OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Key impeachment witness retires | Duckworth presses for information | Subpanel advances defense measure | Democrats press for end to military transgender ban

OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Key impeachment witness retires | Duckworth presses for information | Subpanel advances defense measure | Democrats press for end to military transgender ban
© Greg Nash

Happy Wednesday 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: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump, is retiring from the Army after serving for more than two decades.

Vindman's attorney, Amb. David Pressman, made it crystal clear in a statement that his client is retiring because he is facing a backlash over his appearance at the impeachment trial.

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In a statement, Pressman said Vindman woudl retire Wednesday “after it has been made clear that his future within the institution he has dutifully served will forever be limited.”

Earlier this year: A former White House national security official, Vindman was escorted out of the White House and told to leave his position in February after providing damaging testimony about Trump’s July 25, 2019, phone conversation with Ukraine’s president, which was at the center of his impeachment. Vindman’s dismissal followed Trump’s acquittal by the GOP-controlled Senate.

The Washington Post reported last month that government officials expressed concern that Trump would block Vindman’s promotion to full colonel because of his actions during the impeachment inquiry.

‘Bullying, intimidation, and retaliation’: Pressman did not explicitly accuse the White House of intervening in the promotion process but accused the president of executing “a campaign of bullying, intimidation, and retaliation.”

“The President of the United States attempted to force LTC Vindman to choose: Between adhering to the law or pleasing a President. Between honoring his oath or protecting his career. Between protecting his promotion or the promotion of his fellow soldiers. These are choices that no one in the United States should confront, especially one who has dedicated his life to serving it,” Pressman said.

Why the White House wanted him out: Vindman, a Purple Heart recipient, had been expected to attend the National War College before Wednesday’s announcement.

A career official and the NSC's top expert on Ukraine, he testified last year that he was so concerned about Trump’s 2019 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that he reported it to the White House lawyer.

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Trump asked Zelensky on the call to investigate a debunked theory about Ukraine’s involvement in 2016 election interference as well as former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden’s dealings in Ukraine. Vindman, among a handful of officials who listened in on the call, testified that it was “improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and a political opponent.”

Trump, who denied any wrongdoing during his impeachment and called the Zelensky call “perfect,” had made clear that he was unhappy with Vindman for testifying, at one point dismissing him as a “Never Trumper” during the impeachment proceedings.

Duckworth presses on Pentagon: Recent questions about Vindman’s promotion caused Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) last week to threaten to block more than 1,000 military promotions unless Esper confirmed Vindman’s promotion would not be blocked. 

“Lt. Col. Vindman’s decision to retire puts the spotlight on Secretary of Defense Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Marines find human remains after training accident | Fourth service member killed by COVID-19 | Pompeo huddles with Taliban negotiator Trump participates in swearing-in of first African American service chief Overnight Defense: Embattled Pentagon policy nominee withdraws, gets appointment to deputy policy job | Marines, sailor killed in California training accident identified | Governors call for extension of funding for Guard's coronavirus response MORE’s failure to protect a decorated combat Veteran against a vindictive Commander in Chief,” Duckworth said in a statement Wednesday.

Duckworth never received any confirmation from Esper and plans to continue her hold on the nominees until he explains the situation, her office said.

HOUSE SUBPANEL ADVANCES DEFENSE BILL: A House subpanel has advanced a defense spending bill that would allocate money for the Army to change Confederate base names and that seeks to block President Trump’s use of Pentagon funds for his border wall.

The House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee approved its fiscal year 2021 defense spending bill by voice vote behind closed doors Wednesday, sending it to the full committee to vote on next week.

What it’s made of: The $694.6 billion Pentagon spending bill would cover $626.2 billion in base budget funding and $68.4 billion in a war fund known as the overseas contingency operations (OCO) account.

The bill’s $694.6 billion price tag is $1.3 billion more than was approved for the Pentagon this year, but $3.7 billion below the administration’s budget request. 

The name issue: Among the more notable provisions, the bill would set aside $1 million from the Army’s operations and maintenance account to pay to change the names of bases and other property with Confederate monikers.

The Army has 10 bases named after Confederate military officers. The issue of renaming them has become a battle between Congress and Trump after the president publicly rebuked the Army for considering doing so and threatened to veto a defense policy bill if it includes a renaming requirement.

Other notable provisions: The spending bill also includes a slew of provisions seeking to block Trump from using defense funding to finance his wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, including one that would make the Pentagon put back into its original accounts money it shuffled around for the wall earlier this year.

The bill would also broadly prohibit the use of Pentagon funding for a barrier on the southern border, as well as cap the amount of money the Pentagon can transfer between accounts at $1.9 billion.

“This bill again contains several provisions to address the Department’s wanton disregard for Congressional intent,” subcommittee Chairman Pete Visclosky (D-Ill.) said at the markup, according to prepared remarks released by the committee. “As I stated last year, these actions are not taken lightly, but are absolutely necessary in order to allow Congress to carry out its Article I responsibilities.”

What else it funds: The bill would fund a 3 percent pay raise for troops.

It also includes $9.3 billion for 91 F-35 fighter jets, or 12 more than the administration requested. The bill would also fund nine new Navy ships at $22.3 billion, or $2.4 billion more than requested, including funding for a second Virginia-class submarine that the administration had cut from its request.

The bill also includes $758 million to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on subcontractors in the defense industrial base.

116 HOUSE DEMS PUSH FOR END TO TRANSGENDER MILITARY BAN: More than 100 Democrats in the House are calling on the Trump administration to end its transgender military ban following a Supreme Court ruling barring discrimination against LGBT workers.

In a letter Wednesday to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Attorney General William Barr, the 116 members urged the Pentagon to immediately change its transgender policy and the Justice Department to negotiate an end to lawsuits against the ban.

What the letter says: “Prolonging the litigation in the face of almost certain defeat, and thereby prolonging the existing policy, will continue to inflict serious harm on transgender people seeking to serve our country and on those already serving while living in the shadows, enduring the dignitary harm of being told they’re a burden,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter, which was led by Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.).

“This policy is an attack on transgender service members who are risking their lives to serve our country, and it should be reversed immediately,” they added.

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The background: Last month, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbids employment discrimination on the basis of "sex," applies to LGBT people.

The ruling did not apply to the military, which courts have previously ruled is exempt from Title VII. But opponents of the Trump administration’s transgender military ban are hopeful it gives them new ammunition in their lawsuits.

The policy, which took effect in April 2019, says transgender people must serve as their biological sex or else get a waiver. The military has granted only one such waiver so far.

The Pentagon argues the policy is not a ban since it allows for waivers and because those who came out under the Obama administration’s policy, which allowed open transgender service, can continue serving openly.

But transgender service members and their advocates argue it effectively is a ban akin to the defunct “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prohibited open service by gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans.

Lawsuits also challenge policy: At least four lawsuits are now challenging the policy, though they hinge on the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause, not Title VII as was at issue in the Supreme Court ruling.

But in their letter, the lawmakers argued the Supreme Court ruling will “provide significant weight” to the lawsuits.

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“The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock will provide significant weight to those already substantial claims: the principle announced — that gender-identity discrimination is discrimination 'because of … sex' — applies equally to claims under the Constitution.”

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Brookings Institution and the European Union Delegation to the United States will hold the EU Defense Washington Forum via webcast, with European Commission Vice President Josep Borrell, Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for European and NATO Policy Michael Ryan, NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Security Policy James Appathurai, and Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdDemocrats go big on diversity with new House recruits Texas Democrats plan 7-figure ad buy to turn state blue Republicans face worsening outlook in battle for House MORE (R-Texas), at 9 a.m. 

The House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on “Department of Defense Authorities and Roles Related to Civilian Law Enforcement,” with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley at 1 p.m. in the Capitol Visitor Center Auditorium.  

The Air Force Association will hold a webcast conversation with Lt. Gen. Warren Berry, deputy Air Force chief of staff for logistics, engineering and force protection. 

ICYMI

— The Hill: US general predicts some troops will remain in Iraq

— The Hill: UN expert says US strike on Soleimani was 'unlawful'

— The Hill: China urges US to reduce nuclear arsenal

— The Hill: Trump envoy says US ready to talk to North Korea but rebukes Pyongyang counterpart

— The Hill: Opinion: Military needs to provide answers in the Vanessa Guillen case

— The Hill: Opinion: The military justice solution in search of a problem

— Defense News: House panel isn’t giving defense industry all the COVID aid it wants

— Reuters: Pompeo says U.S. seized Iranian weapons on way to Houthi rebels in Yemen