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: Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on the sidelines of this weekend’s Munich Security Conference, the senator confirmed Tuesday.
In a post on Medium, Murphy said he wanted to discuss Iranian-backed forces in Iraq, the war in Yemen and U.S. prisoners being held in Iran.
“I have no delusions about Iran — they are our adversary, responsible for the killing of thousands of Americans and unacceptable levels of support for terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East,” Murphy wrote. “But I think it’s dangerous to not talk to your enemies. Discussions and negotiations are a way to ease tensions and reduce the chances for crisis.”
The meeting was first reported by conservative outlet The Federalist and quickly criticized in right-wing circles.
Why he did it: In his post, Murphy stressed that he does not conduct diplomacy on behalf of the U.S. government, but added that Congress is a co-equal branch of government that sets foreign policy.
“I cannot conduct diplomacy on behalf of the whole of the U.S. government, and I don’t pretend to be in a position to do so. But if Trump isn’t going to talk to Iran, then someone should,” he wrote.
Trump’s response: Speaking to reporters at Joint Base Andrews, President Trump questioned whether Murphy violated the Logan Act, which bans private U.S. citizens from conducting unauthorized diplomacy with foreign governments.
Legal scholars generally agree the Logan Act does not apply to members of Congress, and there is lengthy precedent of lawmakers meeting with foreign government officials.
“Sen. Murphy met with the Iranians; is that a fact? I just saw that on the way over. Is there anything that I should know? Because that sounds like, to me, a violation of the Logan Act,” Trump said.
Pompeo’s comments: Asked about reporting on the meeting before Murphy’s post, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo highlighted U.S. sanctions against Zarif, as well as Iran’s recent shooting down of a Ukrainian commercial airliner.
“If they met, I don’t know what they said. I hope they were reinforcing America’s foreign policy, not their own,” Pompeo said during a news conference in Ethiopia.
Timing: The meeting comes after a military confrontation between the United States and Iran nearly escalated into war in January. A drone strike ordered by Trump killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and Iran retaliated with a missile strike on an Iraqi military base that gave more than 100 U.S. service members brain injuries.
Murphy said he wanted to meet with Zarif to “gauge whether he thinks the reprisals for the Soleimani assassination are over.”
“I want to make sure it is 100 percent clear to him that if any groups in Iraq that are affiliated with Iran attack the United States’ forces in Iraq, this will be perceived as an unacceptable escalation,” Murphy added.
Other topics discussed: The pair also discussed the civil war in Yemen, where Iran supports the Houthi rebels, Murphy said.
“I tell him that I know it is not a coincidence that the recent uptick in attacks from Iranian-aligned Houthis in Yemen started right after the Soleimani killing,” he wrote.
Murphy also said he raised the issue of a 2 percent tax the Houthis had planned to impose on humanitarian assistance, a plan the Houthis said Friday they dropped.
Finally, Murphy said he raised the issue of U.S. prisoners in Iran; he said he and Zarif spent “a few minutes discussing how the situation could be resolved.”
FROM THIS WEEKEND: LAWMAKERS PUSH BACK AT PENTAGON FUNDING FOR WALL: Lawmakers are calling out the Trump administration over its latest plan to shift billions of dollars meant for the Pentagon’s budget to instead pay for border wall construction.
The top Democrat and Republican on the House Armed Services Committee are among the numerous lawmakers that last week pushed back on President Trump’s move to divert $3.8 billion from various weapons programs into its counter-drug fund to be used to build his signature project.
“The re-programming announced today is contrary to Congress’s constitutional authority, and I believe that it requires Congress to take action. I will be working with my colleagues to determine the appropriate steps to take,” committee ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said in a statement in response to the funding move.
Dems’ response: Meanwhile, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said the administration was stealing the cash for the sake of fulfilling a Trump campaign promise.
“The President is obsessed with fulfilling a campaign promise at the expense of our national security. This Administration has already stolen billions from the Department of Defense in order to begin building the President’s vanity wall and today they are doubling down on bad policy,” Smith said in a statement.
All Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee Democrats called the transfer “divisive” and “poisonous to the relationship we seek on national defense matters.”
“As was the case last year, the Department of Defense did not request, and the Congress did not provide, any defense funds for border wall construction,” the senators wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper last Thursday.
“This repeated maneuver to transfer funds once again is in contrast to the long-established processes involving consultation with the defense oversight committees of Congress on reprogrammings and transfers. Engaging in this scheme again is not only divisive, but also poisonous to the relationship we seek on national defense matters – which should be above this type of rancor and partisanship.”
The money shift: The White House shifted the reprogramed dollars — originally set aside to pay for aircraft, ships, vehicles and additional programs –- to build 177 miles of fencing along the border with Mexico.
The Pentagon first notified Congress last Thursday of the decision to move the $3.8 billion in funds, which is on top of the $6.1 billion Trump took from the Pentagon last year for the wall.
Trump was able to move the dollars by declaring a national emergency on Feb. 15, 2019, sidestepping Congress when lawmakers would not provide the billions of dollars he requested for his wall.
The White House last Thursday renewed the emergency for another year, prompting further outrage from Democrats.
The administration’s defense: Esper last Friday defended the decision to move the money, telling reporters at an international security conference in Munich that “border security is national security.”
Esper, who had been asked about the bipartisan blowback on the funding shift, said the action “is legal under the law.”
“That should be no surprise and I’ll just leave it at that for now,” he added.
Robert Salesses, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for homeland defense, insisted that the transfer “will not adversely affect the military preparedness of the United States.”
“The comptroller identified funding sources that are excess and early to the current programmatic needs,” he told reporters last week.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley will attend a ceremony and wreath presentation to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima at 11: 30 a.m. in Washington, D.C.
The Democratic presidential primary debate will be held at 9 p.m. in Las Vegas, Nev. and air on NBC and MSNBC.
— The Hill: Graham warned Pentagon chief about consequences of Africa policy: report
— The Hill: Peace deal with US to be signed by months’ end, Taliban says
— The Hill: US defense chief says Taliban deal ‘looks very promising’ but not without risk
— The Hill: Trump speaks with Turkey’s Erdogan amid growing tensions in Syria
— The Hill: Trump wanted CIA to kill bin Laden’s son over other high-priority targets: report
— The Hill: Rockets hit near US Embassy in Baghdad: report
— The Hill: Rouhani: War with Iran would ‘ruin’ Trump’s reelection chances
— The Hill: Trump defense chief hits ‘predatory’ China as rising global threat