Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: VA nominee on the ropes | White House signals it will fight for pick | Trump talks Syria with Macron | McConnell tees up Pompeo vote

THE TOPLINE: President Trump‘s pick to run the Department of Veterans Affairs is still soldiering on with his nomination, even as the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee has indefinitely postponed his confirmation hearing citing “serious allegations” and with questions about the White House vetting process.


How we got here: Committee leaders on Tuesday said they were halting the hearing to look into “new information presented to the committee” about nominee Ronny Jackson, who has been serving as the White House physician.

“We will continue looking into these serious allegations and have requested additional information from the White House to enable the committee to conduct a full review,” Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Sen. John Tester (Mont.), the panel’s ranking Democrat, said in a statement. 



The allegations: The committee statement did not offer details on the allegations faced by Jackson, but Tester later said Tuesday that the allegations “fall in three areas … Improper dispensing of prescription drugs, repeatedly drunk while on duty while traveling and creating a toxic work environment.”

Tester also spoke on Jackson allegedly being abusive toward staff.

“Some of the exact words were that were used … were abusive toward staff, very explosive personality,” he said. “Belittles the folks underneath him. … Basically creating an environment where the staff felt like they needed to walk on eggshells.”


And a 2012 Inspector General report found that Jackson acted unprofessionally amid a power struggle with another doctor over the White House medical unit.


White House backs Jackson, but gives cover for withdrawal: Earlier Tuesday, Trump repeatedly said the choice to withdraw was Jackson’s, but he also questioned why the nominee would want to go forward and take the “abuse” from politicians.

“It’s totally his decision, he’ll be making a decision,” Trump said when asked about the nomination of Jackson, who is the White House physician to the president. 

The president said he told Jackson “this is a vicious group of people that malign. What do you need this for? … You’re too fine a person.” 


Where we are now: Jackson, for now, will not withdraw his nomination, and said says he is “looking forward” to “answering everybody’s questions.”

In a statement to NBC News, Jackson would not address the allegations but said he was “disappointed” to hear his hearing had been postponed.

“I’ll just say that I was looking forward to the hearing tomorrow. Kind of disappointed that it’s been postponed, but I’m looking forward to getting it rescheduled and answering everybody’s questions,” said Jackson.


The White House is also signaling that it is ready to fight for Jackson. “Dr. Jackson’s record as a White House physician is impeccable,” said a senior White House official. “He has improved unit morale, received glowing reviews and promotions under Republican and Democrat presidents, and has been given a clean vet from the FBI.”

Jackson met Tuesday afternoon with Trump, a meeting that one official described as “positive” and that addressed the president’s concerns.



MACRON AND TRUMP TALK SYRIA: Trump said Tuesday that he wants to pull U.S. troops out of Syria “relatively soon,” but cautioned that such a move might not happen right away.

Trump said he and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed on the importance of not allowing Iran “open season” on the region.

“We want to come home, we’ll be coming home but we want to leave a strong and lasting footprint and that was a big part of our discussion,” Trump said during a joint press conference with Macron.


The stipulations: Trump said that other countries would have to pay for a continued military presence in Syria, while shouldering some of the military commitment themselves.

“The countries that are there that you all know very well are going to have to pay for this,” Trump said. “And they will pay for it. The U.S. will not continue to pay. And they will also put soldiers on the ground, which they’re not doing.”


POMPEO UPDATE: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is teeing up CIA Director Mike Pompeo‘s nomination to be secretary of State as Republicans aim to confirm him this week. 

McConnell filed cloture on Pompeo’s nomination Tuesday


What that means: Under Senate rules, that would set up an initial procedural vote for Thursday, unless senators agree to speed things up. After clearing that hurdle, opponents could drag his nomination out for another 30 hours, potentially forcing a rare Friday session. 


Background: The floor action comes after Pompeo received a favorable recommendation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Monday in a dramatic party-line vote. 

Pompeo had been expected to be the first secretary of State nominee since at least the mid-1920s to fail to win over the panel. But he was spared the dubious distinction after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) made a last-minute switch to support Pompeo amid an intense pressure campaign from President Trump and the White House. 

With another committee Republican, Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.), absent for a funeral, the vote was formally tied at 10-10. But Democratic Sen. Christopher Coons (Del.) agreed to change his vote to present, allowing Pompeo to advance with the panel’s endorsement.

Pompeo ultimately has the votes to be confirmed by the Senate, where nominations only need a simple majority. 



HOUSE LAWMAKERS RENEW PUSH FOR WAR AUTHORIZATION: A bipartisan quartet of lawmakers is pushing their House colleagues to support their effort for a new war authorization to fight terrorism, framing theirs as a “more robust” version than was recently introduced in the Senate.

“Given the recent and ongoing military operations in which the U.S. is involved in the Middle East, we believe it is long past time for Congress to revisit this important issue,” the lawmakers wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter circulated Tuesday to gain support for their authorization of the use of military force (AUMF).


What the House AUMF does: Last year, the quartet introduced an AUMF that would authorize operations against al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and associated persons other than a sovereign nation. The authorization would end after five years.

The president would also have to submit a report to Congress every 90 days on actions taken under the AUMF.

The resolution would also repeal the 2001 AUMF passed after the Sept. 11 attacks and the 2002 AUMF that authorized the Iraq War.


What the Senate AUMF does: The Senate AUMF bill, introduced by Corker and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) would authorize force against al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS and “associated forces.”

But the Corker-Kaine bill would also require the president to notify Congress 48 hours after striking a new associated force or using military action in a new country. It would also give Congress a 60-day window to block further military action against that group or in that country.

The bill would also establish a process for reviewing the AUMF every four years without sunsetting the authorization in an effort to address administration concerns.



ALLIES ON EDGE OVER TRUMP SUMMIT WITH NORTH KOREA: Trump’s goal of winning a historic deal with North Korea is worrying allies who fear he will give away too much to score a political victory.

A rushed deal is of particular concern to Japan and to a lesser extent South Korea, both of which question whether Trump’s “America First” mentality will result in a deal that keeps America safe but not its allies.

“I know the Koreans and the Japanese are anxious about a number of issues,” said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “[Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe was very adamant on that issue [when he visited Trump last week] — you may be worried about [intercontinental ballistic missiles], but we’re worried about medium-range missiles, and that all has to be part of the package. My sense is that there’s the same sentiment on the part of the Koreans.”


The background: The Trump administration is preparing for a historic summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which is expected to take place in May or June.

On Friday night Washington time, North Korea announced that it “no longer need[s]” to conduct nuclear and missile tests because the country has “verified the completion of nuclear weapons.” As such, Pyongyang said it would stop testing and shutter its Punggye-ri nuclear test site.


What this means: Many analysts took Friday’s announcement as a sign that Pyongyang is solidifying its status as a nuclear state, rather than announcing its intention to give up its weapons.

North Korea’s announcement could also be an attempt to get on Trump’s good side ahead of the summit in hopes for concessions such as sanctions relief, said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest.


‘Very honorable’: Trump raised eyebrows on Tuesday when he also called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a “very honorable” person. “He really has been very open and, I think, very honorable from everything we’re seeing,” he told reporters, and expressed high hopes for their future meeting.




The House Appropriations Committee will hold a closed hearing on the fiscal 2019 Defense Department posture and budget with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, and DOD Comptroller David Norquist at 1 p.m. in the House side of the Capitol Building room 140. 




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Tags Christopher Coons Donald Trump Johnny Isakson Mike Pompeo Mitch McConnell Rand Paul Tim Kaine
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