Overnight 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

Overnight 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
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Happy Monday 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. And if you don't get our newsletter, CLICK HERE to subscribe.

 

THE TOPLINE: President TrumpDonald John TrumpDACA recipient claims Trump is holding ‘immigrant youth hostage’ amid quest for wall Lady Gaga blasts Pence as ‘worst representation of what it means to be Christian’ We have a long history of disrespecting Native Americans and denying their humanity MORE on Monday suggested Saudi Arabia might not be responsible for the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S.-based journalist whose disappearance has sparked an international outcry.

Trump told reporters at the White House that "rogue killers," and not Saudi officials, may have gotten to Khashoggi. The president cited no specific evidence, but noted he had just spoken with Saudi King Salman, who denied that Riyadh was involved.

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"I don't want to get into his mind, but it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?" Trump said.

The president said King Salman's denial "was very, very strong" and it did not seem as if "there was a question" in the king's mind about his claim Saudi Arabia was not involved.

"We're going to try get to the bottom of it very soon, but his was a flat denial," said Trump.

What's been said so far: Turkish officials say they believe Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on orders of the government in Riyadh.

The journalist, who wrote for The Washington Post and resided in Virginia, visited the consulate on Oct. 2 to get paperwork necessary for his marriage and has not been seen since.

There have been reports of 15 Saudi agents entering Turkey before Khashoggi arrived at the consulate and leaving the country following the journalist's disappearance.

The latest word from the Saudis: Saudi Arabia is preparing an official account that will admit Khashoggi was killed after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, according to multiple reports on Monday.

It is not clear how much responsibility Saudi Arabia will take for the journalist's death, as reports indicate that while an official narrative is being prepared it is not complete.

The kingdom will reportedly deflect responsibility for the death away from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by saying Khashoggi's death was "unintentional" and the result of a "botched operation" by Saudi agents who were not authorized by the government's top authorities, two sources told CNN.

Trump's comments spur further controversy: The incident has sparked a major diplomatic crisis between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, with lawmakers pressuring Trump to take swift action to punish Riyadh.

Trump on Monday dispatched Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo: US 'absolutely not' getting out of the Middle East Pompeo taking meeting about running for Kansas Senate seat: report Ex-US envoy in ISIS fight: 'There's no plan for what's coming' after US troop withdrawal in Syria MORE to meet with King Salman.

The president has previously threatened to impose penalties on Saudi Arabia if it is found to have been responsible for Khashoggi's disappearance, but he said on Monday that he did not raise the issue with King Salman.

Lawmakers push back at Trump comments: Senate Democrats quickly hit back Monday at Trump's "rogue killers" suggestion

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDems demand answers following explosive new Cohen report Dem senators debate whether to retweet Cardi B video criticizing Trump over shutdown Cardi B expresses solidarity with federal workers not getting paid MORE (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that by floating the idea that "rogue killers" were to blame, Trump had been enlisted as a "PR agent" for Saudi Arabia. 

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineTrump pitches new plan to reopen government amid Dem pushback Democrats signal they'll reject Trump shutdown proposal Trump expected to pitch immigration deal to end funding stalemate MORE (D-Va.), another member of the panel, added that Trump's rhetoric was "insulting." 

And Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenDC train system losing 0k per day during government shutdown Senate Dems introduce legislation to back-pay low-wage contractors Government shutdown impasse is a leveraging crisis MORE (D-Md.), the chairman of the Senate Democrats' campaign arm, said that Trump's suggestion "defied reality." 

And others warn action: Senators from both parties appeared close to rare bipartisan consensus in warning that Congress will take action against Saudi Arabia in the presumed death of Khashoggi.

While lawmakers voiced a desire to wait for the results of an investigation before determining the proper punishment, Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeSchumer recruiting top-notch candidate for McCain Senate seat The Hill's Morning Report — Trump eyes wall money options as shutdown hits 21 days Poll: Sanders most popular senator, Flake least MORE (R-Ariz.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioWashington fears new threat from 'deepfake' videos Overnight Defense: Second Trump-Kim summit planned for next month | Pelosi accuses Trump of leaking Afghanistan trip plans | Pentagon warns of climate threat to bases | Trump faces pressure to reconsider Syria exit Pressure mounts for Trump to reconsider Syria withdrawal MORE (R-Fla.) on Sunday suggested that it's becoming increasingly likely that Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Flake said on ABC's "This Week" that "there sure doesn't seem to be" any explanation that would rule out Saudi involvement in Khashoggi's disappearance. 

And Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersIdentity politics and the race for the Democratic nomination 2020 Democrats barnstorm the country for MLK weekend Bill Maher defends Bernie Sanders campaign over sexual harassment allegations MORE (I-Vt.) said Sunday that the U.S. should withdraw its support from Saudi Arabia in Yemen's civil war over allegations that the Saudi government murdered a dissident journalist.

Saudi-Turkish team begins search of consulate: A joint team of Saudi and Turkish investigators on Monday began their search of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

It is unclear what the investigation will involve.

The Saudis agreed to cooperate with the investigation, saying it would not yield any condemnatory evidence.

A cleaning crew with mops and trash bags entered the consulate earlier on Monday morning, The Associated Press reported. The Saudi-Turkish team arrived transported in a police vehicle and did not speak to journalists outside of the building, multiple outlets reported.

Over the weekend: The Hill's Rebecca Kheel highlighted five things to watch for in deteriorating US-Saudi relations.

And here are more stories: from The Hill from Monday and over the weekend on Khashoggi's disappearance:

-- Saudi Embassy in DC cancels National Day celebration amid uproar over missing journalist

-- Democrats torch Trump for floating 'rogue killers' to blame for missing journalist

-- Ex-ambassador to Saudi Arabia hits Trump for 'wide-eyed acceptance' of denials about missing journalist

-- France, Germany and UK issue joint statement calling for probe into missing Saudi journalist

-- Saudi Arabia responds to Trump, vows to retaliate against any action

-- Journalist's fiancee: I will only 'consider' Trump invitation to White House if he makes 'genuine contribution' to find out what happened

-- Trump defends $110B US arms sale to Saudi Arabia

-- Trump vows 'severe punishment' if Saudi Arabia killed journalist

-- Gerard Butler: Saudi press tour would have 'felt incredibly insensitive'

 

FORMER VA CHIEF: 'CHAOS' PROBABLY A 'PRETTY ACCURATE TERM TO DESCRIBE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE': Former Veterans Affairs Secretary David ShulkinDavid Jonathon Shulkin‘We Can Do It!’: Women and bipartisanship Reforming veterans benefits will be controversial, but necessary Trump’s shifting Cabinet to introduce new faces MORE said on Monday that the "chaos" in the early months of the Trump White House ultimately made it easier to pass major legislation to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Shulkin, the only holdover from the Obama administration in President Trump's Cabinet, told an audience at the Harvard School of Public Health that he entered the Trump administration "in a brand-new time, where they were just trying to figure out how they wanted things to work."

"Some people use the word chaos -- that would probably be a pretty accurate term -- as they were trying to figure out how they wanted to run the organization," Shulkin said.

"Having a very loose management style in the White House was actually something that worked well for me because I came, I presented the ideas, the president said, 'You know that sounds like a good thing to do for veterans, let's do it.' And I was able to get a lot done."

Comparing Obama to Trump: Shulkin also compared working under President Obama to working under Trump, calling the former "a well, well-run oiled machine" when he came in during the last 18 months of the administration.

"There was really very clear decision making, there were clear paths for how you got decisions done. ... The president would be well-briefed when we met with him, understood the issues, [was] very analytic, thoughtful and it was usually a pretty extensive discussion before decisions were made," he said.

Trump, on the other hand, "isn't one that likes to spend a huge amount of time reviewing the details. He's more of a person who reacts to his belief system," he added.

The history: Shulkin appeared frequently in the White House briefing room during Trump's first year to tout accomplishments, including legislation that makes it easier for the 360,000-person agency to fire employees.

But Trump in March fired Shulkin over Twitter after reports emerged that raised questions about his taxpayer-funded travel.

Shulkin contended in a New York Times op-ed written shortly thereafter that he was fired because he opposed Trump's attempts at dramatically expanding veterans' access to private-sector care.

No politics: Shulkin said Monday that he made sure that he didn't "play politics" when he came to Washington.

He said he hit resistance, however, when he ran into VA political appointees "that wanted to be there for political reasons and not for transforming the VA."

"I was going to stay adherent to the principles and to what I thought was right, and if it cost me my job, so be it, and that's what happened," he said.

 

TRUMP ON MATTIS: 'HE'S SORT OF A DEMOCRAT': Trump said in an interview broadcast Sunday that it's possible Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisKerry rips Trump’s ‘pull-out, walk-away presidency’ Macron: US 'retreat from Syria' won't change mission to eradicate ISIS Poll: Most Americans want US troops in Syria MORE will leave his administration.

Trump told Lesley Stahl of "60 Minutes" that Mattis hasn't told him that he intends to leave his post, but demurred when asked if he'd like to see the general depart the Cabinet.

"I have a very good relationship with him," Trump said. "I had lunch with him two days ago. I have a very good relationship with him. It could be that he is.

"I think he's sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth," the president continued. "But Gen. Mattis is a good guy. We get along very well. He may leave. I mean, at some point, everybody leaves. Everybody. People leave. That's Washington."

Good relationship? Mattis's departure has been the subject of speculation for weeks, with multiple news outlets reporting that Trump has been weighing potential replacements.

The president later denied those reports. The president did tell "60 Minutes" that there are some Cabinet members he's "not happy with" and acknowledged there are likely to be more departures. 

Trump defends 'love' for Kim Jong Un: Trump in the interview also doubled down on his praise for Kim Jong Un and claim that he "fell in love" with the dictator, indicating he's willing to overlook the North Korean leader's human rights record in order to accomplish his goals on the Korean peninsula.

Stahl rattled off the human rights violations Kim is accused of, including that he has starved his own people, and overseen gulags, public executions and the assassination of his half-brother.

"I know all these things. I mean, I'm not a baby," Trump responded. "Look ... I get along with him, OK?"

The president went on to suggest his statement at a rally last month that he "loves" Kim was "just a figure of speech," but did not walk it back or refute it when pressed by Stahl.

 

MOST F-35 CLEARED FOR FLIGHT AFTER GROUNDINGS: The majority of the Pentagon's F-35 joint strike fighters are ready to fly again after the entire fleet was grounded last week to look into a fuel tube issue. 

"After completing inspections, more than 80 percent of operational F-35s have been cleared and returned to flight operations," the F-35 joint program office said in a statement Monday.

The office adds that all U.S. military services and international partners have resumed flying with the cleared fifth-generation fighter jets.

What the issue was: The Pentagon last week grounded the Lockheed Martin-made aircraft to examine the fuel tubes within the engines, made separately by Pratt & Whitney. The fuel tubes, found in all F-35 variants, were suspected to be the cause of an F-35B crash on Sept. 28. near the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C.

The program office said it is working closely with the military services "to prioritize fuel tube replacements using the current spares inventory," and with Pratt & Whitney to rapidly procure more parts "to minimize the overall repair timeline for the remaining jets."

The program office also said the problem was "an isolated incident which is quickly being addressed and fixed."

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW:

Assistant Navy Secretary James "Hondo" Guerts and Navy Under Secretary Thomas Modly and Commanding General of Marine Corps Combat Development Lt. Gen. David Berger will speak at the National Defense Industrial Association's Annual Expeditionary Warfare Conference beginning at 6:30 a.m. in Annapolis, Md. 

Joint Chiefs of Staff head Gen. Joseph Dunford will speak at the Counter Violent Extremist Organizations Chiefs of Defense conference at 9 a.m. at Joint Base Andrews, Md. 

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Microsoft employees urge company not to pursue $10 billion Pentagon contract

-- The Hill:Top Bolton aide to leave National Security Council

-- The Hill: Sessions unveils task force to combat transnational criminal groups like MS-13

-- The Hill: Watchdog exposes Pentagon's cyber struggles

-- The Hill: Germany to deport man linked to 9/11 hijackers

-- The Hill: Trump mulled pulling US diplomats from Turkey before pastor's release: report

-- The Hill: Opinion: Americans are safer from terrorism, but new threats are arising

-- The Associated Press: Army, FBI investigating soldier death at Fort Campbell

-- Stars & Stripes: US military tightens base access for South Koreans in Japan