Administration briefs Senate on progress against ISIS

Administration briefs Senate on progress against ISIS
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The Trump administration on Wednesday gave the full Senate an update on its efforts against ISIS, but lawmakers had mixed opinions as to whether the plans represent anything new.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford gave a classified briefing to senators for more than an hour at the Capitol.

The presentation follows the U.S.-led coalition ousting of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from their stronghold in Mosul, Iraq, earlier this month. The coalition is now focused on pushing ISIS from the Syrian city of Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital, and elsewhere in the region.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  MORE (R-Tenn.), who left the briefing before it ended, described the presentation as a “very thorough” general layout of the administration’s efforts against ISIS.

“It’s sort of a whole different kind of effort that’s underway, and I think people will leave there pretty educated about what’s happening,” Corker told reporters.

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He declined to detail any differences between the previous administration’s efforts and the new White House strategy, saying “comparisons are odious.”

“There’s just a lot more clarity, a lot more focus on annihilation. A lot of partnering with other countries is building tremendously. You can just tell there’s a renewed energy, renewed focus and they are not playing around,” Corker said.  

“I think anybody that listened to that hearing understands they’re all about killing any ISIS member they can get a hold of,” Corker added.

But Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said she didn’t get a sense of anything new being done compared to the Obama White House. The briefing was simply an update on progress in the region and did not include President Trump’s long-awaited strategy to defeat ISIS, she said.

“It was a more comprehensive look at what the situation was on the ground in the region, which was very nice to have, but there wasn’t anything new in terms of what they’re proposing to do next,” Duckworth told reporters as she left the briefing.

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineSenate parliamentarian looms over White House spending bill Menendez jabs State official over Colombian group's terror designation Democrats plow ahead as Manchin yo-yos MORE (D-Va.), meanwhile, declined to discuss specifics due to the briefing’s classified nature, but allowed that “it was a very good exchange … best discussion we’ve had about it since the administration” changeover.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) told reporters the White House strategy “has an enormous component with regard to working with our allies.”

“They’re focused on an annihilation strategy with regard to the fighters, but importantly, foreign fighters. A big part of their focus is to annihilate the people they’re fighting so they can’t go home and conduct terrorist attacks in Europe or in Detroit or other places in America,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan also said he believes the operational focus is very different from that of the Obama administration.

“They are aggressively, aggressively going after the energy assets of ISIS — the oil, the gas, literally thousands of strikes. It literally takes terrorist financing and puts it up in smoke. They have done that to the tune of tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of destroyed product,” he said.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead Biden move to tap oil reserves draws GOP pushback MORE (R-S.C.), however, said he remains concerned the ISIS plan does not address the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom Graham argued is the driver of the instability that brought about the terrorist group. It’s a concern Graham said he thinks is shared by his ally Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP senators appalled by 'ridiculous' House infighting MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace, Chris Christie battle over Fox News Trump's attacks on McConnell seen as prelude to 2024 White House bid MORE (R-Ariz.), a fellow foreign policy hawk who is recovering from surgery in Arizona and so did not attend the briefing.

“There is no plan to get rid of Assad,” Graham said. “I really appreciate all they’re doing to liberate the areas and get donors to contribute to holding the territory. But the fundamental question unanswered is, how do you get Assad to leave? What leverage do you have?"

The briefing came the same day as a report that Trump is ending a program to arm Syrian rebels in their fight against Assad. The policy change is seen as a victory for Russia, one of the Syrian government’s strongest allies.

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinIt's time for Congress to guarantee Medigap Health Insurance for vulnerable Americans with kidney disease Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall Democrats plow ahead as Manchin yo-yos MORE (D-Md.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, declined to comment on the contents of the briefings, citing its classified nature.

Asked whether any concerns about the administration’s approach to ISIS were assuaged, Cardin said the briefing was “helpful.”

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyMurphy criticizes anti-abortion lawmakers following Michigan school shooting Republicans struggle to save funding for Trump's border wall Senate Democrats call on Biden to push for COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers at WTO MORE (D-Conn.) likewise declined to discuss specifics. But asked whether his concerns still stand after the briefing, he said, “sure.”

“I don’t support the president’s policy of doubling down our military presence inside Syria,” he said of his concerns. “I worry that we are putting ourselves in a position for a long-term troop commitment there. I worry that we are setting up a situation where we’re going to get into a major conflict with Russia and/or Iran.”

—Rebecca Kheel contributed.