Trump’s dueling takes on Iran

With Connor O’Brien and Jacqueline Feldscher

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— President Donald Trump is continuing to talk tough on Iran, even while sounding conciliatory.

— New acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper heads to Europe this week for a meeting with NATO ministers, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travels to the Middle East amid Iran tension.

— The head of the new Space Development Agency bows out of the job after only four months.

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Iran

THE HAWK AND DOVE: Trump spent the weekend explaining his take on Iran, sometimes threatening the end of its existence, other times sounding like the regime’s best friend.

“I'm not looking for war, and if there is, it'll be obliteration like you’ve never seen before. But I’m not looking to do that. But you can’t have a nuclear weapon. You want to talk? Good. Otherwise you can have a bad economy for the next three years,” Trump said on NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Sunday, per POLITICO’s Martin Matishak.

“The comments, made during an interview taped Friday, came the same day Trump confirmed on Twitter that he called off a retaliatory strike on Iran at the last minute Thursday night. He said he decided that the potential cost of human lives was ‘not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.’”

Trump acknowledged the dueling takes on his attitude toward Iran. “Everyone was saying I’m a warmonger. Now they’re saying I’m a dove,” he told reporters on Saturday, POLITICO’s Christian Vasquez reports.

He also said he’s still confident in national security adviser John Bolton, who’s known to be pushing for a tougher stance on Iran.

"I have other people that don’t take that posture, but the only one that matters is me."

The president’s attitude fits with his new mantra: “no rush,” POLITICO’S Andrew Restuccia writes.

Trump was wrestling with the right move when he met with congressional leaders on Friday, House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith said Sunday.

“[I]t was very clear the president was legitimately torn as to what the correct approach was in response.”

And Vice President Mike Pence gave the Iranians an out on Sunday, Matishak writes. "We're not convinced it was authorized at the highest levels," he said.

Yet critics say that Trump’s practice of stepping back from the brink may end up hurting him, POLITICO’s Nahal Toosi reports.

“President Trump’s handling of rising Iranian provocations in the Persian Gulf is undermining American global credibility — which is the currency for foreign policy and the bedrock of deterrence — and our vital interests,” said Michael Makovsky, chief executive of the right-leaning Jewish Institute for National Security of America.

What he did do: While Trump canceled the military strike, he did authorize a cyber attack on Iranian military systems, The Associated Press reports.

“The cyberattacks — a contingency plan developed over weeks amid escalating tensions — disabled Iranian computer systems that controlled its rocket and missile launchers, the officials said.”

Dig in: “Trump learns it’s not always easy going it alone,” by POLITICO’s Anita Kumar.

On the Hill

NDAA DEBATE: The Senate votes tonight to begin debating the National Defense Authorization Act this week.

POLITICO’s Marianne LeVine and Connor O’Brien write that Trump should expect a full-on attack on his ability to wage war with Iran from Senate Democrats — and even some Republicans.

"One of the best ways to avoid bumbling into a war, a war that nobody wants, is to have a robust and open debate and for Congress to have a real say," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

In the House, Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) are writing an Iran amendment to the NDAA when it hits the House floor in July. Democrats say they hope the measure will gain bipartisan support.

"We’re finalizing the language, then we're going to circulate it," Khanna told POLITICO on Friday. "My hope is that we’ll get a lot of the members who are opposed to endless wars on the Republican side."

Hitching a ride: Advocates of the Export-Import Bank want to attach legislation reauthorizing the agency to the House version of the NDAA, POLITICO's Zachary Warmbrodt reports.

MINIBUS PART 2: The House continues debate this week on its second package of annual spending bills, including fiscal 2020 Military Construction appropriations legislation. That measure would block the Pentagon from diverting its infrastructure spending to barriers, fencing or a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Pentagon

TRUMP TO TAP ESPER: Trump on Friday announced his decision to nominate Army Secretary — and as of today, acting defense secretary — Mark Esper for the top Pentagon job, our colleague Jacqueline Feldscher writes.

He also plans to nominate comptroller David Norquist to be deputy secretary, which is a job he’s been filling since the beginning of the year, and Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy to run the Army Department.

It’s worth noting that Trump announced on Friday his intent to nominate Esper. Once the White House officially sends the nomination paperwork over to the Senate, Esper must step down as acting defense secretary.

This week, Esper leaves for Brussels, where NATO is holding a defense ministerial on Wednesday and Thursday.

State Department

POMPEO TO THE MIDDLE EAST: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boarded a plane on Sunday for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Reuters reports.

Before leaving he said Washington is ready to talk to Iran. “We’re prepared to negotiate with no preconditions. They know precisely where to find us. I am confident that at the very moment they are ready to engage with us we will be able to begin these conversations.”

He’ll also be working to build a global coalition “to push back against the world’s largest state sponsor of terror,” AP reports.

ON NORTH KOREA: Pompeo also said he hopes a letter Trump sent to Kim Jong Un will help restart talks between the two countries, Reuters also writes.

“I’m hopeful that this will provide a good foundation for us to begin ... these important discussions with the North Koreans.”

North Korea’s central news agency reported that Kim had received Trump’s letter and called it “of excellent content” and that Kim “would seriously contemplate the interesting content.”

Trump visits South Korea this weekend to meet with President Moon Jae-in before heading to Japan, Reuters reports.

Industry Intel

BEEF UP THE BASE: “China’s theft of intellectual property and disruption of the supply chain pose a serious threat to the U.S. space industrial base, requiring a national strategy to expand and strengthen the sector, according to a white paper issued by the Defense Innovation Unit and the Air Force Research Laboratory,” Feldscher writes.

EUROPEAN CUSTOMERS: Defense industry reps who traveled to the Paris Airshow last week said they saw a lot more interest from potential European customers than two years ago, per Reuters.

Space

LEADERSHIP VACUUM: Fred Kennedy, head of the newly created Space Development Agency, is leaving after only four months on the job, and follows the departure of Chris Shank, director of the Strategic Capabilities Office, Breaking Defense reports.

“The two back-to-back departures suggest a deeper disruption in the Defense Department’s high-profile effort to reform how it handles space — and perhaps the entire R&D enterprise.”

Speed Read

— Former Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak announces presidential bid: POLITICO

— White House is pressing for additional options, including cyberattacks, to deter Iran: The New York Times

— Trump’s decision-making on Iran strike highlights absence of a confirmed defense secretary: The Washington Post

— Iranians say their ‘bones breaking’ under U.S. sanctions: AP

— The U.S. outguns Iran, but it faces painful realities in the event of a war: The Washington Post

— Exclusive: Leaked Trump vetting docs: Axios

— What would Bernie bomb? POLITICO Magazine

— At work, expertise is falling out of favor: The Atlantic