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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

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
© 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: The Pentagon’s internal watchdog will audit whether the department appropriately used coronavirus relief funding to boost the defense industrial base, according to a memo released Thursday.

The audit aims to determine whether the Pentagon “awarded Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding to increase the defense industrial base manufacturing capacity in accordance with federal regulations and Defense Production Act authorities,” according to the memo from the Pentagon inspector general’s office, dated Wednesday.

How we got here: The announcement of the audit comes after lawmakers asked the inspector general to investigate the Department of Defense’s (DOD) use of $1 billion from the CARES Act following a Washington Post report that detailed how the department used most of the money on defense contractors rather than medical supplies.

While the announcement came after congressional requests, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) planned to do the audit before lawmakers called for one, according to a letter to Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenPorter loses seat on House panel overseeing financial sector OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Nine, including former Michigan governor, charged over Flint water crisis | Regulator finalizes rule forcing banks to serve oil, gun companies | Trump admin adds hurdle to increase efficiency standards for furnaces, water heaters DeVos mulled unilateral student loan forgiveness as COVID-19 wracked economy: memo MORE (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaHouse impeaches Trump for second time — with some GOP support Stacey Abrams gets kudos for work in Georgia runoff election Sex workers warn of unintended consequences in Section 230 fight MORE (D-Calif.) obtained by The Hill.

"As we communicated to your staff, the DoD OIG had previously planned an audit of DoD CARES Act awards to increase defense industrial base manufacturing capacity," said the letter, also dated Wednesday.

Senators feel seen: Warren and Khanna, who requested an inspector general investigation last month, said they were pleased with Thursday’s announcement.

“We raised alarms about the Pentagon’s possibly illegal use of taxpayer funds meant to address COVID-19, and we’re glad the inspector general is investigating,” they said in a joint statement. “There must be a thorough investigation, and DoD officials must be held accountable if they used money for PPE and medical supplies to line the pockets of defense contractors.”

The criticism: Critics argue the Pentagon’s use of the funding on jet engine parts, body armor, dress uniforms and other military equipment is in contravention of the CARES Act’s stipulation that the money be used to “to prevent, prepare for and respond to coronavirus.”

While the Post report provided new details on the exact contracts the Pentagon has awarded, the department notified Congress in late May it planned to use $688 million of the funding to shore up the defense industrial base.

Still, the report brought new scrutiny from lawmakers. Earlier this month, several House panels launched an investigation into how the Pentagon used the money.

The Pentagon’s response: The department has vigorously defended itself against allegations of wrongdoing, arguing the money was never intended to be restricted to medical supplies, that it kept Congress fully informed of its plans and that helping the defense industrial base through the pandemic-fueled economic downturn is an appropriate response to the COVID-19 crisis.

“The CARES Act did not limit — nor did it intend to limit in its language — the use of Defense Production Act (DPA) Title III to only medical resources,” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a seven-paragraph statement after the Post report. “As part of the efforts to mitigate economic damage, the act allowed monies to be spent to support individuals and industries that had been impacted by COVID. This is exactly what DOD has done.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Pentagon watchdog to probe extremism in US military | FBI chief warns of 'online chatter' ahead of inauguration | House conservative bloc opposes Austin waiver Conservative caucus opposes waiver for Biden's Pentagon pick 'I saw my life flash before my eyes': An oral history of the Capitol attack MORE (D-Wash.) has also said the Pentagon did nothing illegal, however debatable one thinks the department’s spending priorities are.

 

HOUSE DEMS OPTIMISTIC DEFENSE BILL WILL BLOCK TRUMP’S GERMANY WITHDRAWAL: A Democratic congressman is expressing optimism that the final version of the annual defense policy bill will limit President TrumpDonald TrumpEx-Trump lawyer Cohen to pen forward for impeachment book Murkowski says it would be 'appropriate' to bar Trump from holding office again Man known as 'QAnon Shaman' asks Trump for pardon after storming Capitol MORE's ability to move forward with his Germany withdrawal.

“I believe we can win this in conference committee,” Rep. Ruben GallegoRuben GallegoThe best way to handle veterans, active-duty military that participated in Capitol riot 'I saw my life flash before my eyes': An oral history of the Capitol attack Overnight Defense: National Guard boosts DC presence ahead of inauguration | Lawmakers demand probes into troops' role in Capitol riot | Financial disclosures released for Biden Pentagon nominee MORE (D-Ariz.) told reporters on a conference call. “It's still gonna require a lot more work and effort, which is why we're having this press conference here. But it certainly has its momentum, and I can't imagine I'm the only person hearing from our European allies about this.”

The amendment set to block it: Gallego and Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) sponsored an amendment in the House’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would block funding to reduce the number of troops in Germany until the Defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff separately certify that reducing the number of American troops in Germany is in America’s best interest and would not significantly undermine U.S. and allies’ security, among other criteria.

The amendment was approved by the House Armed Services Committee in a bipartisan 49-7 vote.

The background: The amendment’s inclusion in the House NDAA came after Trump in June announced a drawdown in Germany as punishment for Berlin not spending more on defense.

NATO allies agreed in 2014 to each spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense by 2024, but Germany is not on track to meet the goal.

In July, Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: National Guard boosts DC presence ahead of inauguration | Lawmakers demand probes into troops' role in Capitol riot | Financial disclosures released for Biden Pentagon nominee Biden Pentagon pick could make up to .7M from leaving Raytheon Acting Pentagon chief condemns violence, commends law enforcement response to Capitol attack MORE outlined a plan to fulfill Trump’s order by withdrawing about 11,900 of the 36,000 U.S. troops in Germany. About 5,600 of them will move elsewhere in Europe, while about 6,400 will return to the United States. Some of those coming back to the United States would become rotational forces that return to Europe.

Esper and other Pentagon officials have insisted the drawdown is a strategic realignment of forces, but Trump has continued to blame Germany’s defense spending.

Talks still to happen: The plan has been bashed by lawmakers in both parties. But it has at least one important defender: Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain Inhofe'I saw my life flash before my eyes': An oral history of the Capitol attack Republican senators now regret not doing more to contain Trump GOP senator says he's never seen Pence so angry amid Trump calls to block election certification MORE (R-Okla.), who is a key negotiator in the final NDAA.

Congress has not officially formed a conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill, but staffers from each chamber’s Armed Services Committee have been informally negotiating.

Gallego looks on the bright side: In supporting his optimism that his amendment will survive conference negotiations, Gallego cited that a bipartisan amendment similar to his was introduced when the Senate considered its NDAA.

The amendment, led by Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Additional airlines ban guns on flights to DC ahead of inauguration Ben Shapiro stirs controversy by guest writing Politico newsletter MORE (R-Utah) and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of senators, did not receive a vote in the upper chamber.

Gallego also highlighted the House Armed Services Committee’s September hearing on the issue, during which skeptical lawmakers from both parties grilled Pentagon officials.

“The presenters were thoroughly, I would say, rattled by the bipartisan questioning,” he said. “And the conclusion that came from that was that there was no rational reason for this.”

OBAMA SAYS TRUMP LACKS ‘PATIENCE’ AND ‘FOCUS’ NEEDED FOR FOREIGN POLICY: Former President Obama knocked President Trump on Wednesday, saying his successor lacks the “patience” and “focus” needed to make substantial changes to the U.S. foreign policy.

While speaking with two of his former aides, Jon Favreau and Tommy Vietor, on a 45-minute episode of “Pod Save America,” Obama unleashed some of his most pointed comments at Trump.

"It's not as if Trump has been all that active internationally. I mean, the truth is he doesn't have the patience and the focus to really substantially change a lot of U.S. foreign policy," Obama said on the podcast, adding that Trump has "systematically tried to decimate our entire foreign policy infrastructure."

Obama argued that Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenConfirmation hearing for Biden's DNI pick postponed Biden's Sunday inauguration rehearsal postponed due to security concerns: report Murkowski says it would be 'appropriate' to bar Trump from holding office again MORE, his former vice president, “respects people who know history and have expertise.”

Knocking past comments: The former president appeared to allude to reports from 2018 of Trump referring to Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as “shithole countries.”

In a hypothetical crisis, Obama argued that Biden would “pay attention” to experts who have knowledge on Africa “as opposed to calling it a bunch of — I won’t say the word — countries.”

“He has a respect and understanding of what American leadership can do,” Obama said of his former running mate.

Bolstering Biden: Obama also noted that Biden’s stance on foreign policy issues has grown throughout his decades in public service. He said that while the then-Delaware senator voted in 2002 to authorize military force in Iraq, Biden “learned a lesson from that.”

“Among my senior advisers during the course of my presidency, he consistently believed that we should show restraint and humility and think through the use of military power and had huge confidence and faith in the use of diplomacy as a strategy for, you know, showing American leadership,” Obama said. “And that instinct, I think, is going to trickle down, partly because he's going to have to rebuild a State Department that where some of the best people have been driven out systematically because they weren't willing to toe Trump's ideological agenda.”

Obama said he is confident that if Biden is elected to the White House in November, he will “surround himself with people who are smart and believe in science and believe in expertise.”

“His North Star will be good,” Obama said. “But at the same time, he'll have a lot of people around him who are able to translate his good instincts into actual policy that works.”

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

National security adviser Robert O'BrienRobert O'BrienWhite House aides head for exits after chaos at Capitol Top Melania Trump aide Stephanie Grisham resigns Trump national security adviser defends Pence MORE and Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser to President George W. Bush, will speak at an online Aspen Security Forum: “President Trump's National Security Agenda,” at 9 a.m. 

Amb. Edmund Fitton-Brown, the coordinator of the ISIL, al-Qaida and Taliban Monitoring Team for the United Nations Security Council, will speak at the Counter Extremism Project webinar on ‘The Prospect For Peace In Afghanistan,” at 9 a.m. 

The Air Force Association will speak with with Lt. Gen B. Chance Saltzman, deputy chief of space operations for operations, cyber, and nuclear, U.S. Space Force, at 1 p.m. 

Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesCOVID-19 could complicate Pelosi's path to Speaker next year Democrats debate fate of Trump probes if Biden wins House Democrats introduce bill to invest 0 billion in STEM research and education MORE (D-Conn.), will speak at a Center for Strategic and International Studies webcast on “Innovation in the Intelligence Community at 3 p.m. 

 

ICYMI

– The Hill: Trump administration rolls out strategy to secure, promote critical technologies
 

– The Hill: Israel approves Trump-brokered peace treaty with UAE
 

– The Hill: China accuses US of trying to destabilize Tibet with appointment of human rights envoy
 

– The Washington Post: As election nears, Pentagon leaders’ goal of staying out of elections is tested
 

– Stars and Stripes: USS Barry cruises through Taiwan Strait after Beijing blasts McCain’s South China Sea Transit
 

– Military Times: Services met recruiting goals as COVID forced military to modernize, SECDEF says