Overnight Defense: Trump says he doesn't need Congress to approve Iran strikes in interview with The Hill | New sanctions hit Iran's supreme leader | Schumer seeks to delay defense bill amid Iran tensions | Esper's first day as acting Pentagon chief

Overnight Defense: Trump says he doesn't need Congress to approve Iran strikes in interview with The Hill | New sanctions hit Iran's supreme leader | Schumer seeks to delay defense bill amid Iran tensions | Esper's first day as acting Pentagon chief
© Greg Nash

Happy Monday 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 TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report MORE told Hill.TV in an exclusive interview Monday that he does not need congressional approval to strike Iran.

When asked if he believes he has the authority to initiate military action against Iran without first going to Congress, Trump said, "I do."

"But we've been keeping Congress abreast of what we're doing...and I think it's something they appreciate," he said in an exclusive interview outside the Oval Office. "I do like keeping them abreast, but I don't have to do it legally."

"We were pretty close to maybe making a decision to strike, then I decided not to do it. Nobody went out by the way. I was going to make that decision by a certain time and I decided not to do it because it wasn't really proportional," Trump added.

Clash with House: The president disputed Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSchumer calls on Trump to testify as part of impeachment inquiry Sunday shows — Spotlight shifts to Sondland ahead of impeachment inquiry testimony Perception won't be reality, once AI can manipulate what we see MORE's (D-Calif.) assertion that he would need congressional approval for any "hostilities" against Iran.

"I disagree, most people seem to disagree," he said.

"They have ideas, they're intelligent people, they come up with some thoughts," Trump said, referring to lawmakers. "I actually learned a couple of things the other day when we had our meeting with Congress."

 

MORE FROM THE HILL'S INTERVIEW WITH TRUMP

President Trump said Monday that writer E. Jean Carroll was "totally lying" when she recently accused him of raping her during an encounter in a New York department store in the mid-1990s. Trump added that "she's not my type."

President Trump on Monday said he would make a nomination to the Supreme Court if there's a vacancy anytime before the 2020 presidential election.

Check back at TheHill.com for more updates from the interview.

 

BACK TO DEFENSE NEWS... TRUMP SIGNS NEW IRAN SANCTIONS: The Trump administration hit Iran with new sanctions Monday as tensions remain decidedly high.

Monday's sanctions, announced as Trump signed the executive order in the Oval Office in front of reporters, target Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other high-ranking officials.

"The supreme leader of Iran is one who ultimately is responsible for the hostile conduct of the regime," Trump said. "He's respected within his country. His office oversees the regime's most brutal instruments."

He called the new sanctions a "strong and proportionate response to Iran's increasingly provocative actions."

Context: The sanctions come after Trump decided to pull back a planned military strike last week in response to Iran shooting down a U.S. drone.

But it's unclear how much of the sanctions are in response to that incident.

Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinLawmakers skeptical of progress on spending deal as wall battle looms Trump to tour Apple factory with Tim Cook on Wednesday The Hill's Morning Report — Public impeachment drama resumes today MORE said in a briefing that some of the sanctions announced Monday were already in the works, while others were "the result of recent activities." He declined to specify which sanctions fell into which category.

More to come: During his briefing, Mnuchin also said the administration will designate Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif later this week.

That detailed raised eyebrows among critics who questioned how sanctioning Iran's top diplomat is in line with Trump's stated openness for talks.

Trump's tweet: One of provocative acts the administration has blamed on Iran in recent weeks are attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf region.

But on Monday, Trump questioned whether it should be a U.S. responsibility to protect international tankers in places like the Strait of Hormuz.

"China gets 91% of its Oil from the Straight, Japan 62%, & many other countries likewise. So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been a dangerous journey," he tweeted.

"We don't even need to be there in that the U.S. has just become (by far) the largest producer of Energy anywhere in the world! The U.S. request for Iran is very simple - No Nuclear Weapons and No Further Sponsoring of Terror!" he added.

Ensuring freedom of navigation for commerce has long been a U.S. Navy mission. But Trump has long decried the U.S. role of securing allies, demanding more compensation to do so.

Graham's response: Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy GOP eager for report on alleged FBI surveillance abuse Johnson opens door to subpoenaing whistleblower, Schiff, Bidens MORE (R-S.C.), typically a Trump ally, took to Twitter to advise the president on what interest the U.S. has in protecting sea lanes.

"Mr. President, you are right: our allies and stakeholders in the Straits of Hormuz should do more," Graham tweeted. "However, safe navigation of sea lanes -- vital to a world economy -- is always in America's national security interest."

"Protecting sea lanes is best achieved by partnerships where all the stakeholders contribute and sacrifice for peaceful navigation of the seas," he added in a second tweet. "Peace and economic prosperity are best achieved when bad actors are dealt with through international coalitions."

Zarif's response: Zarif, who as noted above may get slapped with sanctions later this week, responded Monday to Trump's tweet.

"@realDonaldTrump is 100% right that the US military has no business in the Persian Gulf. Removal of its forces is fully in line with interests of US and the world," Zarif tweeted. "But it's now clear that the #B_Team is not concerned with US interests--they despise diplomacy, and thirst for war."

The B Team is Zarif's phrase to refer to U.S. national security advisor John BoltonJohn BoltonHimes: 'I don't think it blows a hole in the case' if Sondland testifies there was no quid pro quo Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Top NSC aide puts Sondland at front lines of Ukraine campaign, speaking for Trump MORE, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

Elsewhere: Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoImpeachment battle looms over must-pass defense bill Five takeaways from ex-ambassador's dramatic testimony Pompeo: No US response ruled out in Hong Kong MORE is in the Middle East right now for discussions on the situation with Iran.

On Monday, he was in Saudi Arabia, where he met with Prince Mohammed and King Salman.

The trio "discussed the heightened tensions in the region and the need for stronger maritime security to promote freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.

"They also agreed on the importance of working together with the Gulf Cooperation Council to counter the Iranian threat throughout the region and to hold the Iranian regime accountable for its malign behavior," she added.

Pompeo later traveled to the United Arab Emirates for a meeting with the crown prince, with whom he also discussed the Iran tensions.

 

ESPER TAKES THE REINS: Mark Esper officially took over as acting Pentagon chief on Monday.

In his first message to the building, the erstwhile Army secretary emphasized continuity despite the recent turnover in the building.

"As we continue to advance the Nation's security, let me reaffirm our path forward," Esper wrote in a memo Monday. "The National Security Strategy remains our guiding document, and everything we do should support its stated objectives. The Department's priorities remain unchanged."

Esper laid out three main objectives in his letter: building a more lethal force, strengthening alliances and attracting new partners, and reforming internal DOD practices "for greater performance and affordability."

And he tweets: In addition to his first memo, Esper also sent out his first tweet as acting secretary.

"It is a great honor to serve as the acting secretary of defense. I look forward to working with the @DeptofDefense's leaders to ensure we continue to support the 3 million uniformed service members and civilians who advance America's competitive edge at home and abroad," he tweeted, along with a picture of him entering the building Monday morning.

A pool report on his entrance notes that he told members of the press who gathered there, "Good morning, everyone," and didn't take any questions.

Filling the ranks: If you missed it at 8:30 p.m. on a Friday, the White House announced Trump's intention to nominate Esper to be the permanent Defense secretary.

The same announcement also said Trump will nominate comptroller David Norquist to be deputy defense secretary, a role he has filled in an acting capacity since the beginning of the year. Army under secretary Ryan McCarthy will also be nominated to be Army secretary, the announcement said.

The paperwork for all three have yet to be sent to the Senate, so it's still not officially official.

In the meantime, the Army said Monday that McCarthy will serve as acting Army secretary and general counsel Jim McPherson will serve as acting under secretary.

 

NDAA WATCH: Democrats are upping their demands for a vote on their amendment to restrict Trump's ability to take military action against Iran.

Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Chad Wolf becomes acting DHS secretary Schumer blocks drug pricing measure during Senate fight, seeking larger action MORE (D-N.Y.) urged Republicans to delay passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which the amendment would be attached to, until after the Democratic presidential debates.

Schumer, speaking from the Senate floor, argued the entire Senate should be present for a vote on the amendment from Sens. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Senators press FDA tobacco chief on status of vaping ban Progressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising MORE (D-Va.) and Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallBureau of Land Management staff face relocation or resignation as agency moves west Overnight Energy: EPA watchdog slams agency chief after deputy fails to cooperate in probe | Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act | Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows Hillicon Valley: Twitter to refuse all political ads | Trump camp blasts 'very dumb' decision | Ocasio-Cortez hails move | Zuckerberg doubles down on Facebook's ad policies | GOP senator blocks sweeping election reform bill MORE (D-N.M.), but that several Democratic senators are expected to be absent because of the presidential debates.

The amendment would prevent funding from being used for military action against Iran without congressional approval.

But the proposal is one of nearly 600 that has been filed for the bill. It's unclear if any will be allowed to get a vote. Republicans want to wrap up the defense bill by the end of the week.

In the House: Meanwhile, amendments have started to roll into the House Rules Committee for consideration for when the full chamber takes up its version of the NDAA.

Democrats are expected to file amendments related to transgender troops and Iran, but as of Monday evening, nothing on those topics were up on the Rules Committee website yet.

Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping to get rid of the provision that would block Pentagon funding from being used for a border wall. Democrats already voted down similar amendments during the House Armed Services Committee's markup of the bill, so don't expect that amendment to go far. 

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

A House Veterans Affairs Committee subpanel will hold a hearing with VA whistleblowers at 10 a.m. at the House Visitors Center, room 210. https://bit.ly/2FiMTp9

A House Foreign Affairs Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on the U.S. response to the crisis in Sudan at 2 p.m. at the Rayburn House Office Building, room 2172. https://bit.ly/2XwnxOX

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a business meeting to consider several bills at 2:15 p.m. at the Senate, room 116. https://bit.ly/2Lgx5Hd

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: O'Rourke unveils plan for veterans

-- The Hill: Pakistani envoy praises new round of US, Taliban talks

-- The Hill: Iran: US cyberattacks unsuccessful

-- The Hill: Trump urged to quickly fill Pentagon post amid Iran tensions

-- The Hill: Opinion: We're all on the tarmac, waiting for an Iran policy

-- The Hill: Opinion: How to defuse Gulf tensions and avoid war with Iran

-- Reuters: Trump says he sent North Korea's Kim friendly letter

-- The New York Times: White House is pressing for additional options, including cyberattacks, to deter Iran