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Trump to withdraw from Open Skies Treaty

President TrumpDonald TrumpProject Veritas surveilled government officials to expose anti-Trump sentiments: report Cheney: Fox News has 'a particular obligation' to refute election fraud claims The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? MORE plans to withdraw from another major arms control agreement, the Open Skies Treaty, citing Russia's violations of the pact.

The Open Skies Treaty allows the pact's 35 signatories, including the United States and Russia, to fly unarmed observation flights over each other with the intention of providing transparency about military activities to avoid miscalculations that could lead to war.

Trump told reporters at the White House that Washington and Moscow could reach a new agreement following the U.S. withdrawal.

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“I think we have a very good relationship with Russia, but Russia didn’t adhere to the treaty,” Trump told reporters before departing for a trip to Michigan. "So, until they adhere, we will pull out."

"But there’s a very good chance we’ll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together,” the president continued. “I think what's going to happen is, we’re going to pull out and they’re going to come back and want to make a deal. We’ve had a very good relationship, lately, with Russia."

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoUS Olympic Committee urges Congress not to boycott Games in China Pompeo on CIA recruitment: We can't risk national security to appease 'liberal, woke agenda' DNC gathers opposition research on over 20 potential GOP presidential candidates MORE said the United States will formally submit its notice of intent to withdraw from the agreement on Friday.

“Effective six months from tomorrow, the United States will no longer be a party to the treaty,” Pompeo said in a statement. “We may, however, reconsider our withdrawal should Russia return to full compliance with the treaty.”

The treaty, which went into force in 2002, has long been in the crosshairs of defense hawks, who argue Russian violations give Moscow an unfair advantage over Washington.

“President Trump has made clear that the United States will not remain a party to international agreements that are being violated by the other parties and are no longer in America’s interests,” National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said in a statement later Thursday that did not explicitly address the president’s plans.

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O’Brien referenced the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), both of which Trump has withdrawn the United States from. 

Russia in the past has restricted flights over Kaliningrad and areas near its border with the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Because of those restrictions, an April report from the State Department said “the United States continued to assess that Russia was in violation of the Treaty on Open Skies” in 2019, a determination first made in 2017.

In addition to accusing Russia of “flagrantly and continuously” violating the agreement with flight restrictions, Pompeo on Thursday accused Moscow of using imagery from the flights to target critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe. That would not violate the accord, but Pompeo argued it “fatally undermined the very intent of the treaty as a confidence- and trust-building measure.”

Pressed on a call with reporters for an example of Russia using imagery like that, Chris Ford, assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation, said he was "not at liberty to go into some of the details of why we think that this is a concern."

“We understand that many of our allies and partners in Europe still find value in the treaty, and we are grateful for the thoughtful feedback they have offered us during the course of our review of these questions,” Pompeo added, saying the United States likely would have already withdrawn “if not for the value they place” on the pact.

“We are not willing, however, to perpetuate the treaty’s current problems of Russian-engendered threat and distrust simply in order to maintain an empty façade of cooperation with Moscow,” he said.

Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Opposition to refugees echoes one of America's most shameful moments White House defends CDC outreach to teachers union MORE (R-Ark.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a vocal critic of the treaty, has urged Trump to withdraw from it and divert funds spent on the treaty to other military projects over Russia’s abuse of the pact. Cotton lauded Trump’s decision in a statement Thursday in response to reports disclosing the plans.

“The Open Skies Treaty started life as a good-faith agreement between major powers and died an asset of Russian intelligence. For Mr. Putin, the treaty was just another scheme to snatch a military and surveillance advantage over the U.S. and NATO,” Cotton said. 

Meanwhile, Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenArmy secretary nominee concerned about 'unreasonable or unhelpful demands' on National Guard DC statehood bill picks up Senate holdout US is leaving, but Afghan women to fight on for freedoms MORE (D-N.H.), another Armed Services member, criticized the move as a “dangerous and misguided decision” that “cripples our ability to conduct aerial surveillance of Russia, while allowing Russian reconnaissance flights over U.S. bases in Europe to continue.” 

Trump’s impending move to withdraw from the treaty has been rumored for months. In October, a quartet of top Democrats in Congress wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Former Navy secretary reportedly spent .4M on travel | Ex-Pentagon chief Miller to testify on Jan. 6 Capitol attack | Austin to deliver West Point commencement speech Trump's Navy secretary spent over M on travel during pandemic: report Court declines to dismiss Amazon challenge against JEDI decision MORE and Pompeo urging against withdrawal.

Last month, the same group of lawmakers released a statement warning Trump could use the cover of the coronavirus pandemic to withdraw from the accord with little attention, saying such a move “in the midst of a global health crisis is not only shortsighted, but also unconscionable.”

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“This effort appears intended to limit appropriate congressional consultation on, and scrutiny of, the decision,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithUS is leaving, but Afghan women to fight on for freedoms Overnight Defense: Ex-Pentagon chief defends Capitol attack response as GOP downplays violence | Austin, Biden confer with Israeli counterparts amid conflict with Hamas | Lawmakers press Pentagon officials on visas for Afghan partners Debate over ICBMs: Will 'defund our defenses' be next? MORE (D-Wash.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelLawmakers on hot mic joke 'aisle hog' Engel absent from Biden address: 'He'd wait all day' Bowman to deliver progressive response to Biden's speech to Congress Liberal advocacy group stirs debate, discomfort with primary challenges MORE (D-N.Y.), Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack ReedJack ReedBiden officials testify that white supremacists are greatest domestic security threat Overnight Defense: US fires 30 warning shots at Iranian boats | Kabul attack heightens fears of Afghan women's fates | Democratic Party leaders push Biden on rejoining Iran deal Overnight Defense: Former Navy secretary reportedly spent .4M on travel | Ex-Pentagon chief Miller to testify on Jan. 6 Capitol attack | Austin to deliver West Point commencement speech MORE (D-R.I.) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate Democrats ramp up push to limit Biden's war powers Democrats reintroduce legislation to ban 'ghost guns' Juan Williams: A breakthrough on immigration? MORE (D-N.J.) said in an April statement.

At the time, congressional aides told The Hill the statement was prompted by Esper and Pompeo agreeing to move forward with a withdrawal despite two planned National Security Council meetings on the issue being canceled in February and March.

A provision in the annual defense policy bill signed into law in December requires that the administration notify Congress at least 120 days before it officially submits an intent to withdraw to the other treaty members. Under the process laid out in the treaty, a formal notice of intent kicks off a six-month period before the withdrawal is final.

In a statement Thursday, Smith and Rep. Jim CooperJim CooperLiberal advocacy group stirs debate, discomfort with primary challenges Progressive group backing primary challenger to Tennessee Democrat GOP leader to try to force Swalwell off panel MORE (D-Tenn.), chairman of the strategic forces subcommittee, indicated Congress did not get the required notification, saying Trump’s decision “is in blatant violation of the law.”

“Not only does the FY20 National Defense Authorization Act require a minimum 120-days’ notification of the withdrawal notice, but also multiple communications from the House Armed Services Committee and other congressional chairmen have gone unanswered,” Smith and Cooper said.

“The Trump administration continues to give Russia the upper hand with regards to arms control, which leaves our allies and deployed forces less protected in Europe,” they added, calling the withdrawal a “a slap in the face to our allies in Europe.”

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The treaty has some Republican support, too, particularly from lawmakers representing Nebraska, where the military planes used to conduct the treaty flights are based.

“Open Skies remains our only ability to get direct access to Russian airfields and airspace, and every experienced operational commander knows all too well that satellites simply can’t do it all,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) told The Hill in an April statement.

Supporters of the treaty argue it is an invaluable tool for the United States to support its allies, saying U.S. partners without sophisticated spy satellites benefit from the unclassified imagery.

The flights have also been used to signal U.S. resolve toward its allies and partners, including flights over Ukraine following Russia’s seizure of naval ships in 2018 and invasion of Crimea in 2014.

The decision by Trump to withdraw from the treaty follows last year’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a decades-old Cold War arms control pact with Russia, over Moscow’s violations.

The latest move is likely to raise questions about Trump’s plans for New START, the last remaining arms control pact with Russia that is up for renewal in February.

Updated at 2:56 p.m.