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Overnight Defense: Trump's Syria envoy wasn't consulted on withdrawal | McConnell offers resolution urging Trump to rethink Syria | Diplomat says Ukraine aid was tied to political investigations

Overnight Defense: Trump's Syria envoy wasn't consulted on withdrawal | McConnell offers resolution urging Trump to rethink Syria | Diplomat says Ukraine aid was tied to political investigations
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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: The Trump administration's special envoy for Syria and the anti-ISIS coalition said Tuesday he was not consulted on President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE's decision this month to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, special envoy James Jeffrey said he was not on a phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that preceded Trump's decision but argued that he was "very thoroughly briefed on it."

Still, pressed by Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyBipartisan, bicameral group unveils 8 billion coronavirus proposal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms Senate GOP open to confirming Yellen to be Biden's Treasury secretary MORE (R-Utah) on whether he was apprised of Trump's decision to withdraw from Syria, Jeffrey said "that specific decision, I was not [told] in advance."

His defense: Jeffrey defended the Trump administration to the several senators stunned that he wasn't consulted by arguing former Presidents George W. Bush and Obama made decisions without him in Iraq where he served as a charge d'affaires and ambassador.

"In my current job, I feel that my views, through Secretary Pompeo have been brought repeatedly and frequently and, I think in many cases, effectively," he said.

Asked later by Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyOvernight Defense: Defense bill among Congress's year-end scramble | Iranian scientist's assassination adds hurdles to Biden's plan on nuclear deal | Navy scrapping USS Bonhomme Richard after fire Supreme Court declines to hear case challenging unlimited super PAC fundraising Trump supporters demonstrate across the country following Biden-Harris win MORE (D-Ore.) whether he would have advised the president on a plan to pull back without advancing Syria, Russia, Iran and ISIS's interests, Jeffrey said he "would have tried."

"I don't really know why we have someone with the title special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS if they are not consulted before the president takes the most significant single action affecting U.S. interests in Syria and the future of ISIS during his presidency, and I think it speaks to the utter chaos of American foreign policy," Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Defense: Defense bill among Congress's year-end scramble | Iranian scientist's assassination adds hurdles to Biden's plan on nuclear deal | Navy scrapping USS Bonhomme Richard after fire Biden faces new Iran challenges after nuclear scientist killed New Jersey to halt indoor sports, cap outside gatherings MORE (D-Conn.) said.

Timing: Jeffrey was testifying at the first of three hearings scheduled this week on Trump's decision to withdraw from Syria and Turkey's subsequent military offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces.

Trump's decision has been widely criticized in Congress as leaving the Kurds to be slaughtered by Turkey. Ankara considers the Kurds terrorists connected to a Turkish Kurdish insurgency, but the United States relied on the Kurds to be the ground force in the fight against ISIS.

Tuesday's hearing was happening as a five-day ceasefire negotiated by Vice President Pence with Erdoğan was expiring, and as Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinScarborough says he'll never return to Republican Party after GOP supported Trump Will Biden choose a values-based or transactional foreign policy? Russian vessel threatens to ram US warship in disputed waters in Sea of Japan MORE reached a deal for Turkey and Russia to jointly control territory near Syria's border with Turkey.

Trump has defended his decision as fulfilling a campaign promise to end "endless wars," despite the fact that other U.S. officials have said the troops will stay elsewhere in the region. But lawmakers have said the withdrawal gave the green light for Turkey to invade.

'Not inevitable': On Tuesday, Jeffery said Turkey's offensive was "not inevitable."

He pushed back on senators' characterization that Trump got "rolled" by Erdoğan and that the withdrawal led to Turkey's invasion.

Romney asked Jeffrey if he was wrong to think that "Erdoğan basically said, 'We're coming in, get out of the way,' and America blinked."

"It isn't that we got out of the way because we were not militarily in the way," Jeffrey replied, adding later that Erdoğan's offensive was "absolutely" unrelated to the withdrawal.

Unconvinced: Jeffrey's argument was that Trump's initial withdrawal just involved a couple dozen troops at two outposts that were only tasked with observing whether there was cross-border fire, and that the subsequent withdrawal of the rest of the 1,000 U.S. troops in northeast Syria was a "prudent" defensive step after Turkey expanded its offensive.

Romney was unconvinced.

"Our president told President Erdoğan that we would be pulling out our troops, we did so and they attacked within a matter of hours," he said. "And you say those are unrelated, but it would seem to me there was a relationship."

Pressed later by Murphy whether U.S. forces were a deterrent to Turkey, Jeffrey said "absolutely not" 

"I think our soldiers on the ground were led to believe something fundamentally different," Murphy shot back, "so query as to how our soldiers who carried out the mission felt that they were betraying the Kurds if ultimately part of the reason for being there wasn't to protect them against the very nation on their border that was seeking to destroy them."

Esper was on the call: Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperISIS Task Force director resigns from Pentagon post in continued post-election purge The perils of a US troop drawdown to the Afghan army and tribes Acting Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia MORE on Tuesday said he was a part of the phone call between Trump and Erdoğan.

"I listened in to the phone call, of course," Esper told CNN's Christiane Amanpour.

Esper, who took over as Trump's defense secretary in late July, said his main focus since becoming Defense chief has been working with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar to try to establish Erdoğan's desired "safe zone" between southern Turkey and Kurdish forces known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

According to Esper, the process "was going well," saying they had gotten the SDF to agree to back up from the "safe zone" and had created a joint operations base in southern Turkey with Turkish forces.

"I guess at some point the Turks decided it's not moving fast enough, it's not comprehensive enough, whatever the case may be," Esper said.

"We saw pressure building, despite our efforts," he added.

And McConnell introduces resolution: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPressure builds for coronavirus relief with no clear path to deal Top GOP senator warns government funding deal unlikely this week Criminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot MORE (R-Ky.) and other top Republicans on Tuesday introduced a resolution warning the Trump administration against withdrawing U.S. troops from northern Syria.

The measure, according to McConnell, is backed by Republican Sens. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeCongress set for chaotic year-end sprint House Democrats back slower timeline for changing Confederate base names Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee MORE (Okla.), Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrRep. Mark Walker announces Senate bid in North Carolina North Carolina — still purple but up for grabs North Carolina's Mark Walker expected to announce Senate bid MORE (N.C.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamBarr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel Democracy is the MVP in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms MORE (S.C.) and Jim RischJim Elroy RischWill Biden choose a values-based or transactional foreign policy? GOP senator congratulates Biden, says Trump should accept results Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee MORE (Idaho) -- the chairmen of the Armed Services, Intelligence, Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees, respectively.

"Withdrawing from Syria will invite more of the chaos that breeds terrorism and creates a vacuum our adversaries will certainly fill," McConnell said from the Senate floor. The resolution calls on President Trump to halt the pullback of U.S. forces and warns that a "precipitous withdrawal" would "create vacuums." It also urges Trump to rescind his invitation for the Turkish president to visit the White House next month and opposes Turkey's military action.

"The Senate needs to speak up. We cannot effectively support our partners on the ground without a military presence," McConnell said.

 

IMPEACHMENT INQUIRY BOMBSHELL TESTIMONY: A top diplomat to Ukraine on Tuesday told House investigators that he believed the Trump administration withheld aid to Ukraine in an effort to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch politically motivated investigations, according to multiple sources familiar with his testimony. 

One source told The Hill that William Taylor said the U.S ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, told him that security aid to Ukraine could have been held up in part because of a push for Ukraine to publicly announce probes into the 2016 presidential election as well as one of Trump's top 2020 political opponents, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump Cruz urges Supreme Court to take up Pennsylvania election challenge MORE

"It's clear he thought there was" a quid pro quo, another source echoed.

Most damning testimony yet: Most Democrats emerging Tuesday from Taylor's closed-door testimony in the Capitol basement were tight-lipped on details but effusive on a central point: the ambassador, they said, was delivering the most damning testimony yet in the Democrats' impeachment investigation into President Trump.

"Without question the most powerful testimony we've heard," said Rep. Stephen LynchStephen Francis LynchOVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Top general negative for coronavirus, Pentagon chief to get tested after Trump result l Top House lawmakers launch investigation into Pentagon redirecting COVID-19 funds Top House lawmakers launch investigation into Pentagon redirecting COVID-19 funds Overnight Defense: Pentagon redirects pandemic funding to defense contractors | US planning for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May | Anti-Trump GOP group puts ads in military papers MORE (D-Mass.), who sits on the Oversight Committee.

"This testimony is a sea change. I think it could accelerate matters," Lynch continued. "This will, I think, answer more questions than it raises."

About Taylor: Taylor, the U.S. chargé d'affaires of Ukraine, was among the State Department veterans who had raised red flags about the White House campaign, led by Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiTiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump Trump has discussed possible pardons for three eldest children, Kushner: report Talk of self-pardon for Trump heats up MORE, to pressure Zelensky for political favors. The Democrats' impeachment inquiry is now focused squarely on that episode, fueled by allegations from a government whistleblower that Trump had dangled almost $400 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine if Zelensky failed to open the investigations Trump sought.

In text message conversations with several other diplomats, including Sondland, Taylor last month had warned against the "crazy" strategy of withholding U.S. aid "for help with a political campaign." At one point he threatened to quit the State Department in protest.  

Sondland, a wealthy hotel magnate and Trump donor with no previous diplomatic experience, pushed back, saying Taylor was "incorrect" in surmising Trump's intentions. 

"The president has been crystal clear no quid pro quos of any kind," Sondland wrote. 

A call back?: Sondland had testified last week before the three House committees leading the Democrats' impeachment inquiry: Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs. But based on Taylor's testimony Tuesday, some Democrats are already suggesting Sondland will be called back to explain apparent discrepancies.

"I walk away with the impression Mr. Sondland will have some explaining to do," said Rep. Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiHHS scraps celebrity COVID-19 ad campaign aimed at 'defeating despair' Documents show 'political' nature of Trump COVID ad campaign, lawmakers say Trust and transparency are necessary to make COVID-19 vaccine successful MORE (D-Ill.), a member of the Intelligence Committee.

Lynch described Taylor as a "meticulous" note-taker who had kept detailed records of his involvement in the months-long effort by Trump and some of his closest allies to pressure Ukrainian leaders to find dirt on Trump's political rivals. 

"He indicated that he kept extensive notes on all of this," Lynch said.

Filling gaps: Rep. Tom MalinowskiThomas (Tom) MalinowskiFive things to know about Antony Blinken, Biden's pick for State Malinowski beats back GOP challenge in New Jersey House race Phil Murphy says no coronavirus outbreaks in New Jersey linked to Trump fundraiser MORE (D.N.J.), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, also suggested Taylor's testimony was supportive of the central allegations facing Trump on his dealings with Ukraine.

"I would say it certainly filled in many of the remaining gaps in the narrative," Malinowski said. "I would say he remembered some things that previous witnesses have not been able to remember."

Democrats participating in the deposition said Taylor has also stood by his earlier statement that it would be "crazy" to leverage the U.S. financial assistance -- which aimed to combat Russian aggression in Ukraine -- to win a commitment from Zelensky to open such investigations.

"His testimony was withering with respect to some earlier testimony," said Lynch.

Read more of The Hill's coverage of the impeachment inquiry:

-- Trump urged to hire chief strategist for impeachment fight

-- Democrat: Top diplomat's testimony on Ukraine is 'sea change' in impeachment probe

-- Trump compares impeachment inquiry to a 'lynching'

-- Trump 'lynching' comparison draws backlash from lawmakers

-- Officials say foreign governments should not investigate presidential political opponents

-- Putin, Hungarian leader pushed Trump on Ukraine corruption narrative: reports

 

ESPER RECUSING HIMSELF FROM $10B CONTRACT: Defense Secretary Mark Esper will recuse himself from the Pentagon's $10 billion "war cloud" contract competition due to his son's employment with one of the companies that sought the deal, the Defense Department announced Tuesday.

Esper, who in late July ordered a review of the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) program over concerns of bias in the competition, has "attended informational briefings to ensure he had a full understanding of the JEDI program and the universe of options available," chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

"Although not legally required to, he has removed himself from participating in any decision making following the information meetings, due to his adult son's employment with one of the original contract applicants," Hoffman added.

Esper has instead delegated decision making for JEDI to Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist.

About the competition: The JEDI competition is down to final contenders Amazon Web Services and Microsoft to offer cloud computing to supercharge the Department of Defense's (DOD) war capabilities, including on the battlefield.

Amazon has been largely favored to win the lucrative contract -- which could last for up to 10 years, though it begins at only two -- as it says it is best equipped to store the necessary top-secret and highly classified information. 

The companies, along with Oracle, a smaller cloud computing competitor that also sought the deal, have engaged in a bitter, years-long lobbying battle, during which Oracle accused the DOD of favoring Amazon due to conflicts of interest.

The Pentagon statement does not indicate which company Esper's son works for.

The investigations: The DOD announced an investigation into the contract after President Trump threatened to look into whether it was written with a bias toward Amazon, a company the president has previously targeted.

Esper has denied the White House had a hand in deciding to check into the deal and said he had launched the review after hearing concerns from lawmakers.

The Pentagon's inspector general then announced in August that it would investigate potential ethics concerns around the contract, including allegations of possible misconduct in the contract awarding process. That review is taking place alongside Esper's effort.

The contract was previously expected to be awarded this summer, but prior to that, Republican lawmakers issued a series of dueling letters over the contract, some urging the Pentagon to award it quickly and others pressing for it to be stalled amid the allegations of bias.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will hold a press conference in advance of two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers at  6 a.m. at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. Watch the live stream here. 

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer will discuss "The Navy in an Era of Great Power Competition," at 9:30 a.m. at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. 

The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on "The Betrayal of our Syrian Kurdish Partners: How Will American Foreign Policy and Leadership Recover?" with testimony from State Department special representative for Syria James Jeffrey and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood at 10 a.m. in Rayburn House Office Building, room 2172.

U.S. Central Commander Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie and UAE Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba will deliver keynote remarks to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference at 11 a.m. in Washington, D.C. 

The House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security will hold a hearing on "The Trump Administration's Syria Policy: Perspectives from the Field," at 2 p.m. in Rayburn 2154. 

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs will hold a hearing on U.S. policy and assistance in Syria at 2:30 p.m. in Dirksen Senate Office Building, room 124. 

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Russia, Turkey will take joint control of territory held by Kurds in Syria

-- The Hill: Graham, Fox News analyst used map in effort to change Trump's mind on Syria: report

-- The Hill: Senate votes for North Macedonia to join NATO

-- The Hill: Turkey's Erdoğan warns of renewed fighting if Kurds don't withdraw

-- The Hill: Christian groups defend Trump despite opposition to Syria decision

-- The Hill: 15 Afghan policemen killed in Taliban attack

-- The Hill: Iraq contradicts Pentagon, says US forces not approved to stay

-- The Hill: Veterans group backs lawsuits to halt Trump's use of military funding for border wall

-- The Hill: Opinion: Brains, not brawn, matter most in the next war -- and we're not being smart about it

-- The Hill: Opinion: For the US and Israel, a strike against Iran seems inevitable