Overnight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — Senate admonishes Trump on Syria | Trump says 'time will prove' him right over Intel chiefs | Dems demand transparency on border troops | Sexual assault, harassment spike at military academies

Overnight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — Senate admonishes Trump on Syria | Trump says 'time will prove' him right over Intel chiefs | Dems demand transparency on border troops | Sexual assault, harassment spike at military academies
© Greg Nash

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 Republicans joined Democrats in offering a direct rebuke Thursday of the administration's Syria policy, marking the first time during the new Congress that the GOP caucus has formally broken with President TrumpDonald John TrumpBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' ACLU says planned national emergency declaration is 'clear abuse of presidential power' O'Rourke says he'd 'absolutely' take down border wall near El Paso if he could MORE.

Senators voted 68-23 to end debate on an amendment that warns Trump against drawing down troops in Syria and Afghanistan. Senators still need to hold a second vote to add the amendment to the foreign policy bill, which will likely take place next week.

A fractured relationship: The vote is the latest sign of discord between congressional Republicans and Trump on foreign policy. The president caught lawmakers off guard when he announced last month that he would yank troops from Syria. He further rankled Republicans this week when he lashed out at top administration intelligence officials after they publicly contradicted him on Iran.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration A year since Parkland: we have a solution Push for paid family leave heats up ahead of 2020 MORE (R-Fla.), who argued that the Senate vote was not a "political issue," said he opposed the administration's policy because "it directly undermines one of the two pillars of our strategy and our policy in the region." 

Asked what message the vote Thursday sent, Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration 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-Texas) said that it showed Congress is a "co-equal branch of government."

What the amendment does: The non-binding amendment, spearheaded by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' Winners and losers in the border security deal House passes border deal, setting up Trump to declare emergency MORE (R-Ky.), warns the administration against a "precipitous" withdrawal of the U.S. forces in Syria and Afghanistan. 

It also urges the administration to certify that certain conditions have been met "for the enduring defeat of al Qaeda and ISIS before initiating any significant withdrawal of United States forces from Syria or Afghanistan." 

"I've been clear about my own views on these subjects," McConnell said ahead of the vote on Thursday. "I believe the threats remain. [The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] and al Qaeda have yet to be defeated, and American national security interests require continued commitment to our mission there."

A recap: Foreign policy has been a rolling point of contention between Congress and Trump, who ran with an isolationist worldview that is at odds with most Capitol Hill Republicans. 

In 2017, the GOP-controlled Congress approved new Russia sanctions over the objections of the White House. The Senate also passed a resolution last year naming Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman as "responsible" for Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi's slaying, at odds with the administration's stance.

But not all Republicans on board: GOP support for the resolution wasn't unanimous. Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration Senate approves border bill that prevents shutdown Senate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general MORE (R-Ky.), whose foreign policy views are at odds with many of his GOP colleagues, knocked McConnell ahead of the vote. 

"To call it a precipitous withdrawal after 17 years is ludicrous," Paul said on Fox News. "We've been there 17 years."

Paul missed the vote Thursday, while GOP Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO’Rourke heading to Wisconsin amid 2020 speculation Senate approves border bill that prevents shutdown For 2020, Democrats are lookin’ for somebody to love MORE (Texas), John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (La.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSenate approves border bill that prevents shutdown Push for paid family leave heats up ahead of 2020 New act can help us grapple with portion of exploding national debt MORE (Utah) voted against advancing the amendment. 

And Dems are split: Democrats had initially been split over whether or not to support the amendment. While they have been critical of Trump's logic on pulling troops from Syria, they also voiced concerns that supporting McConnell's amendment could be seen as green lighting military activity in the country, which Congress has not done. 

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineClinton on GOP promoting Trump 'stronger together' quote: Now copy my policies too GOP promotes Trump line mirroring Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign slogan Pompeo: US will continue investigating Khashoggi murder MORE (D-Va.) said shortly before the vote that he expected many Democrats would support McConnell's amendment if they could amend it to make it clear it wasn't authorizing military activities.  

 

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SURVEY REVEALS SPIKE IN UNWANTED SEXUAL CONDUCT AT MILITARY ACADEMIES: Students at U.S. military academies experienced unwanted sexual contact nearly 50 percent more often compared to last school year, despite Defense Department efforts to stamp out the issue, according to a survey released Thursday by the Pentagon.

The survey found that 15.8 percent of academy women and 2.4 percent of academy men reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact -- including assault and harassment -- during the 2017-18 academic year.

That represents roughly 747 students total, up from 507 in the 2015-16 academic year, the last time the survey was taken.

In addition, more than 50 percent of women attending the academies reported they were sexually harassed in the school year, up from 48 percent in the previous report. About 16 percent of men reported the same, up from 12 percent.

 

More work needed: The report "demonstrates that there is more work to be done," James Stewart, acting under secretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, said in a statement.

"We are resolved to identify solutions that not only benefit our Academies, but also our nation's civilian institutions of higher learning."

The survey follows numerous Pentagon efforts to stamp out sexual assault and harassment, including the announcement of a zero tolerance policy. 

The department in June 2017 issued a memo to the academies to develop plans to address four areas identified as "requiring immediate attention." Those included "promotion of responsible alcohol choices, reinvigoration of prevention of sexual assault, enhancement of a culture of respect," and improving in reporting of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Experts, lawmakers not happy with results: Retired Col. Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders (POD), said it is time for President Trump and Congress "to replace military leadership who have failed to stem the tide of sexual assault and harassment."

POD, which advocates for military victims of sexual assault, also called on Congress to "hold a hearing and take swift and actionable steps to follow through on decades of unfulfilled promises to fix the problem."

Lawmakers also showed displeasure at the survey's results, including the heads of the House and Senate Armed Services panels, Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithWhy Democrats are pushing for a new nuclear policy Overnight Defense: Acting Pentagon chief visits Afghanistan | US, Taliban peace talks intensify | Trump tweets in Persian to send message to Iran | Defense world pays tribute to Walter Jones Budgeting for defense means supporting warfighters in real time MORE (D-Wash.) and Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOn 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 Foreign Affairs chairman: US military intervention in Venezuela 'not an option' MORE (R-Okla.) respectively.

Both said the results "do not reflect the large investment of attention, time, and resources dedicated to these problems," according to letters sent to Stewart earlier this week.

 

TRUMP TRIES TO SQUARE INTEL CHIEFS' ASSESSMENTS: Trump on Thursday declined to offer a vote of confidence to his intelligence chiefs, who recently gave testimony at odds with his views on global threats.

"I disagree with certain things that they said," Trump said when asked if he has confidence in Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsEx-Trump official says intel community's testimony interfered in US-North Korea talks Is a presidential appointment worth the risk? Intel agencies' threat assessment matters more than tiff with Trump MORE and CIA Director Gina Haspel.

"I think I'm right," he added. "Time will prove me right, probably."

The comments show the president's frustration with his top intelligence officials amid intense media coverage of a congressional hearing earlier this week in which they said North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons, Iran is complying with the Obama-era nuclear deal and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) still poses a grave threat.

Trump rejected their findings in a string of tweets on Wednesday, writing "perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!"

Cabinet is in agreement? The president later on Thursday said media coverage was to blame for an apparent rift between him and the intelligence community leaders.

The president tweeted that he met with Coats and Haspel as well as national security adviser John Bolton in the Oval Office, and that the group is "very much in agreement on Iran, ISIS, North Korea, etc."

"Just concluded a great meeting with my Intel team in the Oval Office who told me that what they said on Tuesday at the Senate Hearing was mischaracterized by the media," Trump wrote on Twitter.

"A false narrative is so bad for our Country," he added. "I value our intelligence community. Happily, we had a very good meeting, and we are all on the same page!"

The CIA declined to comment on coverage of Haspel's testimony or whether she told Trump that the media mischaracterized her remarks.

 

REPUBLICANS WANT TRUMP OUT OF BORDER TALKS: Republicans are urging President Trump to step back, for now, from the negotiations to prevent a second partial government shutdown.

The president is offering a running, real-time commentary about the conference committee tasked with breaking the months-long stalemate between the White House and congressional Democrats, frustrating lawmakers who worry Trump is complicating already difficult talks.

In a tweet on Thursday, Trump warned that Republicans on the panel might be "wasting their time."

He later added during a rollercoaster White House appearance before reporters that he "won't even look" at a deal that didn't including funding for his wall on the Mexican border.

'Keep Out,' GOP says: GOP senators say Trump should stick to the sidelines and let the bipartisan group of appropriators known for their ability to cut deals get to work.

"I think it would be more worthwhile and effective if the president would allow some space for these negotiations to occur and not be doing commentary at this point," said GOP Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration DOJ warns White House that national emergency will likely be blocked: report 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 MORE (R-Maine).

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneWill Trump sign the border deal? Here's what we know Key GOP senator pitches Trump: Funding deal a 'down payment' on wall Hillicon Valley: House panel takes on election security | DOJ watchdog eyes employee texts | Senate Dems urge regulators to block T-Mobile, Sprint deal | 'Romance scams' cost victims 3M in 2018 MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said he hoped Trump's skepticism was "wrong" and that the president was just "trying to set expectations low."

Asked if the president should give negotiators some space, Thune added: "I think it's good to let them do their thing and see what they can come up with."

An uphill battle: The 17 lawmakers negotiating a possible deal have their work cut out for them.

They have little time to reach an agreement, and must negotiate in the shadow of Trump and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' Winners and losers in the border security deal House passes border deal, setting up Trump to declare emergency MORE (D-Calif.).

Those two political giants, who had several stand-offs during the shutdown that ended last weekend, held dueling press outings on Thursday.

Pelosi put down Democratic goalposts for the negotiations, telling reporters that "there's not going to be any wall money in the legislation." But she also signaled a new openness to "some infrastructure," including new fencing or other barriers.

But Trump keeps up the pressure: Trump said Thursday that more U.S. troops are being deployed to the southern border, but argued that a border wall would be more effective in countering what he described as an "attempted Invasion of Illegals."

"More troops being sent to the Southern Border to stop the attempted Invasion of Illegals, through large Caravans, into our Country. We have stopped the previous Caravans, and we will stop these also. With a Wall it would be soooo much easier and less expensive. Being Built!" Trump wrote in a tweet.

The Pentagon's plans: The president's tweet comes after Acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanOvernight Defense: Trump to sign funding deal, declare national emergency | Shanahan says allies will be consulted on Afghanistan | Dem demands Khashoggi documents Shanahan: US won’t pull troops from Afghanistan without consulting NATO State Department eyeing cuts to embassy staff in Afghan capital: report MORE announced earlier this week that a "few thousand" more troops would be deployed to the border. Shanahan didn't specify exactly how many troops would be sent.

There are already more than 2,000 active-duty troops at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Democrats, who see the active-duty deployment as unnecessary, pressed Pentagon officials earlier this week over why troops were originally deployed and why they remain at the border.

House Armed Services chair not pleased with testimony: House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) is asking acting Defense Secretary Shanahan for transparency on the Pentagon's plans to send additional active duty troops to the U.S.-Mexican border.

In a letter sent Thursday, Smith said he was "deeply troubled" by the responses given by Defense Department officials during the hearing on Tuesday.

"Significant information, such as increases in active duty personnel, was not shared by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, John Rood, when testifying about Department of Defense support to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) at the southern border," Smith writes.

"At best this was an error in judgement, at worst this was knowingly withholding information from this committee as it performs its oversight responsibility."

 

TIME, PLACE CHOSEN FOR 2ND SUMMIT WITH KIM: Trump also said Thursday that a time and place have been chosen for his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and that the details will be announced next week.

"We'll be announcing it early next week," he said, speaking to reporters in the Oval Office. "They very much want the meeting, and they really want to do something."

Earlier this month, the White House announced that Trump and Kim's second summit would take place at the end of February.

Speculation has fallen on Vietnam as the location for the summit amid reports of U.S. and North Korean scouts visiting.

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Trump to sign funding deal, declare national emergency | Shanahan says allies will be consulted on Afghanistan | Dem demands Khashoggi documents Senate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general Top Dem demands State Department documents on Khashoggi killing MORE told Fox News on Wednesday night the summit will happen "some place in Asia."

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for policy David Trachtenberg and Missile Defense Agency Director Sam Greaves will discuss the Trump administration's recently revealed Missile Defense Review at 1 p.m. at the Center for Strategic and International Studies headquarters in Washington, D.C. https://www.csis.org/events/2019-missile-defense-review-whats-next

 

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