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Massive defense policy bill takes steps to restrain Trump

President Donald Trump signed a sweeping defense authorization bill Monday that offers a statement of policy as well as spending priorities totalling more than $700 billion. Nick Schifrin joins Amna Nawaz to discuss the scope beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to long-term strategic threats from Russia and China, plus policy on North Korea, civilian deaths in Yemen and soldiers’ pay.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, the president signed a major defense authorization bill today, a statement of policy and spending priorities. So, what's in this massive measure? And what will those $700-plus billion buy, once Congress dispenses the money?

    Amna Nawaz explores those questions and more now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act

    is named for the ailing chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

    It's one of the largest bills passed by Congress, and sets policy priorities

    for the nation's defense, on everything from China, to Russia, to

    civilian casualties, and soldiers' pay.

    With me now is foreign affairs and defense correspondent Nick Schifrin to walk us through some of its many, many provisions.

    And, Nick, there are a lot, but let's start big picture now. For the last 17 or 18 years, a lot of our national security defense spending has been kind of driven by terrorism or anti-terror efforts. Is that still true in this bill?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, it's certainly driven by Iraq and Afghanistan and defined by the wars there. What this administration has tried to do in its official strategy documents is get away from that and say that we're no longer focused just on Iraq an Afghanistan and counterterrorism missions throughout the world, we're focused on long-term strategic threats and those are China and Russia. So, you see that really seep throughout all parts of this bill.

    You also see one more thing, though, especially when it comes to Russia. And that is an expression of congressional concern. Almost a means of restraint on the president of the United States, there are many concerns that you know from Democratic side but also from the Republican side on the president's policies and rhetoric toward Russia as well as South Korea and a little bit on China.

    So, you see that combination of trying to change the strategy but also trying to restrain the president a little bit.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let's talk about that shift to those two big superpowers now — Russia in particular. There are some elements in there that stood out to me. They seem to challenge some previous assertions from the president that being friends with Russia is a good thing. What do you see in here that relates to Russia?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, there is about half a dozen, almost, highlights in here. And again trying to a little bit restrain the president but also trying to shift towards the strategic threat posed by Russia. So, let's just go through some of the specifics.

    Extending military assistance to Ukraine by a couple of years, requires reporting on sanctions, the president has to confirm he's imposed sanctions, also submit to Congress additional sanctions; extends prohibitions against military cooperation with Russia; forces the Treasury Department to brief Congress on Vladimir Putin's assets; and its $6.3 billion for the European Deterrent Initiative, this is the largest money spent by the U.S. on U.S. troops since the Cold War, and really re-creates some of the Cold War-era positioning of stocks of materials and also increases the presence of Army and Air Force troops throughout Europe, and those air and missile defense forces for ground forces.

    And the idea here is try and get a path toward permanence. These troops are there because of the Crimea invasion by Russia and annexation by Russia in 2014. What Congress is trying to do is make sure those troops stay in the long-term and there is language in this document that really gets to those troops being permanently stationed in Europe.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about the other country you mentioned as a priority here, China? There's long been concern about some of the predatory action that Congress has said they want the U.S. to better protect itself from. What do we see in here that relates to that?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We see actions or attempts to alter China's actions both in the United States and regionally. And so, regionally you see strengthening support for Taiwan's military capacity, combating predatory behavior in the U.S. by strengthening committees that protect U.S. investment, and giving DOD, Department of Defense, export control when it comes to China trying to invest in U.S. companies and requires the whole of government strategy on China.

    And it bans ZTE and Huawei from purchasing by U.S. government. These are technology companies, Chinese technology companies that U.S. officials are concerned about. And while the original draft said they'd be banned entirely from the U.S., this one does ban U.S. government from purchasing them and congressional officials are said to hope this changes Chinese behavior.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let's go quickly through some of the other countries mentioned. North Korea, their act sets a floor, right, on the troop presence — U.S. troop presence in South Korea. Why is that significant?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The floor is 22,000. And if the U.S. were to go below that, the Department of Defense would have to prove that it's in the national interest of the United States to do this. This is a direct response to the president saying that he believes joint operations, joint exercises with the South Koreans were, quote, war games, and questioning the U.S. presence in South Korea.

    Congress does not want him to withdraw more troops.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about Turkey? Congress had threatened to block an F-35 deal for a number of reasons? Did they make good on that threat from here?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Almost. They certainly tried to. The F-35 right now is blocked until Secretary Mattis submits a report on Turkey. Basically, Congress is worried that Turkey is getting the F-35 and also getting a Russian surface to air missile that could actually destroy the F-35.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ok. And, finally, in Yemen, the U.S. has supported the Saudi-led coalitions in conducting missions over Yemen. Is there continued funding for that in here?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There is. But it restricts some of what the U.S. can do with that coalition. And the fear is that the coalition is frankly killing civilians. We've seen a lot of reports of Saudi targeting or mistargeting, hitting things like hospitals and what Congress is trying to go is tell the military, hey, we're not that comfortable with it, so you need to increase our reporting and you need to restrict what you do. And that operational detail, a real sign that Congress is unhappy with some of the things that that coalition is doing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Very quickly, Nick, just step back for me. Is this a big major military buildup the president promised?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's the largest pay hike in nine years, the soldiers, marines, would be very happy with that. Efforts to improve readiness as well and reforms to personnel. But no, this is not the major buildup that the president is promising.

    Here is what one analyst told me. This is the same force that we had last year. The airplanes won't break as much, but that does not equal the greatest military buildup ever and it is not a mobilization by any stretch of the imagination.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nick Schifrin, thanks very much.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Nick will be back later with a look at the men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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