Overnight 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

Overnight 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

Happy Friday 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 Navy has discovered two new COVID-19 cases on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt six months after a coronavirus outbreak aboard the vessel launched a political scandal that included the firing of the ship’s captain and the resignation of the acting Navy secretary.

The service identified “a small number of sailors” who tested positive for the illness during routine training at sea near San Diego on Thursday, according to Cmdr. Zach Harrell, a spokesman for Naval Air Forces.

“The sailors self-reported after experiencing symptoms, received immediate medical treatment, and were transported off the ship for isolation,” Harrell said in a statement to The Hill.

Contact tracing aboard the ship has been completed, he added.

“Theodore Roosevelt is aggressively applying all mitigation measures in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Navy guidance in order to protect the health of our Sailors and stop the spread of the virus as we continue to identify and eliminate any of the virus’s potential vectors,” he said.

A recurring nightmare?: The New York Times first reported Friday that there were two new cases aboard the ship, which was sidelined for months in Guam this spring after a massive COVID-19 outbreak.

More than 1,000 of the nearly 5,000-person crew were infected in the epidemic and one sailor died, Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr., a 41-year-old aviation ordnanceman.

A wave of scandal: After the beloved commander was removed, videos emerged on social media showing crew members cheering and chanting "Captain Crozier!" as he left the ship.

The acting Navy secretary who fired him, Thomas Modly, later resigned after he gave a speech aboard the Roosevelt berating Crozier days after the captain was relieved of duty. 

Since the Roosevelt incident, the Navy has put in place measures aimed at preventing the virus from making its way onto ships in the first place, including limiting port visits and requiring sailors to undergo a two-week quarantine and test negative before boarding.


TRUMP ADVISER SHOOTS BACK AT TOP GENERAL: ‘I WASN'T SPECULATING’ ON AFGHANISTAN TROOP LEVELS: National security adviser Robert O’Brien insisted Friday that President TrumpDonald TrumpHead of firms that pushed 'Italygate' theory falsely claimed VA mansion was her home: report Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting VA moving to cover gender affirmation surgery through department health care MORE has ordered a drawdown in Afghanistan to 2,500 troops by early next year, shooting back at criticism from the top general in the military.

"I can guarantee you that's the plan of the president of the United States,” O’Brien said in a virtual event hosted by the Aspen Security Forum. “That's the order of the commander in chief. That's not speculation."

“I staff the president of the United States, so it's not my practice to speculate,” O’Brien added later in the event. “So other people can interpret that what I say is speculation or not, but I wasn't speculating then, I wasn't speculating today. And so when I'm speaking, I'm speaking for the president. And I think that's what the Pentagon is moving out and doing.”

Earlier: O’Brien was responding to comments earlier in the week from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyBiden struggles to detail post-withdrawal Afghanistan plans Overnight Defense: House votes to repeal 2002 Iraq war powers | Pentagon leaders press senators to reimburse National Guard | New pressure on US-Iran nuclear talks Milley downplays report of 1,900 lost or stolen military firearms MORE, who dismissed the national security adviser’s announcement last week about the drawdown as speculation.

“I think that Robert O'BrienRobert O'BrienHuawei says sales rose in 2020, but growth slowed amid US sanctions White House aides head for exits after chaos at Capitol Top Melania Trump aide Stephanie Grisham resigns MORE or anyone else can speculate as they see fit. I'm not going to engage in speculation,” Milley told NPR in an interview.


More confusion: The back-and-forth comes as Trump has sowed confusion around his plans for Afghanistan.

The U.S. military is in the process of drawing down to 4,500 troops in Afghanistan, a target Trump and other administration officials have said will be hit by Election Day.

Last week in a speech, O’Brien announced a drawdown to 2,500 troops by early 2021. But hours later, Trump sent a tweet indicating he wanted all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this year.

“We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas,” Trump tweeted.

The wording of the tweet made it unclear if Trump had actually ordered a withdrawal or was trying to appeal to voters in the final stretch of the presidential campaign by claiming he is fulfilling his promise to end so-called forever wars.

Not yet an order: On Friday, O’Brien framed Trump’s tweet as an aspiration, but suggested it is not yet an order.

“I think what the president was doing is he was expressing the same desire that I think every president since the Revolutionary War has said,” O’Brien said. “Whenever we're at war, whether it was Revolutionary War or the Civil War or World War I or World War II, all presidents, all G.I.s want the troops home by Christmas.”

“Ultimately, if these inter-Afghan negotiations could work out well, there'd be nothing greater than to have our troops home by Christmas,” he added. “We’re on a path right now that looks like about 4,500 this fall and a smaller number in January and February. But if the conditions permit it, look, we'd love to get people out earlier, and I think that's the desire that the president was expressing.”

Both a full withdrawal and O’Brien’s drawdown would contradict other officials’ assurances they would review conditions on the ground before dropping below 4,500 troops.


US BLASTS REPORTED TEST OF TURKEY’S S-400 AIR DEFENSE SYSTEM: The Pentagon on Friday blasted Turkey over reports that the NATO member tested its Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which the U.S. said “risks serious consequences” for the allies’ relationship.

The test, reported by Turkish media, was said to be a military test-fire in Sinop, a city on the Black Sea coast. There is also an alleged amateur video of the test showing a white vapor trail rocketing into the sky.

The U.S. Defense Department “is aware of reports of a possible test of the S-400 air defense system by Turkey,” and if accurate, “strongly condemns the test,” top Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

The S-400 background: Turkey in summer 2019 accepted the S-400 anti-aircraft surface-to-air missile system, which the United States fears could be used to glean sensitive information from F-35 technology.

Ankara went ahead with the deal despite repeated warnings from Washington that the sale would mean a removal from the F-35 program, which the Pentagon made good on.

‘A barrier to progress’: “We have been clear: an operational S-400 system is not consistent with Turkey’s commitments as a U.S. and NATO Ally,” Hoffman said Friday.

“We object to Turkey’s purchase of the system and are deeply concerned with reports that Turkey is bringing it into operation. It should not be activated. Doing so risks serious consequences for our security relationship," he continued.

He added that the S-400 “continues to be a barrier to progress elsewhere in the bilateral relationship.”

Threatened sanctions still don’t come: U.S. officials have also threatened sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act if the S-400 was activated. The act requires sanctions on those who do business with Russia’s defense sector.

Following the reports, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSchumer says Senate will vote on repealing 2002 war authorization The Hill's Morning Report - Biden-Putin meeting to dominate the week Sanders drops bid to block Biden's Israel arms sale MORE (D-N.J.) took the opportunity to bash the Trump administration for failing to invoke sanctions over the S-400 sale.

“[Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan only responds to actions, not words. In July 2019, Turkey took delivery of the S-400 in clear violation of U.S. sanctions mandated by the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions law. The Trump Administration has ignored the law, weakening our hand against Putin," Menendez said in a statement. "It has also emboldened Erdoğan, leading to today’s test."

“President Trump’s failure to follow the law and his affinity for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pose a serious threat to our national security and that of our NATO allies and partners in Europe," he added. "Turkey must be sanctioned immediately for its purchase and use of this system.”



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