Overnight Defense: NATO chief urges US to support alliance on its 70th anniversary | Turkey rebuffs Pentagon pressure over Russia deal | Rand Paul, liberals team up to push Trump on Syria withdrawal

Happy Wednesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, 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: Wednesday was all about NATO in defense and foreign policy circles, as celebrations of the alliance's 70th anniversary kicked off in earnest.

The marquee event was NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg's address to a joint session of Congress, the first time a head of NATO has given such a speech.

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Stoltenberg used his speech to sell the alliance's continued relevance 70 years after its founding, bookending his speech by saying that "it is good to have friends."

"So NATO has been good for Europe, but NATO has also been good for the United States," Stoltenberg said during a joint address to Congress, to a standing applause from lawmakers.

"The strength of a nation is not only measured by the size of its economy or the number of its soldiers, but also by the number of its friends," he continued. "And through NATO, the United States has more friends and allies than any other power."

Lawmakers reciprocated the feeling, displaying U.S. support for the alliance with several rousing standing ovations. At one point, lawmakers even appeared to catch Stoltenberg off guard with their enthusiasm with a standing ovation early in his speech when he mentioned that NATO was founded because allies were "determined to stand up to the expansion of the Soviet Union."

Context: Stoltenberg was invited to speak by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPelosi: Congress will receive election security briefing in July Adam Scott calls on McConnell to take down 'Parks & Rec' gif Trump says he spoke to Pelosi, McConnell on border package MORE (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSenate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House Pelosi: Congress will receive election security briefing in July Trump says he spoke to Pelosi, McConnell on border package MORE (D-Calif.) as lawmakers seek to show their support for the alliance amid President TrumpDonald John Trump2020 Democrats spar over socialism ahead of first debate Senate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House 'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again MORE's threats to withdraw.

Thursday marks the 70th anniversary of NATO's founding. Allies, worried Trump would derail the pomp and circumstance of a heads-of-state summit, are holding a subdued celebration with foreign ministers at the State Department on Wednesday night, followed by a foreign ministerial to discuss Russia and Afghanistan on Thursday.

Since his presidential campaign, Trump has blasted NATO allies for not paying more for their own defense and has threatened to withdraw if they don't bulk up their defense spending.

Allies have a goal of spending 2 percent of their respective gross domestic products on defense by 2024. Eight members are meeting or expected to meet that goal this year: United States, United Kingdom, Greece, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Romania and Lithuania.

In his speech Wednesday, Stoltenberg alluded to disagreements between Trump and other NATO members, saying that "questions are being asked on both sides of the Atlantic about the strengthen of our partnership."

"Open discussions and different views is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength," he said to a standing ovation.

Congressional reviews: If the standing ovations during the speech weren't enough of a clue, statements put out after the speech made clear lawmakers are fully behind NATO.

"The North Atlantic Treaty, contrary to this president's misunderstanding, is not a business contract; rather, it is a compact among democracies to stand together against our common challenges," House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDemocrats already jockeying for House leadership posts House Democratic leaders work to secure votes for border bill Hoyer: House won't move forward on congressional pay bump MORE (D-Md.) said in a statement. "Together – and only together – can the world's democracies prevail against the serious and growing threats of illiberalism, autocracy and an erosion of democratic norms. Only standing together, reaffirming Article Five's promise of collective defense, can we meet the global security challenges of our age and ensure that future generations can live in freedom and peace."

"The secretary general delivered to Congress a powerful affirmation of the value of the NATO alliance and of the importance of unquestionable military strength," House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryUS officials express optimism negotiations with Iran possible GOP rep: 'This story is not over' if Iran continues 'aggressive' and 'provocative' behavior Overnight Defense: Pompeo blames Iran for oil tanker attacks | House panel approves 3B defense bill | Trump shares designs for red, white and blue Air Force One MORE (R-Texas) said in a statement. "NATO faces challenges today, but it has faced difficult obstacles in the past and overcome them. The bipartisan commitment of Congress to the alliance and the U.S. role in it is unwavering."

Reps. Gerry Connelly (D-Va.) and Mike TurnerMichael Ray TurnerHouse defense bill sets stage for contentious nuclear debate Overnight Defense: Officials approved sending Saudis nuclear technology after Khashoggi killing | Space Command pick warns of challenges ahead | Lawmakers clash over bill blocking low-yield nukes House panel members butt heads over bill blocking low-yield nukes MORE (R-Ohio) introduced a resolution to celebrate the anniversary. Connelly said in a statement that "it is important that Congress make absolutely clear to the international community that the United States stands in strong support of this alliance," while Turner said in a statement that "this resolution is a clear signal of the United States's steadfast commitment to NATO." 

Disunity with Turkey: Elsewhere in Washington, the Atlantic Council, German Marshall Fund and Munich Security Conference hosted an event celebrating the anniversary.

There, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had an appearance that underscored Turkey's tensions with its NATO allies, particularly over Ankara's plans to buy a Russian defense system.

Cavusoglu said his country will "definitely" go through with the purchase despite U.S. moves to halt Ankara's participation in the F-35 fighter jet program in response.

Cavusoglu also said "it's not sure yet" whether the United States will withhold the F-35s, suggesting President Trump indicated to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that Ankara could still get the jets.

"S-400 deal is a done deal, and we will not step back from this," Çavuşoğlu said during an event in Washington on Wednesday.

"Trump himself admitted on the phone that the U.S. made the mistake not to sell Patriots to Turkey, and he promised Erdoğan that he will take care of this issue," Çavuşoğlu said, adding that the phone call took place "recently."

Disunity with Germany: When Vice President Pence addressed the think tank event, he targeted Germany, calling for the nation to increase their defense spending to the alliance and to stop work with Russia on a gas pipeline.

"Germany still refuses to make the necessary investment of 2 percent of its [gross domestic product] to our common defense... Germany must do more," Pence said.

He added that the country "has benefited from U.S. protection of Europe for generations," and pointed to an annual report to parliament on Germany's armed forces, saying it showed "glaring deficiencies in Germany's military readiness."

Pence also criticized Germany for its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which it is building with Russia in an effort to cut down on nuclear power.

"If Germany persists in building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, as President Trump said, it could turn Germany's economy into literally a captive of Russia," he said.

"It is simply unacceptable for Europe's largest economy to continue to ignore the threat of Russian aggression and neglect its own self-defense and our common defense."

Addressing a crowd largely made up of NATO country ambassadors, member state foreign ministers and supporters, Pence was tepidly received, with his planned pauses receiving only polite applause or outright silence.

 

OPPOSITES ATTRACT ON SYRIA WITHDRAWAL: What could bring together Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House Senate Health Committee advances bipartisan package to lower health costs Senate GOP to defeat proposal requiring approval for Iran attack MORE (R-Ky.) with liberal House Democrats, including firebrand freshmen Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezDemocrat backs up Ocasio-Cortez: Migrant shelters 'are like concentration camps' Ocasio-Cortez marks one-year anniversary of her primary win Democratic lawmaker says treatment of migrants at border 'not American' MORE (N.Y.) and Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarThe four House Democrats who voted against the border funding bill Ocasio-Cortez: It was easier to get elected to Congress than pay off student loan debt Progressive group endorses three House freshmen MORE (Minn.)?

A call to urge President Trump to follow through on his pledge to pull U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

"We write in bipartisan support of your announcement of the start of a 'deliberate withdrawal' of U.S. military forces in Syria, and we welcome the completion of this process within the next six months," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Trump.

Others who signed the letter occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum on Capitol Hill: Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSenate GOP to defeat proposal requiring approval for Iran attack Overnight Defense: Trump says he doesn't need exit strategy with Iran | McConnell open to vote on Iran war authorization | Senate panel advances bill to restrict emergency arms sales Senate panel advances bill to restrict emergency arms sales MORE (R-Utah) and Reps. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaOvernight Defense: Trump says he doesn't need exit strategy with Iran | McConnell open to vote on Iran war authorization | Senate panel advances bill to restrict emergency arms sales Bipartisan House duo unveils amendment to block Iran strike without Congress's approval Sanders unveils student debt plan amid rivalry with Warren MORE (D-Calif.), Ted LieuTed W. LieuDemocrats call for restraint, oversight as Trump reportedly calls back Iranian strike Report: Iranian officials say Trump warned them attack was imminent Trump approved Iranian strike before pulling back: report MORE (D-Calif.), Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieThis week: Democrats move funding bills as caps deal remains elusive House conservative's procedural protest met with bipartisan gripes Trump signs long-awaited .1B disaster aid bill MORE (R-Ky.), Justin AmashJustin AmashAmash splits with Republicans, votes to authorize subpoena for Kellyanne Conway The Hill's 12:30 Report: Anticipation high ahead of first debate House panel votes to subpoena Kellyanne Conway over Hatch Act testimony MORE (R-Mich.), Jeff DuncanJeffrey (Jeff) Darren DuncanHouse conservatives want information on TSA policies for undocumented immigrants 58 GOP lawmakers vote against disaster aid bill Overnight Defense: NATO chief urges US to support alliance on its 70th anniversary | Turkey rebuffs Pentagon pressure over Russia deal | Rand Paul, liberals team up to push Trump on Syria withdrawal MORE (R-S.C.), Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarGOP moves to block provision banning use of Defense funds for border wall Trump administration signals support for uranium mining that could touch Grand Canyon House conservatives want information on TSA policies for undocumented immigrants MORE (R-Ariz.) and Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.).

They argue that the 2015 deployment of U.S. military forces to Syria was never approved by Congress, in violation of the Constitution and the 1973 War Powers Resolution.

"We believe that the stated intention of withdrawing our forces is appropriate, and we look forward to the orderly return of our service members from this theater of conflict," they wrote.

Paul elaborates: Paul told reporters Wednesday that Trump hasn't changed his mind on withdrawing U.S. forces, and that the president delivered a blunt message to Senate Republicans at a lunch meeting last week.

"The finishing words of the lunch to us were, 'Whether you like [it] or not, I've promised people not to leave troops in the Middle East forever, and that includes,' he specifically mentioned, 'Syria and Afghanistan,'" Paul said.

The Kentucky Republican acknowledged that voices in the administration and the Republican Party have tried to rein in the president by characterizing possible troop withdrawal as being dependent on conditions on the ground, language that has been used for years to justify a continued U.S. combat presence.

"There are competing forces, like in any administration," Paul said. "There are a lot of people involved and many of them are from what I call the foreign policy swamp and they want to stay forever everywhere and they think we have endless resources and endless amounts of money."

 

ON TAP FOR THURSDAY

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee at 9:30 a.m. at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, room G-50. https://bit.ly/2TL9PSd

A House Armed Services Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on mismanaged military housing at 9 a.m. at the Rayburn House Office Building, room 2212. https://bit.ly/2G11gzn

Another House Armed Services subcommittee will hold a hearing on Navy and Marine Corps tactical aviation and ground modernization at 9 a.m. at Rayburn 2118. https://bit.ly/2Vi3KOW

 

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