OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves $740B defense policy bill

OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves $740B defense policy bill
© Greg Nash

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: Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley says he regrets his participation in President Trump’s photo opportunity outside St. John’s Church last week.

“I should not have been there,” Milley said during a recorded message aired at the graduation of the National Defense University on Thursday morning. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”

“As a commissioned, uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from,” he said. “And I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.”

Context: Milley was photographed in uniform walking with Trump to the historic church last Monday, shortly after demonstrators protesting the police killing of George Floyd were forcibly cleared from Lafayette Square by federal law enforcement and National Guardsmen.

Trump has been widely criticized for the photo-op, including by his former secretary of Defense James Mattis, and his administration has withstood scrutiny for the decision to clear the protesters.

Milley’s message: Milley acknowledged in his prerecorded remarks Thursday that the incident triggered a national conversation about the role of the U.S. military in civil society. He went on to emphasize the importance of preserving the principle of a military that is not involved in politics.

“We who wear the cloth of our nation come from the people of our nation and we must hold dear the principle of an apolitical military that is so deeply rooted in the essence of our republic,” Milley said in the taped address.

He spoke at length about Floyd’s "senseless and brutal killing" and racial injustice in general, expressing support for peaceful protesters and underscoring the work ahead for the United States to address racism.

"[Floyd’s] death amplified the pain, the frustration and the fear that so many of our fellow Americans live with day in, day out," Milley said.

 

A collision course with the White House?: It’s unclear how Milley’s remarks will be received at the White House. The White House and other administration officials, including Attorney General William Barr, have defended the events in Lafayette Square, insisting the clearing of protesters was warranted and not connected to Trump’s decision to visit St. John’s.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters during a news conference last week that he was aware of Trump’s destination when he accompanied him to the church, which had been vandalized the night prior when protest turned violent, but that he didn’t know it would be a photo opportunity.

“I did know that following the president's remarks on Monday evening that many of us were wanting to join President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE and review the damage in Lafayette Park and at St. John's Episcopal Church,” Esper said. “What I was not aware of was exactly where we were going when we arrived at the church and what the plans were once we got there.”

Esper also broke with Trump by saying he would not support the use of the Insurrection Act to allow the deployment of active-duty troops to quell domestic protests after Trump threatened to do so in order to crack down on looting and rioting.

Esper’s statement caught the White House by surprise, and Trump reportedly wanted to fire him over the disagreement, but was talked out of it.

 

GOP senators back Milley's statement: Several Republican senators backed Milley’s statement on Thursday, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) saying he has nothing but “deep admiration for and total confidence in” the general. 

“I support his statement in both substance and spirit regarding the recent presidential visit to St. Johns,” Graham tweeted Thursday. 

“General Milley is a tremendous military leader who understands the long tradition of maintaining an apolitical, nonpartisan military,” Graham added.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) also voiced support for Milley’s statement, noting that he thinks Milley regrets wearing his camouflage utility uniform at the time. 

And when asked about Milley’s statement, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told reporters she thought it was “a good strong statement for him to make.” 

“I appreciated it,” she added. 

 

SENATE PANEL APPROVES $740B DEFENSE POLICY BILL: The Senate Armed Services Committee has advanced its $740.5 billion annual defense policy bill, the panel said Thursday.

The fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was approved by the committee in a 25-2 vote during a closed-door session Wednesday.

“This year marks the 60th year in a row that the committee has fulfilled our constitutional duty to provide for the common defense by advancing the National Defense Authorization Act — once again with overwhelming support,” committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a statement.

“Building on the last two years, this year’s NDAA charts a decisive course of action to implement the National Defense Strategy, regain a credible military deterrent, and, ultimately, achieve a lasting peace, not only for us, but for our children and grandchildren,” Inhofe added.

Controversial issues in a standard bill: This year’s NDAA could prove controversial at a time of nationwide protests against police violence and racial injustice. Amendments approved by the committee would require the Pentagon to rename military bases named after Confederate leaders and bar the use of troops against protesters.

But the bulk of the bill focuses on standard defense issues. The bill would authorize $636.4 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget and $25.9 billion for national security programs within the Department of Energy.

The money breakdown: It would also authorize $69 billion for a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account.

The funding would include $9.1 billion to 95 F-35 fighter jets, 14 more than the administration requested.

It would also include $21.3 billion for shipbuilding, $1.4 billion more than the administration requested. That would fund seven new battle force ships, which is one fewer than the administration requested because the Senate previously authorized buying an amphibious transport dock ship.

The bill would also authorize a 3 percent pay raise for troops, in line with the administration’s request.

As Inhofe and the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), previewed, this year’s NDAA would also create a Pacific Deterrence Initiative aimed at countering China. The bill would put an initial $1.4 billion into the fund in fiscal 2021 and authorize another $5.5 billion for fiscal 2022.

 

Tackling coronavirus concerns: The bill's was complicated this year by the coronavirus pandemic this year. However, the legislation also has several measures to address the health crisis.

It would authorize $44 million for vaccine and biotechnology research supported by the Pentagon. It would also provide reserve retirement relief for service members affected by the stop-movement order the Pentagon issued because of the pandemic. Additionally, it would authorize a transitional health benefit for National Guardsmen who were called up to help with the pandemic response but are not covered by the Title 32 designation in which the federal government paid for the deployment.

 

MILITARY BASE NAME DEBATE HEATS UP: President Trump and Congress are on a collision course over whether to rename Army bases that are named for Confederate military officers.

Trump is adamantly opposed to changing the names, tweeting Wednesday that he would “not even consider” doing so. The next day he warned Republicans not to “fall for” for a legislative effort to change the names.

But just hours after making his position clear, news emerged that the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the annual defense policy bill that would require the Pentagon to rename bases and other military assets bearing the names of Confederate leaders.

The amendment, offered by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), would give the Pentagon three years to remove the Confederate names.

 

Congress’ position on the amendment: Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a committee member, said the amendment shows Trump’s “resistance is so out of touch to be almost irrelevant,” while Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said “it's part of the reckoning that's long overdue."

The House, too, appears poised to adopt a related amendment when it considers its version of the NDAA — increasing the odds that a form of the amendment finds its way to Trump’s desk, forcing him to decide whether to veto a $740 billion bill that includes a pay raise for troops, new military hardware and other administration priorities.

 

The bases at play: The rapid moves on Capitol Hill come on the heels of Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Defense Secretary Mark Esper announcing through an Army spokesperson on Monday that they were open to changing the names of 10 bases named after Confederate military officers: Fort Bragg in North Carolina; Fort Benning and Fort Gordon in Georgia; Fort Pickett, Fort A.P. Hill and Fort Lee in Virginia; Fort Polk and Camp Beauregard in Louisiana; Fort Hood in Texas; and Fort Rucker in Alabama. 

 

A reversal at the Pentagon: The Army’s Monday position was a reversal from as recently as February, when the service said it had no plans to change the name of any base, including those named after Confederate officers.

The about-face came amid nationwide protests over police brutality and racial injustice sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died when a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. The officer has since been fired and charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter.

 

A brewing battle: The inclusion of the amendment to force the Pentagon to change the base names, coupled with a threat of a veto by the president, potentially puts the White House on a collision course with Congress over what’s generally considered a must-pass bill. Republicans disinclined to confront the president still have opportunities to strip the amendment if they want, such as when the bill hits the Senate floor as soon as next week. 

 

Trump knocks Warren: Trump on Thursday lashed out at Warren for the amendment, dismissing her as a “seriously failed presidential candidate” and mocked her with the nickname “Pocahontas” in a tweet, while warning Republican senators not to support the amendment.

“Seriously failed presidential candidate, Senator Elizabeth ‘Pocahontas’ Warren, just introduced an Amendment on the renaming of many of our legendary Military Bases from which we trained to WIN two World Wars,” Trump tweeted Thursday afternoon. “Hopefully our great Republican Senators won’t fall for this!” 

 

Scott stays neutral:  Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only African American Republican in the Senate, isn’t taking a position yet on whether to rename U.S. military bases.

Scott, who is taking the lead in drafting GOP legislation responding to the death of Floyd and other African Americans killed by law enforcement, said the police reform bill is his top focus now.

“I haven’t given it much thought. I’ve certainly seen the reports of it all but ultimately I’ve been focusing on the police reform and no need to answer questions I haven’t given full thought to,” he said. 

“What I’ve learned is that the devil is always in the details,” he added, explaining that going with first “instincts” in responding to a tricky policy question “doesn’t always produce the best results.”

 

Meanwhile, at the Naval Academy: The school's Board of Visitors chairman said Thursday that the names of two Confederate naval officers should be removed from campus buildings at the U.S. Naval Academy

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said the Pentagon should consider removing Confederate names from all military bases as Americans nationwide protest and call for an end to racial inequality and police brutality.

“There has been discussion of renaming these buildings since at least 2017,” Ruppersberger said in a statement posted to his congressional website.

“As the new Chairman, the time for discussion is over. It’s time for action," he said. "Midshipmen who have earned the privilege to study in one of our nation’s most prestigious institutions should not have to walk around campus and see buildings named for men who fought to uphold slavery and promote white supremacy.”

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: China condemns US military for 'provocative' flight over Taiwan

-- The Hill: House panel again presses Pentagon leaders to testify on military's role in protests

-- The Hill: Trump administration accuses international court of corruption at 'highest levels,' authorizes sanctions

-- The Hill: North Korea warns US to stay out of its affairs to ensure 'smooth running' of presidential election

-- The Hill: Democrats press Intel chief for answers on foreign efforts to exploit US racial tensions

-- The Hill: Troop levels up for debate in US, Iraqi negotiations this week

-- The Hill: Opinion: Why cutting American forces in Germany will harm this alliance

-- The Hill: Opinion: An intelligence perspective: Stop predicting and start 'living the questions'