Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Dems talk Afghanistan, nukes at Detroit debate | Senate panel advances Hyten nomination | Iranian foreign minister hit with sanctions | Senate confirms UN ambassador

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: It's time to play the music, it's time to light the lights...

It's time for night two of the Democratic debates tonight!

Ok, not as exciting as the Muppets. But another ten Democratic candidates will face off in minutes in Detroit for night two of the debate.

As with the first round of debates last month, foreign policy and defense questions on Tuesday night were minimal and left to the end. But they did yield a couple interesting exchanges.

Be sure to check back at TheHill.com for coverage of tonight's debate. For now, catch up on last night's coverage:

Buttigieg pledges Afghan withdrawal in a year: South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a veteran of the Afghanistan War, vowed to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan during his first year in office if elected president.

"We will withdraw. We have to," Buttigieg said.

Pressed by CNN moderator Jake Tapper about whether he would do so in his first year, Buttigieg replied, "Yes."

"Look, around the world, we will do whatever it takes to keep America safe, but I thought I was one of the last troops leaving Afghanistan when I thought I was turning out the lights years ago," Buttigieg said.

Warren, Bullock spar over 'no first use': Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) sparred over her proposed "no first use" policy on nuclear weapons.

In defending the proposed policy, Warren argued for diplomatic and economic solutions to conflict, saying "we should not be asking our military to take on jobs that do not have a military solution."

But Bullock opposed that proposal, saying, "I don't want to turn around and say, 'Well, Detroit has to be gone before we would ever use that.'"

Warren is the lead sponsor of the Senate version of a bill that would make it U.S. policy not to use nuclear weapons first.

It has long been the policy of the United States that the country reserves the right to launch a preemptive nuclear strike.


ARMED SERVICES PANEL ADVANCES HYTEN: The Senate Armed Services Committee has voted to advance the nomination of Gen. John Hyten, who has been accused of sexual assault by a subordinate officer, to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The committee voted to advance Hyten's nomination Wednesday, a day after his confirmation hearing, in a meeting off the Senate floor, committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) told reporters.

The panel voted 20-7 to approve Hyten, according to a news release.

Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser has accused Hyten of making several unwanted sexual advances in 2017 when she was one of his aides.

The advances escalated, she alleges, to an incident in her hotel room while they were at the Reagan National Defense Forum in which she claims that he pressed up against her while kissing her and ejaculated on her.

Hyten categorically denied the allegations during Tuesday's hearing.

The yeas: All but one Republican on the committee voted in a support of Hyten.

Inhofe said he was concerned about the message that would be sent by not confirming Hyten.

"What would happen with all these thousands of junior grade officers out there striving for the top, knowing the likelihood is not very great they get there, but if they do this could happen to them," Inhofe said. "If someone can accuse someone of sexual assault without any evidence, without any corroborative agreement, then anyone could do that. It could happen to anyone."

Several Democrats voted to advance Hyten, as well: Sens. Jack Reed (R.I.), the ranking member of the committee; Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.); Tim Kaine (Va.); Martin Heinrich (N.M.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Doug Jones (Ala.). Independent Sen. Angus King (Maine), who caucuses with Democrat, also supported Hyten.

Kaine said in a statement Wednesday that if "there had still been ambiguity over whether Gen. Hyten may have committed the heinous crimes described in the allegations, I would have voted against advancing his nomination."

"But the investigations conducted both by the military and the committee produced evidence that Gen. Hyten did not sexually assault Col. Spletstoser or engage in an unprofessional relationship with her," Kaine said. "I did not reach this conclusion lightly, but I believe we owe it to the women and men of the military and this nation to follow the facts wherever they lead."

The nays: The lone Republican to vote against Hyten was Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa).

During Tuesday's hearing Ernst expressed concerns about his judgment, but not because of the assault allegations. Rather, she questioned his handling of a separate investigation into Spletstoser, which found the colonel had created a "toxic" work environment.

"You could not bring yourself to admit or recognize toxic leadership within your command," Ernst told Hyten. "You only did something about it when concerns were raised about your own leadership."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Wednesday he had questions about how Hyten will tackle sexual assault in the military as vice chairman.

"I have a number of unresolved questions about his judgment, and I am deeply dissatisfied with the answers that he gave me about what the military should do to combat sexual assault," Blumenthal said. "And there was no reason that this vote had to be today as opposed to a month from now."

The other "no" votes came from Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) and Gary Peters (Mich.).


TRUMP SLAPS SANCTIONS ON ZARIF: The Trump administration has officially sanctioned Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, after first announcing its intention to do so last month.

The Treasury Department said in a statement that it imposed sanctions on Zarif because he "acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran." 

A senior administration official added on a call with reporters that Zarif "defends the regime's persecution of the Iranian people, and he recently endorsed the practice of executing gay people, as well as the regime's oppression of free speech."

The official maintained that the Iranian diplomat's office "functions as an extension" of the office of Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, as well as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which the U.S. has designated as a foreign terrorist organization.

"While the United States has historically placed a high priority on preserving faith for diplomacy, there are limits to our patience when a regime so routinely flouts these protocols," the official said.

What about diplomacy?: Asked whether the new sanctions against Iran's top diplomat would hinder the administration's ability to negotiate with Tehran, a senior administration official indicated that Zarif was not a top choice for discussions.

"If we do have an official contact with Iran, we would want to have contact with someone who is a significant decision-maker," they said. "[Zarif] would not be the president's selected point of contact."

Zarif's response: Zarif quickly responded to the sanctions on Twitter, saying the move would have "no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran."

"The US' reason for designating me is that I am Iran's 'primary spokesperson around the world' Is the truth really that painful?" Zarif tweeted. "It has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran. Thank you for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda."


SENATE CONFIRMS CRAFT: The Senate has approved Kelly Craft to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, giving President Trump a Senate-confirmed envoy to the international body for the first time since December.

The Senate voted 56-34 on Wednesday to confirm Craft, who has served as U.S. ambassador to Canada since August 2017. She will fill a role that has been occupied in an acting capacity by Jonathan Cohen since Nikki Haley resigned in December.

Support: Democratic Sens. Maggie Hassan (N.H.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Chris Murphy (Conn.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) voted in favor of Craft.

Republicans lined up behind Craft.

"During her tenure as ambassador to Canada, America's relationship with our northern neighbor was tested," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday. McConnell reportedly recommended Craft, a fellow Kentuckian and prominent Republican donor, for the job.

"A number of challenging policy hurdles threatened to trip up progress on several important issues, including trade negotiations," McConnell continued, "but by all accounts, Ambassador Craft's involvement led to greater cooperation."

Opposition: Most Democrats opposed Craft over concerns about her past remarks on climate change, as well as accusations that she was absent from her post in Canada too often.

"First and foremost, she lacks the experience necessary to stand up for American values and promote our national security on the global stage," Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said. "Second, during her brief diplomatic tenure in Canada, she posted so many absences that I cannot describe it as anything less than a dereliction of duty."

Hours before Wednesday's vote, Menendez released a report that found Craft spent more than half of her time as the U.S. ambassador to Canada outside of the country. The findings had been circulated earlier among Foreign Relations Committee staff.



Gen. Koji Yamazaki, the chief of staff of the Joint Staff of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, will speak about "Japan's Current Security Environment and the Direction of Further Strengthening the Japan-U.S. Alliance" at 3 p.m. the Center for Strategic and International Studies. https://bit.ly/2Zovi76 



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