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Overnight Defense: Marine Corps brushes off criticism of Marines' appearance in GOP convention video | US troops injured in collision with Russian vehicle in Syria | Dems ask for probe of Vindman retaliation allegations

Overnight Defense: Marine Corps brushes off criticism of Marines' appearance in GOP convention video | US troops injured in collision with Russian vehicle in Syria | Dems ask for probe of Vindman retaliation allegations
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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 military is getting embroiled in partisan politics again.

This time, the issue is Marines who appeared in a video that aired during the Republican National Convention on Tuesday night.

The video, which showed President TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE presiding over a naturalization ceremony in the White House, started with a shot of two Marines opening the door for Trump to enter the room.

Pentagon policy bars troops from participating in partisan political activities while in uniform.

But the Marine Corps said the service members were acting in their official capacity.

“The Marines in the footage of the ceremony at the White House were at their assigned place of duty,” the Marine Corps said in a brief statement Wednesday. “Their official duty is to assist the president in office; those duties include opening doors for the president.”

The service directed any further questions to the White House, which said the ceremony was an official White House event.

"The president held a naturalization ceremony and pardoned an individual which were official White House events," a White House official said in a statement. "The White House publicized the content of both events on a public website [Tuesday] afternoon, and the campaign decided to use the publically available content for campaign purposes. There was no violation of law." 

Flashback: To last week, when two soldiers appeared in uniform at the Democratic National Convention.

Critics were quick to compare Tuesday’s situation with the Democratic National Convention incident, which prompted an Army investigation.

In that case, two soldiers in uniform stood behind delegates from American Samoa when it was the U.S. territory’s turn to speak during the Democratic convention’s roll call.

The next day, the Army announced it launched an investigation into whether the soldiers violated the policy against politicking in uniform.

IN OTHER CONVENTION NEWS: Tuesday night featured a smattering of defense and national security talk.

In the most prominent example, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Brazil's OECD candidacy is best chance for reform Watch live: Pompeo news conference MORE delivered his highly controversial speech, which was pre-recorded while he was on official travel in Jerusalem.

Pompeo spoke with the iconic and historic Old City in the background illuminated at dusk.

“I’m speaking to you from beautiful Jerusalem, looking out over the Old City. I have a big job, as Susan’s husband and Nick’s dad,” said the secretary, who is considered a possible 2024 presidential candidate. “Susan and Nick are more safe and their freedoms more secure because President Trump has put his America First Vision into action.”

Pompeo’s remarks to the convention touched on many of the foreign policy priorities of the Trump administration but did not dramatically differ from statements and speeches Pompeo makes in his official capacity as secretary of State.

Meadows defends Pompeo: White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo On The Money: Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi bullish, Trump tempers optimism | Analysis: Nearly 1M have run out of jobless benefits MORE defended Pompeo’s decision to deliver a convention speech on an official trip, saying concerns about potential Hatch Act violations were overblown and that “nobody outside the Beltway really cares.”

“What it’s really designed to do is to make sure that people like myself and others do not use their political position to try to convince other employees, other federal employees that they need to vote one way, register one way or campaign another way. We have taken it well beyond the original intent of the Hatch Act,” Meadows said on Politico’s “Plug in with Playbook” Wednesday morning when asked about the controversy surrounding Pompeo’s speech at the Republican National Convention the evening prior.

“As he was there, he made it very clear he was talking in his personal capacity, used no federal assets to do that,” Meadows continued.

Paul hits Biden on Iraq: The other defense headline from Tuesday night’s convention was Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulMichigan Republican isolating after positive coronavirus test GOP Rep. Mike Bost tests positive for COVID-19 Top Democrats introduce resolution calling for mask mandate, testing program in Senate MORE’s (R-Ky.) speech, in which he touted Trump’s moves aimed at ending so-called endless wars — though no wars have yet been ended on Trump’s watch.

In the speech, Paul knocked Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida Supreme Court reinstates ban on curbside voting in Alabama MORE over his vote for the Iraq War authorization and warned that the former vice president could lead the country into another conflict if elected.

"Compare President Trump with the disastrous record of Joe Biden, who's consistently called for more war. Joe Biden voted for the Iraq War, which President Trump has long called the worst geopolitical mistake of our generation," Paul said.

"I fear Biden will choose war again. ... Joe Biden will continue to spill our blood and treasure. President Trump will bring our heroes home," Paul added. 

US TROOPS INJURED IN SYRIA: U.S. troops were injured Tuesday in a collision with a Russian military vehicle in northeast Syria, the Trump administration confirmed Wednesday.

“At approximately 10 a.m. (Syria Time), Aug. 25, a routine Defeat-ISIS Coalition security patrol encountered a Russian military patrol near Dayrick, in northeast Syria,” National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“During this interaction, a Russian vehicle struck a Coalition Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV) causing injuries to the vehicle’s crew,” he added.

A Pentagon spokesperson could not immediately answer a question from The Hill about the nature or number of injuries, but reports Wednesday said at least four U.S. troops suffered mild concussion-like injuries.

Politico first reported the injuries.

Mil-to-mil talk: Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley spoke with his Russian counterpart Wednesday, Milley’s office said in a statement.

But there were no details released about what was discussed “in accordance with past practice,” Milley’s office said.

Reaction: Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerFox News reporter defends confirming Atlantic piece despite Trump backlash: 'I feel very confident' GOP lawmaker defends Fox reporter after Trump calls for her firing Lindsey Graham: 'QAnon is bats--- crazy' MORE (R-Ill.) called video that emerged on social media apparently of the incident “disturbing” 

“A brief reminder to #Putin that we overwhelmed and killed hundreds of Russian in Syria a few years ago,” Kinziger tweeted, in an apparent reference to U.S. strikes against Russian mercenaries in Syria in 2018. “Not a game you will win.”

Trump’s critics, though, are blasting the response to the incident as weak.

“So ... as #RNC2020 speakers claim we’re so respected under Trump’s leadership: Russian military forces are ramming and injuring US troops in Syria. No competent C-in-C would leave our troops in this position,” tweeted Brett McGurk, the former envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition who resigned in protest of Trump attempting to withdraw from Syria.

“Reminder: these incidents have been ongoing for months. Trump has apparently never raised the issue in multiple calls with Putin. He leaves our troops to fend for themselves,” McGurk added.

DEMS CALL FOR IG INVESTIGATION OF VINDMAN TWIN RETALIATION: Four top Democrats are urging the Pentagon's watchdog to launch an investigation into whether there was a concerted effort to retaliate against two U.S. soldiers tied to President Trump's impeachment inquiry.

In a Wednesday letter, the House Democrats asked acting Inspector General Sean O’Donnell to examine reports of retaliation against Lt. Col. Alexander VindmanAlexander VindmanJohn Kelly called Trump 'the most flawed person' he's ever met: report Hayden endorses Biden, says Trump 'doesn't care about facts' Impeachment witness Alexander Vindman calls Trump Putin's 'useful idiot' MORE, a key impeachment witness, and his twin brother, Yevgeny Vindman, who served as deputy legal adviser on the National Security Council (NSC).

The Democrats highlighted a "disturbing" complaint from Yevgeny Vindman filed earlier this month with the watchdog's office that detailed allegations of whistleblower reprisal against military personnel by White House officials. Yevgeny Vindman's attorneys on Wednesday confirmed that their client filed a whistleblower reprisal complaint.

"It raises disturbing new allegations which, if true, would further substantiate our concerns that he was retaliated against for making protected disclosures about potential legal and ethical violations committed by multiple White House officials, including President Trump," the Democrats wrote to the Department of Defense (DOD) inspector general (IG).

"Based on this new information, it is all the more urgent that the DOD IG immediately investigate whether adverse personnel actions taken against LTC Alexander Vindman and LTC Y. Vindman were carried out in retaliation for their protected disclosures, and that your investigation include a close examination of actions taken by White House officials," they added.

The letter was led by Reps. Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn Bosher MaloneyTrump, House lawyers return to court in fight over subpoena for financial records Safeguarding US elections by sanctioning Russian sovereign debt Fears grow of voter suppression in Texas MORE (D-N.Y.), Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffGreenwald slams Schiff over Biden emails on Fox Hillicon Valley: DOJ accuses Russian hackers of targeting 2018 Olympics, French elections | Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats | House Democrats slam FCC over 'blatant attempt to help' Trump Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats MORE (D-Calif.) and Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Armed Services chairman unsold on slashing defense budget | Democratic Senate report details 'damage, chaos' of Trump foreign policy | Administration approves .8B Taiwan arms sales Democratic House chairman trusts Pentagon won't follow 'unlawful orders' on election involvement Democratic chairman 'unconvinced' by arguments to slash defense budget, but open to debate MORE (D-Wash.), respectively the chairs of the House Oversight and Reform, Intelligence and Armed Services committees, as well as Rep. Stephen LynchStephen Francis LynchOVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Top general negative for coronavirus, Pentagon chief to get tested after Trump result l Top House lawmakers launch investigation into Pentagon redirecting COVID-19 funds Top House lawmakers launch investigation into Pentagon redirecting COVID-19 funds Overnight Defense: Pentagon redirects pandemic funding to defense contractors | US planning for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May | Anti-Trump GOP group puts ads in military papers MORE (Mass.), who heads the Oversight and Reform panel's Subcommittee on National Security.

Not just impeachment: Democrats say the new allegations suggest Yevgeny Vindman was punished not only for raising concerns about Trump's July 2019 call with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, where he pressed the foreign leader to investigate his political foes, but also for reporting ethics and legal compliance concerns about top officials at the NSC related to misused government resources and treatment of women in the office.

Those allegations pertained to Robert O'BrienRobert O'BrienOvernight Defense: More COVID-19 cases on USS Theodore Roosevelt | Trump adviser fires back at general over Afghanistan | US blasts Turkey's test of air defense system Trump adviser shoots back at top general: 'I wasn't speculating' on Afghanistan troop levels Overnight Defense: Pentagon IG to audit use of COVID-19 funds on contractors | Dems optimistic on blocking Trump's Germany withdrawal | Obama slams Trump on foreign policy MORE, White House national security adviser, and NSC chief of staff Alex Gray. Yevgeny Vindman laid out the concerns in a memorandum to the DOD Office of General Counsel a few weeks after being removed from the NSC staff earlier this year. He remains on active duty with the U.S. military.

"There were allegations of sexism, violations of standards of ethical conduct for employees and violations of the Anti-Deficiency Act ... I notified my supervisors on the NSC staff and White House Counsel’s Office about each of these concerns," he wrote, noting that these concerns fell within his purview.

DEMS ON NEW START REPORT: On Tuesday, as we linked to at the bottom of this newsletter, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) put out a new analysis of potential costs if the New START treaty is allowed to expire in February. The treaty sets limits on the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

Potential costs could be anywhere from nothing to hundreds of billions of dollars, depending on how the United States responds, according to CBO.

On Wednesday, the lawmakers who requested the CBO analysis released a statement saying the report shows why New START must be extended.

“CBO’s nonpartisan report is clear: The Trump administration’s unwillingness to continue the decades of strategic arms control by failing to extend the New START Treaty is driving the United States toward a dangerous arms race, which we cannot afford,” House Armed Services Chairman Smith and Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezWatchdog confirms State Dept. canceled award for journalist who criticized Trump Kasie Hunt to host lead-in show for MSNBC's 'Morning Joe' Senators ask for removal of tariffs on EU food, wine, spirits: report MORE (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in the statement. 

“While this report only begins to account for the costs of the Administration’s preposterous claims that we can ‘spend the adversary into oblivion,’ it is further proof of why New START is essential to U.S. and international security,” they added.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Republican National Convention concludes with President Trump’s speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination. 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Body of missing Fort Hood soldier found in Texas

-- The Hill: William Shatner rails against Space Force officer ranks in op-ed

-- The Hill: China accuses US of sending U-2 spy plane to 'trespass' on exercises

-- The Hill: Opinion: Three steps to win — or avert — a Pacific war with China

-- New York Times: Iran to allow U.N. inspections of previously blocked nuclear sites

-- Military.com: VA secretary moves to block gender-neutral change to motto