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Why it's so difficult to believe Trump's line that 'all is well'

01/08/20 08:00AM

The day after the U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the U.S. State Department held a special briefing with reporters, one of whom asked whether the Trump administration expected Iran to respond militarily. "No," a senior State Department official replied, "I don't."

Asked why not, the official said, "I'm just saying that weakness invites more aggression. Timidity will invite more aggression." Pressed further on why the administration thinks Iran may be deterred from launching retaliatory measures, the State Department official added, "Because we're speaking in a language the regime understands."

It appears that confidence that Iran would be intimidated into submission was misplaced.

Iran retaliated for the killing of a top general by firing more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi air bases housing U.S. forces on Wednesday local time.

Washington and Tehran both confirmed that Iran was the source of the missiles. The extent of any causalities or damage was not immediately clear.

Key details about the developments are not yet clear. There have been some reports, for example, that there were no American casualties in response to the ballistic missile attack, but those assessments have not yet been confirmed. There have also been reports that this Iranian offensive represents the totality of Tehran's planned response to the airstrike that killed Soleimani -- Iran's foreign minister said in a tweet that the country has "concluded" its attacks on U.S. forces and does "not seek escalation or war" -- though Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the strikes were not sufficient retaliation.

For his part, Donald Trump, who green-lit the Soleimani mission for reasons that are still unclear, published a tweet assuring the public, "All is well!" Referring to the damage assessment in the wake of the Iranian missile strike, the American president added, "So far, so good!"

In context, the Republican seemed to suggest that there were no American casualties. But all things considered, it's difficult to look at the landscape and agree that "all" is "well."

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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 1.7.20

01/07/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Impeachment politics: "Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday he has enough Republican votes to start the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump without the support of Democrats, who have been demanding witness testimony."

* Flynn case: "The Justice Department, in a reversal of its original position, said Tuesday it no longer supports a lenient sentence for Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump's former national security adviser. Flynn should be sentenced for up to six months, in line with federal guidelines, prosecutors said in a new court filing, instead of probation as they had originally proposed."

* Puerto Rico: "A 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck Puerto Rico early Tuesday, killing at least one person and causing a power outage across the island, as well as structural damage to roads and bridges especially in the southwestern region."

* Iran: "Dozens of people died in a stampede Tuesday during the funeral procession for Qassem Soleimani, the top Iranian commander killed in an American airstrike last week, emergency service officials told state media."

* Cell phones: "Soldiers deploying overseas with the 82nd Airborne Division will not be allowed to bring personal cellphones or any electronic devices that could reveal their locations due to what the Army calls 'operational security,' according to division spokesperson Lt. Col. Michael Burns."

* The pre-emption of state regulations appears to be the key: "The Trump administration on Monday took its first step toward tighter pollution controls on trucks, an anomalous move for a government known for weakening environmental policies but one that would pre-empt tougher state rules."

* The latest trouble at Mar-a-Lago: "Palm Beach police say they are conducting an 'open and active criminal investigation' at Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump's South Florida estate, following an unspecified incident Monday night. The Secret Service is leading the investigation and no arrest has yet been made, according to the Palm Beach Police Department."

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Pressed for evidence of an 'imminent attack,' Pompeo comes up short

01/07/20 12:52PM

Late last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo justified the U.S. airstrike on Qassim Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, by claiming there was intelligence showing an "imminent attack." Asked to substantiate those claims, the Trump administration has, at least publicly, offered effectively nothing.

The problem is not just the Team Trump's record of habitual lying and absence of credibility. The New York Times reported over the weekend 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."

It was against this backdrop that Pompeo spoke to reporters this morning at the State Department, where he was pressed for some kind of proof to back up his rhetoric. The cabinet secretary again came up short.

...American officials have failed to provide any evidence to show what might have been targeted, or how soon an attack was expected.

"If you're looking for imminence, you need look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Suleimani," Mr. Pompeo told reporters at the State Department on Tuesday.

It's worth pausing to appreciate how little sense this makes.

In "the days that led up to" the airstrike that killed the Iranian general, there was considerable unrest in Baghdad, where large groups of Iraqis held enraged protests at the U.S. embassy in response to earlier U.S. airstrikes, which came in response to the death of an American contractor in Iraq.

In time, those protests dissipated. They do not represent evidence of an "imminent attack."

Similarly, in the days before the airstrike targeting Soleimani, there was deadly violence in Syria and Lebanon, but that's not evidence of an "imminent attack," either. The whole point of the word "imminent" is that it's prospective, not retrospective. Those looking for evidence of something that's poised to happen in the future shouldn't necessarily look backwards.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.7.20

01/07/20 12:00PM

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

* Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly told Senate Republican leaders yesterday that he doesn't intend to run for Kansas' open Senate seat this year. If that holds, it leaves an unsettled GOP landscape in Kansas, where a variety of Republicans, including Kris Kobach, are already running. Democrats haven't won a Senate race in the state since the 1930s, but party leaders have rallied behind state Sen. Barbara Bollier (D), a former Republican.

* Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) this morning unveiled a plan to overhaul existing bankruptcy laws, which is, among other things, a shot across the bow at former Vice President Joe Biden: the former Delaware senator helped write a controversial bankruptcy law in 2005, which Warren is eager to change.

* Five Democratic presidential hopefuls have qualified for next week's debate, and the polling deadline for the remaining candidates is Friday. Tom Steyer is the only contender who's close, but he still needs two more polls with at least 5% support. Andrew Yang needs three more such polls, while Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) needs four.

* In polling news, the latest data from Mason-Dixon, released late last week, found Biden leading Donald Trump in hypothetical match-ups in Florida and Virginia. The Republican incumbent led the other leading Democratic contenders.

* Speaking of the president, Trump will travel to southern New Jersey on Jan. 28, in order to campaign for Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who recently switched parties and pledged his "undying support" for Trump. Van Drew, who voted overwhelmingly with Democrats during his brief congressional career, is still likely to face a GOP primary.

* Over the weekend, Sen. Thom Tillis (R), facing a potentially tough re-election fight this year in North Carolina, thought it'd be a good idea to solicit public support for a birthday card for Eric Trump. It led the editorial board of the Charlotte Observer to ask, "Do voters want a U.S. senator who understands that it is sometimes his or her uncomfortable duty to question a president, especially one who so regularly threatens constitutional boundaries and historical norms? Or do we want a senator so consumed with currying favor from Donald Trump that he embarrasses himself and the state he represents?"

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Image: North Korea

To remain in the political spotlight, Nikki Haley aims low

01/07/20 11:07AM

Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley appears eager to remain in the political spotlight, and if scuttlebutt is any indication, it's probably because the South Carolina Republican has national office in mind.

The larger question, however, is just how low Haley is prepared to go in pursuit of her political goals.

The past couple of months have been far from encouraging. In early November, for example, Haley made the argument that Donald Trump's Ukraine scheme collapsed after the White House was caught, and as such, the president's corruption shouldn't be impeachable -- as if failed crimes fall into the "no harm, no foul" category.

Soon after, Haley argued that some members of Trump's cabinet took "dangerous" steps to undermine the president in the hopes of trying to "save the country," but she stood by Trump. A week later, she told TV preacher Pat Robertson's cable program, in response to a question about a divine hand possibly putting Trump in the Oval Office, "[E]verything happens for a reason… I think that God sometimes places people for lessons and sometimes places people for change."

In December, the former ambassador raised eyebrows again, making provocative and historically inaccurate comments about the Confederate battle flag.

All of which helped set the stage for last night and Haley's latest conspicuous move. A Washington Post analysis noted:

Given even more freedom to pick her spots after leaving the administration a year ago -- and with a future that many suspect includes a White House bid -- she has now made it abundantly clear that she's betting on Trumpism sticking around.

Haley made perhaps her most strident comments to date Monday night on Sean Hannity's Fox News show. Talking about Trump's decision to kill Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian Quds Force commander, she said Democrats were "mourning" his loss.

Specifically, the former ambassador told the national television audience, "The only ones that are mourning the loss of Soleimani are our Democrat leadership and our Democrat presidential candidates. No one else in the world."

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Trump admin reportedly drafts sanctions to punish Iraq

01/07/20 10:20AM

Over the weekend, the Iraqi parliament voted unanimously to expel American military forces from Iraqi soil. It was not a binding measure, but it was a signal that Baghdad is far from pleased with the United States.

Asked about the vote, Donald Trump suggested to reporters that he had financial considerations on his mind. "We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that's there," the president said on Sunday. "It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We're not leaving unless they pay us back for it."

He was apparently referring to the al-Asad base, which the United States did not build, though we spent considerably to improve in recent years.

Referring to Iraqis, Trump added, as part of the same Q&A, "If they do ask us to leave, if we don't do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they've never seen before ever. It'll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.... If there's any hostility, that they do anything we think is inappropriate, we are going to put sanctions on Iraq, very big sanctions on Iraq."

In other words, as far as the American president is concerned, he'll punish our allies if they ask us to leave their country. Yesterday, administration officials sent a related signal with comments to the Washington Post.

Senior administration officials have begun drafting sanctions against Iraq after President Trump publicly threatened the country with economic penalties if it proceeded to expel U.S. troops, according to three people briefed on the planning.

The Treasury Department and White House will probably take a lead role if the sanctions are implemented, the officials said. Such a step would represent a highly unusual move against a foreign ally that the United States has spent almost two decades and hundreds of billions of dollars supporting.

The Post spoke with Peter Kucik, who served in the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which implements sanctions policy, under the Bush and Obama administrations, who said, "I'm astounded by what's even being discussed. You don't typically use force against your allies. We are threatening to use extreme coercive policy tools against countries with whom we are allied."

That's true, of course, though it's just as striking to consider the head-spinning turn of events that unfolded over a couple of days.

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Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio, speaks during a campaign rally in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Feb. 24, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

On impeachment, a head-in-the-sand caucus takes shape

01/07/20 09:24AM

When former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton announced yesterday that he's willing to testify during Donald Trump's impeachment trial, it quickly jolted the political debate. Indeed, 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?

The responses from GOP senators were predictably varied yesterday, with some so-called "moderates" expressing interest in hearing from Bolton, though they tended to endorse Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) plan of starting the impeachment trial first, and then making a decision on witnesses later.

But one senator stood out by making a spirited argument in defense of ignoring relevant information.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN he would not vote for a subpoena of former White House national security adviser John Bolton because he said that it was the House of Representative's job to get his testimony.

"I wouldn't because... I believe you should be constrained by the information that those articles are based on," he said. "If the House wants to start a new impeachment inquiry or pull it back and add additional elements to it, that's their choice to make."

The Florida Republican had made related comments last week, suggesting the Senate shouldn't hear new testimony, but that was before Bolton volunteered to provide members with important information they don't currently have. Rubio, evidently, doesn't care.

The GOP senator added on Twitter soon after, "The testimony [and] evidence considered in a Senate impeachment trial should be the same testimony [and] evidence the House relied upon when they passed the Articles of Impeachment. Our job is to vote on what the House passed, not to conduct an open-ended inquiry."

It's important to understand why this doesn't make sense.

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APTOPIX Mideast Iran Election

Pentagon contradicts Trump on targeting Iranian cultural sites

01/07/20 08:42AM

On Saturday, Donald Trump declared via Twitter that he'd identified a series of Iranian targets, which the president said he's prepared to attack if Iran retaliates for the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Some of the targets, the Republican added, are "important to ... Iranian culture."

Perhaps aware that targeting cultural sites is a war crime, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted on Sunday morning, "The American people should know that every target that we strike will be a lawful target." Later in the day, however, Trump said the opposite, telling reporters he's prepared to go after Iranian cultural sites.

Of course, such an offensive would require the participation of the U.S. military, and as the New York Times reported, the Pentagon apparently has no use for the president's misguided intentions.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper sought to douse an international outcry on Monday by ruling out military attacks on cultural sites in Iran if the conflict with Tehran escalates further, despite President Trump's threat to destroy some of the country's treasured icons.

Mr. Esper acknowledged that striking cultural sites with no military value would be a war crime, putting him at odds with the president, who insisted such places would be legitimate targets. Mr. Trump's threats generated condemnation at home and abroad while deeply discomfiting American military leaders who have made a career of upholding the laws of war.

Asked if the president was correct about possible targeting of cultural sites, Esper told reporters, "We will follow the laws of armed conflict." Pressed to clarify whether that was a "no," given that targeting cultural sites is a war crime, the president's Defense secretary added, "That's the laws of armed conflict."

In other words, the Pentagon has no intention of implementing Trump's plan. The president's tweets may make him feel better -- Trump is fond of pointless chest-thumping exercises -- but there's no reason anyone should perceive his rhetoric as an accurate reflection of what may happen in reality.

It matters that Trump seems to like war crimes, but it also matters that he'll struggle to actually commit war crimes.

Stepping back, though, one of the notable things about yesterday was the Pentagon's willingness to publicly contradict the president. It wasn't the first time.

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The Pentagon, the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, Arlington County, Virginia.

Trump admin accidentally says it's withdrawing troops from Iraq

01/07/20 08:00AM

The Iranian general who replaced Qassem Soleimani announced yesterday that he has a specific goal. "We promise to continue down martyr Soleimani's path as firmly as before with help of God, and in return for his martyrdom we aim to get rid of America from the region," Esmail Ghaani said. The statement came on the heels of the Iraqi parliament voting unanimously to expel American forces from Iraqi soil.

For part of the afternoon yesterday, it appeared those hoping to see U.S. troops out of Iraq would actually get their wish. The New York Times reported:

An official letter from the Defense Department informing Iraq that the United States was "repositioning forces" for "movement out of Iraq" produced headlines around the world that an American withdrawal had begun.

But the letter, drafted by the United States military command in Baghdad, was sent out by mistake.

Yes, we've apparently reached the stage at which the Trump administration, in the midst of an unfolding crisis in the Middle East, accidentally said it was withdrawing American troops from Iraq.

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper called a hastily arranged press conference to insist there'd been an "honest mistake." Milley told reporters, "That letter is a draft, it was a mistake, it was unsigned, it should not have been released." He added that the missive was "poorly worded."

Perhaps, but as missteps go, this was more than just a typo or an example of sloppy prose. The correspondence, which appeared to come from Marine Brig. Gen. William Seely, who commands Task Force Iraq, included specific and detailed information, not only declaring the U.S. withdrawal, but explaining 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."

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