Overnight Defense: Republicans sound alarm on Taliban deal | Trump speaks with Taliban leader | 19 states sue over border wall funding | Pentagon pushes back on NY Times report about coronavirus response

Overnight Defense: Republicans sound alarm on Taliban deal | Trump speaks with Taliban leader | 19 states sue over border wall funding | Pentagon pushes back on NY Times report about coronavirus response
© Greg Nash

Happy Tuesday 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: Top Republicans in the House are expressing concerns over the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban, with lawmakers cautioning the insurgents won't live up to their end of the bargain and arguing the agreement puts the country's national security at risk.

The disagreement marks yet another area of foreign policy where President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate MORE's usual allies in Congress are willing to break with the president and do so publicly. 

Defense hawks, in particular, are concerned the agreement sets the stage for a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan within months, that thousands of Taliban prisoners could be released in the coming weeks and that enforcement mechanisms are being kept from the American public. 

The most vocal: Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyGOP lawmakers distance themselves from Trump comments on transfer of power Graham vows GOP will accept election results after Trump comments Liz Cheney promises peaceful transfer of power: 'Fundamental to the survival of our Republic' MORE (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 Republican in the lower chamber, has been among the most vocal critics. She has sounded alarms that the agreement lacks a disclosed verification mechanism and commitment from the Taliban to renounce al Qaeda. 

"I've expressed my serious concerns about the lack of verification mechanism, about the commitment and the agreement that we would go to zero and primarily about the fact that what we have here are a number of promises by the Taliban," Cheney, whose father, Dick Cheney, was vice president at the start of the Afghanistan War, told The Hill. 

"Many of them are promises that have been made before, and I think that the decisions about American troop levels in Afghanistan have to be made based on America's national security interests, not based on empty promises from the Taliban and an agreement that doesn't have any disclosed verification mechanism," she added.

The administration's outlook: Trump is hailing the deal as a major achievement and a fulfillment of his 2016 campaign pledge to end so-called endless wars. He spoke on the phone Tuesday with the Taliban's chief negotiator, the first known conversation between a U.S. president and the Taliban since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 

"We had a good conversation. We've agreed there's no violence," Trump said of his call with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is also the co-founder of the Taliban. "We don't want violence. We'll see what happens. They're dealing with Afghanistan, but we'll see what happens."

What's in the deal: Under the deal signed Saturday, the U.S. military must decrease troop levels to 8,600 in 135 days. Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Government funding bill butts up against deadline | Pentagon reports eighth military COVID-19 death | Trump, Pentagon collide over anti-diversity training push Trump, Pentagon collide over anti-diversity training push Overnight Defense: Stopgap spending measure awaits Senate vote | Trump nominates former Nunes aide for intelligence community watchdog | Trump extends ban on racial discrimination training to contractors, military MORE said Monday he gave the U.S. commander in Afghanistan approval to start drawing down within 10 days.

The deal also lays out a timeline for a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 14 months if the Taliban lives up to its commitments. Defense officials have insisted that any drawdown below 8,600 will be "conditions based."

In exchange for the withdrawal, the Taliban committed to "not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies."

The Taliban also said it would tell its members "not to cooperate" with those who threaten the United States and prevent groups and people endangering the United States from "recruiting, training and fundraising" in its territory. 

Not in lockstep: The GOP has generally been in lockstep with Trump throughout his presidency, but foreign policy, and in particular U.S. troop movements, has been an area where Republicans have been willing to push back. In early 2019, when Trump tried to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and reports circulated he would try the same in Afghanistan, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a resolution warning against a "precipitous withdrawal" in either country.

When Trump again tried to withdraw from Syria in October, the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution rebuking the move.

For the Afghanistan deal, one of the most controversial aspects is a stipulation for a prisoner swap before talks begin between the Taliban and Afghan government. The deal says up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and up to 1,000 Afghan government prisoners "will be released by March 10," something Afghan President Ashraf Ghani quickly rejected.

"I share the concerns of President Ghani on the release of 5,000 trained terrorists," Rep. Joe WilsonAddison (Joe) Graves WilsonDemocrats raise alarm about new US human rights priorities Democrat Teresa Leger Fernandez defeats Valerie Plame in New Mexico primary Trump campaign launches new fundraising program with House Republicans MORE (R-S.C.), who sits on both the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, told The Hill. "It's just so dangerous and irresponsible, so I'm not in favor of the agreement." 

Others remain wary: To be sure, some Republicans, while wary, are saying to give the deal some time.

Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he has a "healthy amount of skepticism," while Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), an Air Force veteran, similarly said he is skeptical that "we have an honorable, trustworthy people to negotiate with across the table." 

But McCaul also said "we have to give this a chance," while Bacon said he "applaud[s] the effort" and that the deal's timeline provides room to see if it's effective.

Rep. John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoHillicon Valley: Productivity, fatigue, cybersecurity emerge as top concerns amid pandemic | Facebook critics launch alternative oversight board | Google to temporarily bar election ads after polls close Lawmakers introduce legislation to boost cybersecurity of local governments, small businesses Underwood takes over as chair of House cybersecurity panel MORE (R-N.Y.), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, said he thinks engagement with the Taliban is fine but noted the deal already hit a snag over the prisoner swap.

"We've been there for 19 years, but we can't give away the store to do it," he said. "So it's kind of you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't, right? You're damned if you do because you're cutting a deal with the devil, but damned if you don't because then the war just rattles on." 

 

SEARCHING FOR CORONAVIRUS VACCINE: The Pentagon is pitching in on work to develop a vaccine for the deadly coronavirus, the military's top uniformed official said on Monday.

"Our military research labs are working feverishly around the horn here to try to come up with a vaccine. So we'll see how that develops over the next couple of months," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley told reporters at the Pentagon.

It's expected to take a year to 18 months to have a fully effective and accessible COVID-19 vaccine, according to top U.S. health officials. COVID-19 is the official name for the disease the novel coronavirus is causing.

Milley also said that U.S. government military laboratories are "working very consistently, not only on that vaccine but all kinds of things" and that the labs are "working in direct support with health and human services."

Esper also said one of the labs was at Fort Detrick, an Army Medical Command installation in Frederick, Md.

Military implications: Over the weekend, The Hill's Ellen Mitchell took a look at how the coronavirus is affecting military operations.

As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, the Pentagon canceled a joint military exercise with South Korea, restricted access to public areas at Army installations in Italy and ordered all ships that have visited countries in the Pacific region to remain at sea for 14 days, essentially a self-quarantine.

U.S. Central Command has also ordered a stop to all nonessential travel in the Persian Gulf region. 

Such moves seek to "minimize any kind of effect that this virus has on military preparedness," a defense official told The Hill. 

"What DOD is trying to do is take prudent precautionary measure to prevent those kinds of things from affecting the force," the source added.

 

PENTAGON PUSHES BACK ON NEW YORK TIMES OVER CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE: The Pentagon issued a sharp rebuttal Tuesday to a New York Times article saying Defense Secretary Mark Esper directed commanders to notify the Department of Defense (DOD) of their coronavirus responses to avoid surprising the White House, calling it a "dangerous and inaccurate mischaracterization."

The newspaper reported Tuesday that Esper, during a video teleconference call last week, asked U.S. combatant commanders based overseas to check in with Pentagon leadership before making any coronavirus-related decisions that could contradict President Trump's messaging on the illness.

The dispute: The DOD disputed that account, saying Esper instead directed commanders to take all force health protection measures and then notify their chain of command when actions are taken "so that DOD leadership can inform the interagency -- including [Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Homeland Security], the State Department, and the White House -- and the American people," top Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

"During this video teleconference which I attended, he explicitly did not direct them to 'clear' their force health decisions in advance -- that is a dangerous and inaccurate mischaracterization."

When reached for comment, Times spokesman Ari Isaacman Bevacqua said, "We stand by the accuracy of our reporting."

The teleconference in question: During the combatant command teleconference, U.S. Forces Korea head Gen. Robert Abrams asked about his options to protect U.S. troops against the illness.

Esper responded that he wanted a heads-up before Abrams or any other commander made decisions on protecting troops.

Esper told reporters at a Monday press briefing that "at the end of last week, I did a deep dive with DOD civilian and military leadership, including all the service secretaries, the [Combatant Command] commanders, to ensure the entire department is equipped for all scenarios: short and long-term, domestic and international."

He added that commanders are in charge of decisions on troop safety overseas. 

"Commanders of individually affected geographic commands have all the authority they need and we'll provide specific guidance to their troops as the situation continues to evolve," Esper said.

A difference in messaging: President Trump has defended his administration's response to the virus as the Pentagon has moved quickly to ensure its forces and personnel are better protected against its spread.

Trump insisted last week that the virus was under control in the U.S. and that the media and Democrats were inflating the danger of the illness.

There are more than 100 known coronavirus cases in more than a dozen states, with nine deaths -- all in Washington state.

The Pentagon's moves: But in the Defense Department, military leaders are scrambling to make sure their troops are protected.

In the past week the department has canceled a joint military exercise with South Korea and in Israel, restricted access to public areas at Army installations in Italy, ordered a stop to nonessential travel in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region, and directed all ships that have visited countries in the Pacific region to remain at sea for 14 days.

Though only one active-duty soldier has tested positive for the virus in South Korea, more than 75,000 U.S. forces are in countries that are experiencing outbreaks.

 

19 STATES SUE TRUMP OVER BORDER WALL FUNDING MOVE: A coalition of 19 states is suing the Trump administration over its new diversion of $3.8 billion in defense funds to the border wall, arguing that the move is unconstitutional and ignores possible environmental impacts. 

"Use of these additional federal funds for the construction of a border wall is contrary to Congress's intent and in violation of the U.S. Constitution," said the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in California on Tuesday. 

The issue: President Trump last year declared a national emergency and announced that he would reallocate Department of Defense (DOD) funds for construction of the border wall after Congress did not allocate as much money as he wanted for the project in the federal budget.

This month, the Pentagon informed Congress that it would transfer an additional $3.8 billion to be used for the wall, with money coming from weapons programs. 

The states' argument: The 19 states are arguing that the new allocation is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of powers as well as Congress's power of the purse. 

They also argue that the administration does not sufficiently evaluate the environmental impacts of the project and that this violates a bedrock environmental law called the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). 

"President Trump is risking the safety of every American by diverting taxpayer dollars from our military to fund the same xenophobic campaign promises he's made for the last four years," said a statement from New York Attorney General Letitia James (D), one of the 19 attorneys general suing the administration. 

Which states are involved: Besides New York, the states suing the administration are: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.

The suit says environmental harm will particularly be caused to some of these states where the wall is being built, including "the blocking of wildlife migration, flooding, and habitat loss" in New Mexico.

  

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

National security adviser Robert O'Brien; Undersecretary of Defense for acquisition and sustainment Ellen Lord; Undersecretary of Defense for research and engineering Michael Griffin; and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthyRyan McCarthyOvernight Defense: Trump's battle with Pentagon poses risks in November | Lawmakers launch Fort Hood probe | Military members can't opt out of tax deferral Lawmakers launch investigation into Fort Hood after 28th death this year Overnight Defense: China aims to double nuclear arsenal | Fort Hood commander removed after string of deaths MORE will speak at the McAleese Defense Programs Conference beginning at 9 a.m. in Washington, D.C. 

 

The House Armed Services Committee has three hearings scheduled:

-- A full committee hearing with Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein; and U.S. Space Force head Gen. John Raymond, at 10 a.m. at the Rayburn House Office Building, room 2118.  

-- A subpanel hearing on "Department of the Navy Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Request for Seapower and Projection Forces," at 2 p.m. at Rayburn 2118. 

-- A subcommittee hearing with Kenneth Rapuano, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security, and U.S. Cyber Commander and National Security Agency Director Army Gen. Paul Nakasone on "the Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Request for U.S. Cyber Command and Operations in Cyberspace," at 2:30 p.m. at Rayburn 2212.

 

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense also has two hearings scheduled:

-- A hearing on the "U.S. Navy/Marine Corps FY 2021 budget request," with Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger; Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday; and Thomas Modly, acting secretary of the Navy, at 11 a.m. at the House, room 140.

-- A hearing on the U.S. Space Force organizational plan at 3 p.m. at the House, room 140. 

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: White House withdraws nomination for Pentagon budget chief who questioned Ukraine aid hold

-- The Hill: Trump speaks with Taliban leader, likely first call between US president and insurgent group since 9/11

-- The Hill: Bipartisan Senate Intel leaders push to declassify Khashoggi report

-- The Hill: Menendez, Graham lobbying European allies to open negotiations with Iran

-- The Hill: Iran calls on military to help fight coronavirus

-- The Hill: Iran nearly tripled enriched uranium stockpile in three months: report

-- The Hill: Trump officially sends Senate his Navy secretary nomination

-- The Hill: Opinion: Boosting VA funding is not enough to support veterans

-- The Hill: Is it even worth having a director of national intelligence?