Overnight Defense: Trump signs Space Force directive | Dems probe Trump officials' dealings with Saudi Arabia | Trump feels 'no rush' in North Korea talks

Happy Tuesday 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: President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate GOP budget ignores Trump, cuts defense Trump says he'll nominate Stephen Moore to Fed White House: ISIS territory in Syria has been 100 percent eliminated MORE signed a directive Tuesday to establish a "Space Force" as the newest branch of the military, but plans to keep it under the purview of the Air Force.

The new plan is less ambitious than the "separate but equal" military branch Trump first envisioned for the Space Force, but it is more likely to get the backing of Congress that it needs to become a reality.

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"The president has directed the secretary of Defense to draft a legislative proposal that, if enacted, would establish the U.S. Space Force as the sixth branch of the Armed Forces within the Department of the Air Force," a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday morning on a background call. "This is a step toward a future, separate military department for space."

Who was there: In the Oval Office on Tuesday afternoon, the president officially signed the directive while flanked by Vice President Pence, who led the planning for Space Force. Also there were Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanWhite House: ISIS territory in Syria has been 100 percent eliminated Overnight Defense: Top Marine warns border deployment could hurt readiness | McSally aims for sexual assault reforms in defense bill | House to vote on measure opposing transgender ban | New warning over F-35 sale to Turkey On The Money: Trump rolls dice on uncertain economy | 737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington | Watchdog group pushes 2020 candidates for 10 years of tax returns MORE, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.

What the directive does: Under the directive to be signed Tuesday, the Space Force would have its own four-star general chief of staff who sits on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but its top civilian would be a Senate-confirmed undersecretary for space within the Air Force.

All of the military and civilian personnel working on space in the Pentagon would be folded into the Space Force. Nonmilitary agencies that deal with space, including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Reconnaissance Office, would remain separate.

But Congress holds the keys to the separate service: Trump first called in June for the Pentagon to create Space Force as a separate branch of the military, followed in August by Pence outlining the administration's plans for it to become the sixth branch of the military by 2020.

But the idea landed with a thud on Capitol Hill.

The administration and lawmakers broadly agree the Pentagon needs to improve its operations in space to compete with Russia and China, but lawmakers in both parties questioned whether an entirely separate branch of the military is the most cost-effective way to do so.

A widely leaked Air Force estimate in September placed the cost of standing up a Space Force at $13 billion over five years.

Trump, however, was optimistic lawmakers would get behind the idea.

"I think we'll have great support from Congress because they do support something when we're talking about such importance," Trump said before signing the directive. "The Space Force is a very important part of my administration, and it's a very important part of this nation."

 

DEMS LAUNCH INVESTIGATION INTO TRUMP ADMINISTRATION'S DEALINGS WITH SAUDIS: Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee announced Tuesday they are launching an investigation into the Trump administration's dealings with Saudi Arabia after several whistleblowers expressed concern about efforts to sell the kingdom nuclear technology.

The announcement came in conjunction with the release of a report by committee staff that said senior White House officials pushed for the sale of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia despite warnings from ethics advisers and national security officials to stop. 

"Based on this snapshot of events, the committee is now launching an investigation to determine whether the actions being pursued by the Trump administration are in the national security interests of the United States or, rather, serve those who stand to gain financially as a result of this potential change in U.S. foreign policy," the report said.

Where the investigation stands: To continue the investigation, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsOvernight Health Care: Senators seek CBO input on preventing surprise medical bills | Oversight panel seeks OxyContin documents | Pharmacy middlemen to testify on prices | Watchdog warns air ambulances can put patients at 'financial risk' Hillicon Valley: Kushner accused of using WhatsApp, personal email for official work | White House rejects request for Trump-Putin communications | Facebook left 'hundreds of millions' of passwords unsecured | Tech pressured to root out extremism Cummings says Ivanka Trump not preserving all official communications MORE (D-Md.) sent letters to several people and organizations involved with promoting the plan, including the White House, the CIA, the Flynn Intel Group, IP3 and the departments of Commerce, Defense, Energy, State and Treasury.

The version of the letter sent to the White House, which was released by the committee, asks for documents by March 5 related to the nuclear power plan from Trump's inauguration to the present.

What their concerns are: Among the concerns, according to the report, are that ethics officials raised red flags about former national security adviser Michael Flynn's connection to a company dedicated to building nuclear plants in Saudi Arabia.

The report cites several unnamed whistleblowers who said they witnessed "abnormal acts" inside the White House regarding efforts to sell Saudi Arabia nuclear energy reactors.

The whistleblowers "have warned of conflicts of interest among top White House advisers that could implicate federal criminal statutes," the report said. "They have also warned about a working environment inside the White House marked by chaos, dysfunction, and backbiting.

"And they have warned about political appointees ignoring directives from top ethics advisors at the White House who repeatedly and unsuccessfully ordered senior Trump administration officials to halt their efforts."

 

FROM THE WEEKEND: CONGRESS CLOSER TO FORCING TRUMP'S HAND ON SAUDI SUPPORT: Supporters of a measure to cut off U.S. support to Saudi Arabia in Yemen are projecting victory in the coming weeks when the Senate takes up a House-passed resolution.

The Trump administration is expected to ramp up its lobbying against the Yemen war powers resolution as the vote nears in hopes of flipping some of the Republicans who back the measure.

But opponents have few tools at their disposal to stop the resolution, which only needs a simple majority for a procedural vote and subsequent final passage.

Backers say they now have added momentum as the administration's missteps in handling the Jamal Khashoggi killing have only increased ire at Saudi Arabia.

The Hill's Rebecca Kheel has the rest of the story here. 

 

TRUMP 'IN NO RUSH' WITH NORTH KOREA NEGOTIATIONS: Trump said Tuesday he's "in no rush" over negotiations to denuclearize North Korea ahead of his second summit next week with leader Kim Jong Un.

"I'd just like to see, ultimately, denuclearization of North Korea," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. "I think we will see that ultimately. I have no pressing time schedule. I think a lot of people would like to see it go very quickly from the other side."

No testing, no rush: The president is set to travel to Hanoi, Vietnam, for a summit with Kim on Feb. 27 and 28. Trump touted the economic prospects for North Korea should it agree to denuclearize, noting its proximity to Russia, China and South Korea.

Trump indicated he would not put a timetable on negotiations with Kim ahead of their second meeting, expressing optimism that "very positive things are going to happen."

"I'm in no rush," he said. "As long as there's no testing, I'm in no rush." 

But there's no denuclearization happening yet: Trump and Kim met in person in June in Singapore, the first face-to-face meeting between a U.S. president and a North Korean leader.

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While Trump has heralded the first meeting as an unmitigated success, pointing to the return of U.S. remains from the Korean War and a halt in missile tests, critics have noted that North Korea has not taken concrete steps toward abandoning its nuclear arsenal.

Top intelligence officials said in congressional testimony late last month that North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons.

 

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