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Overnight Defense: Army says it isn't investigating Vindman | White House outlines legal justification for Soleimani strike | Service member dies in Africa

Overnight Defense: Army says it isn't investigating Vindman | White House outlines legal justification for Soleimani strike | Service member dies in Africa
© Greg Nash

Happy Friday 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.

Programming note: Overnight Defense will be off Monday for Presidents Day. We will return Tuesday.

 

THE TOPLINE: Lt. Col. Alexander VindmanAlexander VindmanEsper: If my replacement is 'a real yes man' then 'God help us' Ukrainian president whose call with Trump sparked impeachment congratulates Biden Alexander Vindman congratulates Biden, Harris on election victory MORE, who provided damaging testimony during President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rages against '60 Minutes' for interview with Krebs Cornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Pa. lawmaker was informed of positive coronavirus test while meeting with Trump: report MORE's impeachment, is not being investigated by the Army, the service's top civilian said Friday.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthyRyan McCarthyArmy secretary responds to news reports on sexual assault allegations in military: 'we must do better' OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Esper reportedly working with lawmakers to strip Confederate names from bases | Enemy attacks in Afghanistan jump by 50 percent, watchdog says | Fort Hood soldier arrested, charged in Chelsea Cheatham killing Fort Hood soldier arrested, charged in Chelsea Cheatham killing MORE's comments come days after Trump suggested the military discipline Vindman for his testimony during the House's impeachment inquiry.

"There's no investigation into him," McCarthy said at the National Press Club.

Background: A week ago, Vindman and his twin brother, who did not testify during the impeachment process, were escorted from the White House, where they had been working as National Security Council staffers.

Then on Tuesday, Trump raised the possibility the Army would "take a look" at Vindman.

"We sent him on his way to a much different location, and the military can handle him any way they want," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. 

Asked specifically if the Pentagon should pursue further action against Vindman, Trump said it would be "up to the military."

"But if you look at what happened, they're going to certainly, I would imagine, take a look at that," Trump added.

 

SOLEIMANI STRIKE JUSTIFICATION: A day after the Senate voted to restrict President Trump's ability to go to war with Iran, the Trump administration sent Congress its legal justification for the drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

The Democratic-led House Foreign Affairs Committee released the two-page memo Friday, with committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelMeet the three Democrats who could lead foreign affairs in the House Trump relents as GSA informs Biden transition to begin Dozens of progressive groups endorse Joaquin Castro for Foreign Affairs chair MORE (D-N.Y.) blasting its contents as a "spurious, after-the-fact explanation."

Engel said the explanation "won't do."

"We need answers and testimony, so I look forward to Secretary Pompeo testifying before the committee at an open Feb. 28 hearing on Iran and Iraq policy, including the Soleimani strike and war powers," Engel added, referring to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoBiden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Biden faces challenges, opportunities in Middle East O'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' MORE.

Trump has previously claimed, without evidence, that Soleimani was plotting an imminent attack on U.S. embassies.

Engel argued the document "directly contradicts" Trump's claim of an imminent attack.

"The administration's explanation in this report makes no mention of any imminent threat and shows that the justification the president offered to the American people was false, plain and simple," Engel said.

Administration's argument: Echoing arguments administration officials have made in public, the memo cites a president's constitutional authority to protect national interests from an attack, as well as the 2002 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that was passed to authorize the Iraq War.

The report says Article II of the Constitution gives the president the power to "direct the use of military force to protect the nation from an attack or threat of imminent attack and to protect important national interests."

That applied to Iran, the memo says, because it is "responsible for conducting and directing attacks against United States forces in the region."

The memo also cites the 2002 AUMF, which it said the United States has "long relied upon" for military action "for the purpose of establishing a stable, democratic Iraq." Soleimani was in Baghdad when he was killed.

Friday's memo does not discuss a specific imminent plot, but rather says Trump ordered the strike "in response to an escalating series of attacks in preceding months by Iran and Iran-backed militias on United States forces and interests in the Middle East region."

What's next: As Engel mentioned in his statement, Pompeo is slated to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the end of the month, after a couple false starts in January.

The House is also expected to take up the Senate-passed Iran war powers resolution. House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiObama chief economist says Democrats should accept smaller coronavirus relief package if necessary The five biggest challenges facing President-elect Biden Democrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? MORE (D-Calif.) has said it will happen after the chamber gets back from next week's recess.

 

NONCOMBAT DEATH IN AFRICA: A U.S. service member was killed in a noncombat incident in the Horn of Africa, U.S. Africa Command said in a statement Friday.

The service member died Thursday in a "non-combat related incident in Djibouti," where the military's largest and only permanent outpost on the continent is located.

The statement did not reveal the identity of the service member pending next of kin notification, per Defense Department policy.

Africa Command also did not provide further details, and the cause of death is under investigation.

Context: Roughly 6,000 U.S. military personnel are currently in Africa, the majority of them based at Camp Lemonnier, a Naval Expeditionary Base in Djibouti. The base is home to Combined Joint Task Force -- Horn of Africa.

The size and scope of the U.S. military's mission on the continent may change as Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperThe perils of a US troop drawdown to the Afghan army and tribes Acting Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia Overnight Defense: Trump loyalist to lead Pentagon transition | Democrats ask VA for vaccine distribution plan | Biden to get classified intel reports MORE has for several months been considering a major reduction of troops from West Africa in order to shift forces and focus to better counter Russian and Chinese aggression.

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Pelosi names first-ever House whistleblower ombudsman director

-- Military.com: Navy punishes sailors over 'Make Aircrew Great Again' patches worn at Trump speech

-- Associated Press: Esper defends shifting defense funds for Trump's border wall

-- Defense News: The US Navy's budget looks headed for the congressional shredder