Overnight Defense: VA deputy secretary fired | Impeachment trial winds down with closing arguments | Pentagon watchdog to probe use of cancer-linked chemical

Overnight Defense: VA deputy secretary fired | Impeachment trial winds down with closing arguments | Pentagon watchdog to probe use of cancer-linked chemical
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Happy Monday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, 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 No. 2 official at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was abruptly fired Monday.

VA Secretary Robert WilkieRobert Leon WilkieOvernight Defense: DOD reportedly eyeing Confederate flag ban | House military spending bill blocks wall funding Wilkie: Union exploiting COVID-19 crisis for contract gains Fauci hints at new approach to COVID-19 testing MORE confirmed he fired his deputy but offered little in the way of explanation.

"Today, I dismissed VA Deputy Secretary James Byrne due to loss of confidence in Mr. Byrne's ability to carry out his duties. This decision is effective immediately," Wilkie said in a statement.

The statement provided no elaboration on why Wilkie lost confidence in Byrne or the circumstances surrounding his ouster. A VA spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for more information.

A White House spokesman confirmed that Byrne was no longer working for the administration but otherwise directed questions to the VA.

The firing comes just five months after Byrne was confirmed by the Senate in a bipartisan 81-11 vote.

House chairman wants answers: In a statement later Monday, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark TakanoMark Allan TakanoThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Fauci says focus should be on pausing reopenings rather than reverting to shutdowns; WHO director pleads for international unity in pandemic response The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Teachers' union President Randi Weingarten calls Trump administration plan to reopen schools 'a train wreck'; US surpasses 3 million COVID-19 cases The Hill's Coronavirus Report: DC's Bowser says protesters and nation were 'assaulted' in front of Lafayette Square last month; Brazil's Bolsonaro, noted virus skeptic, tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (D-Calif.) said he spoke with Wilkie in the morning about "changes to VA's staff structure," but that he still had "many questions" about Byrne's firing.

"Deputy Secretary Byrne was confirmed by the Senate--the American people deserve to know why he was dismissed," Takano said. "As Chairman of this Committee, it is my duty to ensure veterans receive timely access to care and benefits without delay, and I want to make sure this personnel decision will not impact that commitment. Secretary Wilkie has agreed to meet with me to discuss this leadership change in detail, and I look forward to speaking with him."

 

IMPEACHMENT TRIAL MOVES TO CLOSING ARGUMENTS: It's all over but the vote.

The House impeachment managers and President TrumpDonald John TrumpOklahoma City Thunder players kneel during anthem despite threat from GOP state lawmaker Microsoft moving forward with talks to buy TikTok after conversation with Trump Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled MORE's defense team made their closing statements Monday in the final day of arguments in Trump's impeachment trial.

While most of the statements made Monday repeated points made earlier, Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDemocrats exit briefing saying they fear elections under foreign threat Nunes declines to answer if he received information from Ukraine lawmaker meant to damage Biden Hillicon Valley: House panel grills tech CEOs during much anticipated antitrust hearing | TikTok to make code public as it pushes back against 'misinformation' | House Intel panel expands access to foreign disinformation evidence MORE's (D-Calif.) remarks were notable in their personal appeal to Republican senators.

Schiff, the lead House manager, closed his impeachment argument by pleading with GOP senators to vote to convict Trump, arguing that they are better than the president and that history will judge them poorly if they vote to acquit. 

"Truth matters to you. Right matters to you. You are decent. He is not who you are," Schiff, facing the seated Republican senators, said from the well of the Senate.

"History will not be kind to Donald Trump. I think we all know that. Not because it will be written by never-Trumpers, but because whenever we have departed from the values of our nation, we have come to regret it and regret is written all over the pages of our history," argued Schiff, the lead House impeachment manager.

"If you find that the House has proved its case and still vote to acquit, your name will be tied to his with a cord of his and for all of history," he said. "But if you find the courage to stand up to him, to speak the awful truth to his rank falsehood, your place will be among the Davids who took on Goliath."

Drama fizzles: The vote on whether to convict Trump is scheduled for Wednesday. Trump will almost certainly be acquitted as Democrats do not have the 67-vote majority needed under the Constitution to convict him.

With the outcome of the vote all but completely certain, the dramatic atmosphere surrounding his trial at the Capitol is quickly fizzling

After two weeks of a high-octane, at times frantic, energy around the Senate -- with reporters hungry for any quotes amid a crackdown on press access -- Monday took a more subdued tone. 

The reasons are likely twofold: After dominating the news cycle, attention is shifting this week to the Iowa caucuses, the 2020 race and Trump's State of the Union address. 

In addition, after Friday's Senate vote against hearing new witnesses, much of the drama has been sucked out of the trial.

Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunFrustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock Democrats reject short-term deal ahead of unemployment deadline MORE (R-Ind.) predicted that the 2020 fight would "quickly take over the discussions." 

"There was so much leading up to last week's witness fight, this almost feels like it's anticlimactic," Braun said.

Senators get their turn: Between now and Wednesday's vote, senators have time to give floor speeches on their own stance for or against convicting Trump.

In a floor speech Monday afternoon, centrist Democratic Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinHouse-passed spending bill would block Pebble Mine construction The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - At loggerheads, Congress, White House to let jobless payout lapse Coronavirus recession hits Social Security, Medicare, highway funding MORE (W.Va.) urged the Senate to censure Trump for holding up military aid to Ukraine in order to spur an investigation into former Vice President Joe BidenJoe Biden2020 Democratic Party platform endorses Trump's NASA moon program Don't let Trump distract us from the real threat of his presidency Abrams: Trump 'doing his best to undermine our confidence' in voting system MORE, predicting a formal reprimand could pick up bipartisan support.

"I do believe a bipartisan majority of this body would vote to censure President Trump for his actions in this matter. Censure would allow this body to unite across party lines, and as an equal branch of government to formally denounce the president's actions and hold him accountable," Manchin said.

Manchin, however, said he is undecided on how to vote Wednesday on the two articles of impeachment passed by the House alleging abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

He has told reporters that he will not make a decision until shortly before the vote. 

 

PFAS PROBE: The Pentagon's internal watchdog will review the military's response to a cancer-linked chemical spread in part by its use of firefighting foam.

A class of chemicals abbreviated as PFAS has contaminated water in at least 425 military sites, pushing Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperDemocrats demand Esper explicitly ban Confederate flag and allow Pride, Native Nations flags Trump's revenge — pulling troops from Germany — will be costly Africa Command ordered to plan headquarters move as part of Trump's Germany withdrawal MORE to take action on his first day in office and start a task force to address the substance.

That task force is also expected to release its findings shortly. The military's financial liability on PFAS is already expected to exceed its original $2 billion estimate.

Background: The review from the Pentagon's inspector general is a response to a request spearheaded Rep. Dan KildeeDaniel (Dan) Timothy KildeeDemocrats set to hold out for big police reform More than 100 Democrats press Trump to extend jobless benefits Pelosi makes fans as Democrat who gets under Trump's skin MORE (D-Mich.) that asks how long the Defense Department has known PFAS was harmful to human health, how the military will address cleaning up the substance, and how it will take care of service members and communities harmed by PFAS.

"Simply, it appears the scope of the problem far outweighs the allocated resources and focus of the DOD," lawmakers wrote in their July request.

Lawmakers have undertaken numerous efforts to push the military to take greater steps to address PFAS, including measures in the defense policy act that required the military to end its use of PFAS-laden firefighting foam.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Commander of the U.S. 2nd Fleet Vice Admiral Andrew "Woody" Lewis will speak at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at 10 a.m. https://bit.ly/37UZFGN

Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair will talk about "The Road Ahead with Iran" at the Council on Foreign Relations at 1 p.m. https://on.cfr.org/2GQ3fpB

President Trump delivers the State of the Union address at 9 p.m. https://bit.ly/37TC2y8

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Soleimani's enigmatic successor vows revenge on US

-- The Hill: Democrats look to ramp up fight over Trump's war powers

-- The Hill: House Republicans introduce resolution condemning UK's decision to allow Huawei in 5G networks

-- The Hill: Opinion: Keeping US troops in Iraq won't solve the chaos there

-- Associated Press: US demands more from Taliban on ceasefire before deal

-- The Washington Post: Rare and deadly clashes between Syria and Turkey highlight tensions in rebel-held Syrian province