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Trump admin wonders why Europe hasn't been 'helpful' on Iran

01/06/20 12:35PM

The Trump administration clearly rattled the international landscape with its latest offensive against Iran, and as the Wall Street Journal reported, it's not altogether pleased with the response from some of the leading U.S. allies.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed disappointment with European allies after they voiced concern that the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani could trigger further violence.

Following the drone strike that killed Gen. Soleimani and an Iraqi paramilitary leader this week, Mr. Pompeo held phone calls with European allies, major powers China and Russia and regional partners such as Pakistan. According to State Department officials and official readouts of the calls, he told his counterparts that the strike was conducted to head off further violence and de-escalate tensions.

Note the use of the word "following" -- as in, Donald Trump and his team launched the airstrike, which was followed by White House outreach to our European allies. Given the nature of the mission and threat, U.S. officials could've alerted our allies to the gambit before it was launched, but chose not to.

Specifically, Pompeo told Fox News' Sean Hannity that "talking to our partners in other places," such as European capitals, hasn't "been quite as good" as discussions with U.S. partners in the Middle East.

"Frankly, the Europeans haven't been as helpful as I wish that they could be," the cabinet secretary said. "The Brits, the French, the Germans all need to understand that what we did -- what the Americans did -- saved lives in Europe as well."

Whether or not the Soleimani mission saved European lives remains an open question -- the Trump administration has presented no evidence to bolster the assertion -- and it's not as if Pompeo has earned the benefit of the doubt.

But if the secretary is at all curious why our European allies "haven't been as helpful" as the Republican would've liked, perhaps I can help explain why.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.6.20

01/06/20 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.

* Less than a week after ending his own presidential campaign, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) this morning. He'll reportedly hit the campaign trail with the Massachusetts senator in Brooklyn tomorrow.

* Former Vice President Joe Biden picked up a few notable endorsements of his own yesterday from three House Democrats who flipped Republican-held districts: "Pennsylvania's Conor Lamb, a Marine veteran, and Chrissy Houlahan, an Air Force veteran, along with Elaine Luria of Virginia, who is a retired Navy commander, all said Biden is the right candidate to unify the country."

* Following Sen. Johnny Isakson's (R-Ga.) decision to step down for health reasons, Kelly Loeffler, another Georgia Republican, is scheduled to be sworn in this afternoon as the U.S. Senate's newest member. She will also launch her own campaign later this year, when Loeffler is likely to face a GOP primary challenge.

* Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg isn't just buying ad time, his Democratic presidential campaign has also quickly hired a very large team, featuring "500 organizers and staff in more than 30 states, including all 14 of the delegate-rich Super Tuesday states."

* Late last week, Sen. Cory Booker's (D-N.J.) presidential campaign announced that it raised $6.6 million in the fourth quarter of 2019. The good news for the New Jersey senator is that this figure is up a bit from his third-quarter haul and it represented his best quarter to date. The bad news is, the total is pretty far behind the tallies from the top Democratic contenders.

* Warren suggested in an interview on Friday that she's prepared to vote for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which would update NAFTA. This would represent a key difference with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who opposes the revised deal.

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Pompeo dismisses possible Iranian retaliation as 'a little noise'

01/06/20 11:20AM

As Iraqi lawmakers vote to kick American forces out of Iraq, U.S. officials urge Americans to evacuate Iraq for their own safety, Iran accelerates its nuclear program, and missions against ISIS are curtailed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted on Meet the Press yesterday that we are "absolutely" safer as a result of the airstrike that killed Qasem Soleimani.

Pressed further by NBC News' Chuck Todd, the nation's chief diplomat used a line that may come back to haunt him.

Pompeo also said the administration was prepared for any Iranian counterattack.

"It may be that there's a little noise here in the interim, that the Iranians make a choice to respond," he said. "I hope that they don't."

Donald Trump used a similar line with reporters last night, when asked about fears of Iranian retaliation in response to last week's airstrike. "If it happens, it happens," the president said.

I can appreciate why U.S. leaders would want to downplay threats. It's not as if Trump and Pompeo, desperate to defend a radical new offensive, can be expected to acknowledge the dangers they just created.

But this blasé attitude, dismissing expected reprisals as "a little noise," appears to be wildly at odds with the nature of the threat.

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Trump's policy accelerates Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon

01/06/20 10:40AM

In foreign policy circles, the policy was known as the "maximum pressure" campaign. Donald Trump and his team abandoned the international nuclear agreement with Iran, despite the fact that it was working exactly as intended, with the intention of moving towards a policy that would be "tougher" and even more effective.

As Colin Kahl, an Obama administration veteran, recently explained, "Trump's 'maximum pressure' campaign was supposed to induce Iran to scrap its nuclear program (which was already contained by the 2015 nuclear deal). Instead, Trump's actions have incentivized Iran to restart it, creating a completely unnecessary crisis."

With this in mind, ABC News' George Stephanopoulos asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo the right question during an interview yesterday:

STEPHANOPOULOS: [Before the current strategy] was put in place, the Iranians were abiding by the nuclear agreement. We've seen a spate of attacks in recent days and weeks in response to the maximum pressure. Can you say your strategy is actually working?

POMPEO: Absolutely, George.

Perhaps Pompeo has come up with his own strange definition of "working."

Geopolitical debates over nuclear policy can be complex, but the dynamic in this instance is surprisingly straightforward. Before Trump abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) -- the formal name for the Iran nuclear deal -- Iran's nuclear weapons program was on indefinite hold. In the months that followed the Republican's decision, officials in Tehran took incremental steps in a dangerous direction, starting up advanced centrifuges, for example, increasing the speed with which Iran can produce enriched uranium.

In the wake of Trump's airstrike killing Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran has gone even further, announcing over the weekend that it's now ending its commitment to limit enrichment of uranium.

Or put another way, the American president, for reasons he's struggled to explain, has taken a series of unnecessary steps that have accelerated the Iranian nuclear program that had been kept in check.

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Fallout from Trump's Soleimani airstrike is already taking shape

01/06/20 10:00AM

Almost immediately after Donald Trump approved the mission to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, it was obvious that the president's move would have widespread repercussions, which he very likely hadn't considered. What was less clear was what would happen and when.

Some of the answer is already coming into focus. For example, the Iraqi parliament voted over the weekend to expel American forces from Iraqi soil. The vote was 170 to 0.

The nonbinding resolution -- passed Sunday with the backing of Shiite politicians -- urges Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to rescind Iraq's invitation to U.S. forces that helped rescue the country after Islamic State overran about one third of its territory in 2014.

Mr. Abdul-Mahdi called on lawmakers to back the resolution, but it wasn't clear how he would proceed. He resigned as prime minister last year and has since presided over a caretaker government.

Meanwhile, officials in Iran are moving forward with plans of their own.

Iran said Sunday that it was ending its commitment to limit enrichment of uranium as part of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, more fallout from the U.S. strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

The military campaign against ISIS is now on hold, at least for now.

The American-led coalition in Iraq and Syria halted its yearslong campaign against the Islamic State on Sunday as United States forces braced for retaliation from Iran over a strike that killed a powerful Iranian commander, military officials said.

There's also, of course, the evacuation of all Americans from Iraq.

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Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence waits for the start of the third U.S. presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on Oct. 19, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nev. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

Why Pence's falsehood about Soleimani and 9/11 matters

01/06/20 09:20AM

The day after Donald Trump directed the military to target and kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Vice President Mike Pence tried to bolster the White House's case with a specific claim. The Quds Force general, Pence argued, "assisted in the clandestine travel to Afghanistan of 10 of the 12 terrorists who carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States."

As the New York Times explained, this is not an argument to be taken seriously.

How Mr. Pence arrived at this number and this account is unclear. From what is commonly known about General Suleimani and the group of men who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, their paths did not cross.

To start, many observers were quick to point out that 19 terrorists, not 12, were involved in the attacks. Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for Mr. Pence, clarified that he was referring to a subset of 12 of the attackers who are known to have traveled through Iran to Afghanistan.

It's true that the 9/11 Commission found that some of terrorists passed through Iran, but there's nothing connecting Soleimani to the hijackers or Iran's border policies. On the contrary, the 9/11 Commission "found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack."

Soleimani's name does not appear in the 9/11 Commission's report.

Indeed, the very idea doesn't appear to make sense: there's no reason Soleimani, a leader of Shiite force, would "assist" Sunni terrorists. Soleimani was actually a fierce opponent of Saudi Arabia, where most of the 9/11 hijackers were from.

But given the broader circumstances, the fact that Pence made a highly dubious claim is less important than why he made it.

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Image: President Trump announces steep tarrifs on imported steel and aluminum

Endorsing apparent war crimes, Trump abandons all subtlety

01/06/20 08:40AM

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump made little effort to hide his affinity for war crimes. As regular readers may recall, the Republican dismissed the Geneva Conventions as “out of date,” vowed to “take out” terrorists’ families, and when asked whether the United States would "chop off heads" of detainees under his administration's approach, he wouldn't answer directly.

Trump also argued during the GOP primaries that he wanted to torture suspected terrorists even "if it doesn't work" in producing valuable intelligence, because "they deserve it anyway.” He went on to promise to restore waterboarding practices -- Trump called it a “minor form” of torture -- he also vowed to bring back "a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding."

For reasons I've never fully understood, it was around this time that some political observers concluded that Trump was the presidential candidate who could be trusted to show careful restraint on national security issues.

Once in office, Trump acted in support of accused war criminals, intervening in their cases in defiance of military leaders' wishes, and dismissing charges against Americans accused of deadly brutality. It led The Atlantic's Adam Serwer in November to describe the president as "a war-crimes enthusiast."

Over the weekend, Trump abandoned all subtlety on the matter.

President Donald Trump on Saturday warned Iran that if it retaliates for the killing of one of its top leaders, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, it will face U.S. attacks on 52 targets, a number he said was symbolic.

The president tweeted that the number of targets matched the number of hostages held by Iran in 1979, when 52 American diplomats and citizens were held for 444 days.

As the Associated Press reported soon after, "Targeting cultural sites is a war crime under the 1954 Hague Convention for the protection of cultural sites."

Asked about this yesterday morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, "We'll behave lawfully. We'll behave inside the system." The cabinet secretary added, "The American people should know that every target that we strike will be a lawful target."

By late yesterday, however, Trump was rejecting Pompeo's line and arguing largely the opposite.

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The official Trump line on Soleimani strike starts to unravel

01/06/20 08:00AM

The official line from the White House is that Donald Trump approved last week's mission to kill Qassim Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, in order to prevent an "imminent" attack. According to the administration, the president's decision was bolstered by U.S. intelligence.

At face value, that official line has been met with skepticism, in large part because Trump and his team have earned a reputation for habitual lying. But additional reporting over the weekend has cast further doubt on the dubious White House version of events. The New York Times published this report yesterday, for example.

In the chaotic days leading to the death of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran's most powerful commander, top American military officials put the option of killing him -- which they viewed as the most extreme response to recent Iranian-led violence in Iraq -- on the menu they presented to President Trump.

They didn't think he would take it. In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable.... By late Thursday, the president had gone for the extreme option. Top Pentagon officials were stunned.

Right off the bat, it's worth pausing to acknowledge an obvious truth: if the intelligence pointed to an "imminent" attack that could only be prevented by an airstrike targeting Soleimani, effectively leaving Trump with no other credible options, then top Pentagon officials wouldn't have been "stunned" by the president's decision. Indeed, they also wouldn't have presented Trump with such a radical move under the assumption that he wouldn't be so reckless as to actually choose it.

The same Times report added that there were "disputes" within the administration about the "significance" of the intelligence. The same article added that some officials "voiced private skepticism about the rationale" behind the strike, with one describing the U.S. intelligence as "thin."

A separate New York Times report cited a Defense Department official who said there was "nothing new in the threat presented by the Iranian general."

To be sure, Team Trump's absence of credibility, coupled with the political context, made it difficult to take seriously the White House's line about an imminent attack, necessitating an immediate assault. But the reporting brings the problem into sharper focus: Team Trump's official story about one of the president's most dangerous decisions doesn't appear to be true.

All of which leads to an important follow-up question: if the airstrike wasn't needed to prevent an imminent attack, why exactly did the president green-light such a radical offensive?

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Friday's Mini-Report, 1.3.20

01/03/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* More deployments: "The United States is sending approximately 3,000 soldiers to the Middle East after thousands of people stormed the compound of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, three U.S. defense officials and one U.S. military official confirmed to NBC News on Friday."

* Democrats weren't the only ones in the dark about Trump's airstrike: "The US did not inform the UK that it was planning to assassinate Iran's top military commander in advance of Friday's airstrike, a UK government source said."

* A case worth watching: "Federal appellate judges are wrestling with whether courts should be refereeing a dispute between the House of Representatives and the Trump administration over the testimony of former White House counsel Don McGahn, even in the face of what one judge called the White House's 'broad-scale defiance of congressional investigation.'"

* The Bevin scandal is far from over: "Kentucky's new Republican attorney general has asked the FBI to investigate a flurry of pardons by former Gov. Matt Bevin.... Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron wrote in a letter Monday that he has sent a formal request to the FBI to 'investigate this matter.'"

* Discouraging ISM manufacturing index: "A slump among American manufacturers deepened in December as a survey of senior executives showed the weakest performance in more than 10 years."

* The UMC is the nation's third largest denomination: "The United Methodist Church has proposed splitting into separate entities in order to resolve long-standing disagreements over the issues of same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy, according to a statement shared Friday by the United Methodist Council of Bishops."

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Team Trump haunted by its lack of credibility

01/03/20 03:40PM

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared on CNN this morning, touting Donald Trump's decision to target and kill Qassim Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force. The administration's top diplomat seemed eager to assure the public that yesterday's airstrikes, approved by the president, were life-saving.

"[T]he American people should know that President Trump's decision to remove Qasem Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives. There's no doubt about that. He was actively plotting in the region to take actions, a big action, as he described it, that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk.

"We know it was imminent.... The risk of doing nothing was enormous. The intelligence community made that assessment."

Pompeo added, "We have every expectation that people, not only in Iraq but in Iran, will view the American action last night as giving them freedom."

The cabinet secretary didn't literally say the United States will be celebrated as "liberators," but it was hard not to notice the parallels between Trump administration rhetoric this morning and the language Americans heard from the Bush/Cheney administration in advance of the 2003 war in Iraq.

I can't say with any confidence whether Pompeo's claims were more reliable than the Bush/Cheney rhetoric from 17 years ago. It's certainly possible that there was an "imminent" threat. It's possible that the airstrike "saved American lives." It's possible the U.S. intelligence community made a specific assessment about Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, which Donald Trump and his team took seriously.

But Lawfare's Susan Hennessey raised an important point this morning: "This is the moment where the White House will pay the price for demolishing its credibility with endless lies. Who will believe Pompeo this morning?"

In a time of crisis, it may be tempting for many Americans to give their leaders the benefit of the doubt. Trump and Pompeo have made that impossible.

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