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Overnight Defense: Trump says 15,000 troops could deploy to border | Mattis insists deployment is not 'stunt' | Pompeo calls for Yemen peace talks in November

Overnight Defense: Trump says 15,000 troops could deploy to border | Mattis insists deployment is not 'stunt' | Pompeo calls for Yemen peace talks in November
© Stefani Reynolds

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.

THE TOPLINE: First, the Pentagon said it was deploying 5,200 troops to the southern border.

Then, it said the 5,200 could grow to an unspecified number.

Now, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump to oust Nielsen as early as this week: report California wildfire becomes deadliest in state’s history Sinema’s Senate win cheered by LGBTQ groups MORE is saying the deployment could get as high as 15,000 troops.

"We'll go up to anywhere between 10 and 15,000," the president told reporters Wednesday on the South Lawn.

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That would put the deployment on par with or above Afghanistan, where there are about 14,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops.

Flashback... to Tuesday, when the commander in charge of the deployment dismissed a report that up to 14,000 troops could be sent to the border.

"I honestly don't even know where that came from," Northern Command chief Gen. Terrence O'Shaughnessy said of the 14,000 estimate. "That is not in line with what we've been planning. And so I would just attribute that to not consistent with what's actually being planned."

A stunt?: Trump's critics have accused him of using the border deployment as a political stunt as next week's midterm elections get closer.

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — Trump's Armistice Day trip marked by controversy | US ends aerial refueling to Saudi coalition in Yemen | Analysts identify undeclared North Korean missile bases Pompeo reaffirms to Saudi crown prince US will hold Khashoggi’s killers ‘accountable’ With no alternatives, military’s tribalism must go MORE was having none of that argument Wednesday.

"We don't do stunts in this department," Mattis told reporters.

Mattis said the military support to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees U.S. Customs and Border Protection, "is practical support based on the request from the commissioner of customs and border police."

"We do this following storms, we do this in support of the Department of Homeland Security. This is a different aspect of it, but that's what we are doing," Mattis said after meeting with the South Korean defense minister at the Pentagon.

Trump, meanwhile, said he is "not fear mongering at all" on the issue of immigration, even as he accused Democrats of allowing 25 to 30 million undocumented immigrants into the country -- more than double the number of undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the country.

Unanswered questions: Reporters were able to get in a couple questions on the border deployment during Mattis' meeting with his South Korean counterpart, but there remain a number of unanswered questions about the deployment.

For example, the Pentagon has yet to say how much it will cost or what the duration of the deployment will be.

 

TURKISH PROSECUTOR ON KHASHOGGI: For the first time Wednesday, a Turkish prosecutor publicly said U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi was strangled as soon as he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month and that his body was then dismembered and disposed of.

A statement from chief Istanbul prosecutor Irfan Fidan's office also said discussions with Saudi chief prosecutor Saud al-Mojeb have yielded no "concrete results" despite "good-willed efforts" by Turkey to uncover the truth, according to The Associated Press.

"In accordance with plans made in advance, the victim, Jamal Khashoggi, was strangled and killed immediately after entering the Consulate General of Saudi Arabia," the statement said.

"The victim Jamal Khashoggi's body was dismembered and destroyed following his death by suffocation, again in line with the advance plans."

Unnamed Turkish officials have previously told news outlets that Khashoggi was tortured, killed and dismembered by a 15-person Saudi hit squad that included a forensic doctor wielding a bone saw.

Ending nuclear energy talks?: U.S. lawmakers have raised the possibility of sanctions, halting arms sales and ending support for the Saudis in Yemen over the Khashoggi killing.

On Wednesday, five Republicans senators raised another possibility: suspending negotiations with the Saudis on a nuclear energy agreement.

The Trump administration has been negotiating what's known as a "123 agreement" with the Saudis that would allow the kingdom to buy nuclear reactors from U.S. companies. The administration has framed a potential deal as important to securing U.S. jobs and ensuring the Saudis don't seek similar business with another country.

But in a letter to Trump on Wednesday, Republican Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioJeb Bush calls for Broward County official to be removed from post Florida Dem rep: Scott is 'spinning conspiracy theories' Gillum retracts concession in Florida governor's race MORE (Fla.), Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungCongress braces for high-drama lame duck Todd Young launches bid for Senate Republican campaign chief GOP pollster says Republicans could break with Trump on Saudi Arabia MORE (Ind.), Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerTrump, California battle over climate and cause of fires The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — Dems prepare to aggressively wield new oversight powers California governor's office says focus is on wildfires, not Trump's 'inane and uninformed tweets' MORE (Colo.), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSchumer’s headaches to multiply in next Congress GOP pollster says Republicans could break with Trump on Saudi Arabia Overnight Defense: Trump says 15,000 troops could deploy to border | Mattis insists deployment is not 'stunt' | Pompeo calls for Yemen peace talks in November MORE (Ky.) and Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerSinema invokes McCain in Senate acceptance speech Sinema defeats McSally in Arizona Senate race The Memo: Dem hopes for 2020 grow in midterms afterglow MORE (Nev.) said their previous "serious reservations" about the negotiations have been underscored by the Khashoggi crisis.

They also said they were more willing to try to block a potential deal.

 

DECISION TIME FOR US-SOUTH KOREA EXERCISES: During his visit the Pentagon on Wednesday, South Korea's defense minister put a timeline on when his country and the United States would make a decision on whether to cancel next year's joint military exercises.

A review of the exercises will be completed Nov. 15 and a decision will be made by Dec. 1, South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said.

Background: The United States and South Korea have suspended several joint military exercises amid Trump's efforts to negotiate a North Korea denuclearization agreement.

Most recently, the Pentagon announced earlier this month that it was canceling Vigilant Ace, one of the U.S. military's largest annual aviation exercises.

That followed the cancellation of the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian summer exercises, as well as two Korean Marine Exchange Program exercises.

Less of a threat?: Speaking alongside Jeong, Mattis defended the decision to cancel those exercises that have already been scrapped, saying that "we are not right now concerned with a loss of combat capability."

"Clearly the threat from North Korea at least as expressed by Chairman Kim [Jong Un] has been significantly reduced," Mattis added. "However the capability still exists and that is why the minister and I talked on every detail about our collaboration."

 

YEMEN PRESSURE: The Trump administration has issued its strongest statements yet calling for a ceasefire in the Yemen civil war.

Hours after Defense Secretary James Mattis issued his timeline for peace talks in 30 days, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — Trump's Armistice Day trip marked by controversy | US ends aerial refueling to Saudi coalition in Yemen | Analysts identify undeclared North Korean missile bases U.S. think tank identifies 13 undeclared missile bases in North Korea Pompeo reaffirms to Saudi crown prince US will hold Khashoggi’s killers ‘accountable’ MORE on Tuesday night called for "substantive consultations" to start in November.

"The time is now for the cessation of hostilities, including missile and [drone] strikes from Houthi-controlled areas into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Subsequently, coalition air strikes must cease in all populated areas in Yemen," Pompeo said in his statement.

Congressional reaction: Critics of the administration's response to the civil war said Wednesday that Mattis and Pompeo's statements were past due.

"It's about time," Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaOvernight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — Trump's Armistice Day trip marked by controversy | US ends aerial refueling to Saudi coalition in Yemen | Analysts identify undeclared North Korean missile bases US to stop refueling Saudi planes in Yemen Nancy Pelosi starts working on her math problem in Speaker vote MORE (D-Calif.) said in a statement. "After more than three years of war, thousands dead, millions on the brink of starvation, and growing pressure from Congress, the Trump administration is finally calling for an end to the Saudi-led war in Yemen. We have tremendous leverage over the Saudi-led coalition and should demand this administration do all in their power to bring both sides to the peace table and end the war. However, just a call for cessation of hostilities does not go far enough."

"I'm encouraged by the Trump administration's call for a ceasefire in Yemen. The humanitarian situation is dire and it's past time for the United States to use our leverage to help end this horrific war," Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenCongress should broaden legislation to curb medical price gouging Pro-Israel organizations should finally seek payback against Iran deal Dems Democrat Chris Pappas wins New Hampshire House seat MORE (D-N.H.) said in a statement.

"I am pleased that the administration is finally and unambiguously drawing the line in terms of what we expect from all parties--including the Saudis," Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) said in a statement. "In order to make clear that Congress stands with the administration in bringing the civil war to an end, when the Senate returns to session, I plan to introduce legislation that would end U.S. air refueling of Saudi coalition aircraft in Yemen engaged in the civil war."

Humanitarian groups react: David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, called Pompeo's statement "the most significant breakthrough in the war" in four years.

"It is a very welcome recognition that current policy is failing and needs urgently to be changed to focus on a diplomatic solution," Miliband said in a statement. "It is vital that this call for a ceasefire is followed through, and the call for support for the political process heeded. ... Other members of the UN Security Council should be ashamed of their silence on this issue. There has been a crying need for leadership - in the form of a ceasefire - for far too long."

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute will host an expert panel on U.S.-Saudi relations at 12:30 p.m. at CAP's offices. https://ampr.gs/2ETO7cB

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: New US commander touts 'offensive mindset' against Taliban

-- The Hill: Mattis: No diplomatic solution on Russia arms treaty yet

-- The Hill: Rouhani warns Iranians of hard times after new US sanctions take effect

-- Associated Press: NATO chief urges Russia to shed light on new missile system

-- USA Today: 'Stop starving people as instrument of war.' One Republican's blunt message to Saudis -- and Trump

-- Associated Press: US-backed Syria Kurds accuse Turkey of jeopardizing ISIS fight