With help from Lara Seligman and Daniel Lippman
Chief Pentagon spokesperson JOHN KIRBY is moving over to the White House — but what he’ll do there no one really knows.
In his Thursday night scoop, The Washington Post’s TYLER PAGER reported that Kirby will take a senior communications position, but his “exact title and role remain unclear.” That was surprising, as Kirby didn’t get the job to replace the departed JEN PSAKI at the White House podium, even though rumors swirled around Washington that he was a top candidate.
But Kirby has found a White House gig after all, even if no one we’ve talked to can articulate what it is.
We’ve heard a variety of explanations: He’ll occasionally do the White House briefing, splitting time with new press secretary KARINE JEAN-PIERRE. We’ve also heard he’ll act like a surrogate on television, a medium he’s very comfortable with from his double stint as Pentagon spokesperson and time as a CNN on-air pundit.
He may also help the National Security Council with its communications, similar to the role BEN RHODES played in the Obama White House. The team is rebuilding after some heavy turnover, leading to overworked staffers inundated with queries about Ukraine (we here at NatSec Daily have contributed to their workload).
We tried to get more clarity on the move, but a host of U.S. officials would either not speak to us or only go on background. Asked about the move during the Pentagon briefing, Kirby said “I don’t have any personnel announcements to make.… We all serve at the pleasure of the president.”
Just as unclear is who will replace Kirby in the Pentagon briefing room. The most likely candidate, at least in the interim, is his deputy, J. TODD BREASSEALE, who formerly held top communications posts at Microsoft and Facebook. Breasseale would be the first openly LGBTQ+ Pentagon press secretary.
What we do know is that the Pentagon press corps will miss Kirby. He ended the Trump-era silence in the Defense Department briefing room and was respected by reporters who worked with him. But his tenure at DOD wasn’t all perfect, namely after he took responsibility for blocking journalist embeds with U.S. troops staging around Ukraine.
“We don’t make decisions to grant access or not to grant access lightly. And there’s lots of factors that go into that. Sometimes it has to do with operational security, sometimes it has to do with how that kind of access nests into the larger strategy that we’re pursuing,” he told reporters in February.
Most we’ve spoken to, though, say Kirby’s move is a good one for the White House — and could help the administration with its comms work.
“He will bring national security experience and trust and credibility from the press,” DOUGLAS WILSON, a former Pentagon spokesperson in the Obama administration, told NatSec Daily. “He is very effective behind the scenes — he has a very good sense of policy and an equally good sense of how to present it honestly and credibly.”
‘STRATEGIC DEFEAT FOR RUSSIA’: The Biden administration seeks a “strategic defeat for Russia,” U.S. Ambassador to NATO JULIANNE SMITH said Friday.
“We want to see a strategic defeat for Russia. We want Russia to leave Ukraine, we want Russia to stop the violence, stop these indiscriminate brutal attacks on civilians,” Smith said during the think tank-led Strategic Ark conference in Warsaw, per POLITICO Europe’s CAMILLE GIJS and HANNAH ROBERTS.
That’s roughly been America’s line since the war began: The goal is to ensure that Russia is weaker diplomatically, economically and militarily by the end of the conflict. Basically, that it be in a far worse-off position than it was before the invasion.
Smith’s comments also echo those made by Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN in April: “we want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”
The goal, a NSC spokesperson said following Autin’s comment, was “to make this invasion a strategic failure for Russia.”
RUSSIA TO ENLIST 40-SOMETHINGS: The Russian Parliament will consider a bill to allow Russians over 40 and foreigners over 30 to sign up for the military — a sign that Moscow sees a clear need for reinforcements in Ukraine.
“Currently, only Russians aged 18-40 and foreigners aged 18-30 can enter into a first contract with the military,” Reuters’ MARK TREVELYAN reported.
“Clearly, the Russians are in trouble. This is the latest attempt to address manpower shortages without alarming their own population. But it is growing increasingly difficult for the Kremlin to disguise their failures in Ukraine,” retired Gen. BEN HODGES, a former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, told Reuters.
The Duma will also consider a bill to recruit other personnel for the war like civilian medics, engineers and communications professionals.
WHY BIDEN HASN’T LIFTED SANCTIONS ON CHINA: President JOE BIDEN has maintained former President DONALD TRUMP’s sanctions pressure on China, refusing to change course even as inflation harms the American economy. The reason? His aides disagree about what to do.
“[W]ith his advisers split, the potential economic gains limited and the danger of Republican attacks for being ‘soft on China’ looming, Biden is unconvinced” to lift the penalties, The Washington Post’s DAVID LYNCH reported. The Post’s JOSH ROGIN also reported Thursday that Biden’s top officials assess removing the tariffs would give up what little leverage they have to change China’s behavior.
Two options are under consideration: “The president could make it easier for importers to win waivers from the import levies. Or he could drop tariffs on some Chinese products while launching a new investigation of Chinese trade practices that could result in fresh tariffs on high-tech products or those improperly subsidized by Beijing.”
Biden is stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, lifting tariffs might alleviate some of the economic pain in America. On the other, Republicans will target Biden and China will once against reap a monetary windfall from open trade with the U.S.
UKRAINE MIL INTEL CHIEF SAYS FIGHT UNTIL RUSSIANS EXPELLED: Ukraine will continue to fight until the Russians are fully expelled from the country they invaded, Maj. Gen. KYRYLO BUDANOV, Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, told The Wall Street Journal’s YAROSLAV TROFIMOV.
“I don’t know any borders except the borders of 1991,” he said, noting the year of Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union. “Who can force Ukraine to freeze the conflict? This is a war of all Ukrainians, and if someone in the world thinks that they can dictate to Ukraine the conditions under which it can or cannot defend itself, then they are seriously mistaken.”
Budanov also said his country needs “medium- and long-range missile systems, large-caliber artillery and strike aircraft to offset Russian advantages in manpower and equipment,” per Trofimov.
“We have already begun an offensive in certain points, but a large-scale offensive without these weapons will be very difficult.”
The Biden administration is still debating what victory for Ukraine and the broader West looks like. Budanov is providing the answer: All Russians out.
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USSS EMPLOYEES PUT ON LEAVE: The U.S. Secret Service confirmed today that two of its employees have been “placed on administrative leave” following an “off-duty incident” amid Biden’s Asia trip this week, per Quint.
Reuters reported that a member of Biden’s advance security team had been arrested in Seoul a day before Biden arrived in the South Korean capital. The report, citing local police, stated that the security team member was accused of drunkenly assaulting a South Korean citizen.
ANTHONY GUGLIELMI, chief of communications for the USSS, said in a statement that the agency “is aware of an off-duty incident involving two employees which may constitute potential policy violations.” He added: “The individuals will be immediately returned back to their post of duty and placed on administrative leave. There was no impact to the upcoming trip.”
Only one employee was investigated by local authorities, and no one was detained, arrested or criminally charged, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the situation.
CANADA JOINS FIVE EYES WITH BAN ON HUAWEI, ZTE: Canada announced Thursday that it will ban Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE from the country’s fifth-generation wireless network over national security concerns, per our own ANDY BLATCHFORD. Canada had previously been the only member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance — which includes Australia, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. — yet to say whether it would allow the companies to participate in its 5G.
The move by Ottawa was delayed for years, likely due to testy bilateral tensions over the arrest of Huawei executive MENG WANZHOU, which was followed by China’s detentions of two Canadians, MICHAEL KOVRIG and MICHAEL SPAVOR. The resolution of their cases last September and the safe return home of the Canadians opened the door for ban.
The Canadian government launched a national security review on telecommunications three years ago, a process that began before Chinese authorities rounded up Kovrig and Spavor. Asked about the delay, Canadian Industry Minister FRANÇOIS-PHILIPPE CHAMPAGNE said: “This has never been a race, this is about making the right decision.”
PRO-RUSSIAN HACKERS HIT ITALIAN WEBSITES: Pro-Russia hackers said they attacked the websites of Italian institutions and government agencies, leading Italian authorities to investigate the claim.
“The attack, which began Thursday evening, was claimed by a hacker cooperative called ‘Killnet’ and its affiliate ‘Legion,’” The New York Times’ JASON HOROWITZ reported. “The police said they believed the claim was legitimate and was significant in the cases of two crashed sites: the Italian foreign ministry’s and the national magistrates association’s.”
The Italian-Russian relationship has worsened ever since Prime Minister MARIO DRAGHI came to power and took a harder line on Moscow. “Ukraine will decide what peace to accept, no one else,” he told the Italian Parliament Thursday. Remarks like that, as well as impounding oligarchs’ yachts, may explain why pro-Russia hackers are targeting Italy right now.
U.S. TELLS TAIWAN TO MODEL UKRAINE: Our own LARA SELIGMAN reports that U.S. officials are pushing their Taiwanese counterparts with new urgency to look to Ukraine’s success in fending off Russia’s invasion as a blueprint for potentially countering a similar attack by China.
Meanwhile, in Beijing, experts say Chinese officials are likely adjusting their plans for Taiwan to improve on Russia’s failures.
Discussions about reshaping Taiwan’s military are intensifying as Biden is in Asia this week on his first trip to the region as president. The U.S. and Pacific allies have been alarmed by China’s tacit support for Russia since the start of the invasion, and U.S. officials believe the conflict has influenced China’s calculations about how and when to attempt to take control of Taiwan.
“We in no way want to see that same type of pain and suffering [in Ukraine] replicated in Taiwan,” HSIAO BI-KHIM, Taiwan’s official representative to the U.S., told POLITICO. “The government as well as the public has to invest our efforts in our self-defense or preparedness. And I think there is a general acknowledgement that this is a priority right now.”
SENATE TO APPROVE SWEDEN AND FINLAND IN NATO: Even though some Republicans voted against giving $40 billion in aid to Ukraine, there’s no real resistance to approving Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO.
“According to nearly a dozen interviews with senators, most of the Republicans who opposed new military aid to Ukraine are unlikely to block Finland’s and Sweden’s bids to join NATO — further easing the bipartisan push amid concerns that some Republicans were growing uneasy with the U.S. commitment to Europe’s security,” our own ANDREW DESIDERIO reported.
“That’s one of the prices that Putin should pay.… The more the merrier that we get into NATO,” said Sen. MIKE BRAUN (R-Ind.), who was among the 11 conservatives who opposed the $40 billion Ukraine aid package due to the high price tag. “It strengthens them and puts less of a burden on us. I’m for anybody who wants to join.”
“We’ll welcome them both with open arms,” added Sen. ROGER MARSHALL (R-Kan.), who also opposed the aid bill but said he would vote “without hesitation” in favor of their NATO bids.
When NatSec Daily tweeted this story, Sen. CHRIS MURPHY (D-Conn.) responded with a direct taunt of Republicans: “[T]he very fact that one of the most important questions in Congress these days is ‘how many Republicans are going to support Russia’s position on pro-Ukraine legislation and will it be enough to be a problem?’ is a bit troubling.”
McCONNELL ON UKRAINE: Desiderio also spoke with Senate Minority Leader MITCH McCONNELL (R-Ky.) about the American response to Ukraine and why this issue has inspired bipartisanship long missing in Washington.
“My argument to [Biden] was, I want to reinforce with the Europeans after some loose talk during the Trump years about whether NATO is important, that at least at the moment, the most important Republican we currently have in Congress has a different point of view,” McConnell said in an interview in his office Thursday just off the Senate floor, a few hours after the chamber had sent the aid package to Biden’s desk.
McConnell told the president he wanted to “push back … against the isolationist sentiment in my own party. And [Biden] agreed that that makes sense.”
Implicit, though nearly explicit, in McConnell’s comment is that he both wants to bolster Ukraine’s defenses and counter the growing restraint coalition within the Republican party. It’s another indicator of the establishment trying to beat away the isolationist wave that doesn’t see as much value in global engagement, or at least investment in Europe instead of Asia.
McConnell downplays the divide, though. “I think 11 votes is a pretty small group,” McConnell said, noting that far fewer will end up opposing Finland’s and Sweden’s membership in NATO. “This is not a major schism. It’s a small isolationist group, somewhat encouraged by the former president. But it’s not widely held among Republicans in Congress, and I don’t think among the public in general.”
HFAC CODEL TO EUROPE: Rep. GREGORY MEEKS (D-N.Y.), the House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, will lead a bipartisan congressional delegation to Austria, Switzerland, Moldova and the Czech Republic.
Joining him: Reps. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-Texas), TED DEUTCH (D-Fla.), ANN WAGNER (R-Mo.), BILL KEATING (D-Mass.), DAN MEUSER (R-Penn.), TED LIEU (D-Calif.), JOE NEGUSE (D-Colo.), MADELEINE DEAN (D-Penn.) and SETH MOULTON (D-Mass.).
“Members will engage with government officials and civil society groups on the humanitarian crisis resulting from Russia’s full-scale invasion into Ukraine, and with international organizations, U.S. diplomats, and foreign ministries related to Iran diplomacy and COVID-19 recovery. In Davos, the delegation will participate in the World Economic Forum,” per an HFAC release.
RUSSIA TO HALT GAS TO FINLAND: Russia is about to cut off natural gas supplies to Finland over a payment dispute –– but probably also over the fact that it’s set to join NATO.
“Russian gas will stop flowing to Finland at 7 a.m. local time on Saturday, Finnish state gas company Gasum said in a statement Friday. Poland and Bulgaria were cut off in late April because they did not make payments in the Russian currency — a move EU leaders described at the time as ‘blackmail’ by Moscow,” CNN’s CHRIS LIAKOS and ANNA COOBAN.
Finland expected this move since the government said it wouldn’t pay Russia in roubles, which Moscow wants to skirt Western-imposed sanctions. It’s a risk, though, as Finland relied on Russia for nearly 68 percent of its natural gas consumption in 2020.
Still, Finland has opted to join NATO and further move away from its Russian ties — so the closing of the tap was surely just a matter of time.
— FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY: Beginning May 28, STEPHANIE HALLETT will serve as acting senior director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council. She’ll take over for BARBARA LEAF, who was confirmed this week as assistant secretary for near eastern affairs at the Department of State.
— FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY: JULIA SIBLEY is rejoining the International Republican Institute as senior adviser for communications. She was previously director of communications at Hudson Institute.
— MAEGAN VAZQUEZ and DEVAN COLE, interview by JAKE TAPPER, CNN: “Exclusive: TREVOR REED Details Surviving Horrendous Conditions in Russian Psychiatric Treatment Facility”
— GUY HEDGECOE, POLITICO Europe: “Return of the King: JUAN CARLOS’ Problematic Spanish Homecoming”
— CHICO HARLAN and STEFANO PITRELLI, The Washington Post: “POPE FRANCIS’s Refusal to Condemn Putin Spurs Debate in Catholic Church”
— In Tokyo, Biden will meet with Japan’s EMPEROR NARUHITO at the Imperial Palace and with Japanese Prime Minister KISHIDA FUMIO at the Akasaka Palace. Biden will then hold a news conference with Kishida, and they will meet with families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea several decades ago. Biden also will launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity and attend a dinner hosted by Kishida.
— The German Marshall Fund of the United States, 8 a.m.: “The Future of South Korean Foreign Policy Under the Yoon Administration — with BONNIE S. GLASER, YOUNG HO KIM, SCOTT SNYDER and JEONG-YEOP WOO”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 9:30 a.m.: “The Capital Cable: The Biden-Yoon Summit — with VICTOR CHA, ALASTAIR GALE, JUNG EUN LEE, MARK LIPPERT and SUE MI TERRY”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 10:45 a.m.: “MDA and the 2023 Budget — with JON HILL and TOM KARAKO”
— Washington Post Live, 11 a.m.: “World Stage: Ukraine with Ukrainian Prosecutor General IRYNA VENEDIKTOVA — with DAVID IGNATIUS”
— The Brookings Institution, 2 p.m.: “Finland, Sweden and the Future of NATO — with JOHN R. ALLEN, MIKKO HAUTALA, MICHAEL E. O’HANLON, KARIN OLOFSDOTTER and CONSTANZE STELZENMÜLLER”
— The Government Executive Media Group, 2 p.m.: “Disaster Response: E-911 Ransomware — with HEATHER KULDELL, TIM RAHSCHULTE and RITA REYNOLDS”
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