Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Questions mount over Trump’s Iran tweet | House, Senate unveil compromise defense bill | Bill includes Russia sanctions waivers, limits on Turkey’s access to F-35 | Endangered species measures dropped

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Happy Monday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Rebecca Kheel, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond.


THE TOPLINE: Another Monday, another scramble to interpret a Trump foreign policy tweet.

This time, it was President Trump’s late Sunday threat to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.


Why the threat?: The tweet appeared to be in response to a statement Rouhani made earlier Sunday while talking to a group of diplomats in Tehran.

Americans, he said, “should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.”

Rouhani made the comments while talking about Iran’s right to the Strait of Hormuz, according to state-run news agency IRNA.

Iran has long threatened to close the strait, through which about a third of all oil traded by sea passes. Recently, it has stepped up its threats in response to the Trump administration’s plans to reimpose oil sanctions on the country lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal.

Bolton backs up boss: National security adviser John Bolton reinforced Trump’s threats against Iran, warning that the country would “pay a price” if it acts negatively toward the United States.

“I spoke to the President over the last several days, and President Trump told me that if Iran does anything at all to the negative, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid before,” Bolton said in a statement Monday morning.

Iran scoffs: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif replied with his own tweet mimicking the format of Trump’s.

“COLOR US UNIMPRESSED: The world heard even harsher bluster a few months ago. And Iranians have heard them –albeit more civilized ones–for 40 yrs,” Zarif tweeted. “We’ve been around for millennia & seen fall of empires, incl our own, which lasted more than the life of some countries. BE CAUTIOUS!”

Why now?: We’re just two weeks away from when some sanctions lifted as part of the nuclear deal are set to be reimposed.

In May, Trump announced he was withdrawing from the Obama-era accord between the U.S., Iran, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Russia and China, which lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

A first wave of U.S. sanctions are set to be re-imposed Aug. 6, while the rest are set to come back into force Nov. 4.


DEFENSE POLICY BILL NEGOTIATIONS WRAP UP: The House and Senate Armed Services committees have wrapped up negotiations on the annual defense policy bill and began unveiling details Monday afternoon.

The Senate committee’s summary is here, while the House committee’s is here.

Here’s a few notable details:

Russia sanctions: The bill would set criteria for waiving sanctions on countries that have bought Russian weapons but now want to turn to U.S. arms.

A version of the provision was originally included in the House-passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) at the request of Defense Secretary James Mattis, but it came under scrutiny last week after President Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In announcing the outcome of House and Senate negotiations, senior staffers for each chamber’s Armed Services Committee stressed that they are not reducing sanctions on Russia.

“There is absolutely nothing in this conference report that reduces current sanctions on the government of Russia, a company, an entity or a person,” a staffer told reporters Monday at a background briefing. “This has all been about, the Russian government has figured out a way to go in like the mafia and at very low cost, stranglehold some countries that we think — from a diplomatic and interoperability perspective — that we should have closer relationships with.”

Relations with Turkey: Congress is looking to hold sales of F-35 joint strike fighters to Turkey until a new assessment on U.S.–Turkey relations, going against the wishes of Mattis.

The Pentagon would be required to submit a report to lawmakers on the “overall strategic relationship with Turkey,” all foreign weapons sales to Ankara and Turkey’s intended buy of the Russian-made S-400 long-range air-defense system, House Armed Services Committee senior aides told reporters Monday.

The report would be due within 90 days of the passing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), during which the Lockheed Martin-made jets would be held from the nation.

Mattis earlier this month asked lawmakers to not block the F-35 sale, warning that it could start a “supply chain disruption” that could push the price of the aircraft higher.

Sage grouse: The bill won’t include proposed polices that would restrict Endangered Species Act protections for certain animals.

Lawmakers negotiating between House and Senate defense authorization bills decided not to include any of the endangered species provisions the House had put in its version of the legislation in the final version of the bill.

The House wanted to block potential endangered species protections for the greater sage grouse and the lesser prairie chicken for 10 years, and to permanently block protections for the American burying beetle.

A House Armed Services Committee GOP aide told reporters Monday that none of the endangered species protections were included in the final National Defense Authorization Act that both chambers will vote on.

Yemen civil war: The bill would put conditions on the U.S. refueling of Saudi Arabian and Emirati planes bombing Yemen.

The compromise NDAA retained and modified a provision from the Senate-passed version that would require the Saudi-led coalition to meet certain criteria before the U.S. military can refuel its planes.

“Yemen remains an area of intense interest and concern for our members, and we have aggressive oversight in the conference report,” a senior staffer told reporters at a background briefing.

A Saudi-led coalition has been fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen since 2015. The United States has been supporting the Saudi campaign with billions of dollars in arms sales, intelligence sharing and logistics like air refueling.

ZTE: We already knew before Monday that the final bill would not include the Senate’s language to block Trump’s deal to revive Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE but would keep the House language blocking government contracting with the company.

On Monday, committee staffers provided a little explanation on why that is.

First, a staffer pushed back strongly against Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) assertion that the Senate’s language was taken out to get a deal on a separate provision involving the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

“I will flat out say that that is inaccurate,” the staffer said. “The conversations that occurred on every muscle movement in this conference report were handled on the merits of the individual case, and there was no cross dealing at all.”

Asked further what reason the reason was then, the staffer said: “What we focused on is what was in the purview of the defense committees, which is we’re clear that U.S. government should not be buying technology or equipment from Huawei, ZTE and there’s two other countries. …

“The other part of the conversation, the policy conversation — and I’m really uninterested in getting into that here — gets into a lot of trade issues that are outside the scope of what we do in this conference. But beyond that I would opining, and that would be unhelpful.”


WILKIE GETS CONFIRMED: The Senate easily cleared President Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday.

Senators voted 86-9 on Robert Wilkie’s nomination to be the VA secretary.

Wilkie’s confirmation gives the VA its first Senate-confirmed secretary since Trump fired David Shulkin in March amid months of controversy over allegations of misusing taypayer funds.

“I am confident that Robert Wilkie is the right leader because he has the expertise, the judgement and the character to take on the challenges that lie ahead and will bring stability and leadership to the VA. I look forward to working with him to help transform the VA into a department worthy of our veterans,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said after the vote.

Notable noes: The nine “no” votes make Wilkie the first VA secretary to have senators vote against their nomination since the post was elevated to a cabinet-level position in 1989.

Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), Ed Markey (Mass.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) voted against the nomination.



A House Homeland Security Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on the deployment of the National Guard to the southern border at 2 p.m. at the House Capitol Visitor Center, room 210. https://bit.ly/2OdVZ9t

A House Foreign Affairs Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on security, human rights and reform in Egypt with testimony from outside experts at 2 p.m. at the Rayburn House Office Building, room 2172. https://bit.ly/2uK2GYU

A Senate Foreign Relations Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on China and economic coercion with testimony from outside experts at 2:30 p.m. at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, room 419. https://bit.ly/2uRRokl



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Tags Bernie Sanders Cory Booker David Shulkin Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump Ed Markey Elizabeth Warren James Mattis Jeff Merkley Johnny Isakson Kirsten Gillibrand Marco Rubio Ron Wyden

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