Trump threatens NATO ally; POTUS investigated as Russia asset; Shutdown and the damage done; SpaceX layoffs; And a bit more.

President Trump promised to “devastate Turkey economically” if Ankara’s military attacks U.S.-backed Kurdish troops fighting ISIS inside Syria. (Turkey, a NATO ally, responded that the threat changes nothing.) The tough talk came in a tweet on Sunday amid a snowstorm that dumped about 10 inches on the White House lawn.

About an hour after marveling at the scene, Trump unveiled quite a few things at once. In one of two tweets on Syria, Trump said (1) that the U.S. is withdrawing from Syria while (2) its war for ISIS-held territory there continues, and that (3) U.S.-backed attacks against the group inside Syria is probably going to continue for a while (From the tweet: “attack [ISIS] again from existing nearby base if it reforms.”)

Worth noting, as New York Times’s Rukmini Callimachi flagged: Trump referred to the “ISIS territorial caliphate,” perhaps suggesting a narrowed focus on the group’s efforts to hold land rather than its complete defeat. (His Dec. 19 declaration that the group was defeated was lampooned nearly unanimously by terrorism and Middle East analysts.)

Trump threatened Turkey, promising that the U.S. will “Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds…Likewise, do not want the Kurds to provoke Turkey.” And there was also this sentence fragment: “Create 20 mile safe zone….”

As Reuters reports, “It was not immediately clear what he meant by a 20-mile safe zone.” The idea has been kicking around for a long time; see this piece from Micah Zenko almost exactly two years ago. But the concept does not appear to have been a part of the Trump White House’s recent plays for Syria until this weekend.

But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated the phrase during his trip today in Riyadh, Agence France-Presse reports from the Saudi capital. (More on that trip from CBS News, here.) But as with Trump’s tweet, what the safe zone means and where it’s to be delineated exactly is entirely unclear.

Turkey’s reax to a “safe zone” of some sort: “We’re not against this idea. What is our problem? There is a terror corridor beyond our border. There is a terrorist organization that wants to divide Syria. This terrorist organization poses a threat to us. We are targeting this terrorist organization,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said today in Ankara.

Cavusoglu’s reax to Trump’s threats: “We have repeatedly said that we are never afraid of threats. Threatening Turkey economically will get you nowhere.” More here.

Go “Inside the attempt to derail Trump’s erratic Syria withdrawal” in this report from the Washington Post’s Anne Gearan, Josh Dawsey and John Hudson.

The gist: “A multipronged effort by alarmed U.S. national security officials, foreign allies and Republican hawks in Congress to significantly alter or reverse Trump’s decision was effectively a bust.” Give yourself about 10 minutes and read on, here.

One last thing: Is this what Turkey’s military will do next inside Syria? Hard to believe a nation would telegraph military moves in this way; but according to government-aligned Sabah, Turkey will be using airborne forces to hold territory inside northern Syria currently covered by the U.S.-backed SDF.


From Defense One

Confusion Reigns as Pentagon Begins Pulling Equipment Out of Syria // Katie Bo Williams, Defense One: The timeline for withdrawal remains murky amid rocky negotiations with Turkey over the Kurds.

The Shutdown and the Damage Done // James Fallows, The Atlantic: America’s institutions are withering, says one longtime Foreign Service Officer who’s calling it quits.

Bolton’s Big Iran Con // Joe Cirincione: There’s no evidence behind the national security adviser’s dire warnings about Tehran’s nuclear intentions.

Despite Record Earnings, Defense Firms Laid Off Nearly 1,500 Over the Past Year // Marcus Weisgerber: SpaceX’s announcement on Sunday punctuated a year of workforce reductions among prominent companies.

How AI Will Find You In the Crowd, Without Facial Recognition // Patrick Tucker: New deep learning methods tested on video footage groups of animals could be a surveillance hit.

Russia’s Special Operators Are Getting Futuristic Mini-Subs // Paulina Glass: Originally designed for oil exploration, the six bathyspheres are to arrive by 2022.

What Someone Needs to Explain to Trump About ‘National Emergencies’ // Bob Bauer, The Atlantic: It’s not just the likelihood that he will lose in court—it’s how he will lose that matters.

Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Thanks for reading, whether you’re snowed in, shutdown or just starting your week. On this day in 1784, the United States was formally established as a sovereign nation with the ratification of the Treaty of Paris by the Continental Congress in Annapolis, Md.  


Shutdown, Day 24: The partial shutdown of the U.S. government passed the previous record on Saturday. More than 800,000 employees are furloughed or working without pay.
America’s institutions are eroding, says one longtime Foreign Service Officer who’s calling it quits. “The State Department stopped paying salaries this week for nearly half the members of the Foreign Service, many of whom struggle to get by given the high costs of housing and child care in the Washington, DC area,” the FSO wrote to The Atlantic’s James Fallows. “The so-called Locally Employed Staff, aka the non-Americans who work at U.S. Embassies around the world, are still getting paid, but no one knows for how much longer.” Read, here.
Dozens of U.S. government websites have become insecure or inaccessible because no one has renewed their security certificates, reports Netcraft. “These sites include sensitive government payment portals and remote access services, affecting the likes of NASA, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Court of Appeals.” Read, here.
Houston’s main airport shut a TSA checkpoint because there weren’t enough agents. The Hill, here. Miami says it will soon follow suit, Reuters reports.
Secret Service warns employees about financial stress: it can lead to depression and anxiety. “Keep an eye out for warning signs of trouble,” Director R.D.“Tex” Alles wrote in a memo, Reuters reports.
PSA: There’s no evidence of a “border crisis.” Despite Trump’s insistence over the weekend the United States will “cease to exist” without a militarized southern border, the NYT offers data:

  • Illegal border crossings haven’t been this low since 1971.
  • Most illegal drugs are smuggled through ports of entry, not hauled across the open border.
  • There’s no evidence that undocumented immigrants commit more crime than native-born Americans.

The FBI opened an investigation into whether Trump is a Russian asset. The New York Times delivered that bombshell on Friday, citing “former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation.” After Trump fired Attorney General James Comey, DOJ “became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests,” the Times writes.
It’s not publicly known whether the investigation continues, or what the FBI found. “No evidence has emerged publicly that Mr. Trump was secretly in contact with or took direction from Russian government officials,” the NYT writes.
The revelation adds a secret counterintelligence investigation to the well-known criminal one headed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes argues that the two inquests might actually be one and the same. “I think there likely was—and still is—one umbrella investigation with a number of different threads. That one investigation was (and is) about Russia. And it had (and still has), as a subsidiary matter, a number of subsidiary files open about people on the U.S. side who had links to Russian government activity. Each of these files had (and still has) all of the counterintelligence and criminal tools available to the U.S. government at its disposal.”

What did Trump tell Putin? He’s not telling his own advisors. Washington Post: “President Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, including on at least one occasion taking possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instructing the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials, current and former U.S. officials said.” Read on, here.
Four unanswered questions about Trump-Putin phone calls, from Just Security’s Kate Brannen:

  • How many have there been?
  • Have they all been made public?
  • What have they talked about?
  • Were there note-takers on the line or were they kept private between the two leaders?

Fear factor: Russian underwater, nuclear-armed drone edition. The BBC’s Steve Rosenberg has that wacky tale from the pages of a Russian newspaper, here.

Senior Pentagon officials worry John Bolton could precipitate a war with Iran, The New York Times’ Eric Schmitt and Mark Landler reported this weekend.
Choice excerpt: “Bolton does not want to hear opposing views, these officials said, abhors leaks and wants to control everything that flows to the president. But the result is that there is not much consideration of options and, more important, the risk of escalation, according to these people.” Story here.
Warns Joe Cirincione, writing in Defense One this weekend: “Bolton’s and Pompeo’s falsehoods are paving the way for a Middle East war that will make the dispute over the wall with Mexico look like a border dust-up.” That here.

China is about to execute a Canadian charged with smuggling meth into the Middle Kingdom. That’s the result of a retrial of 36-year-old Vancouver native Robert Lloyd Schellenberg. “Schellenberg was arrested in 2014 and received his original sentence in 2018 in a case that went largely unnoticed,” the Washington Post reports. But now Schellenberg appears to have been caught up in “China’s diplomatic row with Canada and the United States.” Read on, here.

And finally today: Afghanistan has a complicated terrorism problem on its hands: “What to Do With Child Suicide Bombers After They Serve Time?” asks Rod Nordland of NYTs. The problem: “what to do with them when they finish their sentences, which often range from two to 10 years. Many will be released just as they reach adulthood, when they are even more capable of causing mayhem.” Worth the click, here.

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