Overnight Defense: Trump faces new Russia test over Ukraine | Cancels plans to meet Putin at G-20 | Officials float threat of military action against Iran

Happy Thursday 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: President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump tweets ICE will begin removing 'millions' of undocumented migrants MORE on Thursday abruptly canceled a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at this weekend's Group of 20 (G-20) summit, citing Moscow's military tensions with Ukraine.

The announcement, which Trump made on Twitter, came roughly an hour after the president told reporters the meeting would "probably" go ahead as planned.

"Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin," Trump wrote while flying on Air Force One en route to the summit.

Trump added that he hoped to have "a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!"

Why the cancelation now? White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later told reporters aboard the presidential aircraft that Trump decided to scrap the meeting after discussing the Ukraine situation on the plane with chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoU.S. releases new photos purporting to show Iran was behind tanker attack U.S. releases new photos purporting to show Iran was behind tanker attack Tensions with Iran reach new stage over uranium threat MORE.

The Kremlin said it did not receive advance notice of the cancellation, with Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling Russian news outlets they learned of the news from Trump's tweets.

Mixed messages: Before departing the White House on Thursday morning, Trump said it was a "very good time" to meet with Putin despite Russia's recent seizure of Ukrainian ships and sailors off the coast of Crimea.

"I probably will be meeting with President Putin. We haven't terminated that meeting. I was thinking about it, but we haven't. They'd like to have it," the president said.

But Trump noted he would be receiving a "full report" aboard Air Force One on the naval incidents and said that "will determine" whether the meeting would go ahead as planned.

The background: Trump first cast doubt about the meeting on Tuesday in an interview with The Washington Post, citing Russia's actions that have triggered international condemnation and enflamed the long-running conflict with Ukraine.

The seizures marked the first armed confrontation between Russia and Ukraine since the Kremlin's occupation in Crimea in 2014 and the aggressive actions raised the possibility of a response from NATO and the United Nations.

But the Kremlin said Thursday morning that the White House confirmed plans for the meeting and announced it would occur on Saturday morning on the sidelines of the G-20 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Bolton told reporters on Tuesday the two leaders were expected to touch on the Middle East, arms control and security issues in "a continuation of their discussion in Helsinki."

Trump's meeting with Putin last summer in the Finnish capital was widely panned by lawmakers and U.S. allies for his failure to publicly confront the Russian leader over Moscow's interference in the 2016 election.

Trump still to meet with Turkish, S. Korean presidents: Trump will hold informal talks with the leaders of South Korea and Turkey at this weekend's G-20 summit instead of bilateral meetings as previously scheduled, the White House announced Thursday.

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters aboard Air Force One that Trump's bilateral meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Turkish President Recep Tayypip Erdoğan were changed to "pull-asides," meaning he will huddle informally with each leader on the sidelines of the summit. 

  

THE BIG PICTURE - NEW RUSSIA TEST FOR TRUMP: Russia's seizure of three Ukrainian ships has served up a new test for President Trump.

The issue is looming over the Group of 20 (G-20) summit this weekend in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Trump will be under pressure to deliver a firm response to Moscow.

The incident off the coast of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula further complicates Trump's effort to repair relations with Moscow at a time of near peak tensions, following Russia's effort to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyOvernight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments Overnight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments UN nominee Kelly Craft to face confirmation hearing Wednesday MORE and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both decried Russia's actions as a violation of international law. Trump himself has remained relatively quiet on the issue, telling The Washington Post in an interview Tuesday that he didn't like "that aggression" and suggesting he could cancel the Putin meeting before pivoting to a discussion about insufficient spending by NATO partners.

Lawmakers want action: Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezThere is a severe physician shortage and it will only worsen Democrats ask Fed to probe Trump's Deutsche Bank ties Ending the Cyprus arms embargo will increase tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean MORE (D-N.J.) has called on the administration to boost security aid to Ukraine, including by sending lethal maritime equipment to Kiev. Some have also suggested the U.S. and other European partners increase their naval presence in the Black Sea to conduct patrols or routine training exercises. Others have suggested additional sanctions could be leveled to further squeeze Moscow.

"We want the administration, our allies to really press Russia on this. This is completely unacceptable and should be condemned," Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonHillicon Valley: Lawmakers angered over Border Patrol breach | Senate Dems press FBI over Russian hacking response | Emails reportedly show Zuckerberg knew of Facebook's privacy issues | FCC looks to improve broadband mapping Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers angered over Border Patrol breach | Senate Dems press FBI over Russian hacking response | Emails reportedly show Zuckerberg knew of Facebook's privacy issues | FCC looks to improve broadband mapping Lawmakers demand answers on Border Patrol data breach MORE (R-Wis.) said. "We need to really react to this with strength and resolve or Putin will keep pushing."

 

STATE DEPARTMENT FLOATS THREAT OF MILITARY ACTION AGAINST IRAN: The Trump administration on Thursday said military action against Iran could be possible should U.S. sanctions against the country fail to curb Tehran from delivering weapons to hostile groups in the region.

"We have been very clear with the Iranian regime that we will not hesitate to use military force when our interests are threatened. I think they understand that. I think they understand that very clearly," said Brian Hook, the State Department special representative on Iran.

Speaking at a press conference at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C., Hook was asked about possible next steps the administration could take against Iran in its "maximum pressure" campaign against the country.

"I think right now, while we have the military option on the table, our preference is to use all of the tools that are at our disposal diplomatically," he said.

Proof of Iranian weapons? Hook spoke at an event held to display pieces of what he said were Iranian weapons and military equipment -- many handed over to the U.S. by Saudi Arabia -- deployed by Tehran to militant groups in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.

The most scrutinized of the accusations is that Iran has been supplying the weapons to the Houthis in Yemen, now in its fourth year of a civil war against a Saudi-led campaign, after Houthi rebels took over the nation's capital in 2015.

Such an act by Iran, if true, would be in violation of United Nations resolutions. Iran has denied the allegations. 

Reuters, who viewed the weapons on display ahead of the press conference, was told that the administration wants "there to be no doubt across the world that this is a priority for the United States and that it's in international interest to address it," according to Katie Wheelbarger, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. 

Not a stunt or distraction, administration says: Hook pressed back on criticisms that the display -- the second within a year -- was a political stunt by the Trump administration that could increase tensions in the region.

"This is simply putting out in broad daylight Iran's missiles and small arms and rockets and UAVs and drones. ... It's very important for nations to see with their own eyes that this is a grave and escalating threat," Hook said.

Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley held a similar event in the same location last November.

Hook also denied that the timing of the event was an attempt to shift the narrative away from Saudi Arabia, which has come under intense scrutiny over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and skepticism that Riyadh is actively trying to limit civilian deaths in Yemen.

"There isn't anything tied to what's happening in Saudi Arabia," Hook said. "Of course it's related. Many of the missiles here were interdicted by Saudi Arabia which illustrates just how much of a threat it's under."

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOvernight Defense: Pompeo blames Iran for oil tanker attacks | House panel approves 3B defense bill | Trump shares designs for red, white and blue Air Force One Senate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales Senate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales MORE (R-Ky.) will discuss Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at Frontiers of Freedom's "Regional Adventures and U.S. Interests," at 9:30 a.m. at the Capitol Hilton in Washington, D.C.

 

ICMYI:

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-- The Hill: Canada imposes sanctions on Saudis linked to Khashoggi killing

-- The Hill: Republicans press Trump to get tough with Russia on nuclear talks amid Ukraine crisis

-- The Hill: Trump Organization planned to give Putin penthouse in Moscow tower: report

-- The Hill: Schumer floats stopgap spending bill amid border wall fight