Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: US sanctions NATO ally Turkey over Russian defense system | Veterans groups, top Democrats call for Wilkie’s resignation | Gingrich, other Trump loyalists named to Pentagon board

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Happy Monday 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 than a year after NATO ally Turkey took delivery of a Russian air defense system, the Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Ankara.

The State Department on Monday announced sanctions targeting Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB); SSB’s president, Ismail Demir; and other SSB officers over the purchase of the Russian S-400 system.

“The United States made clear to Turkey at the highest levels and on numerous occasions that its purchase of the S-400 system would endanger the security of U.S. military technology and personnel and provide substantial funds to Russia’s defense sector, as well as Russian access to the Turkish armed forces and defense industry,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

Background: Turkey took delivery of the S-400 in July 2019.

The U.S. and other NATO allies had repeatedly warned Ankara that the Russian system would pose a threat to NATO systems.

In particular, the United States worried the S-400 could be used to gather information on the F-35 fighter jet, the U.S. military’s most advanced aircraft.

The Trump administration moved to boot Turkey from the F-35 program shortly after it acquired the S-400.

But despite repeated threats of sanctions, a U.S. law requiring sanctions on those that do business with Russia’s defense industry and repeated congressional pressure for sanctions, the administration didn’t go there until Tuesday.

Critics had accused President Trump of withholding sanctions because of his close relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Timing: The administration imposed the sanctions just as Congress was poised to force them to do it anyway.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that passed both chambers of Congress last week included mandatory sanctions on Turkey for the S-400 purchase. Trump has threatened to veto the NDAA over unrelated issues.

Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of State for the bureau of international security and nonproliferation, insisted Monday the timing of the administration’s move was not tied to the NDAA.

“What we have done is consistent with what I at least understand to be in the NDAA, although I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with the NDAA, and as an old Senate staffer I know enough not to be too predictive about such things,” he said.

Congressional reaction: Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who has been vocal about imposing sanctions, said he was pleased with Monday’s announcement “even if it was only under the imminent threat of further congressional action.”

“These measures send a clear message to Erdogan: we will not allow him to undermine our national security and that of our faithful NATO allies without consequence,” Van Hollen said in a statement.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idah) also said he was happy to see the “long overdue” sanctions.

“Turkey has been provided ample time and opportunity to abandon its Russian purchase and instead employ defensive systems that are interoperable with NATO’s requirements,” Risch said. “These sanctions, as well as Turkey’s dismissal from the F-35 program, are the inevitable result of Turkish President Erdogan’s decisions to prioritize his relationship with the Kremlin over NATO.”

Turkey’s reaction: Turkey in a lengthy response condemned and rejected the U.S. sanctions, calling them unfair. Ankara further said that “President Trump himself has admitted on many instances that Turkey’s acquisition was justified.”

Turkey added that it will “take the necessary steps against this decision… in a manner and timing it deems appropriate.”

WILKIE UNDER FIRE: If you missed it over the weekend, calls for Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie to resign picked up considerably.

The calls began Friday evening with Disabled American Veterans (DAV), followed shortly by AMVETS.

By Saturday, all of the so-called “big six” veterans groups had called for his resignation. In addition to DAV and AMVETS, the “big six” include Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America, the American Legion and Vietnam Veterans of America.

Several other major veterans groups, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, also joined in, as did top Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.).

The issue: The calls for Wilkie’s resignation came after last week’s inspector general report confirming he sought to discredit a congressional aide who reported being sexually assaulted at the VA medical center in Washington, D.C.

The report found Wilkie spread disparaging claims about the aide, but could not conclude whether Wilkie violated any laws or policies because he and other senior officials did not fully cooperate with the investigation. Wilkie has denied wrongdoing.

Not leaving: In response to the calls for his resignation, the VA indicated Wilkie will not leave before the end of the Trump administration next month.

“Secretary Wilkie has led VA to achieve landmark improvements in Veterans’ trust, quality of care and employee satisfaction. He will continue to lead the department, including its historic response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the department said in a statement to The Hill.

GINGRICH ADDED TO PENTAGON ADVISORY BOARD: Trump loyalists have been named to another Pentagon advisory panel.

The Pentagon announced Monday eight new members of the Defense Policy Board, including former Speaker and longtime Trump ally Newt Gingrich.

The intended appointments to the board, which advises Pentagon leaders on policy issues, come after last month’s sudden removal of nearly a dozen long standing experts on the panel, including former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright and former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R).

The administration previously swapped out longtime members of the Defense Business Board for Trump allies such Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie.

The Biden administration can still replace Trump’s picks come Jan. 20, so it is not clear if the newly named individuals will actually have time to join the Defense Policy Board.

Other appointments: In addition to Gingrich, the other most controversial name on Monday’s list is Scott O’Grady, Trump’s nominee for assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs.

Originally known for his career as a fighter pilot, O’Grady has recently sparred with critics on Twitter where he has also retweeted debunked conspiracies that called Trump’s election loss to President-elect Joe Biden a “coup” attempt, according to CNN.

The other appointees are former U.S. ambassador to the International Civil Aviation Organization Thomas Carter, Edward Luttwak, Thomas Stewart, former Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), former Sen. Robert Smith (R-N.H.) and former Ambassador to El Salvador Charles Glazer.

The Pentagon last week also announced the intended appointments of Michael Pillsbury, a China expert at the Hudson Institute, to serve as the board’s chair, and former National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty as a member.


Maj. Gen. Charles Cleveland, director of operations at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency will speak at an online Intelligence and National Security Alliance “Coffee and Conversation” event at 9 a.m. https://bit.ly/387xs0q

The Senate Armed Services Committee will have a closed-door briefing on Pentagon cyber operations at 2:30 p.m. https://bit.ly/3mqbDi8


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Tags Chris Van Hollen Corey Lewandowski Donald Trump Eric Cantor Jim Risch Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Mike Pompeo Nancy Pelosi Newt Gingrich Randy Forbes Robert Wilkie Steny Hoyer

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