Overnight Defense: Highlights from Defense pick's confirmation hearing | Esper spars with Warren over ethics | Sidesteps questions on Mattis vs. Trump | Trump says he won't sell F-35s to Turkey

Overnight Defense: Highlights from Defense pick's confirmation hearing | Esper spars with Warren over ethics | Sidesteps questions on Mattis vs. Trump | Trump says he won't sell F-35s to Turkey
© Greg Nash

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: Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSanders on difference with Warren: she's a capitalist 'I'm not' Rubio hits Warren's 'crude' and 'vulgar' response to opposition to same-sex marriage Klobuchar takes shots at health and education plans supported by Sanders and Warren MORE (D-Mass.) on Tuesday slammed President TrumpDonald John TrumpGiuliani says he is unaware of reported federal investigation Louisiana's Democratic governor forced into runoff Lawmakers focus their ire on NBA, not China MORE's nominee to be the next Pentagon chief over ethics concerns related to his earlier employment at a top defense firm.

Warren said Army Secretary Mark Esper should not be confirmed as Defense secretary unless he takes additional steps to further distance himself from his previous employer, Raytheon.

"Secretary Esper, the American people deserve to know that you're making decisions in our country's best security interest, not in your own financial interest," Warren said during Esper's confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "You can't make those commitments to this committee, that means you should not be confirmed as secretary of Defense."

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Her concerns: Esper who recently had to step aside as acting Defense secretary to complete the nomination process, was Raytheon's vice president for government relations from 2010 to 2017, a role that Warren said raises red flags about potential conflicts of interest since the company has defense contracts worth billions of dollars.

Before the hearing: Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, raised similar concerns last week in a letter to Esper when she urged him to extend his commitment to recuse himself from matters involving Raytheon through the duration of his tenure at the Pentagon. Esper in 2017 signed a two-year agreement saying he will not be involved in matters related to Raytheon, but that agreement ends in November.

Esper's defense: Esper insisted Tuesday that Pentagon ethics advisers recommended he not extend the recusal.

"I've lived an ethical life. I'm going to continue to live by those ethics, those principles, whether it involves Raytheon or any other company for that matter," he said.

It would be difficult for Esper to stay out of all Raytheon-related decisions, as the firm holds numerous Pentagon contracts. A full recusal could prevent him from reaching out to the firm if issues arise with a particular contract or system.

A heated exchange: The exchange between Warren and Esper quickly grew heated, with Warren questioning him on at least $1 million in deferred payments from Raytheon which he is set to receive after 2022.

Warren -- who in May introduced legislation that would impose a lifetime ban on former lawmakers and Cabinet members from lobbying -- asked Esper if he would commit to forgoing employment with a defense contractor, or payments of any kind from a defense firm, for at least four years after his government service.

"No senator, I will not," Esper replied.

"I went to war for this country, I served overseas for this country, I've stepped down from jobs that have paid me well more than what I was working anywhere else, and each time it was to serve the public good and to serve the young men and women of our armed services," he said. "So no, I disagree. I think the presumption is, for some reason, anybody who comes from the business or the corporate world is corrupt."

Also during the hearing: Esper on Tuesday expertly sidestepped sensitive questions, declining to say whether he more closely aligns with President Trump or former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisMattis warns 'ISIS will resurge' without U.S. pressure on Syria Trump's incoherent Syria pullback should surprise no one Five things to know about Trump's decision on Syria, Turkey and the Kurds MORE, although he said he "clearly" shares Mattis's views on the international order.

"I don't know where to pick between the two," Esper replied to a question from Sen. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersOvernight Health Care — Presented by Coalition Against Surprise Medical Billing — Planned Parenthood charges into 2020 | PhRMA CEO warns against Pelosi drug pricing bill | Medicaid work requirements costing states millions Bipartisan senators want federal plan for sharing more info on supply chain threats Planned Parenthood issues first wave of 2020 House, Senate endorsements MORE (D-Mich.) during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "But I clearly share Mattis's views, and I've expressed that publicly."

Mattis resigned in protest in December after Trump announced a full U.S. military withdrawal from Syria, a plan that has since been reversed.

Pressed by Peters if he would resign in the way Mattis did if he is asked to do something that contradicts his values, Esper said he would "absolutely" be willing to resign if he is asked to do something illegal or immoral. 

"My time in the Army, I grew up with this view that if you're asked to do anything illegal or immoral or unethical, then that would be the point at which you have to consider resignation," Esper said.

 

TRUMP: NO F-35S FOR TURKEY: Trump on Tuesday said his administration will not sell American-made F-35 Lightning II fighters to Turkey over its decision to take delivery of a Russian missile defense system.

"We are now telling Turkey ... we're not going to sell you the F-35 fighter jets," Trump said during a Cabinet meeting.

The commander in chief, however, offered no comment on whether he would impose congressionally mandated sanctions on Ankara, a NATO ally, over its purchase of the S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system, which U.S. officials fear could be used to gather intelligence on the F-35.

"It's a very tough situation that they're in. And it's a very tough situation that we've been placed in the United States," Trump said. "With all of that being said, we're working through it. We'll see what happens, but it's not really fair."

What the Pentagon says: The administration has long threatened to block F-35 sales to Turkey should it take delivery of the S-400, but Ankara on Friday received the Russian system in defiance of Washington.

Defense secretary nominee Mark Esper said at the time that the Pentagon was aware of Turkey taking delivery of the S-400 and that its "position regarding the F-35 has not changed" but did not elaborate.

Esper said earlier on Tuesday that Turkey's decision "is the wrong one, and it's disappointing."

Speaking during his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing, Esper also said that he has told his Turkish counterpart that "you can either have the S-400 or the F-35, you cannot have both."

The background: Turkey is one of nine partner countries involved in making and maintaining the F-35 advanced fighter jet and has plans to eventually buy at least 100 of the aircraft, a potential $9 billion sale.

But with Turkey's purchase of the S-400, which is not compatible with NATO systems, U.S. officials fear Moscow will be able to gather classified information on the F-35, made by Lockheed Martin.

The repercussions: The S-400 buy also sets off a number of penalties that Pentagon leadership has said would take place at the end of the month, including moving F-35 maintenance roles from Turkey to another country and having all Turkish personnel linked to the program leave the United States.

The department also last month pulled Turkish applicants from a program that teaches pilots to fly the F-35.

In addition, top senators last week urged Trump to impose congressional sanctions on Turkey as part of the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which penalizes U.S. partners that buy Russian military equipment.

 

ESPER PUSHES DIPLOMATIC CHANNEL' WITH IRAN: The Pentagon will soon brief lawmakers on a plan to conduct "passive" patrols in the Gulf region in response to threats from Iran, Defense Secretary nominee Mark Esper said Tuesday.

"I agree we do not want war with Iran," Esper, who previously served as Army secretary, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We are not seeking war with Iran. We need to get back on the diplomatic channel."

Esper made the remarks at his confirmation hearing to become Defense secretary.

On the AUMF: Asked later in the hearing whether the 2001 authorization for the use of military force would justify military action against Iran, Esper flatly said, "no."

"2001 applies to terrorist groups and organizations, and that would not be the case here with regard to the country of Iran," he said. Still, he maintained the president has power under Article II of the Constitution to protect U.S. troops and respond to an attack from Iran.

Timing: The hearing comes at a time of skyrocketing U.S.-Iran tensions. President Trump has said he was within minutes of striking Iran last month in response to the shooting down of a U.S. surveillance drone.

Tensions have also spiked as Tehran has breached two key limits of the 2015 agreement that placed constraints on its nuclear program. Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement in 2018.

The tensions have also been born out of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf region the United States has blamed on Iran.

The Trump administration has pitched a plan to U.S. allies to escort vessels transiting through the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman.

Trump says he doesn't want regime change for Iran: Trump later on Tuesday reiterated that he is not seeking regime change in Iran after the country's foreign minister suggested it may be open to negotiations over its missile program.

"We're not looking for regime change," Trump said during a Cabinet meeting. "We want them out of Yemen."

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoReporter presses Pompeo on whether he met with Giuliani in Warsaw Pompeo: 'I wish the NBA would acknowledge' China's treatment of Uyghur Muslims Dem senator urges Pompeo to fire State official accused of retaliation, harassment MORE, who was seated next to Trump, noted the Iranians have said they are ready to discuss their ballistic missile program.

"They'd like to talk, and we'll see what happens," Trump said.

The background: The president made clear during a visit to Japan in May that he was not interested in regime change in Iran, saying his focus was on preventing the country from obtaining nuclear weapons.

But in the six weeks since, tensions between the two sides have escalated and Iran has enriched uranium beyond limits put in place during the Obama-era nuclear deal, which Trump has derided as among the "worst" ever.

Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, provided an opening for potential diplomatic relations on Tuesday when he suggested for the first time that the country's ballistic missile program could be up for negotiations as part of talks with the U.S.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiMurkowski warns against rushing to conclusions on Trump impeachment GOP requests update on criminal referrals prompted by 2018 Kavanaugh probe Republicans show signs of discomfort in defense of Trump   MORE (R-Alaska), Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingOvernight Defense: Dems grill Trump Army, Air Force picks | House chair subpoenas Trump Afghanistan negotiator | Trump officials release military aid to Ukraine Democrats grill Army, Air Force nominees on military funding for border wall Bipartisan panel to issue recommendations for defending US against cyberattacks early next year MORE (I-Maine), Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Ray, Assistant Commerce Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere Tim Gallaudet, and Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette will speak on "The Impacts of an Ice-Diminishing Arctic on Naval and Maritime Operations," beginning at 8 a.m. on the first of a two-day symposium at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. 

Rear Adm. Gene Black, the director of Navy's Surface Warfare Division, will speak at 11:30 a.m. at a Surface Navy Association lunch at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Va.

House Foreign Affairs ranking member Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulHouse Foreign Affairs leaders to introduce sanctions bill against Turkey Hillicon Valley: Senate passes bill to boost cyber help for agencies, businesses | Watchdog warns Energy Department failing to protect grid | FTC sues Match for allegedly conning users Senate approves bill to boost cyber assistance for federal agencies, private sector MORE (R-Texas) will speak on national and global security and U.S. foreign relations at 3:30 p.m. at the Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will speak on "NATO at 70: An Alliance in Crisis?" at 7 p.m. at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colo. Live video will be streamed at 

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: North Korea warns US-South Korea drills threaten nuclear talks

-- The Hill: Five things to watch for at Defense nominee's confirmation hearing

-- The Hill: Iran: Negotiations possible on ballistic missiles if Trump lifts sanctions

-- The Hill: UK sees 'small window' to save Iran nuclear deal

-- The Hill: China warns it will cut ties with US firms that sell weapons to Taiwan

-- The Hill: UK ties Iranian tanker's release to promise on Syria