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Lawmakers grill Pentagon over Trump's Germany drawdown

Lawmakers grill Pentagon over Trump's Germany drawdown

Defense officials faced a bipartisan grilling Wednesday over the Trump administration’s plans to slash the U.S. troop presence in Germany by nearly 12,000 service members.

Lawmakers in both parties have previously expressed their opposition to the plan, but Wednesday’s House Armed Services Committee hearing offered the panel’s first opportunity to publicly question the Pentagon since the department officially rolled out the plans in July.

Pentagon officials defended the plans, but had few details for lawmakers on specifics such as cost, consultations with allies, the department's decision-making process and how the move would affect U.S. deterrence against Russia — a dynamic that appeared only to frustrate members further.

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“This is just not acceptable from the Department of Defense that on a move of this kind — whatever you guys may think of Congress, whatever you may think of this committee, it is our responsibility to exercise oversight of this,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithGovernors urge negotiators to include top priorities in final defense policy bill Bottom line A long overdue discussion on Pentagon spending MORE (D-Wash.) said in the middle of the hearing.

“The American people in their infinite wisdom have put us in these chairs, and we are not getting the level of insight in this decision that we should,” he added. “The level of detail that we’re getting here is just not acceptable for us to exercise our oversight and for what the Pentagon should be putting in front of us. I just want that on the record from my perspective, and I have a strong sense that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle would agree with me on that point. So on this and other decisions, we just need to hear better what the hell’s going on, so that we can exercise our oversight.”

Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryGovernors urge negotiators to include top priorities in final defense policy bill Overnight Defense: Armed Services chairman unsold on slashing defense budget | Democratic Senate report details 'damage, chaos' of Trump foreign policy | Administration approves .8B Taiwan arms sales Chamber of Commerce endorses former White House physician Ronny Jackson for Congress MORE (Texas), the top Republican on the committee, put blame on the White House, arguing Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Trump campaign's use of military helicopter raises ethics concerns | Air Force jets intercept aircraft over Trump rally | Senators introduce bill to expand visa screenings Trump campaign event use of Marine Corps helicopter raises ethics questions The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Smart or senseless for Biden to spend time in Georgia, Iowa? MORE has kept the panel informed about other troop reviews.

“What’s different is that a couple staffers in the White House decided that they wanted to try to sell the president on an absolute troop cap for Germany,” said Thornberry, who is retiring from Congress at the end of this term. “They clearly hadn’t thought through the consequences, they didn’t know how it would be implemented, and so what’s happened is Secretary Esper and the folks at the Pentagon are trying to put lipstick on the pig or make lemons out of lemonade or whatever colloquialism you want to use.”

The committee was hearing testimony from James Anderson, acting under secretary of Defense for policy, and Lt. Gen. David Allvin, director for strategy, plans and policy at the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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Anderson told the committee there would be a “much more mature plan to share with Congress” in early 2021.

In July, Esper outlined a plan to withdraw about 11,900 of the 36,000 U.S. troops in Germany. About 5,600 of them will move elsewhere in Europe, while about 6,400 will come back to the United States. Some of those coming back to the United States would become rotational forces that return to Europe.

The Pentagon’s plan came after President TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline MORE in June announced a drawdown in Germany as punishment for Berlin not spending more on defense.

NATO allies agreed in 2014 to each spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense by 2024, but Germany is not on track to meet the goal.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Anderson argued a more rotational presence in Europe would provide more “flexibility” than having troops permanently stationed in Germany. Anderson also said he didn’t “see any downsides” to rotational troops versus permanently stationed troops. But when pressed by Rep. Jason CrowJason CrowGiffords launches national Gun Owners for Safety group to combat the NRA House approves .2T COVID-19 relief bill as White House talks stall Lawmakers grill Pentagon over Trump's Germany drawdown MORE (D-Colo.), he acknowledged rotational troops would have less awareness of local terrain.

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Allvin also acknowledged rotational troops could end up costing more for the United States than a permanent presence, but added the increased cost could be mitigated in ways such as by keeping equipment overseas. 

And when Rep. Bradley ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneLawmakers grill Pentagon over Trump's Germany drawdown Bottom line Jerry Carl wins GOP Alabama runoff to replace Rep. Bradley Byrne MORE (R-Ala.) argued that “even though you’re saying it’s rotational, it does seem like we’ve got a net reduction in forces” in Europe, Allvin replied that “you’re not wrong.”

“From a lay person's point of view, it looks like we've reduced our troop presence in Europe at a time that Russia is actually becoming more of a threat,” Byrne said. “This looks like we're pulling back, and we think we should be stepping forward."

Lawmakers also expressed concern about the plan’s effect on U.S. Africa Command, which is headquartered in Germany. The Pentagon has said the headquarters will relocate as part of the Germany drawdown.

“The decisions for moving it don’t seem to make sense, except, as came out in the briefing, it was necessary to get to the 12,000 number,” Smith said, referring to a closed-door briefing he said some members received a month or two ago. “That is not the way we should be making policy, and it's going to be very, very expensive."

Pressed by Rep. Ruben GallegoRuben GallegoMark Kelly releases Spanish ad featuring Rep. Gallego Legal marijuana backers tout potential money for states Leadership matters: President's words and actions show he is unfit to lead our nation MORE (D-Ariz.) about the total cost for the move in Germany, Anderson only repeated Esper’s estimate from July that it would be in the “single digit billions.”

Anderson also sidestepped questions from Thornberry on whether U.S. allies were consulted before White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed about the drawdown in June, as well as other news reports about the move before that.

Thornberry said he has met with defense ministers and ambassadors who gave him the impression “this caught them all by surprise.”

The House’s version of the annual defense policy bill includes an amendment that would block funding to reduce the number of troops in Germany at large until several certifications are made. The bill is currently awaiting negotiations with the Senate, which does not have a similar provision in its version of the legislation.

“There may be some benefit to some of these moves,” Thornberry said. “My concern is, however, the underlying strength and unity of the alliance has not been a foremost consideration. All of that, plus the status of the decision making at the Pentagon, I think has to inform our conference negotiations with the Senate this year.”