Happy Thursday 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: The 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion started out on a grim note with the death of one West Point cadet and the injury of 20 others in a vehicle training accident Thursday morning.
The military academy announced the accident which involved a light medium tactical vehicle shortly before 7 a.m. off a highway in Orange County, N.Y., near Camp Natural Bridge.
Two soldiers were also injured in the incident which is under investigation.
The injured cadets and soldiers were transported to local hospitals, West Point said in a statement.
What we know so far: According to ABC News, the reported injuries were the result of a military vehicle overturning during a training exercise.
The U.S. Military Academy reported the accident on Twitter at 8:18 a.m.
West Point said that emergency vehicles were responding to the accident and asked motorists to avoid Route 293, the area where the accident occurred.
The Journal News, which serves Westchester and Rockland counties, reports that a West Point spokeswoman said officials were gathering information at the scene.
“West Point officials thank local and state emergency responders for their assistance on the scene,” the academy said in a statement.
Leaders offer condolences: later issued a statement on Twitter about the incident.
“So sorry to hear about the terrible accident involving our GREAT West Point Cadets. We mourn the loss of life and pray for the injured. God Bless them ALL!” he wrote.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) praised the cadets and soldiers for their service.
“These courageous cadets and soldiers represent the best of New York State and our country, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for their bravery in choosing to serve our country and protect our freedoms,” Cuomo said in a statement. “This incident is made all the more heart wrenching as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day today, a day where we remember those who gave their lives for our country.”
PENTAGON CLOSES REVIEW OF DEADLY NIGER AMBUSH: The Pentagon announced late Wednesday that it had officially ended its investigation into the deadly Oct. 4, 2017, ambush in Niger, holding up earlier findings that pinned junior officers as largely responsible.
In a statement from acting Defense Secretary , released at midnight on Thursday, he said he was “satisfied that all findings, awards, and accountability actions were thorough and appropriate” when investigating the operation that killed four Army soldiers.
“The investigation identified systemic areas for improvement and the Department of Defense has taken corrective action — specifically in the areas of training, risk management, operational procedures, field discipline and leadership,” Shanahan said.
The background: Army Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright and Sgt. La David T. Johnson were killed in the ambush by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-loyal forces. The four were part of a 12-member Army special forces unit accompanying 30 Nigerien troops on a mission to capture or kill an ISIS leader in the area.
The operation initially started out as a reconnaissance mission but was changed twice after the group left the base, becoming significantly more dangerous.
At the tail end of the mission, the under-equipped group was quickly overrun by more than 100 ISIS fighters as they were leaving the village of Tongo Tongo.
Four Nigerien soldiers were killed, and two U.S. and eight Nigerien troops were wounded.
The most recent findings: Shanahan in April appointed Army Gen. Robert Brown to reexamine the events and issues that led to the attack after lawmakers and family members of those killed demanded that more senior commanders be held accountable.
The monthlong review conducted by Brown — which was laid out in the 176-page unclassified report released on Wednesday — found that the actions taken after the initial review were adequate.
The report found a number of “individual, organizational, and institutional failures and deficiencies that contributed to the tragic events” but “no single failure or deficiency” to account for the deaths.
Eight Army Green Berets and an Air Force major general were reprimanded after the initial investigation, completed last year, and in February a Special Forces lieutenant colonel was fired from his position as battalion commander of the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade.
Higher-ranked officers in the chain of command were not punished, a decision Shanahan agreed with.
Lawmakers, family members, frustrated: Following the report’s release, family members of those killed blasted the Pentagon for not taking further disciplinary action beyond letters of reprimand issued after the first investigation, according to ABC News.
The families on Wednesday had been given redacted copies of the original investigation, a report that was not released publicly when it was completed last year due to pending decisions over who should be held accountable for mistakes that lead to the attack.
Debra Gannon, the mother of Jeremiah Johnson, told ABC that she was “angry as hell.”
Arnold Wright, the father of Dustin Wright, told the outlet that he doesn’t “think any of the families feel satisfied” with how the investigation and punishments have been handled.
“The bottom line is, they could have told us the truth within three or four months. I think the reason it stretched out to 20 months was because they were trying to figure out a way not to tell the truth,” Wright added.
Cowanda Johnson, La David Johnson’s aunt, told ABC that she and Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, became frustrated and walked out of a tense meeting between Army officials and the four families.
TRUMP IN NORMANDY: President Trump on Thursday joined and other world leaders in Normandy, France, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, offering praise for those who stormed the beaches, dozens of whom were in attendance.
“To more than 170 veterans of the Second World War who join us today, you are among the very greatest Americans who will ever live,” Trump said.
“You are the pride of our nation. You are the glory of our republic,” he added. “And we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
“We know what we owe to you veterans: our freedom,” Macron said. “On behalf of my nation I just want to say thank you.”
The event: The service of the veterans and the importance of the U.S.-France alliance were front and center during Thursday’s event in Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy. Trump and Macron were the only two world leaders to speak at the formal ceremony and entered and exited the commemoration together.
The two delivered remarks with more than 150 World War II veterans — roughly 60 of whom were part of the forces on D-Day – sitting behind them.
As the two leaders arrived, they shook the hands of many of the veterans on hand. Macron later awarded five of the servicemen with the French Legion of Honor, the country’s highest distinction.
Trump, meanwhile, singled out Russell Pickett, 94, and Ray Lambert, 98, as two of the heroes of the invasion. Both men were in attendance on Thursday.
Macron offered thanks to American forces for helping to liberate France during World War II, while Trump voiced appreciation to French families who tend to the graves of U.S. troops in Normandy.
“Those who fought here won a future for our nation,” Trump said. “They won the survival of our civilization. And they showed us the way to love, cherish and defend our way of life for many centuries to come.”
Trump’s speech: Trump has at times thrown long-standing global partnerships into question, asserting that America should not serve as the world’s “piggy bank” or police force. He has accused NATO allies of failing to contribute enough toward defense and criticized traditional U.S. partners like Germany while seeking to forge relationships with longtime adversaries like Russia and North Korea.
But on Thursday he recognized the gravity of what Allied forces had pulled off 75 years ago in storming the beaches of France. He acknowledged the contributions of Canadian, British, Australian, Polish, Norwegian and French soldiers, and signaled their collaboration would not be forgotten.
“To all of our friends and partners: Our cherished alliance was forged in the heat of battle, tested in the trials of war, and proven in the blessings of peace,” Trump said. “Our bond is unbreakable.”
Trump dedicated much of his speech to recounting the efforts and legacy of American soldiers. He spoke highly of their courage, their strength and their efforts to assist Europe during the war, as well as their contributions to the U.S. upon returning home.
Macron’s message: Macron explicitly spoke of the necessity of the alliance forged in World War II and on the beaches of Normandy. He repeatedly expressed gratitude for the support of forces from the U.S. and other countries, at one point listing off the more than a dozen nations that contributed to the invasion.
“Being worthy of the promise of Normandy means never forgetting that free people, when they join forces, can surmount any adversity,” Macron said through a translator. “The victory against barbarism could never have been possible without the decisive support of the United States.”
“The promise of Normandy will be supported by France with all its might. I promise this will be the case,” Macron added. “And this is at the heart of America’s destiny, too.”
Who else was there: Speaker (D-Calif.), Sen. (R-Okla.), Rep. (R-N.Y.) and Rep. (D-Calif.) were among the members of a bipartisan delegation who traveled to Normandy to observe the ceremonies.
Energy Secretary and former Secretary of State were among the current and former Cabinet members who also took in the event.
Disagreement over Iran: Trump and Macron on Thursday also sought to downplay any split over how to keep Tehran from getting nuclear weapons, despite a rift between the two leaders over the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
“I don’t think we have differences over Iran,” Trump told reporters ahead of a bilateral meeting with Macron in Caen, France.
“I don’t think that the president wants to see nuclear weapons and neither do I,” he continued “And that’s what it’s all about.”
The Trump administration has taken a hardline approach toward Iran, raising the specter of a potential conflict. Meanwhile, France has been part of a coalition of nations seeking to maintain the Obama-era nuclear pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that offered Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs to its nuclear program.
Macron, meanwhile, unsuccessfully lobbied Trump to remain in the JCPOA.
New warning on Iran: The top commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East said Thursday the threat from Iran remains “imminent,” even as he said U.S. deployments to the region caused Iran to “step back and recalculate.”
“It is my assessment that this has caused the Iranians to back up a little bit, but I’m not sure they are strategically backing down,” U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie told reporters in Baghdad, according to The Associated Press.
TRUMP TALKS POLITICS IN NORMANDY: On Thursday, Trump took aim at special counsel Robert Mueller and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in an interview at the American cemetery in Normandy, France, where he was marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Speaking to Fox News’s just before the ceremony commemorating the storied invasion, Trump asserted that Mueller made “a fool out of himself” in his public comments last week on the Russia investigation and called Pelosi a “disaster” over her handling of a possible impeachment inquiry.
“Let me tell you, he made such a fool out of himself,” Trump said of Mueller, a former longtime FBI director and Marine Corps veteran who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart in the Vietnam War.
Trump, who did not serve in the war, called the conflict “terrible” the previous day.
Pelosi, meanwhile, sidestepped a question about impeachment in an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell in Normandy, saying she preferred to focus on veterans during the event marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Pelosi she hoped to see a “message of unity” from President Trump as foreign leaders gathered in France to honor the fallen soldiers.
MILITARY PERSONNEL ORDERED TO PAINT BORDER BARRIERS: U.S. military personnel deployed near the U.S.-Mexico border have reportedly been assigned to paint certain barrier structures to strengthen their “aesthetic appearance.”
Sen. (D-Ill.) said on Twitter on Wednesday afternoon that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) informed Congress that troops are going to spend the next month painting barriers and that “the primary purpose is to improve the aesthetic appearance.”
“A disgraceful misuse of taxpayer $$,” Durbin said on Twitter. “Our military has more important work to do than making Trump’s wall beautiful.”
CBS News reported that lawmakers were notified of the assignment via email. DHS said that an unspecified number of service members would paint barriers in Calexico, Calif., a city located along the southern border, according to text shared with the news network.
— The Hill: Paul to force votes on blocking Trump’s Bahrain, Qatar arms sales
— The Hill: Moulton proposes plan to restore benefits to vets discharged under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’
— The Hill: Top US commander: Iran threat remains ‘imminent’
— The Hill: Trump officials considering using military base to hold up to 5K undocumented children
— The Hill: State Department official ousted after assisting arms sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE: report
— The Hill: Senate confirms next Marines commandant
— The Hill: Centrist Dem pitches plan for Pentagon to tackle climate change
— The Hill: White House invites Trump business allies to Bahrain forum on Middle East peace plan: report
— The Hill: Watchdog finds ‘egregious’ conditions at immigrant detention facilities
— The Hill: Opinion: Lasting lessons from the beaches of Normandy
— The Hill: Opinion: On D-Day’s 75th anniversary, our returning troops still need infrastructure