Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Trump officials say efforts to deter Iran are working | Trump taps new Air Force secretary | House panel passes defense bill that limits border wall funds

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: Top Trump administration officials worked Tuesday to lower the temperature after weeks of escalating tension with Iran, arguing the decision to deploy U.S. military assets to the Persian Gulf has worked.

"We have deterred attacks based on our reposturing of assets, deterred attacks against American forces," acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said. "Our biggest focus at this point is to prevent Iranian miscalculation. We do not want the situation to escalate. This is about deterrence, not about war."

Shanahan was speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill after he, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford briefed the House and the Senate on intelligence that led the administration to deploy additional forces to the Middle East and warn of threats to U.S. personnel emanating from Iran.

Democrats still worried: While congressional leaders from both parties and some individual lawmakers were previously briefed, Tuesday's all-members briefings provided the first opportunity for many on Capitol Hill to question the administration on intelligence and policy toward Iran.

And while the Trump administration's messaging Tuesday appeared designed to assuage concerns, Democrats emerged from the briefings continuing to voice concerns about President Trump's strategy in the Middle East.

"I worry very much that intentionally or unintentionally we can create a situation in which a war will take place," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, told reporters. "When you do that, you're talking about a war that will go on and on and on."

A refresher: Tuesday's briefing followed an outcry from lawmakers that the administration had not provided enough information to Congress on its decision to deployment military assets to the Persian Gulf and pull non-emergency personnel from diplomatic missions in Iraq in response to alleged Iranian threats.

Worry about military conflict with Iran spiked after national security adviser John Bolton announced earlier this month the accelerated deployment of a carrier strike group to the Middle East as well as a new deployment of a bomber task force in response to unspecified Iranian threats. The State Department then pulled non-emergency personnel from Iraq last week over the threats.

For his part, Trump spent days repeatedly pushing back on reports of disagreement among top aides over his administration's Iran strategy and said last week he hoped there would not be war with Tehran. On Monday evening, in a change in message, Trump said he had "no indication" Iran will act.

"With Iran, we'll see what happens. But they've been very hostile," Trump said. "We have no indication that anything has happened or will happen. But if it does, it will be met, obviously, with great force. We'll have no choice."

Shanahan says threat 'on hold': In addition to his comments at the Capitol, Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon ahead of the briefing Tuesday that any threat from Iran is "on hold" after the arrival of U.S. military assets to the region.

"That doesn't mean that the threats that we've previously identified have gone away," Shanahan continued. "Our prudent response, I think, has given the Iranians time to recalculate."

Iran not open to talks: Iran on Tuesday dismissed the idea of talks with the United States, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani saying that "today's situation is not suitable for talks and our choice is resistance only."

Trump had said Monday that if Iran called, "we would certainly negotiate," but added that "if they're not ready, they don't have to bother."

The mood on Capitol Hill: The Hill's Rebecca Kheel also took a look at the tensions around Iran ahead of the congressional briefings.  

-- Tensions swirl around Iran as administration to brief Congress 

 

HOUSE APPROPS PASSES DEFENSE BILL THAT WOULD LIMIT FUNDS FOR BORDER WALL, PULL US SUPPORT FROM YEMEN: The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday passed its version of the fiscal year 2020 defense spending bill, voting along party lines for legislation that falls $8 billion below what the Trump administration requested, curtails the use of defense dollars to build a border wall and ends U.S. military support for the Saudi-led conflict in Yemen.

The panel voted 30 to 22 to move ahead the bill that funds the Defense Department at $690.2 billion in fiscal 2020, $15.8 billion above what was allocated the previous year but $8 billion below the White House's request.

Broken down, it includes $622.1 billion in base funding and $68.1 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) war fund.

"The Defense subcommittee has put forward a responsible spending bill that increases funds by $1 billion to address readiness requirements and ensure the well-being of our service members and their families," said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).  

"This bill also would prohibit the use of funds for President Trump's wasteful border wall, reserving DOD resources to protect the United States from actual threats, rather than those imagined by our President. This reflects a commitment to our national security for which we can all be proud." 

The AUMF fight: The bill reflects House Democrats' desire to curtail Trump's recent moves in foreign policy and along the border, most notably through Rep. Barbara Lee's (D-Calif.) amendment to retire the 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF). The provision would sunset the AUMF - used as legal justification for military operations against terrorist groups 41 times in 18 countries since it was passed - eight months after the bill is enacted, giving Congress time to debate and vote on a new AUMF.

The AUMF debate comes as Trump has threatened Iran with military force.

But GOP lawmakers argued ending the current war authorization without a new one already approved could hamper military operations.

"I can think of few things more dangerous and ill-conceived than removing a fundamental underpinning for US military operations without having consensus agreement on what is to replace it," said the Defense subcommittee's ranking member, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas). 

The reprogramming issue: The legislation's passage also sets up a fight over the bill's language to restrict the Pentagon's reprogram authority - or the amount of money it is allowed to move from the purpose for which the funds were designated into another area - to $1.5 billion. The move was a response to Trump's use of reprogram authority to move defense dollars to the construction of his promised border wall.

"It is unfortunate that the historical and unprecedented comity that has existed between the Committee and the Department of Defense no longer exists, and as a result, the bill reduces the amount of money the Department can move between accounts," said House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense Chairman Pete Visclosky.

Other problematic areas: In addition, the bill is likely to rankle the Republican-controlled Senate and the White House over its $690.2 billion defense top-line, which GOP lawmakers said would exceed budget caps and force budget cuts under sequestration.

The administration had instead sought to inflate its OCO request to $164.3 billion to stay under the caps, but Democrats accused the White House of attempting to set up a slush fund.

The bill also only allocated $15 million for the Pentagon to research setting up Trump's desired Space Force, far below the $72 million the department requested to build a Space Force headquarters.

Democrats have not been pleased with the administration's sparsely detailed plans for a separate space branch, and Visclosky said the Pentagon's Space Force proposal was "incredibly lacking in detail."

 

TRUMP TAPS NEW AIR FORCE SECRETARY: President Trump on Tuesday announced plans to nominate Barbara Barrett as the next Air Force secretary.

The president shared his choice via Twitter, adding that he believes Barrett "will be an outstanding Secretary!"

"I am pleased to announce my nomination of Barbara Barrett of Arizona, and former Chairman of the Aerospace Corporation, to be the next Secretary of the Air Force. She will be an outstanding Secretary! #FlyFightWin," he wrote.

Who is Barrett? Barrett is the former chairwoman of The Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research center for national security and military space systems.

She previously served in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, first as the deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and later as the U.S. ambassador to Finland.

If confirmed by the Senate, she will replace outgoing Secretary Heather Wilson, who will step down at the end of the month.

Who didn't get the job: Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who serves in the Air National Guard, previously expressed interest in being considered for the post.

Lawmaker reaction: Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) welcomed Barrett's nomination in a statement, saying she advocated for her nomination with the Trump administration.

"Ambassador Barrett is a force to be reckoned with and who has the leadership, experience, and knowledge to lead our Air Force into the future during a time of increased global threats," McSally, a veteran and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

What about Wilson?: Wilson has served in the role since May 2017. An Air Force veteran and former Republican congresswoman from New Mexico, she announced in March that she would leave to become president of the University of Texas at El Paso.

Her departure followed reports that her relationship with President Trump had soured amid the debate over his desire to establish a standalone "Space Force."

Air Force Under Secretary Matt Donovan will take over as the service's acting secretary beginning June 1 while a full-time replacement is confirmed.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), New Mexico Gov. Michelle Grisham (D), Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D), former U.N. ambassador and national security adviser Susan Rice; and former Georgia house minority leader Stacey Abrams (D) will speak at the Center for American Progress 2019 Ideas Conference beginning at 9 a.m. in Washington, D.C. 

James Jeffrey, the State Department's special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, will testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on "Searching for Solutions in Syria: The Trump Administration's Strategy," at 10 a.m. in Rayburn House Office Building, room 2172. 

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a closed hearing on "The Reconciliation Process in Afghanistan," with witness Zalmay Khalilzad, the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation at 10:15 a.m. in the Senate Visitor's Center room 217 in the Capitol Building. 

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Senate passes bill to undo tax hikes on Gold Star military families

-- The Hill: US fighter jets intercept Russian bombers off Alaskan coast

-- The Hill: North Korean media rips Biden: a 'fool of low IQ'

-- The Hill: Iranian president: 'Situation is not suitable for talks' with US

-- The Hill: UN arms official says risk of nuclear war at its highest since WW2

-- The Hill: GOP senator warns Trump, Mulvaney against 'draconian' budget cuts

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