Trump leaves Russia questions unanswered; Harward rejects NSC offer; Ex-Blackwater head now pitching China; Army to set up foreign-training brigades; and just a bit more…

President Trump struck a notably defiant tone in his first press conference on Thursday as he looked to stop a week of bruising news related, at least in part, to the resignation of his former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn. To that end, Trump said he had directed the Justice Department to investigate allegedly classified leaks from his administration regarding a number of stories not limited to the press coverage of Flynn’s eventual departure late Monday.

The president was intently focused on that topic of leaks, which he said were probably coming from Obama administration officials, and not “our people.”

It’s worth noting, The New York Times writes, that throughout the lengthy presser, “Mr. Trump did not directly answer questions about the substance of other recent reports on private dealings his aides may have had with Russia. Instead, he reframed the question as a problem of leaks. He declared that the ‘leaks are real,’ but denounced articles based on the leaked information as ‘fake news.’” (For what it’s worth, here’s a decent definition of fake news: “stories willfully made up by people to go viral. Not stories you disagree with, and not stories that have mistakes.” That’s from journalist Borzou Daragahi.)  

Trump stood up for Flynn, saying the former three-star acted on his own in calling the Russian ambassador to discuss U.S. sanctions in late December. The president also said he would have asked Flynn to call the Russians if he hadn’t already—a curious move since so many have noted the calls may have breached an old statute known as the Logan Act.  

What’s more, Fox News’ John Roberts reported Thursday evening that “The president was in fact fully briefed on the content of those conversations that General Michael Flynn had with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak by people who would know what the content of those conversations was. And that under repeated questioning, during an investigation conducted by the White House Counsel’s office, General Flynn, I’m told, had a full recollection of what he talked about with the Russian ambassador.”

That account of Flynn and the White House counsel varies from what Flynn reportedly told the FBI, according to a Washington Post report late Thursday: “Flynn denied to FBI agents in an interview last month that he had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States before President Trump took office, contradicting the contents of intercepted communications collected by intelligence agencies,” writes the Post, citing current and former U.S. officials.

The Jan. 24 interview potentially puts Flynn in legal jeopardy. Lying to the FBI is a felony offense. But several officials said it is unclear whether prosecutors would attempt to bring a case, in part because Flynn may parse the definition of the word “sanctions.” He also followed his denial to the FBI by saying he couldn’t recall all of the conversation, officials said.”

Adds the Post: “Any decision to prosecute would ultimately lie with the Justice Department. A spokesman for Flynn said he had no response. The FBI and the Justice Department declined to comment.” Story here.

Apart from leaks, another key topic in the president’s press conference was Russia. “Asked at the news conference about reports that members of the Trump staff were in contact with Russia during the campaign, Trump said, ‘Nobody that I know of,’” NPR reports in a wider look at the issue.

Trump continued, “One of the reasons I’m here today is to tell you the whole Russian thing, that’s a ruse. That’s a ruse,” he said, adding, “And by the way, it would be great if we could get along with Russia, just so you understand that.” By the end of the presser, Trump had said almost half a dozen times that it’s his intention to get along with Russia.

The alternative, he said, offers “no upside.” And why was pretty clear to the president: “We’re a very powerful nuclear country and so are they. I have been briefed. And I can tell you one thing about a briefing that we’re allowed to say because anybody that ever read the most basic book can say it, nuclear holocaust would be like no other.”

Read more on the president’s position on Russia—and why he’s not going to “shoot that [Russian spy] ship that’s 30 miles offshore right out of the water”—via Defense One’s Kevin Baron, here.

From Defense One

Trump: I’m Not Being Tough On Russia Because I Want to Make A Deal // Kevin Baron: The president, who joked about sinking Moscow’s spy ship off the Atlantic coast, didn’t say what kind of deal he wants.

F-35 General: Boeing Heard Nothing ‘Unreleasable’ in F-35 Call With Trump // Caroline Houck: “The discussions that we had were all pre-decisional,” Lt. Gen. Bogdan tells lawmakers.

Global Business Brief: February 16 // Marcus Weisgerber: How to do business with SOCOM; Dozens of microsats blast into orbit; Aerospace and defense exports boomed in 2016; and more.

Are Leakers Defending Democracy or Corroding It? // David A. Graham: Are leaks about the White House the work of bureaucrats who want to undermine the president? And if so, is that a good or bad thing?

What Happens Next Is Up to Republicans // David Frum: It’s up to them whether a truly independent investigation occurs.

So, American Mass Shooters and Islamic Terrorists Do Have Something in Common // Alana Conner: ‘It’s the same psychological phenomenon, different culture war.’

Welcome to Friday’s edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1864, a Confederate submarine sank a Union warship, notching the Silent Service’s first victory. (Got a tip? Let us know by clicking this link to email us:

Harward declines the job, putting Kellogg “very much in play.” The president is still looking for a national security adviser after retired Vice Adm. and former Navy SEAL Robert Harward turned down the job Thursday evening. According to Reuters, a “White House official said Harward cited family and financial reasons for opting not to take the job. Harward is a senior executive at Lockheed Martin.”

However, “Two sources familiar with the decision said Harward turned down the job in part because he wanted to bring in his own team. That put him at odds with Trump, who had told Flynn’s deputy, K.T. McFarland, that she could stay.” More from CBS News, here.

In a statement, Harward said he can’t currently give the job the 24/7 attention it truly requires “to do it right.” Read his full statement, via CNN’s Jake Tapper, here. Tapper later added Harward reportedly called the job a “shit sandwich.”

Where things stand now: “General Keith Kellogg, who I have known for a long time, is very much in play for NSA,” President Trump said this morning on Twitter, “as are three others,” reportedly including David Petraeus, Keith Alexander, and Jim Jones.

Three tidbits from The Military Balance, whose latest edition is out this week from IISS:

1) “Chinese advances in military technology mean Western dominance ‘can no longer be taken for granted,’ said IISS director John Chipman,” according to a report by Deutsche Welle. “China’s long range air-to-air missile seen on exercise last year posed a risk for aircraft tankers and AWACS surveillance aircraft that previously loitered safe out of range.”

2) China’s exports are growing in number and sophistication, part of a worldwide trend in those directions. “Chinese-made drones had been seen in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia” while “sales in Africa had moved beyond Soviet-era designs to exports of systems designed in China itself.”

3) “Only two European NATO nations — Greece and Estonia — met the aim of spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense in 2016.” The think tank’s analysts recommend that NATO “‘refocus’ on spending targets that lead to real capability improvements among systems that were increasingly complex.” Read more from DW, here.

Speaking of China, Eric Prince is pitching military training and other services to the People’s Liberation Army, according to Buzzfeed’s Aram Roston. Prince, formerly head of the Blackwater private security firm, may be better known to the Trump administration for his family’s large donations to a pro-Trump Super PAC, and as the brother of Trump’s new Education Secretary, Betsy Vos. Prince, through his Frontier Services Group, a company listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange, “has been offering his military expertise to support Chinese government objectives and setting up Blackwater-style training camps in two Chinese provinces, according to sources and his own company statements. The move could put him at odds with Trump, who has often taken a hard line against China, and could also risk violating US law, which prohibits the export of military services or equipment to China.” Read on, here.

Army to create quick-reaction brigades. On Thursday, service officials said they would be standing up six Security Force Assistance Brigades, or SFABs, plus a Military Advisor Training Academy, at Fort Benning, Georgia, in October. The idea is to train up light units and keep them ready to move out. Once in theater, such units will train and assist local forces — and, if the situation escalates, provide an in-country framework for the arrival of a full armored or infantry brigade combat team.

Here’s the take from Breaking Defense: “After a decade of debate, the US Army is finally creating permanent units dedicated to advising foreign forces. The six new Security Force Assistance Brigades will be a marked departure from the ad hoc training teams used throughout the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They would also be well suited to build up local allies to take down the Islamic State, which the Trump Administration has made its top priority.” Read on, here.

DC’s getting a new think tank: the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. Headed by Jamil N. Jaffer (here’s his bio at the Federalist Society), NSI will, according to a spokesman, “strive to provide much needed balance to the public discourse on the most difficult national security challenges facing the United States and its allies.  It will serve as a platform for research, teaching, scholarship, and policy development that incorporates a realistic assessment of the threats facing the United States and its allies, as well as an appreciation of the legal and practical challenges facing U.S. intelligence, defense, law enforcement, homeland security, and cybersecurity communities.”

Lastly this week: Our occasional reminder of America’s longest war comes to us thanks to these photos of Afghan soldiers fighting an ISIS affiliate in eastern Nangarhar province this week. They were captured by Agence France-Presse photographer Noorullah Shirzada. The context: Afghan troops began an ISIS-clearing operation in Nangarhar early this week in the province’s Kott and Dih Bala districts. Airstrikes and ground operations have already killed more than a dozen ISIS fighters, Afghanistan’s Tolo News reported. More, here.

But it’s not all war and conflict in the country, as Shirzada shows us with this stunning view of children playing at dusk in Jalalabad.

Have a great weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Tuesday!

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