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OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Murkowski, Mattis criticism ratchets up pressure on GOP over Trump| Esper orders hundreds of active-duty troops outside DC sent home day after reversal | Iran releases US Navy veteran Michael White


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. 

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THE TOPLINE: Criticism of President TrumpDonald John TrumpFormer employees critique EPA under Trump in new report Fired State Department watchdog says Pompeo aide attempted to ‘bully’ him over investigations Virginia senator calls for Barr to resign over order to clear protests MORE from former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump calls Mattis ‘overrated’ after ex-Defense secretary issues scathing rebuke Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief says he opposes invoking Insurrection Act for protests | White House dodges on Trump’s confidence in Esper | ‘Angry and appalled’ Mattis scorches Trump Mattis denounces Trump in blistering statement on protests MORE and Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiBlumenthal to introduce legislation to limit Trump’s power under Insurrection Act Calls for police reform sparks divisions in Congress GOP senators dodge on treatment of White House protesters MORE (R-Alaska) is ratcheting up pressure on other Republicans to push back on the president’s handling of nationwide civil unrest.

Mattis, who is as close as anyone to being universally respected on Capitol Hill, called out Trump Wednesday for what he said was the president’s lack of a “mature leadership” and accused him for intentionally trying to divide the nation.

An emboldened GOP senator: Murkowski said she thought Mattis’s words were “true and honest and necessary and overdue” and suggested that it might embolden other Republicans who privately disagree with the president’s often controversial tone and conduct to speak out.

“When I saw Gen. Mattis’s comments yesterday I felt like perhaps we’re getting to the point where we can be more honest with the concerns we might hold internally and have the courage of our convictions to speak up,” she said.

Others speak out: Murkowski’s statement, made to reporters shortly before a noontime vote, exploded like a bombshell in the Senate and immediately became a top story of the day.

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyOvernight Defense: Pentagon chief says he opposes invoking Insurrection Act for protests | White House dodges on Trump’s confidence in Esper | ‘Angry and appalled’ Mattis scorches Trump Republicans stand by Esper after public break with Trump 7 GOP senators slam State Dept for ‘slow and inefficient policy’ on passports MORE (R-Utah), a frequent critic of the president who voted for one of his articles of impeachment, wouldn’t go so far as to comment on Mattis’s statement when asked about it by reporters, but instead praised the former general as “a person of extraordinary integrity and sacrifice” and “a patriot who has sound judgment and capacity.”

After Murkowski’s endorsement of Mattis’s critique became headline news, Romney told reporters that his “letter was stunning and powerful.”

Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanIs Trump encouraging the world’s use of national security as stealth protectionism? House Republican offers bill to create ‘return to work bonus’ Soured on Fox, Trump may be seeking new propaganda outlet MORE (R-Ohio), who has sought to keep his focus on legislation and not get caught up in Trump’s controversies, on Thursday as he was leaving the Capitol stepped up his criticism of the president’s tone in recent days.

“… his tone and words kind of in between those more formal presentations that have not unified people,” he said.

 

Slipping polls: The criticisms come amid polls showing Trump is falling behind presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenFox News polls: Trump trails Biden in Ohio, Arizona and Wisconsin Kelly holds double-digit lead over McSally in Arizona: poll Obama calls for police reforms, doesn’t address Trump MORE in battleground states. Republicans in the Senate are worried that Trump could take their majority in the upper chamber with him if he does not begin to rebound.

 

Evasive moves from others: Other Republicans on Thursday also faced questions on Mattis’s statement and some took what appeared to be evasive action to dodge reporters.

Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneOvernight Defense: Pentagon chief says he opposes invoking Insurrection Act for protests | White House dodges on Trump’s confidence in Esper | ‘Angry and appalled’ Mattis scorches Trump Republicans stand by Esper after public break with Trump Blumenthal to introduce legislation to limit Trump’s power under Insurrection Act MORE (R-S.D.), who earlier in the week said that Trump’s tweets warning that looters would be shot and “vicious dogs” could be unleashed on protesters were “not helpful,” managed to elude reporters who were frantically searching for him all day long.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsClyburn: Cowed GOP ascribes ‘mystical powers’ to Trump Trump pushes back against GOP senators’ criticism of dispersal of protesters in Lafayette Square: ‘You got it wrong’ Trump, Biden battle to shape opinion on scenes of unrest MORE (R-Maine), who on Tuesday criticized Trump’s photo op in front of St. John’s Church after peaceful protesters were forcibly removed, was also asked to weigh in on Mattis.

The Maine senator, who has a tough re-election race, demurred by saying she hadn’t yet read Mattis’s statement but explained she had it and planned to examine it later. She did, however, declare she had “great respect” for Mattis.

 

Here are more stories on the response to Mattis’ critic of Trump:

TRUMP: ‘I DON’T THINK WE’LL HAVE TO’ SEND MILITARY TO CITIES’: Trump on Wednesday said he doesn’t think it will be necessary to send military forces to U.S. cities to quell protests sparked by the death of George Floyd.

“It depends. I don’t think we’ll have to. We have very strong powers to do it. The National Guard is customary, and we have a very powerful National Guard,” Trump told Sean SpicerSean Michael SpicerTrump says removal of protesters ‘handled very well’ Trump: ‘I don’t think we’ll have to’ send military to cities Trump to be interviewed by former White House press secretary Spicer on Newsmax MORE, his former press secretary, in an interview on Newsmax.

“As far as going beyond that? Sure, if it was necessary,” Trump added. “We have antifa. We have anarchists. We have terrorists, looters. We have a lot of bad people in those groups.”

A break in messaging: Trump’s comments, which were recorded earlier Wednesday, came on the same day Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTrump: ‘I don’t think we’ll have to’ send military to cities House chairman presses Pentagon leaders on use of military against DC protesters Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief says he opposes invoking Insurrection Act for protests | White House dodges on Trump’s confidence in Esper | ‘Angry and appalled’ Mattis scorches Trump MORE said he opposes invoking the Insurrection Act, an 1807 law that would allow the president to deploy active-duty troops around the country to respond to the protests.

“The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations,” Esper said. “We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”

Backing off? Trump on Monday threatened to deploy military forces to cities that do not bring protesters in line, though his comments to Spicer indicate he is unlikely to follow through.

 The president earlier this week ridiculed state and local leaders as “weak,” urging them to “dominate” their streets and clamp down on protests. Trump has made an example of Washington, D.C., which does not have the same rights as states to reject the National Guard or other troop deployments, by mobilizing military personnel around the District to police demonstrations.

 

Esper orders some troops home: Esper is sending hundreds of active duty soldiers who had been on standby in the Washington, D.C., area back to their home base after reversing course on such a decision the day before.

A senior defense official confirmed to The Hill that the Pentagon “made the decision to return members of some of the active duty units in the capital region to their home base.”

The official added that military leaders “are continuously monitoring this dynamic situation,” and that the return of the remainder of the active duty service members will be “conditions-based.”

The troops — reported by numerous outlets as from the 82nd Airborne Division based in Fort Bragg, N.C. — are part of the roughly 1,600 U.S. forces brought to the D.C. area but never used to respond to civil unrest that came with protests over the Minneapolis police killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, last week.

This marks the second time in as many days that Esper has ordered the troops home. On Wednesday morning, the Pentagon chief instructed forces to return home but changed his command later that day following a White House meeting, asking them to “to remain on alert” in the region for an additional 24 hours.

 

IRAN RELEASES US NAVY VET MICHAEL WHITE: Iran has released U.S. Navy veteran Michael White, who had been detained for nearly two years, his family and officials confirmed Thursday. 

“I am blessed to announce that the nightmare is over, and my son is safely in American custody and on his way home,” White’s mother, Joanne White, said in a statement shared by a family spokesman on Twitter.

Joanne White thanked the State Department, Swiss diplomats and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) in her statement. 

U.S. special envoy for Iran Brian Hook flew to Zurich with a doctor to meet White and will accompany him to the U.S. aboard an American plane, officials told The Associated Press.

President Trump announced White’s release in a tweet, adding that he expects White to be in America “very soon.”

“I am to happy announce that Navy Veteran, Michael White, who has been detained by Iran for 683 days, is on a Swiss plane that just left Iranian Airspace. We expect him to be home with his family in America very soon,” Trump tweeted.

The background: White was detained by Iranian authorities in July 2018 while he was visiting a woman he had met online and fallen in love with, according to AP. White was reportedly convicted of insulting Iran’s supreme leader and posting private information online. He had been sentenced to a decade in prison.

 

How it happened: White’s release came shortly after an Iranian scientist, Dr. Sirous Asgari, was returned to the country after being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), CNN reports.

U.S officials denied Asgari’s return was part of a prisoner exchange for White, according to CNN.

“The United States has tried to deport Sirous Asgari since December 2019, but the Iranian government repeatedly has held up the process. As the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed today, Mr. Asgari is not and has never been a participant in any prisoner swap with Iran,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said earlier this week.

The AP reported that White’s release was predicated on another prisoner deal. His release was part of an agreement involving an Iranian-American doctor prosecuted by the Justice Department, the newswire reported. 

Details of the deal are set to be released later Thursday, according to AP.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Foreign Area Officer Association and Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security will hold a discussion via Zoom on “Middle East Security, Economics, and Politics,” with Tim Lenderking, deputy assistant secretary of state for Arabian Gulf affairs, and Brig. Gen. Scott Benedict, the joint staff deputy director for Middle East. Register at events@dmgs.edu.

 

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