Overnight Defense: Republicans urge Trump to reverse course on Syria | Dems subpoena Pentagon in impeachment probe | North Korea talks falter

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: It’s a couple months short of a year since President Trump rocked Washington by announcing a since-reversed plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria.

But the debate is back on after he announced U.S. troops would be leaving northeast Syria to avoid a planned Turkish incursion into the area.

Trump cast the move as fulfilling his pledge to end forever wars, but Republicans and Democrats alike blasted Trump as abandoning the Kurds to be slaughtered by the Turks.

Here’s a quick rundown of the day:

Trump’s argument: The White House announced late Sunday that Turkey would be moving forward with a long-threatened offensive in northern Syria and that U.S. troops would not be in the “immediate area” when it happens.

Trump followed up with tweets Monday saying it is time to remove the United States from “ridiculous Endless Wars.”

“The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so. They have been fighting Turkey for decades. I held off this fight for … almost 3 years, but it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home,” Trump tweeted.

“WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN,” the president added.

Trump on the defensive: Later, as criticism began to pile up, Trump threatened to “obliterate” Ankara’s economy if Turkey acts in a way he deems is “off limits.”

As the day wore on, Trump said that while he has “great respect” for the prominent Republicans who are urging him to reconsider his strategy, “it’s time to come back home.”

Asked if he consulted with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the decision, Trump claimed that he had.

“I consulted with everybody,” he said. “I always consult with everybody.”

But as Trump spoke, a senior administration official told reporters in a phone briefing that the shift in strategy did not constitute a withdrawal, and that the impacted troops would merely be relocated to other bases in the region.

The opposition: Republican lawmakers panned Trump’s decision Monday and called on him to reverse course.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) blasted the administration during an appearance on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends,” and in a tweet thread, calling it a “disaster in the making” and “shortsighted.”

Graham and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) also pledged sanctions against Turkey if it follows through on attacking the Kurds.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) signaled on Monday that he thinks Trump should back down from the decision and warned him against making a “precipitous withdrawal.”

“I urge the President to exercise American leadership to keep together our multinational coalition to defeat ISIS and prevent significant conflict between our NATO ally Turkey and our local Syrian counterterrorism partners,” McConnell said in a statement.

Some support: At least one Trump ally supported his decision.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is viewed as an outlier within the Senate GOP caucus on foreign policy, threw his support behind Trump’s decision.

“I stand with @realDonaldTrump today as he once again fulfills his promises to stop our endless wars and have a true America First foreign policy,” Paul tweeted on Monday.

The Pentagon’s message: The Pentagon insisted the United States is not endorsing a Turkish incursion into northern Syria, despite the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the area.

“The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey – as did the president – that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in northern Syria. The U.S. Armed Forces will not support, or be involved in any such operation,” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

“In conversations between the department and the Turkish military we have consistently stressed that coordination and cooperation were the best path toward security in the area,” Hoffman added.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley also “reiterated to their respective Turkish counterparts that unilateral action creates risks for Turkey,” according to the statement.

Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Carla Gleason later said Turkey has been removed from the Air Tasking Order, which is what the U.S. military uses to organize and instruct air forces. As part of that, the United States is no longer sharing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance of the region with Turkey, she said.

 

PENTAGON SUBPOENAED IN IMPEACHMENT PROBE: House Democrats on Monday subpoenaed the heads of the Defense Department and Office of Management and Budget for documents related to the Trump administration’s decision to withhold financial aid to Ukraine while the president pushed the allied nation for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

In letters to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) acting director Russell Vought, the three committee chairmen leading the House’s impeachment inquiry asked for the documents to be provided by Oct. 15.

“The enclosed subpoena demands documents that are necessary for the committees to examine this sequence of these events and the reasons behind the White House’s decision to withhold critical military assistance to Ukraine that was appropriated by Congress to counter Russian aggression,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) wrote.

What Democrats want: The committee chairmen are demanding that Esper hand over documents related to Trump’s phone calls with the Ukrainian president and efforts by any current or former Trump administration officials to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens.

They are also seeking documents from both Esper and Vought on the delay of foreign assistance to Ukraine, including communications with people in the White House and other agencies, as well as the decision in September announcing that the aid would go forward. In addition, the committee chairmen are asking for documents related to communications with Congress about the status of the foreign aid, such as briefings and written notifications.

Pentagon would rather stay out of it: Over the weekend, The Hill’s Ellen Mitchell took a look at how the Pentagon has been trying to distance itself from the impeachment drama.

Department officials last week downplayed the administration’s holdup of military aid to Ukraine and preemptively ordering employees to turn over for preservation any documents and communications having to do with it.

Questions remain about whether the Pentagon was involved in or even aware of the decision to withhold the money. Officials have declined to answer questions, citing the confidentiality of conversations between the department and the White House. Pentagon officials also have insisted there is a “solid working relationship” between the two.

“It looks bad in one sense to be out of the loop,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“It looks good in another sense because then they aren’t implicated themselves in any chicanery,” he added.

 

NORTH KOREA TALKS FALTER AS SOON AS THEY START: What started out as a hopeful weekend for North Korea nuclear talks to revive quickly flamed out as Pyongyang said they ended talks because the United States brought no new ideas to the table.

“The negotiations have not fulfilled our expectation and finally broke off,” North Korean negotiator Kim Myong Gil told reporters Saturday in Sweden.

“The U.S. raised expectations by offering suggestions like a flexible approach, new method and creative solutions, but they have disappointed us greatly and dampened our enthusiasm for negotiation by bringing nothing to the negotiation table,” he said.

A day later, North Korea said it has no intention to hold such “sickening” talks again.

“We have no intention to hold such sickening negotiations as what happened this time before the U.S. takes a substantial step to make complete and irreversible withdrawal of the hostile policy toward the DPRK, a policy that threatens the security of the country and hampers the rights to existence and development of its people,” a foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement carried by state-run Korean Central News Agency.

US tells different story: In a statement Saturday afternoon, the State Department said Kim’s comments “do not reflect the content or the spirit of today’s 8 1/2 hour discussion,” and added that the U.S. had accepted an invitation from Swedish officials to return in two weeks for more negotiations.

It was unclear whether North Korean officials have formally declined the invitation.

“At the conclusion of our discussions, the United States proposed to accept the invitation of our Swedish hosts to return to Stockholm to meet again in two weeks time, in order to continue discussions on all of the topics. The United States delegation has accepted this invitation,” the State Department said.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Center for Strategic and International Studies will host “An Ocean of Change: How Climate Change is Upending our View of Maritime Sustainability, Sovereignty, and Security,” with a keynote from former chief of naval operations Adm. John Richardson, at 8:45 a.m. https://bit.ly/2Osbmhd

The Atlantic Council will host “New Strategic Visions and Power Competition in the Middle East,” with a keynote from former Central Command chief retired Gen. Joseph Votel, at 9 a.m. https://bit.ly/35gENZq

 

ICYMI

— The Hill: Bipartisan lawmakers who visited Syrian border slam Trump’s ‘rash decision’

— The Hill: Senators call for Trump administration to testify on Syria

— The Hill: Liz Cheney calls Trump’s Syria move ‘a catastrophic mistake’

— The Hill: Nikki Haley criticizes Trump’s Syria withdrawal: Leaving allies to die ‘is a big mistake’

— The Hill: Opinion: For the Marines, a new commandant sees a new Corps, in a new era of warfare

— The Hill: Opinion: How much should America spend to defend its satellites?

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Written by Alan Smith

Alan Smith

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