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: A U.S. Air Force surveillance and communications plane crashed Monday in Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan.
The U.S. military confirmed the crash took place, but has released few other details, including the status of the crew.
The Taliban claimed to have caused the crash, but U.S. Forces Afghanistan said there’s no indication the jet was shot down.
“A U.S. Bombardier E-11A crashed today in Ghazni province, Afghanistan,” U.S. Forces Afghanistan spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett said in a statement on his official Twitter. “While the cause of crash is under investigation, there are no indications the crash was caused by enemy fire. We will provide additional information as it becomes available.”
“Taliban claims that additional aircraft have crashed are false,” he added in a second tweet.
Asked about the crash Monday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters he was “aware of the situation,” but provided no more details about the incident.
In Congress: The House Oversight Committee’s national security subcommittee is holding a hearing Tuesday morning on Afghanistan.
The hearing is expected to focus on “Lessons Learned” reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), particularly in light of last month’s Washington Post series revealing interviews SIGAR conducted for the reports that showed U.S. officials lied about progress in the war.
John Sopko, the special inspector general, is expected to testify. Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or their designees were invited, but no State or Defense officials will attend, the committee said Monday.
In a news release Monday, the Democratic-controlled committee blasted Pompeo and Esper for having “refused” to attend, calling it the “latest example of the Trump administration’s obstruction of Congress and lack of transparency with the American people about critical national security matters.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee previously had a hearing scheduled for Tuesday morning on Afghanistan with testimony from three former officials, but the hearing has been postponed.
ROCKET ATTACK IN BAGHDAD: One person was injured in a Sunday rocket attack that hit the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the State Department confirmed Monday.
The confirmation came as part of a statement on Pompeo’s call Monday with Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi, in which Pompeo “expressed his outrage” at the attack.
“Secretary Pompeo expressed his outrage at the continued assaults by Iran’s armed groups against U.S. facilities in Iraq, including yesterday’s rocket attacks against our embassy, which resulted in one injury,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in the statement.
“The secretary underlined once again that these attacks demonstrate a wanton disregard for Iraqi sovereignty and a failure to rein in these dangerous armed groups,” she added.
One rocket Sunday reportedly hit the dining area of the embassy, while two others landed nearby.
The State Department statement added that Pompeo “appreciated” al-Mahdi’s “commitment to strengthen security to protect American personnel and diplomatic facilities.”
Pompeo also “reaffirmed the United States’ enduring commitment to the Iraqi people, our willingness to discuss the scope of our forces in Iraq over time, and our desire for a strong and prosperous Iraq.”
Context: Sunday’s attack came a month after a rocket strike on a military base that killed a U.S. contractor and set of a spiral of escalation that brought the United States and Iran to the brink of war.
After the earlier attack, the U.S. military hit the Iran-backed militia the Trump administration blamed for the attack, which led to the militia’s supporters storming the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
The embassy incident was followed by the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, which Iran retaliated against with a missile attack that gave traumatic brain injuries (TBI) to 34 U.S. troops.
The escalating U.S.-Iran tension playing out on Iraqi soil also led to increased calls in Iraq for a U.S. troop withdrawal — something Monday’s State Department statement appeared to nod to by referencing the U.S. “willingness to discuss the scope of our forces in Iraq over time.”
Brain injuries: As noted above and reported here before, 34 U.S. troops suffered TBI from Iran’s missile attack earlier this month.
President Trump has come under some criticism for downplaying the injuries as “headaches.”
Over the weekend, a former Senate sergeant at arms who’s now a veteran advocate, Frank Larkin, put up on open letter to Trump seeking to educate the president on the seriousness of TBI. Larkin’s Navy SEAL son, Ryan, died by suicide after suffering a TBI.
“It is difficult to put into words the impact that your statement had on me and my family yesterday… it was a hard hit to the gut,” wrote Larkin, who was with Trump at the Oval Office last year when he signed an executive order to help prevent veterans’ suicides. “An undeserved punch felt by every person suffering from a TBI, their shattered families, and supporting communities who struggle everyday with the consequences of insidious brain injuries.”
“You can turn this misstep around by applying an increased level of effort to urgently drive the much-needed research into TBI and demand results from the government bureaucracies that often impede advancing injury prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation,” Larkin added.
On CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Trump ally Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) defended Trump’s remarks on the injuries.
“He’s not dismissing their injuries. He’s describing their injuries,” Cotton said. “If they are, in fact, if all these injuries are not serious, if they’re all on the less serious side of the scale than the severe traumatic side of the scale, the president is just describing what happened there. He was not dismissing them.”
Bolton’s accusation, made in a forthcoming memoir, that Trump tied $391 million in aid to Ukraine to the country helping with investigations into Democrats — including former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden — ricocheted across the Capitol.
Democrats quickly characterized the allegation as a “thunderbolt,” a “bombshell” and “gut check time” for Republicans, arguing that it underscored the need for additional witnesses and documents.
Republicans, caught flat-footed, struggled to get on the same page, as some GOP lawmakers indicated Bolton’s allegation strengthened the need for witnesses, while others argued the memoir offered nothing that would change the outcome of the impeachment trial.
Asked if GOP senators had been in touch with the White House, Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) told reporters that “my impression is that this sort of caught everybody by surprise.”
In the chamber: Trump’s team of lawyers did not change their tactics Monday despite the Bolton bombshell.
In hours of arguments on the Senate floor, Trump’s attorneys did not address or seek to knock down Bolton’s account, as Trump himself has done.
Instead, they doubled down on their argument that House Democrats did not uncover evidence showing Trump tied military assistance or a White House meeting to Ukraine launching investigations.
The unflinching strategy from Trump’s legal team comes as signs grow that Republican senators may vote to subpoena Bolton and other witnesses in the impeachment trial after opening arguments conclude.
Trump’s personal attorney, Jay Sekulow, said at the outset of Monday’s proceedings that the team would not deal in “speculation,” making clear the new Bolton revelations would not figure into the team’s plans without explicitly acknowledging the elephant in the room.
“We deal with transcript evidence. We deal with publicly available information. We do not deal with speculation, allegations that are not based on evidentiary standards at all,” Sekulow said.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a classified briefing on Iran at 9 a.m. https://bit.ly/2Gpr9YZ
The House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on the situation on the Korean peninsula at 10 a.m. at the Rayburn House Office Building, room 2118. https://bit.ly/2Rx2ibW
A House Foreign Affairs Committee subpanel will have a hearing on Iran, with testimony from outside experts, at 10 a.m. at Rayburn 2172. https://bit.ly/30XPxu9
A House Oversight Committee subpanel will have a hearing on Afghanistan at 10 a.m. at Rayburn 2154. https://bit.ly/36u3LUv
A House Foreign Affairs subcommittee and a House Oversight subcommittee will have joint hearing on ending global religious persecution at 2 p.m. at Rayburn 2172. https://bit.ly/2t2127c
— The Hill: Bolton, publishers deny coordinating book leak with NYT
— The Hill: Trump to release Israeli-Palestinian peace plan on Tuesday
— The Hill: Opinion: Army modernization translates into accepting risk and learning quickly
— The Hill: Opinion: Current gaps in homeland missile defense need urgent attention
— Reuters: Iran prepares site for satellite launch that U.S. links to ballistic missiles
— Stars and Stripes: Mother of captured journalist, veteran Tice blames US official for ‘stalling’ her son’s return
— Associated Press: Fighting sharply rises in Yemen, endangering peace efforts