Overnight Defense: Trump unveils new sanctions against Russia | Key Republicans back VA chief amid controversy | Trump gives boost to military 'space force'

Overnight Defense: Trump unveils new sanctions against Russia | Key Republicans back VA chief amid controversy | Trump gives boost to military 'space force'
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THE TOPLINE: The U.S. will impose new economic sanctions on two-dozen Russian individuals and entities for cyberattacks in the U.S. and meddling in the 2016 election, senior national security officials said Thursday.

The Treasury Department will target five entities and 19 individuals from Russia for actions ranging from the "destabilizing efforts" in the 2016 presidential election to the "NotPetya" malware attack, the costliest and most disruptive in history.

Treasury says it will freeze the assets and prohibit Americans from doing business with the accused Russians.

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Some of those entities and individuals -- including the "Internet Research Agency," which allegedly used fake social media accounts to sow division in the U.S. -- have already been indicted by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE.

The new sanctions also target two Russian military intelligence firms and a half-dozen people associated with them.

Read the rest from The Hill's Jonathan Easley.

 

The sanctions come the same day that U.S. European Command head Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said that the military believes that "it's highly likely" that Russia was involved in an alleged chemical attack targeting an ex-Russian spy in the United Kingdom.

Read the rest of his comments here.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassley: Dems 'withheld information' on new Kavanaugh allegation Health advocates decry funding transfer over migrant children Groups plan mass walkout in support of Kavanaugh accuser MORE also said on Thursday that it "certainly looks" as if Moscow is behind the poisoning of the ex-Russian spy and his daughter. More on Trump's response here.

GOP Sens. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseMcConnell tamps down any talk of Kavanaugh withdrawal Senate approves 4B spending bill Grassley agrees to second Kavanaugh hearing after GOP members revolt MORE (Neb.) and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump hits McCain on ObamaCare vote GOP, White House start playing midterm blame game Arizona race becomes Senate GOP’s ‘firewall’ MORE (Ariz.) are calling for the United States to lead a coordinated NATO response to the alleged poisoning. Read about that here.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump slams Sessions in exclusive Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh accuser wants FBI investigation MORE (D-N.Y.), meanwhile, asked Trump when he would "get smart" on Moscow. That story from The Hill's Jordain Carney is here.

 

KEY REPUBLICANS BACK VA CHIEF: Key Republicans are sticking by Veterans Affairs Secretary David ShulkinDavid Jonathon ShulkinVeterans group sues to block advisers known as ‘Mar-a-Lago Crowd’ from influencing VA Mar-a-Lago insiders provided input on VA policy, personnel decisions: report Ahead of speech, Kansas City newspaper urges Trump to listen to veterans MORE as rumors of his firing swirl.

The Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees have offered their support to Shulkin in recent days, as has the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's veterans subpanel.

Still, at least two rank-and-file Republicans have called for Shulkin's removal, and a Republican senator who accused Shulkin of double-talk even before he was engulfed in controversy has offered neither support nor condemnation.

President Trump, meanwhile, said Thursday reports of an imminent shake-up in his administration are "false," though he added cryptically, "there will always be change."

"It was a very false story," Trump said in the Oval Office. "A very exaggerated and false story. But there will always be change, and I think you want to see change, and I want to also see different ideas."

The Hill's Rebecca Kheel has more here.

 

And Shulkin said that he thinks his department is getting "back on track" after recent "distraction."

"I've publicly acknowledged that the distraction that has happened that you've talked about is something that I deeply regret," Shulkin told a House Appropriations subcommittee. "I've come here for one reason, and that's to improve the lives of veterans, and that's what I'm focused solely on doing.

Read that story here.

 

TOP ADMIRAL CAUTIONS AGAINST BEING 'OVERLY OPTIMISTIC' ABOUT TRUMP-KIM SUMMIT: The top admiral overseeing the U.S. military in the Asia-Pacific region warned Thursday not to be "overly optimistic" about the outcome of President Trump's meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

"As we go into this, I think we can't be overly optimistic on outcomes," Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We'll just have to see where it goes, if and when we have the summit."

Last week, a South Korean official announced from outside the White House that Trump accepted Kim's offer to meet face to face.

If Trump follows through with the summit, it would be the first time a sitting U.S. president has ever met with a North Korean leader.

In Thursday's hearing, Harris underscored the unprecedented nature of the situation. Asked by Armed Services ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedNew York Times: Trump mulling whether to replace Mattis after midterms Overnight Defense: Biden honors McCain at Phoenix memorial service | US considers sending captured ISIS fighters to Gitmo and Iraq | Senators press Trump on ending Yemen civil war Senators press Trump administration on Yemen civil war MORE (D-R.I.) about the likelihood of an agreement on North Korea's nuclear program after one or two meetings, Harris said, "I don't know."

Read the rest here

 

TRUMP GIVES JOLT TO PUSH FOR MILITARY 'SPACE FORCE': President Trump is giving a boost to the idea of creating a new military force focused on battles in space.

Trump surprised military leaders on Tuesday by announcing the possibility of a "Space Force," suggesting he's interested in putting some political capital behind the idea.

"You know, I was saying it the other day -- because we're doing a tremendous amount of work in space -- I said, 'Maybe we need a new force, we'll call it the Space Force.' And I was not really serious, and then I said, 'What a great idea, maybe we'll have to do that. That could happen,' " he said during a speech to military personnel in San Diego.

Supporters of a dedicated military space arm are worried that the United States is lagging behind Russia and China, who have already made moves to spin off their space operations into separate military branches and are developing electronic warfare and anti-satellite weapons.

Lawmakers who like the idea say hearing the president tout the proposal was a shot in the arm.

Read more on that here.

  

PENTAGON DISCLOSES NEW FIREFIGHT IN NIGER: U.S. troops engaged in an undisclosed firefight with Islamic State militants in Niger two months after American troops were killed in the African nation, the U.S. military acknowledged on Wednesday.

Pentagon spokeswoman Maj. Sheryll Klinkel said in a statement to CNN that "during a mission in the Lake Chad Basin region the morning of Dec. 6, a combined force of Nigerien and US military members came under fire from a formation of violent extremists." 

A firefight reportedly ensued, leaving 11 militants dead, according to CNN. The firefight was first reported by The New York Times.

According to the Times, no American or Nigerien forces were harmed in the battle. A spokeswoman for U.S. Africa Command did not explain in a statement to the Times why the December firefight was not disclosed at the time.

Read the rest here. 

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW:

Lt. Gen. Charles Hooper, director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, will speak on strengthening alliances and partnerships through defense cooperation at 10 a.m. Friday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. http://bit.ly/2If8K0z

Defense Information Systems Agency Director Vice Adm. Nancy Norton will speak at AFCEA's Women in DoD luncheon at 11:15 a.m. at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, Va. 

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) will speak at the Heritage Foundation on the national security implications of withdrawing from NAFTA at 1:30 p.m. in Washington. 

ICYMI:

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-- The Hill: Ex-military leaders urge Trump not to scrap NAFTA, citing security concerns

-- The Hill: CIA torture could stymie nominee

-- The Hill: No Iranian provocations in Gulf in months: Central Command

-- The Hill: Defense Dept. staffers spent nearly $140K at Trump properties: report

-- The Hill: Opinion: Let us remember to protect our wartime allies and trusted Iraqi friends

-- The Hill: Opinion: State's abrupt switch needed to put US policy on track

-- Defense News: Fortress Sweden: Inside the plan to mobilize Swedish society against Russia

--AFP: Russia 'complicit in Assad atrocities: Pentagon