Trump’s Afghanistan Speech Kicks Off Post-Bannon White House Era

  • Will address nation’s troops on approach for longest U.S. war
  • President looks to reset after tumult over race relations

Bloomberg’s Kevin Cirilli previews a primetime speech for President Trump on Afghanistan and discusses the administration sans Steve Bannon. He speaks with David Gura on 'Bloomberg Surveillance.' (Source: Bloomberg)

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Donald Trump will make a prime-time speech about Afghanistan and South Asia on Monday as he looks to get his presidency back on track following the departure of chief strategist Stephen Bannon and a week of tumult over his response to white-nationalist violence.

The president ends his 17-day “working vacation,” spent largely at his golf resort in New Jersey, and returns to Washington Sunday night with his popularity at a low ebb. Monday night, he’ll “address our nation’s troops and the American people” at 9 p.m. Washington time, according to a White House statement.

The speech comes after Trump faced widespread criticism and had to disband several advisory councils over his remarks that appeared to confer legitimacy on white supremacists following a violent rally Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The address at Fort Myer, a U.S. Army post in Arlington, Virginia, a few miles from the White House, could be one of Trump’s most important speeches yet.

Details of the revised U.S. Afghanistan policy were hashed out Friday at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, where Trump assembled his defense and national security teams for an hours-long meeting.

“Important day spent at Camp David with our very talented Generals and military leaders. Many decisions made, including on Afghanistan,” Trump said Saturday on Twitter.

A key point is whether Trump is prepared to commit more troops to America’s longest-running conflict, which the U.S. initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Bannon, who opposed an expanding presence, wasn’t at the Camp David meeting and departed as Trump’s chief strategist on Aug. 18.

Special Forces

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster back a proposal to add troops focused on training Afghan special forces. It’s intended to show a U.S. commitment to stay in the country, prod Taliban fighters to the negotiating table and stem the increased presence of terrorist groups including Islamic State.

Mattis was careful not to preempt his boss on the Afghanistan speech when he spoke to reporters on a military aircraft Sunday en route to Amman. He said he was satisfied with the process of formulating the new war strategy while not giving details.

“I am very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous,” Mattis said, according to the Associated Press. Trump had been presented with multiple options, he added.

Months ago, Trump gave his defense chief the go-ahead to set troop levels in Afghanistan as he saw fit, but Mattis didn’t take him up on the offer. “I was not willing to make significant troop lifts until we made certain we knew what was the strategy, what was the commitment going in. In that regard, the president has made a decision,” Mattis said.

Nuclear Worries

Monday’s speech also gives Trump a chance to hit the reset button on his role as a statesman after weeks of saber-rattling with North Korea that seemed to put the U.S. on the brink of a nuclear conflict.

An NBC News/Marist poll released Sunday showed that voters in three key Midwestern states were concerned about Trump’s foreign policy moves. Six in ten said the U.S.’s role on the world stage has been weakened.

Trump assigned Vice President Mike Pence to lead the process of formulating a strategy for Afghanistan, according to a person familiar with the deliberations.

Pence organized and led meetings with military and national security advisers throughout August, and collected and analyzed information on the various scenarios, the person said.

As he traveled back from Latin America on Aug. 17, Pence continued to review the various options, which were weighed during the Camp David meeting the next day. Rather than backing a particular option, Pence played more of the role of an honest broker, making sure that Trump got an accurate, complete picture of the different scenarios, the person said.

Another unknown is what changes Trump plans for the “Southern Asian” part of the equation. That may reflect the view of Mattis and Tillerson that any solution for Afghanistan requires getting tough on neighboring Pakistan for sheltering the Taliban and other groups. It’s not possible to “separate the two,” Mattis said last week.

Trump’s speech was set for the same time that House Speaker Paul Ryan was due to hold a town-hall meeting on CNN to promote the Republican legislative agenda. CNN said it would postpone Ryan’s event until after Trump’s speech.

— With assistance by Toluse Olorunnipa, Shannon Pettypiece, and Sahil Kapur

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