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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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Monday's Mini-Report, 1.6.20

01/06/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A war-like mobilization response to Australia's fires: "With more than a month still to go in the fire season, the government announced on Saturday a large-scale use of military assets, a deployment not seen since World War II, experts say. About 3,000 army reservists, along with aircraft and naval ships, are being made available to help with the evacuation and firefighting efforts."

* At the border: "Iranians, Iranian Americans and advocates claimed they were held and questioned by immigration authorities amid tensions between the U.S. and Iran following the high-profile killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani last week."

* Look for a vote on this as early as Wednesday: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced the House will vote soon on a war powers resolution to limit President Donald Trump's military actions after he ordered the killing of a top Iranian general last week, escalating tensions with Tehran."

* Hmm: "The Supreme Court on Monday ordered the Trump administration and states challenging Obamacare to respond by Friday to an appeal filed by defenders of the health care law. Such a highly abbreviated timeline -- the rules normally allow a month for filing a response -- gives the court the option to take up the case during its current term, which would mean a ruling on a contentious issue this spring, just as the presidential campaign heats up."

* The latest Pentagon departure: "Eric Chewning, chief of staff to the secretary of defense, will leave the Defense Department at the end of the month, the Pentagon announced Monday.... Chewning's departure comes after a series of senior Pentagon officials announced their resignations in recent weeks."

* Weinstein: "Harvey Weinstein, the former film mogul whose alleged pattern of sexual abuse fueled the #MeToo movement, was charged in Los Angeles on Monday with sexually assaulting two women, according to the Los Angeles District Attorney. The charges come on the eve of jury selection in a criminal trial against Weinstein in New York, where he has been charged with felony sexual assault."

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Bolton offer jolts debate over Trump's impeachment trial

01/06/20 02:20PM

There's little doubt that former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton has important information about Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal -- information that could be directly relevant to the president's impeachment proceedings. To date, however, Bolton has remained silent, ignoring a U.S. House subpoena at the White House's direction.

This morning, however, things changed.

John Bolton, the former national security adviser to President Donald Trump, said Monday he was willing to testify in the Senate impeachment trial if subpoenaed. [...]

Bolton had a front-row seat to the White House's pressure campaign against Ukraine to investigate the son of Trump's political rival, Joe Biden, including the decision to withhold military aid from Ukraine. He served as Trump's national security adviser for more than a year, until his departure in September just a couple of weeks before the Ukraine pressure effort became public.

In a statement posted online today, Bolton wrote, "I have concluded that, if the Senate issues a subpoena for my testimony, I am prepared to testify."

This doesn't necessarily mean Bolton will testify, but his willingness to answer questions about the ongoing scandal, under oath, represents a rather dramatic and unexpected curveball.

It also just made Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) plans quite a bit more complicated.

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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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Launched in 2008, “The Rachel Maddow Show” follows the machinations of policy making in America, from local political activism to international diplomacy. Rachel Maddow looks past the distractions of political theater and stunts and focuses on the legislative proposals and policies that shape American life - as well as the people making and influencing those policies and their ultimate outcome, intended or otherwise.


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