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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 TrumpGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race Scott Atlas resigns as coronavirus adviser to Trump 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 CruzOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration proceeds with rollback of bird protections despite objections | Trump banking proposal on fossil fuels sparks backlash from libertarians | EU 2019 greenhouse gas emissions down 24 percent Trump's NATO ambassador pledges 'seamless' transition to Biden administration Potential 2024 Republicans flock to Georgia amid Senate runoffs MORE (R-Texas), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstThe Memo: Trump plows ahead with efforts to overturn election More conservatives break with Trump over election claims Peggy Noonan: 'Bogus dispute' by Trump 'doing real damage' 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 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 (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) MenendezDemocrats urge YouTube to remove election misinformation, step up efforts ahead of Georgia runoff Democratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry Trump appointee sparks bipartisan furor for politicizing media agency 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 GrahamGraham: Trump should attend Biden inauguration 'if' Biden wins Biden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Georgia governor rejects Trump's call to 'overrule' elections officials with emergency powers MORE (R-S.C.) and Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenDemocratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing Democratic senators offer bill to make payroll tax deferral optional for federal workers 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 McConnellSenate approves two energy regulators, completing panel On The Money: Biden announces key members of economic team | GOP open to Yellen as Treasury secretary, opposed to budget pick | GAO: Labor Department 'improperly presented' jobless data Senate GOP open to confirming Yellen to be Biden's Treasury secretary 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 BezosElon Musk passes Bill Gates to become world's second-richest person in Bloomberg rankings How space exploration will help to address climate change Bezos makes first donations from billion Earth Fund 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 MattisBiden under pressure to remove Trump transgender military ban quickly Progressive House Democrats urge Biden against Defense chief with contractor ties Trump fires Defense chief Mark Esper 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 WilsonObama said his 'initial instinct' during '09 outburst from Joe Wilson was to 'smack this guy on the head' Democrats raise alarm about new US human rights priorities Democrat Teresa Leger Fernandez defeats Valerie Plame in New Mexico primary MORE (R-S.C.) and John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthThe GOP's debt boogieman is hurting families and derailing our recovery Pelosi, Democrats unveil bills to rein in alleged White House abuses of power GOP, White House struggle to unite behind COVID-19 relief 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 CollinsBiden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Overnight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases Bipartisan Senate group holding coronavirus relief talks amid stalemate 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 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 (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 SchultzOn The Money: Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | JPMorgan: Economy will shrink in first quarter due to COVID-19 spike OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats push Biden to pick Haaland as next Interior secretary | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | Wasserman Schultz pitches climate plan in race to chair Appropriations Wasserman Schultz pitches climate plan in race to chair Appropriations 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 CarterGOP's Carter fends off challenge in Texas Cook Political Report shifts 8 more House races toward Democrats Biden, Democrats see late opportunity in Texas 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'