Overnight Defense: Trump defends Turkey amid fierce criticism | Senators demand briefing on Syria decision | Turkey confirms strikes on Syrian border | White House says it won’t cooperate on impeachment inquiry

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: President Trump has dug his heels in on his much criticized plan to withdraw U.S. troops from northeast Syria ahead of a Turkish strike.

The president on Tuesday morning defended Turkey as a NATO ally and strong trade partner of the United States one day after he was savagely criticized by Republicans for his decision.

Trump did so at the behest of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the move paves the way for Turkey to launch a military offensive into the area against Kurdish forces that have been loyal to the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.

Trump insisted that his administration had “in no way” abandoned the Kurds and was supplying the allied force with money and weapons. 

Trump’s defense: “So many people conveniently forget that Turkey is a big trading partner of the United States, in fact they make the structural steel frame for our F-35 Fighter Jet,” Trump tweeted. “They have also been good to deal with, helping me to save many lives at Idlib Province, and returning, in very good health, at my request, Pastor Brunson, who had many years of a long prison term remaining.”

Trump highlighted that Turkey is a member of the NATO alliance and noted that Erdoğan will visit the White House on Nov. 13.

Turkey was removed from the F-35 program in July after it purchased a Russian missile defense system.

Pastor Andrew Brunson was detained for nearly two years on allegations that he was connected to a failed coup against Erdoğan in 2016.

Expect more heat from Republicans: The president’s tweet defending the Turks and Erdoğan will likely spur further criticism that he is siding with an authoritarian leader. It marked a shift in tone from a day earlier when he asserted that he could “obliterate” Turkey’s economy if the country did anything “out of line.” Trump did not specify what that would entail.

How we got here: The White House announced late Sunday that Turkey will soon be launching a military operation in northern Syria and that U.S. troops will no longer be “in the immediate area” when it happens. The U.S. had more than 1,000 troops deployed in northern Syria, working closely with Kurdish-led forces that Turkey considers terrorists.

Senators demand briefing: Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Christopher Coons (D-Del.) are demanding an all-senators briefing immediately on Trump’s troop move.

“We are concerned that this was an abrupt decision taken in the face of reported opposition from military and diplomatic advisers, and that thousands of hardened ISIS fighters and thousands more ISIS supporters currently in detention may become free to fight again as their Kurdish captors turn to defending themselves against a Turkish incursion,” Graham and Coons wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

Graham, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s foreign operations subpanel, and Coons, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, warned in Tuesday’s letter that “this action will give Turkey a greenlight to go into northeastern Syria under the guise of dealing with the continued threat of ISIS.”

They warned Trump’s decisions “will have severe consequences for our strategic national interests and reduce American influence in the region while strengthening Turkey, Russia and Ira.”

The senators also asserted that Trump’s surprise move would increase the threat faced by Kurdish allies and hurt the United States’ ability to build strategic alliances in the future.

Former commander delivers warning: The former commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East said Tuesday the President’s decision to retreat from northeast Syria could add to the humanitarian crisis in the region and turn off potential future U.S. partners.

“For me, the overall sentiment is one of disappointment. Disappointment that we’re letting down our partners, perhaps adding to the humanitarian disaster in this region, and that we may be ceding a hard-won strategic advantage to play a role in what is admittedly turning into a lengthy and difficult process to bringing a political solution to this troubled area,” retired Gen. Joseph Votel, who was commander of U.S. Central Command until his retirement in March, said at an Atlantic Council event Tuesday.

“I believe that partnership is important. This partnership certainly is,” he added later. “It must however be nourished frequently and be based completely on mutual trust. I do believe yesterday’s policy shift will make it more difficult to build partnerships in the future.”

In addition to his remarks at the Atlantic Council, Votel also co-wrote an op-ed for the Atlantic with Middle East Institute nonresident fellow Elizabeth Dent in which they warned that Trump’s move “threatens to undo five years’ worth of fighting against ISIS and will severely damage American credibility and reliability in any future fights where we need strong allies.”

Pentagon says it was consulted: The Pentagon on Tuesday asserted that top defense officials were consulted prior to Trumps surprise announcement that U.S. troops would leave northeast Syria.

“Despite continued misreporting to the contrary, [Defense Secretary Mark Esper] and [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley] were consulted over the last several days by the President regarding the situation and efforts to protect U.S. forces in northern Syria in the face of military action by Turkey,” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement. 

Reports emerged Monday that top military officials were blindsided by Trump’s decision.

Hoffman also said the Defense Department’s position “has been and remains that establishing a safe zone in northern Syria is the best path forward to maintaining stability.”

He adds that the military has “made no changes to our force presence in Syria at this time,” and that U.S. troops were moved “out of the path of potential Turkish incursion to ensure their safety.”

Turkey readies offensive: Turkey has bombed the Syrian-Iraqi border in anticipation of an offensive against Kurdish forces, Reuters reported Tuesday.

Turkish officials told the outlet that their military on Monday night struck the border to prevent the Kurds from using the transit route to fortify their positions in the area. A security official said the intention was to cut off the road “before the operation in Syria.”

“In this way, the group’s transit to Syria and support lines, including ammunition, are shut off,” the official said.

It was unclear the extent of damage or whether there were any casualties following Turkey’s strike on Monday night.

The strike was a joint operation by Turkey’s intelligence service and the military, but details were contradictory, with one official telling Reuters it was an air strike and another describing the move as making the area “unusable through various means.”

Ankara also said its plans for an offensive into Syria are now in place.

 

STATE ORDERS EU AMBASSADOR NOT TO TESTIFY BEFORE HOUSE: A key witness in the House impeachment inquiry was ordered not to appear at a scheduled deposition on Tuesday, ramping up tensions between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration.

The State Department instructed Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland not to appear for the deposition, according to his counsel.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) later lashed out at the State Department, saying Sondland has messages on a personal device that are relevant to the impeachment inquiry. He and the chairmen of two other House panels said they would issue a subpoena to Sondland. 

About the ambassador: Sondland, a wealthy hotelier who had donated $1 million to President Trump’s inaugural committee before taking his government position, was a figure in the text messages released by Democrats last week that showed administration officials discussing Trump’s communications with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

Trump’s efforts to pressure Zelensky to launch an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and the business dealings of his son Hunter have become the impetus for the impeachment inquiry.

Sondland’s response: Sondland’s lawyer said his client was “profoundly disappointed” that the State Department did not allow him to testify and expressed hope that the issues raised by the agency would be resolved promptly to allow him to testify. 

“Ambassador Sondland believes strongly that he acted at all times in the best interests of the United States, and he stands ready to answer the Committee’s questions fully and truthfully,” Robert Luskin, Sondland’s lawyer, said in a statement. 

As a sitting U.S. ambassador, Luskin said his client had no choice but to follow the State Department’s direction. He noted that Sondland had traveled to Washington from Brussels to appear. 

The background: Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, testified before the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight and Reform committees last week and provided text messages between himself, Sondland and William Taylor, a top official in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine

Sondland is shown in the text messages to be rejecting concerns from Taylor, a career diplomat, that Trump wanted the Ukrainian government to dig up dirt on the Bidens to help his reelection campaign. Sondland is also shown suggesting that the diplomats take their conversations offline.

Schiff’s response: Schiff said Tuesday morning that the State Department has not given Congress Sondland’s personal device with pertinent messages.

“Not only is the Congress being deprived of his testimony, and the American people are being deprived of his testimony today, but we are also aware that the ambassador has text messages or emails on a personal device which have been provided to the State Department,” Schiff told reporters. “Although we have requested those from the ambassador and the State Department is withholding those messages as well. Those messages are also deeply relevant to this investigation and the impeachment inquiry.”

Schiff warned that blocking Sondland’s testimony amounted to obstructing the investigation being conducted by the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees.

Trump defends blocking testimony: Trump on Tuesday defended his administration’s decision to block Sondland from testifying, claiming he would have been testifying before a “kangaroo court.”

“I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify, but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s [sic] rights have been taken away, and true facts are not allowed out for the public to see,” Trump wrote in a series of tweets Tuesday morning.

Trump tweeted shortly after news broke that the State Department had instructed Sondland not to appear before three House committees for closed-door testimony on Tuesday. 

Read about how Democrats were set to grill Sondland here.

 

WHITE HOUSE TELLS LAWMAKERS IT WON’T COOPERATE WITH IMPEACHMENT INQUIRY: The White House on Tuesday wrote to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and three Democratic committee leaders to say it would not cooperate with the House’s ongoing impeachment inquiry into Trump, framing the investigation as an effort to “overturn the results of the 2016 election.” 

White House counsel Pat Cipollone accused House Democrats in an eight-page letter of making “legally unsupported demands” of the executive branch and accused them of violating the Constitution and past precedent in opening the impeachment inquiry into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. 

“Given that your inquiry lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections, the Executive Branch cannot be expected to participate in it,” Cipollone wrote.

“Because participating in this inquiry under the current unconstitutional posture would inflict lasting institutional harm on the Executive Branch and lasting damage to the separation of powers, you have left the President no choice.”

 “Consistent with the duties of the President of the United States, and in particular his obligation to preserve the rights of future occupants of his office, President Trump cannot permit his Administration to participate in this partisan inquiry under these circumstances,” he wrote. 

A bitter battle: The letter amounts to a directive to halt any cooperation with House Democrats and lays the foundation for what will be a bitter impeachment battle in the coming weeks.

Pelosi announced late last month that the House would formally launch an impeachment inquiry into Trump, alleging he abused his office by urging the Ukrainian president to “look into” Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Democratic committee leaders have in recent days issued subpoenas demanding records from the White House, Vice President Mike Pence, the Office of Management and Budget, the Pentagon and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani as part of the investigation.

The administration has been increasingly unwilling to cooperate with requests for testimony and documents related to the burgeoning Ukraine scandal.

Top Democrats have warned that the administration’s failure to comply with their requests could be cited as obstruction in future articles of impeachment.

The issue: Responding to that argument, a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday that, “asserting rights under the Constitution cannot ever properly be framed as obstruction of justice.”

The letter released by the White House Tuesday evening describes the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry as “constitutionally invalid” because it has not been authorized by a majority vote by the House of Representatives. 

The White House argued that the lack of a formal vote is a break with precedent set in the impeachment inquiries into former Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

A senior administration official declined to speculate on Tuesday as to whether Trump would cooperate if the House voted to authorize an impeachment inquiry, leaving open the possibility that the standoff would carry on regardless.

The letter also asserts that the three committees leading the impeachment inquiry have not afforded Trump the basic due process protections mandated by the Constitution, despite Pelosi’s public assertion that the House would treat Trump with fairness. 

Read the administration’s letter to Pelosi here.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Defense TechConnect Innovation Summit and Expo will feature speakers including Deputy Assistant Air Force Secretary for Operational Energy Roberto Guerrero and Daryl Haegley, principal cyber advisor to the defense secretary, at 8:30 a.m. in National Harbor, Md. 

Air Force Brig. Gen. Douglas Schiess, commander of the 45th Space Wing, will speak on launch ranges at 8:30 a.m. at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C. 

 

ICYMI

— The Hill: Graham vows ‘sanctions from hell’ if Turkey moves into Syria

— The Hill: Pelosi accuses Trump of deserting Kurds in ‘foolish attempt to appease an authoritarian strongman’

— The Hill: Graham says he’ll invite Giuliani to testify about Ukraine

— The Hill: Top Turkish politician: Trump economic threat a ‘diplomatic catastrophe’

— The Hill: Susan Rice calls Trump decision to pull troops from Syria ‘batshit crazy’

— The Hill: A dozen House Democrats call on EU ambassador to resign amid Ukraine scandal

— The Hill: Pat Robertson ‘absolutely appalled’ by Trump’s Syria announcement

— The Hill: Iranian attacks expose vulnerability of campaign email accounts

— The Hill: Opinion: Making sense of Iran’s nuclear moves

— The Hill: Opinion: Then there were 10: When does living history outlive its value?

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Written by Alan Smith

Alan Smith

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