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Overnight Defense: Trump urges Senate to reject Iran war powers resolution | Top Republican says military shouldn’t discipline Vindman | Esper makes change to Africa forces

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: The Senate has started debating the Iran war powers resolution.

Just before an initial procedural vote on the measure Wednesday, President Trump pressed the Senate to vote against the resolution, which seeks to rein in his ability to take military action against Iran without congressional approval.

Trump lamented that the resolution, which is scheduled to get a vote on Thursday and will likely pass with bipartisan support, would “show weakness.”

“It is very important for our Country’s SECURITY that the United States Senate not vote for the Iran War Powers Resolution. We are doing very well with Iran and this is not the time to show weakness,” Trump said in a series of tweets. “Americans overwhelmingly support our attack on terrorist Soleimani. If my hands were tied, Iran would have a field day. Sends a very bad signal.”

Trump suggested the resolution was merely an effort by Democrats “to embarrass the Republican Party,” even as multiple GOP senators are expected to vote for it.

The White House also issued an official statement of administration policy that said, unsurprisingly, Trump would veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

Republicans on board: In the initial procedural vote Wednesday, eight Republicans voted with Democrats to move forward with the resolution.

In all, the motion to proceed passed 51-45.

The Republicans “yes” votes were Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Susan Collins (Maine), Bill Cassidy (La.), Mike Lee (Utah), Jerry Moran (Kan.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Todd Young (Ind.).

That doesn’t necessarily mean all eight will support the measure in the final vote Thursday. But five have previously said they will, which is enough for the resolution to pass.

Those five are Collins, Lee, Paul, Moran and Young.

 

TOP REPUBLICAN SAYS MILITARY SHOULDN’T DISCIPLINE VINDMAN FOR TESTIMONY: The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee said Wednesday it would not be appropriate for the military to take disciplinary action against Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman for his testimony during Trump’s impeachment.

“His career needs to proceed based on his talents and abilities,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told reporters about Vindman.

Pressed by The Hill if that means he thinks it would be inappropriate for the military to take disciplinary action against Vindman, Thornberry said, “based on his testimony before, yeah.”

“My point is, treat him just like anybody else,” Thornberry added.

Background: Thornberry was responding to comments President Trump made Tuesday.

Asked if the Pentagon should pursue further action against Vindman, Trump said it would be “up to the military.”

“But if you look at what happened, they’re going to certainly, I would imagine, take a look at that,” Trump said Tuesday in the Oval Office.

The Esper factor: Thornberry also pointed to Defense Secretary Mark Esper‘s comments last week that suggested the Pentagon would not punish Vindman.

At a news conference Friday, Esper told reporters that “we protect all of our persons, service members, from retribution or anything like that. We’ve already addressed that in policy and other means.”

Thornberry said he’s “counting on” Esper to keep his word.

“I’m counting on Esper to do what he said, and that is ensure there is no retribution,” Thornberry said. “And I guess the other part of that is that his future career will be judged just like any other service member, based on how well he performs.”

 

CHANGES FOR AFRICA FORCE: The Pentagon on Wednesday said it is rotating military personnel in Africa in favor of a leaner force presence, amid reports officials were mulling a major troop reduction.

Esper is sending a portion of the Army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) to Africa in the coming weeks, “reducing the demand for brigade combat teams to conduct security force assistance operations there,” Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said in a statement on Wednesday.

The move “allows the Army to return elements of an infantry brigade from the 101st Airborne Division back to its home base of Ft. Campbell, Ky.”

Context: The New York Times first reported in December that Esper was considering a major reduction of U.S. troops from West Africa in order to shift forces and focus to better counter Russian and Chinese aggression.

Roughly 6,000 U.S. military personnel are currently in Africa. 

The contingent on the continent includes several hundred American service members deployed in Somalia, Niger, Chad and Mali, who are there to train and assist security forces to contain extremist Islamic groups including Boko Haram and those that pledge loyalty to ISIS and al Qaeda. The United States also helps support French forces on the continent.

But lawmakers in January pushed back on the idea of a reduction over concerns that terrorist and extremist groups would grow in the region without U.S. forces present there to quell them.

Army Africa commander Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, meanwhile, said Wednesday the U.S. will not abandon its African partners.

“We’re not walking away. We are still engaged,” Cloutier told reporters.

What the chairman thinks: Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who was instrumental in U.S Africa Command’s creation in 2007 and has been one of the vocal lawmakers against a drawdown there, said Wednesday he was “pleased” with the SFAB’s deployment.

“At the same time, the growing security threats in Africa – from terrorism to China and Russia – require additional capabilities that special operations and other troops currently serving there provide,” Inhofe added in a statement. “The SFAB should complement these critical forces, not replace them. I am waiting to see the details of what else the department is proposing for our AFRICOM troop presence on the continent and its critical role in supporting the National Defense Strategy.”

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

A House Foreign Affairs Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on U.S. security assistance to Mexico at 9 a.m. at the Rayburn House Office Building, room 2172. https://bit.ly/2SjCTCV

Northern Command chief Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy and Strategic Command chief Adm. Charles Richard will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee at 9:30 a.m. at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, room G-50. https://bit.ly/38oOFBz

A House Foreign Affairs subcommittee will hold a hearing on the “youth bulge” in Africa at 10 a.m. at Rayburn 2200. https://bit.ly/37mDKHt

 

ICYMI

— The Hill: US troops and pro-Syrian government militants clash, killing one Syrian

— The Hill: Trump looks to Africa to counter Iran

— The Hill: Peace Corps’ sudden decision to leave China stirs blowback

— The Hill: Opinion: Trump’s peace plan and the Gulf Arab States’ reaction

— Reuters: NATO to expand Iraq training mission in response to Trump

— The Washington Post: U.S. and Taliban negotiators to meet again following Trump approval

— Associated Press: US military downgrades efforts against extremists in Sahel

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