January 6, 2020

Today was chaotic, but there did seem to be a pattern underneath it all.

The backdrop to everything today was always Donald Trump. He has been impeached by the House of Representatives, and is furiously angry about that fact. He has taken the stand that he does not have to answer to Congress, declaring that his top advisors enjoy “constitutional immunity” from having to testify before Congress, and has stonewalled investigators, refusing to honor subpoenas for documents as recently as last week.

He has also expressed support for military men whom he considers tough guys, guys who refuse to be bound by rules, guys like Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, whose review Trump overruled so that Gallagher could retire with full rank despite his conviction for committing the war crime of posing for a photograph with a corpse. Trump has expressed interest in having Gallagher, and two other military men either accused or convicted of war crimes he pardoned, campaign with him in the upcoming election.

When what appeared to be Iran-backed militias rioted in the US Embassy in Baghdad, it seems that Trump worried he would be vulnerable to political attacks like those thrown at Hillary Clinton over the attack on Benghazi. To undercut that potential, he chose an extreme response favored by his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one that both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama dismissed as too dangerous. Choosing it was a tough guy move. And when that assassination sparked exactly the sort of backlash Bush and Obama had feared, Trump doubled down, saying he would not be bound by international law about destruction of cultural sites, and continued to taunt Iran on Twitter. He also declared he did not have to tell Congress before going to war. Tough guy stuff. Eddie Gallagher stuff.

Once again, Trump knows his base, which has rallied around him, cheering on the death of a man almost none of them had heard of before the attack, dismissing concerns about the way in which Trump went about the attack and what the future might bring. In an eerie echo of Gallagher’s actions, they are sharing photos that they claim are of Soleimani’s corpse.

But here’s where things suddenly get tricky.

In America, Trump could pull off this manipulation of reality by narrative, because there have so far been few repercussions of his fantasies that regular Americans could see clearly. Even the tariffs that have hurt the nation so badly have made little headway in the media, as Trump has continued to drive the headlines with his own erratic actions. And he could get away with it with our allies who, until recently, humored him. But Iran and Iraq, and China and Russia, are not going to enable Trump; they are forcing Trump’s narrative to deal with reality. The attack on Soleimani has sown confusion here at home as that reality threatens to burst the bubble Trump has constructed.

The Iranian government has continued to threaten retaliation for the killings. On Twitter, the account for the President of Iran responded to Trump’s tweet about 52 cultural sites for 52 American hostages in 1979 with a tweet reminding the U.S. of the 290 victims when the U.S. bombed an Iranian passenger jet in 1988 (which the U.S. called a “terrible human tragedy” and paid $131.8 million in compensation).

It is possible the Iranian response will be measured—certain experts point out that Iran does not want a war with the U.S.—but it is also possible it won’t be. We don’t know… which is a key reason why you don’t want tough guy actions like this: they create terrible uncertainty. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi acknowledged this immediately, laying the blame for the situation on the U.S. when he told Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif that the “dangerous US military operation violates the basic norms of international relations.” For its part, the Pentagon did what it could to get back inside established lines. It ruled out attacking cultural sites, with Defense Secretary Mark Esper saying the U.S. would “follow the laws of armed conflict.”

Reality is also asserting itself in Iraq. After the Iraqi legislature voted to expel U.S. forces yesterday, today a memo leaked to the press from the U.S. Iraqi command that sounded a lot like a plan for leaving the country. The Defense Department confirmed that the letter was real, but insisted it was a draft that had been poorly written, and that the U.S. was simply moving forces around the country and didn’t want Iraqis to misinterpret those movements. But the leak was embarrassing, as was the initial inability of leaders to explain what the memo was about. When CNBC reporters asked the White House to explain the implications of the memo, and as well to explain whether or not Trump was going to impose sanctions on Iraq, as he threatened when they voted to expel U.S. troops, no one responded.

Further, observers are already noting that if the U.S. leaves Iraq, it will create a vacuum that will benefit not only Iran but also Russia, which will be as happy to move into Iraq as it was to move into Syria when the U.S. pulled back.

Meanwhile at home, the chaos in the Middle East has prompted Democrats to push back on Trump’s unilateral decision making about hostilities with Iran. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House would vote on a resolution to limit Trump’s ability to go to war with Iran. The measure is like that of Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), introduced on Friday, which would reassert Congress’s power to declare war and prevent Trump from acting unilaterally.

Today also brought a new challenge to Trump’s stonewalling of congressional investigators. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton offered to testify before the Senate if it subpoenaed him. This is an interesting gesture. Bolton is a key witness to events surrounding the Ukraine scandal—you will remember he allegedly called it a “drug deal”—but the House did not subpoena him because it seemed clear he would take the same stand Charles Kupperman did: that the courts needed to sort out whether or not Trump was right to claim constitutional immunity for his top advisors.

Now, with Kupperman’s case declared moot, Bolton has volunteered to testify before the Senate. It’s not clear what he’s up to. Currently, McConnell is refusing to allow any testimony, so Bolton’s offer itself might be moot. But conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin thinks Bolton is deliberately putting pressure on McConnell to have a real trial. I am skeptical of that, but there is no doubt that Bolton’s declaration that he is willing to testify undercuts the argument that he cannot be subpoenaed.

Trump promptly retweeted the statement that only the White House could decide if Bolton could testify, but it is unclear to me how he is going to stop Bolton from talking, whether before the Senate now, or perhaps the House, or on his own in the future. If he has damning things to say, Senate Republicans should want to hear it before they tie themselves to Trump’s acquittal, or they will have sunk themselves along with him.

Still, for now, Republicans seem to be falling into line behind Trump and his narrative in the Iranian attack as they have over Ukraine. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell lamented the Democrats’ refusal to unite behind the president. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley tweeted that Democrats were “mourning the loss of Soleimani,” which, of course, entirely misrepresents the Democratic concerns about the killing. Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) tweeted a photoshopped image of President Obama grinning and shaking hands with an image of Iran President Hassan Rouhani, with the caption: “The world is a better place without these guys in power.” Obama never met with Rouhani, who is still in power; observers suggested that Gosar was trying to make people think Rouhani was Soleimani. Gosar’s tweet was, of course, an example of the disinformation about which I wrote the other day.

Linking the Iran narrative to their support for Trump domestically, the official Twitter feed of the Senate Republicans published a video that insisted “America—and the world—are safer because [Trump] took action.” The video compares Soleimani to Osama bin Laden and notes his “20-year SPAN OF TERROR is FINALLY OVER.” The video is now the pinned tweet on that feed.

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Notes:

Follow laws: https://apnews.com/9e87a8b9aa6cbde264a848b62f8a82fc

https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/1/6/21047720/trump-iran-war-cultural-sites

Iranian threats:

https://www.cbsnews.com/live-updates/iran-news-qassem-soleimani-killing-iraq-us-airstrike-tension-fears-middle-east-war-today-live-updates-2020-01-06/

China: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/chinas-response-to-the-soleimani-killing/

Trust: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/trump-faces-iran-crisis-with-fewer-experienced-advisers-and-strained-relations-with-traditional-allies/2020/01/05/9b42a240-2f1a-11ea-9b60-817cc18cf173_story.html

War powers: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/paulmcleod/trump-iran-war-powers-congress-tim-kaine-vote

Blaming Democrats: Haley:

Image:

Letter: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/01/06/letter-announcing-iraq-withdrawal-was-mistake-us-says.html

https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/06/politics/us-troops-iraq/index.html

https://twitter.com/SenateGOP

Rubin: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/01/06/pelosis-strategy-pays-off-now-bring-bolton/

Russia: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/russia-stands-to-benefit-as-middle-east-tensions-spike-after-soleimani-killing/2020/01/06/c4de52f0-2e4f-11ea-bffe-020c88b3f120_story.html?fbclid=IwAR3IvQD4_Te5P9Y2v2s71zGM-gvKL7jrm8mXE7f46ALx2iM6-LGunTm4nHA#click=https://t.co/KBvYnJyoPy