Happy Wednesday 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: President Trump wrapped up his trip to London on Wednesday after a NATO summit that saw his distance from other world leaders on full display.
The awkwardness was exemplified in a video that went viral late Tuesday of several world leaders appearing to gossip about Trump during an evening reception at Buckingham Palace.
In the 25-second video, which was posted online by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson were seen having an animated conversation about what appeared to be Trump’s lateness to bilateral meetings earlier in the day.
“He was late because he takes a 40-minute press conference off the top,” Trudeau says without naming the U.S. president.
Trump had one-on-one meetings Tuesday with Trudeau, Macron and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. At the outset of each meeting, Trump took questions from the press that totaled more than two hours by the end of the day.
“You just watched his team’s jaws drop to the floor,” Trudeau said.
Macron is spotted making comments as he waves his hand, though his remarks are inaudible. Johnson smiles through the exchange.
Trump’s response: Asked Wednesday if he had seen the video, Trump called Trudeau “two-faced.”
“Well, he’s two-faced,” Trump said.
“And honestly with Trudeau, he’s a nice guy,” Trump added after a long pause. “I find him to be a very nice guy.”
The president went on to suggest Trudeau was upset that he’d been critical of Canada failing to meet a 2 percent commitment to defense spending during their one-on-one meeting on Tuesday in London.
“They should be paying 2 percent,” Trump said. “So I called him out on that, and I’m sure he wasn’t happy about it, but that’s the way it is.”
No presser: Trump later canceled the press conference he had planned to hold at the conclusion of the NATO summit.
“I think we’ve done plenty of press conferences — unless you’re demanding a press conference, we’ll do one — but I think we’ve had plenty of questions,” Trump told reporters during a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Trump later officially canceled the press conference in a series of tweets.
“Great progress has been made by NATO over the last three years. Countries other than the U.S. have agreed to pay 130 Billion Dollars more per year, and by 2024, that number will be 400 Billion Dollars. NATO will be richer and stronger than ever before,” the president wrote.
“Just finished meetings with Turkey and Germany. Heading to a meeting now with those countries that have met their 2% GOALS, followed by meetings with Denmark and Italy,” he continued. “When today’s meetings are over, I will be heading back to Washington. We won’t be doing a press conference at the close of NATO because we did so many over the past two days. Safe travels to all!”
Trump’s own hot mic: Trump also had his own hit mic moment Wednesday, where he was heard joking about his comments on Trudeau and the media.
As reporters were ushered out of a working lunch, Trump was caught on a hot mic saying, “That was funny when I said that guy was two-faced.”
Before that, the audio picked up an unidentified voice telling Trump, “You’ll be in double digits for press conferences.”
“Oh, and then you know what they’ll say?” Trump responded, referring to members of the media, “‘He didn’t do a press conference! He didn’t do a press conference!'”
Trump and Erdogan: Aside from the Trump-Trudeau dustup, Wednesday saw Trump unexpectedly meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The Turkish government published photos of the two meeting, and White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley later confirmed that Trump and Erdoğan met earlier in the day.
Trump also later characterized the meeting positively and said the two discussed the situation along the Syrian border, where Turkey launched a military offensive in October after Trump ordered American troops to pull back from the region.
“It was a very good meeting, I think,” Trump told reporters during his subsequent meeting with Merkel. “We discussed Syria, we discussed the Kurds, we discussed numerous things and we’re getting along very well.”
“The border and the safe zone is working out very well and I gave a lot of credit to Turkey for that,” Trump said, touting a ceasefire his administration brokered in northern Syria that the Kurds have accused Turkey of violating. “The ceasefire is holding very well.”
IMPEACHMENT LATEST: Wednesday’s banner event in the impeachment inquiry is the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing with constitutional scholars.
Follow along with the hearing with The Hill’s liveblog here.
The three witnesses called by Democrats testified that there is a constitutional justification for impeaching Trump over his contacts with Ukraine, while the witness called by Republicans argued Democrats have not produced the evidence to justify impeachment.
Professor Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said in his prepared remarks that records indicate Trump has committed impeachable offenses such as obstruction of justice, obstruction of Congress and bribery.
“The president’s serious misconduct, including bribery, soliciting a personal favor from a foreign leader in exchange for his exercise of power, and obstructing justice and Congress are worse than the misconduct of any prior president,” Gerhardt said.
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University professor and contributor to The Hill, said in his lengthy statement that impeachment would be based on the “thinnest evidentiary record.”
“If the House proceeds solely on the Ukrainian allegations, this impeachment would stand out among modern impeachments as the shortest proceeding, with the thinnest evidentiary record, and the narrowest grounds ever used to impeach a president,” Turley said in his prepared testimony.
Hints on articles of impeachment: The hearing included a possible signal of the articles of impeachment Democrats are considering.
Norman Eisen, the Democratic counsel for Judiciary who took part in the public questioning of the witnesses, asked whether the three Democratic witnesses agreed Trump committed impeachable offenses of abuse of power and bribery, obstruction of Congress and obstruction of justice.
All three Democratic witnesses agreed that Trump had committed these offenses under Eisen’s questioning. A chart showing the three offenses was also shown in the committee room.
Pelosi rallies the troops: Earlier Wednesday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) marshaled her troops at a closed-door meeting in the Capitol, asking whether they were ready to move forward with impeachment as more and more Democrats question whether a floor vote should be held before Christmas.
During the meeting in the Capitol basement Wednesday morning — where staff and cellphones were not allowed — Pelosi posed a simple question to her caucus: “Are you ready?”
She received an enthusiastic response from the Democrats in the room.
Pelosi used Wednesday’s meeting to deliver a simple marching order for the caucus: “What the Speaker said is, ‘Read the report,'” said Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.).
The impeachment inquiry has been proceeding with the expectation there could be a floor vote on impeaching Trump before Christmas, but a number of Democrats are now raising questions about that timetable.
Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) cited “a desire … to try to get something done sooner than later.” But with Democrats also fighting to pass a series of legislative priorities — including a drug-pricing bill; a new trade accord with Mexico and Canada; and a sweeping package to fund the government through the remainder of the fiscal year — he suggested the Dec. 20 deadline could slip a few days.
In the Senate: Trump’s legal defense team is gearing up for an expected Senate impeachment trial, meeting with Republican senators Wednesday to complain about the House process and go over the procedural rules of the next phase.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone met with the entire Senate GOP conference over lunch Wednesday to discuss strategy for the upcoming Senate impeachment trial in an effort to shore up the president’s legal and political defenses ahead of what could be a lengthy process.
Republican lawmakers familiar with the preparations for Trump’s Senate trial describe Cipollone as the “quarterback” in charge of the legal strategy, even while Trump himself has handled much of the political and communications strategy.
The lunch meeting, hosted by Senate Republican Steering Committee Chairman Mike Lee (R-Utah), gave the White House counsel a chance to gauge support for Trump within the conference and get a better feel for how a trial might play out.
Cipollone spent much of the meeting criticizing the House impeachment process and the Democrats’ case that Trump abused his power by pressing Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.
“He said a number of times, ‘We don’t think there’s any reason the House should send this to the Senate,'” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) when asked about the White House counsel’s message to Republican senators.
TALK OF IRAN THREATS PICKS UP AGAIN: A top Pentagon official on Wednesday said there were indications Iran may soon attack U.S. forces or interests in the Middle East.
“We do remain concerned about potential Iranian aggression,” Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood told reporters in Washington, D.C.
“We also continue to see indications … potential Iranian aggression could occur.”
Rood said the U.S. has been clear with Iran over consequences should any aggression occur.
“In private … we’ve sent very clear and blunt signals to the Iranian government about the potential consequences of aggression,” Rood said.
Earlier: Rood’s comments came after CNN reported Tuesday night that intelligence gathered throughout November pointed to a renewed threat from Iranian forces or proxies.
Unnamed U.S. officials told CNN that there has been movement of Iranian forces and weapons they fear could be used if the Iranian regime orders an attack.
The warnings are reminiscent of this summer when the Trump administration warned of troubling signals from Iran and deployed more U.S. forces to the region.
The Trump administration subsequently blamed Iran for attacks on several oil tankers in the Gulf and two Saudi oil fields. Iran has denied carrying out the attacks.
More forces?: Later Wednesday afternoon, the Wall Street Journal reported the administration is considering sending another 14,000 troops to the Middle East in response to counter Iran.
Such a deployment would double the amount that has been sent since the start of the troop buildup in the summer.
The Journal, citing unnamed U.S. officials, said Trump is expected to make a decision on the deployment as soon as this month.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on the implementation of the National Defense Strategy at 9:30 a.m. at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, room G-50. https://bit.ly/2sOb8IB
A Senate Foreign Relations Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on illicit mining at 10 a.m. at Dirksen 419. https://bit.ly/2LoVDNr
A House Armed Services Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on privatized military housing with testimony from housing executives at 1 p.m. at the Rayburn House Office Building, room 2118. https://bit.ly/2s0oWPt
A House Armed Services subcommittee will hold a hearing on military heath care system reform at 2 p.m. at Rayburn 2212. https://bit.ly/2rQVxr3
— The Hill: Republicans raise concerns over Trump pardoning service members
— The Hill: Trump’s Afghanistan negotiator travels to region to restart peace talks
— The Hill: North Korea’s Kim makes second visit to sacred mountain ahead of denuclearization deadline
— Associated Press: US Navy seizes suspected Iranian missile parts set for Yemen
— The Washington Post: House committee chair calls for investigation into $400 million border wall contract