Overnight Defense: Democrats blast Trump handling of Russian bounty intel | Pentagon leaders set for House hearing July 9 | Trump moves forward with plan for Germany drawdown
Happy Tuesday 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: More lawmakers were briefed Tuesday on the intelligence showing Russia offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
A group of House Democrats got a briefing in the morning from White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, national security adviser Robert O’Brien and director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe.
The Democrats came back to the Capitol blasting President Trump for denying knowledge of the intelligence rather than vowing to get to the bottom of a matter that suggests U.S. service members are at risk.
“It makes no sense whatsoever for the president and the administration not to call out [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said at a news conference, surrounded by other physically distanced Democrats. “I don’t understand what it is with the president’s infatuation with Putin.”
Democrats also stressed that the briefing at the White House is not a substitute for a full House briefing and said they want intelligence professionals from the CIA and National Security Agency to conduct the briefings.
“I think we knew the White House perspective, what we need to know is the intelligence perspective,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said at the news conference, adding that lawmakers did not receive “any new substantive information.”
Democrats also said they forcefully disagree with Trump that the allegation about the bounties is a “hoax.”
“Nothing in the briefing that we’ve just received led me to believe it is a hoax,” said Hoyer.
In a separate call with reporters at about the same time, House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said he got the impression from the briefing that Trump was aware of the intelligence, despite the president’s previous insistence that he hadn’t been briefed on it.
“Now maybe he was aware of the allegation, looked at it and said, ‘There’s nothing to this,’” Smith said. “It’s hard for me to believe based on the way it was presented that the president knew nothing about it, as he stated.”
Smith acknowledged that there is “conflicting intelligence” and “conflicting opinions” within the intelligence community about the information, but said there is evidence of Russia’s involvement.
Senate GOP briefing: A group of Senate Republicans also got a White House briefing on the subject Tuesday.
Afterward, at least one of them disputed the reports about the intelligence.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) told reporters Tuesday the reports are “absolutely inaccurate.”
“I think that reporting was absolutely inaccurate. I had a briefing this morning and I know that the evidence is not corroborated,” she said, emphasizing that she was putting “evidence” in air quotes.
“We take threats seriously. At the tactical level, obviously making sure our positions are hardened and we’re watching out for adversaries,” she added.
Senate Dems want hearing: Top Democrats are requesting that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper testify about the reports.
Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.) and Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.) — the top Democrats on the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, respectively — along with Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) sent a letter to the two administration officials Tuesday asking for details on how and when they learned about the intelligence.
“U.S. service members raise their right hands to protect and defend the United States. They deserve a Commander in Chief who will respond forcefully if bounties are put on them by enemies of the United States. Given the grave nature of these allegations, we request that you appear before the Senate this week to address these questions,” the Democratic senators wrote.
Trump gets his own briefing: President Trump has now been briefed on intelligence regarding Russian bounties on coalition forces in Afghanistan, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Tuesday.
McEnany confirmed during a press briefing that Trump had been briefed on the matter, but emphasized that there is still not a “consensus” in the intelligence community regarding the information.
“The president has been briefed on what is unfortunately in the public domain because of The New York Times,” she told reporters. “But that does not change the fact that there is no consensus on this intelligence that still has yet to be verified.”
The White House has denied that Trump or Vice President Pence were personally briefed on the matter prior to reports about the intelligence.
Subsequent reports have said the information was included in the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), a written classified document summarizing intelligence given to Trump daily. McEnany has declined to confirm whether the information was in the PDB.
Trump is known not to read the written briefs and prefers to receive oral briefings a handful of times a week.
Pompeo confers with Taliban: Pompeo said Tuesday he told the Taliban’s chief negotiator the United States expects the insurgents “not to attack Americans” in a video conference Monday.
“Spoke yesterday with the Taliban chief negotiator to press the Taliban to live up to their commitments under the U.S.-Taliban Agreement, including not to attack Americans,” Pompeo tweeted about his conversation with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Baradar heads the Taliban’s political office in Qatar and led their side in negotiations with the Trump administration for the U.S. withdrawal deal, which is also faltering amid stepped up Taliban attacks on Afghan forces.
Armed Services briefing: The House Armed Services Committee is also working on scheduling a briefing with Pentagon officials next week about force protection measures that have been taken in response to the intelligence, Smith said.
Over the weekend, Smith and the Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, Rep. Mac Thornberry (Texas), demanded the Pentagon brief the panel on the issue as early as this week.
Smith said Tuesday that the Pentagon responded to their demand with a note saying the department is aware of the allegations and that “they have taken appropriate action in terms of informing for force protection purposes.” Still, Smith said, the department said it “did not find [the intelligence] credible.”
The issue is primarily within the jurisdiction of the congressional intelligence committees, he said, but his panel wants to ensure U.S. troops are sufficiently protected.
ESPER, MILLEY HEARING SET: Smith also announced Tuesday that top Pentagon officials will testify publicly next week on the military’s response to protests over racial injustices, after weeks of wrangling over the hearing.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley are scheduled to testify before the committee July 9, Smith told reporters in response to a question from The Hill.
A news release from the committee later Tuesday said the hearing would be on “Department of Defense Authorities and Roles Related to Civilian Law Enforcement.”
Background: The Esper and Milley hearing is on the books after a bitter back-and-forth between committee Democrats and Pentagon officials on scheduling the hearing.
Smith called for Esper and Milley to testify before his panel after President Trump threatened to deploy active-duty troops to quell protests across the country and federal law enforcement forcibly cleared protesters in Lafayette Square outside the White House so Trump could walk to a photo-op at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Days later, Smith and the committee’s Democrats said Esper and Milley refused to testify as requested, calling their decision not to appear before the committee “unacceptable.”
The Pentagon shot back that Esper and Milley “have not ‘refused’ to testify” and said the department’s legislative affairs team was in discussion with the committee on scheduling.
Smith on Tuesday said the Pentagon has been “reasonably cooperative” in providing witnesses to the committee amid logistical issues during the coronavirus pandemic, despite the fact that Esper and Milley are not testifying “as rapidly as we would have liked.”
TRUMP APPROVES GERMAN DRAWDOWN PLAN: President Trump has approved a Pentagon plan to fulfill his order to move 9,500 U.S. troops out of Germany, the Defense Department said Tuesday.
In a statement, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Esper and Milley briefed Trump on plans Monday to “redeploy” the troops.
“The proposal that was approved not only meets the president’s directive, it will also enhance Russian deterrence, strengthen NATO, reassure allies, improve U.S. strategic flexibility and U.S. European Command’s operational flexibility, and take care of our service members and their families,” Hoffman said.
Pentagon leaders will brief congressional defense committees on the plan “in the coming weeks,” followed by consultations with NATO allies, Hoffman added.
“We will be providing timely updates to potentially affected personnel, their families and communities as planning progresses,” Hoffman said.
The statement did not say where the troops would go, but Trump indicated last week some would move to Poland while others would come back to the United States.
INTEL BILL PIGGYBACKING ON NDAA, WITH SOMETHING MISSING: A measure that would require presidential campaigns to report attempts by foreign nationals to interfere in elections was removed from the Senate’s bipartisan Intelligence Authorization Act, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said Tuesday.
The clause was based on Warner’s Foreign Influence Reporting in Elections (FIRE) Act, which requires presidential campaigns to report all contacts with foreign nationals seeking to interfere in the election process to both the FBI and the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
The Intelligence Authorization Act will be included in the Senate version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but according to Warner, the FIRE Act clause was taken out as part of a “backroom deal” in order to get the intelligence legislation included in the must-pass defense funding bill.
Warner announced he was proposing the legislation as a separate amendment to the NDAA in order to force members of the Senate to vote on the record about where they stood on election security.
In the House: Meanwhile, we’re just a day away from the House Armed Services Committee’s marathon markup of its version of the NDAA.
In his conference call with reporters, Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) previewed several of the expected amendment fights.
On the issue of Confederate-named bases, Smith said he expects the panel to approve a “very strong” amendment requiring the Pentagon to rename them and other properties in a year.
“There’s clearly strong support within the committee, and there are Republicans who support it as well, to make these name changes in a comprehensive way,” Smith said. “So I think we will pass out of committee a very strong provision to require the renaming of those bases probably within a year.”
Asked about the potential for an amendment blocking a U.S. troop drawdown in Germany, Smith said he thinks it would be appropriate to pump the breaks on Trump’s plan until the committee gets more information.
“Until we get clearer answers as to exactly what the plan is and how it supports our national security strategy, yeah, I think it would be appropriate to say, give us those answers before you move forward,” he said.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hybrid virtual and in person hearing on the implications of Beijing’s national security law in Hong Kong at 9:30 a.m. https://bit.ly/2VybXRk
The House Armed Services Committee will hold a hybrid virtual and in-person markup of the National Defense Authorization Act at 10 a.m. https://bit.ly/3iaQIhU
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein will speak at an online event hosted by the Brookings Institution at 11 a.m. https://brook.gs/2VytqsI
A House Foreign Affairs subcommittee will hold a hybrid virtual and in-person hearing on the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean at 1 p.m. https://bit.ly/31xjumU
— The Hill: McConnell: Russia should not be admitted to G-7
— The Hill: Pompeo calls on UN Security Council to reject Iranian ‘extortion’
— The Hill: Opinion: COVID-19, diplomacy and disruptive leaders: What can they teach us?
— Roll Call: Defense bill would give Pentagon power over Energy’s nuclear arms budget
— Military.com: Major Space Force units to be called deltas, officials announce
— New York Times: Father of slain Marine finds heartbreak anew in possible Russian bounty
— NPR: Afghan interpreter who saved U.S. troops gets American citizenship
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