Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Trump says he has 'many options' on Iran | Hostage negotiator chosen for national security adviser | Senate Dems block funding bill | Documents show Pentagon spent at least $184K at Trump's Scotland resort

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: President Trump on Wednesday said he would impose steep new sanctions on Iran, but that failed to end talk in Washington about whether he'll take military action in response to the attack on Saudi oil facilities.

There are not many details on the sanctions, save for a morning Trump tweet.

"I have just instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to substantially increase Sanctions on the country of Iran!" the president, who is on a fundraising tour through California, tweeted, without specifically mentioning the attacks.

Later, Trump told reporters his administration is considering "many options" to respond to the attacks.

Trump provided few details on what options were being discussed but said they included military action and that the "ultimate option" would be "war."

At the same time, Trump signaled that little had changed in his thinking from two days earlier when he said he wanted to avoid armed conflict with Iran.

"We'll see what happens. We have many options that we're considering. There are many options," Trump told reporters Wednesday before boarding Air Force One to depart Los Angeles for a fundraising event in San Diego.

Saudis present evidence: Over in Saudi Arabia, the defense ministry held a press conference where they presented missile and drone debris they said shows Iran "unquestionably sponsored" the attack.

Saudi military spokesman Col. Turki al-Malki also played surveillance footage he said shows a drone flying in from the north. Iraq and Iran are to the north of Saudi Arabia, while Yemen, where Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, is to Saudi Arabia's south.

Al-Malki notably stopped short of saying Iran actually fired the weapons or that they were fired from Iranian territory.

Pompeo calls it an 'act of war': Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, called the attacks an "act of war."

"We were blessed that there were no Americans killed in this attack but any time you have an act of war of this nature, there's always risk that that could happen," Pompeo told reporters. "This is an attack of a scale we've just not seen before."

When Trump was asked whether he agreed with that statement later, the president teased a forthcoming announcement.

"He just came out with a statement. He spoke to me a little while ago. And that we'll have an announcement, okay?" Trump said.

Trump vs. Graham: A new side thread in this story is Trump sparring with usual ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has been advocating for a military strike, over how to respond.

It started Tuesday with Graham saying Trump's decision not to strike Iran in June after it shot down a U.S. drone was interpreted by Tehran as a sign of weakness.

On Tuesday night, Trump tweeted to Graham, saying, "No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don't understand!"

On Wednesday morning, Graham predicted that new sanctions against Iran "will fall short."

"The maximum pressure campaign has worked in the sense it's crippled the regime's economy, it's made life difficult for the regime, but it has not changed their behavior," Graham told reporters.

"The only conclusion I think you can reach is that the Iranians, while having been hurt by the maximum pressure campaign, have not been deterred in terms of their provocative behavior. And it's going to take something, I think, beyond sanctions to achieve that deterrence," he added. 

Then on Wednesday afternoon, Trump doubled down on his disagreement with Graham.

"Ask Lindsey how did going into the Middle East, how did that work out? And how did going into Iraq work out? So, we have a disagreement on that," Trump told reporters.

Cheney backs military action: Graham isn't the only one calling for military action.

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said Wednesday the United States should consider a "proportional military response" against Iran, among other potential actions.

"Not acting sends a message, frankly, that's likely to encourage an additional escalation by the Iranians if they feel they can take this kind of action without a response. So I'm pleased to see that we've begun to see some of that response," Cheney said.

"I also think that a proportional military response is the right way to go, and I'm hopeful that Secretary Pompeo is coordinating in that regard with the Saudis," she added, referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Cheney, who's believed to be considering running for Senate next year, has emerged as one of the leading GOP voices on foreign policy and defense, often advocating a more hawkish U.S. response.


HOSTAGE NEGOTIATOR TAPPED FOR NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: President Trump on Wednesday announced he intends to name the administration's envoy for hostage negotiations, Robert O'Brien, as his next national security adviser.

"I have worked long & hard with Robert. He will do a great job!" Trump tweeted.

Trump appeared alongside O'Brien in California before boarding Air Force One for a fundraiser in San Diego Wednesday afternoon, praising him as "fantastic" and touting his administration's track record on bringing American hostages home.

"He's worked with me for quite a while now on hostages and we've had a tremendous track record," Trump told reporters. "We brought a lot of people home and we haven't spent any money."

O'Brien said he looked forward to his new role, saying the administration has notched a number of foreign policy wins while acknowledging that challenges lie ahead.

"It's a privilege to serve with the president and I look forward to another year and a half of peace through strength. We've had tremendous foreign policy successes under President Trump's leadership. I expect those to continue," O'Brien said.

O'Brien will replace John Bolton, whom Trump fired last week and later criticized for failing to align with the administration's agenda on North Korea and Venezuela.

The role of national security adviser does not require Senate confirmation.

About O'Brien: Tapped in 2018 as the chief hostage negotiator for the State Department, O'Brien has worked to secure the release of Americans abroad. He was present for proceedings in Sweden involving rapper A$AP Rocky, whom Trump had urged the Swedish government to free after his arrest on assault charges.

O'Brien has worked in diplomatic relations for years. Former President George W. Bush chose him to serve as a representative to the United Nations General Assembly in 2005, and during the Bush and Obama administrations he served as co-chairman of a State Department initiative to train judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers in Afghanistan in an effort to bolster the justice system there.


FUNDING BILL HITS WALL: Senate spending talks hit another roadblock Wednesday amid an entrenched fight over funding for President Trump's U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Senate Democrats on Wednesday blocked a bill to fund most of the federal government, marking the latest setback for spending talks with days to go until the Sept. 30 deadline to avoid a shutdown.

Senators voted 51-44 on taking up a House-passed bill that was expected to be the vehicle for any Senate funding action, depriving it of the 60 votes needed to overcome the initial hurdle.

The stalemate comes as Senate spending negotiations have been largely derailed over partisan battles on issues including the wall and concerns among Republicans that Democrats could try to muscle in abortion-related language.

GOP pressure: Republicans tried to pressure Democrats into supporting the measure ahead of the failed vote Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused Democrats of also sinking defense legislation over an immigration fight with Trump.

"We've seen our Democratic colleagues suggest that they may try to shoehorn their long-standing disagreements with President Trump into this appropriations process even though we all agreed not to insist on poison pills," McConnell said.

Background: The Senate Appropriations Committee last week passed a mammoth Pentagon funding bill and top-line spending numbers for all of its 12 appropriations bills, known as 302(b)s, along party lines -- raising early questions about whether or not they could get the same bills through the full Senate.

Democrats objected to the top-line spending figures over concerns that Republicans were padding extra funding in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spending bill, legislation that has emerged as a perennial point of conflict for lawmakers tasked with funding the government.

Democratic senators also balked at supporting the defense spending bill because Republicans rejected including an amendment that would have prevented Trump from shifting funding from the military to the border wall without congressional signoff.

Democrats are fuming after the Pentagon announced earlier this month that it would move forward with shifting $3.6 billion in military construction funds to build the wall, in line with an emergency declaration Trump issued earlier this year. Democrats are expected to force a vote this month to try to nix the emergency declaration.

In the House: House Democrats want to move a continuing resolution (CR) this week that would fund the government through Nov. 21. But they had to yank the bill off the Rules Committee schedule on Tuesday amid last-minute disputes including trade-related language.

Both sides eventually reached a deal with the House now expected to file a CR Wednesday evening. A vote on the House floor is expected on Thursday.


$184K SPENT AT TURNBERRY: Documents show the U.S. military has spent more than $184,000 at President Trump's property in Scotland since August 2017, Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee said in a letter to the Pentagon on Wednesday.

Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), an Oversight subcommittee chairman, implored Defense Secretary Mark Esper for more information on Pentagon spending at Turnberry golf course, saying taxpayer funds paid for the equivalent of more than 650 rooms.

"The data provided by the Department now indicates that U.S. taxpayer funds have been used to pay for more than three dozen separate stays involving hundreds of nights of rooms -- all after the president was sworn into office," the lawmakers write.

The letter, the lawmakers' third on the topic since June, asks the Department of Defense for additional documents, adding that the committee is still unable to answer "basic questions, such as how many military personnel were involved and who authorized their stays."

"To date, the Department has produced only 21 pages of material -- half of which appear to be publicly available on government websites," the lawmakers write. "The Department failed to produce any underlying invoices or travel records relating to spending at Trump Turnberry or Prestwick Airport."

The lawmakers also threaten a possible subpoena for the information should the Pentagon not begin producing the requested documents by Sept. 27.

Background: The committee earlier this year opened an investigation into Air Force expenditures at and around the Turnberry resort after it was discovered that an Air National Guard crew stopped at the property while traveling to and from Kuwait.

The crew refueled at Prestwick Airport -- the closest airport to Turnberry, outside Glasgow in southwest Scotland -- which has seen an uptick in Pentagon fuel expenditures.

The Air Force has defended the refueling stops at Prestwick as within Pentagon guidelines, though the lawmakers point out that fuel would be cheaper if purchased at a U.S. military base.

Context: The stops fall into a broader area of concern from Democrats, who have accused the president of using his office to boost his brand.

Vice President Pence earlier this month sparked a separate controversy when he stayed at Trump International Golf Links and Hotel in Doonbeg, Ireland, even though it was 182 miles away from his meetings in Dublin.

In an effort to put an end to such stays, Senate Democrats this week introduced the Heightened Oversight of Travel, Eating and Lodging Act, legislation that would ban federal officials from using taxpayer funds at properties owned by a president, vice president or Cabinet official.



The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for the nominees to be under secretary of State for civilian security, democracy and human rights; chief executive officer of the United States International Development Finance Corporation; director of the Trade and Development Agency; and chief executive officer of the Broadcasting Board of Governors at 9:30 a.m. at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, room 419. https://bit.ly/2kTqBTP

House and Senate negotiators will hold a closed-door "pass the gavel" meeting to start the conference process for the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). https://bit.ly/2lYnJoX

The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on Trump's strategy in Afghanistan at 10 a.m. at the Rayburn House Office Building, room 2172. Special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been subpoenaed to appear. https://bit.ly/2kEtJDc



-- The Hill: Senate panel advances Trump's nominees to lead Air Force, Army

-- The Hill: Iran: US visa issue might force cancellation of Rouhani trip to UN

-- The Hill: Opinion: Saudi strikes are a critical test for Trump

-- The Hill: Opinion: Trump in danger of giving the Taliban exactly what they want

-- Associated Press: Saudis couldn't stop oil attack, even with top US defenses