Let’s cut to the chase: all current evidence suggests that Trump ordered the killing of General Qassem Soleimani either to please his base or to curry favor with key senators before the Senate impeachment trial. It blew up in his face, and now he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are trying desperately to justify the action after the fact.
At stake is the issue that Trump acted without advising Congress. The Constitution provides that Congress alone shall declare war, but it also makes the president the commander-in-chief. During the Nixon administration, when congress members sometimes discovered that America was militarily engaged in entirely unexpected places, Congress pushed back to reassert its role in military actions.
The War Powers Act of 1973 declared that “The President in every possible instance shall consult with Congress before introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, and after every such introduction shall consult regularly with the Congress until United States Armed Forces are no longer engaged in hostilities or have been removed from such situations.”
In the absence of a declaration of war, the president may involve U.S. armed forces “into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances,” but then must notify Congress with “a report, in writing,” setting forth, among other things, “the constitutional and legislative authority under which such introduction took place.” Then Congress has 60 days either to declare war or to extend a specific authorization of military force.
Ah, and here’s a piece I missed yesterday: If US Armed Forces are engaged without a declaration of war or a specific authorization, “such forces shall be removed by the President if the Congress so directs by concurrent resolution.” So House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seems to have been right yesterday about the significance of the House passing a War Powers Resolution. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (who took Russian money from indicted political operative Lev Parnas), was wrong to say the concurrent resolution is meaningless. Further, the Senate must take it up, by law, so Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) cannot kill it instantly.
Most of the pressure to prove that an attack was “imminent” has fallen on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an evangelical Christian hardliner against Iran, who pushed hard for the decision to make the strike. But Pompeo has not provided any evidence that anything was going to happen so quickly that Trump had to act without consulting Congress.
Yesterday, during a press conference, Trump tried to justify the killing by saying that Soleimani was planning “to blow up our embassy.” But that was not mentioned in the congressional briefing by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and CIA Director Gina Haspel. Democrats immediately asked to be briefed “on the new intelligence surrounding the imminent attacks on U.S. embassies that the President referred to today, but somehow didn’t come up in the full Senate briefing on Wednesday,” as Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy put it. Trump then upped the ante, telling Fox News personality Laura Ingraham that Soleimani was targeting not one embassy, but four.
A senior administration official and a senior defense official told reporters there were only vague threats against the embassy in Baghdad, and those did not to be a fully formed plot. Neither it nor any other embassies were reinforced. One official added: Trump is “totally obsessed with not letting something like Benghazi happen to him.”
An article in the Wall Street Journal today said that the Soleimani strike was all about impeachment. “Mr. Trump, after the strike, told associates he was under pressure to deal with Gen. Soleimani from GOP senators he views as important supporters in his upcoming impeachment trial in the Senate, associates said.”
Political reporter Jonathan Chait notes that the sourcing for this article is vague, and points out something obvious but important: Trump could not possibly have “bought” 20 wavering Senators (if that many are wavering) with a strike on Iran. But his ego cannot bear to lose any Republican senators because he needs to see impeachment as an illegitimate “witch hunt,” as he calls it, by Democrats. So it is entirely possible he is handing out favors, with the expectation that those favors will buy political support. It’s always the same transactional politics.
It seems worth noting that former National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has offered to testify before the Senate about the Ukraine scandal despite Trump’s demand that he remain silent, has been the nation’s premier advocate for an attack on Iran.
Three former national security professionals wrote an article in the Washington Post today, saying the fact Trump received the plan for killing Soleimani as an option shows the system is broken. Rather than listening to long, careful, professional assessments of what would happen if Soleimani died at U.S. hands, Trump listened instead to a small group at Mar-a-Lago, guided primarily by Pompeo. “Any standard Defense Department and interagency process of vetting options would have seen the threats, counterthreats and missile launches coming and recommended against it — which we know because two very different administrations [the George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama administrations] rejected targeting the general. But many press accounts say no such process was followed under Trump.”
Trump supporters, including today Lara Trump, who is married to one of the sons, continue to insist that Democrats only oppose the killing of Soleimani because they “support terrorists.” Trump called Democrats “vicious, horrible people,” and demands absolutely loyalty from the GOP: Republican Matt Gaetz, a staunch Trump supporter who voted in favor of the War Powers Resolution yesterday because he says Congress should have a role in declaring war, as the Constitution requires, has found himself entirely shut out of Trump’s circle. One White House official said they would not answer Gaetz’s calls, texts, “smoke signals or his kneelings in the snow.”
The Lincoln Project, a superPAC announced on December 17 by never-Trump Republicans led by lawyer George Conway and former GOP strategist Steve Schmidt, today released its first advertisement opposing Trump in the 2020 election. It picks up on how frightening it is to have such an unmoored president who demands utter allegiance. Slightly over a minute long, the ad is confusing, angry, loud, and disturbing as it lays out how evangelical leaders are all-in for Trump. It highlights the moments in which Trump undermined Christianity—suggesting he was the “chosen one,” for example— and hints that the leaders are in it for the cash, but the power of the film is in its style, which deliberately creates the same anxiety in the viewer as Trump’s behavior has done to the nation. It’s quite a smart document, actually. The Lincoln Project has money behind it, and that money has enabled them to buy very good marketers.
Meanwhile, Pelosi has said she will ask the chair of the House Committee on the Judiciary Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) to bring to the floor next week a resolution to appoint managers and transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate. Media is reporting this as “she will send the articles of impeachment to the Senate next week,” but I do not detect any great rush in her statement. It seems likely to me she wants the Senate trial to be happening when Trump gives his February 4 State of the Union address.
In other news, Trump also told Ingraham that we need to have a good relationship with Russia. Today a Russian ship challenged the USS Farragut, a US destroyer on a routine patrol in the North Arabian Sea, first approaching and then delaying a correction after the commander of the Farragut asked them to change course, bringing the two ships close enough for a collision. The footage, linked in the notes, is quite something.
That's it for tonight, folks. Many thanks for all the good wishes-- it's just a run-of-the-mill bug; I'll live. Still dragging, so today’s letter, too, is unrevised.
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War Powers Resolution: https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/50/chapter-33
Pompeo and Iran decision: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/07/world/middleeast/pompeo-trump.html
Lincoln Project film: