Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Trump declares border emergency | $3.6B in military construction funds to be used for wall | Trump believes Obama would have started war with North Korea | Pentagon delivers aid for Venezuelan migrants

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Happy Friday and welcome to Overnight Defense. We’re Rebecca Kheel and 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: President Trump declared Friday there is a national emergency at the southern border.

The declaration, he hopes, will allow him to bypass Congress and spend roughly $8 billion to build his promised wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

But the move is already igniting promises of a fierce constitutional battle in the courts with lawmakers and outside groups who say the president overstepped his authority.

{mosads}”I am going to be signing a national emergency,” Trump said after a long introduction that touched on trade, China, Syria and the caravans of immigrants that Trump made a political issue of ahead of last fall’s midterm elections.

“It’s a great thing to do because we have an invasion of drugs, invasion of gangs, invasion of people,” the president said in seeking to justify the need for an emergency declaration.

The declaration, announced in a rambling, improvised address from the Rose Garden, comes after Congress passed a funding bill that gives him $1.375 billion for 55 miles of border barrier in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.

Shutdown averted: Hours after the Rose Garden speech, Trump signed the bill that included barrier funding, averting a partial government that would have started at midnight.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Trump approved the measure on Friday afternoon in the executive mansion. Reporters were not on hand to witness the bill signing.

Defense effects: In making the emergency declaration, Trump plans to redirect $3.6 billion in military construction funding toward the border project, according to White House officials.

Trump will also take separate executive action repurposing about $2.5 billion from the Defense Department’s drug-interdiction program and $600 million from the Treasury Department’s asset-forfeiture fund.

It’s unclear at this point what military construction projects the $3.6 billion is being taken from, with a senior administration official only telling reporters it would come from “lower priority” projects such as repairs that “might be able to wait a couple of months into next year.”

Officials also said they plan to “backfill” the money in the fiscal year 2020 budget request.

During his Rose Garden address, downplayed the effects of dipping into Pentagon coffers, saying the projects the money was intended for “didn’t sound too important to me.”

“Some of the generals think this is more important,” Trump said. “I was speaking to a couple of them. They think this is far more important than what they were going to use it for.”

Reaction: House Armed Services Committee Adam Smith (D-Wash.) was furious at what he called Trump’s “appalling” decision, accusing the president of “steal[ing] money from military needs to build his wall.”

“The president has decided to take tens of billions of dollars from projects that support the military and their families across the country and around the world to build his wall without congressional approval, projects which he says ‘didn’t sound too important to me,'” Smith said in a statement. “It is utterly disrespectful of U.S. national security and the needs of our men and women in uniform, and it further undermines his credibility in requesting the upcoming defense budget.”

Minutes after the declaration was announced, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, released a letter to acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan asking for specifics on which projects are being affected.

“I am concerned that a project that the President stated would be paid for by Mexico will now be borne by military servicemembers and their families, as they will be forced to remain in ‘poor’ or ‘failing’ conditions,” Kaine said in the letter.

“The safety and well-being of our forces and their families is the supreme responsibility of every commander in the military; it should be no different for the commander-in-chief.”

Republican defense hawks, too, are uneasy about military constructions funds being used.

“I supported this funding deal as a step towards securing our border, which we absolutely must do,” Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said in a statement Friday. “However, I believe it is a dangerous precedent for the president to be forced to declare a national emergency because Congress refuses to provide necessary funding to protect our country. As I have voiced to this administration repeatedly, I strongly believe securing our border should not be done at the expense of previously funded military construction projects.”

Both Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) have previously said they would oppose using military construction funding for the wall, but neither released a statement on the matter after Trump’s Rose Garden speech. Both released statements Thursday night urging minimal effect on military construction.


MILITARY SENDS AID FOR VENEZUELANS: The U.S. military has delivered supplies to Colombia meant to aid migrants coming from Venezuela, the Pentagon said Friday.

The aid, which includes food, hygiene kits and medical supplies, comes as the Trump administration continues to pressure Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to step down.

“The United States remains deeply concerned about the crisis in Venezuela that has consequences for the entire region,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jamie Davis said in a statement Friday. “A whole of government approach is needed to respond to the humanitarian impacts of this political and economic crisis.”

Davis said the request for aid came from the leader of the Venezuela National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, who the Trump administration recognizes as interim president.

“In response to Interim President Juan Guaidó’s request for international aid, the United States has pre-positioned relief supplies—including food, hygiene kits, and medical supplies—in Colombia last week and will continue to coordinate with President Guaidó and his team of experts, governments in the region, and our humanitarian partners to mobilize aid for the Venezuelan people,” Davis said.

He added that there will be more details “shortly” on the U.S. military’s “logistical support” for humanitarian assistance.

The big deal: While the military often supports aid delivery around the world, this is the first time it is being used to deploy aid for Venezuela — a step that is being seen as another step in the Trump administration’s pressure campaign against Maduro.

Also Friday, the Treasury Department announced sanctions against top officials in Maduro’s regime.


TOP GENERAL SAYS TRUMP WRONG ON SYRIA PULL OUT: The top U.S. military commander in charge of the battle against Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in Syria on Friday said that President Trump’s order to remove U.S. forces from Syria came prematurely, adding that he would not have made the same decision.

Gen. Joseph Votel told CNN that U.S.-backed forces on the ground in the country are not ready to take over the duty of eradicating ISIS militants in area.

“It would not have been my military advice at that particular time … I would not have made that suggestion, frankly,” Votel told CNN of Trump’s plan to withdraw troops.

ISIS “still has leaders, still has fighters, it still has facilitators, it still has resources, so our continued military pressure is necessary to continue to go after that network,” he continued.

Syrian Kurds still need help: Votel added that the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces, led by Kurdish fighters, still required “our enablement and our assistance” to battle effectively against ISIS militants.

“We want (ISIS) to be able to be controlled or addressed by the indigenous partners, whether that’s the Iraqi security forces in Iraq, or the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria, that when they are capable of handling this threat on their own, without our assistance,” Votel said.

“[T]hat will be another key criteria indicating to me that we have accomplished our mission of defeat of ISIS,” he said.

The background: Votel’s comments come as the president has battled criticism from both sides of the aisle over his decision to withdraw troops from Syria and his declaration of victory over ISIS, which has lost most of its held territory in Syria.

Trump’s move is credited with spurring the resignation of James Mattis as Trump’s defense secretary, and Brett McGurk as the administration’s top envoy to anti-ISIS coalition forces.


TRUMP CLAIMS OBAMA WOULD HAVE GONE TO WAR WITH NORTH KOREA: Trump said Friday that he believes former President Obama would have gone to war with North Korea, a claim that members of Obama’s inner circle immediately denied.

Speaking during an impromptu news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House, Trump said Obama once told him he was “so close” to launching a “big war” against North Korea over North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions.

“I don’t want to speak for him, but I believe he would have gone to war with North Korea,” Trump said of his predecessor.

He added on Obama that “he was so close to starting a big war with North Korea.”

{mossecondads}Trump made the remarks after recounting a long meeting he had with Obama at the White House that took place shortly after Trump defeated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, in which Obama named Pyongyang as Washington’s greatest foreign policy challenge.

Former Obama officials push back: Ben Rhodes, who served as deputy national security adviser under Obama, tweeted after Trump spoke that “we were not on the brink of war with North Korea in 2016.”

“Highlighting the longstanding and widely known threat of North Korea’s nuclear program is very different from saying you’re about to start a big war,” he also wrote.

Meanwhile, former CIA Director John Brennan told NBC News that “President Obama was never on the verge of starting any war with North Korea, large or small.”

Trump also touts outreach: Trump repeatedly mentioned his outreach to Kim during his Friday press conference, which was billed as an announcement on the national emergency declaration but also veered into talking about North Korea.

Trump said he had “established a very good relationship” with Kim, which he argued “has never happened before” between the North Korean and the U.S. governments.

The two men are expected to meet in Vietnam later this month for their second summit.

“I hope we have the same good luck as we had in the first summit. A lot was done in the first summit,” Trump said on Friday. “No more rockets going up, no more missiles going up, no more testing of nuclear.”



Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein will speak at 10 a.m. at the Brookings Institution. https://brook.gs/2GLxVcK



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Tags Adam Smith Donald Trump Hillary Clinton James Mattis John Brennan Mac Thornberry Mike Turner Patrick Shanahan Tim Kaine

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