Overnight Defense: Lawmakers clash during Pompeo hearing on Iran | Trump touts Taliban deal ahead of signing | Trump sued over plan to use Pentagon funds for border wall

Overnight Defense: Lawmakers clash during Pompeo hearing on Iran | Trump touts Taliban deal ahead of signing | Trump sued over plan to use Pentagon funds for border wall
© UPI Photo

Happy Friday 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: A Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee duked it out with Democrats on Friday in a confrontation over the killing of a top Iranian general during a public hearing on U.S. policy in Iran in which Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoSchumer slams Trump's Rose Garden briefing on China as 'pathetic' Britain mulls pathway to citizenship for more than 3M inhabitants of Hong Kong Overnight Defense: Democrats expand probe into State IG's firing | House schedules late June votes with defense bill on deck | New Navy secretary sworn in MORE was present. 

Rep. Brian MastBrian Jeffrey MastHouse Republicans push back against proxy voting GOP lawmakers consider returning to DC despite coronavirus shutdown GOP congressman gets round of applause for remarks praising American strength MORE (R-Fla.) turned his questions to Democrats during the hearing, taking the focus off of Pompeo, who was asked questions about intelligence the U.S. had that justified the Jan. 3 strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, the top general of Iran's Quds Force.

The confrontation erupted between Mast and his Democratic colleagues when the Republican lawmaker misidentified Rep. Abigail SpanbergerAbigail Davis SpanbergerGun control group rolls out House endorsements The Hill's Campaign Report: DOJ, intel to be major issues in 2020 Human Rights Campaign rolls out congressional endorsements on Equality Act anniversary MORE (D-Va.) as "Ms. Lowenthal," and elicited a biting reaction from Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineTrump, GOP go all-in on anti-China strategy Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers demand answers on Chinese COVID hacks | Biden re-ups criticism of Amazon | House Dem bill seeks to limit microtargeting House Democrat to introduce bill cracking down on ad targeting MORE (D-R.I.) for suggesting Democrats wished that Soleimani was still alive.

The hearing was Pompeo's first appearance before the committee since the strike on Soleimani nearly two months earlier, offering lawmakers a chance to question the secretary publicly over the administration's justification for ordering the strike and its implications.

The issue: Spanberger questioned the secretary on Friday, saying, "You gave a classified briefing in Congress, I was there, and you didn't provide evidence to us about that claimed imminence."

Mast took issue with the Spanberger's line of questioning, turning to the chairman and asking, "was it appropriate for Ms. Lowenthal to offer information from a classified setting?" in reference to Spanberger. 

"Who?" the committee members asked. 

Mast continued to hammer Democrats if there was any red line that his colleagues could accept for justification to kill Soleimani.

"Iran went too far decades ago but the question is whether or not there's authorization for this particular strike," Spanberger retorted. 

Other confrontations: Democrats also took issue with the allotted time for the hearing, with Pompeo saying he would "not agree to stay for a few extra minutes" in response to a request from Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelOvernight Defense: Democrats expand probe into State IG's firing | House schedules late June votes with defense bill on deck | New Navy secretary sworn in Democrats broaden probe into firing of State Department watchdog House chairman slams Pompeo for suggesting US could 'disconnect' from Australia over China deal MORE (D-N.Y.) to go over the two hours provided.

At one point, Mast also suggested that Democrats wished that Soleimani was still alive. 

"No one on this side wants Soleimani alive, you know better than that, shame on you for even asking that question," Cicilline shouted at Mast during the hearing. 

Mast, an Army veteran who lost both his legs from an improvised explosive device while serving in Afghanistan, said he would issue a report with the ethics committee over alleged publication of classified information.  

Pompeo sat quietly while Mast questioned his committee colleagues in a heated back-and-forth.   

Off topic: After the lively discussion, the briefing took wild and often unwieldy tangents, with questions from Democrats focusing largely on the threat of coronavirus in the U.S. and the administration's preparation to protect the American people. 

"Mr. Secretary, it's taken you two and a half months to come here before this committee to explain the actions of Jan. 3," Rep. Brad ShermanBradley (Brad) James ShermanHouse passes bill that would sanction Chinese officials over Xinjiang camps Dozens of Democrats plan to vote remotely in a first for the House Pelosi says House is looking at bill that could delist some Chinese companies from US stock exchanges MORE (D-Calif.) said. "Today the world faces a worldwide pandemic, the coronavirus. Will you come here next week and explain our international efforts to deal with the coronavirus or will it take two and a half months to have you back here?" 

Help offered to Iran: The United States has offered to help Iran with its outbreak of the novel coronavirus, Pompeo said at the hearing.

"We have made offers to the Islamic Republic of Iran to help, and we've made it clear to others around the world and in the region that assistance, humanitarian assistance to push back against the coronavirus in Iran is something the United States of America fully supports," Pompeo told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

In a statement after the hearing, Pompeo added that the offer of support "to the Iranian people" has been "formally conveyed to Iran through the government of Switzerland."


TRUMP TOUTS TALIBAN DEAL AHEAD OF SIGNING: Trump on Friday touted a "powerful path" to ending the nearly 19-year war in Afghanistan ahead of the United States and the Taliban signing a deal to start the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

"Soon, at my direction, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will witness the signing of an agreement with representatives of the Taliban, while Secretary of Defense Mark EsperMark EsperPentagon orders active-duty police units on ready to deploy to Minneapolis: AP Overnight Defense: Trump extends deployment of National Guard troops to aid with coronavirus response | Pentagon considers reducing quarantine to 10 days | Lawmakers push for removal of Nazi headstones from VA cemeteries No time to be selling arms to the Philippines MORE will issue a joint declaration with the government of Afghanistan," Trump said in a statement Friday.

"If the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan live up to these commitments, we will have a powerful path forward to end the war in Afghanistan and bring our troops home," he added.

The expectation: The United States and the Taliban are expected to sign an agreement Saturday in Qatar after a seven-day "reduction in violence" period that U.S. officials have deemed largely successful.

The agreement would begin a U.S. troop withdrawal, starting with a drawdown from 12,000 currently in Afghanistan to 8,600. The remaining troops would focus on counterterrorism against ISIS and al Qaeda, and any drawdown below that, officials insist, will be based on conditions on the ground.

In exchange for the drawdown, the Taliban is to provide assurances it will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a launchpad for terrorist attacks against the West.

The deal will also kickstart intra-Afghan negotiations to reconcile the Afghan government and the Taliban, a vital stage rife with potholes that could cause the entire deal to fall apart.

Trump's framing: In his statement Friday, Trump framed the agreement as a fulfillment of his campaign promise to end America's longest war.

"When I ran for office, I promised the American people I would begin to bring our troops home, and seek to end this war," Trump said. "We are making substantial progress on that promise."

Trump also urged the Afghans to "seize this opportunity for peace and a new future for their country."

"These commitments represent an important step to a lasting peace in a new Afghanistan, free from al Qaeda, ISIS, and any other terrorist group that would seek to bring us harm," he said. "Ultimately it will be up to the people of Afghanistan to work out their future."

Trump also thanked the U.S. troops who have served in Afghanistan, saying that "these agreements are a result of the strenuous efforts of those who fought so hard in Afghanistan for the United States of America."

Lawmakers cautious: Lawmakers remain cautious about the Taliban deal, with many arguing the intra-Afghan talks to come will be the hardest part and that a real peace is impossible without such reconciliation.

Others, including Trump's GOP allies, have warned the Taliban is not to be trusted. Earlier this week, 22 House Republicans sent a letter to Pompeo and Esper, as well as a copy to Trump, expressing "serious concerns" with the deal.


TRUMP ADMINISTRATION SUED OVER PLAN TO USE PENTAGON FUNDS FOR BORDER WALL: Three groups are suing the Trump administration over a plan to allocate an additional $3.8 billion in Department of Defense (DOD) funding for the border wall. 

"The president is doubling down on his unlawful scheme to raid taxpayer funds for a xenophobic campaign promise that is destroying national treasures, harming the environment, and desecrating tribal lands," said Dror Ladin, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The ACLU, along with the Sierra Club and Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC), filed the suit in federal court in California on Friday. 

The money grab: DOD notified Congress this month that it would transfer an additional $3.8 billion to be used for the wall. 

The notice to Congress said that the money would come from weapons programs like the F-35 fighter jet and would go toward the "support of higher priority items."

It said the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) "has identified areas along the southern border of the United States that are being used by individuals, groups, and transnational criminal organizations as drug smuggling corridors, and determined that the construction of additional physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the United States border is necessary in order to impede and deny drug smuggling activities."

The new lawsuit: The new lawsuit claims that the administration has "acted to circumvent Congress's exclusive control over appropriations" and that its action "will have devastating effects on the environment."

"The Trump administration's illegal transfer of billions of dollars for wall construction has created a disaster in the borderlands," said Sierra Club managing attorney Gloria Smith in a statement.

"The destruction of cultural sites, Tribal burial grounds, endangered species, protected cacti and water resources shows that Trump will stop at nothing for this wall -- not irreplaceable resources nor the Constitution," Smith added.

Efforts last year: Last year, President TrumpDonald John TrumpMichael Flynn transcripts reveal plenty except crime or collusion 50 people arrested in Minneapolis as hundreds more National Guard troops deployed Missouri state lawmaker sparks backlash by tweeting 'looters deserve to be shot' MORE declared a national emergency and announced that he would reallocate Defense Department funds to construction of the border wall after Congress did not allocate as much money as he wanted for the project in the federal budget.

Following that move, several groups accused the president of overreach. The Sierra Club, ACLU and SBCC previously sued the Trump administration over that decision.

The Supreme Court ruled last year that the administration could start using military funds for construction at the border, overturning a prior ruling that halted the use of those funds while litigation continues.



-- The Hill: GOP senator presses Pentagon on protecting service members from coronavirus

-- The Hill: White House formally announces Trump's Navy secretary nominee

-- The Hill: Philippines, US considering new military pact: Report

-- The Hill: Trump condemns attack on Turkish troops in discussion with Erdoğan

-- The Hill: Turkey suffers mass casualties in Syria airstrike

-- The Hill: Democrat gets in heated exchange with Pompeo at hearing: 'Do you believe coronavirus is a hoax?'

-- The Hill: Trump upends controversial surveillance fight