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.
During Wednesday morning’s memorial, Trump acknowledged a breakdown in recent peace efforts with the Taliban in Afghanistan and vowed to unleash unprecedented power should the United States be attacked again.
Trump said he called off the Camp David meeting planned for over the weekend when he learned the Taliban carried out an attack that killed a “great American soldier from Puerto Rico,” referring to a suicide bombing in Kabul last week claimed by the militant group.
“They thought they would use this attack to show strength, but what they actually showed is unrelenting weakness,” the president at the Pentagon, adding that the U.S. has “hit our enemy harder than they have ever been hit before” in the four days since the canceled meeting.
“If for any reason they come back to our country, we will go wherever they are and use power the likes of which the United States has never used before — and I’m not talking about nuclear power — they will never have seen anything like what will happen to them,” Trump said.
Other observances: Before going to the Pentagon, Trump and first lady Melania Trump participated in a moment of silence on the South Lawn of the White House at 8:46 a.m. in recognition of the moment the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York.
They were joined by families of victims of the attacks, survivors and former law enforcement officials.
Leaders around Washington took part in ceremonies to commemorate the anniversary of the attacks.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan attended a ceremony in New York alongside current and former local leaders, where they read the names of those killed in the attacks. McAleenan honored Secret Service officer Craig Miller, who was killed 18 years ago.
Later Wednesday, former President George W. Bush laid a wreath at the site where Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, killing 184 people.
The former president was joined by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as taps was played. Bush then shook hands and spoke with family members and first responders.
“Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America,” he said in a post on Facebook.
TRUMP UNLEASHES ON BOLTON: A day after John Bolton’s ouster, Trump blasted his former national security adviser as someone who made “some very big mistakes” and did not get along with others in the administration.
In a public rebuke of a top aide that would have been extraordinary before the Trump White House, he said Bolton had “set us back” and that the adviser had disagreed with the president on various national security issues.
Trump also belittled Bolton as “Mr. Tough Guy.”
“John wasn’t in line with what we were doing and actually in some cases he thought it was too tough what we were doing,” he said. “Mr. Tough Guy, you know, you had to go into Iraq. Going into Iraq was something he felt very strongly about.”
North Korea flap: He slammed a mistake Bolton made early in his tenure at the White House when he discussed a “Libyan model” in the context of North Korea — which that country took as a sign that its leadership could meet the fate of former Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
He said the “Libyan model” remark had set back talks with North Korea and was “not a good statement to make.”
“And it set us back, and frankly he wanted to do things — not necessarily tougher than me — you know John’s known as a tough guy. He’s so tough he got us into Iraq … but he’s actually somebody I had a very good relationship with. But he wasn’t getting along with people in the administration that I consider very important.”
Trump said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un no longer wanted to work with Bolton after the Libya remark.
“As soon as he mentioned that, the Libyan model, what a disaster. Take a look at what happened to Gadhafi,” Trump said. “I don’t blame Kim Jong Un for what he said after that. And he wanted nothing to do with John Bolton. And that’s not a question of being tough. That’s a question of being not smart to say something like that.”
Who’s next: Trump reiterated Wednesday that he would make an announcement on Bolton’s replacement next week, saying the White House has five candidates.
“We have a lot of good people who want that position,” Trump told reporters. “Well, I have five people who want it very much.”
“There are five people I consider very qualified, good people I have gotten to know over the past three years,” he said.
The names were Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, former acting national security adviser and currently Vice President Pence’s national security adviser; Brian Hook, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran; and Rick Waddell, who served as deputy national security adviser under former national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
Graham added there were “others” floated, too, without naming them.
“I think he’ll make a good choice here next week,” Graham told reporters.
TRUMP DEMURS ON IRAN SANCTIONS: Trump demurred Wednesday on whether he’s considering easing sanctions on Iran following a report he had discussed the option.
“We’ll see what happens,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.
“I think Iran has tremendous potential,” he continued. “They’re proud of their people. And we’re not looking for regime change. We hope that we can make a deal, and if we can’t make a deal, that’s fine too. But I think they have to make a deal.”
The report: Trump’s comments came about an hour after Bloomberg reported that he mulled the idea during an Oval Office meeting on Monday. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was in favor of the move in an effort to rekindle talks with Iran, the news outlet reported, but it sparked pushback from then-national security adviser John Bolton.
Bolton, who holds hardline views on Iran, submitted his resignation on Tuesday.
The White House declined to comment on the record about the report. The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Context: The easing of sanctions would be a remarkable reversal for an administration that has made cracking down on Iran a point of focus. Trump withdrew from the Obama-era nuclear deal that provided Tehran with sanctions relief despite the urgings of international allies, and the administration has implemented scores of penalties on the Iranian oil sector, its mineral sector and its leaders.
Trump has in recent days shown an openness to a possible meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly later this month. But Iran has said it will not meet with U.S. leaders while sanctions are in place.
SPENDING BILL DRAMA: Another day, another bad sign for keeping the government funded beyond Sept. 30.
Wednesday’s drama saw the Senate Appropriations Committee cancel votes on two spending bills that had been scheduled for the following day.
The committee is still scheduled to consider the $694.9 billion defense spending bill Thursday, as well as the energy and water bill.
But the panel had also been scheduled to vote on spending bills covering the departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Labor and Education, as well as the State Department and foreign operations.
The issues: HHS-Labor-Education, in particular, is viewed as a key priority for Democrats, but had emerged as a headache this week because of fights on controversial issues including abortion and President Trump’s border wall.
Republicans argued that Democrats were trying to violate the spirit of a two-year budget deal by offering “poison pill” amendments.
The backlash from Republicans was sparked by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray‘s (Wash.) plan to offer an amendment to HHS-Labor-Education that would block the Trump administration’s Title X rule that prohibits federal funds for health care providers who offer information about abortion.
Democrats are also accusing Republicans of shifting $5 billion from the bill to the Department of Homeland Security spending bill as part of funding for the border.
And while the defense bill is still on the agenda for Thursday, there are expected to be firework there, too.
During the defense subcommittee’s consideration of the bill Tuesday, Democrats criticized the fact that the bill would not restrict the administration’s ability to move money around for the border wall and pledged to offer amendments to do so Thursday.
ON TAP FOR THURSDAY
The Senate Appropriations Committee will mark up the fiscal 2020 defense spending bill at 9:30 a.m. at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, room 106. https://bit.ly/2lMLDnh
The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Ryan McCarthy to be secretary of the Army and Barbara Barrett to be secretary of the Air Force at 9:30 a.m. at Dirksen G-50. https://bit.ly/2kCP3IW
— The Hill: Trump OKs potential $6.5B F-35 sale to Poland
— The Hill: Views split on whether war in Afghanistan was a mistake: poll
— The Hill: Netanyahu expects US to remain ‘very, very tough’ on Iran despite Bolton ouster
— The Hill: UN investigators tie US coalition, Russian forces to high number of civilian deaths
— The Hill: Opinion: Future Iran nuclear deal needs stronger verification
— Associated Press: Afghans fear Trump’s Taliban move means more civilians die
— Reuters: Iran says U.S. should avoid ‘warmongers’ after Bolton departure