Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Pentagon faces leadership shakeup after Trump fires Esper | Trump approves UAE weapons package | Senate panel proposes $696B spending bill

Happy Tuesday 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: A slew of Pentagon officials resigned Tuesday, a day after President Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper, spurring a leadership shakeup at the Defense Department.

The new resignations came from the Pentagon’s top policy official James Anderson, the agency’s top intelligence official Joseph Kernan and Esper’s chief of staff Jen Stewart. All three submitted letters announcing their resignations, effective immediately.

“I want to thank Dr. Anderson, Admiral Kernan and Jen Stewart for their service to the nation and the Department,” acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said in a statement. “Over their careers each has contributed greatly to the national defense and the future of the Department of Defense. We wish them the best in their next endeavors.”

Raised fears: The swift exits, which come a day after Trump fired Esper via Twitter, have raised fears that the administration is looking to quickly fill the Pentagon with loyalists who can help push through controversial executive actions in the roughly 70 days before Trump must leave the White House.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said Tuesday that it is “hard to overstate just how dangerous high-level turnover at the Department of Defense is during a period of presidential transition.”

The resignations “could mark the beginning of a process of gutting the DoD – something that should alarm all Americans,” Smith said in a statement released after Anderson departed.

“As soon as Former Vice President Biden became President-Elect Biden, President Trump and those loyal to him started to sow chaos and division. It appears that chaos has now reached the Pentagon.”

A controversial replacement: Smith also raised alarms over Anderson’s replacement, retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, Trump’s controversial nominee for the job.

Tata, a frequent Fox News commentator, this summer was forced to pull his name from consideration for the Pentagon’s top policy position when his past Islamophobic tweets resurfaced. In the tweets, Tata called Obama a “terrorist leader” and a “Manchurian candidate,” and called Islam the “most oppressive violent religion I know of.”

He was, however, placed as deputy undersecretary of policy in late July after his confirmation hearing was canceled.

“If this is the beginning of a trend – the President either firing or forcing out national security professionals in order to replace them with people perceived as more loyal to him – then the next 70 days will be precarious at best and downright dangerous at worst,” Smith said.

More on those who left: It was expected that the White House would ask Anderson to resign in the next few days due to disagreements with its personnel office.

In his resignation letter, published by Politico, Anderson wrote that he was “particularly grateful to have been entrusted with leading the dedicated men and women of Policy, who play a key role in our Nation’s security.”

“Now, as ever, our long-term success depends on adhering to the U.S. Constitution all public servants swear to support and defend,” he said.

Kernan, a retired Navy vice admiral, had planned to resign for several months, according to the Pentagon. He was replaced with Ezra Cohen-Watnick, acting assistant secretary of Defense for special operation and low-intensity conflict. 

And Stewart was replaced with Kash Patel, currently on the National Security Council staff. Patel will now be chief of staff to Miller.

More resignations are expected in the coming days and weeks.


TRUMP APPROVES $23B WEAPONS PACKAGE FOR UAE: The Trump administration has formally notified Congress of its approval to sell the United Arab Emirates (UAE) $23.4 billion in weapons, including F-35 fighter jets and armed drones, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Tuesday.

The approval comes after Abu Dhabi signed a normalization agreement with Israel at a White House ceremony in September in what has been dubbed the Abraham Accords.

“This is in recognition of our deepening relationship and the UAE’s need for advanced defense capabilities to deter and defend itself against heightened threats from Iran,” Pompeo said in a statement announcing the approval.

“The UAE’s historic agreement to normalize relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to positively transform the region’s strategic landscape,” he added. “Our adversaries, especially those in Iran, know this and will stop at nothing to disrupt this shared success.”

What’s in the package: The sale announced Tuesday includes up to 50 F-35s, with an estimated value of $10.4 billion.

It also includes up to 18 MQ-9B drones valued at $2.97 billion. The approval marks the first time the administration has signed off on armed drones since it loosened the U.S. rules for drone exports in July. The administration previously approved selling Taiwan drones under the new rules, but those are not set to be armed.

The UAE package also includes air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions valued at $10 billion.

Lawmaker concerns: The formal notification kicks off a 30-day period in which Congress can block the sale if it wants to. Lawmakers in both parties have expressed concerns that selling the UAE advanced weaponry could run afoul of the U.S. commitment to maintain Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge in the region.

Israel had initially continued to express opposition to selling the UAE F-35s after the Abraham Accords signing. But last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz said their country would not oppose selling Abu Dhabi “certain weapons systems” after Washington agreed to unspecified upgrades for Israel’s military.

Still, lawmakers have continued to express concern about eroding Israel’s military advantage. The U.S. commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge is enshrined in a 2008 law.

The GOP-led Senate Appropriations Committee released a spending bill Tuesday that would require certifications that selling the UAE F-35s would not diminish Israel’s qualitative military edge and would not pose threat to the United States by enabling technology to get into the hands of Russia and China, both of which have security ties with the UAE.

And after Congress was informally notified of the F-35 sale two weeks ago, outgoing House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill that would restrict the sale of advanced weapons systems to countries in the Middle East other than Israel unless they meet certain benchmarks.


SENATE PANEL PROPOSES $696B PENTAGON SPENDING BILL: The GOP-led Senate Appropriations Committee is proposing a $696 billion Pentagon spending bill for this fiscal year.

The Senate’s version of the fiscal 2021 Pentagon spending bill was released Tuesday alongside all 11 other annual appropriations bills as lawmakers gear up to negotiate an end-of-year spending package to fund the government.

The government has been operating under a stopgap spending measure known as a continuing resolution since the start of the fiscal year in October.

That measure expires Dec. 11. Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have said they want to pass an omnibus spending bill, rather than another short-term resolution, but the two chambers still have to work out key differences on controversial issues.

Dueling bills: The House passed its $694.6 billion version of the Pentagon spending bill in July as part of a package of spending bills.

The Senate version released Tuesday includes $627.2 billion for the base defense budget and $68.7 billion for a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account.

The bill aligns with the House’s on a 3 percent pay raise for troops.

The Senate’s version also eschews key controversial policy issues that the Democratic-led House tackled.

Other differences: The House’s included funding for the Army to change the names of bases named after Confederate leaders, as well as several provisions aimed at blocking Pentagon funding from being used on President Trump’s border wall.

The lower chamber approved of funding for the Army to remove Confederate names from bases after the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by Minneapolis police in May. His death sparked nationwide protests over racial injustice and police brutality, prompting the removal of Confederate monuments all over the country. 

The Senate’s bill would also fund 96 F-35 fighter jets, 17 more than the administration requested and five more than the House bill would buy.

The bill also includes $21.35 billion to build nine new battle force ships, $1.4 billion more than the Trump administration requested. The shipbuilding money would buy one Columbia-class submarine, one Virginia-class submarine, two Arleigh Burke destroyers, one Constellation-class frigate, one amphibious transport dock, one Expeditionary Fast Transport ships and two tug boats.



Friends of the National World War II Memorial and the National Park Service will hold a virtual Veterans Day Observance to honor the 16 million men and women who served in World War II. To be livestream at 9 a.m.  

The U.S. Army Military District of Washington will hold its 67th National Veterans Day Observance with Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie participating in a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at 11 a.m. in Arlington National Cemetery.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund will hold a virtual Veterans Day commemoration at 1 p.m.

The U.S. Navy Memorial Veterans Day wreath-laying ceremony will take place with the U.S. Navy Band and Ceremonial Guard at 1 p.m.

The Atlantic Council will hold a virtual film screening and discussion “Veterans Day 2020,” to celebrate military service, with former CIA Director retired Gen. David Petraeus at 4:30 p.m.



– The Hill: Five defense challenges on the horizon for Biden

– The Hill Air Force general charged with sexual assault

– The Hill: Senate wants security guarantees for Israel before US sale of F-35s to UAE

– The Hill: Russia sending troops to border enclave as part of cease-fire between Azerbaijan, Armenia

– Stars and Stripes: Biden to weigh keeping terror force in Afghanistan, analysts say

– Defense News: Biden landing team for Pentagon announced

– The Washington Post: Christopher Miller, Trump’s surprise acting defense secretary, has a thin resume for the job but deep experience in counterterrorism

Tags Adam Smith Benjamin Netanyahu Donald Trump Eliot Engel ezra cohen-watnick Mark Esper Mike Pompeo Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Robert Wilkie

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