Overnight Defense: Top general briefs GOP senators on Syria plan | Senators 'encouraged' by briefing | Pence huddles with Republican allies on Syria | Trump nominee sidesteps questions on arms treaties

Overnight Defense: Top general briefs GOP senators on Syria plan | Senators 'encouraged' by briefing | Pence huddles with Republican allies on Syria | Trump nominee sidesteps questions on arms treaties
© Aaron Schwartz

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: A group of GOP senators were briefed at the White House on Thursday about a forthcoming Syria plan from top Pentagon officials.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate confirms Ratcliffe to be Trump's spy chief Abrams announces endorsements in 7 Senate races Schumer dubs GOP 'conspiracy caucus' amid Obama-era probes MORE (R-S.C.) told reporters that the GOP senators were briefed in the White House situation room by Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

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"There's a plan coming together from the Joint Chiefs that I think may work, that may give us what we need to prevent ISIS from coming back. ... I am somewhat encouraged that a plan is coming about that will meet our core objectives in Syria," Graham told reporters. 

Troops in discussion: Graham indicated that troops were a part of the discussion within the administration, and signaled that the number of troops could be in the hundreds.

"All of that's being talked about. Is that enough? Well it's not thousands — is it enough to get the job done?" Graham said, when asked how many U.S. troops would be included in the Pentagon's plan. 

He added that he didn't know if the plan would ultimately be approved by Trump.

Graham did not provide any other details about troops being sent to the Middle East. Pentagon officials told Fox News that the United States is "likely" to send tanks and soldiers into eastern Syria.

Who was there: Sens. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderSenators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day McConnell gives two vulnerable senators a boost with vote on outdoor recreation bill Five unanswered questions on COVID-19 and the 2020 election MORE (R-Tenn.), Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSenators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day GOP senators: More relief needed now Top Republican says Trump greenlit budget fix for VA health care MORE (R-Mo.), Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonHouse chair threatens subpoenas if Pompeo doesn't provide Biden docs he gave Senate GOP Senate confirms Ratcliffe to be Trump's spy chief Schumer dubs GOP 'conspiracy caucus' amid Obama-era probes MORE (R-Wis.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) were among the approximately 10 senators who took part in the White House meeting.

Johnson told NBC News that "we were actually pretty encouraged by what progress is being made in Syria, and kind of what the game plan is."

The background: The White House has faced weeks of backlash from Capitol Hill over President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump in new ad: 'The death toll is still rising.' 'The president is playing golf' Brazil surpasses Russia with second-highest coronavirus case count in the world Trump slams Sessions: 'You had no courage & ruined many lives' MORE's decision to pull troops out of northern Syria, paving the way for Turkey's invasion. 

Republicans fumed, warning that it would empower the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and harm the Kurds, who helped the United States fight ISIS. 

Lawmakers are weighing how to respond to Turkey's actions. 

The House previously passed a resolution formally opposing Trump's decision to pull back U.S. troops and calling on Turkey to end its incursion.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMemorial Day weekend deals latest economic blow to travel industry Senate Republicans call on DOJ to investigate Planned Parenthood loans On The Money: Jobless rate exceeds 20 percent in three states | Senate goes on break without passing small business loan fix | Biden pledges to not raise taxes on those making under 0K MORE (R-Ky.) has offered his own resolution, which was met with quick opposition from Democrats. 

Lawmakers in both parties have also introduced legislation to slap new sanctions on Turkey. The House is expected to vote on a sanctions package as soon as next week. 

And Pence meets with Trump allies: The same day, Vice President Pence huddled in the Capitol with Trump’s top allies in the House to discuss “progress” in Syria and other national security issues, meeting participants told The Hill.

Those who met with Pence in the Senate dining room included House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyTrump, GOP go all-in on anti-China strategy The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Mnuchin: More COVID-19 congressional action ahead GOP pulls support from California House candidate over 'unacceptable' social media posts MORE (R-Calif.), GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyHouse GOP to launch China probes beyond COVID-19 Trump campaign launches new fundraising program with House Republicans The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Former Rep. Harman says Russia is trying to exploit America; Mylan's Heather Bresch says US should make strategic reserve in medicines; Trump unveils leaders of 'Warp Speed' MORE (Wyo.), former Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsHillicon Valley: Trump threatens Michigan, Nevada over mail-in voting | Officials call for broadband expansion during pandemic | Democrats call for investigation into Uber-Grubhub deal Trump threatens to withhold Michigan, Nevada funding over mail-in voting Democrats launch probe into Trump's firing of State Department watchdog, Pompeo MORE (R-N.C.), and the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga says supporting small business single most important thing we should do now; Teva's Brendan O'Grady says U.S. should stockpile strategic reserve in drugs like Strategic Oil Reserve House GOP to launch China probes beyond COVID-19 Trump administration preparing to require that some essential drugs be made in US: report MORE of Texas.

That conversation: Cheney, one of the loudest GOP critics of Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds, who have fought for years alongside the U.S. in the war against ISIS, declined to discuss specifics about the meeting but said GOP leaders and Pence talked about “where we are headed from a national security perspective.”

“We’re really grateful the vice president came and took the time,” Cheney said as she emerged from the meeting, “and personally I’m going to ensure that we continue to do everything we can do to fight ISIS to make sure that we can defend the nation, and I think it’s very important for us to continue to stand with our allies around the world.”

It was unclear if impeachment came up during the discussion.

Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, said the meeting with Pence had been scheduled for several days. 

“The vice president wanted to come up and talk about where things stand with respect to Turkey and a number of other issues as well,” Cheney said. 

“The focus was very much on national security.”

Read more from The Hill’s Syria/Turkey coverage:

-- The Hill: Syria says Turkish forces, allies attacked government troops, Kurds

-- The Hill: Three-quarters say they're concerned by situation in Syria: poll

-- The Hill: Pentagon chief rips Turkey over 'unwarranted' Syria invasion

-- The Hill: Pompeo to reporter in Kansas: 'The whole predicate of your question is insane'

 

NUCLEAR COMMAND NOMINEE SIDESTEPS QUESTIONS ON ARMS CONTROL TREATIES: The admiral nominated to lead the U.S. military command in charge of nuclear weapons sidestepped questions Thursday on whether the United States should stay in a pair of treaties arms control advocates fear are on President Trump’s chopping block.

Vice Adm. Charles Richard, the nominee to be commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee he would give the president his “best military advice” on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and Treaty on Open Skies, and listed several pros and cons with each.

But he would not definitively say at his confirmation hearing whether he supports staying in the treaties or withdrawing despite several senators’ attempts to get him to do so.

“I will support any arms control or other treaty that enhances the security of this nation,” Richard said generally when asked about both treaties.

About the treaties: New START, negotiated by the Obama administration, caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads the United States and Russia can have at 1,550 each.

New START is up for renewal in 2021. The Trump administration has indicated it wants to expand the scope of the treaty as a condition of extension, by taking steps such as folding in China and other weapons not currently covered by the agreement.

Supporters of New START say the Trump administration’s conditions are poison pills meant to kill the treaty.

The Open Skies Treaty, meanwhile, allows the pact’s 34 signatories to fly unarmed observation flights over the entire territory of other signatories. The intention is to increase transparency and reduce the risk of military miscalculation.

The United States has also used the treaty in recent years to show support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, flying observation flights in 2018 after Russia seized Ukrainian naval ships and in 2014 after Russia invaded Crimea.

But Republicans for years have accused Russia of violating the treaty by blocking flights over some of its territory, including Kaliningrad and areas near its border with the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

No commitment: Democrats first raised the alarm earlier this month that the administration was considering withdrawing from Open Skies, writing a letter to Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperRoundup: Everything you need to know about COVID-19 today 125 lawmakers urge Trump administration to support National Guard troops amid pandemic House chairmen demand explanation on Trump's 'illegal' withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoKim Jong Un seeks to continue bolstering North Korea's nuclear capabilities, state media says China reports no new COVID-19 cases for first time since outbreak Trump, GOP go all-in on anti-China strategy MORE that said they “understand” a withdrawal is under consideration.

On Thursday, Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonSunday shows preview: States begin to reopen even as some areas in US see case counts increase Senate Republicans call on DOJ to investigate Planned Parenthood loans Overnight Defense: Trump to withdraw US from Open Skies Treaty | Pentagon drops ban on recruits who had virus | FBI says Corpus Christi shooting terror-related MORE (R-Ark.), an ardent opponent of Open Skies, pushed Richard on his case for withdrawing from the treaty.

Cotton asked Richard whether he sees “value in remaining in a treaty where only one side is following the rules” and whether “we have the best satellite constellation in the world.”

“I think this is a lot like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty,” Cotton said, referring to a treaty Trump has already withdrawn from. “Everyone agrees Russia is not complying with it. Everyone agrees it would be best if we brought Russia back into compliance. Everyone agrees it would be great if everyone had a pony, as well. But we’ve spent years trying to get Russia into compliance with this treaty, and in the meantime, Russia has continued to gain significant intelligence advantage over the United States.”

Richard told Cotton his analysis of Russia’s violations was “quite correct,” but would not commit one way or the other on the treaty.

 

PELOSI, DEMS SEND MESSAGE ON FOREIGN POLICY WITH HIGH-PROFILE TRIP: House Democrats are sending an implicit message that President Trump and his administration aren’t the only ones setting U.S. foreign policy.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump slams Sessions: 'You had no courage & ruined many lives' Lies, damned lies and the truth about Joe Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Mnuchin: More COVID-19 congressional action ahead MORE (D-Calif.) and her party are seeking to reassure foreign allies about U.S. policies, including the U.S. role in Syria and the broader Middle East, even as they move toward impeaching the president.

The most high-profile example came when Pelosi arrived in Jordan and Afghanistan over the weekend unannounced with seven other Democrats and one Republican.

Timing: The trip was planned months before Trump’s announcement of a withdrawal of troops from northern Syria, and it is common practice for lawmakers and U.S. officials not to announce trips to the Middle East beforehand for security reasons.

But the timing was notable coming amid heightened tensions between Trump and Democrats, who have launched a process that could lead to the president’s removal from office. It is also just more than a year before the presidential election, with the Democratic campaign to elect a nominee already at a fever pitch.

Rep. Stephen LynchStephen Francis LynchHouse Democrats object to Trump sending ventilators to Russia Hillicon Valley: House Dems push for B in state election funds | Amazon suspends over 6,000 sellers for price gouging | Google says 18M malicious coronavirus emails sent daily House Democrats push hard for mail-in voting funds MORE (D-Mass.), who was on the trip, emphasized that the timing was just a coincidence. Still, the Syria withdrawal drastically altered the context of the conversations between the lawmakers and the leaders of both Jordan and Afghanistan, who expressed open concerns, Lynch said, about the commitment of the United States to its allies overseas.

“That was palpable,” Lynch said. “There is concern, I think, on everyone’s part.”

“The message to the Jordanians was: ‘The U.S. and Jordan have had a long relationship of mutual support, and we continue that,’ ” he added. “In Afghanistan, it was a similar expression of congressional support.”

Days before leaving on the trip, the House last week overwhelmingly passed a resolution opposing Trump’s decision on Syria. Just 60 Republicans opposed the measure.

The Hill’s Rebecca Kheel has more here.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthyRyan McCarthyCongress must stop the attempt to dismantle military medicine Defense budget brawl looms after pandemic Overnight Defense: Reports of sexual assaults increase across military | Army defends bringing cadets back for Trump graduation speech MORE, Undersecretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Robert Burke; and Rep. Rob WittmanRobert (Rob) Joseph WittmanOvernight Defense: 32 dead in ISIS-claimed attack in Kabul | Trump says Taliban could 'possibly' overrun Afghan government when US leaves | House poised for Iran war powers vote next week Republicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel The Suburban Caucus: Solutions for America's suburbs MORE (R-Va.) will speak at the Military Reporters & Editors Association annual conference beginning at 8:30 a.m. in Arlington, Va. 

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert WilkieRobert Leon WilkieVA gave hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 to 1,300 veterans How New Hampshire built a mammoth PPE supply chain from China Schumer demands answers in use of unproven coronavirus drug on veterans MORE will speak on "Honoring America's Veterans Through Improved Care and Services,” at 2 p.m. at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. 

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Cornyn seeks to clarify remarks about 'ethnic cleansing' of Kurds, U.S. troop removal

-- The Hill: Russian judge orders ex-Marine to be detained through December on espionage charges

-- The Hill: Ukraine's president discussed Trump pressure weeks before July call: reports

-- The Hill: House Homeland Security Committee subpoenas security officials for testimony on terrorism

-- The Hill: Mattis's office blasts ex-aide over tell-all book

-- The Hill: Graham implores Trump on Syria: 'Listen to your commanders'

-- The Hill: Senate Democrat urges review of DHS's handling of personal information

-- The Hill: Opinion: Withdrawal of troops must not end US involvement with Syria