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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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Image: Donald Trump

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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