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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump turns away from the cameras as he speaks at a town hall event in Appleton, Wis., March 30, 2016. (Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)

Following threat, Trump adds to his list of awkward bluffs

01/09/20 10:21AM

Three days after Donald Trump approved an airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, there was all kinds of speculation about how officials in Tehran would retaliate. The American president published a tweet with a stern warning to Iran, warning them of dire consequences if the country tried to counter-attack.

"The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment. We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World! If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way...and without hesitation!"

As is often the case, Trump flubbed some of the relevant details -- for example, the United States has spent $2 trillion on defense over three years; it's not something that "just" happened -- but the underlying point was clear: if Iran launched a retaliatory strike, the American president would target Iran.

On Tuesday, Iran launched a dozen ballistic missiles at bases housing U.S. forces. A day later, thankfully, Trump suggested he didn't much care about the retaliatory strike.

For those of us who hoped to see a de-escalation in tensions, this was unambiguously good news. After all, the alternative was a possible war with catastrophic consequences. It's nevertheless notable, however, that Trump made a rather specific threat over the weekend, and as of the president's public remarks yesterday, he doesn't appear to have any intention of following through on that threat.

In fact, Trump instead announced a new round of sanctions against Iran, which according to administration officials, may not actually be implemented.

Again, the steps away from the brink are worthy of relief, especially given the very real possibility of a cycle of deadly violence. But there's also a larger issue of Trump making a habit of making bold threats, on a wide variety of issues, only to retreat soon after.

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Georgia's Collins takes Iran debate in an unusually toxic direction

01/09/20 09:20AM

There's no shortage of reasons to have concerns about Donald Trump's decision to order an airstrike that killed an Iranian general last week. After all, the mission risked sparking a war, while adding increased instability in the Middle East. It also alienated our allies in Iraq, and derailed, at least temporarily, U.S. efforts to combat ISIS.

On the other hand, there's Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, a close White House ally, and a politician who argued on national television last night that Democrats asking questions about last week's mission are "in love with terrorists." The Washington Post reported:

Collins's comments Wednesday night reflected what's become a talking point among Trump supporters in the wake of the U.S. drone attack that killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, blamed for the deaths of more than 600 coalition soldiers in Iraq.

"They are in love with terrorists," Collins said of Democrats on Fox Business Network's "Lou Dobbs Tonight." "We see that they mourn Soleimani more than they mourn our Gold Star families who are the ones who suffered under Soleimani. That's a problem."

To the extent that reality still has any meaning, no Democrats have "mourned" Soleimani's death, and the idea that Collins' domestic rivals "are in love with terrorists" is obviously an ugly slander. The Georgia Republican, who's reportedly gearing up for a possible U.S. Senate campaign, is engaging in the kind of toxic, gutter politics that honorable public servants tend to avoid.

To borrow a line from the late, great Elijah Cummings, we must be better than this.

It's also important to acknowledge how offensive it is in a free society to try to stifle debate and dissent over foreign policy this way. Collins' cheap rhetoric seems intended to intimidate, signaling to Democrats that those who question his leader's risky and dangerous decisions should expect to be labeled as terrorist sympathizers.

It's all the more reason for honest brokers to ignore such nonsense and engage in a spirited debate without fear of small voices and closed minds.

But stepping back, there's also a larger context to consider: has Doug Collins ever heard Donald Trump's thoughts on foreign policy and Gold Star families?

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Trump's newly announced Iranian sanctions may not exist

01/09/20 08:40AM

In the wake of Iran firing ballistic missiles in the direction of American troops this week, Donald Trump, thankfully, suggested yesterday he didn't want to escalate matters with a retaliatory strike of his own. That said, the Republican also seemed eager to respond to Iranian aggression with ... something.

And so, in a White House address yesterday, Trump said, "As we continue to evaluate options in response to Iranian aggression, the United States will immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime. These powerful sanctions will remain until Iran changes its behavior."

I made the case yesterday that no one should necessarily assume that these "additional punishing" sanctions are real. As it turns out, as of this morning, their existence is very much in doubt.

Ordinarily, when an administration is poised to impose economic sanctions on a foreign country, there's some kind of briefing, usually involving the Treasury Department. There was no such briefing yesterday. CNN reported, "[I]t was not immediately clear what shape those sanctions would take. The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment."

The New York Times added this report overnight:

He said instead that he would ratchet up sanctions on Iran, although administration officials said later that they had no specific plan to do so. The administration has already imposed so much economic pressure on Tehran that it was unclear if additional measures would make a meaningful difference.

Oh. So when Trump told the world that the United States is "immediately" imposing "powerful" sanctions, he may have been referring to sanctions that are not, in reality, real.

Making matters slightly worse, there's a degree of familiarity to these circumstances.

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'Insulting' briefing exposes Trump's hollow policy on Iran

01/09/20 08:00AM

It's been a week since a U.S. airstrike killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, touching off a crisis in the region, and there's been no shortage of questions about why, exactly, Donald Trump launched the mission. Yesterday, administration officials went to Capitol Hill to deliver a classified briefing to lawmakers, explaining the justification for the military offensive.

I think it's safe to say it did not go well. Congressional Democrats were amazed by how hollow the presentation was, and to a surprising degree, some of the frustrations were bipartisan.

Lawmakers came away with vastly different interpretations of two classified briefings that top Trump administration officials held Wednesday about the airstrike last week that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, with two Republican senators sharply criticizing the officials.

"It was probably the worst briefing I've seen at least on a military issue in the nine years I've served in the United States Senate," Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said.

The Utah Republican, whom no one has ever accused of being a moderate, added that the administration's presentation was "insulting and demeaning." Lee went on to tell reporters after the briefing that Trump administration officials suggested to lawmakers that debate over the president's policy is itself dangerous and should be avoided to prevent "emboldening" Iran.

That is, of course, an indefensible attitude in a free society and in a political system with checks and balances. But the fact that Team Trump peddled such a line, while failing to make a compelling case for the Soleimani mission, underscores the emptiness of the White House's position.

As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) put it after yesterday afternoon's session, "We did not get information inside that briefing that there was a specific, imminent threat that we were halting by conducting that operation.... I think it is likely because [that information] doesn't exist."

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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 1.8.20

01/08/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Plane crash in Iran: "A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed after takeoff in Tehran on Wednesday, killing all on board the Boeing 737-800, according to Ukrainian officials.... It is unclear how the plane went down, but video from the crash site showed what appeared to be pieces of an aircraft fuselage, an engine and other debris on the outskirts of Iran's capital."

* This isn't quite the way Trump described it earlier today: "The Iranian missile strike on American locations in Iraq on Tuesday was a calibrated event intended to cause minimal American casualties, give the Iranians a face-saving measure and provide an opportunity for both sides to step back from the brink of war, according to senior U.S. officials in Washington and the Middle East."

* A big vote tomorrow: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced Wednesday that the House will vote Thursday on a war powers resolution to limit the Trump administration's military actions against Iran."

* The Treasury Department apparently doesn't want this information to emerge until after the election: "The Trump administration is seeking to delay a Democratic effort to require the Secret Service to disclose how much it spends protecting President Trump and his family when they travel -- until after the 2020 election, according to people familiar with the discussions."

* The latest in a series of controversies surrounding Trump's inaugural committee: "A major donor to President Trump's inaugural committee intends to plead guilty to obstruction of justice, the man's attorney said Tuesday, after federal prosecutors filed a new charge alleging that the wealthy investor backdated a check and deleted emails to hinder an investigation into where he got the money he ultimately gave the committee."

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In strange speech, Trump appears to back off escalation with Iran

01/08/20 01:00PM

For those concerned about escalating military tensions with Iran, last night's retaliatory ballistic-missile strike opened the door to a couple of possible routes for the White House. In light of the modest damage, and the absence of apparent casualties, Donald Trump certainly had the option of de-escalating the crisis and backing off a possible war.

On the other hand, the American president explicitly warned Iran not to retaliate in response to last week's U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani. Tehran ignored that warning, and fired ballistic missiles in the direction of American troops, which raised the possibility of Trump responding in kind with a fresh round of hostilities.

It's sometimes difficult to understand Trump's rhetoric, and his stated intentions are often at odds with his administration's actions, but as of two hours ago, the Republican appeared to prefer the former option over the latter.

President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that Iran "appears to be standing down" after its missile attack on U.S. targets in Iraq, and he vowed to keep up the pressure on Tehran with "punishing" new economic sanctions.

Trump made the comments in an address to the nation Wednesday from the White House less than a day after Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi air bases housing U.S. forces in retaliation for the killing of a top general.

Flanked by several members of his team, the president specifically said, "Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good things for the world."

Trump added that "no American or Iraqi lives were lost" in the Iranian attacks, which further reinforced the impression that he doesn't plan to escalate matters -- beyond new economic sanctions. (It's worth noting that Trump, as recently as June, announced economic sanctions against Iran that did not exist in reality. Whether these newly announced measures are real remains to be seen.)

Insofar as the speech was closely watched for signals about the next steps, the president's rhetoric seemed to bring a sigh of relief to many observers who feared a U.S. military response to Iran's military response. That said, it was nevertheless discouraging to see and hear Trump deliver a strange speech to an anxious public, repeating a series of demonstrably false claims.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.8.20

01/08/20 12:00PM

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

* More than five weeks after his guilty plea, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) submitted his resignation letter yesterday. As the Associated Press noted, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) "has not said whether he will order a special election or leave the seat open until a successor emerges from the November general election."

* Republican officials in Wisconsin yesterday agreed to exclude Donald Trump's primary rivals from the state's GOP primary ballot. State Republican Parties in Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Kansas, Nevada, and South Carolina have done the same thing.

* Trump's re-election campaign is reportedly poised to spend $10 million to advertise during the Super Bowl, and according to Politico's report, the message is "expected to run early in the game, when viewership is likely to be at its highest." (It's unclear whether Team Trump will air one 60-second commercial or two 30-second commercials.)

* Michael Bloomberg's Democratic presidential campaign also announced yesterday that it, too, has bought Super Bowl ad time, investing $10 million in a 60-second spot.

* The next debate for Democratic presidential candidates is six days away, but DNC Chair Tom Perez said yesterday that if the presidential impeachment trial is underway, the party is prepared to postpone the event. Of the five candidates who've qualified to participate, three are sitting U.S. senators.

* An amazing campaign-finance statistic: Tom Steyer's Democratic presidential campaign has spent more on advertising than 12 of the other Democratic candidates combined. Michael Bloomberg's campaign, meanwhile, has more than doubled Steyer's ad spending.

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Trump tries to argue that Bolton's testimony wouldn't matter

01/08/20 11:08AM

Former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton jolted the debate over Donald Trump's impeachment trial this week, announcing that he's willing to testify. As we discussed yesterday, it created a challenge Senate Republicans would have preferred to avoid: how would they justify excluding voluntary testimony from an important witness with first-hand information about the president's culpability?

At the White House, the anxiety was different, but just as acute: what would Bolton say and how much damage could his testimony do?

Trump addressed the issue yesterday, suggesting Bolton would have very little to offer.

Q: Will you be okay if John Bolton testifies? He indicated yesterday that he would if he is subpoenaed.

TRUMP: Well, that's going to be up to the lawyers. It will be up the Senate. And we'll see how they feel. [Bolton] would know nothing about what we're talking about....

That's a line that might make the president feel better. It's also a line Trump might want senators to believe as they weigh the possibility of witnesses during the upcoming impeachment trial.

It's not, however, even close to being true.

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Morning breaks over the White House and the offices of the West Wing (R) in Washington January 20, 2015. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

'The worst national security team that I've ever seen'

01/08/20 10:27AM

Andrea Mitchell, NBC News' chief foreign affairs correspondent, sat down with Brian Williams last night and reflected on the White House team responding to the crisis in the Middle East. She characterized Donald Trump's existing operation as "least experienced, the least effective, and the smallest" in recent memory.

Mitchell, a veteran journalist who's covered a variety of Democratic and Republican administrations, concluded that the current president has "the worst national security team that I've ever seen."

I think that's unambiguously true, and to appreciate its accuracy, there are two broad angles to consider. The first is that Trump's team, to the extent that it can even be called a "team," is woefully incomplete. As Garrett Graff noted yesterday, the Trump administration does not currently have, for example, a Senate-confirmed director of National Intelligence or a deputy director of National Intelligence.

There's also no Senate-confirmed Homeland Security secretary or deputy secretary. There's no Senate-confirmed undersecretary for arms control and international security affairs or assistant secretary for arms control, verification, and compliance.

At the Pentagon, meanwhile, there's been a scramble of top officials resigning, including six notable departures in the last five weeks.

For several of the aforementioned positions, the White House hasn't even nominated anyone to fill the posts. As Trump's presidency enters its fourth year, and as circumstances require a competent and experienced national security team, it stands to reason that the administration wouldn't still be struggling with vacancies and acting officials.

And yet, here we are.

Making matters slightly worse, the second angle of note is the fact that some of the officials who make up Trump's current national security team fail to inspire confidence.

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Team Trump scrambles to turn Soleimani strike into campaign tool

01/08/20 09:20AM

At roughly this point eight years ago, Donald Trump seemed preoccupied with the idea that President Barack Obama would launch a military confrontation with Iran in order to boost his 2012 re-election campaign prospects. Indeed, the Republican was obsessive on the subject, publishing a series of tweets, releasing videos, and making Fox News appearances to warn the public about what he saw as the inevitability of the Democratic president starting a new war in the Middle East.

In fact, exactly eight years ago this week, Trump predicted that Obama was so desperate for a political boost, there would be "some kind of a war" with Iran prior to that year's election. Sean Hannity responded at the time, "That would be the single most chilling abuse of power in American history."

I'll just leave that there without comment.

We now know, of course, that Obama did not launch a war with Iran, and he went on to win re-election with relative ease. But the underlying point of Trump's hysterics on the subject showed that he believes there are inherent political benefits for an incumbent president who chooses a military confrontation with Iran ahead of Election Day.

It's against this backdrop that Donald Trump's re-election campaign started running online advertising, bragging about the airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani, four days after the military offensive. The New York Times reported:

"Thanks to the swift actions of our commander in chief, Iranian General Qassem Soleimani is no longer a threat to the United States, or to the world," several of the Trump ads read, using an alternate spelling of the Iranian general's name. Some featured pictures of a beaming Mr. Trump from one of his campaign rallies; others showed a stoic, finger-waving president, also in front of supporters.

The ads asked voters to take the "Official Trump Military Survey," directing users to Mr. Trump's re-election campaign website.

The article added that the Republican campaign has run "nearly 800 distinct Facebook ads" about last week's airstrike. The ads, the Times noted, are "known as acquisition ads, are intended to help campaigns gather more information about internet users with the goal of turning them into online donors."

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Iraq embraces 'no takebacks' rule following US letter on withdrawal

01/08/20 08:40AM

The Trump administration has had more than its share of fiascoes, but the letter to Iraq on the withdrawal of U.S. troops is proving to be one of the most extraordinary. The Associated Press reported:

Iraq's outgoing prime minister said Tuesday that the United States has no alternative and must pull its troops out of the country, or else face an impending crisis. [...]

Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned in November amid mass anti-government protests, said Iraq wants a U.S. troop withdrawal to avoid further escalation as tensions soar between American and Iran.

To briefly recap, the Iraqi parliament voted unanimously on Saturday to expel U.S. military forces from Iraqi soil. Two days later, officials in Baghdad received a letter from Marine Brig. Gen. William Seely, who commands Task Force Iraq, not only declaring the U.S. intention to withdraw, but including specific and detailed information about how it would occur.

In apparent reference to the Iraqi parliament's vote, the letter said, "We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure."

As is too often the case, the Trump administration struggled to keep its story straight about the letter, before eventually saying the whole thing was an unfortunate "mistake."

Yesterday, however, acting Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi embraced the "no takebacks" rule used on playgrounds for generations. The Washington Post reported:

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