Overnight Defense: Senate Armed Services chair eyes Russia, China threats | Pushes Trump not to cut defense budget | Mattis says US looking for more Khashoggi evidence

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: Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) sounded the alarm on China and Russia on Thursday in what was billed as his first major public address since taking the reins of the committee.

"They are doing some things that's actually better than we're doing it," Inhofe said during the speech at the National Defense University. "When I look and I see some of the equipment that they have compared to ours, you know, they've been busy."

The comments largely echo arguments Inhofe and other defense hawks have made for years.

Cuts on the horizon: Thursday's speech comes as Inhofe, who officially became chairman in September after Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Flynn awaits sentencing | White House signals it wants to avoid shutdown Arizona gov taps McSally for McCain Senate seat Michelle Obama reflects on 'refreshing' tradition of sharing candy with George W. Bush MORE's (R-Ariz.) death, is working to change President TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey's interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate MORE's mind about a plan to cut next year's defense budget. Inhofe has bolstered his argument in large part on a commission report released last month that warns the military "might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia."

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Trump has ordered the Pentagon to prepare a $700 billion defense budget for fiscal 2020, a $16 billion cut from this year and $33 billion less than originally planned for 2020.

Inhofe, though, is arguing that even a $733 billion budget is simply flat compared to this year because of inflation and that a cut would reverse progress made on addressing readiness issues.

Lobbying Trump: Inhofe and his current House counterpart went to the White House earlier in the week to press Trump on the issue.

Inhofe said Thursday they spent two hours with Trump, Vice President Pence, national security adviser John Bolton and other administration officials. The discussion focused on the same points he was making Thursday, Inhofe said.

"The main thing is to make sure that we are going to be in a position to compete primarily with our peer competitors, and let me tell you, the president knows that," Inhofe said. "There's no strategic rationale for any cut."

Mismatched views: Inhofe also took a shot at "liberals" who insist on parity between the defense and nondefense budgets. Inhofe has been arguing that defense should be exempt from budget caps, while nondefense should remain under the caps, a non-starter for Democrats.

Democrats will take control of the House in January, and leaders have said trimming the defense budget is a priority. Budget experts, though, have said Democrats are likely to agree to a defense increase if there is a nondefense increase as well as they have in the past.

Not a fan of Trump tweets: Inhofe also on Thursday said he "cringe[s] a little" whenever Trump tweets, but that he doesn't blame the president for trying to bypass a media that "hates him."

"I have to admit -- confession's good for the soul -- every time I hear that a tweet is coming out, I cringe a little," Inhofe said during a speech at the National Defense University focused on his priorities for the committee. "Bu, wouldn't it be kind of nice if he had someone to bounce those off, changing the wording maybe a little bit? But how else can he circumvent a media that hates him?"

While Inhofe was ultimately defending the president, the admission of discomfort at Trump's tweets was still noteworthy coming from someone who has been a staunch supporter of the president.

 

MATTIS SAYS US SEEKING MORE INFORMATION ON KHASHOGGIS KILLING: Defense Secretary James Mattis on Thursday said the administration is looking for more information regarding the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose killing has been linked to the country's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

"We are continuing to review. I am quite satisfied we will find more evidence of what happened," Mattis told reporters Wednesday en route to Canada.

"I just don't know yet what it's going to be or who's going to be implicated, but we will follow it as far as we can," he said according to a Pentagon transcript released Thursday

Lawmakers unconvinced: Mattis's latest comments come as lawmakers slam the administration for failing to acknowledge proof that they say leaves little doubt of the crown prince's involvement.

The Pentagon chief late last month said that there was "no smoking gun" linking bin Salman to the death of Khashoggi, who was critical of the Saudi government in his columns in The Washington Post. Khashoggi was killed in October when he went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The CIA later reportedly concluded that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi's death.

After being briefed behind closed doors by CIA chief Gina Haspel, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOcasio-Cortez: By Lindsey Graham's 1999 standard for Clinton, Trump should be impeached Senate votes to end US support for Saudi war, bucking Trump Former FBI official says Mueller won’t be ‘colored by politics’ in Russia probe MORE (R-S.C.) said that "There's not a smoking gun, there's a smoking saw," referencing Mattis's earlier comment. 

Pentagon chief wants more evidence: Mattis said Graham "has a right to his own opinion," and that the administration believes "in accountability for whoever was directly involved in the Khashoggi murder or who directed the Khashoggi murder. That is from beginning -- my first statements publicly, I have not waivered at all."

Asked whether he had reached a conclusion on the crown prince's involvement, Mattis said that he needs to see solid evidence.

"There are sincere, studious people who are drawing different conclusions. We are doing everything we can to go down every rabbit hole to find what's there," Mattis said.

"So just bear with us. When we speak, it'll be with the authority and I won't, I will not speculate or draw premature conclusions but we are leaving no stone unturned."

Senate takes action: Mattis's comments came the same day that a bipartisan group of senators introduced a resolution throwing support behind the finding that Crown Prince Mohammed was "complicit" in the death of Khashoggi.

The resolution says the Senate believes the Saudi crown prince "was in control of security forces" during the killing and "based on evidence and analysis made available to this institution, has a high level of confidence that Mohammed bin Salman was complicit in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi."

 

UPDATE ON BORDER WALL FIGHT: Republican senators have introduced legislation to fully fund President Trump's request of $25 billion for the U.S.-Mexico border wall

"The WALL Act would fully fund the border wall by closing existing loopholes that provide illegal immigrants with federal benefits and tax credits, without affecting the benefits and tax credits used by Americans," Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGroup launches campaign to 'Draft Beto' for 2020 White House bid Look out ‘losers’ — Trump focused on ‘winning’ The Memo: GOP frets as Trump shutdown looms MORE (R-Texas) said in a statement on Thursday. 

To pay for the border wall, the Republicans propose to crack down on benefits for undocumented immigrants, including requiring that parents have a Social Security number to claim refundable tax credits, requiring any welfare applicants to prove they are citizens and increasing minimum fines on individuals who cross the border illegally or overstay visas. 

"If you want to receive food stamps and other benefits, then you should prove your citizenship. If you cross the border illegally or overstay your visit to this country, then you should pay a stiff penalty," Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) added.

Dead in the water: The legislation, which is unlikely to go anywhere, comes amid a stalled out fight over the border. Congress has until the end of the day Friday to prevent a partial government shutdown.

The House's bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security would give Trump $5 billion for the border, while the Senate's bill would provide $1.6 billion.

Two-week extension: The Senate Thursday also approved a two-week funding measure, sending it to Trump's desk and delaying the prospect of a partial government shutdown.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaLiberal groups launch effort to get progressives on key House committees Pelosi faces pressure to act on Saudi Arabia Term limit fight highlights growing pains for Pelosi’s majority MORE (D-Calif), will speak at the Cato Institute on Saudi Arabia's War in Yemen at 9 a.m. in Washington, D.C. 

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: US takes part in flight over Ukraine, sending message to Russia

-- The Hill: Five Marines missing, two rescued after crash into sea

-- The Hill: Top general: No discussion of military response to Kerch Strait incident

-- The Hill: House lawmakers warn Trump of 'disastrous consequences' without $733B for defense

-- The Hill: Opinion: The armed forces arithmetic isn't adding up

-- The Hill: Opinion: Sen. Paul must release his hold on Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act