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Overnight Defense: Fallout from tense NATO summit | Senators push to block ZTE deal in defense bill | Blackwater founder makes new pitch for mercenaries to run Afghan war

Overnight Defense: Fallout from tense NATO summit | Senators push to block ZTE deal in defense bill | Blackwater founder makes new pitch for mercenaries to run Afghan war
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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.

 

THE TOPLINE: President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Arpaio files libel suit against New York Times IMF's Christine Lagarde delays trip to Middle East MORE on Thursday said the U.S. remains committed to the NATO alliance after a summit in which he said allies bowed to his demands to increase defense spending.

"The United States's commitment to NATO is very strong, remains very strong," Trump said during a news conference before leaving the summit site in Brussels.

More defense spending soon? Trump threw the summit into crisis mode by scolding allies for not spending enough money on defense and reportedly raising doubts about whether the U.S. would withdraw from the transatlantic alliance it helped create.

Trump suggested the U.S.'s continued involvement in the mutual defense pact depends on whether other members, in his view, no longer treat the U.S. unfairly by failing to meet defense spending targets.

He said Thursday that European nations agreed to boost their spending on defense.

"Tremendous progress has been made. Everyone's agreed to substantially up their commitment. They're going to up it at levels that they've never thought of before," the president said.

Trump did not provide specifics on which countries agreed to increase spending, or by how much, only saying that "the commitment was at 2 percent, ultimately that'll be going up quite a bit higher than that."

The background: NATO member nations agreed in 2014 to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic products (GDP) on defense by 2024. But only four of the alliance's 29 countries have already met that target. NATO has said 15 are on pace to reach the goal.

Trump on Wednesday told other leaders behind closed doors he wants them to spend 4 percent of their GDPs on defense, a target even the U.S. does not meet. He later pressed allies to hit the 2 percent goal "immediately," rather than through a gradual increase.

But no commitment from other nations: NATO's secretary general reiterated Thursday that allies have committed to spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense without directly commenting on Trump's claim that allies agreed to his demand to go higher.

Jens Stoltenberg was repeatedly pressed during an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Trump's claim that allies agreed to increase their defense spending to 4 percent of their GDPs.

"So we have a commitment to spend 2 percent," Stoltenberg replied. "I think that allies understand there is a need to do that. There's an urgency, there's a sense of urgency when it comes to delivering on that commitment."

And French President Emmanuel Macron denied that NATO allies will increase defense spending beyond previously set goals, according to The Associated Press.

Here are more stories out of the Trump's trip:

-- Macron: Trump never threatened to withdraw from NATO

-- Pompeo to meet with Russian, Finnish foreign ministers in Helsinki

-- Trump: 'Ultimate deal' with Putin would be 'no more nuclear weapons'

-- Trump: I would not have allowed Russia to annex Crimea

 

MCCAIN RIPS TRUMP'S NATO PERFORMANCE: Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainComey donates maximum amount to Democratic challenger in Virginia House race Live coverage: McSally clashes with Sinema in Arizona Senate debate Is there difference between good and bad online election targeting? MORE (R-Ariz.) on Thursday blasted Trump's rhetoric at the NATO summit, calling it "disappointing" and not representative of the United States

"There is little use in parsing the president's misstatements and bluster, except to say that they are the words of one man. Americans, and their Congress, still believe in the transatlantic alliance and [NATO], and it is clear that our allies still believe in us as well," McCain said in a statement. 

The Arizona Republican, who is absent from Washington as he battles brain cancer, added that Trump's "performance" in Brussels was "disappointing, yet ultimately unsurprising."

Trump's Putin comments also criticized: GOP Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeIMF's Christine Lagarde delays trip to Middle East Saudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP Election Countdown: Dems outraise GOP in final stretch | 2018 midterms already most expensive in history | What to watch in second Cruz-O'Rourke debate | Trump raises 0M for reelection | Why Dems fear Avenatti's approach MORE (Ariz.) lashed out at Trump's warmer stance toward Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday and questioned why the two are meeting one-on-one next week.

"Singing his praises for no good reason sends a terrifying message to our allies. ... Flattering such a man ... is simply bizarre. That the admiration comes from an American president, well, that is unconscionable," Flake said during a Senate floor speech. 

Trump and Putin are expected to meet Monday in Helsinki. Flake questioned why the two were meeting without staff, noting that the "world seems to be hanging in the balance." 

McCain, meanwhile, urged Trump to be "strong and tough" against Putin. 

"It is up to President Trump to hold Putin accountable for his actions during the meeting in Helsinki. Failure to do so would be a serious indictment of his stewardship of American leadership in the world," he said.

 

DEFENSE BILL WATCH – SENATORS LOOK TO BLOCK TRUMP'S ZTE DEAL: A bipartisan group of senators is urging negotiators on Capitol Hill to retain a provision in the annual defense policy bill that would block Trump's deal to save Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE.

"We strongly oppose the June 2018 deal with ZTE negotiated by the Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) to lift the seven-year ban against the export of U.S. parts and components to ZTE," the senators wrote in a letter Thursday to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees.

The letter was signed by Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSaudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP Overnight Defense: Trump worries Saudi Arabia treated as 'guilty until proven innocent' | McConnell opens door to sanctions | Joint Chiefs chair to meet Saudi counterpart | Mattis says Trump backs him '100 percent' Dems can use subpoena power to reclaim the mantle of populism MORE (R-Fla.), Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenOvernight Defense: Trump says 'rogue killers' could be behind missing journalist | Sends Pompeo to meet Saudi king | Saudis may claim Khashoggi killed by accident | Ex-VA chief talks White House 'chaos' | Most F-35s cleared for flight Democrats torch Trump for floating 'rogue killers' to blame for missing journalist Senators concerned as Trump official disputes UN climate change warning MORE (D-Md.), Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonFlake: Congress should not continue Kavanaugh investigations GOP senator suspects Schumer of being behind release of Ford letter Susan Collins becomes top 2020 target for Dems MORE (R-Ark.), Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerDems can use subpoena power to reclaim the mantle of populism Is there difference between good and bad online election targeting? Collusion judgment looms for key Senate panel MORE (D-Va.), Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP loads up lame-duck agenda as House control teeters Congress moves to ensure the greater availability of explosives detecting dogs in the US McConnell sets key Kavanaugh vote for Friday MORE (R-Mo.) and Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonElection Countdown: Dems outraise GOP in final stretch | 2018 midterms already most expensive in history | What to watch in second Cruz-O'Rourke debate | Trump raises 0M for reelection | Why Dems fear Avenatti's approach Midterms in 2018 become most expensive in history The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Pollsters: White college-educated women to decide if Dems capture House MORE (D-Fla.).

Rubio, Van Hollen, Cotton and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMcConnell says deficits 'not a Republican problem' Medicare for All is disastrous for American seniors and taxpayers Senate Dems race to save Menendez in deep-blue New Jersey MORE (D-N.Y.) successfully added an amendment to the Senate's version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would keep in place penalties that were levied on ZTE after it admitted to violating sanctions on Iran and North Korea.

What's at stake: In their letter, the lawmakers highlight testimony from the intelligence community that ZTE, Huawei and other Chinese state-directed firms represent a national security threat by providing the capacity for spying and intellectual property theft.

"As you prepare the conference report, we therefore urge you to retain--and further strengthen--Section 6702 of the Senate-passed FY 2019 NDAA, which would not only reinstate the April 2018 penalties against ZTE and prohibit the modification of any penalties against a Chinese telecommunications firm unless certain conditions are met, but also prohibit the U.S. government from using or procuring equipment from, or entering into a contract with ZTE or Huawei," they wrote.

White House and Congress at odds: The Senate amendment was added after the Commerce Department announced in June that it had agreed to lift the penalties against ZTE in exchange for the company paying a $1 billion fine and embedding a U.S.-selected compliance team into the firm.

The Commerce Department then announced Wednesday that it had signed a deal with ZTE, moving the administration one step closer to lifting the ban on the Chinese phone maker doing business with U.S. companies.

The House version of the defense policy bill does not address Trump's ZTE deal, but does include a ban on government contracting with ZTE or Huawei, another Chinese telecommunications company.

The White House last month said it "strongly opposes" the Senate provision, but did not issue a veto threat against the NDAA. Both the Senate and House versions of the bill passed with veto-proof majorities.

House and Senate conferees officially started negotiations Wednesday to reconcile the two version of the NDAA. Negotiators have been tight-lipped about their plans for the ZTE provision.

 

NEW PITCH FOR CONTRACTORS TO TAKE OVER AFGHAN WAR: Erik Prince, the founder of the private security firm formerly known as Blackwater, is making a new pitch for his proposal to turn U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan over to mercenaries.

Price promoted the plan in a YouTube video released Tuesday that coincided with the recent NATO summit in Belgium.

"The Pentagon does what it does and wanted to keep doing the same thing it has done for the last 17 years," Prince said in the video. He said CIA officers and 6,000 mercenaries should take charge in the conflict.

Prince also said that President Trump has "stayed the course" in Afghanistan so far and that continuing a conventional war in the region is "reckless and it's irresponsible."

Under scrutiny: Prince's comments come as he is being looked at by Special Counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE's probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

In late June, it was reported that Mueller had acquired Prince's communications. Prince, who is the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosCourt rules Obama-era student loan regulations must take effect DeVos will no longer seek to delay Obama-era student loan regulations Kavanaugh secures votes needed for Senate confirmation MORE, has said he is cooperating with the special counsel. 

Mueller is reportedly looking into several 2017 meetings that occurred in the Seychelles during a time period when Prince met with a Russian banker there. 

In an interview on Tuesday with The Independent, Prince said he had no concerns about Mueller's probe. 

Trying again: Prince has pitched Trump before on privatizing the war in Afghanistan. But The Independent reported that senior members of the Trump administration have rejected the proposal. 

ABC News reported that Prince hopes the new video reaches "decision makers."  

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander of the 45th Space Wing, will speak at The Mitchell Institute's space breakfast series on commercial launch and ranges at 9 a.m. at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington D.C. 

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats will speak on American foreign policy and world affairs at 1 p.m. at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Secret Service releases 'operational guide' for schools on student violence

-- The Hill: US service member killed in Afghanistan, 2nd within week

-- The Hill: GOP senator moves to restart Pentagon report on NATO allies' spending

-- The Hill: Trump shares 'very nice note' from Kim Jong Un

-- The Hill: North Koreans skip meeting to discuss remains of American troops: report

-- The Hill: Opinion: Getting the most out of the Russia summit

-- Defense News: Trump is actually helping NATO, says former alliance official