Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Mattis offers support for Iran deal | McCain blocks nominees over Afghanistan strategy | Trump, Tillerson spilt raises new questions about N. Korea policy

THE TOPLINE: U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford were on Capitol Hill Tuesday to discuss President Trump's new strategy in Afghanistan.

Appearing before both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, Mattis and Dunford touched on a range of topics, from the Iran nuclear deal, to Pakistan, to a lack of details on Trump's Afghanistan war plan, announced in August.

On Iran: Mattis acknowledged to Senate lawmakers it was in America's national security interest to stay in the Iran nuclear deal, even as Trump has signaled he may pull out of the international pact.

"Do you believe it's in our national security interest at the present time to remain in [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA)]?" Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) asked Mattis during a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing.

"Yes, senator, I do," Mattis replied.

Mattis' response comes as Trump faces a congressionally-mandated Oct. 15 deadline to certify whether Iran remains in compliance with the JCPA, an accord that gave Tehran billions of dollars of sanctions relief in exchange for deterring its nuclear program.

Trump has previously indicated that he may not certify Iran's compliance with the deal, which requires the administration to prove to Congress every 90 days that the nation is abiding by its requirements.

Read more on that exchange here.

On Pakistan: Mattis later said before the House Armed Services Committee that the United States will try to work with Pakistan on terrorism "one more time" before taking punitive action to pressure them to do more.

"We need to try one more time to make this strategy work with them, by, with and through the Pakistanis, and if our best efforts fail, President Trump is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary," Mattis said.

The U.S. relationship with Pakistan has ebbed and flowed over the course of the 16-year war in Afghanistan, hitting its low point after U.S. special forces killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.

The Hill's Rebecca Kheel has the rest here.

On Russia: Mattis also touched on Russia's support for the Taliban, noting he wants to see more evidence on how deep it is because what he's seen "doesn't make sense."

Asked by Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) about Iran's and Russia's support for the Taliban, Mattis said that Iran is "doing what it usually does" in sowing regional chaos. But Russia, he said, has been harder to figure out.

"I want to see more evidence about how deep the support is," Mattis said. "I need more definition on what is coming out of Russia. I can't figure it out. It doesn't make sense. But we're looking at it very carefully."

Read about that here.

MCCAIN HOLDS UP TRUMP PENTAGON NOMINEES OVER AFGHANISTAN: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is holding up Trump's Pentagon nominations over a lack of details on the administration's plan for the war in Afghanistan.

McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Defense News on Tuesday that "we've been holding nominations ... from the Pentagon to fill in those Pentagon jobs."

McCain said he is "keeping with the Constitution of the United States" and will hold an unspecified number of Trump's nominees for civilian positions within the Pentagon.

The delays include Army secretary nominee Mark Esper as well as Robert Wilkie, Trump's pick for Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.

McCain earlier Tuesday ripped into Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford because the administration has given Congress limited information on its Afghanistan strategy, which was announced Aug. 21.

"In the six weeks since the president made his announcement, this committee and the Congress, more broadly, still does not know many of the crucial details of this strategy. This is totally unacceptable. I repeat, this is totally unacceptable," McCain said at a committee hearing to discuss the new war plan.

Read the rest here.

TRUMP PRAISES FIGHTER JET UNRELATED TO RELIEF EFFORTS WHILE IN PUERTO RICO: President Trump on Tuesday launched into an extended appraisal of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter during a visit to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, even though the fighter jet isn't involved in the rescue and recovery efforts there.

The president had just received an update on runways open on the island -- slammed by two back-to-back hurricanes earlier this month -- when he started discussing the F-35.

"So amazing that we're ordering hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of new airplanes for the Air Force, especially the F-35. Do you like the F-35?" Trump asked the military officials in attendance.

The Pentagon has not sent any F-35s -- fighter jets made for combat situations and not rescue missions -- to help in the hurricane relief efforts.

Read more here.

TRUMP SLAM ON TILLERSON RAISES MORE QUESTIONS ON N. KOREA POLICY: Trump muddled his North Korea strategy further over the weekend when he appeared to undercut his own secretary of State, driving more concerns from experts that the administration has no clear strategy.

A day after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged publicly for the first time that the United States has been in direct contact with North Korea, Trump tweeted that Tillerson was "wasting his time."

The public lashing stunned Korea watchers, leaving them scratching their heads as to where U.S. policy goes if diplomacy really is off the table.

"It raises a question, which has been around for a while, which is, 'Who's in charge of foreign policy?' " said retired Col. Richard Klass, a board member at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.

Read more here.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW:

The House Foreign Affairs will have a joint subcommittee hearing on the State Department's antiterrorism assistance program at 10 a.m. at the Rayburn House office Building room 2172. http://bit.ly/2x2eGYI

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hear from outside experts on the future of Iraq's minorities 11 a.m. at the Dirksen Senate Office Building 419. http://bit.ly/2fFaLcZ

Another House Foreign Affairs subpanel will hear from outside experts on Iranian-backed militias and Syria genocide emergency relief at 2 p.m. at Rayburn 2172. http://bit.ly/2xH4eCZ

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on pending nominations for several positions at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Russell Senate Office Building 418. http://bit.ly/2xQOmA2

ICYMI:

-- The Hill: Bipartisan bill would toughen North Korea sanctions, require Trump's strategy

-- The Hill: Pentagon IDs soldier killed in Iraq

-- The Hill: Armed US drone shot down in Yeme

-- The Hill: McCain, Flake warn against 'politically-motivated penalties' for Canadian defense firm

-- The Hill: Cuban government: US expulsion of diplomats 'reckless'

-- The Hill: Trump spends frenzied day in Puerto Rico

--Defense News: Mattis reveals new rules of engagement

Please send tips and comments to Rebecca Kheel, rkheel@thehill.com, and Ellen Mitchell, emitchell@thehill.com.

Follow us on Twitter: @thehill, @Rebecca_H_K, @EllenMitchell23

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