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 TrumpNew EPA rule would expand Trump officials' powers to reject FOIA requests Democratic senator introduces bill to ban gun silencers Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question 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 RubioOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — Trump issues order to bring transparency to health care prices | Fight over billions in ObamaCare payments heads to Supreme Court Ex-Obama counterterrorism official: Huawei could pose security threat to international intelligence community The Memo: All eyes on faltering Biden ahead of first debate 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 CornynDemocrats give Trump trade chief high marks GOP senators divided over approach to election security GOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks 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 McConnellEXCLUSIVE: Trump on reparations: 'I don't see it happening' Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — Trump issues order to bring transparency to health care prices | Fight over billions in ObamaCare payments heads to Supreme Court Hillicon Valley: Senate bill would force companies to disclose value of user data | Waters to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency | GOP divided on election security bills | US tracking Russian, Iranian social media campaigns 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 PaulWe're all on the tarmac, waiting for an Iran policy This week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request Washington braces for Trump's next move on Iran 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 Cruz Hickenlooper, Bennet bring deep ties to 2020 debate stage 2020 Democrat Bennet releases comprehensive government reform plan GOP frets about Trump's poll numbers MORE (Texas), John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (La.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Defense: Officials brief Congress after Iran shoots down drone | Lawmakers fear 'grave situation' | Trump warns Iran | Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales | Bombshell confession at Navy SEAL's murder trial The 7 GOP senators who voted to block all or part of Trump's Saudi arms sale Senate votes to block Trump's Saudi arms sale 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 KaineDemocratic senator introduces bill to ban gun silencers Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — Trump issues order to bring transparency to health care prices | Fight over billions in ObamaCare payments heads to Supreme Court Senate set to bypass Iran fight amid growing tensions 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 SmithGOP moves to block provision banning use of Defense funds for border wall Texas Republican: Migrant conditions in his state the 'worst' he's seen Trump: Border deal with Democrats 'probably won't happen' MORE (D-Wash.) and Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeSenate set to bypass Iran fight amid growing tensions This week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request Trump urged to quickly fill Pentagon post amid Iran tensions 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 CoatsThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump targets Iran with new sanctions CNN's Jake Tapper repeatedly presses Pence on whether he thinks climate change is a threat Hillicon Valley: Tim Cook visits White House | House hearing grapples with deepfake threat | Bill, Melinda Gates launch lobbying group | Tech turns to K-Street in antitrust fight | Lawsuit poses major threat to T-Mobile, Sprint merger 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 CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations Hillicon Valley: Senate bill would force companies to disclose value of user data | Waters to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency | GOP divided on election security bills | US tracking Russian, Iranian social media campaigns Stephen King: 'It's time for Susan Collins to go' MORE (R-Maine).

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneHillicon Valley: Senate bill would force companies to disclose value of user data | Waters to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency | GOP divided on election security bills | US tracking Russian, Iranian social media campaigns GOP senators divided over approach to election security McSally on Moore running for Senate again: 'This place has enough creepy old men' 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 PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations Lawmakers 'failed us' says ICE chief Pelosi, Democratic leaders seek to quell liberal revolt over border bill 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 ShanahanNew Defense chief: Our 'priorities remain unchanged' The Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck Trump urged to quickly fill Pentagon post amid Iran tensions 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 says he doesn't need Congress to approve Iran strikes in interview with The Hill | New sanctions hit Iran's supreme leader | Schumer seeks to delay defense bill amid Iran tensions | Esper's first day as acting Pentagon chief Pompeo meets with Saudi crown prince amid tensions with Iran Poll: 24 percent of voters want military action against Iran 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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