Trump names arms control envoy as treaty’s expiration looms
President Trump has officially named Marshall Billingslea as his special envoy for arms control, a role expected to spearhead efforts to reach a nuclear agreement with Russia and China.
The White House announced Billingslea’s appointment in a news release Friday, roughly a month after reports surfaced that Billingslea was chosen.
The appointment comes as the United States’s agreement with Russia, known as the New START Treaty, expires in less than a year.
The agreement, which was negotiated by the Obama administration, caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads the United States and Russia can have at 1,550 a piece. There are also limits on deploying weapons, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, that could deliver the warheads. And the treaty lays out a verification regime that includes 18 on-site inspections per year.
The agreement expires Feb. 5, 2021, but there is an option to extend it another five years after that.
Arms control advocates have urged Trump to immediately extend the agreement, arguing that letting it lapse would mean no legal constraint on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time in five decades.
But the Trump administration has said it wants to expand the scope of the agreement, including adding China and new Russian weapons systems. Russia has offered to extend the treaty immediately with no pre-conditions, while China has repeatedly rejected joining talks.
Billingslea is currently the assistant Treasury secretary for terrorist financing.
A State Department statement on the appointment described Billingslea as having “deep expertise in arms control and broad experience in foreign policy and national security, having held senior positions in the private sector, NATO, the Department of Defense and on the staff of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.”
“President Trump has charged this administration with beginning a new chapter by seeking a new era of arms control that moves beyond the bilateral treaties of the past,” the statement said. “The appointment of Marshall Billingslea reaffirms the commitment to that mission.”
He was previously nominated to be undersecretary of State for civilian security, democracy and human rights in 2018, but his confirmation stalled as Democrats and advocates raised questions about his role in the George W. Bush administration interrogation program now widely viewed as torture.
Billingslea oversaw conditions of detainees at Guantanamo Bay in 2002 and 2003. A 2008 Senate report said he advocated interrogation techniques Congress later outlawed as torture.
In his confirmation hearing for the human rights role, Billingslea said he would “advocate for and respect” Congress’s 2015 decision to ban torture.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) blasted Billingslea’s appointment as arms control envoy.
“Mr. Billinsglea has a troubled history with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” Menendez said in a statement Friday. “Following his unsuccessful nomination for the State Department’s top human rights post, serious questions remain concerning whether he was forthright and truthful when testifying before the committee about his role in the detainee torture scandal during the Bush administration.”
Menendez also highlighted that jobs traditionally tasked with leading arms control negotiations that require Senate confirmation — including under secretary of State for arms control and international security and assistant secretary of State for arms Control, verification and compliance — have been vacant for months.
“This terrible decision is emblematic both of this administration’s willingness to sidestep the Senate’s constitutionally-mandated role of nominee advice and consent, and the haphazard, careless way the administration treats nuclear diplomacy,” Menendez said.
“This is not who should be put in charge of our nuclear diplomacy,” he added. “If the administration is truly serious about pursuing an effective arms control agenda, it should reverse course and nominate qualified individuals for the critical unfilled senior arms control positions at the State Department as soon as possible.”
Updated at 8:32 p.m.