House Republicans seek to shift focus from Trump to security

AP News
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Posted: Jun 09, 2016 3:52 PM
House Republicans seek to shift focus from Trump to security

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans laid out a national security agenda that seeks to turn the conversation away from Donald Trump's contentious presidential campaign and toward concrete policies for securing America's borders and defeating extremist groups.

Speaking Thursday at the Council on Foreign Relations with other GOP leaders, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said Trump's proposed plan to ban all Muslims from coming into the country isn't practical.

"You can't ban an entire race or religion from coming into the country," said McCaul, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. The U.S. needs to properly target the threat to make sure attackers don't get into the country, he said.

The billionaire candidate also has pledged, if elected, to bring back the use of waterboarding — it causes the sensation of drowning — and worse against captured militants. Congress has outlawed waterboarding along with other so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.

But Rep. Mac Thornberry, the Texas Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said he does not believe the military will carry out an order that runs contrary to the law. Without mentioning Trump by name, Thornberry advised anyone who aspires to be commander in chief to "quit talking" about interrogation techniques or any other sensitive national security matters.

"Quit saying what we're not going to do," Thornberry said, referring to enhanced interrogation. "So I am not for putting a bunch of things into law that we're not going to do. I'm for leaving them guessing."

The national security agenda is a key item in a broader policy blueprint House Speaker Paul Ryan is crafting that seeks to unite Republicans amid the frequent distractions triggered by Trump's unconventional presidential campaign. Ryan's policy blueprint is aimed at defining what Republicans are for, not just what they are against.

The agenda's focus on immigration and border protection tracks with one of the cornerstones of Trump's platform. While it calls for the use of "high fencing" along border areas, the plan steers clear of the billionaire candidate's signature issue: building a wall to keep people from illegally entering the United States from Mexico. Ryan has rejected Trump's call for banning Muslims.

Ryan, who spoke briefly and left without taking questions, blamed President Barack Obama for a litany of foreign policy failures that the Wisconsin Republican says have frayed America's alliances and emboldened its enemies. Obama "shrugged off" the Islamic State group, Ryan said, and he called the president's response to Russia's aggressiveness "timid."

"America has to set the standard," Ryan said. "Otherwise countries will pursue their short-term, narrow interests."

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the failure to understand Russian President Vladimir Putin's intentions ranks as "the greatest intelligence failure" since the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, said the GOP's avowal to confront "adversarial power and rogue regimes" conflicts with "Trump's embrace of Vladimir Putin, and his interest in a personal meeting with North Korea's Kim Jong Un."

The Republican national security plan calls for accelerating the deployment of fencing, technology, air assets and personnel along U.S. borders. The U.S. has repeatedly failed to eliminate serious vulnerabilities in the immigration system, according to the plan, which cites the inability to verify comprehensively whether visitors to the U.S. actually leave when their visas expire.

The plan outlines in broad strokes a series of measures for defeating the Islamic State group and other extremists. It advocates relying on "local forces" in Iraq and Syria to defeat militants but indicates Republicans must be prepared to deploy U.S. troops if necessary.

That's essentially the Obama administration's current policy. There are about 5,500 U.S. troops in Iraq serving in various support and advisory roles, but the fighting is the responsibility of the local forces there.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter counseled against sending a large, American-led "foreign ground force" to battle the Islamic State militants when he testified in April before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Such a move would play into the hands of the extremists, Carter said, "fighting on the enemy's terms of ground combat amid a local population that has previously responded violently to such an approach."

The few specifics Trump has offered on defense and foreign policy issues have rattled Republicans and unnerved U.S. allies. In addition to waterboarding, Trump has said he would order the military to kill family members of extremists who threaten the U.S., a position he has since retreated from after being heavily criticized. And he's questioned whether NATO and America's other key alliances have become obsolete.

The GOP national security agenda calls NATO a "critical organization" and says the U.S. should assemble "a more robust coalition of allies."

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Follow Richard Lardner on Twitter at http://twitter.com/rplardner