Overnight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families

Overnight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families
© 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: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan got an earful from a handful of GOP senators during a White House meeting this week. 

Republican senators said they raised concerns about Turkey's military incursion into northern Syria against Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-allied rebel group, while also objecting to Ankara's reliance on a Russian military system.

Two GOP senators who attended the meeting described Erdoğan as "defensive" as the lawmakers raised their concerns in the Oval Office meeting, which was also attended by President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders says he wouldn't 'drop dead' if Trump decided on universal healthcare Overnight Health Care: Trump officials lay groundwork for May reopening | Democrats ramp up talks with Mnuchin on next relief deal | Fauci says death toll could be around 60,000 Hillicon Valley: State officials push for more election funds | Coronavirus surveillance concerns ramp up pressure for privacy bill | Senators warned not to use Zoom | Agencies ask FCC to revoke China Telecom's license MORE

Trump, according to senators, largely hung back and let the lawmakers take the lead with the Turkish president. 

"It's up to Turkey now, there's a win-win awaiting them," Graham told reporters. "I hope Turkey understands that most of us want to salvage this relationship, but there's some things we can't allow to happen." 

Asked about Erdoğan's response to senators, Graham added that the Turkish leader was "very defensive." 

A refresher: Earlier this year, Turkey took delivery of a Russian S-400 air defense system. The United States, concerned about the S-400 gathering data on the U.S. F-35 fighter jet, responded by booting Turkey out of the F-35 program.

A law known as the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) also requires sanctions for doing business with Russia's defense industry.

The meeting: When Trump and Erdoğan met on Wednesday afternoon, Graham, Risch and Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzLawmakers announce legislation to fund government purchases of oil Overnight Energy: Oil giants meet with Trump at White House | Interior extends tenure of controversial land management chief | Oil prices tick up on hopes of Russia-Saudi deal Oil giants meet at White House amid talk of buying strategic reserves MORE (R-Texas), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstAs we have united when tested in the past, Americans are working together to fight coronavirus The Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders exits, clearing Biden's path to nomination Democrats target Ernst in bid to expand Senate map MORE (R-Iowa) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) were also in attendance and repeatedly brought up Turkey's use of the S-400.

Senators view the Russian system as a threat to the F-35 and urged Erdoğan to drop his use of the Russian system. 

"The most important thing is to say that they can't buy the S-400 without getting sanctions. And what I wanted to do is be clear that I think everybody would like to have a good relationship with Turkey, but he can't be heading in the direction of Russia and think we're not going to have sanctions," Scott said about the meeting. 

Risch added that Erdoğan left the meeting with a "very, very clear picture" that he will not be able to both keep the S-400 and get use of the U.S.'s F-35s.

But no Turkey sanctions bill for now: Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischTensions boil over on Senate floor amid coronavirus debate  Overnight Defense: Pentagon confirms Iran behind recent rocket attack | Esper says 'all options on the table' | Military restricts service member travel over coronavirus Graham warns of 'aggressive' response to Iran-backed rocket attack that killed US troops MORE (R-Idaho) said Thursday he does not think now is the right time to pass a Turkey sanctions bill, further dampening the prospects such legislation passing the Senate.

"I think probably it's best we don't pass the sanctions bill at this moment," Risch said. "But having said that, they're there. I think the mood of the Congress, which we explained to President Erdoğan very clearly, was not in his favor. And that we could probably pass any one of those three bills if we simply put it for a vote."

Risch was speaking to reporters a day after meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the White House. He described the meeting as "spirited" and said he focused on impressing upon Erdogan the pitfalls of Turkey's purchase of a Russian missile defense system.

The next few weeks: Despite his current opposition to passing a sanctions bill, Risch said he still hopes to take up his and Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezHillicon Valley: Facebook launches portal for coronavirus information | EU sees spike in Russian misinformation on outbreak | Senate Dem bill would encourage mail-in voting | Lawmakers question safety of Google virus website Democratic senators press Google over privacy of coronavirus screening site Menendez calls for 'Marie Yovanovitch bill' to protect foreign service employees MORE's (D-N.J.) sanctions bill in his committee in the "next few weeks."

"Let's get it ready," Risch said of his plan to mark up the bill. "I want them to know we're serious -- I say I want them to know we're serious, they know we're serious. I am absolutely convinced when President Erdoğan left, he probably has a very different view than he did when he landed here."

The background: In the wake of Turkey's invasion of northern Syria, the House overwhelmingly passed a Turkey sanctions bill.

In the Senate, two sanctions bill have been introduced: one from Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamBipartisan senators call on China to close all wet markets Bipartisan lawmakers call for global 'wet markets' ban amid coronavirus crisis Trump attacks WHO amid criticism of his coronavirus response MORE (R-S.C.) and Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Former Trump advisor Bossert says to test the well, not ill; Senate standoff on next relief bill Pelosi digs in on next coronavirus bill: 'We have made our statement' Senate blocks dueling coronavirus relief plans MORE (D-Md.) and one from Risch and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Menendez.

Prospects for taking up a bill were already low after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Former Trump advisor Bossert says to test the well, not ill; Senate standoff on next relief bill McCarthy slams Democrats on funding for mail-in balloting Harris, Ocasio-Cortez among Democrats calling for recurring direct payments in fourth coronavirus bill MORE (R-Ky.) warned lawmakers against rushing to sanction a NATO ally such as Turkey.

Stalled for negotiations: On Thursday, Risch described not wanting to pass a bill right now as a way to maintain good faith during negotiations over the S-400.

"When you're sitting at the negotiating table, it's best everybody put their swords down while they're talking," he said.

Risch also said there are "real discussions" going on and that Erdoğan left Wednesday's meeting "very clearly aware of the decisions that he has to make and the repercussions for those decisions." 

He added he thinks the Senate should take up a bill "at a point that I believe that the negotiations have fallen off the rails enough that we need to take some more action for them to rethink it or that it's not going anywhere."

 

AMAZON CHALLENGES PENTAGON'S 'WAR CLOUD' DECISION: Amazon is taking the battle over the Pentagon's $10 billion cloud-computing contract to federal court. 

Amazon's cloud-computing arm plans to challenge the Pentagon's surprising decision to award the contract to Microsoft in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, an Amazon Web Services (AWS) spokesperson told The Hill on Thursday. 

"Numerous aspects of the JEDI evaluation process contained clear deficiencies, errors and unmistakable bias - and it's important that these matters be examined and rectified," an AWS spokesperson said in a statement, referring to the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract.

Earlier...: Last week, Amazon filed paperwork declaring it will challenge the decision in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which hears monetary claims against the government. 

The development was first reported by The Federal Times, which obtained a video of AWS CEO Andy Jassy telling employees at an all-hands meeting that the company plans to "protest the decision and push the government to shine a light on what really happened."

"AWS is uniquely experienced and qualified to provide the critical technology to the U.S. military needs, and remains committed to supporting the DoD's [Defense Department's] modernization effort," the AWS spokesperson said. "We also believe it's critical for our country that the government and its elected leaders administer procurements objectively and in a manner that is free from political influence."

The challenge: Amazon's comments make it clear that the company's complaints will revolve around whether the Pentagon's decision to award the contract to Microsoft was swayed by President Trump, who publicly called on the Department of Defense to investigate the contract over the summer. Trump questioned if the process unfairly favored Amazon, which was widely seen as the front-runner.

A challenge from AWS alleging that the president improperly intervened in the contract process would be unprecedented, experts told The Hill last month.

"We've had other contracts that have had major issues which were fought out in the public but none of which I'm aware where the president is alleged to have somehow tried to influence the procurement process," Dave Drabkin, a former top procurement executive at the General Services Administration, said at the time.

Amazon is the No. 1 player in the cloud-computing space with an approximately 48 percent market share. The military has given AWS, which provides cloud-computing for the CIA, its highest data management certification.

Trump interference? The Pentagon surprised industry watchers when it awarded the lucrative cloud-computing contract to Microsoft last month. 

Microsoft did not immediately respond to The Hill's request for comment about Amazon's action on Thursday. 

Over the summer, Trump publicly questioned whether the JEDI contract was written with Amazon in mind, touting the argument that had been circulated for months by Amazon's cloud-computing rival Oracle and a procession of Republican lawmakers. 

The president's public remarks about JEDI, paired with his open antagonism toward Amazon CEO Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosJeff Bezos gives 0M to Feeding America amid coronavirus pandemic Fired Amazon striker demands Bezos protect workers in open letter Hillicon Valley: Coronavirus deal includes funds for mail-in voting | Twitter pulled into fight over virus disinformation | State AGs target price gouging | Apple to donate 10M masks MORE, has raised serious questions over whether Trump weighed in on Microsoft's behalf in order to burn a rival.

A speechwriter for Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisDebrief — America needs a 'ferociously bipartisan' coronavirus commission Mattis defends Pentagon IG removed by Trump House Armed Services chairman expresses confidence in Esper amid aircraft carrier coronavirus crisis MORE alleged in a new book that Trump wanted to "screw" Amazon by giving the contract to another company.

 

LAWMAKERS UNDER PRESSURE TO PASS BENEFITS FIX FOR MILITARY FAMILIES: Lawmakers and stakeholder groups are pushing for legislation to be enacted this year that would help families of deceased military members have more money in survivor benefits.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are pushing to end a requirement that reduces the amount of money military families receive in survivor benefits. They're also pushing to get legislation enacted that would fix a provision of President Trump's 2017 tax law that inadvertently raised taxes on military survivor benefits received by children.

Both changes have overwhelming bipartisan support and have been included in separate bills that have passed the House. But it remains to be seen if they get enacted this year. 

"We're very hopeful," said Candace Wheeler, senior adviser for policy and legislation at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. "We believe it is the intent of Congress to do both, and it's just a matter of time."

The current programs: There are two programs that provide survivor benefits to the families of deceased military members. 

One is a Department of Defense (DOD) program. Military retirees pay into this program so their spouses can receive benefits when they die. The program also provides benefits to the surviving spouses or children of service members who die in the line of duty. The second program, a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) program, goes to the spouses or children of service members who die in the line of duty or of veterans whose death is related to their military service.

The amount that a spouse receives under the VA program reduces the amount that he or she receives under the DOD program on a dollar-for-dollar basis. For example, if someone is entitled to $2,000 under the DOD program and $500 under the VA program in a month, they would only receive $2,000, rather than $2,500. This offset is commonly referred to as the "widow's tax."

DOD has estimated that about 65,000 surviving spouses are subject to the benefit offset.

The issue: The offset for spouses has led many military families whose relatives were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan to choose to put the DOD benefit in the names of the surviving children, rather than the names of the surviving spouses. This allows the families to receive the full amount of benefits under the DOD and VA programs in the short term. However, the DOD benefits then disappear when the children reach adulthood.

"It's already a tough life to be a widow and to have your spouse make the ultimate sacrifice," said Traci Voelke, whose husband was killed in a vehicle accident in Afghanistan in 2012. "There's no reason we should have to make these complex financial decisions in the wake of our grief."

Lawmaker efforts: The House passed a version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in July that included a provision, based on legislation offered by Reps. Joe WilsonAddison (Joe) Graves WilsonThe myth about Puerto Rican statehood that won't go away Overnight Defense: Republicans sound alarm on Taliban deal | Trump speaks with Taliban leader | 19 states sue over border wall funding | Pentagon pushes back on NY Times report about coronavirus response House Republicans sound the alarm on Taliban deal MORE (R-S.C.) and John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthHouse Democrats plead with key committee chairman to allow remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic Kentucky Democrat: House lawmakers will not vote remotely during outbreak Dem Congressman: Coronavirus stimulus should be bigger than 2008 MORE (D-Ky.), that would eliminate the widow's tax and allow surviving spouses who put the DOD benefit in their children's names to reclaim the benefit as a spousal benefit.

The Senate-passed version of the NDAA doesn't include the elimination of the widow's tax. However, legislation on the topic from Sens. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTwo Democrats roll out bill to protect inspectors general from politically motivated firing Senators demand more details from Trump on intel watchdog firing Senators push for changes to small business aid MORE (R-Maine) has more than 70 co-sponsors, and the Senate in September voted 94-0 to instruct the NDAA conference committee to include the elimination in the final version of the bill.

The hold-up: Democrats and Republicans, though, have hit a roadblock in conference committee negotiations on the NDAA over the use of military funds for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. That led Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeKudlow slams senators who allegedly traded stock before pandemic House Republicans threaten pushback on Saudi Arabia amid oil market slump Navy chief resigns amid uproar over handling of aircraft carrier coronavirus crisis MORE (R-Okla.) to introduce a "skinny" NDAA as a backup. That bill would extend necessary authorities to keep DOD operations going but doesn't include the widow's tax provision.

 

HOUSE LAWMAKERS GRILL VA ON WATCHDOG REPORT: The House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) funding on Thursday held a hearing to review a watchdog report on whistleblower protections at the agency, reports The Hill's Sutton Dunwoodie.

The report from the VA inspector general detailed how the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) failed to conduct thorough investigations into allegations of wrongdoing, protect whistleblowers from retaliation or hold underperforming executives accountable in its first two years.

The report even highlighted one instance where OAWP instigated a retaliatory investigation against a whistleblower, despite its mandate to protect whistleblowers. 

About the agency: The agency was created by President Trump in April 2017 through an executive order and made permanent through the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, signed in June 2017.

Tamara Bonzanto, who took over as head of OAWP in January 2019, testified before the panel, telling lawmakers she had been reforming the agency. Bonzanto said there is currently an action plan in place to address all 22 recommendations made in the report by the inspector general. 

Lawmakers not pleased: But subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman SchultzDeborah (Debbie) Wasserman SchultzTop health official Fauci: People in US not easily getting coronavirus testing 'is a failing' Sanders poised for big Super Tuesday Establishment Democrats rallying behind Biden MORE (D-Fla.) told Bonzanto she feared the damage done by her predecessors would be difficult to reverse.

"The damage to the culture at the VA, which was already pretty bad to begin with, I fear that we have many years to go until that's improved to where someone would feel comfortable complaining about misconduct for fear of eventually losing the job or feeling the need to leave because the culture was untenable for them to continue," Wasserman Schultz said.

The fiscal 2020 budget request calls for increasing funding for OAWP from $17.7 million to $22.2 million. Bonzanto said the funding increase is needed to fulfill the agency's mandate of educating and training VA employees on the rights of whistleblowers.

Ranking Member John CarterJohn Rice CarterHegar advances to Democratic runoff in Texas Senate race The 14 other key races to watch on Super Tuesday Gun control group plans to spend million in Texas in 2020 MORE (R-Texas) thanked Bonzanto and VA Inspector General Michael Missal for undertaking the needed reforms.

"I commend you both, you're taking on a big job. It's a tough job, I wouldn't want to do it myself," Carter said."

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Afghanistan first lady Rula Ghani will speak on the progress of women and their role in the peace process in Afghanistan at 2 p.m. at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. 

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes

-- The Hill: Veterans face growing threat from online disinformation

-- The Hill: 2020 Dems put focus on stemming veteran suicides

-- The Hill: Michigan city to pay veteran wrongfully detained by ICE $190,000

-- The Hill: Pentagon watchdog declines to investigate hold on Ukraine aid

-- The Hill: Judge rules American-born woman who joined ISIS not a US citizen

-- The Hill: Sanders, Warren speak out against Israel-Gaza violence

-- The Hill: Second person heard call suggesting Trump cared more about 'investigations' than Ukraine: AP

-- The Hill: North Korea says US offered to resume nuclear talks in December

-- The Hill: Opinion: Stranded suspected American ISIS fighter to be sent to US

-- The Hill: Erdoğan says he returned Trump's letter warning him not to be 'a tough guy' or 'fool'