Overnight Defense: Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East | Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty

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: President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrumps light 97th annual National Christmas Tree Trump to hold campaign rally in Michigan ‘Don’t mess with Mama’: Pelosi’s daughter tweets support following press conference comments MORE on Thursday left the door open to the U.S. sending more troops to the Middle East to confront what Pentagon officials have described as a growing threat from Iran.

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While hosting a White House luncheon with all of the permanent representatives to the U.N. Security Council, Trump was asked if more troops would be sent to the Middle East following reports that the administration was considering sending an additional 14,000.

“There might be a threat and if there is a threat, it will be met very strongly,” Trump replied. “But we’ll be announcing whatever we may be doing — may or may not be doing.”

Earlier: Earlier on Thursday, a top Pentagon official said that the Trump administration could deploy more U.S. troops to the region to counter Tehran.

During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood called a Wall Street Journal report that the administration was mulling another 14,000 troops “erroneous.”

But when pressed by Sens. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnOvernight Defense: Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East | Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East Pentagon official: ‘Possible’ more US troops could be deployed to Middle East MORE (R-Tenn.) and Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyOvernight Defense: Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East | Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty Trade deal talks expand as Congress debates tech legal shield Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East MORE (R-Mo.) on whether a deployment is under consideration, Rood said that “we are evaluating the threat situation and the secretary if he chooses to can make decisions to deploy additional forces based on what he’s observing there.

“Based on what we’re seeing and our concerns about the threat picture, it is possible that we would need to adjust our force posture,” added Rood, the Pentagon’s No. 3 official. “And I think that would be a be prudent step depending on what we observe because our objective is to deter Iranian aggression, and deterrence is not static. It’s a very dynamic activity.”

The Pentagon’s response: Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah said in a statement later on Thursday that the Defense Department is “constantly evaluating the threat situation around the world and considering our options. We adjust our force posture and troop levels based on adversary action and the dynamic security situation.”

She added that Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East | Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East Pentagon official: ‘Possible’ more US troops could be deployed to Middle East MORE spoke to Senate Armed Services Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense: Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East | Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East Pentagon official: ‘Possible’ more US troops could be deployed to Middle East MORE (R-Okla.) on Thursday morning “and reaffirmed that we are not considering sending 14,000 additional troops to the Middle East at this time.”

Doubling the numbers: Sending that many additional troops would double the number of U.S. forces sent to the region since May in the face of what officials have described as heightening threats from Iran, including the downing of a U.S. drone in June.

Rood told reporters on Wednesday that there were indications that Iran may soon attack U.S. forces or interests in the Middle East.

“We do remain concerned about potential Iranian aggression,” Rood said.

“We also continue to see indications … potential Iranian aggression could occur.”

The United States has also blamed Iran for attacks over the summer on oil tankers in the Gulf, as well as an attack on two Saudi Arabian oil facilities. Iran has denied they were involved. 

PUTIN OFFERS IMMEDIATE EXTENSION OF KEY NUCLEAR TREATY: Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinOvernight Defense: Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East | Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty Trump’s antics shouldn’t overshadow what he has accomplished in NATO MORE has offered to extend a key nuclear treaty with the United States immediately without preconditions, he said Thursday.

“Russia is ready to extend the New START treaty immediately, before the year’s end and without any preconditions,” Putin said at a meeting of military officials, according to The Associated Press.

“Our proposals have been on the table, but we have got no response from our partners,” Putin added.

 

About the treaty: The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), negotiated by the Obama administration, caps the number of nuclear warheads the United States and Russia can deploy. It is the last major treaty constraining the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals following the collapse of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) earlier this year.

New START is up for renewal in 2021, and it can be extended by mutual agreement without any further action.

The Trump administration has indicated it wants to expand the scope of the treaty as a condition of extension by taking steps such as folding in China and new weapons not currently covered by the agreement.

Earlier this week: While in London for a NATO summit this week, President Trump was upbeat about the prospect of expanding the treaty.

“With respect to nuclear weapons, I’ve spoken to President Putin and I’ve communicated with him,” Trump told reporters during a meeting with French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronOvernight Defense: Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East | Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty Trump’s antics shouldn’t overshadow what he has accomplished in NATO MORE. “And we are — he very much wants to, and so do we, work out a treaty of some kind on nuclear weapons that will probably then include China at some point, and [France], by the way.  But it will include China and some other countries.”

“I spoke to China about it,” Trump added. “During one of our trade negotiations, they were extremely excited about getting involved in that. So, some very good things can happen with respect to that.”

China, though, has repeatedly rejected the idea of joining the treaty talks.

What the critics of that plan say: Critics have accused the administration of using China as a poison pill to kill New START. If the administration wants a broader arms control treaty, they argue, it can extend New START to buy time for negotiations that could take years.

Asked Thursday by Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenOvernight Defense: Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East | Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty Biden reveals four women he could pick as his running mate MORE (D-N.H.) why the treaty can’t be extended to provide more time to negotiate with China, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood indicated the administration believes that will cede leverage.

“If the United States were to agree to extend the treaty now, I think it would make it less likely that we would have the ability to persuade Russia and China to enter negotiations on a broader agreement,” Rood said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

“China has not participated in these similar arms control agreements, as you know, in the past. We do retain time until February 2021. To state the obvious, today it’s 2019. And so there wouldn’t need to be a lot of negotiation required if there was a decision by the United States and Russia to extend the treaty just merely agreeing on the time period.”

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeOvernight Defense: Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East | Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday’s impeachment hearing Lawmakers honor JFK on 56th anniversary of his death MORE (D-Texas); Lisa Curtis, senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council; Afghan Ambassador to the United States Roya Rahmani; former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson; retired Army Gen. John Nicholson, former commander of the Resolute Support Mission; Javid Ali, policymaker in residence at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy and former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council; and Laurel Miller, former acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department will speak at the Meridian International Center, the University of Michigan’s Weiser Diplomacy Center and the National Security Policy Center forum on defense and diplomacy in Afghanistan beginning at 8:30 a.m. in Washington, D.C.

ICYMI

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— The Hill: US targets Iranian prisons with sanctions in response to deadly crackdown
 
— The Hill: North Korea takes shot at Trump: ‘Senility of a dotard’
 
— The Hill: GOP senator blocks Armenian genocide resolution
 
— The Hill: Opinion: Trump’s antics shouldn’t overshadow what he has accomplished in NATO

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