Overnight Defense: Latest on Iran after Trump halts planed strike | Dems call Trump's approach 'erratic' | Key Republican urges Trump to retaliate | Esper reportedly getting Defense secretary nomination

Overnight Defense: Latest on Iran after Trump halts planed strike | Dems call Trump's approach 'erratic' | Key Republican urges Trump to retaliate | Esper reportedly getting Defense secretary nomination
© Getty Images

Happy Friday 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: President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE confirmed the U.S. military was "cocked and loaded" to retaliate against Iran after the country shot down a U.S. surveillance drone, but backed off at the last minute.

In a series of tweets, Trump said he opted not to follow through because he felt the response would not be "proportionate" to the Iranian action. The president said he learned just 10 minutes before the strike that 150 Iranians would die and decided to call off the mission.

"We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights [sic] when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone," Trump tweeted.

ADVERTISEMENT

In an interview later Friday with NBC's "Meet the Press," Trump clarified the timeline of his decision. He said he had not yet given a final order but that planes were "ready to go" in about a half hour when he asked for a clearer explanation of potential casualties.

"I thought about it for a second and I said, 'You know what? They shot down an unmanned drone, plane, whatever you want to call it. And here we are sitting with 150 dead people that would have taken place probably within a half an hour after I said go ahead,'" Trump said. "And I didn't like it. I didn't think it was proportionate."

Dems react: House Democrats are hammering Trump for what they are characterizing as his "erratic" approach to escalating tensions with Iran.

Democratic lawmakers said they were relieved by Trump's remarks on Friday that he called off a military strike on Iran.

But that's where the praise ends.

The president, Democrats charge, has no cohesive strategy for deescalating the conflict; has neglected the consultations to inform such a plan; and appears hell-bent on goading Iran into war. The confluence of factors has led many Democrats to begin calling for a resolution prohibiting military action against Iran without explicit congressional authorization.

"This administration has been going out of its way to try to provoke Iran to go to war," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee. "And I don't have a lot of confidence in the national security team that surrounds this president, and I certainly don't have any confidence in Donald Trump's ability to keep us out of war."

"His statements and his views are erratic on this, and I think ... the American people want us to be able to make sure that he doesn't start a war on an impulse," McGovern added.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiUSMCA is nice but no model Anti-impeachment Democrat poised to switch parties Grassley urges White House to help farmers in year-end tax talks MORE (D-Calif.) amplified her earlier warning that Trump will have a fight on his hands if he tries to launch military operations against Iran without congressional approval.

"We think there are many options that are not what they call kinetic -- that is to say, strikes on the country -- that might be more useful," Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol.

GOP rebuttal: The top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee said Trump must retaliate quickly against Iran to deter other hostile nations like North Korea and Russia from taking "provocative" acts toward the U.S.

Rep. Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersHouse passes defense bill to establish Space Force, paid family leave for federal workers Hillicon Valley: FCC moves against Huawei, ZTE | Dem groups ask Google to reconsider ads policy | Bill introduced to increase data access during probes House GOP criticizes impeachment drive as distracting from national security issues MORE (R-Ala.) said Trump already has the authority to launch strikes against Iran for shooting down a U.S. military drone this week and does not need to seek approval from Congress.

Trump "did consult with Congress as he was trying to decide what action to take, but when you have a country like Iran shoot down an American drone in international air space, I don't think we need to have three months of argument in the Congress to decide what needs to be done," Rogers said during an appearance on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers."

"We have him as a commander in chief to make decisions like this. I don't care if it's a Republican or Democrat; I felt the same way about Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaModerate or left of center — which is better for Democrats in 2020? Obama: Countries facing severe effects of climate change offer 'moral call to rest of the world' Democrats' self-inflicted diversity vulnerability MORE when he was president."

 

ESPER GETTING THE NOD: All these Iran issue are happening without a permanent Defense secretary in place.

But several reports Friday said Trump will formally nominate Mark Esper to take over the role.

Trump chose Esper, currently the secretary of the Army, to be acting Defense secretary after Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanDefense chief calls on European allies to be wary of China's investments, blasts Russia Pentagon chief approves 20 more miles of border wall Why Dave Norquist is the perfect choice for DOD's deputy secretary MORE stepped down from the role and withdrew his bid for the nomination earlier this week, and Esper's first official day on the job is Monday.

Esper, who was confirmed by the Senate 89-6 in the fall of 2017, is a former infantry officer and previously served as a top executive at the defense contractor Raytheon.

Not unexpected: The reports Friday came after Trump signaled he'd choose Esper earlier in the week.

Asked Tuesday whether he would consider nominating Esper, Trump told reporters, "Most likely, that's what I'm thinking about doing."

"I think, frankly, this could happen very quickly for Mark Esper. He's very experienced. He's been around all of the things that we're talking about for a very long period of time," Trump said.

 

NDAA WATCH: The Senate has another procedural vote set for Monday evening to officially start debate on its National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The bill has already hit a familiar speed bump: Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSunday Talk Shows: Lawmakers look ahead to House vote on articles of impeachment, Senate trial Pentagon to take bigger role in vetting foreign students after Pensacola shooting Overnight Defense: House passes compromise defense bill | Turkey sanctions advance in Senate over Trump objections | Top general says military won't be 'raping, burning and pillaging' after Trump pardons MORE (R-Ky.).

Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeLankford to be named next Senate Ethics chairman Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' Gabbard calls for congressional inquiry over Afghanistan war report MORE (R-Okla.) told reporters Thursday that Paul is slow-walking the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), including forcing lawmakers to wait until next week to formally proceed to the defense bill.

"He could actually block this for a long period of time," Inhofe said, adding that lawmakers need to finish the bill by the end of next week.

Paul said on Thursday he isn't blocking the bill, but instead requiring leadership to run out the procedural clock.

Background: It's a familiar dynamic over the defense legislation. A fight between Paul and Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Graham invites Giuliani to testify about recent Ukraine trip MORE (R-S.C.) led to an amendment bottleneck last year, and the bill faced a similar stalemate over amendments in 2017.

The NDAA's status as a must-pass piece of legislation makes it a lightning rod for hundreds of amendments, only a handful of which get votes. It also allows members to effectively block votes on any other amendments or on speeding up consideration of the bill, unless they also are guaranteed an amendment vote.

 

ON TAP FOR MONDAY

The James W. Foley Legacy Foundation and New America will launch a report on U.S. hostage policy at 12:15 p.m. https://bit.ly/2XySTVi

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Trump speaks with Saudi crown prince after calling off Iran strike

-- The Hill: Navy will name rescue ship 'Cherokee Nation' to honor tribe's contributions to the military

-- The Hill: NATO planning to name space a new defense frontier: report

-- Associated Press: Europeans urge US, Iran to step back from confrontation

-- The Washington Post: Senate aims to force White House's hand on North Korea with mandatory sanctions