Overnight Defense: Dems grill Trump Army, Air Force picks | House chair subpoenas Trump Afghanistan negotiator | Trump officials release military aid to Ukraine

Overnight Defense: Dems grill Trump Army, Air Force picks | House chair subpoenas Trump Afghanistan negotiator | Trump officials release military aid to Ukraine
© Greg Nash

Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: Democrats on Thursday grilled President TrumpDonald John TrumpThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Judd Gregg: The big, big and bigger problem MORE’s nominees to lead the Army and the Air Force on his recent move to take $3.6 billion from military construction projects and use it for his proposed border wall.

Army Secretary nominee Ryan McCarthyRyan McCarthySchumer asks Army to provide Vindman same protections as whistleblower Overnight Defense: Top general briefs GOP senators on Syria plan | Senators 'encouraged' by briefing | Pence huddles with Republican allies on Syria | Trump nominee sidesteps questions on arms treaties Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — House passes resolution rebuking Trump over Syria | Sparks fly at White House meeting on Syria | Dems say Trump called Pelosi a 'third-rate politician' | Trump, Graham trade jabs MORE and Air Force Secretary nominee Barbara Barrett were facing the Senate Armed Services Committee for their confirmation hearing for those jobs.

Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingOvernight Energy: EPA watchdog slams agency chief after deputy fails to cooperate in probe | Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act | Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows by six members Senators fear Syria damage 'irreversible' after Esper, Milley briefing MORE (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats, pressed McCarthy, currently the undersecretary of the Army, on whether the Pentagon’s general counsel or counsel for the individual military branches have prepared a legal opinion on the use of military construction funds for the border wall.

McCarthy said such an opinion has been prepared and committed to providing the document to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“I believe you’ve been given an illegal order. I think what’s being done here is a gross violation of the Constitution,” King replied. “Maybe the president misstated — he meant to say that New Mexico is going to pay for the wall, not Mexico. Because that’s what’s happening here. And it’s not right, and it’s not in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.”

The background: The Pentagon announced last week it was taking $3.6 billion from 127 military construction projects to build 175 miles of wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, in line with Trump’s emergency declaration at the beginning of the year.

Dipping into military construction funding followed the Pentagon’s move earlier this year to transfer without congressional approval $2.5 billion from various accounts into its counter-drug fund to be used for the wall. Reprogramming money without congressional approval broke decades of tradition and infuriated Democrats.

The same issue also led Democrats to vote against the fiscal 2020 defense spending bill Thursday.

Senate Democrats are planning to force a vote "within the next month” to nix the emergency declaration, Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTop Senate Dem: Officials timed immigration policy around 2020 election Senate fight derails bipartisan drug pricing bills Trump has officially appointed one in four circuit court judges MORE (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday. But the last attempt to pass such a resolution was unable to override Trump’s veto.

The pushback: At the Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, Sen. Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichSenate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics This week: House to vote on Turkey sanctions bill Hillicon Valley: Facebook launches 'News Tab' | Senate passes bill to take on 'deepfakes' | Schumer outlines vision for electric cars MORE (D-N.M.) pressed McCarthy and Barrett on two projects in his home state that are losing money.

Heinrich grilled Barrett on an MQ-9 Reaper drone training facility at Holloman Air Force Base losing about $85 million for a new building.

“Are you aware of the fact that current trainees are resorting to using duct tape to patch holes in the walls and ceilings of their training facility?” Heinrich asked. “Did you know that because of these conditions these operators are actually the only combat aircrews in the entire Air Force that are forced to train in an unclassified, unsecure environment?”

Barrett replied that despite funding being “deferred,” it is her understanding “the priority remains very high” for the project.

“I've been on the outside so it's not something that I was a participant in, but I do believe that the priorities haven't changed and that that would be something that would be looked to for funding and appropriate action,” she said. “And I would be attentive to that as secretary, if confirmed.”

Heinrich also pressed McCarthy on plans to use $40 million originally intended for construction of a new information systems facility at White Sands Missile Range.

The contract was supposed to be awarded in fiscal year 2020. McCarthy told Heinrich the Army is now hoping to award it in fiscal year 2021 and hopes to “recover schedule and work with the contractors if possible.”

Heinrich told both McCarthy and Barrett he was “more than disappointed” by the administration’s move.

Other issues: Barrett was also questioned over whether she would prioritize the creation of Trump's Space Force if she’s confirmed.

Barrett told the committee that she believes a Space Force is “overdue.”

"If confirmed, standing up a Space Force would be a key imperative," said Barrett, whose résumé includes past stints as chairwoman of the Aerospace Corporation, deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration and ambassador to Finland.

“American national power depends upon space, and our potential adversaries know it. We must be prepared to defend critical space assets, increase the resilience of our space enterprise and be prepared to fight and win should deterrence fail.”

Pressed by Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineProgressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising Lawmakers wager local booze, favorite foods in World Series bets José Andrés: Food served in the Capitol came from undocumented immigrants MORE (D-Va.) on how she would implement the Senate’s Space Force plan, which Kaine said will “likely survive relatively intact” after negotiations with the House, Barrett did not provide specifics ahead of the bill being finalized.

Expectations: Despite questions about the wall, both McCarthy and Barrett are expected to be easily confirmed by the Senate.

 

HOUSE CHAIRMAN SUBPOENAS TRUMP’S AFGHANISTAN NEGOTIATOR: House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelHouse Democrats pull subpoena for ex-Trump national security official House Democrats ask Mulvaney to testify in impeachment inquiry Republicans look to expand impeachment strategy amid release of transcripts MORE (D-N.Y.) on Thursday subpoenaed the Trump’s administration lead negotiator in Afghanistan peace talks to testify before the committee on Sept. 19.

Engel said he issued the subpoena for special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad after the State Department ignored requests in February, April and earlier this month for briefings.

“More than 2,000 American troops have died in Afghanistan, and I’m fed up with this administration keeping Congress and the American people in the dark on the peace process and how we’re going to bring this long war to a close,” Engel said in a statement Thursday. “I expect to see Ambassador Khalilzad in our hearing room next Thursday at 10 o’clock sharp.”

The lead up: Engel hinted last week he would issue a subpoena after Khalilzad told reporters in Afghanistan he had reached an agreement “in principal” with the Taliban.

Since then, Trump revealed he had canceled a plan to meet with Taliban leaders at Camp David to finalize the peace agreement.

The revelation sparked blowback from members of both parties who questioned why Trump thought it would be a good idea to invite the insurgents to the storied presidential retreat, particularly so close to the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that led to the war in Afghanistan.

Khalilzad had been negotiating with the Taliban for nearly a year on an agreement that would see U.S. troops withdraw in exchange for Taliban assurances it would not let terrorists launch attacks against the United States from Afghanistan.

Talks still 'dead': Trump said he canceled the Camp David summit because of a Taliban-claimed car bomb in Kabul that killed a U.S. soldier, as well as 11 others.

Trump has since described the peace talks as “dead.”

“For months, we haven’t been able to get answers on the Afghanistan peace plan, and now the president is saying the plan is dead,” Engel said in his statement Thursday. “We need to hear directly from the administration’s point person on Afghanistan to understand how this process went off the rails.”

  

TRUMP ADMIN RELEASES $250M IN MILITARY AID TO UKRAINE: The Trump administration is releasing $250 million in military aid after lawmakers raised concerns over its delay, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee announced Thursday.

The administration had put a hold on the funding, which lawmakers in both parties argued was key to fending off Russian aggression.

"The Departments of State and Defense are proceeding with the obligation of all military and security assistance funding to Ukraine," a senior administration official said. "The Administration supports Ukraine’s efforts of reform and self-defense, and these funds will advance Ukrainian efforts toward those ends."

What happened: The decision came as members of the committee met to mark-up spending bills. 

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSenate fight derails bipartisan drug pricing bills Senators push for deal on impeachment trial rules to avoid political brawl Democrats unifying against Joe Kennedy Senate bid MORE (Ill.), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, had offered an amendment to require that the 2020 aid allocated for Ukraine be spent on time, and threatened to put a hold on $5 billion of the Pentagon's administrative money until they did.

Durbin ultimately withdrew the amendment, though a couple Republican senators said they would have backed it as a show of support for Ukraine.

The background: The White House last month opted not to move forward with other broader cuts to foreign aid amid pushback from some top administration officials.

A Defense Department spokesperson said earlier this month that the U.S. was working with Ukrainian officials to evaluate the needs of the country's armed forces.

But bipartisan lawmakers grew uneasy over the delay in funds and wrote to Trump earlier this month warning that the money was critical for Ukraine to develop its own military capabilities and maintain its sovereignty as it faces Russian threats. 

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been heightened since 2014, when Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula and backed separatists in the neighboring country.

The move led to sanctions and Russia's expulsion from the then-Group of Eight, though President Trump has in each of the past two years expressed a willingness to readmit Russia.

 

SENATE SPENDING BILL ADVANCES OVER DEM’S WALL OBJECTIONS: The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved its annual defense spending bill on a 16-15 party-line vote, despite Democratic objections over Trump’s border wall.

"Funding an ineffective, failed campaign promise, which the president promised Mexico would pay for, is not a priority of the American people and should not be the priority of this committee,” said Vice Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Senators press NSA official over shuttered phone surveillance program EPA blames advisory board for controversial changes to FOIA policy MORE (D-Vt.).

The split vote raises questions for the Senate’s ability to pass spending legislation — which must also be reconciled with the Democratic-controlled House — ahead of a Sept. 30 funding deadline.

The issue: Democrats objected to the fact that the bill did not explicitly block Trump from raiding defense funds and redirecting them toward building the wall under the auspices of a national emergency.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said that appropriators want to take the Pentagon’s budget request at face value, and not worry they are inflated to allow funds “found in couch cushions” to be redirected.

“We’re being taken for a ride here on at least $7 billion of cushion money,” he said.

Democrats also voted against a plan to divvy up nearly $1.3 trillion among the 12 spending bills that fund the federal government and its major programs. They objected that extra funds for the wall had inflated the Homeland Security account at the expense of Democratic priorities such as health care.

The other side: Republicans said that limiting the president’s transfer authority would be too broad a fix, and noted that they included offsets from mandatory spending funds toward the main health bill.

“All in all, I believe the chairman’s proposal is entirely reasonable, given where we are in the process,” said Appropriations Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry GOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week Trump attends football game with Jeff Sessions' Alabama Senate race opponent Bradley Byrne MORE (R-Ala.).

“The time for haggling over the terms of the budget agreement is past,” he added.

What happens next: Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenOn The Money: US paid record .1B in tariffs in September | Dems ramp up oversight of 'opportunity zones' | Judge hints at letting House lawsuit over Trump tax returns proceed Overnight Energy: EPA watchdog slams agency chief after deputy fails to cooperate in probe | Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act | Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows Overnight Defense: Trump, Erdogan confirm White House meeting | Public impeachment hearings set for next week | Top defense appropriator retiring MORE (D-N.H.) said at the hearing that she had been reassured that there would be further opportunities to deal with Democratic objections, including final negotiations with the Democratic-led House.

But she expressed dismay that her amendment on the abortion bill had been pulled, noting that it had not been considered a “poison pill” in years past.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who sits on the committee, noted that the controversy threatened the ability of the Senate to proceed with plans to pass at least one “minibus” package of several spending bills by the end of the month.

Both McConnell and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have agreed that a stopgap measure will be needed, likely until mid-November, to keep the government running when the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.

The committee did approve the energy and water bill, among the least controversial of the annual spending bills, unanimously.

McConnell can now bring both bills to the Senate floor for a vote, where they face an uncertain fate.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Atlantic Council will hold a discussion on "Hizballah and Iran's Illicit Financial Networks," with Assistant Treasury Secretary for Terrorist Financing Marshall Billingslea at 10 a.m. in Washington, D.C. 

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Defense Department says "forever chemical" cleanup costs will dwarf earlier estimates

-- The Hill: Democrats threaten to withhold defense votes over wall

-- The Hill: White House won't rule out Pompeo as Trump's national security adviser choice

-- The Hill: Trump: Bolton 'was holding me back' on Venezuela

-- The Hill: US concluded Israel likely planted surveillance devices near White House: report

-- The Hill: Netanyahu denies Israel engages in 'any intelligence operations in the US'

-- The Hill: Opinion: Adapting and upgrading our counterterrorism tools

-- The Hill: Opinion: How Iran's nuclear breakout easily could become a 'sneakout'