use is legal.

He added: “I’m not dignifying that number ($92 million) with a reply. I would discount that, and anybody who said (that number), I’ll almost guarantee you one thing: They probably said, ‘I need to stay anonymous.’ No kidding, because you look like an idiot. And No. 2, whoever wrote it needs to get better sources. I’ll just leave it at that.”

The parade’s cost has become a politically charged issue, particularly after the Pentagon canceled a major military exercise planned for August with South Korea, in the wake of Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump said the drills were provocative and that dumping them would save the U.S. “a tremendous amount of money.” The Pentagon later said the Korea drills would have cost $14 million.

Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said earlier Thursday that Defense Department planning for the parade “continues and final details are still being developed. Any cost estimates are pre-decisional.”

The parade was expected to include troops from all five armed services — the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard — as well as units in period uniforms representing earlier times in the nation’s history. It also was expected to involve a number of military aircraft flyovers.

A Pentagon planning memo released in March said the parade would feature a “heavy air component,” likely including older, vintage aircraft. It also said there would be “wheeled vehicles only, no tanks — consideration must be given to minimize damage to local infrastructure.” Big, heavy tanks could tear up streets in the District of Columbia.

The memo from Mattis’ office provided initial planning guidance to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His staff is planning the parade along a route from the White House to the Capitol and would integrate it with the city’s annual veterans’ parade. U.S. Northern Command, which oversees U.S. troops in North America, is responsible for the actual execution of the parade.

Earlier this year, the White House budget director told Congress that the cost to taxpayers could be $10 million to $30 million. Those estimates were likely based on the cost of previous military parades, such as the one in the nation’s capital in 1991 celebrating the end of the first Gulf War, and factored in some additional increase for inflation.

One veterans group weighed in Thursday against the parade. “The American Legion appreciates that our President wants to show in a dramatic fashion our nation’s support for our troops,” National Commander Denise Rohan said. “However, until such time as we can celebrate victory in the War on Terrorism and bring our military home, we think the parade money would be better spent fully funding the Department of Veteran Affairs and giving our troops and their families the best care possible.”

Trump decided he wanted a military parade in Washington after he attended France’s Bastille Day celebration in the center of Paris last year. As the invited guest of French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump watched enthusiastically from a reviewing stand as the French military showcased its tanks and fighter jets, including many U.S.-made planes, along the famed Champs-Elysees.

Several months later Trump praised the French parade, saying, “We’re going to have to try and top it.”

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