Happy Thursday 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: Revenue from oil fields that U.S. forces are protecting in northeast Syria will go to U.S. partner forces in the region and not the United States, the Pentagon’s top spokesman said Thursday.
“The revenue from this is not going to the U.S., this is going to the SDF,” Jonathan Hoffman told reporters at the Pentagon, referring to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
A new plan: President Trump last week gave the go-ahead for an expanded military operation to secure expansive oil fields in eastern Syria, and the Pentagon has already sent new troops and armored vehicles to the area.
The new plan backtracks on Trump’s original desire to pull all U.S. forces from Syria, and now has hundreds of U.S. troops protecting a stretch of nearly 90 miles from Deir el-Zour to al-Hassakeh that is currently controlled by Kurdish forces.
Trump on Friday still insisted that “we want to bring our soldiers home,” but left soldiers in the country “because we’re keeping the oil.”
“I like oil. We’re keeping the oil,” he told reporters on the White House lawn.
Later that day at a rally in Tupelo, Miss., Trump told the crowd the United States would distribute the oil to “help out the Kurds and we’ll help out other people. We’ll also help out ourselves if that’s OK.”
The Pentagon’s response: Defense Secretary Mark Esper, when asked last week by reporters about Trump’s claims, said he interprets the president’s words “as, deny ISIS access to the oil fields, secure them so that they are denied access to the oil fields.”
But details of that plan still remain unclear — as it raises the legal question of whether American forces would be able to attack Syrian or Russian forces if they threatened the security of the oil.
“We work to ensure that no one approaches and shows hostile intent to our forces and if they do our commanders maintain the right of self-defense,” Hoffman said on Thursday when asked repeatedly if U.S. forces were there to keep Syrian or Russian government actors from accessing the area.
Pentagon officials also insisted that the U.S. mission in Syria still remains the defeat of ISIS.
“The mission is the defeat of ISIS. The securing of oil fields is a subordinate task to that mission and the purpose of that task is to deny ISIS the revenues from that oil infrastructure,” said Joint Staff Vice Director Navy Rear Adm. William Byrne, who spoke alongside Hoffman.
Questions remain: Hoffman and Byrne would not say if ISIS actually has the ability to seize the oil fields, given its lack of armor and aircraft, only offering that U.S. forces are focused on preventing that from happening.
The comments add to an already confusing picture of the U.S. role in Syria following Trump’s order last month to pull all U.S. troops from the country ahead of a Turkish offensive into Syria. The move appeared to give Ankara the green light to attack the Kurds, who have been instrumental in the U.S. fight against ISIS.
After condemnation from allies and massive pushback from congressional Democrats and Republicans alike, Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey but quickly lifted them as part of a cease-fire agreement brokered by Vice President Pence.
There have since been reports of Turkish violations of the cease-fire, but Byrne said it is holding and while there have been some skirmishes, “it appears that all parties are adhering to the rules.”
US envoy weighs in: The U.S. envoy to Syria has authored a scathing memo rebuking the Trump administration over its withdrawal of troops from northern Syria prior to a Turkish invasion of the region.
The New York Times reported Thursday that William Roebuck wrote in the memo that the Trump administration could have explored a number of options — including economic sanctions, military patrols and diplomatic options — to potentially dissuade a Turkish assault on U.S.-allied Kurdish forces. However, the president declined to invoke any of those strategies.
“It’s a tough call, and the answer is probably not,” Roebuck wrote of whether the actions would have been successful in dissuading Turkey, according to the Times. “But we won’t know because we didn’t try.”
‘Ethnic cleansing’: Roebuck went on to describe the Turkish military efforts to drive Kurdish forces out of an area where the Turkish government plans to resettle up to 1 million Syrian refugees nothing short of “ethnic cleansing.”
“Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria, spearheaded by armed Islamist groups on its payroll, represents an intentioned-laced effort at ethnic cleansing,” he wrote, according to the Times.
He reportedly went on to recommend that the Trump administration “speak out more forcefully, publicly and privately, to reduce the blame placed on the U.S. and to highlight the Turkish responsibilities for civilian well-being.”
IMPEACHMENT INQUIRY UPDATE – DEMS RELEASE KENT TRANSCRIPT: House Democrats on Thursday released the transcript of a senior diplomat who purportedly told Congress last month as part of the impeachment inquiry that President Trump’s anti-corruption campaign in Ukraine was itself corrupt.
George Kent, a senior State Department official who is expected to testify publicly next week, voiced concern about Rudy Giuliani‘s contacts with Ukraine as early as March of this year, which prompted a supervisor to warn him to lay low, according to one Democratic lawmaker present during the deposition last month.
Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, oversees administrative policy in a bloc of Eastern European countries, including Ukraine, which has emerged as the focal point of the Democrats’ growing investigation.
A growing list: The verbatim transcript is the sixth to be released by the Democrats this week, as they wind down the closed-door deposition stage of their impeachment investigation and transition to a public hearing phase, beginning next week.
Amid that transition, impeachment investigators on Thursday heard from what could be their last witness to be interviewed privately: Jennifer Williams, a career foreign service officer and top national security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, huddled behind closed doors for roughly five hours.
Dems drop Bolton testimony: House Democrats have signaled they are moving on from their efforts to obtain testimony from former national security adviser John Bolton after they say a lawyer for Bolton threatened to file a lawsuit if their client was subpoenaed.
Democrats had scheduled for Bolton to testify voluntarily on Thursday as part of the chamber’s impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, but sources ahead of his testimony said it was unlikely that the longtime GOP hawk would appear.
A House Intelligence Committee official later said in a statement that a lawyer for Bolton notified the panel that “Mr. Bolton would take us to court if we subpoenaed him.”
“We would welcome John Bolton’s deposition and he did not appear as he was requested today,” the official said. “We regret Mr. Bolton’s decision not to appear voluntarily, but we have no interest in allowing the Administration to play rope-a-dope with us in the courts for months.”
A dashed hope: Lawmakers had hoped to get testimony on Thursday from Bolton, who is said to have clashed with the president on a series of key foreign policy matters.
Democrats viewed Bolton as a possible star witness, with Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) calling him a “very important” witness late last month.
In particular, Bolton was involved in some of the most explosive events related to Trump’s contacts with Kiev that are now at the heart of the House impeachment investigation.
Bolton, who departed the White House last month amid conflicts with Trump over major foreign policy matters, is said to have raised concerns about efforts by the president and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden, one of his top 2020 rivals.
Earlier…: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert, testified last month that during a July 10 meeting, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland “started to speak about delivering the specific investigations in order to secure the meeting with the President, at which time Ambassador Bolton cut the meeting short,” according to a copy of his opening remarks.
The reported pledge to file a lawsuit in the face of a subpoena for Bolton’s testimony would follow the same playbook as Charles Kupperman, who served as a deputy to Bolton before his departure and who asked a judge to decide whether he should appear for testimony.
In a lawsuit for Kupperman, his attorney had previously argued that the former aide was caught in a “classic Catch-22,” between the request to testify and the Trump administration’s order seeking to block former and current administration officials from testifying, citing executive privilege.
Democrats on Wednesday withdrew their subpoena for Kupperman’s testimony, signaling a desire to maintain the fast-paced nature of their inquiry that is about to enter a public phase with open hearings scheduled for next week.
Disappointment all around: Still, both Democrats and Republicans say they wanted to hear from Bolton.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a member of the Oversight and Reform Committee and a close Trump ally, suggested Thursday that he’d like to see Bolton testify, characterizing more transparency in the process as “a good thing.”
“But,” he quickly added, “that’s not my call — that’s certainly Chairman Schiff’s call.”
Meadows said he hasn’t spoken directly to Bolton, but based on the testimony of other witnesses, he’s not worried that Bolton’s appearance would do any damage to Trump’s case.
Read more impeachment coverage from The Hill:
— READ: Transcript of testimony by diplomat George Kent
— GAO reviewing Trump hold on Ukraine military aid
— Ukraine was making plans to give in to Trump’s Biden request: report
— Trump pushes back on report that he wanted Barr to clear him on Ukraine in news conference: ‘Totally untrue’
— Pressure builds on Pompeo as impeachment inquiry charges ahead
— Democrats set stage for Watergate-style TV hearings
GOP SENATOR: HOUSE DEMS USING SPACE FORCE AS LEVERAGE IN BORDER WALL FIGHT: House Democrats have sought to use President Trump’s Space Force as leverage in a fight over his border wall during negotiations with Senate Republicans on the annual defense policy bill, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said.
“Space Force is the thing that they think the president wants the most, therefore, they can say, use that as leverage,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) told The Hill on Wednesday. “But it hasn’t worked.”
A House Armed Services Committee staffer responded by telling The Hill they “won’t pretend to know what he means by ‘leveraging Space Force.'”
“Both bills had provisions for a Space Force, and we know the administration has been vocal about the necessity for Space Force, so it’s no secret that leadership has been working through the conference process to arrive at a point where a Space Force could be a reality,” the staffer said.
Still, the staffer added, “the Space Force is something the Democratic Caucus views as poor use of resources, which is why it hasn’t been something automatically accepted by both chambers.”
The struggle: Bicameral negotiations over the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) have struggled to come to a compromise, with Inhofe and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) largely blaming issues related to the border wall.
“The sticking point is, and will continue to be, how to handle funding related to the wall,” the House Armed Services staffer said.
Negotiations have also mostly paused this week, with the House in recess and Smith leading a congressional delegation in the Middle East.
The background: Following Trump’s decision to unilaterally move $3.6 billion in military construction funding and $2.5 billion in Pentagon counter-drug funding to the wall, House Democrats included provisions to ban the use of Pentagon funds on the wall and limit the department’s ability to transfer money between accounts in their version of the NDAA.
The Senate’s version includes none of that and would backfill the $3.6 billion in military construction funding taken for the wall.
Space Force, meanwhile, has been viewed as a largely settled issue after both the House and Senate included some version of a space military branch in their versions of the bill. While differences in the name of the new service and how to structure it needed to be resolved, lawmakers in both parties generally agreed the military needs to place a greater emphasis on space.
Proponents of a Space Force have argued it is necessary to counter threats from Russia and China, such as anti-satellite missiles.
Inhofe’s claims: Inhofe said he still thinks the U.S. military is already “doing a good job in space right now,” but that Space Force is “something the president feels strongly about.”
And, he said, House Democrats have tried to use “anything the president really wants” as leverage in the negotiations on the NDAA.
Inhofe has introduced what he’s referring to as a “skinny” NDAA as a backup plan should lawmakers not come to a compromise in time to pass the bill before the end of the year, though Smith has also said he’s opposed to the skinny bill.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie will speak at 12:30 p.m. at the National Press Club in Washington D.C.
— The Hill: Macron: NATO experiencing ‘brain death’
— The Hill: Erdoğan says he’ll raise lack of Kurdish militia’s withdrawal in meeting with Trump
— The Hill: Iran: UN nuclear inspector tested positive for explosives
–The Hill: Trump says dog that assisted in al-Baghdadi mission will visit the Oval Office ‘very soon’
— The Hill: Trump wanted Barr to say publicly that the Ukraine phone call was not illegal: report
— The Hill: Opinion: Trump’s refugee crackdown threatens US security
— The Hill Opinion: China’s nuclear developments reflect its growing ambition