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President Trump Travels Overseas to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Europe; Congress Focuses on Iran, Russia and Cyber Matters

President Donald Trump departed Washington Friday afternoon for Riyadh, kicking off a nine-day trip with stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Europe. According to National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster, who previewed the President’s trip, the trip has three core purposes:  (1) reaffirm U.S. global leadership; (2) continue building key relationships with world leaders; and (3) broadcast a message of unity to U.S. friends and to “the faithful of three of the world’s greatest religions.”  Gen. McMaster also noted that President Trump prioritizes building strong relationships. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is accompanying the President.

Last Thursday, President Trump welcomed President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia to the White House, where the two met together with Vice President Michael Pence before participating in a joint press conference. President Trump “affirmed the United States’ willingness to assist Colombia’s strategy to target and eliminate drug trafficking networks, illicit financings, coca cultivation, and cocaine production.” President Trump fielded a question on his reaction to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s decision on Wednesday to appoint former FBI Director Bob Mueller to serve as special counsel overseeing the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. He said: “I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt. And there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself – and the Russians, zero.”

Earlier in the week, President Trump met with His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, as the White House announced a defense cooperation agreement between the two countries. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the recently-concluded agreement would allow the two countries “to work more closely together to address common security threats.”

Both chambers of Congress will be in session this week.  While Congres has a number of international-related hearings scheduled, both chambers also remain focused on the allegations of Russia interference in the 2016 U.S. election and possible ties to the Trump campaign. Congress also remains focused on the termination of James Comey’s tenure as FBI Director.

Saudi Arabia – U.S. Agrees to a New Weapons Package; Urges Arab Countries to Drive Out Terrorists

On 20 May, President Donald Trump signed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, during his first official foreign trip.

The arms agreement is a part of a 10-year, $350 billion agreement between the two countries. The deal commits Saudi Arabia to buying military equipment from the United States and to hiring U.S. companies to build such equipment in Saudi Arabia. The agreement includes tanks and helicopters, ships for coastal security, intelligence-gathering aircraft, a missile-defense radar system, and cybersecurity tools.

Speaking to reporters in Riyadh on Saturday, Secretary of State Tillerson shared that “[t]he package of defense equipment and services supports the long-term security of Saudi Arabia and the entire Gulf region,” noting that the agreement is “in particular in the face of malign Iranian influence and Iranian-related threats which exist on Saudi Arabia’s borders on all sides.” During a joint press conference with his counterpart, Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir hailed the agreement as “the beginning of a turning point in the relationship between the United States and the Arab and Islamic world.”  The Trump Administration has been working toward the finalized deal for several months.

At an Arab Islamic-American Summit on Sunday, President Trump urged Arab nations to help defeat terrorism and the ideology that drives it. He called for countries to “drive out the terrorists and extremists.”  The President also noted that another new agreement had been reached to prevent the financing of terrorism, one that would create the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center, which would be co-chaired by the United States and Saudi Arabia, and joined by every member of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Syria – U.S.-Led Coalition Strikes Pro-Government Forces

The United States conducted an airstrike on pro-Syrian government forces in southern Syria last Thursday. Pentagon officials have said that in the airstrike, U.S. warplanes hit a convoy of pro-government forces because it was approaching a base where U.S. and British special operations troops train Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. The officials said the convoy ignored a warning. While speaking to reporters on Friday, Defense Secretary Mattis said he believed the Iranian-directed forces moved into the zone against the advice of Russia but that he was unable to confirm that with certainty.

Russian and Syrian officials strongly condemned the U.S. airstrike, calling it an act of aggression and rejecting the justification for the attack. The Syrian government negotiator, Bashar al-Ja’afari, also raised the incident with U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura at peace talks in Geneva, referring to it as a “massacre.”

The air strike did not on its own suggest a shift in the U.S. military’s focus in Syria, which has been focused on battling ISIS. After the defensive airstrike, Pentagon officials confirmed that they are working with Russia to prevent similar incidents in the future. “We had a proposal that we’re working on with the Russians right now,” Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Friday.

Last Tuesday, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated five individuals and five entities in response to continued acts of violence committed by the Government of Syria, led by Bashar al-Assad, against its own citizens. OFAC noted the designated individuals and entities have provided support or services to the Government of Syria, or are owned or controlled by or are acting for or on behalf of designated individuals or entities.

“The Syrian government’s relentless attacks on civilians have continued unabated,” said OFAC Director John E. Smith. “As long as the Syrian government continues its campaign of brutal violence against its own people, Treasury will continue targeting the finances of anyone enabling Assad, and will continue intensifying pressure on Assad’s regime in support of diplomatic efforts to end the conflict in Syria.”

The State Department also held a special briefing Monday morning to address a serious human rights allegation against the Syrian regime. Showing an aerial picture of the Saydnaya military prison outside of Damascus, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones said that at least 50 prisoners a day are executed in the prison, some in mass hangings. The picture also noted a probable crematorium having been added to the prison complex. The State Department alleged the facility is being used to dispose of detainees’ remains with little evidence.

Iran – New U.S. Designations

OFAC also added three individuals and four entities to its Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) List in connection with Iran’s ballistic missile program last Wednesday.

In conjunction with OFAC’s announcement, the State Department released its semi-annual report on Iran’s alleged human rights abuses, as required by the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), as amended. In an accompanying statement, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones said of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA): “We are communicating to the U.S. Congress that the United States continues to waive sanctions as required to continue implementing U.S. sanctions-lifting commitments in the [JCPOA].” He added: “This ongoing review does not diminish the United States’ resolve to continue countering Iran’s destabilizing activity in the region … And above all, the United States will never allow the regime in Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”

  • On Wednesday, 24 May, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Nuclear Deal Fallout: The Global Threat of Iran.”

Afghanistan – NATO Defense Chiefs Meet in Brussels

Last week, NATO defense chiefs met in Brussels to discuss proposals that would increase the number of NATO and partner troops in the country, and to change how those troops are employed. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Dunford told reporters that Army Gen. John W. Nicholson, the commander of the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, briefed the defense chiefs of the NATO Military Committee via video from his headquarters in Kabul.

“The Afghans have been in the lead for the last two years, taking casualties and demonstrating some strengths, but in other areas demonstrating they need more work,” Gen. Dunford said. Gen. Nicholson had previously warned that the conflict in Afghanistan was turning into a stalemate and that he would need more troops than the 13,000 he currently has to end the stalemate while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February.

President Trump will decide on U.S. options for Afghanistan by the end of the month, according to Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser. President Trump will meet with fellow NATO leaders next week in Brussels and the troop commitment in Afghanistan will be one of the issues for discussion.

Jordan – Cooperation in Deterring Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation

President Trump spoke with King Abdullah II of Jordan by telephone last Tuesday. A White House summary of the call noted the President reaffirmed the importance of close and continued cooperation between the United States and Jordan on a range of shared priorities.

The United States and Jordan participated in a capacity-building workshop from 9-11 May to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The workshop was a part of the Proliferation Security Initiative, which started in 2003 as a response to the serious challenge posed by the proliferation of WMD, their delivery systems and related materials worldwide. Jordan is one of 105 countries to endorse the PSI Statement of Interdiction Principles and to participate in the global effort to stop the trafficking of WMD, their delivery systems and related materials.

While Jordan has participated in multilateral PSI engagements in the region in the past, but this was the first bilateral U.S.-Jordan PSI engagement. “Jordan has been a leader in preparing to mitigate today’s threats stemming from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons, and ensuring that they are postured to protect their citizens and the broader region,” according to Andrea Yaffe, director of transnational threats from the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Turkey – Recap of President Erdoğan’s Visit

President Trump met last Tuesday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The two held a bilateral meeting, gave a joint statement and then had a working luncheon meeting together with Vice President Michael Pence.  In their joint statement to the press, President Trump acknowledged Turkey’s contributions to the fight against terrorism and said the two also discussed reinvigorating trade and commercial ties.  A White House summary of the bilateral meeting reflected: “President Trump reiterated the commitment of the United States to the security of our NATO ally Turkey and the need to work together to confront terrorism in all its forms.”

Secretary of Defense James Mattis met in Washington with Turkish Minister of Defense Fikri Işık on Tuesday. A Pentagon readout of the meeting reflected:  “The leaders firmly agreed on concerns regarding the PKK, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization that has orchestrated the killing of innocent Turkish civilians and Turkish soldiers.”

NAFTA – Trump Administration Renders Formal Notification

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer formally notified the U.S. Congress of President Trump’s intent to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In letters transmitted to senior Congressional leaders, Ambassador Lighthizer pledged that the Administration will consult closely with Congress to ensure its negotiating positions are consistent with the priorities and objectives set out under the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act, Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation passed into law in 2015. The letters acknowledge how much the world has changed in the 25 years since NAFTA was first negotiated and states that the Administration aims to modernize NAFTA to include provisions addressing issues like “intellectual property rights, regulatory practices, state-owned enterprises, services, customs procedures, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, labor, environment, and small and medium enterprises.” Ambassador Lighthizer also reiterated the Administration’s pledge to pursue strong implementation and enforcement of trade commitments.

Congressional Hearings This Week

  • On Tuesday, 23 May, the Senate Armed Service Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Worldwide Threats.”

  • On Tuesday, 23 May, the Senate Armed Service Cybersecurity Subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Cyber Posture of the Services.”

  • On Tuesday, 23 May, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Request for U.S. Cyber Command: Cyber Mission Force Support to Department of Defense Operations.”

  • On Tuesday, 23 May, the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee is scheduled to hold an open hearing titled “Russia Investigation Taskforce.”

  • On Tuesday, 23 May, the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Visa Overstays: A Gap in the Nation’s Border Security.”

  • On Wednesday, 24 May, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Border Insecurity: The Rise of MS-13 and Other Transnational Criminal Organizations.” The witnesses will be announced.

  • On Thursday, 25 May, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Investigations Subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Stopping the Shipment of Synthetic Opioids: Oversight of U.S. Strategy to Combat Illicit Drugs.”

  • On Thursday, 25 May, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Global Human Rights is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Vietnam: Why Religious Freedom and Human Rights Are Critical to U.S. National Interests.”

  • On Thursday, 25 May, the Senate Foreign Relations Multilateral International Development, Multilateral Insititutions, and International Economic, Energy, and Environmental Policy Subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Assessing the United Nations Human Rights Council.”

  • On Thursday, 25 May, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “Department of Commerce Budget.” Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross is scheduled to testify.

Looking Ahead

Washington is expected to focus on the following upcoming events:

  • 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

Pooja Virkar is co-author of this article. 

© Copyright 2020 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLPNational Law Review, Volume VII, Number 142

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About this Author

Stacy Swanson, Public Policy Specialist, Squire Patton Boggs Law Firm
Public Policy Specialist

Stacy Swanson helps sovereign governments successfully navigate Washington and understand United States Government policy. She regularly provides clients with strategies which effectively leverage existing relationships to advocate policy objectives before the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government. 

202-457-5627