Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States. Modeled on the President’s Daily Briefing (PDB), which the Director of National Intelligence prepares for the President on an almost daily basis, my Presidential Weekly Briefing focuses on the topics and issues that the President needs to know to make informed decisions.
Here’s this week’s briefing:
Bibi is coming: 5 investigations, 1 Oval Office meeting
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu departed for Washington to meet with the President on Monday and speak to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Tuesday. But he arrives with the cloud of four ongoing investigations hanging over him. With the US Department of Justice investigation added to the mix, five investigations will come together in the Oval Office.
Investigations are distracting, and they can lead officials to do strange things. Because Netanyahu is under pressure domestically, we assess that this means that he will want a “win” from the meeting. This could be used to encourage him to show more flexibility on the peace process — particularly on the issue of settlements — which has been derailed since the administration’s announcement that the United States will move its embassy to Jerusalem.
Because Iran represents a fundamental threat to Israel’s existence and because it is a rallying cry within Israel, we expect that Iran will top Israel’s Oval Office agenda. We assess that Netanyahu will try to use his time in Washington to score some points at home by making assertive statements on Iran and pushing the United States to fully withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
In addition to trying to push for aggressive rhetoric on Iran, Netanyahu will also laud the administration’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem to get bonus points back home.
In an effort not to further alienate Arab allies, the President must strike a careful balance between sticking to his guns and calibrating his public remarks to reflect sensitivities around the decision to assuage tensions with the Palestinians who have, since the embassy decision, refused to work with the US on the peace process.
Xi’s best month ever: “Anti-Corruption” about to kick into overdrive?
It’s a good month to be President Xi Jinping. On Monday, China’s Parliament (the National People’s Congress or NPC) will vote an on amendment to the Chinese constitution so that Xi can serve for a third five-year term. He’s just at the outset of his second term, so once the NPC votes, he’ll likely have a 10-year horizon stretching ahead of him.
The NPC will also rubber stamp some key aspects of Xi’s policy agenda, including ratifying a law to set up a new anti-corruption agency. Anti-corruption has been a big part of Xi’s agenda, but he’s only been authorized to target Party officials. To date, 100,000 party officials have been arrested, leading many to think that he uses it squash political rivals.
But this new anti-corruption body would reportedly have oversight over China’s entire public sector — 62 million people — which may give Xi the power to target ordinary Chinese with whom he disagrees or whom wants to silence.
North Korean nukes: Kim’s still laughing
Dynamics on the Korean peninsula are still trending in Kim Jong Un’s favor. After his Olympic victory and his professed openness to talks with the United States, Kim thinks that he’s in the driver’s seat. With Kim Jong Un calling the shots, a delegation from South Korea will travel to Pyongyang on Monday. The United States will not be in the room, and, no, the invitation didn’t get lost in the mail.
Kim is likely trying to peel South Korea away from the United States in an effort to divide allies and gain more control. Nuclear jokes aside, Kim is probably laughing at his perceived control of any negotiation process. To counter this momentum, it will be important for the United States to only lay out redlines if and when it means them, and to ensure that all allied countries have the same prerequisite for substantive negotiations.
International reactions: Trade wars aren’t trending
America’s friends are upset about potential new tariffs on steel and aluminum, while rival countries like China are taking them more in stride.
Global responses have centered on the tariffs’ disproportionate impact on US partners. After all, the top four countries that send steel to the United States are Canada, Brazil, South Korea and Mexico.
And the EU has already laid out a plan to penalize about $3.5 billion of American trade (the amount the EU estimates would be harmed by the US tariffs) on iconic American goods like bourbon, blue jeans and motorcycles. Meanwhile, Germany’s foreign minister noted that “The EU must respond decisively to US punitive tariffs, which endanger thousands of jobs in Europe,” and European Commission Chancellor Jean-Claude Juncker added that the EU will “react firmly and commensurately.”
And Canada, the largest supplier of steel to the United States, indicated that “should restrictions be imposed on Canadian steel and aluminum products, Canada will take responsive measures to defend its trade interests and workers,” while Australia’s Trade Minister called the tariffs “disappointing” — saying they would lead to a distortion of the market and job losses.
In contrast, China, which represents just 2% of US steel imports and sends a very small share of its aluminum to the United States, criticized the new tariffs but said any retaliation would be based on the direct effects of the United States’ actions on China’s own interests. So — bottom line up front — these tariffs won’t significantly impact China and China won’t have a significant response.
This undercuts President Trump’s previous comments about the Chinese “rape” of the United States. The country that Trump has consistently pointed to as having an unfair trading relationship with the United States will feel much less of a bite from these tariffs. And this as the US trade deficit with China grew to $288 billion in 2017.
Russian threat matrix: Putin’s jamming to DJ Khaled because all he does is win
Looking across different theaters — conventional, cyber and diplomatic — Russia’s attacks against US interests at home and overseas are ongoing, and there’s no end in sight. As he heads into his “election” on March 18, Putin continues to pursue a multi-pronged attack against the United States that will increase in scale and scope as he feels more emboldened by his fourth presidential term. The Russian threat matrix is expanding:
Conventional military aggression: We assess that Putin will continue to pursue an aggressive conventional military posture in Crimea and Syria while pouring more money into his conventional capabilities. National defense spending reached a post-Soviet record in 2016, largely because Putin believes that “the role of force as a factor in international relations is not declining.” On the heels of his “my missile is bigger than yours” speech, Putin will likely continue to make grandiose presentations on Russia’s military capabilities and nuclear weapons development.
Cyberspace: Russian information warfare continues unabated in the digital theater. CIA Director Mike Pompeo said earlier that the intel community hasn’t seen a significant decrease in Russian activity targeting the 2018 election, and there is another reported Russian hacking attack — via Fancy Bear — this time against the German government. Russia will continue fomenting divisions through its bot and troll army, and our analysis shows that Russia continues its efforts to spread conspiracy theories and sow divisions by amplifying content around topics like school shootings and gun reform.
Diplomatic: We can expect Russia to continue its efforts to peel off US allies by signing arms contracts and business deals that orient countries closer to Russia. Turkey, a NATO ally, signed an arms deal with Russia last year, as did Saudi Arabia.