Sen. Dan Sullivan

GUEST COMMENTARY: Record reflects Trump far tougher on Russia than Obama

Now that the Mueller investigation is over, we can put to bed the persistent and erroneous allegations that President Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russians to get him elected. Likewise, we should also put to bed another persistent and pernicious narrative: that the president and his administration have been “soft” on Russia. This narrative has been continuously promulgated by a host of former Obama administration officials (see, for example, the recent Washington Post op-ed by a former U.S. ambassador to Russia) — and disseminated by a headline-chasing national media — who have attempted to disassociate the Trump administration’s Russia policies and actions from the president himself. They have done this by disparaging the president for his words but not crediting him for his administration’s actions. I agree that the president’s rhetoric regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin should be tougher, but as his critics surely know, it is actions backed by power and force that ultimately matter in the world of international politics, not Obama-style soaring rhetoric. This is particularly true when it comes to Putin. And the record thus far clearly shows that the Trump administration, working with Republicans in Congress, has been far tougher on Russia than the Obama administration ever was. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, Ukrainian leaders desperately requested from President Barack Obama defensive anti-tank weapons systems that could fend off the invading Russian T-72 tanks in eastern Ukraine. In 2015, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee — Democrats and Republicans — encouraged Obama to grant this request to help Ukraine defend itself. Obama refused. Soon after coming into office, Trump changed course, and the Ukrainians now have Javelin anti-tank weapons systems from the United States. Russian tank drivers have a lot more to worry about today. The Trump administration has also replaced Obama’s reticence regarding U.S. troop deployments near Russia with a full embrace of the European Deterrence Initiative, or EDI. In just more than two years in office, Trump has requested more than $17 billion for EDI compared with just $5 billion requested in Obama’s final three years in office. As a result, thousands of U.S. troops, along with other NATO allies, have deployed to Poland, the Baltics and Norway to deter further Russian expansion. In the Middle East, Obama’s passive actions and policies — including a now-infamous unenforced “red line” — led to the rise of the Islamic State and left an open door for Russian ground and air forces. Russian troops and their proxies, aligned with Iranian and Syrian forces, now occupy large swaths of territory in Syria. Nevertheless, the Trump administration has unleashed the United States’ military might in Syria, leading the efforts to destroy the Islamic State territorial caliphate and militarily punishing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons. When Russian-backed proxies and possibly Russian military forces got too close to our Special Operations forces in Syria and failed to back off as warned, they were systematically destroyed by the U.S. military. And while much has been made of the president’s announcement of withdrawing troops from Syria, he has since pulled back to keep U.S. and NATO troops in the country. More broadly, under Obama, the Pentagon’s budget was slashed by 25 percent from 2010 to 2016. Our military’s readiness, unsurprisingly, plummeted. This certainly emboldened Putin. By the end of Obama’s tenure, the Air Force was the smallest and oldest (in terms of aircraft age) it has ever been, and only a small fraction of the Army was combat-ready. The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have reversed this hollowing out of our military by dramatically increasing funding. Readiness is returning. Trump’s national defense strategy clearly prioritizes Russia and China as rising great powers to which our military and nation must respond. Finally, Trump has taken decisive action to unleash an instrument of American power that Putin fears the most: U.S. energy. I’ll never forget a meeting I attended with Sen. John McCain and a prominent Russian dissident, who told us that the No. 1 thing the United States could do to undermine Putin was to “produce more American energy.” Crude oil production may have risen during the Obama administration, but that was only despite Democrats’ systematic efforts — which continue to this day — to undermine U.S. energy production on state and federal lands. As Alaska’s attorney general and the commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources, I fought the Obama administration’s consistent policies to delay and shut down hydrocarbon production in my state. Fortunately, the Trump administration has reversed most of Obama’s harmful anti-energy policies. The United States is once again the world’s energy superpower — producing more renewables, oil and natural gas than any other country on Earth, including Russia and Saudi Arabia. And with Trump administration policies, such as opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for responsible energy production, U.S. energy dominance is likely to endure for decades. So yes, Trump and his administration clearly have been tough on Russia — more so than his predecessor. Facts are stubborn things, and when it comes to Russia and Vladimir Putin, actions speak louder than words. Dan Sullivan, a Republican, represents Alaska in the U.S. Senate. He is a member of the Armed Services Committee and the chairman of the Subcommittee on Readiness.

OPINION: Relief for Alaskans on Tax Day

Tax Day has historically been a day of frustration and confusion for many of us. Millions of Americans and thousands of Alaskans spend hours poring over W-2s and receipts in preparation for the filing deadline. The forms, the deductions and credits can be maddening. It’s also a day that taxpayers get to see, in black and white, exactly how much we are paying our federal government to run our government. For many, the answer has been “too much for too little,” especially as so many Alaskans are struggling as a result of our recession. But the historic tax reform legislation that Congress passed and the president signed into law this past December will help and this will be the last year that Alaskans will file under the broken system. Not only does the reform greatly simplify the tax code, but it has already helped spur economic growth. In the past few months, nearly all Alaskans should have been seeing larger paychecks thanks to the tax reform bill. The Treasury Department has estimated that 90 percent of American workers will see pay increases as a result of the law. How exactly does the new tax code help Alaskans? First, it doubles the standard deduction. For an individual, the standard deduction goes from $6,350 to $12,000. For a married couple, it goes from $12,700 to $24,000. The bill doubles the child tax credit from the current $1,000 to $2,000 per child. The bill also lowers individual tax rates for middle-income Americans. Bottom line: An average family of four, making about $73,000 a year, will get about $200 more a month, or about $2,400 a year. A single parent making $40,000 a year will see their tax bill decrease by $1,300. That’s a 73 percent decrease. This is real money that will help stretch family budgets in these lean times and will offset Permanent Fund Dividend cuts. Further, thousands of workers in Alaska have already received bonuses and pay raises from companies doing business in our state because of tax reform. Also, thousands of Alaskans will likely soon be seeing a decrease in their utility rates because of tax reform. Importantly, the new law also decreases taxes on our small businesses and American companies so that they can reinvest in our country and in Alaska, hire more workers, give pay raises, and help grow our economy. In 2012, President Obama said that our current business tax structure hurt American business and inhibited growth because the rates were too high relative to other countries. He said that the tax system, “provides tax breaks for moving jobs and profits overseas and hits companies that choose to stay in America with one of the highest tax rates in the world.” Something had to be done and we took appropriate action that included significant benefits for Alaskans beyond just tax reform. Most Alaskans celebrated the fact that the tax bill, at long last, authorized the opening of the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to responsible resource development. This has been a 40-year bipartisan goal for our state that we were finally able to achieve. There are other provisions in the bill that will help Alaskans. The new law helps our families by using tax credits to encourage employers to offer workers up to 12 weeks of paid family leave. For Alaska Native Corporations, which are such big drivers of our economy, we were able to get provisions included that provide favorable tax benefits for donations of cash or assets into settlement trusts. These trusts are used to support Alaska Native programs that provide healthcare and education and manage Alaska Native lands. Another important program that was part of the tax bill created what are called “Opportunity Zones,” which have the potential to promote further economic investment in underserved, rural and impoverished areas across our state. Opportunity Zones are areas in qualifying census tracts based on the average income of residents living in those tracts. Alaska has approximately 68 qualifying tracts, encompassing a huge swath of our state. Currently, Gov. Bill Walker’s administration is in the process of designating 25 of these tracts where investors can establish “Opportunity Funds” to invest in projects within these zones and receive significant tax benefits. Many communities have petitioned the governor to be included in this program, which has the potential to be a much-needed source for spurring economic growth and investment, providing an opportunity to spark the flame of entrepreneurship in Alaska. Simply put, the tax bill is a major win for Alaska and for our country. The less money that Washington takes from the private sector, the more Alaskans can put toward creating business opportunities and hiring workers. The more money Alaskans have in their paychecks, the more they can save for their kids’ college, pay off bills, take a much needed vacation, or circulate that money in our local economy. My number one focus as your senator has been to enact policies that spur much-needed economic growth and opportunity across Alaska and America, benefiting Alaska’s workers and families. The law that we passed in Congress does just that.

COMMENTARY: Time for president to tell truth about troops’ combat role

When the president is in open disagreement with the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on one of the most critical issues our nation faces — whether to send our sons and daughters into combat — it should be cause for significant national concern. President Obama has repeatedly told the American people that U.S. troops are not in combat in the Middle East. In 2010, he announced that “our combat mission is ending” in Iraq. He used the same words in 2014 regarding Afghanistan. More recently, he said that our mission in Syria “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” Yet last week in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, I asked Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. if our troops in the Middle East, including in Syria, are engaged in combat. Both unequivocally said yes. To our members of the military serving overseas, Carter and Dunford were stating the obvious. Indeed, recent reports in The Post and the Military Times describe up to 200 Marines at Fire Base Bell in northern Iraq firing artillery daily in support of Iraqi troops and killing Islamic State terrorists. Our soldiers serving as part of the Joint Special Operations Command in the Middle East conduct regular counterterrorism missions to kill and capture terrorists. Since 2014, our brave pilots have dropped approximately 40,000 bombs in Iraq and Syria in close-air-support missions focused on killing Islamic State members and destroying their infrastructure and supply operations. An additional 1,200 bombs have been dropped supporting the coalition fight in Afghanistan combating the Taliban. Some of our service members have been killed conducting these operations, while others have been wounded. All of this is the very definition of combat. To Carter’s credit, he said at the hearing: “These people are in combat . . . and I think that we need to say that clearly.” Apparently, the White House didn’t get the memo. This week, when asked about a Navy SEAL killed in a fierce firefight involving U.S. Special Operations forces, Kurdish commandos and Islamic State fighters, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that “the relatively small number of U.S. service members that are involved in these operations are not in combat but are in a dangerous place.” Why do Obama and his White House continue to peddle the fiction that U.S. forces are not engaged in combat? Perhaps the commander in chief is truly unaware that they are, which would be troubling indeed. More likely is that because he’s told the American people repeatedly that he will end wars and won’t send combat troops to the Middle East, the word contortions coming from the White House are part of a twisted attempt to salvage and protect the president’s legacy. But by spinning the truth for political purposes, the president is coming perilously close to leaving a legacy of dishonesty when it comes to our military involvement in the Middle East. And much more worrisome, such dishonesty comes with costs. First, it diminishes the service and sacrifice of our troops and their families. Americans serving in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan know they’re engaged in combat operations. The commander in chief needs to acknowledge this fact and the bravery it entails, not disguise the true nature of their duty. Second, it further undermines the administration’s tenuous foreign policy credibility regarding its stated goal of degrading and destroying the Islamic State. While this is the correct goal, a series of missteps in the Middle East, including the president’s failure to enforce his own red line when it was crossed by Bashar al-Assad in Syria, have brought us to the point where our adversaries and our allies question U.S. credibility and resolve. Islamic State terrorists know that they’re in combat against U.S. forces, but when the president says otherwise, it signals a lack of conviction, making it harder to defeat these terrorists. Finally, the dishonesty about the role of our troops allows our presidential candidates to duck a tough issue. Hillary Clinton repeatedly has been allowed to say, unchallenged, that she would continue the president’s policies of not sending combat troops to Syria and Iraq. Forty-five years ago, future Secretary of State John F. Kerry, then speaking as a veteran of the Vietnam War, urged the incumbent administration to be honest about the roles our men and women in uniform were playing in Vietnam. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he said, “We veterans can only look on with amazement on the fact that this country has been unable to see there is absolutely no difference between ground troops and a helicopter crew, and yet people have accepted a differentiation fed them by the administration.” The theater has changed, but Kerry’s words still resonate. For the betterment of our troops, and our country, he called for honesty then — just as we all should call for honesty now. Dan Sullivan, a Republican, represents Alaska in the U.S. Senate and is a member of the Armed Services Committee. He is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.  
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