Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Trump denies report he's looking at Mattis replacements | Inhofe officially gets Armed Services gavel | Trump revives shutdown threat

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 is denying speculation that Defense Secretary James Mattis is on his way out the door.

"He'll stay," Trump said Wednesday about Mattis. "We're very happy with him, we're having a lot of victories, we're having victories that people don't even know about, and he's highly respected all over the world."

Earlier: Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin reported that the White House has begun compiling an informal list of replacements for Mattis should the defense secretary decide to leave his post.

Rogin wrote that the administration has been considering possible replacements for weeks, but no decisions have been made. Officials inside the White House reportedly expect that Mattis will leave his position in the coming months, though there's no indication his departure is imminent or that he will be forced out.

The names: Among the possible replacements mentioned in the column were retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.).

In the background: Mattis was among the senior level aides and advisers named in Bob Woodward's forthcoming book about the Trump White House.

The defense secretary is said to have told staffers that Trump had the understanding of a "fifth- or sixth-grader" following a meeting on strategy for the Korean peninsula earlier this year.

Mattis put out a statement Tuesday night denying that he ever said or heard the quotes attributed to him in the book.

"While I generally enjoy reading fiction, this is a uniquely Washington brand of literature, and his anonymous sources do not lend credibility," Mattis said in the statement.

And Trump liked it: In denying the Washington Post report, Trump cited Mattis' statement on the Woodward book, calling it "beautiful."

"He just made the nicest quote about me I think I've ever had," Trump said. "He wrote the most beautiful statement. No. I think he's a terrific person. He's doing a fantastic job as secretary."

 

MORE TRUMP DENIALS: Trump also denied Wednesday that he ever discussed assassinating Syrian President Bashar Assad, another anecdote in Woodward's book.

"Not at all. The book is fiction," Trump told reporters when asked about the claim, saying the assassination of Assad was "never even discussed."

"No, that was never even contemplated, nor would it be contemplated and it should not have been written about in the book," Trump added.

The president lashed out at Woodward's book repeatedly during a meeting with the emir of Kuwait.

What Woodward said: The first excerpts from Woodward's book, "Fear: Trump in the White House," were published on Tuesday, and painted a portrait of a White House rife with infighting and undergoing a "nervous breakdown."

Woodward wrote that in April 2017, following a chemical attack on civilians in Syria, Trump told Mattis the United States should "f--king kill" Assad.

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

Syria watch: Trump's comments about Assad come as the United States continues to monitor heightened tensions in Syria's Idlib province, which is the last major rebel stronghold in the country.

The Trump administration on Tuesday warned Assad against using chemical weapons on his citizens, hours after Syria's ally, Russia, struck Idlib.

Trump on Wednesday called it a "very sad situation," and warned those involved in the conflict to be "very, very judicious and careful."

"That cannot be a slaughter," Trump said, warning that if it becomes one, "the United States is going to get very angry."

 

BUT NOT DENYING A SHUTDOWN: Trump again threatened to shut down the government at the end of the month, days after indicating that he wanted to avoid such a move.

"If it happens it happens. If it's about border security, I'm willing to do anything," Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday.

Trump was heading into a meeting to discuss spending with congressional leaders, who were hoping to dissuade Trump from considering a shutdown ahead of November's midterm election.

What he said before: While Trump had threatened to shut down the government if Congress failed to adequately fund his proposed border wall earlier in the year, in recent days he had seemed to back off the threat.

"I don't like the idea of shutdowns," Trump said in a Sunday interview with The Daily Caller published earlier Wednesday.

"I don't see even myself or anybody else closing down the country right now," he added.

Trump's comments came just hours after his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, trekked to Capitol Hill and personally assured lawmakers in the conservative Republican Study Committee that Trump did not want to shut down the government, according to sources in the room.

Mulvaney also told his former House colleagues that he advised Trump that a shutdown would be a bad idea.

 

INHOFE TAKES THE REINS: It's official.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) will be the next chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee after Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) death.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made the announcement in a floor speech Wednesday.

"I'm happy that our colleagues on the Armed Services Committee have officially chosen Sen. Inhofe to serve as their next chairman," McConnell said on the Senate floor. "Jim Inhofe filled in for Sen. McCain during a difficult year. He rose to the occasion and helped lead the committee in passing crucial legislation that honored the example of his predecessor and the volunteers who defend our nation."

McConnell added that Inhofe has "rich experience" on the committee and in military service.

Inhofe served in the Army for two years in the 1950s. He was the Senate Armed Services Committee's ranking member from 2013 to 2015.

Inhofe's priorities: Asked Wednesday what his priorities will be for the committee, Inhofe said he plans to delegate power to the subcommittee chairmen.

"This is something I've been wanting to do for a long period of time," he said. "We have so much talent there. ... So we're going to do a lot these things in the subcommittees that we have been doing in the whole committee before."

He also said the committee will work to ensure the military is "getting the most" out of its rebuilding efforts, for which it received a massive budget hike.

"America is facing new and unprecedented threats that are different from anything we've seen before," Inhofe added in a written statement later Wednesday. "As chairman, it will be my priority to address these threats while maintaining a staunch commitment to service members and their families, as well as continue the bipartisan tradition of rigorous accountability and oversight of the Defense Department.

Filling the empty seat: Inhofe also said Wednesday he expects Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.), who was appointed to take McCain's seat in the Senate, will fill the Armed Services Committee seat left open after McCain's death.

Kyl, a former senator, was sworn in Wednesday on the Senate floor. GOP Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) escorted Kyl through the chamber, where Vice President Pence delivered the oath.

McConnell praised Kyl from the Senate floor on Wednesday, saying Kyl was "as well equipped as you can imagine" to follow in McCain's footsteps.

"Our friend and former colleague, Sen. Jon Kyl, is one of the most serious, most expert, most effective legislators with whom I've had the pleasure of serving," McConnell said.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Senate Banking Committee will hold a hearing on Russia sanctions with testimony from outside experts at 10 a.m. at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, room 538. https://bit.ly/2wKhNBE

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson will speak at the Center for a New American Security at 4 p.m. https://bit.ly/2Q9ytf0

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Armed Services chairman laments 'fringe elements in politics'

-- The Hill: Russia: Military action in Syria precisely targeted

-- The Hill: US soldier killed in Afghanistan was on 13th overseas deployment

-- The Hill: Opinion: As Trump postures, a national nuclear abolition campaign moves forward

-- The Hill: Opinion: State Department needs reform so it can lead from the front

-- Defense News: Cuts to nuclear spending and special ops oversight: Expectations for new congressional leadership

-- Associated Press: Twin attacks in Afghan capital kill 20, wound 70

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