Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Lawmakers tear into Pentagon over $3.8B for border wall | Dems offer bill to reverse Trump on wall funding | Senators urge UN to restore Iran sanctions

Greg Nash

Happy Wednesday 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: The top Democrat and Republican on the House Armed Services Committee tore into Pentagon officials on Wednesday over the Trump administration transferring $3.8 billion, mostly from weapons programs, to build the president’s southern border wall.

In separate opening statements and questions at a hearing with the Pentagon’s top officials, committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), its ranking member, ripped the funding transfer as an “enormous problem” and a break in “literally decades” of precedent.

“This is an enormous problem,” Smith said at the hearing with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. “It undercuts any argument about the need for resources within the Department of Defense. And it also undercuts the congressional process.”

“There have been decades, literally decades of practice where if there are changing needs money can be moved within the department budget with the approval of Congress,” said Thornberry, who is retiring from Congress at the end of this term. “I’m afraid that the result of this will be greater restrictions on the department’s ability to move money around to meet changing needs, and the country will suffer as a result.”

Earlier: Smith and Thornberry have both previously expressed concern about the most recent transfer of military funding to President Trump’s border wall, but Wednesday’s hearing provided an opportunity for them to pointedly address the Pentagon’s leaders in public.

Smith and Thornberry also sent the Pentagon a letter this week rejecting the funding reprogramming. The letter, though, was largely symbolic, as Department of Defense officials have said they transferred the money as soon as they sent Congress its notice.

Earlier this month, the Pentagon notified Congress it would transfer $3.8 billion from various programs to its counter-drug fund to be used to build the wall.

The latest transfer comes after the Pentagon last year used $2.5 billion from counter-drug funds and $3.6 billion in military construction funding for the wall.

Affected programs: Among the programs that are losing money to the wall are the F-35 fighter jet, MQ-9 reaper drone, the P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol plane, the C-130J transport plane, the landing helicopter assault ship replacement, the expeditionary fast transport ship and unspecified equipment for the National Guard and reserves.

A funding grab: In his statement on Wednesday, Thornberry differentiated between the money taken last year and what is being used this year. Last year, much of the money that was transferred to the counter-drug fund came from Army personnel accounts after the service did not meet its recruitment goals.

“This is not taking excess funds,” Thornberry said of this year’s funding grab. “It is substituting the judgment of the administration for the judgment of Congress by reducing specific weapons that had been authorized and appropriated. We made a different judgment call than the administration’s budget request.”

In his questions to Esper, Thornberry asked whether the annual defense policy bill “is going to matter” or if the White House will “send down a directive saying even though it’s signed into law, authorized and appropriated, we’re going to take away some money.”

The Pentagon’s response: Esper insisted that “what the Congress does matters,” adding “we look to the Congress as partners.”

Thornberry appeared unconvinced, replying that he’s “already expressed some of the concerns I have.” 

As other committee members pressed Esper and Milley on the wall funds throughout the hearing, Milley said $3.8 billion would not be “a significant, immediate, strategic negative impact to the overall defense of the United States of America.” Milley also stressed the “precisely selected” words of “strategic” and “overall.”

“It’s a half of one percent of the overall budget, so I can’t in conscious say that it’s significant, it’s immediate, the sky is falling, it’s going to be a dramatic detriment in the preparedness of the U.S. military to defend ourselves,” Milley said. “We can defend the United States of America.” 


DEMS OFFER BILL TO REVERSE TRUMP ON MILITARY MONEY FOR WALL: Senate Democrats on Wednesday introduced legislation to reverse Trump’s decision to shift the $3.8 billion in military funding toward the U.S.-Mexico border wall and place new limitations on the Pentagon’s transfer authority.

The bill would restore the shifted money as well as cut the amount of money the Pentagon would have the ability to transfer going forward, in an attempt to prevent the administration from leveraging military funding in the future.

According to the text of the legislation, it would cut the Pentagon’s general transfer authority from $4 billion to $1.798 billion. It would also limit the amount of money that could be transferred from a war fund from $2 billion to $371 million.

Who signed on: Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, added that the bill would “help to restore the Constitutional power of the purse back to Congress and provide Senate Republicans an opportunity to give action to their repeatedly voiced concerns.”

In addition to Durbin and Leahy, 30 other Senate Democrats are supporting the bill, including Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

Two strikes: Trump also previously declared a national emergency to shift $3.6 billion to the border wall.

Congress has tried twice to end the national emergency but does not have the two-thirds necessary to override a veto.

Democrats are able to force a vote on the national emergency declaration every six months. With the last vote taking place in September, that means they’ll be able to force a vote again in mid-March.


SENATE RESOLUTION URGES UN TO RENEW IRAN SANCTIONS: A bipartisan pair of senators is urging the United Nations to renew sanctions on Iran that are set to expire in October.

Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) are introducing a resolution this week calling on the United Nations to “at a minimum” renew the penalties, which include an arms embargo and travel restrictions.

“Clearly the Iranian regime plans on continuing to destabilize the region and provoke America and its allies,” Toomey said in a statement obtained by The Hill ahead of its release. “It would be a grave mistake to allow sanctions against Iran to expire. This bipartisan resolution calls on the United Nations to extend these sanctions and would reaffirm the international community’s opposition to Iranian aggression.”

At issue is a United Nations Security Council resolution that was passed in 2015 in support of the nuclear deal between Iran and several world powers.

The issue: At issue is a United Nations Security Council resolution that was passed in 2015 in support of the nuclear deal between Iran and several world powers.

Under the resolution, an arms embargo on Iran, as well as an arms export ban, is set to lift Oct. 18. The resolution also said travel restrictions on officials and entities involved in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs will expire in October, while an asset freeze on those individuals and groups will expire in 2023.

Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed harsh sanctions on Iran, kicking off a spike in tensions that came to a head when a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

The administration’s stance: The Trump administration has been urging the United Nations to renew the arms embargo and travel restrictions, warning that allowing the sanctions to expire will let Iran spread what it describes as a destabilizing activity.

Earlier this month, after the U.S. Navy discovered a cache of weapons on board a dhow in the Arabian Sea that it said bore signs of Iranian origin, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted it was “another example of the world’s largest state sponsor of terror the Islamic Republic of Iran continuing to defy the UN Security Council.”

“The world must reject Iran’s violence and act now to renew the expiring @UN arms embargo on #Iran,” Pompeo added in a second tweet.

What the resolution would do: Toomey and Rosen’s resolution would state that allowing the U.N. sanctions to expire would “enable Iran to undertake aggressive and destabilizing actions in the Middle East that threaten the security of the United States and that of our allies,” according to a draft obtained by The Hill.

The resolution would also urge “the international community to fully enforce” the restrictions on Iran and “calls upon the United Nations Security Council to adopt a resolution on Iran that, at a minimum, extends the dates by which the aforementioned restrictions on Iran and on arms technology suppliers” are set to expire.



House Budget Committee ranking member Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.); Matt Padilla, national security counsel in the office of Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), and others will speak on “Defense and the Federal Budget 2021,” at 8:30 a.m. in Washington, D.C. 

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday, and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger will speak at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on “The Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Budget Request for the Department of the Navy,” at 10 a.m. in Rayburn House Office Building, room 2118. 

The House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security will hold a hearing on U.S. troops who say they were exposed to chemical and radiological hazards while deployed to Karshi-Khanabad (K2) Air Base in Uzbekistan after Sept. 11, 2001, at 2 p.m. in Rayburn 2154. 

A House Armed Services subpanel will hear from John Rood, outgoing undersecretary of defense for policy; U.S. Space Commander Gen. John Raymond; and U.S. Strategic Commander, Adm. Charles Richard on “Strategic Forces Posture,” at 2:30 p.m. in Rayburn  2212. 

Another House Armed Services subcommittee will hold a hearing on “Air Force Projection Forces Aviation Programs and Capabilities Related to the 2021 President’s Budget Request,” at 3:30 p.m. in Rayburn 2118. 



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Tags Adam Smith Donald Trump Jack Reed Jacky Rosen Mac Thornberry Mark Esper Mike Pompeo Pat Toomey Steve Womack Tom Udall
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