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June 14, 2018
Notes from the Pentagon

Trump's A team
President Trump flew hone aboard Air Force One early Wednesday hailing the success of the Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Before leaving on Air Force One, the president credited some of the success for the historic meeting to the work done by his new team of foreign policy and national security advisers.

“I think the establishment of a new team was very important. We have a great team,” Mr. Trump told reporters before departing the Southeast Asian city-state.

For the summit, a large share of credit for the new team’s work goes to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who directed much of the activities leading up to the summit. Mr. Pompeo met twice in Pyongyang with Mr. Kim prior to Singapore. The new secretary of state replaced Rex Tillerson who was unceremoniously fired by Mr. Trump in March via Twitter.

The ouster of Mr. Tillerson was said to be the result of Mr. Trump’s pique at the former Exxon Mobil CEO for largely turning over State Department policymaking to entrenched bureaucrats, many of whom oppose Mr. Trump’s “America first” agenda.

Days later, Mr. Trump fired White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. The Army three-star general came to be perceived by the president as having greater affinity for his own policies and agenda rather than those of the president.

Mr. Trump also was said to be angered by Mr. McMaster’s inability or unwillingness to ferret out the many Obama administration holdovers on the National Security Council staff whom the president blamed for continued leaks of inside information.

Mr. Trump chose conservative John Bolton, a veteran arms control and weapons nonproliferation expert, to take over the NSC from Mr. McMaster, and Mr. Bolton has fit in well in a difficult White House environment.

Despite vicious initial political attacks on him by political leftists and several mainstream media allies, Mr. Bolton moved quickly to bring in a new team dedicated to Mr. Trump’s agenda of strengthening the American military and elevating economic security as a major element of overall U.S. national security.

Matthew Pottinger, one of Mr. Trump’s longest-serving NSC staff members who holds the Asia portfolio, also is credited with playing a key role in the summit and was among the small group who took part in the working lunch with the North Koreans.

Mr. Pompeo is also quickly putting his mark on the State Department by adding key people. One promising addition is the expected nomination of Paula Dobriansky, who is slated for a senior State Department policy position.

Ms. Dobriansky, a foreign policy veteran, worked in several previous administrations, including the Reagan White House, and played key roles in Eastern Europe’s liberation from Soviet communism and the Northern Ireland peace process.

A third pillar of the team, while not a new addition, is Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the blunt-spoken retired Marine Corps general who played a major behind-the-scenes role in the U.S. pressure campaign on North Korea.

As reported in this space March 8, Mr. Mattis quietly scared the kimchi out of the North Koreans by ordering stepped-up military planning at the Pentagon, Pacific Command and U.S. Forces Korea for war on the Korean Peninsula.

The military planning to refine and upgrade Op Plan 5027, as the Korean war plan is known, increased from monthly sessions of war planners to weekly meetings.

Reports of the increased military planning were no doubt picked up by North Korean intelligence as a sign of American seriousness regarding Mr. Trump’s threat to end the Pyongyang nuclear threat by any means.

Mr. Mattis’ designee for interagency summit preparation work was Randall Schriver, assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific affairs, a veteran policymaker known to be tough on China and North Korea.

A fourth key player on the Trump national security team has been Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. The former investment banker has played a leading role in the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea through the imposition of many new sanctions on the Pyongyang regime and its international tentacles since last year.

Mr. Trump said in Singapore that, up until last week, he was set to impose some 300 additional sanctions related to North Korea. Those sanctions are being held at the ready in case the talks with Pyongyang go south.

Sen. James Risch, Idaho Republican and senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said this week that he agrees with the Trump administration’s plan to lift sanctions on the Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE.

“I have heard the president describe the ZTE situation,” Mr. Risch told reporters Monday. “I’ve heard him describe the matter in detail, and there’s a lot more to it than what you guys have gotten, but you’re going to be getting more.”

The senator declined to elaborate, noting that the information about ZTE is classified.

However, Mr. Risch denied that the plan to ease sanctions on ZTE would be a concession to win Beijing’s support for the Singapore summit with North Korea. “It is not connected to the North Korean situation as it relates to China,” he said.

The Commerce Department announced last week that it will lift a seven-year ban on ZTE after the company pays a $1 billion fine and replaces its board and senior leaders. It also must allow U.S. inspection teams to monitor the company for 10 years.

After the company failed to take action against employees involved in the illegal exports, the Commerce Department in April banned American companies from providing parts to ZTE for seven years. The tightened sanctions prompted China’s government to pressure President Trump and his administration into relenting, triggering a very un-America first statement by the president that he wanted to help save jobs for ZTE — a state-owned company that does the bidding of the Chinese Communist Party and its military.

The administration is expected to act fast in declassifying information about ZTE. The White House is facing bipartisan opposition to lifting the ZTE sanctions in Congress and criticized an effort on Capitol Hill to try to block the move.

A group of senators announced Monday an agreement to add an amendment to the fiscal 2019 defense authorization bill that would keep the sanctions on ZTE in place. The amendment also would ban the government from buying or leasing telecom equipment from both ZTE and Huawei Technologies, another Chinese telecommunications company that has been linked to Chinese intelligence and the military.

By adding the amendment to the defense bill, senators are calculating that it will be more difficult for the president to veto the measure.

Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican and a sponsor of the ZTE amendment, said both ZTE and Huawei are linked to the Chinese Communist Party and have dealt with rogue states in the past.

“The threat Huawei and ZTE pose to our national security is too great to ignore,” said Mr. Cotton, who is close to the Trump White House. “This amendment will help keep Americans’ private information out of the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, and I’m pleased it will be included in the NDAA.”

The National Air and Space Intelligence Center has come out of the spy shadows to reveal new details about North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons.

The center, known as NASIC, is located at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and is the Pentagon’s premier agency focused on missile and space threats.

NASIC and several of its officials went public for one of the very first times on Sunday in a broadcast on North Korea’s nuclear and missile forces by CBS “60 Minutes” defense correspondent David Martin.

North Korea’s long-range missile tests in July 2017 triggered major alarm bells at NASIC that later spread throughout the U.S. national security community and into the White House.

“They demonstrated the ability that they could reach the continental United States,” NASCI commander Col. Sean Larkin told CBS of the missiles.

The agency then published a video showing the simulation of a launch of one of North Korea’s Hwasong intercontinental-range missiles.

The North Koreans showed off two new ICBMs in the past year, the Hwasong-14 and the longer-range Hwasong-15, the missile estimated to be capable of ranging all of the United States.

While intelligence regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear missiles remains sketchy, analysts say the last hurdle for the weapon is producing a friction-proof warhead re-entry vehicle capable of withstanding the multi-thousand-degree heat of a high-speed warhead coming through the atmosphere to its target.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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