Overnight Defense: Senators say questions remain after Syria briefing | Trump inches closer to declaring emergency to build wall | Air Force accepts Boeing tankers despite flaws

Overnight Defense: Senators say questions remain after Syria briefing | Trump inches closer to declaring emergency to build wall | Air Force accepts Boeing tankers despite flaws
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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: Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee emerged Thursday from a closed-door briefing on the Trump administration's Syria policy with outstanding questions about the president's plan for a withdrawal.

Several GOP senators exiting the meeting offered a more tempered response to the proposed withdrawal after signs it is being slowed. Many Republicans had vocally opposed the withdrawal when President TrumpDonald John TrumpVeterans groups demand end to shutdown: 'Get your act together' Brown launches tour in four early nominating states amid 2020 consideration Pence on border wall: Trump won't be ‘deterred’ by Dem ‘obstruction’ MORE announced it in December, when he said troops were "coming back now."

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"I think there's got to be some level of conditions with this withdrawal. If it's just purely time-based, I don't think it's a good idea," Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisGOP reasserts NATO support after report on Trump’s wavering Leaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight Senators restart shutdown talks — and quickly hit roadblocks MORE (R-N.C.) said.

Asked if he was satisfied the administration is not going forward with a hasty withdrawal, he said, "Not yet. Need more information."

The briefing details: The Armed Services panel was briefed on the withdrawal Thursday by John Rood, the under secretary of Defense for policy; Lt. Gen. Richard Clarke, the director of strategy, policy and planning for the Joint Staff; and Maj. Gen. Michael Groen, director of intelligence for the Joint Staff.

The briefing comes roughly three weeks after Trump announced he was withdrawing U.S. troops in Syria who are fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The background: At the time of his announcement, Trump said the withdrawal would be immediate, with officials saying it would happen within 30 days.

But officials later pushed the timeline back to four months. Then, this past week, national security adviser John Bolton laid out conditions for withdrawal that could push the departure back even longer, including the defeat of ISIS and a deal with Turkey for the protection of the Kurds.

Trump has denied that Bolton's comments contradicted his initial announcement, tweeting Monday that they were "no different from my original statements" and that "we will be leaving at a proper pace."

But the morphing statements from the administration left lawmakers searching for clear answers.

Dems not satisfied: On Thursday, Democrats on the Armed Services Committee appeared no more satisfied after the briefing that the administration has a strategy for Syria.

Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedOvernight Defense: Senators say questions remain after Syria briefing | Trump inches closer to declaring emergency to build wall | Air Force accepts Boeing tankers despite flaws Senators say questions remain on Trump strategy in Syria after briefing Trump's military moves accelerate GOP search for next McCain MORE (R.I.), the top Democrat on the panel, would not discuss the briefing specifically, but said in general, "I don't think they have a strategy."

Committee member Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenGOP reasserts NATO support after report on Trump’s wavering Some Senate Dems see Ocasio-Cortez as weak spokeswoman for party The Hill's Morning Report — Trump eyes wall money options as shutdown hits 21 days MORE (D-N.H.) said she heard nothing new in the briefing and that the administration has not sufficiently backtracked on its withdrawal proposal for her.

"It's a major foreign policy blunder because not only does it abandon the Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces, but it leaves Russia and Iran to expand their influence in Syria," she said.

Republicans a little more hopeful: Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense: Senators say questions remain after Syria briefing | Trump inches closer to declaring emergency to build wall | Air Force accepts Boeing tankers despite flaws Senators say questions remain on Trump strategy in Syria after briefing Emergency declaration option for wall tests GOP MORE (R-Okla.) said he is convinced the withdrawal will be conditions-based.

"I still believe it's conditions based, regardless of what some rhetoric might have led some people to believe contrary," he said.

Inhofe said that Trump "realizes that he's not going to do something that we're not ready to do, that we're not equipped to do. And so I believe that will happen. I've gotten that assurance a lot of times, including in this meeting."

Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsNative American group denounces Trump for using Wounded Knee in attack against Warren GOP senators rebuke Trump for using 'Wounded Knee' as 'punchline' Overnight Defense: Senators say questions remain after Syria briefing | Trump inches closer to declaring emergency to build wall | Air Force accepts Boeing tankers despite flaws MORE (R-S.D.) said the military is focusing on making sure ISIS is defeated territorially before the withdrawal and that the departure is "as safe as possible" for U.S. troops.

"I don't think it's a hasty withdrawal. I think they've been told to do it with due process, or I think they called it 'alacrity,'" he said.

Still, he said there are outstanding questions about what happens when U.S. troops leave.

 

SHUTDOWN DAY 20 - EMERGENCY DECLARATION OPTION FOR WALL TESTS GOP: President Trump on Thursday gave his strongest indication yet that he may declare a national emergency to circumvent Congress if he cannot reach a deal with Democrats on funding for his long-promised border wall.

Declaring migration at the southern border a national emergency may be Trump's best option for a quick off-ramp to end the partial shutdown, which is now in its 20th day with little to no progress toward a negotiated agreement. But the move would also set up a clash with Republicans.

"Well, we can declare a national emergency. We shouldn't have to because this is just common sense," Trump told reporters on the banks of the Rio Grande River, flanked by border agents and piles of plastic-wrapped drugs seized at the frontier.

But if talks don't pick back up, Trump said, "then you will see what happens with national emergency, which I can do very easily and there's no question it holds up."

The money: The White House is looking at $13.9 billion in funding approved by Congress last year to use for building Trump's wall in the event he declares an emergency. That bill provided funding for various Army Corps of Engineers projects that have been allocated but not spent.

"I can tell you that's definitely an option that has been presented to the president. Nothing has been finalized yet though," said an administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Another administration official confirmed that option is under consideration, but said other plans are also being discussed.

Negotiations fall apart: The comments come one day after negotiations with top Democrats at the White House ended in acrimonious fashion, with Trump walking out of the room when Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiVeterans groups demand end to shutdown: 'Get your act together' On The Money: Shutdown Day 25 | Dems reject White House invite for talks | Leaders nix recess with no deal | McConnell blocks second House Dem funding bill | IRS workers called back for tax-filing season | Senate bucks Trump on Russia sanctions Overnight Defense: Trump faces blowback over report he discussed leaving NATO | Pentagon extends mission on border | Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions MORE (D-Calif.) refused his demand for wall funding.

And negotiations involving moderate GOP senators that would have paired an immigration fix with border wall funding unraveled on Thursday, with senators blaming an unwillingness by Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to reach an agreement.

Republicans are wary: Republican senators are wary of crossing Trump on major issues like the border, where the party's base is pressuring Trump not to cave, and many have stopped short of flatly opposing using an emergency declaration or issuing ultimatums to the president.

But leapfrogging Congress by declaring a national emergency would fly directly in the face of public warnings from Republican lawmakers, including some of the president's traditional allies in Congress. Several are making clear they would prefer to resolve the stalemate through negotiations, characterizing a national emergency declaration as the "last thing you do" and urging the president to "tread lightly."

The contention over using the declaration option is the latest sign of division between Senate Republicans and Trump over the party's shutdown strategy. The chamber passed a stopgap measure late last month to prevent a partial shutdown, but Trump, under fire from conservative pundits, opposed the measure and has since doubled down on his demand for more than $5 billion in wall funding.

But Graham says go ahead: Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamPence on border wall: Trump won't be ‘deterred’ by Dem ‘obstruction’ AG pick Barr emphasizes independence from Trump Leaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight MORE (R-S.C.) on Thursday said Trump should declare a national emergency so he could build the U.S.-Mexico border wall after last-ditch negotiations in the Senate fell apart.

"It is time for President Trump to use emergency powers to fund the construction of a border wall/barrier. I hope it works," Graham said in a statement.

Graham's decision to throw his support behind the president declaring migration at the southern border a national emergency follows remarks earlier this week when he told reporters that it should be the "last resort" and is not the "preferred route."

 

BOEING DELIVERS TANKERS WITH 'DEFICIENCIES' TO AIR FORCE: The Air Force on Thursday received the first set of long-overdue tankers from Boeing, though the aircraft still have "deficiencies" that must be fixed, according to a spokesman.

"We have identified, and Boeing has agreed to fix at its expense, deficiencies discovered in developmental testing of the remote vision system," Air Force spokesperson Capt. Hope Cronin said in a statement. "The Air Force has mechanisms in place to ensure Boeing meets its contractual obligations while we continue with initial operational testing and evaluation."

What is the KC-46A? The KC-46A, an aerial refueling tanker, is meant to replace the Air Force's aging KC-135 tanker fleet. Boeing beat out Airbus to win a $4.9 billion contract for the program in 2011, and the Air Force intends to buy 179 new aircraft -- 52 of which Boeing is contracted to manufacture.

The program, however, has been plagued with cost overruns and schedule delays.

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Delivery of the first four Pegasus tankers is coming more than two years behind schedule. And the camera system used in refueling operations could take years to fully fix.

Air Force could withhold dollars over fixes: The Air Force is contractually authorized to withhold as much as $28 million per aircraft once they are delivered, as a way of putting pressure on Boeing to fix any shortcomings.

"The Department of Defense is in complete agreement regarding moving forward with delivery of KC-46 tankers," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Andrews said in a statement. "The department remains committed to providing the most cost-effective platforms for the U.S. taxpayer, while still delivering the best capabilities to our men and women serving in uniform."

 

ICYMI

--The Hill: Pence: Courts would be involved if Trump declares national emergency for wall

-- The Hill: Pompeo rips Obama-era Mideast policies during Cairo speech

-- The Hill: Worries mount as cybersecurity agency struggles amid shutdown

-- The Hill: FBI Agents Association demands end to shutdown

-- Stars and Stripes: Number of veterans employed on Capitol Hill still low, review finds

-- Reuters: Israel says U.S. blocks its sale of fighter jets to Croatia