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Senate confirms Trump’s Navy secretary pick

Getting a permanent secretary on the job took on new urgency as the Navy’s handling of the coronavirus’ spread aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt resulted in acting Secretary Thomas Modly’s resignation last month. James McPherson, a retired rear admiral and the undersecretary of the Army, has filled the job since Modly stepped down.

Braithwaite cruised through a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing this month and pulled few punches in criticizing the service for some of its most high-profile fiascoes — including the handling of the coronavirus aboard the Roosevelt, a pair of ship collisions that killed 17 sailors in 2017 and the Fat Leonard corruption scandal that has plagued Navy leadership for nearly a decade.

Braithwaite called the Navy’s culture “tarnished” and blamed poor leadership for many of those woes.

“It saddens me to say that the Department of the Navy is in rough waters, due to many factors, but primarily the failure of leadership,” Braithwaite told the committee.

Braithwaite was also dogged by questions about his involvement with defunct political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. CBS News reported that Braithwaite failed to disclose a contract with the firm when he was nominated to be ambassador to Norway.

Cambridge Analytica shut down in 2018 amid revelations it improperly harvested the personal data of millions of Facebook users to target voters for the Trump campaign in the 2016 election.

He denied entering into a formal contract with the company and no senators asked about it during his confirmation hearing.

Braithwaite also endorsed the goal of growing the fleet to “minimally 355 ships.” The Navy is expected to push for an even larger fleet that incorporates more unmanned vessels, but the goal is lofty given Pentagon leaders’ pessimistic outlook on future growth in defense spending.

Aside from Braithwaite, the Senate did not confirm several other senior Pentagon nominees before departing for the rest of month, including Gen. Charles Q. Brown to be the next Air Force chief of staff.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell set up procedural votes for June on two civilian nominees — James Anderson to be the No. 2 Pentagon policy official and Victor Mercado to be an assistant secretary for strategy, plans and capabilities. McConnell blamed Democrats for forcing senators to confirm them “the hard way.”

“Our Democratic colleagues would not allow us to fill several more posts at the Pentagon,” McConnell said Thursday afternoon.

“So as sadly has become the norm, the Senate will be spending floor time and multiple roll call votes” on mid-level nominees, McConnell complained.

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Progressive lawmakers push to slash defense budget during pandemic

“Right now, the coronavirus is our greatest adversary,” they argued. “We must remain focused on combating the coronavirus and not on increasing military spending that already outpaces the next 10 closest nations combined.”

The left flank’s early opposition to increased defense spending could throw a wrench into House leaders’ aims to pass a bipartisan policy bill with fewer headaches than last year. House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the committee’s top Republican, have said they want a bipartisan bill.

The letter was organized by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). Both are critics of the defense budget, which has soared to more than $700 billion. The letter was first reported by The Washington Post.

In a statement, the lawmakers implied that they would vote against the legislation if it didn’t cut defense spending. They noted that while 29 lawmakers signed the letter, only 19 would need to vote “no” to tank the defense bill, assuming Republicans don’t support it.

House Democrats passed their first defense bill in the majority last year without Republican support. Negotiations with Senate Republicans dragged on for months, and progressive lawmakers were largely dissatisfied with the product. A compromise bill dropped Democratic proposals to rein in Trump’s war powers, overturn the administration’s transgender troop ban and block money for the border wall.

Progressive lawmakers have signaled they will push many of those same issues again, which would drive House Republicans to once again oppose the bill.

Liberal Democrats have also sought to put the brakes on a buildup in military spending that was launched by President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans.

Republican defense hawks would almost certainly cry foul if Democrats attempted to cut the defense budget. Trump and congressional leaders locked in a $741 billion topline for fiscal 2021 as part of two-year deal on spending. GOP lawmakers have argued that level still doesn’t adequately address the needs of the military as it pivots from the Middle East toward competition with China and Russia.

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Pentagon extends travel ban for all troops to June 30

Defense Secretary Mark Esper in March ordered a halt to all movement of U.S. troops for 60 days due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. Esper predicted the order would be extended at a press conference Tuesday, but did not specify a new date.

The order, Donovan said, includes exceptions for troop deployments and returns, recruiting and basic training, temporary duty travel or changes of station, travel needed for medical treatment and people who are leaving the military.

Donovan said the new guidelines are “a little bit more liberal” due to exemptions and waivers when compared to the previous order. He didn’t rule out another extension after June, and said Esper will review the policy every 15 days to determine whether travel may resume earlier.

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Senate fails to overturn Trump’s Iran war powers veto

Thursday’s override vote fell along similar lines as only a handful of Republicans have been willing to challenge the president on Iran.

Trump vetoed the measure Wednesday, arguing in favor of maintaining broad powers to respond to international threats.

In a statement, the commander in chief called the resolution “insulting,” accused Democrats of pushing the legislation as a political ploy and dinged Republicans who supported the measure as undercutting their party.

The sponsor of the resolution, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), fired back at Trump on the Senate floor ahead of the vote.

“What I find so notable about that statement is that the president could not see Congress expressing an opinion about war through any lens other than himself and his reelection,” Kaine said. “As everyone in this chamber knows, the bill was not a partisan bill.”

Democrats, and a smattering of Republicans, have sought for nearly a year to block Trump from taking military action against Iran without explicit congressional approval as tensions have heightened in the Middle East, the U.S. scrapped an agreement to limit Tehran’s nuclear program, and a series of tit-for-tat provocations have occurred in the Persian Gulf.

Lawmakers renewed their efforts in January after Trump ordered the killing of a top Iranian military commander, Qassem Soleimani, and Tehran responded by launching missiles against outposts in Iraq that housed U.S. troops. The administration argued the drone strike was ordered in response to an imminent threat.

The administration has highlighted Trump’s authority to defend the U.S. under Article 2 of the Constitution as well as the 2002 war authorization passed before the invasion of Iraq that displaced Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Many on Capitol Hill were dissatisfied with Trump’s legal justification for killing Soleimani and complained the administration never outlined the imminent threat to justify the provocative attack.

Democrats will likely push again this year to rein in Trump as tensions between the two countries spike again in the Persian Gulf.

Top House Democrats have indicated they will try again to tack Iran provisions onto annual defense policy legislation, but Senate Republican leaders have batted down the notion of including it in the legislation.

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Navy secretary nominee slams service’s ‘failure of leadership’

“As a child of the Midwest, I was taught to be frank,” Braithwaite said in his opening statement. “It saddens me to say that the Department of the Navy is in rough waters, due to many factors, but primarily the failure of leadership.”

“Whether Glenn Marine Defense, the ship collisions in 2017, judicial missteps or the crisis recently aboard USS Roosevelt, they’re all indicative of a breakdown in the trust of those leading the service,” he said.

Braithwaite, who was tapped for the post after the ouster of former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, referenced his experience aboard the aircraft carrier USS America when it sailed alongside the battleship USS Iowa during a deadly explosion in 1989, as well as serving amid the Navy’s Tailhook sexual assault scandal in the early 1990s. He said the events shaped his outlook.

“It all starts with culture. I have learned this repeatedly in my career,” Braithwaite said. “Successful organizations have a strong culture which always starts with leadership.

“While I recognize the challenges for all they are, I am ready,” he added. “I have been preparing my entire life for this moment.”

Senators may have pointed questions for Braithwaite about how he’ll cope with the spread of coronavirus in the fleet, how to grow the number of ships and concerns about reports he had an undisclosed relationship with shuttered consulting firm Cambridge Analytica — though Braithwaite contends he never had a formal contract with the company.

Prodded early in the hearing by Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) about the Navy’s goal to grow the fleet, Braithwaite said the service should be “minimally 355 ships,” but added he’d prefer an even larger fleet.

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Trump vetoes bill to curtail his Iran war-making authority

The war powers resolution was passed in March, but wasn’t formally sent to the White House until just this week because Congress has been out of session due to the coronavirus. It was the first Iran-related measure to reach Trump’s desk after months of false starts on legislation that would require Congress to sign off on military action against Iran.

In a statement announcing the veto, Trump derided the measure and the Republicans who broke ranks to support it, arguing “Congress should not have passed this resolution.”

“This was a very insulting resolution, introduced by Democrats as part of a strategy to win an election on November 3 by dividing the Republican Party,” Trump said. “The few Republicans who voted for it played right into their hands.”

“The resolution implies that the President’s constitutional authority to use military force is limited to defense of the United States and its forces against imminent attack. That is incorrect,” the president added. “We live in a hostile world of evolving threats, and the Constitution recognizes that the President must be able to anticipate our adversaries’ next moves and take swift and decisive action in response. That’s what I did!”

The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Tim Kaine, now heads back to the Senate.

But lawmakers likely won’t muster the two-thirds majority required in both the Senate and House to overcome the veto. Few Republicans on Capitol Hill have been willing to buck Trump’s authority over Iran policy.

Kaine accused Trump of going back on his pledge to wind down so-called endless wars in the Middle East with his veto.

“I urge my colleagues to join me in voting to override his veto,” the Virginia Democrat said in a statement. “Unless there’s a carefully reached consensus in Congress that war is necessary, we should not be sending our troops into harm’s way.”

The resolution cleared the House on March 11, with just six Republicans voting in favor. The Senate in February passed the resolution with the support of eight Republicans.

Democrats and a handful of Republicans first sought last year to head off conflict with Iran as tensions ratcheted up in the Middle East.

Those efforts gained renewed urgency in January when Trump ordered the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force. Iran retaliated with missile strikes against U.S. military bases in Iraq.

A March 11 rocket attack in Iraq blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shia militia, also killed U.S. and British service members at Camp Taji. A U.S. and British airstrike the next day targeted five of the group’s weapons sites in Iraq.

Tensions reignited in mid-April as Iranian boats came dangerously close to U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships in the northern Persian Gulf.

Trump tweeted a week later that he ordered the Navy to “shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.” The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. John Hyten, said the tweet amounted to a warning to Iran.

The legislation calls for an end to military hostilities against Iran without congressional authorization.

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