Overnight Defense: Book says Trump called military leaders ‘dopes and babies’ | House reinvites Pompeo for Iran hearing | Dems urge Esper to reject border wall funding request

Happy Friday 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.


Programming note: Overnight Defense will be off Monday for MLK Day. We will return Tuesday.


THE TOPLINE: We’ve known that a July 2017 meeting at the Pentagon with President Trump and other administration officials didn’t go well since it was first reported that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump a “moron” after the meeting.

But an excerpt published Friday from a forthcoming book adds some color on just how poorly it went.

The passage from “A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America” written by The Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker reveals that Trump called the assembled military brass “dopes and babies.”

“I want to win,” Trump reportedly said. “We don’t win any wars anymore … We spend $7 trillion, everybody else got the oil and we’re not winning anymore.” 

“I wouldn’t go to war with you people,” Trump added. “You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.”

Tillerson’s reaction: According to the book, Tillerson, whose father and uncle are veterans, was enraged with the comment, while former Defense Secretary James Mattis and Vice President Pence remained silent.

“No, that’s just wrong,” Tillerson said. “Mr. President, you’re totally wrong. None of that is true.”

 “The men and women who put on a uniform don’t do it to become soldiers of fortune,” Tillerson said. “That’s not why they put on a uniform and go out and die … They do it to protect our freedom.”

Background: As others have previously reported, the 2017 meeting in what’s known as The Tank at the Pentagon was organized by Mattis, Tillerson and former Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn to tutor Trump on the post-World War II world order and walk him through various U.S. alliances and commitments around the globe.

NBC News first reported in October 2017 that Tillerson called Trump a “moron” after the meeting. 


POMPEO INVITE, TAKE TWO: The Democratic-led House Foreign Affairs Committee has invited Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to another hearing on Iran after he missed the panel’s hearing this week while on an official trip to California.

“This hearing deals with the most weighty issues with which our country and Congress deal, including the use of force,” committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) wrote in a letter to Pompeo released Friday.

“Therefore, I consider your testimony to be of extremely high importance and am prepared to use all legal means to ensure your attendance,” Engel added. “I trust, however, that this will not be necessary.”

The new hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Jan. 29.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Hill on whether Pompeo will attend. 

Background: Engel’s committee held a hearing on Iran this past Tuesday following weeks of spiking tensions that brought the United States and Iran to the brink of war, and amid shifting explanations from the Trump administration on the justification for the U.S. drone strike that brought the confrontation to the brink.

Engel invited Pompeo to the hearing a week beforehand. Two days later, the State Department announced Pompeo would be taking an official trip to California that overlapped with the hearing.

While in California, Pompeo delivered an address at Stanford University that talked about how the drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was part of the administration’s effort to re-establish a strategy of deterrence regarding Iran.

“I was particularly troubled by the fact that, rather than discuss urgent matters of war and peace with the State Department’s committee of jurisdiction, you announced after you had been invited to the January 14 hearing, you traveled to California to deliver a scripted speech on these same issue,” Engel wrote in his later, dated Thursday.


DEMS PRESS ESPER TO KEEP PENTAGON FUNDS FROM WALL: Four top Senate Democrats are urging Defense Secretary Mark Esper to reject Trump’s expected request to use another $7.2 billion in Pentagon funding for his southern border wall.

“We are deeply concerned with reports that the President intends to raid another $7.2 billion from the Department of Defense (DoD) to construct a border wall,” the senators wrote in a letter to Esper released Friday. 

“We urge you to oppose this action and consider the airmen in aging hangars, soldiers in failing maintenance shops, sailors training to improve readiness, Marines in asbestos-laden operations centers, and all of their families relying on deteriorating schools and child development centers, before you divert funding from military construction accounts,” they added.

The letter was signed by Sens. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee; Dick Durbin (Ill.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee in charge of Defense; Jack Reed (R.I.), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee; and Brian Schatz (Hawaii), the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee in charge of military construction.

Context: The letter comes after The Washington Post first reported earlier this week that Trump is planning to take $3.5 billion from the Pentagon’s counterdrug programs and $3.7 billion from military construction funding to use to build the border wall.

The initial reports led to fuming from Democrats. Republicans were more subdued but said they also had questions about the administration again planning to use Pentagon funding for the wall.

The additional $7.2 billion comes after Trump tapped $2.5 billion in Pentagon counterdrug funds and $3.6 billion in military construction funds last year.

What the Pentagon says: The Pentagon told reporters in a background briefing Thursday that it has received a request from the Department of Homeland Security for roughly 270 miles of wall.

The official doing the briefing did not have a dollar amount because the request was in miles.



— The Hill: Pentagon to place new restrictions, monitoring on foreign military students

— The Hill: Iran supreme leader: Americans are ‘clowns’ who will ‘push poisonous dagger’ into Iranian backs

— The Hill: Trump chooses high-profile but controversial legal team

— The Hill: Pompeo to investigate charges of surveillance against Yovanovitch

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