Overnight Defense: Trump to reverse North Korea sanctions imposed by Treasury | Move sparks confusion | White House says all ISIS territory in Syria retaken | US-backed forces report heavy fighting | Two US troops killed in Afghanistan

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.


Washington tonight is riveted by the delivery of Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE's confidential report, bringing his two-year investigation to an end. Check in at TheHill.com for the latest on this breaking story. It was a busy day for defense news as well...


THE TOPLINE: President TrumpDonald John TrumpFed saw risks to US economy fading before coronavirus spread quickened Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Britain announces immigration policy barring unskilled migrants MORE set off a flurry of confusion Friday when he announced he would reverse sanctions against North Korea that were recently announced by the Treasury Department.

In a tweet, Trump wrote that "it was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large scale Sanctions" would be imposed in addition to "already existing Sanctions on North Korea."


"I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!" the president added.

In a brief statement, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders attributed the decision to Trump's relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

"President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn't think these sanctions will be necessary," she said.

What sanctions?: White House officials did not specify which sanctions Trump was reversing, and the Treasury Department did not respond to a request for comment.

But on Thursday, the department announced it was imposing new penalties on two Chinese shipping companies accused of helping North Korea evade existing sanctions.

That announcement, however, was not made within the timetable included in Trump's tweet.

How important were the sanctions?: Just a day before Trump's tweet, his own advisors were stressing the importance of the new sanctions.

National security adviser John Bolton, for example, tweeted Thursday that they were "important actions" to further isolate North Korea.

"Everyone should take notice and review their own activities to ensure they are not involved in North Korea's sanctions evasion," Bolton tweeted.

They were also the first sanctions imposed since Trump's Hanoi summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended without a nuclear agreement, and so were widely interpreted as sending a signal that Trump's maximum pressure campaign would hold despite Pyongyang's demands for sanctions relief.

Experts weigh in: Not long after Trump's tweet, North Korea analysts shared their own takes with the media.

Bruce Klingner, a former CIA Korea deputy division chief now at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Trump's move "sends a signal that 'maximum pressure,' which was never maximum to begin with, isn't going to get any stronger."

Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, suggested Trump is trying to prevent North Korea from cutting off nuclear talks as it has hinted it might in recent weeks.

"Trump's cancelling out of sanctions might have been a bid to get North Korea to change its thinking," he said in an email to reporters. "No matter what happens now, you can bet the North Koreans will only want to deal with Trump from now on considering this action."

Congressional reaction: Lawmakers in both parties expressed dismay about Trump's decision.

Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerErnst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices Senate Democrats pressure Trump to drop ObamaCare lawsuit Impeachment fallout threatens to upend battle for Senate MORE (R-Colo.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's subpanel on East Asia, tweeted that "Treasury was right."

"Maximum Pressure means sanctioning North Korea's enablers," Gardner said. "Treasury was right - sanctions should be imposed, as is required by US law. Strategic Patience failed. Don't repeat it."

Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenSenate Dems blast Barr for 'clear violation' of duty in Stone case, urge him to resign Senate Democrats introduce legislation to change impeachment trial rules Warren asks for probe of whether Trump violated law by delaying Puerto Rico funds MORE (D-Md.) tweeted that "Trump is being played by Kim Jong Un--one of the world's most vicious dictators."

"Sidestepping his own Treasury Dept. and withdrawing sanctions against North Korea the same day they were announced defies logic. Congress must step in and pass the BRINK Act," Van Hollen, referring to North Korea sanctions legislation he has introduced.


WHITE HOUSE SAYS ALL ISIS TERRITORY RETAKEN: Friday also saw another case of déjà vu when it comes to Syria: the White House says 100 percent of ISIS' territory has been retaken, but those on the ground say heavy fighting continues.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One that ISIS has lost all of its territory, an announcement that has long been promised by Trump.

Sanders said acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanEsper's chief of staff to depart at end of January Defense chief calls on European allies to be wary of China's investments, blasts Russia Pentagon chief approves 20 more miles of border wall MORE briefed Trump on the development during the flight.

Sanders showed reporters a map of Syria demonstrating ISIS's territorial losses and Trump later handed a copy to reporters, saying it demonstrates that the caliphate has been eliminated "as of last night."

"You guys can have the map. Congratulations. Just spread it around," Trump told reporters on the tarmac in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he is spending the weekend at his nearby Mar-a-Lago club.

"There's ISIS, and that's what we have right now," he added, pointing to an area without any red ISIS-held territory.

Not so, say others: A couple hours after the White House announcement, a spokesman for the U.S.-backed Syrian forces battling ISIS said heavy fighting continues.

"Heavy fighting continues around mount #Baghouz right now to finish off whatever remains of ISIS," Syrian Democratic Forces spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted, along with pictures of the fighting.

A CNN reporter on the ground in Syria also reported witnessing ongoing heavy clashes during a live broadcast in which flares from weapons were clearly visible in the background.

Can the Pentagon clear this up?: Sanders referred questions to the Defense Department, adding that the Pentagon "made the call" that ISIS had been eliminated completely in Syria.

But the Pentagon had no immediate statement on the issue.

Shanahan's spokesman, Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, confirmed Shanahan was aboard Air Force One with Trump and that the two "talked about defense issues."

But he could not give further details about the conversation or whether a statement would soon be coming from the Pentagon.

TWO SERVICE MEMBERS KILLED IN AFGHANISTAN: Two U.S. service members were killed in Afghanistan on Friday during an operation as part of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission.

NATO provided no further details in a statement and declined to reveal the service members' names until next of kin are notified.

The deaths bring the number of U.S. fatalities in Afghanistan to at least four in 2019 as the military continues to aid Afghan forces in their fight against the Taliban.

The war continues: The war against the group, which was ousted from power in 2001 and continues to wage an insurgency campaign against the government while pursuing peace talks with the U.S., has taken a stark toll on the country's population.

President Ashraf Ghani in January said that roughly 45,000 Afghan service members have been killed since he took office in September 2014. Nearly 4,000 Afghan civilians were killed in 2018 following an increase in suicide bombings and U.S.-led air assaults, according to a United Nations report.

Peace talks still elusive: The U.S. and the Taliban touted progress after agreeing to a preliminary peace framework in January, though lawmakers have proven skeptical about a political resolution with the terrorist group.

NATO's Resolute Support mission consists of about 17,000 troops, about half of which are supplied by the U.S. A smaller contingent of U.S. troops are also in the country on an independent counterterrorism mandate.



The Brookings Institution will host "Securing maritime commerce: The U.S. strategic outlook" with a keynote speech by Coast Guard deputy commandant for operations Vice Adm. Daniel Abel at 1 p.m. https://brook.gs/2OhQW8k



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