Happy Monday 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 is downplaying the severity of injuries U.S. troops suffered during Iran’s missile attack in Iraq.
Asked about discrepancies between initial statements that there were no casualties in the attack and the Pentagon’s later revelation that several troops were treated for concussions, Trump said the injuries were “not very serious.”
“I heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things, but I would say and I can report that it’s not very serious,” Trump told reporters at a press conference in Davos, Switzerland.
“I don’t consider them very serious injuries relative to other injuries that I’ve seen,” he continued. “I’ve seen what Iran has done with their roadside bombs to our troops. … I’ve seen people that were horribly, horribly injured in that area, in that war.”
“No, I do not consider that to be bad injuries, no,” he added, referring to the soldiers who were taken for treatment last week.
Background: The Pentagon revealed last week 11 U.S. troops were evacuated from Iraq and taken to hospitals in Germany and Kuwait for treatment for concussions suffered during Iran’s attack on Al Asad Air Base.
On Tuesday, U.S. Central Command said additional troops were evacuated, but did not release an exact number.
U.S. officials, including Trump, initially said there were no U.S. casualties in the missile strike. It was one of the reasons Trump did not respond to the attack with military action.
Few details: The Pentagon offered little information on the U.S. troops who suffered concussions after Trump’s comments.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, deputy commander for the U.S.-led mission against the Islamic State, said he thinks the number of service members who have been removed from Iraq for treatment of potential concussions or traumatic brain injury is “in the teens.”
Speaking to reporters, he added that symptoms were first reported “within 72 hours” of the attack.
Criticism: Trump’s description of the concussions as “headaches” led to some criticism that he was diminishing the seriousness of traumatic brain injuries, which the U.S. military has struggled to destigmatize.
Some of the criticisms, which came from typical Trump critics, referenced Trump’s use of a diagnosis of bone spurs to gain a medical exemption from the Vietnam War draft.
“Donald Trump faked a medical condition to avoid serving. He’s never had to sacrifice a day in his life,” Democratic presidential candidate and Afghanistan War veteran Pete Buttigieg tweeted. He will never understand the sacrifices our service members and their families make. We deserve a better Commander-in-Chief.”
“Beyond inexplicable,” progressive political action committee Vote Vets tweeted. “We don’t know where you got your MD, ‘Doctor’ @realDonaldTrump (Trump University?), but TBI’s are horrible injuries that can leave lasting wounds. In short, they are much worse than ‘bone spurs.’ You owe our veterans and troops an apology.”
“Don’t just be outraged by #PresidentMayhem’s latest asinine comments. Take action to help vets facing TBIs,” tweeted Paul Rieckhoff, advocate and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
IMPEACHMENT TRIAL, DAY 2: The second day of the Senate’s impeachment trial saw House Democrats starting to argue their case for Trump’s removal from office.
“Yesterday, we made the case for the witnesses and the documents. Today, we will begin our trial with the factual chronology,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the leading impeachment manager told reporters minutes before entering the Senate chamber to begin arguments. Schiff spoke near the escalator at the Senate subway, with the rest of the House impeachment team behind him. “We will go into extensive detail about what happened and when and how we know it happened.”
Late night: The launch of opening statements comes a day after House impeachment managers and Trump’s defense team clashed for hours on the Senate floor over the rules that will govern the trial phase.
The debate kept senators and others at the Capitol until about 1:50 a.m.
Senate Republicans forced through the resolution establishing the trial rules in a 53-47 vote, rejecting Democrats’ demands for additional witnesses and documents at the outset of the proceeding.
After one particularly heated late-night exchange, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts warned the House impeachment managers and Trump’s lawyers early to keep their tone civil.
“It is appropriate at this point for me to admonish both the House managers and president’s counsel in equal terms to remember that they are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body,” Roberts warned.
“One reason it has earned that title is because its members avoid speaking in a manner and using language that is not conducive to civil discourse,” he said.
Roberts delivered his admonishment after House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone exchanged harsh remarks about the other side’s conduct and motives.
Nadler angered the White House lawyers when he characterized their arguments for not subpoenaing former national security adviser John Bolton as claiming “executive privilege or other nonsense.”
He also chastised senators for voting for what he called a “cover-up” if they block subpoenas for additional witnesses and documents.
“I’m sad to say I see a lot of senators voting for a cover-up, voting to deny witnesses,” he said.
Cipollone, irate over the comment, demanded an apology to the chamber.
“Mr. Nadler came up here and made false allegations against our team. He made false allegations against all of you. He accused you of a cover-up. He’s been making false allegations against the president. The only one who should be embarrassed, Mr. Nadler, is you for the way you’ve addressed this body,” he thundered on the floor.
Trump on witnesses: Trump said Wednesday he would let the GOP-controlled Senate decide whether his impeachment trial should include witness testimony.
Trump also said that he would rather go the “long way” with a Senate impeachment trial and have former national security adviser John Bolton and others testify, but that their appearances would pose a risk to national security.
“I would rather go the long way. I would rather interview Bolton. I would rather interview a lot of people,” Trump said at a news conference at the end of a two-day appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“The problem with John is that it’s a national security problem,” the president continued, indicating executive privilege would apply to Bolton’s testimony. “He knows some of my thoughts. He knows what I think about leaders. What happens if he reveals what I think about a certain leader and it’s not very positive and I have to deal on behalf of the country?”
Trump added that Bolton left his White House on negative terms last September and “you don’t like people testifying when they didn’t leave on good terms.”
Dems shoot down witness swap: Senate Democrats are dismissing chatter about attempts at an agreement that would guarantee former national security adviser John Bolton testifies in the impeachment trial in exchange for former Vice President Joe Biden‘s son Hunter Biden also testifying.
The idea has been floated by conservatives, who argue there should be “witness reciprocity.” But Democrats shot down such talk, saying Trump allies are demanding an irrelevant witness in exchange for one with firsthand knowledge of Trump’s actions.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), asked about a potential swap, argued that “witnesses should have something to do with and direct knowledge of the charges against the president.”
“You know, we don’t need to have witnesses that have nothing to do with this that are trying to distract Americans from the truth,” Schumer said.
Pressed again if he would cut a deal on witnesses, Schumer added, “right now we haven’t heard them wanting any witnesses at all.”
Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead impeachment manager, called the former vice president’s son “irrelevant and immaterial.”
“This isn’t like some fantasy football trade. … This isn’t we’ll offer you this, if you give us that,” he told reporters.
UN EXPERTS TIE BEZOS PHONE HACK TO SAUDIS: The United Nations on Wednesday drew a line between the hacking of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos‘s phone and coverage of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the killing of a Washington Post journalist, calling for a further investigation.
Two United Nations human rights experts said a deeper probe was needed to look into allegations that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince was behind the alleged hack on Bezos, who owns The Washington Post.
The UN’s statement comes a day after The Guardian first reported that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman gained access to Bezos’s phone via a Whatsapp message.
“The information we have received suggests the possible involvement of the crown prince in surveillance of Mr. Bezos, in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia,” Agnes Callamard, UN special rapporteur on summary executions and extrajudicial killings, and David Kaye, UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, said in a joint statement Wednesday.
The two UN experts recently became aware of the alleged hacking of Bezos’s device through a 2019 forensic analysis of his phone that assessed with “medium to high” confidence that it was infiltrated in March 2018 through an MP4 file sent from bin Salman’s WhatsApp account to Bezos. According to the analysis, exfiltration of data from Bezos’s phone began within hours of the MP4 file being sent over.
Saudi Arabia has denied the hacking.
“Recent media reports that suggest the Kingdom is behind a hacking of Mr. Jeff Bezos’ phone are absurd,” the Saudi Embassy tweeted. “We call for an investigation on these claims so that we can have all the facts out.
Khashoggi connection: The two tied the hacking to the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which multiple international and American intelligence organizations have pinned on Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi was a journalist at the Post.
They emphasized that “the alleged hacking of Mr. Bezos’s phone, and those of others, demands immediate investigation by US and other relevant authorities, including investigation of the continuous, multi-year, direct and personal involvement of the crown prince in efforts to target perceived opponents.”
Bezos tweets: Bezos posted a tribute to Khashoggi in his first public message after the U.N. statement.
“#Jamal,” Bezos tweeted, along with a photo of the Amazon executive and Washington Post owner with Khashoggi’s fiancée at a memorial outside of the Saudi Consulate in Turkey, where Khashoggi was murdered.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists will announce the 2020 Doomsday Clock setting at 10 a.m. https://bit.ly/2RHQH8L
— The Hill: Pompeo willing to testify in impeachment trial if ‘legally required’
— The Hill: Rouhani says Iran will never seek nuclear weapons
— The Hill: Opinion: Mixed feelings on war power limits: Lawmakers and vet candidates
— The Hill: Opinion: Revile Soleimani, oppose Trump, support the Iranian people