OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Murkowski, Mattis criticism ratchets up pressure on GOP over Trump| Esper orders hundreds of active-duty troops outside DC sent home day after reversal | Iran releases US Navy veteran Michael White

OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Murkowski, Mattis criticism ratchets up pressure on GOP over Trump| Esper orders hundreds of active-duty troops outside DC sent home day after reversal | Iran releases US Navy veteran Michael White
© Getty Images

Happy Thursday 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: Criticism of President TrumpDonald John TrumpKimberly Guilfoyle reports being asymptomatic and 'feeling really pretty good' after COVID-19 diagnosis Biden says he will rejoin WHO on his first day in office Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad MORE from former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisBudowsky: Biden-Duckworth would be America's team Trump insulted UK's May, called Germany's Merkel 'stupid' in calls: report Mattis urges people to wear masks in PSA about 'nasty little virus' MORE and Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump backs another T stimulus, urges governors to reopen schools Romney, Collins, Murkowski won't attend GOP convention Senators will have access to intelligence on Russian bounties on US troops MORE (R-Alaska) is ratcheting up pressure on other Republicans to push back on the president’s handling of nationwide civil unrest.

Mattis, who is as close as anyone to being universally respected on Capitol Hill, called out Trump Wednesday for what he said was the president’s lack of a “mature leadership” and accused him for intentionally trying to divide the nation.

An emboldened GOP senator: Murkowski said she thought Mattis’s words were “true and honest and necessary and overdue” and suggested that it might embolden other Republicans who privately disagree with the president’s often controversial tone and conduct to speak out.

“When I saw Gen. Mattis’s comments yesterday I felt like perhaps we’re getting to the point where we can be more honest with the concerns we might hold internally and have the courage of our convictions to speak up,” she said.

Others speak out: Murkowski’s statement, made to reporters shortly before a noontime vote, exploded like a bombshell in the Senate and immediately became a top story of the day.

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump backs another T stimulus, urges governors to reopen schools Romney, Collins, Murkowski won't attend GOP convention Trump administration narrows suspects in Russia bounties leak investigation: report MORE (R-Utah), a frequent critic of the president who voted for one of his articles of impeachment, wouldn’t go so far as to comment on Mattis’s statement when asked about it by reporters, but instead praised the former general as “a person of extraordinary integrity and sacrifice” and “a patriot who has sound judgment and capacity.”

After Murkowski’s endorsement of Mattis’s critique became headline news, Romney told reporters that his “letter was stunning and powerful.”

Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanRomney, Collins, Murkowski won't attend GOP convention Second Republican senator says he'll skip GOP convention Grassley won't attend GOP convention amid coronavirus uptick MORE (R-Ohio), who has sought to keep his focus on legislation and not get caught up in Trump’s controversies, on Thursday as he was leaving the Capitol stepped up his criticism of the president’s tone in recent days.

“… his tone and words kind of in between those more formal presentations that have not unified people,” he said.

 

Slipping polls: The criticisms come amid polls showing Trump is falling behind presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says he will rejoin WHO on his first day in office Tammy Duckworth is the epitome of the American Dream Mexico's president uses US visit to tout ties with Trump MORE in battleground states. Republicans in the Senate are worried that Trump could take their majority in the upper chamber with him if he does not begin to rebound.

 

Evasive moves from others: Other Republicans on Thursday also faced questions on Mattis’s statement and some took what appeared to be evasive action to dodge reporters.

Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneClash looms over next coronavirus relief bill Trump second-term plans remain a mystery to GOP Republicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names MORE (R-S.D.), who earlier in the week said that Trump’s tweets warning that looters would be shot and “vicious dogs” could be unleashed on protesters were “not helpful,” managed to elude reporters who were frantically searching for him all day long.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump backs another T stimulus, urges governors to reopen schools MORE (R-Maine), who on Tuesday criticized Trump’s photo op in front of St. John’s Church after peaceful protesters were forcibly removed, was also asked to weigh in on Mattis.

The Maine senator, who has a tough re-election race, demurred by saying she hadn’t yet read Mattis’s statement but explained she had it and planned to examine it later. She did, however, declare she had “great respect” for Mattis.

 

Here are more stories on the response to Mattis’ critic of Trump:

-- John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE defends James Mattis: 'The president did not fire him'

-- Romney: Mattis statement 'stunning and powerful'

-- GOP Sen. Murkowski 'struggling' with whether to vote for Trump

-- Graham pushes back on Mattis criticism of Trump: 'You're missing something here, my friend'

-- Trump calls Mattis 'overrated' after ex-Defense secretary issues scathing rebuke

TRUMP: ‘I DON’T THINK WE’LL HAVE TO’ SEND MILITARY TO CITIES’: Trump on Wednesday said he doesn't think it will be necessary to send military forces to U.S. cities to quell protests sparked by the death of George Floyd.

"It depends. I don’t think we’ll have to. We have very strong powers to do it. The National Guard is customary, and we have a very powerful National Guard," Trump told Sean SpicerSean Michael SpicerThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Supreme Court's unanimous decision on the Electoral College Juan Williams: Trump's base begins to crack Bolton denies saying he will back Biden over Trump in November MORE, his former press secretary, in an interview on Newsmax.

"As far as going beyond that? Sure, if it was necessary," Trump added. "We have antifa. We have anarchists. We have terrorists, looters. We have a lot of bad people in those groups."

A break in messaging: Trump's comments, which were recorded earlier Wednesday, came on the same day Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Key impeachment witness retires | Duckworth presses for information | Subpanel advances defense measure | Democrats press for end to military transgender ban 116 House Democrats push for end to transgender military ban following Supreme Court ruling Vindman, key impeachment witness, to retire from Army MORE said he opposes invoking the Insurrection Act, an 1807 law that would allow the president to deploy active-duty troops around the country to respond to the protests.

“The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations," Esper said. "We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act."

Backing off? Trump on Monday threatened to deploy military forces to cities that do not bring protesters in line, though his comments to Spicer indicate he is unlikely to follow through.

 The president earlier this week ridiculed state and local leaders as "weak," urging them to "dominate" their streets and clamp down on protests. Trump has made an example of Washington, D.C., which does not have the same rights as states to reject the National Guard or other troop deployments, by mobilizing military personnel around the District to police demonstrations.

 

Esper orders some troops home: Esper is sending hundreds of active duty soldiers who had been on standby in the Washington, D.C., area back to their home base after reversing course on such a decision the day before.

A senior defense official confirmed to The Hill that the Pentagon “made the decision to return members of some of the active duty units in the capital region to their home base.”

The official added that military leaders “are continuously monitoring this dynamic situation,” and that the return of the remainder of the active duty service members will be “conditions-based.”

The troops — reported by numerous outlets as from the 82nd Airborne Division based in Fort Bragg, N.C. — are part of the roughly 1,600 U.S. forces brought to the D.C. area but never used to respond to civil unrest that came with protests over the Minneapolis police killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, last week.

This marks the second time in as many days that Esper has ordered the troops home. On Wednesday morning, the Pentagon chief instructed forces to return home but changed his command later that day following a White House meeting, asking them to “to remain on alert” in the region for an additional 24 hours.

 

IRAN RELEASES US NAVY VET MICHAEL WHITE: Iran has released U.S. Navy veteran Michael White, who had been detained for nearly two years, his family and officials confirmed Thursday. 

“I am blessed to announce that the nightmare is over, and my son is safely in American custody and on his way home,” White’s mother, Joanne White, said in a statement shared by a family spokesman on Twitter.

Joanne White thanked the State Department, Swiss diplomats and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) in her statement. 

U.S. special envoy for Iran Brian Hook flew to Zurich with a doctor to meet White and will accompany him to the U.S. aboard an American plane, officials told The Associated Press.

President Trump announced White’s release in a tweet, adding that he expects White to be in America “very soon.”

“I am to happy announce that Navy Veteran, Michael White, who has been detained by Iran for 683 days, is on a Swiss plane that just left Iranian Airspace. We expect him to be home with his family in America very soon,” Trump tweeted.

The background: White was detained by Iranian authorities in July 2018 while he was visiting a woman he had met online and fallen in love with, according to AP. White was reportedly convicted of insulting Iran’s supreme leader and posting private information online. He had been sentenced to a decade in prison.

 

How it happened: White’s release came shortly after an Iranian scientist, Dr. Sirous Asgari, was returned to the country after being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), CNN reports.

U.S officials denied Asgari’s return was part of a prisoner exchange for White, according to CNN.

"The United States has tried to deport Sirous Asgari since December 2019, but the Iranian government repeatedly has held up the process. As the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed today, Mr. Asgari is not and has never been a participant in any prisoner swap with Iran," State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said earlier this week.

The AP reported that White’s release was predicated on another prisoner deal. His release was part of an agreement involving an Iranian-American doctor prosecuted by the Justice Department, the newswire reported. 

Details of the deal are set to be released later Thursday, according to AP.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Foreign Area Officer Association and Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security will hold a discussion via Zoom on “Middle East Security, Economics, and Politics,” with Tim Lenderking, deputy assistant secretary of state for Arabian Gulf affairs, and Brig. Gen. Scott Benedict, the joint staff deputy director for Middle East. Register at events@dmgs.edu.

 

ICYMI

– The Hill: Democrats on House Armed Services panel 'dismayed and gravely concerned' with Esper

– The Hill: Ousted watchdog says he told top State aides about Pompeo probe

– The Hill: House chairman presses Pentagon leaders on use of military against DC protesters

-- The Hill: Fired State Department watchdog says Pompeo aide attempted to 'bully' him over investigations

-- The Hill: North Korea lashes out, says US will be overshadowed by China

– The Hill: Opinion: Trump could use the military to restore calm — and advance his political agenda

– The Hill: Opinion: President Trump is bringing new meaning to the phrase 'Bully Pulpit'