Overnight Defense: Iran seizes British tanker in latest escalation | US, UK to discuss situation | Trump says 'no doubt' US downed Iranian drone after Tehran's denials | Pentagon's No. 2 policy official to leave | Lawmakers worry about Defense vacancies

Overnight Defense: Iran seizes British tanker in latest escalation | US, UK to discuss situation | Trump says 'no doubt' US downed Iranian drone after Tehran's denials | Pentagon's No. 2 policy official to leave | Lawmakers worry about Defense vacancies
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Happy Friday and welcome to Overnight Defense. We're Rebecca Kheel and 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: The situation in the Gulf region appears to be escalating again.

Reports emerged Friday afternoon first that Iran had seized a British-flagged oil tanker transiting the Strait of Hormuz, then that Iran had also seized a Liberian-flagged tanker.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE said Friday the United States would be talking to the United Kingdom about the situation.

"We're going to be speaking with the U.K., and this only goes to show what I'm saying about Iran: trouble, nothing but trouble," Trump told reporters while departing the White House.

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Trump did not say whether the incident would prompt a response, saying, "let's see what happens."

"But I know that it's not an American ship, it's U.K.," he added.

What happened: Earlier Friday, Iranian state media reported that Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had seized the British-flagged Stena Impero as it was transiting the Strait of Hormuz. An IRGC statement said the ship was taken "for failing to respect international maritime rules."

The Swedish company that owns the Impero confirmed the ship was headed north toward Iran after being approached by "unidentified small crafts and a helicopter" while in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz. The company it has not been able to contact the ship.

Reports also later emerged of a Liberian-flagged tanker being seized, as well.

UK response: U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was attending an emergency briefing to "review what we know and what we can do to swiftly secure the release of the two vessels -- a British-flagged vessel and a Liberian-flagged vessel."

"Our ambassador in Tehran is in contact with the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to resolve the situation and we are working closely with international partners," Hunt said in a statement. "These seizures are unacceptable. It is essential that freedom of navigation is maintained and that all ships can move safely and freely in the region."

Rand, the diplomat: Trump also contradicted comments from a day earlier about asking Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGraham promises ObamaCare repeal if Trump, Republicans win in 2020 Conservatives buck Trump over worries of 'socialist' drug pricing Rand Paul to 'limit' August activities due to health MORE (R-Ky.) to negotiate with Iran, saying now that he agreed to allow the senator to do so.

On Thursday, Trump denied a report that he had asked Paul to act as an emissary to Iran.

But on Friday, Trump said, "Rand is a friend of mine. He asked if he could get involved. The answer is yes."

And about that drone: The tanker seizures come a day after Trump said the USS Boxer downed an Iranian drone.

On Friday, Iran denied the U.S. account, saying it has not lost any drones.

But Trump said Friday there was "no doubt" the U.S. military shot it down.

Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Trump maintained his Thursday statement that the United States shot down the drone as a defensive action after the aircraft ignored calls to stand down. 

"They shot down the drone," he said, adding that Washington will respond to any further provocations.

"We have the greatest people in the world, we have the greatest equipment in the world, we have the greatest ships -- the most deadly ships, we don't want to have to use them, but they're the most deadly ships ever conceived. And we hope for their sake they don't do anything foolish. If they do, they will pay a price like nobody's ever paid a price," he said.

 

PENTAGON'S NO. 2 POLICY DIRECTOR IS LEAVING: The Pentagon's No. 2 policy official will resign on Friday, adding to a large number of vacancies in the building's top leadership roles.

Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for policy David Trachtenberg is retiring, with a replacement to be named at a "later time," Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Carla Gleason confirmed to The Hill.

Defense News first reported his departure.

Who he is: Trachtenberg, was confirmed to his role in October 2017 on a 70-17 to Senate vote.

Before that, he was the president and CEO of Shortwaver, a national security consultancy, and also worked in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. He served as a principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense for international security policy and was a staff member with the House Armed Services Committee.

Why it matters: Trachtenberg is leaving the Pentagon with another vacancy in its top leadership ranks, will only increase frustration on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have expressed worries over the situation.

Still unfilled on a permanent basis are positions for deputy Defense secretary, Army secretary, Air Force secretary, chief management officer, principal deputy assistant secretary for international security affairs, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict.

 

ESPER SET FOR CONFIRMATION: If all goes according to plan, the Pentagon should have a confirmed secretary of Defense by Tuesday afternoon.

Before leaving town for the weekend Thursday evening, the Senate scheduled two votes on Army Secretary Mark Esper's nomination to be Defense secretary.

The first one will be a procedural vote at 5:30 p.m. Monday. The second one will be the confirmation vote at noon Tuesday.

Warren's opposition: We already knew that Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenAre Democrats turning Trump-like? Manufacturing shrinks, raising questions for Trump Volatile presidential polls spark new round of anxieties MORE (D-Mass.) opposes Esper and asked to be recorded as such for the Senate Armed Services Committee's voice vote on him Thursday.

But on Friday, she released her statement for record on it.

"My fundamental concern is that the relationship between the Defense Department and giant defense contractors has become far too cozy," she said in her nine-paragraph statement. "Secretary Esper's nomination exemplifies that concern. Secretary Esper has real conflicts of interest with Raytheon that he is unwilling to remedy by taking simple, reasonable steps. Until he is willing to make these commitments, he should not be confirmed as the Secretary of Defense, and I oppose his nomination."

 

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