Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Trump says 'no reason' for South Korea war games right now | Mattis tries to clear confusion | Arizona begins remembrances for McCain | Inhofe poised to take Armed Services gavel

Happy Wednesday 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. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

 

THE TOPLINE: President Trump said Wednesday there is "no reason" right now for joint "war games" with South Korea -- hours after Defense Secretary James Mattis attempted to clarify remarks he made on the military exercises that caused a stir.

"The President believes that his relationship with Kim Jong Un is a very good and warm one, and there is no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint U.S.-South Korea war games," the White House said in a statement that Trump himself issued on Twitter.

"Besides, the President can instantly start the joint exercises again with South Korea, and Japan, if he so chooses," the statement added.

The tweets come a day after Mattis made headlines and caused some confusion at a Pentagon briefing.

 

What Mattis said yesterday: In a Tuesday briefing with Pentagon reporters, Mattis said the Pentagon had "no plans at this time" to suspend any future military exercises with South Korea.

But Mattis appeared to walk a fine line in answering questions on whether the suspended exercises could be restarted should talks with North Korea not go as planned.

"They've never been turned off," Mattis said of all U.S. exercises on the peninsula.

"We turned off several to make a good-faith effort. We are going to see how the negotiations go, and then we'll calculate the future, how we go forward."

Mattis added that the Pentagon will work closely with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to get "what he needs done ... to reinforce his effort, but at this time there is no discussion about further suspensions."

The clarification: About 25 hours after a wave of headlines on the U.S. resuming joint exercises -- the Pentagon's own news service wrote a story titled "Exercises to Resume on Korean Peninsula, Mattis Says" that has since been taken down -- Mattis attempted Wednesday to clarify.

In a written statement, Mattis said there has been "no decision" about suspending more exercises following the three that were cancelled after Trump's summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

"Our military posture has not changed since the conclusion of the Singapore summit and no decisions have been made about suspending any future exercises," Mattis said in the statement.

He added that the U.S. and South Korean alliance "remains ironclad" and "forces maintain a high state of military readiness and vigilance in full support of a diplomatically-led effort to bring peace, prosperity and stability to the Korean Peninsula."

Why it matters: The row over Mattis' comments come at an especially delicate time in efforts to get North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons.

President Trump on Friday called off Pompeo's scheduled trip to Pyongyang that was meant to try to reinvigorate talks and introduce the administration's new special envoy for North Korea.

The cancellation, which reportedly was the result of a belligerent letter North Korea sent to Pompeo, was the latest sign that talks are faltering after Trump's summit with Kim.

Both sides are accusing the other of failing to live up to their commitments made at the summit. North Korea wants a peace declaration to officially end the Korean War, while the United States wants North Korea to start by providing a complete inventory of its nuclear material and facilities.

 

MCCAIN HONORED IN ARIZONA: The days-long series of remembrances for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) began Wednesday with his body lying in state in the Arizona State Capitol.

Before the public was invited to pay its respects, family, colleagues and supporters held a private ceremony where speakers recalled McCain's military service during the Vietnam War and support for the Defense Department during his time in Congress.

"John McCain believed in America. He believed in its people, its values and its institutions," said former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). "I consider it a great privilege to have served with John and I will miss him as a friend and as a strong force for America in the world."

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) praised McCain as an individual who pushed himself, and urged others, to serve an interest bigger than themselves.

"His talk of country first wasn't simply a slogan on a yard sign. It was what John McCain had done and demonstrated over and over and over again," he said. "He fought like hell for the causes he believed in."

Ducey also touted McCain's independence and ties to his "adoptive" state.

"Imagining an Arizona without John McCain is like picturing Arizona without the Grand Canyon," Ducey said. Either one is "just not natural."

Family, Senate colleague emotional: McCain's motorcade arrived at the state capitol just before 1 p.m. ET. His casket, covered with an American flag, was retrieved by a team from the Arizona National Guard and taken into the state's rotunda, where he will lie in state for the rest of the day.

Cindy McCain, McCain's wife, followed behind the casket and was escorted by their sons, Jack McCain and Jimmy McCain. Meghan McCain, their daughter, cried throughout the ceremony and stood weeping in front of McCain's casket.

GOP Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) gave an emotional benediction to close McCain's memorial, recalling the "sacrifice" of McCain's family.

"Let us remember thy humble servant with gladness and cheerfulness to answer his call to summon the better angels of our nature. To see and appreciate the humanity in our opponents," Flake said.

In addition to Flake, Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) attended Wednesday's memorial.

What's next: A second memorial service, including a tribute from former Vice President Joe Biden, is scheduled for Thursday in Phoenix.

McCain's body will then be brought to Washington, D.C., where he will lie in state in the U.S. Capitol on Friday. Another memorial service will be held at the National Cathedral on Saturday and will include tributes by former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

McCain will then be laid to rest on Sunday at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery.

 

ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE WITHOUT MCCAIN: Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is poised to take the helm of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee following the death of Chairman McCain.

No official announcements have been made about McCain's successor, but Inhofe, as the senior Republican, has led the committee as acting chairman since McCain returned home to Arizona to receive treatment for brain cancer.

During that time, Inhofe has insisted McCain was still the one calling the shots and that he was leading the committee as McCain's proxy.

As chairman, Inhofe will play a leading role in overseeing U.S. defense policy, including as one of the key crafters of the annual defense policy legislation that does everything from specifying how many fighter jets the military can buy to banning military-to-military relations with Russia.

As a supporter of President Trump, Inhofe is expected to hew closely to the president's agenda.

Inhofe declined to comment on his priorities Tuesday, saying it would be inappropriate to do so before he is officially chairman.

"It's not really appropriate to talk about," Inhofe said. "We've talked a little bit about some of the things I've always believed in, and that is a heavier responsibility on subcommittees than we've had before, but I hesitate to [comment further] for obvious reasons."

Inhofe added that he expects an official decision on the chairmanship next Tuesday.

Clues from Inhofe's record: Inhofe's statements and actions as acting chairman provide some clues on how he will run the committee differently than McCain.

McCain frequently used hearings to excoriate witnesses on accountability issues such as massive cost overruns on acquisition programs and a lack of progress in wars such as Afghanistan.

Inhofe has been more deferential to witnesses. For example, at a recent confirmation hearing, he ended by telling the nominees that he's "never seen a panel of more qualified people."

In recent years, McCain also used the megaphone being chairman afforded him to challenge Trump's foreign policy and defense moves.

Inhofe, though, is a proud Trump supporter and has sided with the president on sticky foreign policy issues. At a March committee hearing, when Trump's own Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats expressed skepticism on North Korea's intentions for talks, Inhofe replied that he was "more optimistic" than Coats.

He's also shown a capacity to be swayed on an issue based on Trump's position. For example, Inhofe previously opposed the idea of a separate branch of the military for space. But after Vice President Pence's speech on Space Force this month, Inhofe told reporters the administration is "winning him over."

 

ICMYI

-- The Hill: Trump promised Kim he'd sign declaration ending Korean War at summit: report

-- The Hill: NATO considers naming headquarters after McCain

-- Associated Press: NATO reports Russian naval buildup amid Syria tensions

-- Bloomberg: Khamenei sees no hope of Europe salvaging Iran nuclear deal

-- The New York Times: With ships and missiles, China is ready to challenge U.S. Navy in Pacific

-- Associated Press: Car bomb claimed by Islamic State kills 7 in western Iraq 

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