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: Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, are pressing the Department of Justice to answer questions about President Trump‘s pardons of U.S. soldiers accused of war crimes.
The Democratic senators want to know whether the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney was involved in the decisions to pardon soldiers accused of unlawful military executions, including fatal shootings of unarmed civilians.
They also asked whether the Justice Department issued any advice or recommendations to the White House and whether it coordinated at all with the Department of Defense, where senior officials were initially opposed to the pardons.
“While the president possesses broad pardon powers, these pardons were issued in the face of strong opposition from senior military officials, who warned that such pardons would undermine the U.S. military justice system and shake faith in our military’s commitment to abide by the laws of war,” the senators wrote in a letter to Rosalind Sargent-Burns, the acting pardon attorney at the Justice Department.
Timing: The lawmakers sent their letter Tuesday after Secretary of Defense Mark Esper fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer after Spencer attempted to negotiate a deal with the White House to keep the president from intervening in the controversy over Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher.
Gallagher was acquitted of shooting unarmed civilians and killing a captured teenage combatant with a knife but convicted of posing with a corpse.
Trump announced last week that he would not let the Navy strip Gallagher of his Trident pin, which signifies membership in the elite SEALS combat force.
The president earlier this month also pardoned Army First Lt. Clint Lorance, who was serving a 19-year prison sentence at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas for killing two unarmed civilians, and Army Major Matt Golsteyn, who was charged with illegally executing a suspected bomb maker.
What the Senators say: “When President Trump’s plan to intervene in these cases was first reported in early November, the Department of Defense was so alarmed that Secretary of Defense Esper and other senior military officials reportedly orchestrated a lobbying effort to dissuade the President from doing so. The Pentagon’s concerns about President Trump’s pardons have been echoed by many respected U.S. military figures,” Leahy and Whitehouse wrote.
The senators want to know whether the White House reached out to Justice’s pardon attorney for advice, as well as the timing of such outreach if it occurred.
They also asked whether the pardon attorney provided any recommendations to the White House on the three cases and, if so, the details and rationales for those recommendations.
“The President’s pardon powers are virtually absolute. That is precisely why safeguards must be in place to ensure that they are wielded judiciously – institutional safeguards like your office, which exists to ensure that the President’s pardon powers are exercised fairly and in the interests of justice,” Leahy and Whitehouse wrote.
Former Navy official weighs in: Former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said Trump’s decision to reach down into the military justice process sends a message to U.S. forces that “accountability doesn’t matter.”
“No other president would have done this. And that’s the really important thing here, is this President interjected himself completely inappropriately into the military justice system. He reached down and said, that doesn’t matter, accountability doesn’t matter. It’s out the window,” Mabus said on SiriusXM’s The Joe Madison Show.
Mabus added that Trump “dishonored our SEALs and our troops by doing this . . . it just shows how little respect, how little regard he has for our military.”
“The damage that’s been done to the SEALs, the damage has been done to the entire military is going to be so long lasting because, you know, why would anybody think that, that they needed to obey orders? It’s not what you did. You’re not going to be held accountable if you’ve got the right connections, if you are, tied into the right people.”
STATE DEPARTMENT LOOKING INTO REPORTS US WEAPONS ENDED UP IN WRONG HANDS IN YEMEN: The State Department is looking into reports that U.S.-made weapons sent to Yemen have fallen into the hands of those against the U.S.-backed and internationally recognized government, according to a letter released Tuesday by presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
“The Department of State takes these allegations very seriously and is working closely with partner nations to determine whether there were any such unauthorized transfers,” according to the Nov. 19 letter from Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Mary Elizabeth Taylor.
The State Department sent the letter in response to Warren’s queries on the matter last month.
Earlier…: Warren in October wrote to several U.S. government agencies demanding answers after a CNN investigation found that U.S. weapons in Yemen were being used by militia groups to fight U.S.-backed forces in the country.
What the investigation will look at: Taylor notes that “the allegations appear to be limited to Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles” and that both the State and Defense departments in September looked into MRAP inventories in the United Arab Emirates to establish vehicle accountability.
“Both departments are planning a similar oversight visit to Saudi Arabia in November 2019,” Taylor adds.
Once the two agencies “complete the visits and any necessary follow-up discussions with the two governments, the Department expects to have a full account of the circumstances related to the disposition of this equipment and any potential violation of the agreements.”
Warren’s concerns: Warren said in a Tuesday statement that while she welcomes the investigation, she is “troubled by the apparent lack of full cooperation in this process by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which calls into question whether it is in America’s interest to continue selling arms and other military hardware to these governments.”
Democratic lawmakers have grown increasingly disillusioned with U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen as the devastation deepens for civilians.
In response, Congress has passed resolutions to end U.S. support and block a package of emergency arms sales the Trump administration approved for Saudi Arabia.
Warren also wrote to agencies in February after a separate CNN investigation found that Saudi Arabia and the UAE had given U.S. weapons to al Qaeda-linked fighters and other militants in Yemen, violating agreements with the United States.
FINAL IMPEACHMENT TRANSCRIPTS: House Democrats on Tuesday released the remaining witness transcripts from their impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
The three House committees that led the closed-door depositions released interviews with Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of State in charge of European and Eurasian Affairs, and Mark Sandy, a senior Office of Management and Budget official.
The document release comes as the House Intelligence Committee plans to work through the Thanksgiving holiday to compile a report for the House Judiciary Committee to use in determining whether to draft articles of impeachment against Trump over allegations that he pressed Ukraine’s president to interfere in the 2020 election by opening two investigations that would benefit Trump politically.
Democrats argued Tuesday that the testimonies of Reeker and Sandy support their claims that Trump surrounded himself with a team of political appointees to carry out their own U.S. policy toward Ukraine in which the president sought to use nearly $400 million in security aid and the possibility of a White House visit to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open investigations into interference in the 2016 election and former Vice President Joe Biden, one of Trump’s top 2020 rivals.
Read: Testimony from State Department official Philip Reeker
Read: Transcript of testimony from White House official Mark Sandy
Next up in the impeachment drama: The House Judiciary Committee will hold its first hearing next week in the swift-moving impeachment investigation into President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, the panel announced Tuesday.
Behind Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the committee will hear from legal scholars as Democrats weigh whether the evidence turned up in their weeks-long impeachment inquiry warrants the drafting of articles aimed at removing the president from office.
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