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 TrumpTrump nominates Jeffrey Rosen to replace Rosenstein at DOJ McCabe says ‘it’s possible’ Trump is a Russian asset McCabe: Trump ‘undermining the role of law enforcement’ 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 TillisDems ready aggressive response to Trump emergency order, as GOP splinters Business, conservative groups slam Trump’s national emergency declaration GOP senator dedicates heart photo to wife from Senate floor for Valentine's Day 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 ReedPapering over climate change impacts is indefensible Why Democrats are pushing for a new nuclear policy GOP chairman: US military may have to intervene in Venezuela if Russia does 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 ShaheenCongress must step up to protect Medicare home health care Dems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants Bipartisan Senators reintroduce legislation to slap new sanctions on Russia 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 InhofeAllies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump On The Money: Trump to sign border deal, declare emergency to build wall | Senate passes funding bill, House to follow | Dems promise challenge to emergency declaration Trump to sign border deal, declare national emergency 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 RoundsGOP senator: Trump thinks funding deal is 'thin gruel' Lawmakers put Pentagon's cyber in their sights Endorsing Trump isn’t the easiest decision for some Republicans 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 PelosiOvernight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — Trump, Dems open drug price talks | FDA warns against infusing young people's blood | Facebook under scrutiny over health data | Harris says Medicare for all isn't socialism Dems think they're beating Trump in emergency declaration battle Steve King asks for Congressional Record correction over white supremacist quote 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 GrahamCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support Democrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Warren: Officials have duty ‘to invoke 25th amendment’ if they think Trump is unfit 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