Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Mattis dismisses Woodward's book as 'fiction' | House moves to begin defense bill talks with Senate | Trump warns Syria after attack on rebel areas | Trump, South Korean leader to meet at UN

Happy Tuesday 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. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.


THE TOPLINE: The excerpts from journalist Bob Woodward's forthcoming book were the talk of the town Tuesday, with accounts including Defense Secretary James Mattis, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and a host of other top administration officials.

Among the anecdotes, the Watergate reporter wrote that Mattis once described President Trump as having the understanding of "a fifth- or sixth-grader" when it comes to the Korean Peninsula, according to The Washington Post, which obtained a copy of the book.

The Post report on Tuesday recounts a National Security Council meeting on Jan. 19, citing Woodward's upcoming book, "Fear: Trump in the White House." 

At the meeting, Trump questioned U.S. government spending in the region, as well as the significance of having a big U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula, Woodward wrote.

Mattis after the meeting "was particularly exasperated and alarmed, telling close associates that the president acted like -- and had the understanding of -- 'a fifth- or sixth-grader,'" according to the Post's account of the book.

Calls to assassinate Assad: In April 2017, following a chemical attack on civilians in Syria, Trump pushed Mattis to take action, telling him the U.S. should "fucking kill" Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Woodward writes.

Mattis reportedly went along with the president's demands during the phone call, but immediately told aides that they would take a "much more measured" approach.

Mattis pushes back: Mattis on Tuesday pushed back against the passage concerning him in the forthcoming book, calling it "fiction" and "a product of someone's rich imagination."

"The contemptuous words about the President attributed to me in Woodward's book were never uttered by me or in my presence," Mattis said in a statement. "While I generally enjoy reading fiction, this is a uniquely Washington brand of literature, and his anonymous sources do not lend credibility."

"In serving in this administration, the idea that I would show contempt for the elected Commander-in-Chief, President Trump, or tolerate disrespect to the office of the President from within our Department of Defense, is a product of someone's rich imagination," Mattis adds.

Kelly also in the crosshairs: Current chief of staff John Kelly is said to have called Trump "unhinged" and an "idiot," which Kelly denied.

"The idea I ever called the president an idiot is not true," Kelly said in a statement on Tuesday. "This is another pathetic attempt to smear people close to President Trump and distract from the administration's many successes."


HOUSE MOVES TO BEGIN DEFENSE SPENDING NEGOTIATIONS: The House on Tuesday moved to begin negotiations with the Senate on a Pentagon spending bill, which the upper chamber paired with a domestic appropriations measure.

In its first day back from August recess, the House approved by voice vote a motion to go to conference with the Senate on the $675 billion defense appropriations bill.

Lawmakers are hoping to approve a final measure by the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, an accomplishment that would mark the first time in nine years that the Defense Department is funded on time.

But hold on: Several complicating factors stand in the way. Congress face a time crunch for negotiations; both chambers plan to be in session for only 11 days between now and October.

Additionally, in order to gain bipartisan support by passing a defense spending bill alongside a domestic spending measure, the Senate paired its Pentagon bill with the appropriations measure for the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services. The Senate passed the combined $854 billion spending bill on an 85-7 vote last month.

Senators on both sides of the aisle have said they want to keep the two bills together, a move that would could complicate bicameral negotiations on final legislation. The House has yet to pass its own related domestic spending bill, which in the past has been a lightning rod for partisan issues.


TRUMP ADMINISTRATION WARNS ASSAD: The Trump administration on Tuesday warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against using chemical weapons on his citizens, hours after the regime's ally, Russia, struck Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold.

"The United States is closely monitoring the situation in Idlib province, Syria, where millions of innocent civilians are under threat of an imminent Assad regime attack, backed by Russia and Iran," the White House said in a statement.

"Let us be clear, it remains our firm stance that if President Bashar al-Assad chooses to again use chemical weapons, the United States and its Allies will respond swiftly and appropriately," the statement continued. 

What brought on the statement: Russian planes struck the northwestern province with roughly 30 airstrikes earlier Tuesday. The strikes were accompanied with Assad regime artillery, killing at least 17 civilians, including five children, The Wall Street Journal reported.

That strike came despite President Trump calling on the Assad regime and its backers, Russia and Iran, to not attack the town.

Trump on Monday on Twitter had warned Assad that he "must not recklessly attack Idlib Province," and that Russia and Iran "would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don't let that happen!"

Officials fear a crisis: The United Nations and other countries have warned that a large-scale military attack on Idlib could lead to a humanitarian disaster much like the fall of Aleppo, which had a smaller population.

The Pentagon has also weighed in, as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said Tuesday that he was afraid a "humanitarian catastrophe" could happen in Idlib.

"We don't see any way that significant military operations are going to be beneficial to the people of Syria," Dunford told reporters traveling with him.


TRUMP TO MEET SOUTH KOREAN PRESIDENT AT UN: President Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will huddle on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting later this month as they push North Korea to denuclearize, the White House announced Tuesday.

Trump and Moon spoke by phone for a little under an hour on Tuesday, according to Moon's office. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the pair "agreed to meet later this month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly."

The details so far: A South Korean delegation is scheduled to travel to Pyongyang on Wednesday to plan a third summit between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Moon promised Trump on Tuesday "a readout of that meeting," Sanders said.

In their call, Moon and Trump agreed "to explore the idea of meeting in person on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly and having in-depth consultations on strategies and how to cooperate on the peninsula issues," Moon's office said in a statement, according to a translation from Reuters.

In a briefing Tuesday, Chung Eui-yong, director of South Korea's national security office, said South Korea's goals for Wednesday's trip include discussions on a declaration to end the Korean War by the end of the year and achieving complete denuclearization of the peninsula. 

Chung also said he would deliver a letter from Moon to Kim, without elaborating on its contents.

The Trump administration's struggle: Efforts to follow up on June's historic summit between Trump and Kim have lagged as both sides accuse the other of failing to live up to commitments made at the summit.

The summit ended with a joint statement in which North Korea agreed to "work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula" in exchange for unspecified security assurances from the United States. 

North Korea wants a peace declaration to officially end the Korean War; the war is technically ongoing because it ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty. But before it will agree to that, the United States wants North Korea to provide a complete inventory of its nuclear material and facilities.


SEVENTH AMERICAN SOLDIER DIES IN AFGHANISTAN THIS YEAR: A U.S. service member died Tuesday in a "non-combat related incident" in eastern Afghanistan, the military announced.

No details were given, and the incident is under investigation, according to U.S. Forces Afghanistan.

The name of the service member has not yet been released, pending next-of-kin notification.

This is the seventh American killed while serving in Afghanistan this year and the second within two days.

And a day prior... Another U.S. service member was killed and one troop was wounded in Afghanistan on Monday in what military leaders described as an "apparent insider attack." 

"The sacrifice of our service member, who volunteered for a mission to Afghanistan to protect his country, is a tragic loss for all who knew and all who will now never know him," Commanding Gen. Scott Miller said in a statement.

Outgoing leader weighs in on the war: Prior to the two most recent deaths, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan for the last 31 months, urged all sides to bring an end to the war there as he departed his post.

"It is time for this war in Afghanistan to end," Nicholson said, reportedly urging the Taliban to "stop killing your fellow Afghans."

Nicholson's outgoing calls for peace on all sides come as President Trump has seen little tangible progress in Afghanistan a year after announcing U.S. troops would remain in the country.

The New York Times reported that Nicholson did not meet a single time with Trump in the 20 months since the president was inaugurated.



The Association of the United States Army will hold its Army Aviation Hot Topic Symposium beginning at 7 a.m. in Arlington, Va. 

House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.); Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson; Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson; and Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord will speak at the Defense News Conference beginning at 7:30 a.m. at the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City in Arlington, Va. 

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen will speak at George Washington University at 9 a.m. at the university's Center for Cyber and Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. 

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey will testify before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on foreign influence operations' use of social media platforms at 9:30 a.m. in Dirksen Senate Office Building, room G-50. 

The full Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on assessing the value of the NATO alliance at 10 a.m. in Dirksen 419. 

DARPA Director Steven Walker will speak at the Pentagon agency's 60th Anniversary Symposium, beginning at 11 a.m. in Washington, D.C. 

A Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee will hold a hearing on "The China Challenge, Part 2: Security and Military Developments," at 2:30 p.m. in Dirksen 419. 

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) will receive the 2018 Nunn Prize and speak at The Center for Strategic & International Studies at 5 p.m. in Washington, D.C. 



-- The Hill: House moves to begin negotiations on defense spending bill

-- The Hill: US service member in Afghanistan killed in apparent 'insider attack'

-- The Hill: Trump to host UN Security Council meeting on Iran, Haley says

-- The Hill: Man arrested for planning 'hostile act' against US embassy in Cairo: report

-- The Hill: Opinion: Why Finland and Sweden still flirt with joining NATO

-- Defense News: US, Greece look at increasing military presence amid tension with Turkey

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