Overnight Defense: Trump administration rolls back restrictions on landmine use | Pentagon issues guidance on coronavirus | Impeachment trial nears end without witnesses

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.

THE TOPLINE: The Trump administration has rolled back Obama-era restrictions on the U.S. military’s use of landmines that have been banned by more than 100 countries.

“The president has canceled the Obama administration’s policy to prohibit United States military forces from employing anti-personnel landmines outside of the Korean peninsula,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement. 

The Defense Department “has determined that restrictions imposed on American forces by the Obama Administration’s policy could place them at a severe disadvantage during a conflict against our adversaries,” she added. “The president is unwilling to accept this risk to our troops.”

The move gets rid of President Obama’s 2014 directive to no longer produce or acquire the anti-personnel landmines outside the Korean peninsula, where they are used to protect South Korea from any threats from the North.

Obama’s commitment largely followed the 1997 Ottawa Convention. The international agreement banned the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of the weapon, and 164 countries banned the landmines as they are likely to kill and wound civilians. 

Esper’s view: Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters the new policy was developed during his predecessor James Mattis’ tenure.

“I think landmines are an important tool that our forces need to have available to them in order to ensure mission success and in order to reduce risk to forces,” Esper said during a joint press conference with Italy’s defense minister.

“That said in everything we do we also want to make sure that these instruments in this case landmines also take into account both the safety of employment and the safety to civilians and others after a conflict,” he added.

Opposition: Ahead of the announcement, lawmakers and human rights advocacy groups criticized the move as a threat to civilians in conflict zones.  

“The restriction on the production and use of landmines was based on research that showed the horrific human cost these weapons have caused over the years. Any action to ease restrictions on their use and availability is a massive step backward,” Amnesty International said in a statement.

“There is a reason why the use of antipersonnel landmines is illegal: they can’t distinguish between fighters and ordinary people, and often continue to kill and maim for years after conflicts end.” 

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) complained that no member of Congress had been consulted on the new landmine policy ahead of its unveiling.

“The current policy, limiting the use of this inherently indiscriminate weapon to the Korean peninsula, is the culmination of nearly 30 years of incremental steps, taken by both Democratic and Republican administrations after extensive analysis and consultation, toward the growing global consensus that anti-personnel mines should be universally banned,” Leahy said in a statement.

PENTAGON GUIDANCE ON CORONAVIRUS: The Pentagon has issued guidance to its personnel and service members aimed at preventing the possible spread of the new, deadly coronavirus.

The memorandum, issued Thursday and released to the public on Friday, tells forces how to recognize the signs and symptoms of the virus, officially known as 2019-nCov, and of the precautions they should take.

“The Department of Defense continues to work closely with our interagency partners as we monitor the situation and protect our service members and their families, which is my highest priority,” Esper said in a statement accompanying the directive.  

Esper said the commanders of individually affected geographic commands will be issuing specific guidance to their forces.

The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs is also working with the Joint Staff and other leaders to identify possible additional screening needs for Pentagon personnel or service members at ports of entry, according to the memo.

US emergency: Later Friday, the Trump administration declared a public health emergency in the United States in response to the coronavirus that has sickened nearly 10,000 people worldwide.

The United States will also ban foreign nationals from entering the country if they have traveled in China within the preceding 14 days.

“The risk of infection for Americans remains low. With these and previous actions we are working to keep the risk low,” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said.

NEW TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS FOR NIGERIA, OTHERS: The Trump administration announced Friday it will restrict the ability of immigrants to travel to the United States from six countries, including Nigeria.

The government will curb the ability of citizens of Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan and Tanzania to get certain immigration visas, according to officials with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and State Department, but it is not a blanket travel ban.

“Because we have higher confidence that these six countries will be able to make improvements in their system in a reasonable period of time, we did not feel it would be proportionate to impose restrictions on all immigrant and non-immigration visas,” a DHS official said.

The officials cited national security concerns as the reason for the restrictions, saying the governments of the six countries impacted do not meet requirements for information-sharing and passport security.

Trump was expected to sign a proclamation approving the restrictions on Friday afternoon, and it will go into effect Feb. 22.

The proclamation will suspend immigrant visas for nationals of Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Eritrea, Nigeria. The restriction applies to those seeking to live in the U.S. permanently.

The order will restrict diversity visas for nationals of Sudan and Tanzania.

Context: The announcement comes at the outset of an election year where Trump is likely to harp on immigration as a key issue to motivate his base of supporters.

It also comes just over three years after Trump first announced he would impose a travel ban targeted at several Muslim-majority nations. An altered version of that ban was later upheld by the Supreme Court, and travel from Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia and Yemen is still restricted. The administration separately restricted travel from North Korea and Venezuela as well.

The expanded ban is certain to be challenged in courts, and former diplomats have expressed confusion over the inclusion of Nigeria in particular, warning that restricting travel from some of those countries will harm American interests.

Opposition: Immigrant rights groups swiftly condemned the announcement and accused the administration of attempting to revive a ban on Muslims entering the country.

“One particular country jumps out from the list compiled – as Muslims and other ethnic minorities flee persecution in Myanmar, after being subjected to one atrocious crime after another with devastating results, including mass killings, rapes, and the burning of entire villages, the U.S. makes the unconscionable decision to deny them welcome,” Amnesty International USA executive director Margaret Huang said in a statement.

IMPEACHMENT TRIAL, ENDGAME: Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate is in its final stages, but it’s still expected to go late into Friday night, early Saturday morning or even into mid-week next week.

Senators are expecting hours of late-night votes Friday night and into Saturday because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) don’t have an agreement on the endgame.

A Senate Republican aide said McConnell is expected to announce a second organizing resolution Friday afternoon that would set the schedule for the end of the trial and a final up-or-down vote on two articles of impeachment.

The resolution, which could be offered as an amendment to the original organizing resolution the Senate adopted Wednesday of last week, is subject to amendment, which means that Democrats could force multiple changes to the document, with each vote preceded by two hours of debate.

That means the Senate could battle into Saturday morning over what the end of the trial should look like.

Keep those calendars clear: Senators and Trump administration officials are signaling the impeachment trial could spill over into next week.

The timeline is largely dependent on two things: how long senators want to deliberate and the level of cooperation between McConnell and Schumer — which has been in short supply during the trial so far.

“It’s a possibility that this could extend on another day or so,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) when asked about the possibility of the trial continuing into next week.

Because of the impeachment trial rules, if the proceedings go past Saturday it would automatically roll over into Monday, the same day as the Iowa caucuses.

Rounds, when asked what could slow down the proceedings, said there were some “time constraints,” including how many members want to take 15 minutes to make a statement on the Senate floor.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters he would be “surprised” if the trial wrapped up on Friday and that without cooperation it could drag on for days.

It could “carry us over to the first part of next week,” Cornyn said.

Nail in the witness coffin: The trial is nearing its end after Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said Friday she will vote against a motion to consider subpoenas of new witnesses and documents, giving Republicans 51 votes to kill the motion and wrap up the trial.

Murkowski said she had worked to produce a fair process modeled after the Clinton impeachment trial, but blamed the House for rushing “flawed” impeachment articles.

“I worked for a fair, honest and transparent process, modeled after the Clinton trial, to provide ample time for both sides to present their cases, ask thoughtful questions, and determine whether we need more,” she said. “The House chose to send articles of impeachment that are rushed and flawed. I carefully considered the need for additional witnesses and documents, to cure the shortcomings of its process, but ultimately decided that I will vote against considering motions to subpoena.”

Murkowski also said the trial had not been fair and that Congress had failed as an institution.

“Given the partisan nature of this impeachment from the very beginning and throughout, I have come to the conclusion that there will be no fair trial in the Senate. I don’t believe the continuation of this process will change anything. It is sad for me to admit that, as an institution, the Congress has failed,” she said. 

“It has also become clear some of my colleagues intend to further politicize this process, and drag the Supreme Court into the fray, while attacking the chief justice. I will not stand for nor support that effort. We have already degraded this institution for partisan political benefit, and I will not enable those who wish to pull down another.

“We are sadly at a low point of division in this country.”

Murkowski had been the last undecided Republican senator, giving Democrats hope of a 50-50 tie on the crucial procedural question of subpoenaing witnesses such as former national security adviser John Bolton.

Two Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Mitt Romney (Utah), said in recent days they would likely vote for additional subpoenas, and confirmed their “yes” votes in announcements late Thursday and early Friday.


The Center for Strategic and International Studies will host an event on the United Kingdom’s post-Brexit foreign and security policy with British politician Liam Fox at 3 p.m.


— The Hill: Palestinians face shrinking options with Trump peace plan

— The Hill: New Senate Intel report on Russia’s election interference expected next week

— The Hill: US troop injuries after Iran missile strike rises to 64

— The Hill: Pentagon report shows 32 percent spike in reports of sexual assault at military academies

— New York Times: Taliban’s continued attacks show limits of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan

— Bloomberg: The day Europe told the U.S. to cut out the threats over Iran

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