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The Microsoft logo on July 13, 2019, during Pride Day in Munich, Germany. | Alexander Pohl/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Those victims were targeted or compromised by countries like Russia, North Korea, and Iran in the past year.
ASPEN, Colorado — Microsoft just announced it notified nearly 10,000 of its customers that they were targeted or compromised by a cyberattack in the past year — primarily due to countries like Russia, Iran, and North Korea.
Tom Burt, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for consumer security and trust, wrote in a Wednesday blog post that 84 percent of the observed targets were the company’s enterprise customers, while the remaining 16 percent were individuals.
Burt made sure to note that many of the attacks had nothing to do with election interference. However, the scale of the attacksleads the company to worry about “the significant extent to which nation-states continue to rely on cyberattacks as a tool to gain intelligence, influence geopolitics, or achieve other objectives.”
What’s more, according to the blog post, Microsoft notified 781 democracy-focused organizations using one of its products — AccountGuard, a product specifically designed to protect entities vital to democracy — since last August that they were victims of a nation-state cyberattack. About 95 percent of those observed attacks around the world on political parties, campaigns, and other organizations targeted US-based groups.
Which means recent statements by Trump administration officials that the US government can safeguard the 2020 presidential election from foreign meddling shouldn’t be much of a comfort. If anything, Microsoft’s data shows just how big the problem has become — and why it wants to offer a new solution to deal with the issue.
Countries continue to cyberattack America
Russia, Iran, and North Korea — along with China — are the United States’ main adversaries in cyberspace. Experts worry about how those and other nations use cyberattacks to spy on business, hack into voting systems, and surveil citizens. The worry is they’ll use these methods not only to hack into pro-democracy groups, but do so to disrupt democracy itself.
So before digging into Microsoft’s proposal for safeguarding elections, it’s worth first understanding the extent of the threat.
Let’s start with Russia. In January 2017, the FBI, CIA, and NSA definitively assessed that Russia did interfere in the 2016 presidential election — and that the order came from the top. Here’s part of that conclusion:
We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.
Russia targeted the election systems of at least 21 states, although it doesn’t look like they managed to change any results.
Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during his talks with Kyrgyz counterpart at the Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia on July, 11,2019.
In July 2018, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers, charging them with hacking the computer networks of members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Working under the monikers “DCLeaks” and “Guccifer 2.0,” they allegedly coordinated to release damaging information to sway the election. Mueller later concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, though there was no coordinated conspiracy with the Trump campaign.
Iran is clearly trying to be as effective as Russia on this front.
In May, the prominent cybersecurity firm FireEye released information about social media accounts — created between April 2018 and March 2019 and originating from Iran —that were purposely impersonating Americans and even Republican candidates for Congress. In some cases, the fake users weighed in on the Trump administration’s tough policy toward the Middle Eastern country, such as its decision to designate an elite Iranian military unit as a terrorist organization in April. That tip led Facebook to remove roughly 100 accounts, pages, groups — and even three Instagram accounts — from the web, seemingly all coming from one location.
It appears the same kind of behavior took place on Twitter. Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of site integrity, tweeted that earlier in May the social media platform “removed more than 2,800 inauthentic accounts originating in Iran ... employ[ing] a range of false personas to target conversations about political and social issues in Iran and globally.” Roth also noted that while the accounts were the same ones reported on by FireEye, Twitter didn’t receive any information before removing the fake users.
What’s more, recent reports indicate that Iranian cyberwarriors have stepped up their online operations, with a particular emphasis on preparing to attack US firms. Among other moves, they’re aiming to trick employees at major businesses to hand over passwords and other vital information, giving them greater access to a firm’s networks.
“When you combine this increase with past destructive attacks launched by Iranian-linked actors, we’re concerned enough about the potential for new destructive attacks to continue sounding the alarm,” Christopher Krebs, a top cybersecurity official at the Department of Homeland Security, told Foreign Policy on July 1.
North Korea, meanwhile, seems focused on non-election-related matters.
In December 2017, the US said North Korea was behind the WannaCry cyberattack. That attack used ransomware — where hackers use malware to scramble a victim’s files and then demand money to unscramble them — to infect businesses, banks, hospitals, and schools in more than 150 countries. One of the biggest strikes occurred in Britain, where it caused havoc in the health care system and interfered with surgeries and emergency services.
Brendan SmialowskiAFP/Getty Images
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un walks to a meeting with President Donald Trump on June 30, 2019, in Panmunjom, Korea.
Still, the US government seems keen on protecting the integrity of American elections from attacks by these and other countries. Microsoft thinks it has a solution for that.
Microsoft to demo ElectionGuard to protect American elections
On Wednesday, Microsoft unveiled at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado that it will demo a working version of what it calls “ElectionGuard” — part of its Defending Democracy program.
According to the company, it’s the first end-to-end verifiable system that can help voters confirm their votes counted and weren’t hacked.
Here’s how the demo will work, per Burt’s blog post. First, a person can vote on a screen or using an Xbox adaptive controller, for those with limited mobility. Second, the voter will get a tracking code that allows the person to check if their choice was counted once the voting is over. And third, the demo provides a voter with a printed record of their vote, which they can also place into a physical ballot box.
Microsoft will partner with technology companies serving state and local governments to provide its new service. It’ll be available for free later this summer through GitHub, a Microsoft subsidiary, but it’s unclear how it might be used or if it’ll be widespread during the primary elections.
It’s an interesting solution to a long-standing problem, and it’s one many companies will certainly dabble in over the next few months and years.
President Donald Trump continues to say he’s worried about fraudulent voting in America, despite little evidence pointing to its prevalence. He should therefore be happy people are working on the issue.
Against this backdrop, some 2020 Democratic candidates during the debates chose to explicitly mention the father and daughter in the photograph by name — Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Angie Valeria, from El Salvador — as symbols of why the US immigration system must be reformed.
Many of them also talked about addressing the “root causes” that are driving families to flee to the US in record numbers, primarily from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, sometimes referred to collectively as the “Northern Triangle.”
But identifying what those root causes are and crafting effective policies to address them is a lot harder than it sounds. In general, most agree that any solution will likely have to involve substantial US foreign aid to the affected countries to promote good governance and the rule of law, improve security, and reduce poverty.
But what that assistance looks like in practice and how it’s implemented are far more complicated questions. “The devil’s in the details,” Elizabeth Oglesby, a professor at the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, told me. “Where is this money going? Who is it shoring up?”
Aid is also not an immediate fix. Nor is it a wholesale solution. But advocates and experts say an investment in the region to mitigate violence, corruption, and poverty can help over the long term.
In March, President Donald Trump threatened to cut off all aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador if those governments failed to stem unauthorized migration to the US.
There were bipartisan objections to Trump’s plan. Both Democrats and Republicans argued that reducing aid would achieve the opposite result and make the future status of programs already in place uncertain.
It’s hard to gauge the effects of that aid in such a short period of time and to determine whether it is at all linked to some positive signs from the region — like the murder rate declining in all three countries in 2018.
But it may at least offer a potential model of what a more effective US policy toward the region might look like. Aid needs to be sustained over years, experts told me,so that programs know their funding is secure. It should build on what civil society groups are already doing in the region.
Whoever emerges from the crowded field of 2020 Democratic candidates as the nominee will have to face down Trump on his hardline approach to the border — including another attempt to severely restrict who can seek asylum in the US — and the countries of origin for the migrants trying to cross it. And whoever becomes president, whether Trump again or someone new, will inherit a crisis — and decide what comes next.
What are the “root causes” of migration from Central America?
On the first night of the first 2020 Democratic debate, former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro declared that to “get to the root cause” of the immigration crisis, the US needs to implement “a Marshall Plan” — the massive US program to rebuild Europe after World War II — for Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, so that the people living there “can find opportunity at home instead of coming to the United States to seek it.”
Sen. Cory Booker also brought up the importance of an aid package: “We solve this problem by making investments to stop the reasons why people are driven here in the first place,” he said.
On night two, it was former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders stressing the need to address the “root causes” of the immigration crisis. “I’m the guy that got a bipartisan agreement at the very end of the campaign and our term to spend $740 million to deal with the problem and go to the root cause of why people are leaving in the first place,” Biden said.
So everyone seems to agree on the need to address the “root causes.” But what exactly are those root causes? The answer, of course, is complicated, and in many cases, it’s likely more than one factor driving people to seek safety or opportunity outside their home countries.
Violence is a problem in all three countries, specifically gang violence in El Salvador and Honduras. In Guatemala, especially, poverty is a major driver of migration. This is particularly acute among indigenous populations, who suffer from higher rates of malnutrition and insufficient access to health care and education. Drought and other erratic weather, linked to climate change, are also a factor.
Corruption is also endemic in all three countries. Weak rule of law, poor governance, and instability fuels both poverty and insecurity. The murder rates in both El Salvador and Honduras have fallen in recent years, but organized criminal gangs frequently operate with impunity, because politicians and police can’t — or, in some cases, won’t — stop the bloodshed. In Guatemala, the exploitation of indigenous groups, including suspected human rights abuses, has exacerbated income inequality.
“There is no way to successfully address the region’s chronic violence or poorly performing economies without tackling corruption,” C.J. Wade, an expert on the region and a professor of political science and international studies at Washington College, told me.
Though the broad contours of the problems all three counties face may be the same, experts say the specifics vary significantly, and how to fix them often varies not just by country, but by locality.
Which means that a one-size-fits-all approach to “root causes” will fail.
Where US aid to the region stands now
In 2016, Congress approved $750 million for Central America, including Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, as part of its US Strategy for Engagement in Central America. That policy tried to look a bit more holistically at the region’s issues, and how weak institutions and poor governance were connected to the security and economic situation (and vice versa).
The Trump administration, at least in the beginning, kept the skeleton of this program intact. But it tweaked its goals a bit, according to the Congressional Research Service, to focus a bit more on preventing migration, cracking down on narcotics, improving the security situation, and creating a more favorable environment for US investment.
But funding decreased each year of the Trump administration, even before the administration’s threat to cut off aid altogether.And the US has taken off a lotof the pressure on these governments to root out corruption, quietly backing away from its full-throated support of those anti-corruption initiatives.
For instance, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales began trying to stymie the work of and later, in January 2019, tried to shut down a United Nations-backed anti-corruption panel that had been investigating him and other powerful politicians — and the US barely protested. Morales, an evangelical Christian, has built strong ties with the Trump administration, and also just happened to move the Guatemalan, embassy to Jerusalem.
Overall, it’s hard to make a judgment about how effective the Obama-era plan was, or whether Trump’s moves have halted progress, as the timelines for both are just too short.
But few experts I talked to thought Trump’s decision to scale back aid — or follow through on threats to cut it off altogether — would achieve the desired result of curtailing migration to the US.
Aid to Central America has to be separate from political whims
Addressing the “root causes” of migration requires a dose of realism: migration from these countries to the US isn’t going to stop completely, and any successful efforts will take an investment of years, if not decades, to show real results.
That means sustained foreign aid — not something that Congress and the administration squabble over every year, but a multiyear commitment — so that programs, once selected and started, know they have resources locked so they can carry out their missions.
Otherwise, it kind of defeats the purpose. “It’s just a really tragic use of money,” Jason Marczak, a Latin America expert at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, told me. “A program is given money to start up and it’s funded for one year, and then all of a sudden the money dries up,” Marczak said.
When it comes to stemming the flow of migration to the US, short-term fixes can make the problem worse in some cases. Short-term bursts of investment can make people temporarily better off financially and thus more inclined to finally take the risk of making the journey north while they can afford it — and before the money dries up again.
Which is why other experts disagree that a Plan Colombia model is the right one for Central America. “That is a war plan — Plan Colombia was a plan for war,” Lisa Haugaard, of the Latin America Working Group, told me. “And when you say that, you strike terror in the heart of civil society groups in Central America, and it sounds like an invasion. It’s the wrong model.”
Haugaard said that Plan Colombia did improve toward the end, moving away from security and more toward peace-building and human rights. There are pieces to pick out, she added, including protecting human-rights defenders and indigenous groups.
But those came later — and the idea, for many experts, is to start there when thinking about a plan for Central America: coordinating with civil society groups and building democratic institutions. That’s necessary, because security initiatives, like police training or intelligence sharing, likely won’t stick unless institutions, and the rule of law, are strengthened, too.
There are civil society groups already doing this work. The US needs to back them up.
The best way for the US to help, experts say, is to support the civil society organizations and local groups on the ground that are already working to improve their societies — find the organizations or activists that are doing the right things and that are effective (or have the potential to be) and help them succeed and give them the capacity to keep going if the US does leave.
Aid can’t just focus on the areas where people are fleeing. It also has to go places were people are staying put, and shore up the institutions to prevent migration in the first place. Because once people start leaving, it’s hard to stop; they have family, and support systems, already in place in the US.
“You look at communities where there’s massive migration and you say, ‘Okay, how do we stop this?’ But that may not be the only place or necessarily the optimal place to look,” Antica Isaacs, a professor at Haverford College who’s closely studied Guatemala, told me.
Each country, each community has different reasons people are migrating. The “root causes” in one neighborhood might be violence. Others might be lack of health care, or hunger. In other words, it’s not easy — it takes effort to figure out what fundings should go where, and to whom. But experts told me that it’s worth the effort: involving civil society groups and local leaders, who know their own communities and the problems facing them far better than diplomats in the US, is the most effective way to address the specific issues driving migration in each area.
There’s another step required: You have to make sure the programs allowed to operate safely. “The problem in Central America is not that people are not struggling to build these kinds of sustainable alternatives,” Oglesby, the University of Arizona professor, told me. “The problem is that when they try to do so, so often they’re violently attacked” — and often by the very governments in Central America.
There’s no doubt that getting governments to go along with this — to support policies that threaten their own grip on power — is a difficult task.
“We can talk about giving billions and billions of dollars to Central America,” Juan Gonzalez, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told me. “But no amount of money is going to accomplish what is necessary to address migration flows if the governments of the region aren’t willing to make some of these very difficult political commitments that often are against their own political interests.”
The US, then, has to be the muscle, and use its leverage to get Central American governments to let these organizations work unhindered.
Gonzalez, who worked intimately with these programs as a special adviser to Vice President Joe Biden from 2013 to 2015, tried not to underestimate the challenges. But, he said, having a prominent, high-level figure like the vice president doing the diplomatic work, meeting with heads of state, and offering incentives for cooperation can make a big difference.
In many ways, then, the Obama administration’s approach was a good start. But it was just that. “Something like that doesn’t succeed in a year, or two years, it takes some time,” William LeoGrande, a Latin America expert at American University, told me. “But over the long haul, it’s your only hope, really, for preventing large numbers of people fleeing.”
Democrats are recognizing this is a foreign policy priority
Gonzalez told me that when he saw how much attention Central America got during the Democratic debates last month, he texted his colleagues who’ve worked on Iran and North Korea and gloated a bit. “Central America got 10 minutes. You guys got, like, two,” he joked.
But the immigration crisis is important to American voters. And many 2020 Democrats seem to realize that addressing the problems in Central America that are driving the massive migration to the US is a critical piece of the solution.
Again, though, the devil is in the details. Wanting to address the root causes of immigration is a necessary goal. The hard part is figuring out how to do it — and mustering the political will to make it worthwhile.
Mark Esper testifies before the House Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to become Secretary of Defense on July 16, 2019. | Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images
The intense exchange focused on Esper’s work for defense firm Raytheon, but it probably won’t derail his nomination.
Secretary of the Army Mark Esper sailed through a relatively sleepy confirmation hearing for the job of defense secretary — save for one heated exchange with 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) over his ties to a major defense contractor.
The back-and-forth between Esper and Warren was practically advertised ahead of the hearing, after the Massachusetts senator laid out in a July 11 letter her concerns about an “ethics cloud” and potential conflicts of interest regarding Esper’s past position as a top lobbyist for Raytheon, a major defense contractor based in Warren’s state of Massachusetts.
Esper has a long career in public service; but as Vox’s Caroline Houck wrote, “he was perhaps best known in Washington for the seven years he spent as Raytheon’s top lobbyist.” And that’s what Warren jumped on during the confirmation hearing.
Warren challenged Esper to recuse himself from all matters involving Raytheon for the duration of his government service, something his predecessor, Shanahan, agreed to do so with respect to his former employer, Boeing. Esper is recused from making any decisions affecting Raytheon for two years (which Esper was bound to as Secretary of the Army starting 2017), but that expires in four months.
Esper said he previously told Warren that he would not do that, based on the recommendation of career ethics professionals.
That, Warren said, wasn’t the only ethics problem with this nomination. Warren also wanted Esper to agree that he wouldn’t seek a waiver to his recusal on decisions affecting Raytheon’s business.
“This smacks of corruption, plain and simple,” Warren said. “Will you commit that during your time as defense secretary that you will not seek any waiver that will allow you to participate in matters that affect Raytheon’s financial interests?”
“At any time in the past 20-something months, to include the last three weeks, did I request or seek or receive or be granted any waiver,” Esper replied.
That wasn’t the answer Warren wanted, and the two went back and forth. (“I think this is a good debate,” Esper began, before Warren cut him off with an “I’m not trying to have a debate.”) Esper, ultimately, told Warren that he wouldn’t agree not to seek a waiver, but that he was “going to continue to abide by the rules and regulations” and consult ethics professionals “to make sure we stay in the ethical midfield.”
Finally, Warren pressed Esper to commit to not returning to Raytheon or another defense firm after his time as defense secretary — a pet issue of Warren’s, as she recently introduced legislation and a presidential policy plan to prevent those working at the Pentagon from working for defense firms for years. It’s basically an attempt to end the “revolving door” — officials leaving government and going to work for private firms — at the Defense Department.
Here, too, Esper declined to wait four years to return to Raytheon or anywhere else, but he also defended his service, and dismissed the “presumption” that just because some comes from the business or corporate world that they’re corrupt.
The back-and-forth — the most intense of the hearing — gave Warren a spotlight to highlight her anti-corruption platform as senator, and as a 2020 presidential candidate. (Though, to be fair, she’s previously championed defense contractors like Raytheon, which happens to be based in her state of Massachusetts.)
And Esper, though he wouldn’t commit to Warren’s requests, made clear he’s followed the ethics rules in place now, and intends to continue doing so — which will be more than enough to protect his nomination.
Mark Esper and uncontroversial. It’s pretty much exactly what he needed to do.
Esper’s nomination was expedited, as the Pentagon has been without a permanent leader for more than six months — by far the longest an acting official has led the department. And it’s not exactly a great time to have a temp leading the defense agency: Partnerships with our traditional allies are strained, from the United Kingdom to Turkey; the US is engaged in a tense standoff with Iran; China is rising; and the US is still engaged militarily in places such as Afghanistan and Syria.
And, overall, Esper proved himself a capable steward of the Pentagon during a fairly tumultuous time. He did enough to convince Republicans and Democrats alike that he will stand up to Trump when necessary — though he was careful to avoid criticizing the president outright on any issue.
For example, when asked a question about whether Esper’s views are more aligned with former Defense Secretary Mattis (who quit in protest over Trump’s handling of Syria, among other criticisms) or Trump, Esper didn’t quite answer the question, but said he was committed to building alliances and the post-World War II order.
Nearly seven months after James Mattis resigned, a former top lobbyist from Raytheon might take his place.
Secretary of the Army Mark Esper is officially going through the confirmation process to become Secretary of Defense this week — finally bringing a Senate-confirmed official to the Pentagon’s top spot after nearly seven months. Former Secretary Jim Mattis left in January.
Esper, a former top lobbyist for Raytheon and Army officer, had already been serving as Acting Defense Secretary since June 24. He handed those duties over to Navy Secretary Richard Spencer Monday afternoon once the White House made his nomination official. (No, not that Richard Spencer.)
He’ll likely face questions about the US’s approach to that Middle Eastern country and the broader region Tuesday — not to mention some grilling from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) about his defense industry past and any possible conflicts of interests it could pose.
But his nomination is expected to move quickly: The Pentagon has been without a permanent defense secretary for much longer than Esper’s been running the ship. Former Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan had been overseeing America’s annual $700 billion military enterprise since Mattis’ resignation and was expected to be nominated initially. That came to an abrupt end in mid-June, as Vox’s Jen Kirby explained:
While Trump indicated Shanahan wanted to “devote more time to his family,” his announcement coincided with reports of past domestic disputes, which the FBI had been examining as part of Shanahan’s background check, according to USA Today.
These incidents were not made public when Shanahan was confirmed as the No. 2 at the Pentagon in July 2017, but Shanahan reportedly faced an unusually long FBI background check for the secretary role. This, combined with other questions about Shanahan’s qualifications for the role and some reticence among lawmakers, may have ultimately derailed his nomination.
The resulting turmoil has left the Pentagon without a confirmed defense secretary — not to mention other vacancies at its top levels — amid escalating tensions with Iran and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.
Mark Esper, briefly explained
Esper, a West Point graduate, served in both the Army and National Guard, but before becoming the Army’s top civilian leader in November 2017, he was perhaps best known in Washington for the seven years he spent as Raytheon’s top lobbyist.
After spending more than a decade on active duty, Esper served as a deputy assistant secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration and a policy director for the House Armed Services Committee before working for the US Chamber of Commerce and the Aerospace Industries Association and eventually joining Raytheon.
But that recent defense industry background could cause him some trouble at his confirmation hearing. Warren, a 2020 contender who’s questioned many of Trump’s Pentagon nominees with ties to the military industrial complex, warned Esper on Monday that he would have to “clear any ethics cloud” from his time with one of America’s largest defense contractors. She has already released a plan calling for a ban on the well-established revolving door between defense contractors and the Pentagon.
But even so, he’s garnered praise from both sides of the aisle and was confirmed to his current spot nearly two years ago by an 89-6 vote.If he sees a speedy confirmation vote — and it could come as early as Thursday — he will be far from the first of Trump’s nominees to be confirmed despite senators’ concerns about his industry connections. He would join Shanahan before him, not to mention recently departed Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and several others. In fact, as the Wall Street Journal’s Vivian Salama, Gordon Lubold and Nancy Youssef note, Trump has increasingly turned away from “the generals”:
After President Trump took office, he frequently lauded “my generals” and installed several top military figures in prominent roles. But since then, often after friction over policy and personality, those men have moved on, and Mr. Trump has become less enamored of the appointment of those with military careers, according to people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Esper’s appointment would mean there are no longer any senior military personnel — or recently retired generals — in the administration’s top ranks of permanent officials outside of Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president’s senior military adviser. Mr. Dunford was appointed to his four-year term by President Obama in 2015.
It’s been a bumpy 2019 for the Defense Department leadership
When James Mattis resigned at the start of the year — over a disagreement with Trump about US policy in Syria — it kicked off an unprecedented half year of volatility at the top levels of the Pentagon.
Shanahan, then deputy defense secretary, stepped into the lead spot in an acting capacity. For months, Trump said his nomination would be sent to the Senate any day. But last month, as pushback to the nomination from senators was already growing, news broke about past domestic incidents that had raised red flags. Here’s Vox’s Kirby again on a few of them:
At least one of the incidents involved Shanahan and his ex-wife, both of whom accused the other of punching them in an August 2010 incident. Shanahan’s ex-wife was arrested after the incident, though charges were later dropped. Shanahan denied the allegations that he assaulted his ex-wife to both USA Today and the Washington Post.
In another disturbing incident reported by the Post, Shanahan defended his 17-year-old son who allegedly beat his mother with a baseball bat.
Esper took over as acting head, but his move and the double vacancy caused by Shanahan’s resignation — not just from the acting SecDef role, but from his confirmed deputy position as well — meant a number of other civilian military leaders were shuffled around.
And once Esper’s nomination was sent to the Senate, he legally couldn’t serve as the acting chief anymore. Cue Navy Secretary Spencer stepping in. If you’re counting, as the AP’s Robert Burns did, that’s meant three different acting secretaries have held the Defense Department reins this year alone:
Prior to the Trump administration, only twice before has the Defense Department been led by an acting secretary — most recently in 1989 — and never has it had more than one in a single year.
To deal with all those vacancies, the Trump administration has been playing a game of musical chairs with its civilian military leadership. Assuming Esper is confirmed on Thursday, here’s what happens next — just on Thursday. Per NBC’s rather comical timeline of rotating characters this week to achieve an official confirmation:
When Esper is sworn in, Richard Spencer will stop being acting defense secretary and will revert to his previous job, secretary of the Navy.
Ryan McCarthy will resume his position as acting secretary of the Army.
Then, the following week, again from NBC:
David Norquist will be formally nominated to become deputy secretary of defense, the second most powerful position at the Pentagon.
Upon his nomination, Norquist, who had been acting deputy of secretary of defense, will revert back to his previous job, comptroller.
While Norquist awaits confirmation, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord will become acting deputy secretary of defense. It will be only the second time a woman has held this position.
This all comes at a precarious time — the US’s longstanding “special relationship” with the United Kingdom is increasingly fraught after the British ambassador to the US resigned after cables leaked in which she called Trump “inept,” tensions with Iran have only increased since the US withdrew from a negotiated nuclear deal last year, and the war in Afghanistan is only a few months from adulthood.
A confirmed defense secretary is, at least, step one to reassuring those allies and guiding the US military in its numerous overseas engagements.
“Beware of what you’re walking into, because nothing good happens in the Strait of Hormuz,” said a retired three-star admiral.
The Trump administration is planning to send US Navy ships to help escort oil tankers in the Gulf in order to protect them from possible Iranian aggression. But some experts warn the move could cost a lot of money and risk pulling the US and Iran into a war neither wants.
The current plan is for the US to send “command and control” ships to the area that will help lead the effort and for other countries’ vessels to do the actual escorting of the tankers.
“Escorting in the normal course of events would be done by countries who have the same flag, so a ship that is flagged from a particular country would be escorted by that country,” Dunford told reporters Tuesday. “What the United States is uniquely capable of providing is some of the command and control, some of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.”
It’s unclear exactly how involved the US ships will actually be in the operations, though, and which countries the US plans to work with. It’s also unclear exactly whose oil tankers this new coalition will be tasked with protecting.
This new effort is a response to a recent spate of suspected attacks on oil tankers in recent months that the US and others have blamed on Iran (a charge Iran denies). Six oil tankers sailing through that region have been damaged since May in apparent sabotage operations amid a months-long standoff between the US and Iran.
And just this week, the United Kingdom said it had thwarted an Iranian attempt to block a British tanker from proceeding in the Strait of Hormuz. According to the Washington Post, the tanker was approaching the northern entrance to the strait when the British naval ship accompanying it “was forced to position herself between the Iranian vessels” and the ship, a government statement said. Tehran has also denied any involvement in that episode.
These incidents are why some experts say the Pentagon’s plan, if enacted, may be necessary right now. “Given the current situation, this probably makes sense to deter future Iranian attacks,” Ilan Goldenberg, the Defense Department’s Iran team chief from 2009 to 2012, told me.
This all sounds very similar to when the US in 1987 escorted Kuwaiti ships traveling through the Gulf while the Iran-Iraq war raged. Then-President Ronald Reagan proceeded with the operation, known as Operation Earnest Will, despite congressional concern that doing so might get the US involved in conflict.
It’s possible President Donald Trump may receive the same backlash — especially since escorting ships is much harder in practice than it sounds in theory.
The danger of escorting ships in troubled waters
Military planners during the Reagan years worried about the challenges of sending American ships to the Gulf during such a tense time. In heated debates, US officials worried about what would happen if an Iranian vessel approached an American-escorted tanker. Should America shoot first or second?
Ultimately, a decision was made to allow US Navy ship captains to take all necessary measures to protect the vessel they were escorting from attack. That didn’t satisfy everyone in the Reagan administration — some worried about a captain making a costly mistake — but that was the final order.
These are the kinds of discussions and debates the Pentagon will now need to have about what US Navy ships can and can’t do to defend the tankers they’re helping protect. It’s a complicated, expensive, and risky endeavor, experts tell me.
Retired Navy Vice Adm. Michael Franken, who served on a US warship during Operation Earnest Will, told me there aren’t enough vessels to escort every single tanker individually, one by one. That means multiple tankers may have to wait outside the entrances to Gulf waters until an escorting ship can take a group together, making it more complicated to protect them all.
And, of course, the more US Navy ships there are in the region, the more likely it is that something could go wrong.
“A greater US presence also means higher risk of an inadvertent run-in or miscalculation at sea that leads to conflict,” says Goldenberg, now at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, DC. “Iran will likely try to avoid a direct confrontation with the US military, but it will continue to test the limits. We should expect it to continue on occasion to target non-American ships with mines or use provocative harassment tactics from its small boats.”
Mines, which can be triggered by sound, pressure, or magnetism, make the operation especially dangerous. It’s possible that even an escorted ship hits a mine — or one is planted on it — causing an explosion and potential loss of life. Franken, now at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, was on a warship behind SS Bridgeton, a supertanker traveling through the Persian Gulf in 1987, when a mine blew part of it up.
He told me he worries about what the US response would be if something like that happens again. “Mining in international waters is an act of war,” he said. It’d be hard at that point for the Trump administration to ignore the bombing, potentially leading Washington and Tehran to war.
That’s why Franken has a word of warning for the Pentagon: “Beware of what you’re walking into, because nothing good happens in the Strait of Hormuz.”
A new report in Politico says the former CIA director “grilled” CIA analysts on their findings that Russia interfered in 2016 to help Trump.
When Mike Pompeo became CIA director in 2017, he soon began a thorough personal review of the agency’s findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump.
His findings? There is no evidence that CIA analysts acted improperly or were under political pressure to come up with a certain conclusion, three people familiar with the matter told Politico’s Natasha Bertrand.
This calls into greater question the necessity of Attorney General William Barr’s review of the intelligence community’s findings, which said Russia intervened to benefit Trump.
The Politico report doesn’t offer much detail about Pompeo’s findings, but sources told Bertrand that Pompeo’s interviews with CIA officers were “robust”:
“This wasn’t just a briefing,” said one person familiar with the episode. “This was a challenging back and forth, in which Pompeo asked the officers tough questions about their work and how they determined Putin’s specific objectives.”
A congressional aide also confirmed to Politico that Pompeo never testified or gave any indication to lawmakers that the CIA had engaged in any wrongdoing throughout the course of its investigation.
The fact that Pompeo — an ardent defender of Trump in all things — didn’t find anything amiss with the CIA’s work or its conclusions about Russia’s motives in 2016 is quite significant, as it further repudiates the suspicions of some House Republican lawmakers and Barr himself(not to mention President Trump) that the intelligence community overstepped or acted improperly.
The Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), already came to a similar conclusion last July. “The Committee has spent the last 16 months reviewing the sources, tradecraft and analytic work underpinning the Intelligence Community Assessment and sees no reason to dispute the conclusions,” Burr said in a statement.
But Trump and his Republican allies in Congress have argued throughout the years-long investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia that the entire probe was begun based on shoddy intelligence and that federal law enforcement illegally spied on members of the campaign.
And Barr, as attorney general, has given oxygen to those claims by agreeing to carry out a wholesale “investigation into the investigators.” Of course, whether the FBI acted improperly and whether the intelligence community was correct in its 2017 assessment are two separate matters.
But there’s some fear that throwing both together will jeopardize intelligence-gathering and have a chilling effect — which will make it much harder to defend against future incursions by foreign powers into US elections, by Russia or anyone else who might be interested.
Barr, with his far-reaching review, has helped give credence and legitimacy to the “witch hunt” narrative. But this Politico report offers another slice of evidence that this conspiracy theory is just that — a conspiracy theory.
NEW YORK — Joe Biden just made his foreign policy pitch to the American people: If you elect me, I will try to undo all the damage Trump has done.
The 2020 Democratic frontrunner unveiled his foreign policy platform in a nearly hour-longspeech at the City University of New York on Thursday. In it, the former vice president promised to restore America’s democratic leadership in the world and to work with our allies to tackle global challenges, from climate change to terrorism to nuclear proliferation.
He also spent plenty of time slamming the current president.
“The world sees [President Donald] Trump for what he is: insincere, ill-informed, and impulsive. Sometimes corrupt. Dangerously incompetent, and incapable, in my view, of world leadership and leadership at home,” Biden told the audience.
The plan Biden laid out was the exact opposite of President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach in nearly every respect. But though he promised to pursue a “forward-thinking foreign policy” that deals with the world as it is today, Biden’s speech seemed focused much more on restoring the world as it once was, back when he and President Barack Obama were running things.
In other words, Biden is not so much offering voters a bold vision for the future as much as he’s presenting a plan for how to restore the past.
The question is whether that idealized past can — or even should — be restored.
Biden’s plan aims to erase Trump’s decisions and build on the Obama years
Biden’s platform includes rejoining the signature international agreements that he and Obama worked to create during their eight years in office: the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords, both of which Trump has withdrawn the US from.
Biden also promised to end Trump’s travel ban, undo the global gag rule that blocks federal funding from going to any NGOs around the world that provide abortion services, rehabilitate the NATO alliance, and restore daily press briefings in the White House, State Department, and Department of Defense, which have become scarce under Trump.
And he pledged to resume sending substantial foreign aid to the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to tackle the corruption, violence, and poverty that are forcing thousands to flee to the US border.
These are nearly all accomplishments and programs achieved under Obama that Trump has more or less undone. Biden promised to put them back, and then strengthen and adjust from there.
For those distressed by how much the world has changed under Trump, Biden offers the comfort and reassurance that he will put everything back the way it was. But it’s not just the foreign policy world that’s changed in the years since Biden and Obama were in charge — the Democratic Party has changed, too.
Biden’s speech laid out a traditional foreign policy. Will it play in today’s Democratic Party?
Policy ideas and political ideologies once considered “radical” are now being espoused by leading 2020 Democratic contenders and freshman members of Congress alike. Several prominent politicians unapologetically identify as “Democratic socialists.” Progressive policies like Medicare for All, debt-free college, taxing the ultrarich to redistribute wealth more evenly, and zeroing-out all US carbon emissions are now mainstream positions.
On foreign policy, too, once-fringe progressive positions like rethinking or even cutting off US aid to Israel and shrinking the US defense budget and have become more and more mainstream.
Which means that simply “renewing American values” and ensuring that “democracy is once-again the watch word of foreign policy,” as Biden wants to do, may not be enough to energize the Democratic base anymore.
Biden did make the case that investing in American democracy — expanding access to health care, criminal justice reform, and raising the minimum wage — would help America lead by example among democracies.
But ultimately, the vice president offered reassuring and familiar themes. It’s a steadying approach, after years of turmoil under Trump. But it doesn’t remake or reshape America’s foreign policy.
The most novel policy idea Biden presented was a pledge to hold a “global summit for democracy” that would bring together democratic countries, civil society groups, and the private sector to come up with ways to combat rising authoritarianism, restore trust in institutions, and “make concrete commitments to tackle corruption and advance human rights.”
It’s an interesting idea, and has some elements, like the focus on corruption and human rights, of a more progressive agenda. But it’s also one of the only new ideas Biden had to offer.
Biden’s vision of a world restored to the old ways of doing things doesn’t really grapple with whether this is even possible — or whether that will be enough for the Democratic Party of today. Biden wants to restore American democratic leadership back to what it was, before Trump. But is it what voters want?
In advance of a speech in New York on Thursday in which Biden will lay out his own views on foreign policy, the former vice president released a short video slamming Trump’s handling of world affairs.
The video presents the five core elements of what Biden calls “The Trump Doctrine”:
“Embrace dictators” — illustrated with clips of Trump saying he “fell in love” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, stating that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials about interfering in the 2016 US election, and parroting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s insistence that he had nothing to do with the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“Threaten war” — depicted by a screenshot of a Trump tweet from 2018 in which he promised to impose “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE” on Iran if that country ever threatened the US again.
“Rip up international agreements” — demonstrated using footage of Trump announcing in 2018 that he was pulling the US out of the Iran nuclear deal and declaring in 2017 that he was withdrawing the US from the Paris climate accord.
“Launch trade wars” — portrayed with a screenshot of a Trump tweet claiming that “trade wars are good, and easy to win” juxtaposed with the voice of a news anchor reporting that American farmers are suffering from the trade war with China.
“Embarrass the US” — shown with a quick supercut of Trump being friendly with those dictators again as MSNBC’s Brian Williamsquotes a “veteran US diplomat” describing an unspecified Trump appearance as “the single most embarrassing performance he’s ever seen on the world stage.”
The video ends with a close up of Trump’s face, then a cut to a black screen and the words “Reclaiming American leadership starts here.”
The Trump Doctrine - YouTube
Put together, Biden’s political ad is a five-point broadside that is sure to make Democrats nod and Republicans scoff.
The problem is it comes up short in two big ways.
First, it lacks any specifics about what the former vice president would do to reverse Trump’s foreign policy. The roughly 100-second video effectively boils down to “Trump is bad” without offering why “Biden is good.” (Biden will hopefully offer a bit more detail on how he would conduct foreign affairs differently than Trump during his speech later on Thursday.)
Second, it conveniently overlooks some of Trump’s successes on the world stage. For example, his administration destroyed ISIS’s physical “caliphate,” improved ties with Israeli’s government (though angering Palestinians), began peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan that seem to be bearing (some) fruit, and renegotiated and updated the North American Free Trade Agreement known as NAFTA.
Which means Biden’s challenge on Thursday will be to go beyond criticism of Trump’s foreign policy and actually explain how he’d do things better.
The hope is that the video serves as an opening line, and not the entire message.
Want to understand Trump’s foreign policy? Just follow the money.
In Donald Trump’s America, what drives foreign policy decision-making in Washington isn’t interests and values — it’s cash and ego. And other countries have noticed.
Want the US to stop criticizing your terrible human rights record? Dangle a possible trade deal. Want the Trump administration to give you a pass on the gruesome assassination of a prominent critic of your brutal regime? A few billion dollars’ worth of US arms purchases should do the trick. Need to get the American president on your side in a messy geopolitical fight? Buy some Boeing airplanes.
Those aren’t just hypothetical scenarios. They describe three very real foreign policy decisions the Trump administration made in the past year.
From China to Saudi Arabia to Qatar, Trump has either backed down or changed course on holding countries accountable for human rights abuses and other bad behaviors solely because of the money they spend — or say they’ll spend — in the United States.
In effect, Trump has put US foreign policy up for sale. “Trump is quite easy to buy off for other countries,” Emma Ashford, a US foreign policy expert at the Cato Institute, told me.
Countries know how to play Trump to get what they want
For some experts, Trump is a visceral manifestation of an ugly truth of America’s conduct in the world.
“Trump’s actions take to new, depressing heights what’s been true for a while: US foreign policy has become unmoored from strategic vision and moral purpose alike,” Stephen Wertheim, a US foreign policy historian at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told me. “Trump’s shtick is that the world turns on base motives, and he’s brought this ethos to foreign policy.”
But Trump is clearly the latest and greatest practitioner of this longstanding practice.
Let’s start with China. Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping asked Trump to back off criticizing Beijing for its crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, according to a person familiar with the discussions. Trump accepted — because Xi made it a condition to restart sputtering trade talks between their two countries.
The Financial Times, which first reported that exchange on Wednesday, also noted that the Trump administration pressured the outgoing US consul general to Hong Kong, Kurt Tong, not to mention China’s policy toward the city in his farewell speech.
After a week of calls from members of Congress for Trump to punish Saudi Arabia, and the crown prince himself, for the killing, Trump said he wouldn’t — because the country was spending a lot of money in America.
“This took place in Turkey and to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen,” he told reporters in the Oval Office on October 11, 2018. “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country,” referring to his desire to sell $110 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, adding that “it would not be acceptable to me.”
Trump on possibility of punishing Saudi Arabia for apparently murdering a dissident journalist: "I don't like stopping massive amounts of money that's being poured into our country... they are spending $110b on military equipment and on things that create jobs for this country." pic.twitter.com/QkzWPa5zcL
It was perhaps one of Trump’s most honest articulations about how he conducts foreign policy: He won’t call out a country that infringes on human dignity as long as it’s willing to inject cash into the American economy. And it’s especially fine if the affected people aren’t US citizens. Trump, in this case, put a price tag on Khashoggi’s life.
But in the Oval Office on Tuesday, Trump continued his stunning reversal on the small Gulf state, saying that he’s fine with Qatar now because it wants to spend around $85 billion on US weapons, aircraft, and more.
“They’re investing very heavily in our country. They’re creating a lot of jobs. They’re buying tremendous amounts of military equipment, including planes,” Trump told reporters. “And they’re buying commercial planes, as you know — very large numbers of commercial planes from Boeing. And we very much appreciate it.”
This doesn’t keep happening by accident — it’s a deliberate strategy by other countries to manipulate the president. “A lot of foreign leaders are now relying either on flattery and pomp to woo Trump, or they come to Washington with proof of ‘big deals’ that will appeal to him in this way,” says Cato’s Ashford.
“It’s not so much that he’s a bad negotiator, but that he’s negotiating for different things than most presidents,” she continued. “He wants big wins that look good for him in the media; a promise from another country to invest in US jobs does that, even if it doesn’t solve any long-term problems, and even if the investment never actually happens.”
Which means that the only thing really anyone needs to do to understand US foreign policy these days isn’t to read policy documents, listen to high-profile speeches, or have an innate understanding of America’s history. No, one just has to follow the money.
Kim Darroch, who’s been ambassador to the US since January 2016 and whose tenure was expected to last until the end of the year, wrote in his resignation letter that he wanted to end the speculation about his status in the US after the leak of the cables. “The current situation is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like,” he wrote, according to the Financial Times.
“Although my posting is not due to end until the end of this year, I believe in the current circumstances the responsible course is to allow the appointment of a new ambassador,” he continued.
And his assessments were not exactly complimentary. At various points, Darroch called Trump “clumsy and inept,” described him as “radiating insecurity,” and referred to the administration’s Iran policy as “incoherent” and “chaotic.”
He wrote that media reports of “vicious infighting and chaos” within the administration were “mostly true,” warned that Trump’s economic policies could be catastrophic for the global economy, and at one point wrote bluntly: “I don’t think this Administration will ever look competent.”
These unvarnished portraits of the president and his administration were intended to be secret, only shared with a very small number of senior members of the British government in order to give them insight on how to deal with a mercurial Trump. Writing these kinds of assessments for your government back home is one of the most important (and completely normal) parts of any ambassador’s job.
But though the cables contained the same sorts of observations that people within Trump’s own administration have made on many occasions, the notoriously thin-skinned president clearly did not enjoy having those remarks about him by a British diplomat published in a major UK tabloid.
May had defended Darroch’s duty to report his uncensored observations, although she said she disagreed with his characterization of the administration. Jeremy Hunt, the UK foreign secretary, did the same — and on Tuesday, he responded directly to Trump’s criticism, saying it was “disrespectful and wrong to our Prime Minister and my country.”
Hunt, who’s a long-shot finalist to be the country’s next prime minister, also said if chosen as PM, he would keep Darroch as the UK ambassador in Washington until the end of his tenure this year.
But Hunt is probably not going to be prime minister, which means his opinion matters a lot less than that of the guy who probably will be: Boris Johnson. And during a debate on Tuesday with Hunt, Johnson refused to say that he would not fire Darroch.
That seems to be what prompted Darroch to finally step down; essentially, he saw the potential next prime minister as willing to sack him for political expediency.
Friends of Sir Kim Darroch say he decided the game was up last night after watching Boris Johnson refuse to back him during live TV debate
Darroch’s resignation may be a blip in the US. But it’s a big deal in the UK.
Darroch’s resignation is rattling British politics — and it’s underscoring the strained, and somewhat strange, relationship between the US and the UK under Trump.
May called Darroch’s departure “a matter of great regret” and extolled his public service.
“Good government depends on public servants being able to give full and frank advice,” May said. And in what seemed like a not-so-subtle dig at the man likely to replace her, she added that she wanted “all our public servants to have the confidence to be able to do that, and I hope the house [House of Commons] will reflect on the importance of defending our values and principles, particularly when they are under pressure.”
Hunt said he was “deeply saddened” by Darroch’s resignation and that “it should never have come to this.”
Sir Kim served Britain with distinction for 42 yrs and whenever I visited Washington as Foreign Secretary, I was struck by his professionalism and intellect. Profoundly regret how outrageous leak caused this. Sir Kim deserves to look on his career with satisfaction & pride.
For his part, Johnson did praise Darroch’s service, and he repeated his call to find out who leaked the cables to the media. “I hope that whoever it is, is run down, caught and eviscerated, quite frankly, because it is not right that advice to ministers that civil servants must be able to make in a spirit of freedom should be leaked,” Johnson said, according to the Guardian.
Yet his noncommittal debate answers about Darroch resonated much more. Alan Duncan, a junior foreign minister, accused Johnson of basically throwing “this fantastic diplomat under the bus to serve his own personal interests.”
And that gets to why this whole saga is such a big deal in the UK right now: It speaks to the sense among many in Britainthat their politicians are kowtowing to Trump at the expense of their own country’s interests and power.
This is especially toxic in the age of Brexit, which in some ways is really what much of this debate is about. As the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson Sorkin explained, “One of the premises that the Brexiteers operate from is that breaking with the E.U. will allow them to negotiate the independent trade deal of their dreams with the United States, which will, in turn, help them to tell the E.U. who’s boss, and for that they want Trump.”
In other words, some critics see Darroch’s resignation — and Johnson’s refusal to say he’d keep Darroch there despite Trump’s threats — as yet another appeasement to Trump for the prospect of some as-yet-unrealized trade deal.
Boris Johnson sold Brexit to the British people as the way to regain our independence and to restore our national pride. Instead he is ushering in a craven subjugation to the narcissistic whims of a right wing nationalist US President.
The shameful forcing out of Kim Darroch after Johnson failed to back him shows Johnson as PM would be nothing more than Trump's lap dog. What a humiliating prospect for our United Kingdom. #brexitshambles#finalsay#PeoplesVote
Darroch’s resignation also shows how weird the US-UK relationship is currently.
Simon McDonald, the top official in the UK Foreign Office, told members of Parliament on Wednesday that the last time the UK had diplomatic “difficulty” with the US was in 1856 — when the US accused the UK ambassador “of recruiting Americans to fight on the British side in the Crimean War.”
“President Franklin Pierce was in the White House,” McDonald said.
It was an (admittedly funny) attempt to illustrate just how abnormal this rift in the typically close “special relationship” between the two countries is.