Overnight Defense: Trump tries to defend stance on Kurds | Biden says Trump sold out allies | McMaster criticizes Trump's Syria decision | Latest on arrest of Giuliani associates

Overnight Defense: Trump tries to defend stance on Kurds | Biden says Trump sold out allies | McMaster criticizes Trump's Syria decision | Latest on arrest of Giuliani associates
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Happy Thursday 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: President TrumpDonald John TrumpAdvisor: Sanders could beat Trump in Texas Bloomberg rips Sanders over Castro comments What coronavirus teaches us for preventing the next big bio threat MORE on Thursday offered yet another defense for his decision to relocate Americans troops from northern Syria, as the uproar in Washington intensifies over the Turkish offensive against the Syrian Kurds.

The president - who faces a groundswell of criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike that the move opened the door to a Turkish offensive that threatens the U.S.-allied Kurds – reasoned that "Turkey has been planning to attack the Kurds for a long time."

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"They have been fighting forever. We have no soldiers or Military anywhere near the attack area. I am trying to end the ENDLESS WARS," Trump tweeted.

The president laid out both sides of the argument, tweeting that some observers want to send additional troops to the area "and start a new war all over again" while others say "STAY OUT, let the Kurds fight their own battles (even with our financial help)."

"I say hit Turkey very hard financially & with sanctions if they don't play by the rules! I am watching closely." Trump tweeted.

Trump has repeatedly said in recent days that he would punish Turkey if they cross certain lines, but he has not specified what those inappropriate actions would be.

The background: The White House announced Sunday night that it would remove its troops from northern Syria. By Wednesday morning, Turkey had begun carrying out a military operation against Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria.

The U.S. military relied on the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is led by the Kurds, as the local ground force fighting ISIS. But Ankara considers the Syrian Kurds terrorists who are an extension of a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.

Lawmakers have lined up to slam Trump's shift in strategy, arguing it will lay the foundation for a resurgence of ISIS and lead to a potential slaughter of Kurdish forces. Several of Trump's most ardent GOP allies -- including Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThis week: House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime Congress set for clash over surveillance reforms Five things to know about emerging US, Taliban peace deal MORE (R-S.C.) and Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyThis week: House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime Overnight Defense: GOP lawmaker takes unannounced trip to Syria | Taliban leader pens New York Times op-ed on peace talks | Cheney blasts paper for publishing op-ed Liz Cheney blasts NYT for publishing op-ed by Taliban leader MORE (R-Wyo.) -- have been among the most outspoken critics of the move.

Trump said in a statement Wednesday that the Turkish offensive is a "bad idea," but he has remained committed to the idea of getting the U.S. out of what he describes as "endless wars." His rhetoric in recent days has grown increasingly dispassionate about the potential consequences, even as Republicans urge him to reconsider.

Asked Wednesday whether he was concerned that ISIS prisoner escapees might surface elsewhere, Trump downplayed the idea by saying they would go to Europe.

No love for the Kurds?: Trump has repeatedly highlighted that the Kurds and Turkey have a long history of conflict, and he suggested Wednesday that the Kurds were only allied with the U.S. because it was in their interest.

An 'unfortunate' decision: Retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who previously served as Trump's national security adviser, said Thursday that the president's decision to pull back U.S. troops from northeast Syria was "unfortunate."

McMaster, who parted ways with the Trump administration in April 2018 over policy differences, said Trump and others who oppose an ongoing U.S. troop presence in Syria are "missing" a "more full understanding" of its importance.

"I believe that the troop commitment in northeastern Syria was immensely helpful to U.S. security and U.S. interests in a number of ways," McMaster said at an event at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he now serves as chairman of its Center on Military and Political Power.

"So what's unfortunate, I think, about the decision is I think a lot of people who may have been talking to the president or the president himself may not have focused maybe on the importance of that force in connection with defeating the terrorist organization, but also having the influence necessary to ultimately help end this catastrophe across the greater Middle East," McMaster added.

Other nations push back: Norway's foreign minister said Thursday that the country will suspend arms sales to Turkey over that country's military operations against the Kurdish forces.

Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide told AFP in an email that the country will pause the sales of defensive arms or other weaponry to Turkey's government, which has faced international criticism for the attack.

"Given that the situation is complex and changing quickly, the foreign ministry as a precautionary measure will not handle any new demands for exports of defence material or material for multiple uses ... to Turkey," Soreide said.

Biden's reaction: Former Vice President Joe Biden hit Trump's decision on Thursday, saying Trump sold out Kurdish allies in Syria and betrayed U.S. troops. 

"He betrayed our brave troops, who sacrificed alongside them," Biden said in a statement. "He betrayed our word as a nation -- raising doubts among our allies around the world about America's security commitments." 

"And he betrayed our security by green lighting a Turkish incursion that will create chaos and destruction, setting conditions for ISIS to regrow," he continued. 

Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday that the Kurds "didn't help us in the Second World War, they didn't help us with Normandy as an example. They mentioned names of different battles. But they're there to help us with their land and that's a different thing."

Biden said that comment "adds insult to very real injury." 

"By that standard, only Canada, a handful of European allies, and others could ever hope for America to come to their defense -- and even they might have doubts after Trump's performance," he said. 

 

LATEST ON DELAYED UKRAINE AID AND IMPEACHMENT DRAMA: Two men who aided efforts by Trump's personal attorney Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiBill Barr is trying his best to be Trump's Roy Cohn Former US ambassador Yovanovitch lands a book deal: report Kerry responds to Trump accusation he violated Logan Act: 'Another presidential lie' MORE to investigate Biden were arrested on campaign finance violation charges Wednesday.

Federal authorities arrested Florida businessmen Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, alleging that they violated campaign finance laws in order to funnel money to numerous Republican committees, including a $325,000 contribution in May 2018 to a pro-Trump super PAC called America First Action.

The charges allege that the two men participated in a straw donor scheme to provide money to political candidates.

Fruman and Parnas, both U.S. citizens who were born in Ukraine, are expected to appear in federal court Thursday in Virginia. The U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan has been investigating both men.

Democrats make moves: After the arrests were announced on Thursday, a trio of House committees pursuing the impeachment inquiry against Trump issued subpoenas to the two men for documents related to their work with Ukrainian officials and political contributions in the U.S.

Trump distances himself from arrests: The president said Thursday that he doesn't know the two business associates of his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani who were arrested on campaign finance charges, but acknowledged he may have been photographed with them at some point.

"I don't know those gentleman. Now, it's possible I have a picture with them because I have a picture with everybody," Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House.

"I don't know them, I don't know about them, I don't know what they do," Trump added. "I don't know, maybe they were clients of Rudy's. You'd have to ask Rudy."

A photograph of Trump smiling with Giuliani and the businessmen, Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, has been published by various news outlets.

Trump acknowledged Thursday that he may have been photographed with the two men at a fundraiser.

McMaster weighs in: Retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who was ousted as President Trump's national security adviser in 2018, said Thursday "it's absolutely not" appropriate to solicit foreign interference in U.S. elections.

Speaking at an event hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he now serves as a chairman for one of its centers, McMaster said he never witnessed Trump solicit foreign help in domestic political issues during his time at the White House.

"In all of the conversations, all of the meetings I was privy to, there was never any incident, I'll just tell you, never any incident of the president soliciting any kind of assistance for anything domestic, political," said McMaster, who served as national security adviser from February 2017 to April 2018.

"It just didn't happen when I was there or in any conversation that I was privy to and part of, which was I think almost all the, really all the head of state calls," he added.

But when asked generally if it is appropriate to solicit foreign interference in the political process, McMaster replied, "Of course, no. No, it's absolutely not."

McMaster demurred when asked for his reaction to a rough transcript of a call between Trump and Ukraine's president, as well as a whistleblower complaint alleging Trump pressured the Ukrainians to investigate former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden faces do-or-die primary in South Carolina Democrats view Sanders as having best shot to defeat Trump: poll Karl Rove: 'Long way to go' for Sanders to capture nomination: 'The field is splintered' MORE and his son Hunter. McMaster said he read the documents but couldn't "really add anything" to what has already been said about them.

House Democrats opened an impeachment inquiry into Trump after an intelligence community whistleblower alleged the president pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Biden, a leading 2020 presidential candidate, and his son.

A rough transcript of a July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky released by the White House last month showed Trump asked Zelensky to work with his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrPresident Trump's assault on checks and balances: Five acts in four weeks The Hill's Morning Report - Sanders steamrolls to South Carolina primary, Super Tuesday This week: House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime MORE to investigate Biden's role in the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor during the Obama administration.

Trump has maintained that he did nothing wrong, repeatedly characterizing his call with Zelensky as "perfect."

Read more from The Hill about the Trump-Ukraine controversy here:

-- Making sense of the key players in the Trump-Ukraine controversy

-- Five things to know about arrest of Giuliani associates

-- House committees subpoena Giuliani associates

-- READ: Indictment of Giuliani contacts who aided in Ukraine investigation

-- Gardner dodges questions about Trump's call for Biden probe

-- Democratic senators press Pompeo for answers on dismissal of ambassador to Ukraine

   

ICYMI

-- The Hill: US soldier in Syria: 'I am ashamed for the first time in my career'

-- The Hill: Trump confirms death of al Qaeda bomb-maker in Yemen

-- The Hill: Pence open to releasing transcripts of call with Ukraine

-- The Hill: Syria says it won't resume talks with US-backed Kurdish forces amid Turkish onslaught

-- The Hill: Erdogan threatens to release 3.6 million refugees into Europe if it calls offensive an 'occupation'

-- The Hill: Trump's UN envoy warns Turkey of potential 'consequences' in Syria

-- The Hill: Amid questions of legality on delaying Ukraine aid, White House shifted authority: report