Overnight Defense: Biden launches strikes on Iran-backed militias in Iraq, Syria | Book says Trump shouted at Milley over protest response | Questions remain on Afghan evacuations
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: President Biden ordered a fresh round of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria over the weekend against Iranian-back militias — sparking a fresh round of debate about presidential war powers.
On Sunday, the Pentagon announced that it had carried out two strikes in Syria and one in Iraq on facilities used by a pair of militias known as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada.
The why: The Pentagon said the targets were “operational and weapons storage” facilities the militia used for drone strikes against U.S. personnel and facilities.
U.S. military officials have been sounding the alarm on militia drone strikes for months.
“They believe they can carry out attacks at a fairly low level that won’t provoke a response, yet will create enough friction that will eventually induce us to leave,” U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie said in May. “I think it’s a dangerous situation.”
Among the latest attacks was a drone strike in Erbil on Saturday, including one that reportedly landed near where a new U.S. consulate is being built. There were no U.S. injuries or deaths reported in that attack.
Lawmaker reaction: After Sunday’s strikes, some Democrats expressed concern about an escalating situation that would require Biden to seek congressional authorization for military action.
“My concern is that the pace of activity directed at U.S. forces and the repeated retaliatory strikes against Iranian proxy forces are starting to look like what would qualify as a pattern of hostilities under the War Powers Act,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in a statement. “Both the Constitution and the War Powers Act require the president to come to Congress for a war declaration under these circumstances.”
Still, other top Democrats backed Biden.
“The defensive airstrikes conducted today by the Department of Defense on operational and weapons storage facilities in the Iraq-Syria border region appear to be a targeted and proportional response to a serious and specific threat,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “Protecting the military heroes who defend our freedoms is a sacred priority.”
White House response: The White House, for its part, cited Biden’s authority to protect U.S. personnel under Article II of the Constitution as the legal justification for the strike.
And in the face of concerns from some about the strikes, the White House on Monday defended that authorization.
“The president takes legal authority and justification for military action quite seriously,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “And certainly we consult our legal teams to ensure we have that justification. And we certainly feel confident we do.”
Tit-for-tat?: On Monday evening, U.S. forces in Syria reported coming under rocket fire.
Col. Wayne Marotto, a spokesperson for U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, tweeted that at about 7:44 p.m. Syria time, U.S. forces were “attacked by multiple rockets.”
U.S. troops responded with “counter-battery artillery fire at rocket launching positions,” Marotto added.
“There are no injuries and damage is being assessed,” Marotto said.
BOOK SAYS TRUMP BLEW UP AT MILLEY
It’s been quite the Mark Milley news cycle for the past week.
As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff continues to take heat from conservatives over his remarks about critical race theory last week, a newly released excerpt from an upcoming book reveals former President Trump privately lashed out at Gen. Milley last year.
What happened: According to an excerpt from “Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost” by The Wall Street Journal’s Michael Bender, Trump got into a shouting match with Milley after Trump tried to force the nation’s top general to respond to last summer’s racial justice protests. Axios got a copy of the book and reported on the excerpt Monday.
The scene, which reportedly took place in the Situation Room, unfolded after Trump said that he’d put Milley “in charge” of a military campaign to crack down on the nationwide protests.
Milley, who as Joint Chief chairman is an adviser not a commander and was also concerned about military involvement in domestic affairs, pushed back.
“I said you’re in f—ing charge!” Trump reportedly yelled at Milley, who shouted back, “Well, I’m not in charge!”
According to the book, the response infuriated Trump, who told Milley, “You can’t f—ing talk to me like that!”
“Goddamnit,” Milley said to others in the room, which included former Attorney General William Barr and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper. “There’s a room full of lawyers here. Will someone inform him of my legal responsibilities?”
Barr then interjected, telling Trump that “the general is right,” Bender recounted.
Trump responds with favorite epithet: Through an aide, Trump told Axios the account “is totally fake news, it never ever happened. I’m not a fan of Gen. Milley, but I never had an argument with him and the whole thing is false. He never talked back to me. … If Gen. Milley had yelled at me, I would have fired him.”
Bender told Axios that the exchange was confirmed by multiple senior administration officials and that he asked Trump for his side but the former president did not respond.
QUESTIONS LINGER ON AFGHAN EVACUATION PLAN
Despite the White House confirming last week it would evacuate Afghans who helped U.S. troops, several questions remain about how that will work.
Over the weekend, we took a look at the questions for which lawmakers and advocates are pressing for answers, including when, where and how the evacuation will take place.
“There are many outstanding questions, including which applicants would be prioritized for evacuation, how we would get them out of the country, where we would send them, how much it would cost and where the money to come from, just to name a few. And that doesn’t even mention the clock that is ticking on our time on the ground,” House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said in a statement to The Hill.
“I appreciate the Biden Administration’s intention to evacuate as many SIV applicants as possible – which I have been calling them to do for months – but that doesn’t mean much until they put words to action. They need to start answering some of these basic questions if we are to believe they will actually follow through,” he added.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on the conflict in Ethiopia with testimony from State Department officials at 10 a.m. https://bit.ly/35ZLyRa
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville will testify before the House Armed Services Committee at 11 a.m. https://bit.ly/35Wb7mb
A House Armed Services subcommittee will hold a hearing on cybersecurity posture with testimony from a defense official at 4 p.m. https://bit.ly/3Aj0lnY
— The Hill: Five things to know about the UFO report
— The Hill: Blinken urges US allies not to drop their guard against Islamic State threats
— The Hill: Report estimates major cyberattack could cost more than recovering from natural disasters
— The Hill: Opinion: Military drones are transforming war — we need a doctrine to use them right
— Associated Press: Biden tells Israel president he won’t tolerate nuclear Iran
— Politico: GOP senator jams up Pentagon pick over Biden’s Navy plan
— Washington Post: Hardening stances by Iran and U.S. complicate negotiations to revive nuclear deal
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.