Trump talks Mattis, waterboarding, Syria

With Zach Montellaro, Ellen Mitchell and Connor O’Brien

TRUMP TALKS TO THE TIMES — TAKEAWAYS FROM TUESDAY’S INTERVIEW: President-elect Donald Trump sat down with The New York Times on Tuesday (after some fits and starts), and discussed a wide array of issues, with some interesting defense and foreign policy tidbits — including reconsidering torture. Here are the full interview, and our a rundown of the biggest takeaways:

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— TRUMP IS ‘SERIOUSLY CONSIDERING’ MATTIS: Trump reiterated again that he was “seriously, seriously considering” retired Marine Gen. James Mattis as his Defense secretary. “I think it’s time maybe, it’s time for a general,” Trump said. The comments underscore that Mattis is the leading candidate to be Trump’s first defense secretary. But the fact nothing has been announced has generated some talk in defense circles that perhaps the president-elect is considering alternatives — or that Mattis may pass on the post.

— MATTIS CONVINCES TRUMP TO RECONSIDER WATERBOARDING: One of Trump’s most revealing comments was that Mattis had convinced him that maybe waterboarding wasn’t so great after all. “I was surprised — he said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful.’” Trump told the Times. “He said, ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.’ And I was very impressed by that answer.” Trump wouldn’t go far as to say Mattis completely changed his mind, but the exchange suggests one of Trump’s vows during the campaign may not be so ironclad.

— AS FOR AYOTTE? NOT SO MUCH: Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) was floated as a Defense secretary candidate after the election, but Trump squashed the reports flatly. “No, thank you,” he said. Ayotte, who had un-endorsed him at the end of the presidential campaign, narrowly lost her Senate seat to New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan.

— ON SYRIA: The president-elect said he “has very strong views” and wants to find a solution to the brutal Syrian civil war. “Syria, we have to solve that problem,” he said. “Because we are going to just keep fighting, fighting forever. I have a different view on Syria than everybody else.” Asked what he would do, Trump responded: “I can only say this: We have to end that craziness that’s going on in Syria.” He didn’t get into more details, but reiterated he hoped to improve relations with Russia, as well as his view: “I don’t think we should be a nation-builder.”

— KUSHNER FOR PEACEMAKER? Asked about the role his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, will play in the new Trump administration, the president-elect said any formal role was unlikely — but he had other ideas for the fellow real estate developer: Peacemaker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I would love to be able to be the one that made peace with Israel and the Palestinians,” Trump said while touting the role Kushner could play.

FILLING THE CABINET — WHERE THINGS STAND: Trump is off to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida for Thanksgiving, but there were reports from South Carolina late Tuesday that the state’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, was expected to be announced as his pick for U.N. ambassador today. Other looming posts: Mitt Romney is seriously considering secretary of State, CNN reports. And NSA Director and Cyber Command chief Adm. Mike Rogers is still being considered to succeed James Clapper as director of national intelligence — amid reports Clapper and Defense Secretary Ash Carter wanted Rogers out.

HAPPY WEDNESDAY AND WELCOME TO MORNING DEFENSE, where we have a programming note: Morning D will be off for the long Thanksgiving weekend and will return to your inbox first thing Monday morning. Connor O’Brien will be taking over next week, as your current MD author is taking a post-election vacation. Email tips, pitches and feedback to cobrien@politico.com, and follow on Twittern@connorobrienNH, @jeremyherb and @morningdefense.

WHAT’S UP WHEN CONGRESS COMES BACK: Congress returns for the second-half of its lame-duck session next week. We expect a short session, but lawmakers will manage to get some key bills done before the new Congress convenes in January. The biggest in the defense world is the National Defense Authorization Act, which could move as early as next week. The final touches are still being put on the conference report, which will need to be signed by the House and Senate conferees.

Congress also needs to pass a spending bill to keep the government running past the Dec. 9 deadline. The plan is to approve a continuing spending resolution through the end of March, so the Trump administration can have a say in the fiscal 2017 appropriations process. There still will be an effort to add a plethora of policy and funding adjustments known as anomalies, such as a request to fully fund the Navy’s Ohio submarine replacement program.

INDUSTRY INTEL — CANADA PUSHES BACK F-35 BUY DECISION, SEEKS 18 SUPER HORNET FIGHTERS INSTEAD, reports our colleague Ellen Mitchell: “The Canadian government will ‘immediately explore the acquisition’’ of 18 Boeing-made F/A-18 Super Hornets in a move to replace its aging combat aircraft, pushing back a decision on buying Lockheed Martin-made F-35s. Canada ‘will initiate discussions with the U.S. government and Boeing on a potential procurement of, and in-service support for’ the Super Hornets as in interim to an ‘open and transparent’ competition to replace its fleet of CF-18s, according to a statement on Canada’s government website.

“The country will launch a fighter competition next year. And Boeing, Dassault, Eurofighter, Lockheed and Saab are looking to supply the aircraft to replace the 30-year-old CF-18s for the Royal Canadian Air Force. Lockheed said in a statement it was ‘disappointed’ with the decision, but remains ‘confident the F-35 is the best solution to meet Canada’s operational requirements at the most affordable price, and the F-35 has proven in all competitions to be lower in cost than 4th generation competitors.’”

— AIA PRESSES CONGRESS ON APPROPRIATIONS BILL, EX-IM: The Aerospace Industries Association is urging Congress to approve a full fiscal 2017 spending bill — not another continuing resolution — and is pressing lawmakers to include a provision to restore the Export-Import Bank to full functionality. In a letter sent to House and Senate leaders of both parties, released Tuesday, AIA President David Melcher presses lawmakers to pass a completed appropriation package, arguing it would provide “a greater sense of stability for our industry going forward.”

Signed by more than 70 CEOs and senior industry representatives of the leading defense industry trade association, the letter also “strongly” urges lawmakers to approve the quorum provisions for the U.S. export credit agency, Ex-Im Bank, in both the House and Senate versions of the State and Foreign Operations appropriations measures.

THE SYRIA DILEMMA — RUSSIAN TANKERS REPORTEDLY SMUGGLING JET FUEL TO SYRIA, reports Reuters’ Guy Faulconbridge and Jonathan Saul: “Russian tankers have smuggled jet fuel to Syria through EU waters, bolstering military supplies to a war-torn country where Moscow is carrying out airstrikes in support of the government, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.

“At least two Russian-flagged ships made deliveries — which contravene EU sanctions — via Cyprus, an intelligence source with a European Union government told Reuters. There was a sharp increase in shipments in October, said the source who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter. A separate shipping source familiar with the movements of the Russian-flagged vessels said the ships visited Cypriot and Greek ports before delivering fuel to Syria.”

WAR REPORT — U.S. JETS POUND ISIL POSITIONS IN MOSUL, writes The Associated Press’ Sam McNeil and Peter David Josek: One after another, fighter jets catapult from the flight deck of the USS Eisenhower, a thousand-foot American aircraft carrier, afterburners glowing amber above the blue Persian Gulf, on their way northwest to join the fight in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State group.

“The fighter jets refuel on the way before receiving from coalition partners targets like convoys, hideouts and mortar positions in IS-controlled territories such as Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, said Rear Adm. James Malloy, commander of the Eisenhower carrier strike group. From his office aboard the USS Eisenhower, Malloy described coalition success around Mosul while cautioning that victory is close at hand.”

— THE PENTAGON SAYS AN AL-QAEDA FIGURE WAS KILLED IN AN AIRSTRIKE, also via the AP: “The Pentagon says a U.S. military airstrike in Syria killed an al-Qaida leader with ties to militant movements across the Middle East. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook identified the target as an Egyptian named Abu Afghan al-Masri. Cook called him a senior al-Qaida leader in Syria who joined the organization in Afghanistan several years ago and had a hand in attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.”

SPEED READ

— Landmine casualties jump to their highest point in a decade: NYT

— South Korean President Park Geun-hye approves a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan to counter North Korea: NYT

— The Syrian government forms a new volunteer corps of its army: The Washington Post

— Britain rejects Trump’s suggestion that Nigel Farage should be the U.K.’s ambassador to the U.S.: USA Today

— Turkey dismisses 15,000 more state employees: Reuters

— The Navy’s newest destroyer, the USS Zumwalt, breaks down in the Panama Canal and has to be towed: Defense News

— Military personnel can now carry concealed handguns for protection at government facilities: Military Times

— Iran says 1,000 of its fighters have been killed in Syria: AP

— The U.S. and China conduct a joint military exercise training for natural disasters: CNN

— How the Defense Department has a secure, functioning Wi-Fi network in the cement Pentagon: Federal News Radio

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