Trump Admin Infighting Over Open Skies Treaty Infuriates GOP Hawks

Russia has consistently breached treaty to spy on U.S.

A Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter takes off during an air show
A Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter takes off during an air show / Getty Images
March 9, 2020

Senior Trump administration officials are working behind the scenes to thwart President Donald Trump's attempt to pull out of a treaty that allows Russia to conduct surveillance operations in the United States, according to executive and congressional officials.

Russia has repeatedly violated the Open Skies Treaty, an accord with Russia and some 30 European nations that permits reciprocal reconnaissance flights. The president has reportedly signed paperwork to withdraw the United States from the agreement, which has been in effect since 2002.

Some officials argue the accord provides the United States with important access to Russian military sites. Ambassador Jim Gilmore, a onetime Trump critic who now serves as the administration's representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has pushed to keep the United States in the agreement, a position shared by others in the administration.

U.S. officials pressed European allies in November to help address a series of concerns—including Russia's alleged use of the treaty to spy on sensitive U.S. facilities—and Gilmore is scheduled to participate this week in an interagency meeting to see if those concerns have been met.

The administration's divide has generated anger on Capitol Hill, where Republican hawks are calling for an immediate withdrawal from the treaty. Sens. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) and Ted Cruz (R., Tex.) filed a resolution in October to pull America out of the agreement.

"Sen. Cruz has long said that it is past time for the United States to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty," a spokesman for the Texas senator told the Washington Free Beacon. "Russia has exploited the treaty in all sorts of ways, including literally flying over the president's residence in Bedminster. The treaty enables Russia's espionage capabilities and surveillance of major American cities, at the expense of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars."

Cotton called the treaty "outdated" and questioned the value of continuing U.S. participation.

"While Russia has been restricting Open Skies Treaty overflights for years, we still allow them to conduct regular surveillance flights over the United States," the senator told the Free Beacon. "Remaining in Open Skies no longer serves the best interests of the United States, and the president should withdraw from the outdated treaty."

Top administration officials including Secretary of Defense Mark Esper have been upfront about Russia's violations, which include denying the United States reciprocal permission to conduct flights in its airspace.

"We've also been denied access to military exercise overflights," Esper testified before Congress last week. "I have a lot of concerns about the treaty as it stands now."

President Trump is said to have signed documents declaring his intent to pull out of the deal. A senior administration official said the treaty is being reviewed.

"The United States is committed to agreements that advance U.S., Allied, and partner security and include counterparts that fulfill their obligations," the official said. "The administration is currently conducting a review of the costs and benefits associated with the Open Skies Treaty."

But other officials such as Gilmore, the former Republican governor of Virginia, are said to be working to keep the United States engaged in the agreement. The disparate messages coming from the administration have agitated Trump allies.

Some point to Gilmore's early opposition to Trump as a possible motivation for his current position.

In December 2015, for instance, Gilmore—then a challenger for the Republican presidential nomination—wrote in a since-deleted tweet that "Trump's fascist talk drives all minorities from GOP." He reiterated this allegation in multiple interviews at the time.

"Gilmore appears to be a case study in the failure of the [government hiring] process earlier in the administration," said one former U.S. official, discussing the matter only on background. "It's clear he has nothing but contempt for the president—how does he get away with calling President Trump a 'racist'? And he appears to be going out of his way to undermine administration policy."

A senior Republican national security official expressed a similar view, describing Gilmore's position as "essentially a rebellion against the president's stated position."

Gilmore discussed the administration's continued participation in the treaty during a March 2 press briefing at the State Department. His comments appeared to contradict those of officials such as Esper, who claimed Russia is denying the United States flight permission.

"The United States continues to participate in the Open Skies Treaty," Gilmore said. "We are still continuing to fly. We submitted all of our flight plans. We are—all of our allies have, and the Russians have. And they're all flying."

Gilmore went on to tout a recent flight over Kaliningrad, "which has always been somewhat of a sticking point."

"It was very cooperative," Gilmore said. "And also, the reports that we've had are that some of their reluctance to let us fly over one of their major exercises, they're saying they're not going to do that, they're not going to make that objection anymore."

Asked about possible U.S. plans to withdraw from the agreement, Gilmore claimed the issue is still up in the air.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.