Michael Anton joined me this morning. He is Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council:
HH: Pleased to welcome back to the program Michael Anton. He is the deputy assistant to President Trump for strategic communications at the National Security Council, a friend of the program. Michael, good morning, thank you for joining me.
MA: Thank you, Hugh.
HH: I want to begin with a somewhat obscure but very important issue. Turkey is marching into Afrin, bringing them perilously close to American troops in Manjeb. I’ve talked about this with Admiral Stavridis, with Courtney Kube. What is the situation as you understand it at the NSC?
MA: Well, the President had a fairly long phone call with President Erdogan last week before leaving for Switzerland in which he relayed all of American concerns, and also relayed to President Erdogan that he understands and respects Turkish legitimate security concerns. But you know, he gave him a pretty strong warning that he doesn’t want to see any threats to American forces, and told him in no uncertain terms that American forces would defend themselves if need be, and you know, urged restraint and de-escalation.
HH: The prospect of NATO on NATO conflict would be a first ever. Has it de-conflicted since that phone call, or has it in fact become more perilous?
MA: Well, we’re still watching the situation very carefully. It’s one of these things that you know, we still hope to see further de-escalation from the Turkish side. And we just have to watch. We’ve relayed our concerns. And in addition to the president to president talking, we’re talking at the military to military level, at the national security advisor has spoken with his counterparts, and these conversations go on every day to try to ensure that nothing like that does happen.
HH: We do not have an ambassador in Turkey, which is unfortunate. We also don’t have an ambassador in Germany and a number of other key allies. Will the President bring up tonight in his State of the Union, Michael Anton, that the Senate is obstructing Richard Grenell and our Turkey nominee and all these different nominees, and thereby imperiling the national security of the United States?
MA: Well, I don’t want to get ahead of the speech. I want the President’s speech to be live and have the full impact that a fresh speech will have on the American people. But certainly, this administration is extremely frustrated and disappointed at obstructionism of our nominees across the board, not just to ambassadorships, but to any number of posts throughout the government, in national security and beyond national security. There doesn’t seem to be any purpose to this obstructionism except to play politics. And it’s harming the government’s ability to implement policy.
HH: Michael Anton, yesterday I was on MSNBC with Andy Card, and I predicted that the President would take a victory lap on behalf of the American military for the destruction of ISIS. And Andy was quick to point out ISIS isn’t destroyed globally, but they are pretty much on the ropes in Syria, are they not?
MA: Syria and Iraq. I mean, the important thing to remember is that there are still ISIS fighters alive out there intending to do us harm, but ISIS in 2017 essentially lost its physical caliphate, its population centers and resource centers, which greatly limits the amount of power it can project and harm it can do. So the fight against ISIS is not over, but we believe that the most significant victories have been won.
HH: Do you believe, Michael Anton, this time next year that the American force level will be static in Iraq and Syria? In other words, we aren’t going to cut and run again?
MA: I think the President has made clear that he does not intend to cut and run again. He wants to keep as small a force as possible in these countries, but you know, one of the, a great lesson of 2017, not that this is the first times we’d learned it, but it’s that a very small American force in a train, advise and assist mission with local partners done the right way can have tremendous impact.
HH: Now Michael Anton, one of the great stories of last week that went unnoted in the hubbub about domestic politics was that the Speaker of the House was in the United Arab Emirates. He did a big roundtable with Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba. He appeared with the Sheikh, and he, it’s just the new entente coming into clear view between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf States, except for Qatar, and Israel combining with America to fight of the next axis of Russia-Iran. Is there clarity? I mean, does the world recognize what’s happened here?
MA: I don’t know if the world recognizes it, and I’m not sure that it’s necessary. I mean, one of the delicate things here, as I think you know how delicate relations are and have been over the years between Israel and the Arab world, so we’re certainly very happy to see a new ground for cooperation, but recognizing that a lot of that cooperation is going to be very quiet, and to some extent, almost invisible. But the fact that it’s happening shows that everybody is cognizant of the threat from Iran, and banding together to do what we can do to stop it.
HH: But we also see Iran pushing Hezbollah to install new facilities, new rocketry, new bases. Can Israel put up with that, Michael Anton?
MA: Well, and the President saw Prime Minister Netanyahu in Switzerland, and the Prime Minister made very clear what Israel can and cannot put up with. And the President pledged his support. One of our goals now in the sort of, as you know, almost the post-ISIS phase in Syria, at least the post-fighting the physical caliphate, the next stage is to ensure that Iran doesn’t get a permanent presence in Syria from which to threaten Israel and other U.S. allies. And that’s what we have to focus on now, is one of the things we have to focus on now.
HH: Is one of the things that the Prime Minister told the President he cannot stand is a permanent Iranian presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Southern Lebanon?
MA: You know, that’s something that we’ve been talking to Israeli officials about at all levels throughout, since almost the beginning of this administration. Their position has been made very clear to us. And honestly, they didn’t need to explain that to us. We understood it before having to have it explained to us. But it has been explained to us, and we’ve pledged to work together to ensure that that doesn’t happen, and we are working together.
HH: If Israel has to act, is the United States behind their action? Will we know about it beforehand?
MA: Well, I don’t want to get into hypotheticals or make predictions like that. I will just say, repeat again that the President pledged his support to the Prime Minister, and pledged his support to Israeli security. And you can expect these two allies will coordinate and you know, have each other’s backs come what may.
HH: All right, let’s talk a little bit about the top line tonight. It is expected that the President will announce a Defense request of $716 billion dollars total. That includes the Overseas Contingency Operation. Am I right? I’m in the ballpark on that number, Michael Anton?
MA: The, well, the $700 billion number has been out there before, so I would, I think it’s safe to say that you’re in the ballpark. But again, I’m, I don’t want to put myself in a position of preempting the President’s speech.
HH: Would a $716 billion dollar budget allow us to move to a 355 ship Navy? The President explicitly promised that repeatedly in the campaign. We have yet to see a plan on identifying the ship mix, the shipyards, the path to 355.
MA: Again, I don’t want to preempt the President’s speech and say what is or is not in it, but the purpose of his Defense budget is to fulfill the promises that he made in the campaign, and also to fulfill the requirements set forward in the national security strategy which he unveiled in December, and the national defense strategy which the Secretary of Defense unveiled earlier this month.
HH: All right, I was coming to that, and are we going to get a nuclear posture review pretty quick?
MA: We are going to get a nuclear posture review very quick.
HH: And in that, there are, there’s a lot of speculation about that, Michael Anton, that, and a lot of the left is wringing their hands already that the President is going to try and bring us closer to nuclear war by modernizing our arsenal. How do you, that’s just like the dumbest argument I’ve heard in a long time.
HH: But we have to respond to it. So what’s the response to that?
MA: I think there’s really two things to say about an NPR, the NPR. One is the last NPR issued under the Obama administration in 2010 was based on assumptions that we now know eight years later are just not true, didn’t pan out. The nuclear zero movement really hasn’t gone anywhere. It, you know, it’s a beautiful vision endorsed by former senior officials of both parties, including two Republicans – Henry Kissinger and George Schultz. But the fact is there are too many actors in the world that don’t want to move toward nuclear zero, and the United States can’t be alone in doing this. So a lot of the assumptions that that documents was based on haven’t come to pass, and we need to rethink it. But second, as you point out, is that a nuclear weapon is a complicated device. One of the designer of nuclear weapons and a writer about them, a man named Thomas Reid, once told me years ago, he said you know, it’s like leaving your Ferrari in a garage for 30 years and then deciding you want to go to the store for milk, and you haven’t checked out or looked at the car or done any maintenance on it. Chances are it’s not going to start. So the longer your forces go without significant modernization, the more the credibility of your deterrent becomes in doubt, because people will simply wonder how do I know that’s going to work. So some effort at modernization has got to take place to maintain the credibility of U.S. nuclear deterrent forces. This is not about taking the world closer to nuclear war. That’s an absurd charge. It’s about making sure that the force can do what it is intended to do, which is to deter threats, which means the person being deterred, the state being deterred, needs to believe that the threat is credible.
HH: I’m talking with Michael Anton, deputy assistant to President Trump for strategic communications at the NSC. I want to play for you, Michael, CIA Director Pompeo last week talking about North Korea, cut number 2:
NO’D: So to be clear, how close is Kim Jung Un to being able to deliver a nuclear attack to the territorial United States?
MP: A handful of months.
NO’D: But correct me if I’m wrong. I do believe you have used that phrase more than six months ago. You said a handful of months.
MP: It’s true. I hope to be able to say it a year from now as well. The United States government is working diligently to extend that timeline.
HH: What do you put the risk of conflict on the Korean Peninsula at in terms of percentage, Michael Anton?
MA: We are focused not on conflict, but applying maximum economic and diplomatic pressure to North Korea. And we do believe that the strategy is working, you know, both from things we see and hear about shortages, resource shortages inside the regime, and look at what the South Koreans said. They believe that the North Koreans approached them for talks partly because as a result of the pressure that’s been put on them by the Trump administration and also internationally by the Trump administration rallying other countries to this cause. So if denying North Korea resources has really two fundamental goals. One is to just cut off the funding and the materials necessary to fuel the weapons programs. And the second is to put so much pressure on the regime to convince it to take another path. That’s still what we’re focused on and what we’re hopeful we will see, that the regime will come to see that the path it’s on now is a dead end.
HH: Widely reported that your boss, General McMaster, has been cautioning people don’t take the Olympic bait. The parade is not the same thing as a genuine commitment to denuclearization. Is that report correct?
MA: Well, what we’re saying, and what we has said, and I think what we all here agree on, is we don’t want to make the same mistake that other administrations of both parties have fallen for in the past. I mean, the North Koreans have a playbook where first they try to divide allies. They try to get you know, the United States, they try to get countries to hold separate talks with them. And they have in the past pretended that they’re making real concessions while they’re at the negotiating table. They drag out the negotiations, and while in secret continuing the programs that they’re negotiating over. And when they feel that they have pocketed sufficient concessions, they walk away from the table, and when the time is right, announce that they have continued with these weapons programs all along after all, and blame the United States or blame somebody else for a provocation. We’ve seen that playbook. It’s been run on the United States and on our allies before. We should not fall for it again. We need to see from the North Koreans a genuine change of heart, not a negotiation as a ploy.
HH: Last couple of questions, Mike, and thanks for the time today with Michael Anton. Have you see John Bolton around the building at all?
MA: I’ve seen him a few times. The President admires him, appreciates his advice, and likes to get his take on things. And he will occasionally come by and see the boss.
HH: And there’s a report that General McMaster is headed for a fourth star somewhere, and John Bolton’s coming behind him. Any comment on that?
MA: Every conversation that I’ve had with General McMaster and with the Chief of Staff says to me that General McMaster is sticking around for a while. In fact, he got this question just last Wednesday from a CNN reporter as he was briefing the press in advance of the trip to the World Economic Forum. And he said he intends to stay in the job for as long as he can.
HH: That’s great. Take back to him my request for an interview soon. Michael, you’re terrific. I love it. I appreciate you taking the time. Have a great State of the Union.
End of interview.