Overnight Defense: US, Russia tensions grow over nuclear arms | Highlights from Esper's Asia trip | Trump strikes neutral tone on Hong Kong protests | General orders ethics review of special forces
Overnight Defense: Iran worries dominate foreign policy talk | Pentagon reportedly to send WH plans for 10K troops in Mideast | Democrats warn Trump may push through Saudi arms sale | Lawmakers blast new Pentagon policy on sharing info
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: A day after briefings on Capitol Hill meant to quell lawmakers' concerns, Iran is still a watchword in Congress.
One Democratic lawmaker floated a theory to The Hill's Scott Wong that combines Iran with other buzzword of the day: impeachment.
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) said Wednesday that President Trump could launch a war with Iran for a purely political reason: to deter Democrats from impeaching him.
"I believe that the president of the United States is on the cusp of taking us to war without the consent of Congress because he fears impeachment. And we all know that if we are at war, the American people would not agree that you should be impeaching a president," Wilson said in an interview in her Capitol Hill office.
"I believe he sees the fence, the walls closing in, that we're circling the wagons, and the circle is getting smaller and smaller. And he thinks we're going to impeach him," Wilson added. "If he sees the impeachment movement getting too close and too popular, and the American people beginning to side with the Democrats in the House of Representatives, then he will take us to war."
In the Senate: Meanwhile, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee rejected a Democratic proposal to require congressional approval before the U.S. can take military action against Iran.
The panel voted 13-9 against a proposal blocking the administration from using funding to carry out a military strike in or against Iran without congressional signoff, according to Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the committee.
Murphy and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said earlier Wednesday that they were going to bring up their proposal for a vote in the committee as an amendment to a Syrian foreign policy bill.
"Congress is a co-equal branch that has the sole authority to declare war - so we don't have to sit around and watch this administration spiral us into another endless conflict in the Middle East," Udall said in a statement.
Murphy added that Congress should "remind this administration that they do not have legal authorization to launch a war against Iran without our consent and that no one else is responsible but Trump for putting us on this blind campaign of escalation with no off-ramp."
More troops?: Reports Wednesday also indicated the Pentagon will brief the White House on Thursday on plans to deploy more troops to the region.
The Associated Press reported the Pentagon will present plans to send up to 10,000 more U.S. troops to the Middle East to bolster defenses against potential Iranian threats.
CNN similarly reported on a Thursday meeting on plans to send thousands more troops to the Middle East.
Iraq 2.0?: The Hill's Jordain Carney also took a look at lawmakers expressing concern about the parallels between the current situation with Iran and the lead up to the Iraq War.
Democrats point to the nearly nine-year war as a warning sign of what the administration should avoid as it engages in saber-rattling with Tehran.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Armed Services and Senate Foreign Relations committees, said he saw "significant parallels" between the lead-up to the Iraq War and the current back-and-forth with Iran, including ignoring findings from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
"We got into the Iraq War because an administration lied to us about [how] there was a nuclear weapons program and there wasn't. We didn't accept the IAEA saying there wasn't a nuclear program," Kaine said. "Here, we had a deal that limited Iran's nuclear program. ... The IAEA said it was working, [President Trump] said no it wasn't. This is an eerie parallel."
DEMS WARN ON SAUDI ARMS SALE: Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee warned Wednesday that President Trump may soon push through an arms sale to Saudi Arabia in a way that prevents Congress from blocking it.
"I have had some rumblings that they're considering some other provision of law to try to do the sale, a provision that I believe is not legal, a provision that would not stand up, and doing that and breaking through a congressional notification will have very significant consequences," Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the committee, told The Hill on Wednesday afternoon.
Menendez declined to say what recourse he would try to pursue.
Menendez's comment comes after Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted earlier Wednesday that he is "hearing that Trump may use an obscure loophole in the Arms Control Act and notice a major new sale of bombs to Saudi Arabia (the ones they drop in Yemen) in a way that will prevent Congress from objecting."
"Could happen this week," Murphy continued. "If he does this, it's because Trump knows he would lose a vote on the sale -- Congress and the American public object to selling these bombs to the Saudis. But it's not too late - Ds and Rs should stand up right now and tell the President not to set this dangerous precedent."
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) declined to comment on his Democratic colleagues' warnings.
A State Department spokesman said that "as a matter of policy we do not comment on potential or pending arms sales before they are formally notified to Congress."
At issue: Under the law governing arms sales, lawmakers have 30 days to vote to block a sale once Congress is formally notified about it.
The Arms Export Control Act also says that a sale can go through immediately if the president certifies there is an emergency. The emergency provision has been used at least twice before in 1990 and 2006.
It is the emergency provision Murphy said the administration will seek to use for the sale to the Saudis.
Background: Menendez has had a hold since April 2018 on a sale of precision guided munitions kits to the Saudis over concerns about civilian causalities in the Yemen civil war. A Saudi-led military coalition that the United States supports with arms sales has been blamed for the majority of civilian deaths in the war.
The hold is an informal process the administration could break, but lawmakers have also warned the administration does not have the votes to get an arms sale through Congress because of anger over the Saudis' killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
DEFENSE BILL WATCH: The Senate Armed Services Committee spent most of Wednesday behind closed doors hashing out its version of the annual defense policy bill.
And it finished in one day. In fact, committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) told reporters the markup ended at 3:45 p.m., beating last year's time 6 p.m. end time.
Inhofe and the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), would not reveal the contents of the bill, with Inhofe telling reporters to come to their press conference Thursday.
But Inhofe did throw reporters one bone: he confirmed the bill was marked up to a $750 billion topline for defense spending.
CONGRESSIONAL ANGER AT PENTAGON: The bipartisan leaders of the House Armed Services Committee were not happy Wednesday about a new Pentagon policy on sharing information with Congress.
Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and ranking member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) released a joint statement that warned, "the department's new policy guidance would dramatically limit Congress' ability to execute our constitutional prerogative."
"Congress oversees the Department of Defense; but with this new policy, the Department is overstepping its authority by presuming to determine what warrants legislative oversight," they continued. "Furthermore, by applying this policy to all members of Congress, regardless of committee assignment, the department misunderstands the role and prerogatives of its committees of jurisdiction."
"In addition, this policy also accuses Congress of being a security risk for classified information, which is both inexcusable and inaccurate," they added. "The department is not in a position to evaluate Defense committees' worthiness to receive classified information, nor characterize our ability to appropriately protect it."
They concluded with a pledge: "We intend to address this matter in the National Defense Authorization act."
The issue: As first reported by The Washington Post, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan recently ordered new restrictions on how the Pentagon shares information about military operations with Congress.
A memo issued by Shanahan outlines a half-dozen guidelines, including requirements to evaluate whether the requested information "contains sufficient information to demonstrate a relationship to the legislative function," according to the Post.
The memo also says officials should assess "whether the degree of protection from unauthorized disclosure that Congress will afford to the plan is equivalent to that afforded" by the Pentagon, the Post said.
The defense: The Pentagon is arguing the memo is actually intended to increase transparency with Congress.
"In establishing this policy, Secretary Shanahan seeks to increase transparency and information-sharing with Congress," Shanahan's spokesman, Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, said in a statement. "Under his direction, the Department of Defense has been engaging with the Senate and House Armed Services Committees to develop a process for providing Congress with access to plans and operational orders, including Executive Orders. This policy establishes such a process. Previously, no such policy existed."
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
A Senate Foreign Relations Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on the implementation of the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act at 9:45 a.m. at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, room 419. https://bit.ly/2VQFEyR
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