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 TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally 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 RubioPPP application window closes after coronavirus talks deadlock  The Hill's Campaign Report: US officials say Russia, China are looking to sow discord in election US intelligence says Russia seeking to 'denigrate' Biden 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 CornynCOVID-19 bill limiting liability would strike the wrong balance From a Republican donor to Senate GOP: Remove marriage penalty or risk alienating voters Skepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal 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 McConnellTrump signs executive orders after coronavirus relief talks falter Coronavirus deal key to Republicans protecting Senate majority Coronavirus talks collapse as negotiators fail to reach deal 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 PaulTrump-backed Hagerty wins Tennessee GOP Senate primary Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's visit to battleground Ohio overshadowed by coronavirus 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 CruzPat Fallon wins GOP nomination in race to succeed DNI Ratcliffe The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Negotiators 'far apart' as talks yield little ahead of deadline Wary GOP eyes Meadows shift from brick-thrower to dealmaker MORE (Texas), John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (La.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Defense: Air Force general officially becomes first African American service chief | Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure | State Department's special envoy for Iran is departing the Trump administration Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure Trump signs major conservation bill into law 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 KaineHillary Clinton roasts NYT's Maureen Dowd over column Ex-USAID employee apologizes, denies sending explosive tweets USAID appointee alleges 'rampant anti-Christian sentiment' at agency 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 SmithOvernight Defense: Embattled Pentagon policy nominee withdraws, gets appointment to deputy policy job | Marines, sailor killed in California training accident identified | Governors call for extension of funding for Guard's coronavirus response The Hill's Coronavirus Report: iBIO Chairman and CEO Thomas Isett says developing a safe vaccine is paramount; US surpasses 150,000 coronavirus deaths with roughy one death per minute Overnight Defense: US to pull 11,900 troops from Germany | Troop shuffle to cost 'several billion' dollars | Lawmakers pan drawdown plan | Trump says he hasn't discussed alleged bounties with Putin MORE (D-Wash.) and Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeSenate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled Chamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection 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 CoatsTrump flails as audience dwindles and ratings plummet America's divide widens: Ignore it no longer Trump gives Grenell his Cabinet chair after he steps down 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 CollinsCoronavirus deal key to Republicans protecting Senate majority From a Republican donor to Senate GOP: Remove marriage penalty or risk alienating voters The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's visit to battleground Ohio overshadowed by coronavirus MORE (R-Maine).

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneThe Hill's 12:30 Report: White House, Dems debate coronavirus relief package The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Key 48 hours loom as negotiators push for relief deal Trump dismisses legal questions on GOP nomination speech at White House 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 PelosiPelosi, Schumer slam Trump executive orders, call for GOP to come back to negotiating table Trump signs executive orders after coronavirus relief talks falter Sunday shows preview: White House, congressional Democrats unable to breach stalemate over coronavirus relief 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 ShanahanHouse Armed Services chairman expresses confidence in Esper amid aircraft carrier coronavirus crisis Boeing pleads for bailout under weight of coronavirus, 737 fallout Esper's chief of staff to depart at end of January 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 PompeoBeirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally Advocacy groups come out against Trump pick for ambassador to Germany US pledges million in disaster aid to Lebanon 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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