Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Deal on defense bill proves elusive | Hill, Holmes offer damaging testimony | Trump vows to block Navy from ousting officer from SEALs

Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Deal on defense bill proves elusive | Hill, Holmes offer damaging testimony | Trump vows to block Navy from ousting officer from SEALs
© Greg Nash

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: Plans to finish negotiations on the annual defense policy bill by the end of the week are being tripped up by entrenched positions over President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Trump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Seven years after Sandy Hook, the politics of guns has changed MORE's border wall, Space Force and cancer-linked "forever chemicals."

Comments from top lawmakers on the House and Senate Armed Services committees on Thursday signaled wide gaps persist on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), despite both sides saying earlier this week that they expected to finish negotiations in the coming days.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeLankford to be named next Senate Ethics chairman Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' Gabbard calls for congressional inquiry over Afghanistan war report MORE (R-Okla.) said he is hopeful an agreement in principle can be reached before the end of the week, but House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: House passes compromise defense bill | Turkey sanctions advance in Senate over Trump objections | Top general says military won't be 'raping, burning and pillaging' after Trump pardons House passes defense bill to establish Space Force, paid family leave for federal workers Pentagon leaders: Trump clemencies won't affect military order and discipline MORE (D-Wash.) was less optimistic.

"I don't know, it's getting more difficult," Smith said Thursday when asked about finishing negotiations this week.

Pointing fingers: Inhofe and Smith each blamed the other chamber's leaders -- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSherrod Brown backs new North American trade deal: 'This will be the first trade agreement I've ever voted for' McConnell: Bevin pardons 'completely inappropriate' House panel to hold hearing, vote on Trump's new NAFTA proposal MORE (R-Ky.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Sherrod Brown backs new North American trade deal: 'This will be the first trade agreement I've ever voted for' Overnight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Turf war derails push on surprise medical bills | Bill would tax e-cigarettes to pay for anti-vaping campaign | .5M ad blitz backs vulnerable Dems on drug prices MORE (D-Calif.) -- for the lack of progress.

"Sen. Inhofe is negotiating with me in good faith, and we're meeting on a regular basis," Smith said. "Meanwhile, McConnell's on the floor saying Democrats don't want to do the defense bill because they're obsessed with impeachment, while we're negotiating it trying to get an agreement. And the reason that's a problem is because it begins to appear that Sen. McConnell doesn't want a bill -- he wants a partisan argument."

In a floor speech Thursday, McConnell accused House Democrats of being "so intent on picking fights with the White House that they decided to play partisan games with our armed forces."

Inhofe, meanwhile, said he has received a letter from Pelosi's staff saying she would not bring a defense policy bill to the floor without provisions related to a class of chemicals known as PFAS, which have been leaching into the water supply near military sites.

"A staffer of Pelosi today said that without something in the bill that's not going to be in the bill she's will not bring it to the floor," Inhofe said Wednesday.

Pelosi's office denied the existence of such a letter.

The hold ups: The cancer-linked substance known as PFAS is used in firefighting foam and has contaminated water near at least 425 military sites.

Each chamber's version of the NDAA contained provisions to stem the spread of PFAS at military sites, as well as broader measures that would force the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the substance on several fronts.

Inhofe has repeatedly said he's wary of moving a defense bill with PFAS provisions beyond the jurisdiction of the Armed Services Committee. But there's been significant pressure from the House to keep the PFAS provisions in the legislation.

"We want an agreement on PFAS," Smith said. "We are not holding up the bill, saying we won't -- that's not my position. I've spoken to the Speaker about it. I think PFAS is an enormously important issue. I think we're going to get an agreement. It's not going to be as much as we Democrats would like, but I think we're going to move forward to it."

Smith added that "the real problem" is Space Force, the border wall and Republicans' "unwillingness to grant us any policies that are important to us."

"That makes it difficult for the Speaker to have a caucus that supports the bill," he said.

 

 

TRUMP SAYS NAVY WON'T REMOVE SEAL STATUS FROM OFFICER AT CENTER OF WAR CRIMES CASE: President Trump on Thursday denied that the Navy would strip a service member of his SEAL status following an acquittal of murder charges against the officer earlier this year.

"The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher's Trident Pin," Trump tweeted. "This case was handled very badly from the beginning. Get back to business!"

The president's tweet came following multiple reports in recent days that the Navy would start the process to take away Gallagher's trident, which would all but remove him as a member of the elite SEAL team.

A refresher: Gallagher was convicted earlier this year of one charge of posing with an ISIS captive's body. He was acquitted on more serious charges related to an incident where he allegedly shot at several civilians during a 2017 deployment and killed the ISIS captive, who was already injured, with a hunting knife.

Trump last week signed an order restoring Gallagher's rank to chief petty officer after it was downgraded during his trial. He also granted pardons to two other service members in cases involving allegations of war crimes. 

Gallagher's case became a rallying point for Trump and conservatives who argued that he had been unfairly punished for his actions in a war zone. The president congratulated Gallagher when he was acquitted on most charges in June, saying he was "glad I could help."

However, Trump's decision to intervene in Gallagher's case and that of the two other service members has irked some in the Defense Department who view it as undermining the military judicial process.

 

IMPEACHMENT LATEST: Former White House national security official Fiona Hill said Thursday the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and other Trump administration officials were running a "domestic political errand" by pursuing investigations that could help President Trump politically.

Hill, a top Russia expert on the National Security Council who resigned from her post over the summer, described in public testimony in the House impeachment inquiry dueling tracks of U.S. policy. She said she angrily confronted Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the EU, during her last week on the job because he wasn't coordinating with her team on Ukraine policy.  

"What I was angry about was he wasn't coordinating with us," Hill testified Thursday. "He wasn't coordinating with us because we weren't doing the same thing that he was doing."

'Domestic political errand': Hill said that at the time Sondland told her he was speaking to Trump, White House acting chief of staff Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday Senate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Conservative group hits White House with billboard ads: 'What is Trump hiding?' MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoKobach has lead in Kansas Senate race unless Pompeo enters: report The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday Senate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial MORE. He indicated that he didn't need to coordinate with others, she said.

Hill said it came full circle for her Wednesday, as emails Sondland provided to impeachment investigators were made public. She testified that it was clear Sondland was involved in "a domestic political errand" that diverged with the policy track pursued by the National Security Council.

"He was being involved in a domestic political errand. and we were being involved in national security foreign policy," Hill said. "And those two things had just diverged."

Hill described herself as "irritated" with Sondland at the time and that she told him it would all "blow up."  

What Sondland said: Sondland testified in connection with the impeachment inquiry on Wednesday, saying that he and others were part of an effort driven by Trump's personal attorney Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiDOJ releases memos backing Trump immunity claims ahead of impeachment vote Giuliani to Trump after Ukraine trip: I got 'more than you can imagine' Conservative group hits White House with billboard ads: 'What is Trump hiding?' MORE to make a White House meeting contingent on Ukraine announcing investigations into 2016 election interference and Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company that employed former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Media organization fights Trump administration over Ukraine documents FOIA Buttigieg releases list of campaign bundlers MORE's son Hunter Biden on its board.

Sondland said that the effort was widely known among officials at the White House and State Department. 

A refresher: House Democrats are investigating whether Trump sought to use the White House meeting and security assistance to Ukraine to pressure Kyiv to pursue the investigations, which the president raised on a July 25 phone call with Ukraine's leader. 

Sondland testified Wednesday that he believed the $400 million in military aid that was temporarily suspended was tied to the investigations, though he acknowledged he never heard from Trump of a quid pro quo related to the aid. 

Trump, who has vigorously denied any quid pro quo or wrongdoing in his contacts with Ukraine, has sought to distance himself from Sondland while claiming the ambassador's testimony exonerated him. 

What else Hill said: Hill also fiercely disputed Republican claims that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election and warned that Russia is benefiting from the spread of this "fictional narrative."

Hill directly addressed members of the House Intelligence Committee who she says appear to believe that Ukraine, not Russia, carried out a campaign to sow discord during the 2016 election.

"Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country--and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did," Hill said in her opening statement.

"This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves," she added.

A warning: Hill offered a sharp warning that while Republicans and Democrats battle over such claims, Russia is exploiting these differences to continue to undermine the U.S. political system.

"The impact of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today. Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career foreign service is being undermined," Hill warned.

"The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016," she said, pointing to the bipartisan congressional and intelligence community reports that concluded Russia was the 2016 aggravator.

More coverage: Here are five takeaways from The Hill on today's hearings.

  

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TWO AIRMEN KILLED IN FLIGHT 'MISHAP' AT OKLAHOMA AIR FORCE BASE: Two airmen were killed in "an aircraft mishap" involving two trainer jets on Thursday morning at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma, according to a statement from the base.

The two T-38 Talons, each carrying two airmen, "were performing a training mission" when the accident occurred at approximately 9:10 a.m.

The names of those killed will be withheld pending next-of-kin notification, and a safety investigation team will investigate the incident.

The release did not include details on the two other pilots involved.

Images from news outlets in the area show one aircraft upside down in the grass along a runway and the other upright on the runway, with emergency vehicles nearby.

Vance is primarily used to train hundreds of pilots annually with the 71st Flying Training Wing, which flies the T-1A Jayhawk, the T-6A Texan II, and the T-38.

A deadly stretch: The Air Force in the last several years has suffered a number of deadly, non-combat aircraft incidents and mishaps, including a T-38 crash that killed a pilot in November 2017 in Texas. 

And Pentagon IDs soldiers killed in helo crash: The Pentagon also on Thursday identified the two soldiers killed the day prior in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.

In a statement, the Pentagon identified the soldiers as Chief Warrant Officer 2 David C. Knadle, 33, of Tarrant, Texas, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kirk T. Fuchigami Jr., 25, of Keaau, Hawaii.

Both soldiers were assigned to 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas, according to the statement.

The helicopter crashed "while providing security for troops on the ground" in Logar province, according to Thursday's statement.

 

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ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

U.S. national security adviser Robert O'Brien; Navy Secretary Richard Spencer; Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischOvernight Defense: House passes compromise defense bill | Turkey sanctions advance in Senate over Trump objections | Top general says military won't be 'raping, burning and pillaging' after Trump pardons Legislation to protect electric grid from cyberattacks added to massive defense bill Lankford to be named next Senate Ethics chairman MORE (R-Ind.); Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — House passes sweeping Pelosi bill to lower drug prices | Senate confirms Trump FDA pick | Trump officials approve Medicaid work requirements in South Carolina Senate confirms Trump's nominee to lead FDA Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism MORE (D-Va.); Indo-Pacific Commander Adm. Philip Davidson; U.S. Northern Commander Gen. Terrence O'Shaughnessy; and Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz will speak at the Halifax International Security Forum beginning at 3 p.m. in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Bipartisan bill requires Congressional oversight of Afghanistan peace process

-- The Hill: Pentagon denies report that US mulling withdrawal of 4,000 troops from South Korea

-- The Hill: Senior DHS cyber official to step down

-- The Hill: Hill: 'Often when women show anger it's not fully appreciated'

-- The Hill: Senators want Air Force probe into allegations military housing provider faked records

-- The Hill: Gabbard, Buttigieg battle over use of military in Mexico

-- The Hill: Harris accuses Trump of being 'punked' by North Korea

-- The Hill: Opinion: So long as Iran dominates the Middle East, a new Baghdadi will rise

-- The Hill: Opinion: France's Macron exposes profound shifts in global strategic priorities