Navy Denies Canceling Black Sea Op on Trump's Order

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The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) transits the Dardanelles Strait, Feb. 19, 2019. (U.S. Navy/Ford Williams)
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) transits the Dardanelles Strait, Feb. 19, 2019. (U.S. Navy/Ford Williams)

President Donald Trump once called his former national security adviser at home to cancel an upcoming Navy operation after watching a cable news report, a career diplomat recently told members of Congress, but it doesn't appear to have stopped any planned missions.

Christopher Anderson, a former State Department Ukraine specialist, told lawmakers the Navy was planning a "freedom-of-navigation operation" in the Black Sea in January. The White House later asked the service to cancel the operation after CNN reported on it, he said.

"Eventually, we met with Ambassador [John] Bolton and discussed this, and he made it clear that the President had called him to complain about that news report," his testimony states. "And that may have just been that he was surprised. We don't -- I can't speculate as to why. But that operation was canceled."

House Democrats released Anderson's testimony as part of a new public phase of the ongoing impeachment inquiry. Trump administration officials did not respond to questions about Anderson's account. He declined to comment Tuesday.

Related: USS Porter Enters Black Sea as Navy Continues to Boost Patrols in Tense Region

While Navy officials didn't address questions about whether the White House asked the service to cancel any missions, Cmdr. Kyle Raines, a spokesman for Naval Forces Europe-Africa, said he's not aware that any were halted after the December 2018 CNN report aired.

"U.S. 6th Fleet conducted our naval operations in the Black Sea region as scheduled," he said.

The dock landing ship Fort McHenry, with members of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard, began heading through the Dardanelles Strait and toward the Black Sea on Jan. 6, according to a Navy news release. The ship made a stop in Romania the next day.

Vice Adm. Lisa Franchetti, commander of U.S. 6th Fleet, said at the time that the ship's transit into the Black Sea reaffirmed "our strong relationships with our NATO allies and partners in the region."

CNN had reported that the military requested Turkish leaders be notified that it was considering sending a warship into the Black Sea. The move, according to the outlet, was in response to Russia's November 2018 actions against Ukraine in the Kerch Strait. The Ukrainian Navy said Russia opened fire on three of its ships, seizing two of them and injuring several sailors.

"Ambassador Bolton relayed that he was called at home by the President, who complained about this news report," Anderson said.

He was asked about U.S.-Ukraine relations, which prompted the House to launch the impeachment inquiry. The move stems from a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Members of the House are investigating whether Trump withheld military aid in exchange for Zelensky's assistance in gathering information on a political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.

The president has continued to argue there was no wrongdoing, calling the inquiry a "No Due Process Scam" on Tuesday.

Anderson said the signal to cancel the Navy operation, combined with reports at the time saying an effort was underway to review all assistance to Ukraine, left some fearing a shift in U.S. policy toward the former Soviet republic.

Russia had been stalling in the negotiations with Ukraine for about a year, he said, and State Department officials didn't want Moscow to believe the U.S. government "was getting Ukraine fatigue."

"We wanted to convince Russia that we were serious, that the U.S. would not accept Russia's continued aggression, and that we believed a strong U.S. high-level engagement with Ukraine would help bring Russia back to the negotiating table so that we could end this war, which has cost over 13,000 lives, displaced millions of people, and I think injured tens of thousands of people," Anderson said.

In February, the Navy sent the guided-missile destroyer Donald Cook into the Black Sea -- five years after the start of Russian invasion of Crimea. Then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and other European guests went aboard the destroyer while it was there.

Anderson told lawmakers the ship's presence and the VIP tours sent a "robust message to the Russians."

"They admitted this was a very sharp message that they heard loud and clear," he said.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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