Overnight Defense: Pentagon issues guidance on easing coronavirus restrictions on bases | Pompeo digs in on IG firing as scrutiny mounts | F-35 crashes in Florida base's second incident in days

Overnight Defense: Pentagon issues guidance on easing coronavirus restrictions on bases | Pompeo digs in on IG firing as scrutiny mounts | F-35 crashes in Florida base's second incident in days
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Happy Wednesday 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 Pentagon has new guidance for local commanders as states begin to relax the stay-at-home orders put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

A May 19 memo signed by Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Former defense leaders pile on Trump criticism | Esper sends troops called to DC area home | US strikes Taliban in Afghanistan Esper orders all active-duty troops outside DC home Esper, Milley won't testify before House panel on military response to protests MORE lays out guidelines for local commanders to relax certain restrictions that have been in place since late March as COVID-19 cases decline in their areas.

“Commanders, in consultation with their medical leadership, shall exercise their authority by making deliberate, risk-based decisions to change [health protection] levels as conditions allow,” says the memo released Wednesday.

"As #America opens up again, the @DeptofDefense will begin returning to a new normal while following @CDCgov, state, local, & host nation guidance," Esper tweeted Wednesday. "Along the way, we will continue to protect our people, safeguard the nation, & support the whole-of-nation effort to fight #COVID19." 

"We’ve aggressively confronted #COVID19 from the beginning & the #US military will see it through to the end," he added in a second tweet. "In this transition, as always, our commanders are empowered to continue to make calculated decisions based on force protection, mission, & need.

Criteria: Installations must still follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force guidance and regulations. Commanders also must collaborate with state, territorial, and local authorities, the command public health emergency officer and local military medical treatment facilities.

The leaders are also allowed to set health protection levels that may be more stringent than the surrounding community requirements “based on mission and other risk considerations.” If they want to make them less strict, however, such a decision must be reviewed by the next higher commander in the chain.

Local commanders can only move to relax health protection levels after several key benchmarks, including a two-week downturn in locally reported coronavirus-like or flu-like illness, two weeks of decreases in local coronavirus cases, and proof that on-base or local civilian hospitals can handle coronavirus patients and needed testing.

Latest numbers: Another Pentagon civilian was reported dead Wednesday, bringing the number of civilians killed by the virus to 15 and the total number of Pentagon-connected deaths to 29. 

Cumulative cases among Pentagon civilians stand at 1,381, according to the figures.

In total as of Wednesday morning, the Pentagon was reporting 8,764 cumulative coronavirus cases across all categories.

That includes 5,820 service members, including 129 hospitalizations, two deaths and 2,940 recoveries.

POMPEO DIGS IN ON IG: Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoMurkowski, Mattis criticism ratchets up pressure on GOP over Trump Pepper spray fired during Tiananmen Square memorial in Hong Kong The Hill's 12:30 Report: NYT publishes controversial Tom Cotton op-ed MORE held a combative press conference Wednesday that saw him fending off questions about his call to fire the State Department’s internal watchdog while slamming Democrats criticizing the move as political retaliation.

Pompeo defended President TrumpDonald John TrumpTwitter CEO: 'Not true' that removing Trump campaign video was illegal, as president has claimed Biden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination Barr says he didn't give 'tactical' command to clear Lafayette protesters MORE’s authority in firing State Department Inspector General Steve Linick late Friday and doubled down in defending his recommendation that the watchdog be ousted, saying it should have been done “some time ago.”

Pompeo refused to answer questions about his reasons for pushing Linick out. 

Pompeo vs. Menendez: Pompeo also took aim at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's top Democrat, Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezGovernment watchdog: 'No evidence' Pompeo violated Hatch Act with Kansas trips No time to be selling arms to the Philippines Senate panel approves Trump nominee under investigation MORE (D-N.J.), whom he accused of leaking repeatedly to the press, by referencing Menendez's past legal troubles.

“This is all coming through the office of Sen. Menendez,” the secretary said Wednesday, adding, “I don't get my ethics guidance from a man who was criminally prosecuted."

Pompeo was referring to a 2015 indictment against the New Jersey senator for allegedly taking bribes in return for political favors. Menendez’s case was dropped by the Department of Justice in January 2018 after a trial ended in a hung jury.

The secretary abruptly ended the press conference as reporters asked if he would cooperate with a congressional investigation into the circumstances surrounding Linick's dismissal, launched by Menendez and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelEngel primary challenger hits million in donations Engel says he refuses to seek NYT endorsement over Cotton op-ed The Hill's Campaign Report: Republicans go on the hunt for new convention site MORE (D-N.J.). The lawmakers have given the State Department a Friday deadline to hand over all records related to the IG’s dismissal.

Menendez on Wednesday responded to Pompeo’s attacks by accusing the secretary of attempting to divert attention away from the allegations against him.

“The fact that Secretary Pompeo is now trying diversion tactics by attempting to smear me is as predictable as it is shameful,” Menendez wrote in a statement to The Hill. “The Secretary should focus on answering questions and getting his story straight as to why he wanted to target IG Linick.”

“Secretary Pompeo now faces an investigation into both this improper firing and into his attempt to cover up his inappropriate and possibly illegal actions,” he added. “Not surprisingly, he has lashed out at me and others conducting Congressional oversight.”

New allegations: Meanwhile, a new report suggests Linick’s dismissal occurred within a week of the IG probing dozens of lavish dinners Pompeo and his wife held at the State Department, and whether they fell outside the scope of foreign policy and into the realm of political fundraising.

NBC News reported late Tuesday that Linick last week had made an inquiry to the Office of the Chief of Protocol, the office responsible for the dinners, and that Pompeo’s office was notified about the probe.

Menendez has also asked the Department of Justice to provide information about the dinners, of which the guest list included billionaire CEOs, Supreme Court justices, political influencers and ambassadors, according to the report.

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus in a statement to NBC News described the dinners as “a world-class opportunity to discuss the mission of the State Department and the complex foreign policy matters facing our exceptional nation,” adding that the secretary “benefited greatly” from these evenings in advancing U.S. foreign policy.

She added the guests included “foreign diplomats, thought leaders, academics, government leaders at many levels, business leaders, Members of Congress and the media — each of whom has a stake in America and its leadership in the world.”

F-35 CRASHES AT FLORIDA BASE: An F-35 fighter jet crash landed at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle Tuesday night, the Air Force said Wednesday, in the second aircraft crash at the base in less than a week.

The F-35 pilot, who successfully ejected, was taken to a medical facility at the base and is in stable condition, according to a news release.

The crash happened at about 9:30 p.m. after a pilot assigned to the 58th Fighter Squadron landed at the base while “participating in a routine night training sortie,” the release added.

The accident, which resulted in no deaths and no damage to civilian property, is under investigation.

The release did not detail damage to the aircraft. The Air Force’s variant of the jet, known as the F-35A, costs about $90 million per plane.

Last week: The F-35 crash comes after an F-22 fighter jet crashed Friday at Eglin's test and training range, about 12 miles northeast of the main base. The pilot in that accident also safely ejected, was taken to a base hospital and was in stable condition.

The Air Force has said a board of officers would investigate the F-22 incident.

Safety pause: Later Wednesday afternoon, the commander of Eglin’s 96th Test Wing announced the base would take a “safety pause” in light of the two crashes, as well as the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

In a video posted on Twitter, Brig. Gen. Scott Cain said there will be a “safety down day” Thursday where officials will talk to airmen about “being safe over the Memorial Day weekend, how we will continue to operate safely as we return to flying operations after Memorial Day and then also how we will maintain our resiliency through all of this.”

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a business meeting to consider the nomination of Michael Pack to be chief executive officer of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, as well as several pieces of legislation, at 10:30 a.m. Audio will be livestreamed. https://bit.ly/2zY47rT

The Center for Strategic and International Studies will host a conversation on breaking events on the Korean peninsula related to North Korea, South Korea’s coronavirus response and other issues at noon. https://bit.ly/3dYtOHE

Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, will provide a keynote address to the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association D.C. Chapter’s webinar, "AI+ML: The Virtual Experience,” at 1:30 p.m., followed by talks from several defense officials. https://bit.ly/2WNFYxb

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Top Republican says Trump greenlit budget fix for VA health care

-- The Hill: Picture and bio of Steve Carell's 'Space Force' character covered over real-life space official's portrait at museum

-- The Hill: Iran says its ships will stay in Gulf despite US warning

-- The Hill: Opinion: Trump's 'super duper missile' is super duper necessary

-- The Hill: Opinion: In search of wise statecraft on China

-- The Hill: Opinion: We need practical solutions to stop service member suicide

-- Reuters: Exclusive: U.S. has not cut Afghan security funds despite Pompeo vow of immediate slash - sources

-- Stars and Stripes: Duckworth introduces bill to extend deployments, benefits to Guard troops fighting coronavirus

-- Associated Press: Quest for ‘super-duper’ missiles pits US against key rivals