The Trump team’s increasingly jumbled case for striking Qasem Soleimani

It has been nearly a week since the killing of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, and the justification for the strike is still clear as mud.

The Trump administration initially said Soleimani was planning “imminent” attacks on Americans and U.S. interests in the Middle East, but it hasn’t provided much in the way of elaboration. It has since oscillated between pointing to the imminence of such attacks and suggesting that the strike was retaliatory for what Soleimani had already done. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to say whether the attacks were days or weeks away. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, unambiguously endorsed the idea of imminent attacks, but he also said the intelligence didn’t “exactly say who, what, when, where.”

And now, in the past 24 hours, it has become even more opaque.

Coming out of a private briefing on the subject Wednesday, Republican Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Rand Paul (Ky.) decried the lack of information. Lee called it probably the worst briefing I have seen, at least on a military issue,” and said the administration had “not really” done anything to establish the imminence of the attacks.

Paul added: “I didn’t learn anything in the hearing that I hadn’t seen in a newspaper already. None of it was overwhelming that X was going to happen.”

Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), in contrast, called it “one of the best briefings I’ve had since I’ve been here in the United States Congress.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called it “a compelling briefing” and said it was unthinkable that anyone wouldn’t support the strike based on the information presented.

It’s important to note that the libertarian-minded Lee and Paul are big proponents of congressional authorization for military action, so it’s perhaps not surprising that they would be some of the more difficult gets for the administration on this subject. But that’s still two Republican senators who say a GOP administration just hasn’t provided the goods — or anything close.

With that as the backdrop Thursday, President Trump and Vice President Pence piled on the uncertainty. Appearing on the “Today” show, Pence said the Trump administration did not share some of the most important information because of its sensitivity.

Some of the most compelling evidence that Qasem Soleimani was preparing an imminent attack against American forces and American personnel also represents some of the most sensitive intelligence that we have,” Pence told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie. “It could compromise those sources and methods.”

Pence added on Fox News that “we’re simply not able to share with every member of the House and Senate the intelligence that supported the president’s decision to take out Qasem Soleimani,” but “I can assure your viewers that there was — there was a threat of an imminent attack.

So to recap: The White House is now saying that the information provided to lawmakers indeed may not have been as compelling as it could have been, but that Congress and the American people just need to trust that it’s there.

And then, to top it all off, Trump came out around noon on Thursday and disclosed one of Soleimani’s alleged plots: to blow up a U.S. embassy.

We did it because they were looking to blow up our embassy,” Trump said. “We also did it for other reasons that were very obvious.”

Trump has the ability to declassify anything he wants to, but it was a curious sudden disclosure for an administration that had for six days resisted saying much of anything. It’s also difficult to believe that lawmakers who were told about a potential embassy attack in any real detail would say it was a nothingburger — no matter their political leanings.

As The Post’s Shane Harris noted, the idea that such information can’t be shared with Congress is also difficult to swallow. Even if an administration doesn’t share all the information widely with Congress for fear of leaks, it generally shares highly classified information with a smaller group of high-ranking lawmakers who are experienced in intelligence matters.

Shane Harris

@shaneharris

Be skeptical: The executive routinely shares highly-classified information with lawmakers, particularly Gang of 8, who are notified about covert actions. Officials have also been talking for days about intelligence (in more than general terms, btw) that led to Soleimani’s death. https://twitter.com/NBCNews/status/1215255923977080832 

NBC News

@NBCNews

NEW: Responding to criticism of congressional briefings, VP Pence asserts to @SavannahGuthrie that admin. could not share with the US Congress some of “most compelling” intel around the Iran strike because doing so “could compromise sources and methods.” https://nbcnews.to/2N9xoDU 

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At the same time, the White House has already frozen out Democratic members of the “Gang of Eight” by not informing them of the attack in advance, as is normal practice. And Trump has sent signals that perhaps he doesn’t intend to be terribly forthcoming with the Democrats in the group, retweeting a claim from conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza that sharing such information with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) would be akin to sharing it with the Iranians.

Looming over all of it are the circumstances in which the strike was launched. Trump’s advisers reportedly delivered the president options to deal with an escalating situation with Iran, and killing Soleimani was the most extreme one. Such an option is generally used to push the president toward a more moderate course of action. Trump, though, chose the extreme one.

If the attacks were so imminent and the strike so necessary, why was that labeled the extreme option? Given that Trump’s unwieldy actions and declarations often force those around him to struggle to justify them after the fact, it’s not illogical to suspect a similar effort afoot here. That would sure explain the lack of transparency — even with Congress — and the conflicting signals.

Soleimani has indeed been estimated to have been behind the killing of hundreds of Americans, so the idea that he might be planning more such operations — especially at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and Iran — is certainly logical. That appears to be why the administration is emphasizing what he has already done. But this was sold as something that was imminent, and there are plenty of indications that the information as we understand it might not be overly specific. Milley’s comments certainly indicated as much, and Lee and Paul say that basically no new information has been shared with them to back up that claim.

It’s difficult to believe there isn’t more that could be shared here — at least with a limited group of lawmakers — that could calm fears about the United States using yet another pretext for military action in the Middle East, as it did in Iraq. But for now, the Trump administration is doing a great job of seeding doubts. In the hours ahead, a big question will be whether top administration officials confirm and expand upon his embassy claim.

U.S. conflict with Iran: What you need to read

Updated January 8, 2020

Here’s what you need to know to understand what this moment means in U.S.-Iran relations.

What happened: President Trump ordered a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and leader of its special-operations forces abroad.

Who was Soleimani: As the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Soleimani was key in supporting and coordinating with Iran’s allies across the region, especially in Iraq. Soleimani’s influence was imprinted on various Shiite militias that fought U.S. troops.

How we got here: Tensions had been escalating between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled out of an Obama-era nuclear deal, and they spiked shortly before the airstrike. The strikes that killed Soleimani were carried out after the death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack against a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that the United States blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia.

What happens next: Iran responded to Soleimani’s death by launching missile strikes at two bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq. No casualties were reported. In an address to the nation, Trump announced that new sanctions will be imposed on Tehran.

Pence Defends Conditions at Migrant Detention Centers in Texas

Vice President Mike Pence toured two Border Patrol facilities on Friday, later saying they were “providing care that every American would be proud of.”

Vice President Mike Pence played down reports of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions at two migrant detention centers in Texas that he visited on Friday, but he acknowledged the gravity of the humanitarian crisis unfolding along the United States’ southwestern border.

The tour gave journalists covering the vice president a rare glimpse inside a Border Patrol station near McAllen, Tex., where they observed nearly 400 men crammed inside a cage with no space to lie down and no mats or pillows, according to pool reports.

Before members of the news media were ushered out of the facility, some of the detainees shouted that they had been there for more than 40 days, were hungry and could not brush their teeth. One pool reporter described the stench as “horrendous”some of the agents wore face masks — and said it was sweltering inside the detention center, which is less than 10 miles from the Rio Grande, the river that divides the United States and Mexico.

“I was not surprised by what I saw,” Mr. Pence said later at a news conference. “I knew we would see a system that was overwhelmed. This is tough stuff.”

Mr. Pence was effusive in his praise of Border Patrol agents, whom he referred to as “compassionate.” But instead of tamping down criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of the tide of refugees, many from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the photos and videos that emerged from the tightly choreographed tour further inflamed critics.

The visit came 10 days after the release of a scathing report by the independent watchdog arm of the Department of Homeland Security on the poor conditions at migrant holding centers near the border. More than a dozen adult detainees have died while in custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement since the beginning of last year, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

The same day Mr. Pence visited the border, thousands of demonstrators across the United States held protests and candlelight vigils to express their opposition to the White House’s immigration policy. In Aurora, Colo., protesters raised a Mexican flag in front of a local detention center.

“It’s apparent that @realDonaldTrump & @VP have very different definitions of humane and compassionate than the rest of us,” Senator Mazie Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii, said on Twitter. “Let’s be clear: crowding hundreds of people in cages in sweltering heat without showers or basic necessities is neither humane nor compassionate.”

At the news conference, Mr. Pence tried to deflect the criticism to Democrats in Congress, calling on them to provide additional funding for more beds for the undocumented immigrants detained by ICE. He also sought to highlight his role in a $4.6 billion emergency spending bill that tries to address the border crisis; it was approved by Congress last month and signed by President Trump on July 1.

Michael Banks, the patrol agent in charge of the McAllen detention center, said in a news media briefing that the migrants had been provided three meals a day by local restaurants, along with juice and crackers.

Because of space limitations, he said, male detainees cannot have cots, but they had been given mylar blankets that look like aluminum foil. Crinkling sounds from the blankets could be heard by journalists, who were allowed inside the facility for about 90 seconds.

Earlier on Friday, Mr. Pence visited a cavernous detention center in Donna, Tex., that can accommodate up to 1,000 people. It was built in May and currently houses about 800 migrants, according to pool reports.

The vice president was accompanied by the second lady, Karen Pence, and three Republican senators: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John Cornyn of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah. Mr. Lee helped interpret for Mr. Pence, who had asked several migrant children questions in English, according to a pool reporter.

When Mr. Pence asked the children if they had food and were being taken care of, they nodded and a few said “sí,” according to the pool report. But when he inquired if they had a place to “get cleaned up,” the children shook their heads.

Two children told Mr. Pence that they had walked for two to three months to reach the United States. He then said “God bless you” in English and “gracias,” according to the pool report.

 

Several Democratic presidential candidates criticized Mr. Pence’s appearance at the detention centers. Among them was Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and a secretary of housing and urban development under President Barack Obama.

Julián Castro

@JulianCastro

Make no mistake, @VP, this is the result of your administration slashing aid to Central America and undermining the asylum process. You and Donald Trump share the blame.

“Make no mistake, @VP, this is the result of your administration slashing aid to Central America and undermining the asylum process,” Mr. Castro said on Twitter on Saturday. “You and Donald Trump share the blame.”

On Friday, Mr. Pence excoriated one of Mr. Trump’s favorite targets, CNN, calling its coverage of his visit to the detention centers “dishonest.”

“And while we hear some Democrats in Washington, D.C., referring to U.S. Customs and Border facilities as ‘concentration camps,’ what we saw today was a facility that is providing care that every American would be proud of,” he said, according to a transcript of his remarks in McAllen.

Making Sense of the New American Right

Keeping track of the Jacksonians, Reformicons, Paleos, and Post-liberals.

I like to start my classes on conservative intellectual history by distinguishing between three groups. There is the Republican party, with its millions of adherents and spectrum of opinion from very conservative, somewhat conservative, moderate, and yes, liberal. There is the conservative movement, the constellation of single-issue nonprofits that sprung up in the 1970s

  • gun rights,
  • pro-life,
  • taxpayer,
  • right to work

— and continue to influence elected officials. Finally, there is the conservative intellectual movement: writers, scholars, and wonks whose journalistic and political work deals mainly with ideas and, if we’re lucky, their translation into public policy.

Sen. Mike Lee blocks proposed legislation to protect Mueller investigation of Russian meddling in U.S. election

Lee cited a 30-year-old dissent by Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia arguing that protecting an independent counsel from presidential power creates a “fourth branch of government.”

Lee warned that the bill to protect Mueller would “fundamentally [undermine] the principle of separation of powers.”

“Prosecutorial authority in the United States belongs in the Department of Justice.” Lee said.

.. Lee and fellow Republicans, including longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, have said there’s no need for legislation because Trump wouldn’t fire Mueller or end his probe. Sen.-elect Mitt Romney, who will succeed Hatch, says the investigation must continue unimpeded, though he isn’t sure if legislation is necessary.
.. Flake, who is leaving office, said Wednesday that his colleagues are blind if they can’t see Trump is already angling to halt Mueller’s investigation.

.. “With the president tweeting on a regular basis, a daily basis, that the special counsel is conflicted, that he is leading the so-called 12 angry Democrats and demeaning and ridiculing him in every way, to be so sanguine about the chances of him getting fired is folly for us,” Flake said on the Senate floor.

.. Coons pointed out that the Scalia opinion Lee cited was a dissent on a 7-1 decision by the high court and that the justices ruled the law creating an independent counsel was constitutional. (The law has since expired and the special counsel now is supervised by the attorney general.)

.. “At the end of the day, leader McConnell has gotten reassurances from the president that he won’t act against Mueller, but those assurances are undermined every single day when President Trump both tweets untrue criticisms of Robert Mueller and his investigation and does other things that are unexpected or unconventional or unjustified,” Coons told MSNBC.

Sen. Mike Lee blocks bipartisan effort to vote on a bill protecting special counsel Mueller

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, objected to the attempt to bring the bill forward, citing late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as he argued that passing the legislation would be “fundamentally undermining the principle of separation of powers that is so core to our liberty.”

Senate rules dictate that so-called unanimous consent requests be rejected if even one senator objects.

Manafort Lied About Business Dealings, Mueller’s Team Believes

Investigators alleged that Mr. Manafort made inaccurate statements in interviews with Mr. Mueller’s team about his communications with Konstantin Kilimnik, said the people familiar with the matter.

.. Mr. Kilimnik, who Mr. Mueller charged earlier this year along with Mr. Manafort with trying to influence the testimony of two witnesses against Mr. Manafort, had worked for Mr. Manafort’s lobbying firm in Ukraine. Messrs. Manafort and Kilimnik communicated earlier this year about contacting others who worked with them in an alleged effort to coordinate their stories

.. Mr. Mueller has long been interested in the relationship between Messrs. Manafort and Kilimnik.

.. He has questioned witnesses about a boat trip that Mr. Manafort took with Tom Barrack, a longtime friend of Mr. Trump, after Mr. Manafort was ousted from the Trump campaign in August 2016, say people familiar with the matter. Witnesses believed investigators were seeking to determine whether Mr. Manafort ever met with Mr. Kilimnik on that trip.

.. With the Mueller-Manafort dispute breaking into public view, some legal experts believe Mr. Manafort’s best hope for leniency is to obtain a presidential pardon. On Wednesday Mr. Trump told the New York Post a pardon for Mr. Manafort was “not off the table.” Any pardon would likely spark a firestorm among Democrats, who are preparing to take control of the House.

.. Senate Republicans Wednesday blocked an effort to pass legislation protecting Mr. Mueller’s investigation.

For the second time this month, Sens. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz) and Chris Coons (D., Del.) tried to pass by unanimous consent legislation designed to protect Mr. Mueller from being fired. They were blocked by Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) on Wednesday. Two weeks earlier, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) had objected, blocking the bill.

Breaking from GOP orthodoxy, Trump increasingly deciding winners and losers in the economy

President Trump is increasingly intervening in the economy, making decisions about corporate winners and losers in ways that Republicans for decades have insisted should be left to free markets — not the government.

.. On Friday, citing national security, Trump ordered the Energy Department to compel power-grid operators to buy from ailing coal and nuclear plants that otherwise would be forced to shut down because of competition from cheaper sources.

.. The order came one day after the president imposed historic metals tariffs on some of the country’s strongest allies and trading partners. Now the Commerce Department is further picking winners and losers as it weighs thousands of requests from companies for waivers from the import taxes.

“It replaces the invisible hand with the government hand,” said Mary Lovely, a Syracuse University economist. “You’re replacing the market with government fiat.”

.. The president has chastised individual companies, second-guessed the U.S. Postal Service’s business arrangement with Amazon and put pressure on Boeing and Lockheed Martin over the cost of their products.

.. Of course, Trump isn’t the only one to tinker with market forces. President Barack Obama backed subsidies for wind and solar power. And about 30 states have adopted laws mandating minimum purchases of renewable energy.

Obama also won passage of a health-care reform package that created winners and losers. Republicans criticized the Affordable Care Act at the time for forcing people to make purchases through the individual mandate.

.. Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) said that he and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) would co-sponsor legislation “to rein in the executive branch’s power to impose unilateral tax increases like these.”

.. “One of the reasons tariffs are not good policy in general is that it is a form of corporate welfare,” said Stephen Moore, an economist at the Heritage Foundation. “You’re saying consumers will have to pay more so this auto company or steel company or aluminum company stays in business. It’s the ultimate form of picking winners and losers.”