OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Top Democrats introduce bill to stop Trump’s Germany withdrawal | Esper announces internal review on diversity in military | Top foreign policy Pentagon official resigns after White House passes on nomination
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. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.
THE TOPLINE: A pair of top Democrats has introduced a bill aimed at blocking President Trump’s plan to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from Germany.
The bill, introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) in their respective chambers, would prohibit funding to implement a withdrawal in Europe unless several conditions are met.
“The current U.S. troop presence in Germany is in the U.S. national security interest. Full stop,” Menendez said in a statement. “The administration has made no effort to explain how our country is stronger because of this drawdown decision. Because we’re not. This drawdown weakens America and Europe. And Vladimir Putin understands and appreciates that better than anyone.”
Trump’s threat: Trump confirmed Monday that he plans to slash the number of U.S. troops in Germany, which is home to the U.S. military’s European and Africa command headquarters.
Trump, faulting Germany for not meeting NATO’s defense spending goal, said he would cut the number of troops to 25,000. There are about 35,000 troops there now, and the number can go as high as 52,000.
In 2014, NATO countries agreed to each spend 2 percent of their gross domestic products on their defense budgets by 2024. Just eight countries are at the 2 percent mark right now. Several others have plans to meet it by the deadline, but Germany is not on track to meet the goal.
What the bill would do: Menendez and Engel’s bill would prohibit funding to withdraw troops from or close a base in Europe unless a host government submits a written request for a reduction or the president submits a formal declaration of his intent to withdraw to Congress that includes a justification for doing so.
The president’s notice would have to come 180 days before a drawdown happens and would need to be followed by public testimony from the secretaries of Defense and State. Congress would also have to pass a resolution endorsing the withdrawal for it to proceed.
The bill would also require a report that covers the process leading to the decision to draw down in Germany, a description of communication with Germany and other NATO allies and the national security implications of a withdrawal.
NATO sounds alarm: NATO allies raised concerns about a U.S. withdrawal from Germany at a meeting of defense minister Wednesday. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that Defense Secretary Mark Esper pledged that “the U.S. will consult with NATO allies on the way forward.”
Other pushback in Congress: In Congress, Trump’s plan has received a bipartisan backlash since it was first reported earlier this month. Last week, 22 Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee wrote Trump a letter urging him to reverse course.
No orders yet: The top U.S. Air Force general in Europe said Thursday he has not received orders from the White House to begin pulling airmen from Germany.
“I have not received any specific guidance directing me to do any specific planning on that at this particular point,” U.S. Air Forces in Europe head Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian told reporters during a media call.
Harrigian, who is also the commander for the U.S. Air Forces Africa, referred all questions on the topic to the White House.
ESPER ANNOUNCES INTERNAL REVIEW ON DIVERSITY IN MILITARY: The Pentagon is conducting an internal review on diversity and inclusion in the military amid nationwide protests over racial injustice, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday.
In a video message to the department posted online, Esper said he was establishing a “Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion in the Military” that will conduct a six-month study to “develop concrete, actionable recommendations to increase racial diversity and ensure equal opportunity across all ranks, and especially in the officer corps.”
Esper said everyone in the department should “reflect upon the issues of race, bias and inequality in our ranks, and have the tough, candid discussions with your superiors, your peers and your troops that this issue demands.”
Additional efforts: In addition, Esper said he has ordered civilian and uniformed leadership at the Pentagon to bring him recommendations in two weeks that can be implemented immediately.
He also said he will set up a “Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion in the Armed Services” that will continue the work of the board he established when it is done with its initial six-month study.
“My goal is to effect an enterprisewide, organizational and cultural shift,” Esper said. “The actions I have identified today are just the first steps, but there is more to be done. Over the next few months, I will be working across the department to identify additional ways to foster lasting change, from recruiting, career track selection and retention; to assignments, schools and promotions; to military justice and everything in between and beyond.”
Context: The military has been grappling with racial issues amid nationwide protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, as well as after criticism of the Pentagon’s involvement in President Trump’s response to the protests.
Esper was criticized for calling the protests a “battle space,” a choice of words he later said he regretted. Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley were also criticized for accompanying Trump on a photo-op to a church after federal law enforcement forcefully cleared largely peaceful protesters from the area. Milley later apologized for participating in the photo-op.
Several military leaders have spoken out about racial inequality in the military in recent weeks and have taken some steps to address the issue. The Air Force, for example, announced an inspector general investigation into racial disparities in its justice system.
The nationwide protests have also reignited debates about Confederate symbols and names on military property. The Marine Corps formalized a ban on the Confederate battle flag, and the Navy has said it would follow suit. U.S. Forces Korea also announced a ban on the flag.
The Army said it was open to renaming its bases named after Confederate leaders, but Trump shot down the idea days later. The Senate’s version of the annual defense policy bill, though, would require the Pentagon to rename property that is named after Confederates such as the Army bases.
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER RESIGNATION: A top Pentagon policy official is resigning days after the White House rescinded its plans to nominate her for the Defense Department’s No. 2 civilian intelligence post, Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed on Thursday.
Kathryn Wheelbarger, the acting assistant Defense secretary for international security affairs, submitted her resignation on Wednesday, five days after President Trump pulled her name as the intended nominee to be deputy under secretary of Defense for intelligence.
“In her role as Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Katie brought a wealth of experience and the utmost professionalism to the Department throughout her service,” Esper said in a statement Thursday.
“Her leadership in support of the National Defense Strategy is evident in the proud accomplishments of her team. She is someone I got to know well over the last three years and, with sincere appreciation for her many contributions and years of service, I wish Katie the very best in what I’m sure will be a very bright future.”
More on Wheelbarger: Trump on Feb. 13 named Wheelbarger as his intended nominee for the senior intelligence position but last week announced plans to instead nominate Bradley Hansell, a previous special assistant to the president. The White House sent Hansell’s nomination to the Senate on Thursday.
In her resignation letter, Wheelbarger said that she trusted her colleagues to “continue to be guided by the U.S. Constitution and the principles of our founding, which ensure both our security and our freedom,” according to Reuters.
The White House is now being accused of overlooking Wheelbarger — who was well regarded by both Republican and Democrat lawmakers — due to her past work with the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Wheelbarger worked as a Senate Armed Services Committee policy director alongside McCain, the panel’s former chairman and a staunch critic of Trump’s.
A pattern: Wheelbarger is the second Pentagon official to resign this week after having her name pulled from the running for a top Defense Department job over reported loyalty concerns to Trump.
Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon’s acting comptroller who questioned the Trump administration for its withholding of aid to Ukraine last year, submitted her resignation earlier this week after the White House in early March pulled her nomination for the official comptroller role.
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