The generals are gone. They have been replaced by angry amateurs. And that has consequences:
President Donald Trump’s National Security Council, led by National Security Adviser John Bolton, asked the Pentagon to develop options for a military strike against Iran last year, The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday citing unnamed current and former U.S. officials.
The request alarmed the Pentagon and State Department, the Journal reported, but the Pentagon complied with the request and developed the options. The Journal reported that it wasn’t clear whether Trump knew about, or was provided with, the plans for potential military strikes.
John Bolton – an angry ideologue – replaced General H. R. McMaster – the reluctant strategic thinker, who had been doing strategic thinking since the end of the Vietnam War. Bolton had been angry, and he seems to have been freelancing here. Trump may not have asked for these plans. Bolton may have planned to surprise Trump with a detailed plan to reduce Iran to rubble. Hey! Look at this! You can do this!
Donald Trump is impulsive and Bolton might have gotten just what he wanted:
An unnamed “former senior U.S. administration official” said the request “definitely rattled people.”
“People were shocked,” the official added. “It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran.”
The request came after militants, reportedly backed by Iran, fired rockets toward the U.S. consulate in Basra and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s diplomatic green zone in September. The attacks did not cause any American injuries or major damage.
Think back to Vietnam. There was no Gulf of Tonkin attack but that “attack” justified Lyndon Johnson sending in everything we had. These two attacks weren’t much, but they might do just fine – we could send in everything and wipe out the Iranians, just like we wiped out the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong and solved that problem. We didn’t. McMaster’s doctoral thesis, long ago, was about that mess – and who was to blame – and he’s gone now:
Bolton, well-known for his past cries to attack Iran, has made clear to other administration officials “that he personally supports regime change in Iran,” the Journal reported. The NSC did not deny the Journal’s reporting in a statement for the article.
This seems to be a power struggle. Other administration officials think Bolton is nuts, and dangerous. He seems to think he can get Trump to do this, no matter what they think.
Bolton may be right, because Trump is impulsive:
President Donald Trump on Sunday vowed to “devastate Turkey economically” should the Turkish military attack U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters – a rare direct threat by Trump to a NATO ally as his administration grapples with the execution of its plan to withdraw American soldiers from Syria.
This was odd, but the whole situation is odd:
Turkey has supported American efforts against ISIS. But the Turks consider Kurds, who are also fighting ISIS, to be their enemy, and there have been concerns they might attack the Kurdish forces once the American forces are gone.
National security adviser John Bolton appeared to contradict the president in Jerusalem last weekend when he said the Syria withdrawal is conditioned on defeating the remnants of the Islamic State and on Turkey assuring the safety of the Kurds. Those remarks were met with indignation from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, currently on an eight-day tour of the Middle East, described Trump’s Syria policy on Saturday as “incredibly clear.”
Nothing is clear. The Washington Post team of Anne Gearan and Josh Dawsey and John Hudson explain that:
President Trump dispatched national security adviser John Bolton on a cleanup mission a week ago, with a three-day itinerary in Israel that was intended to reassure a close ally that Trump’s impulsive decision to immediately withdraw troops from Syria would be carried out more slowly and with important caveats.
The plan seemed to work at first. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was all smiles, thanking Bolton profusely for the show of U.S. support.
But by the end of the week, attempts to dissuade Trump or place conditions on the withdrawal faded as the U.S. military announced it had “begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria.” A multipronged effort by alarmed U.S. national security officials, foreign allies and Republican hawks in Congress to significantly alter or reverse Trump’s decision was effectively a bust.
This is a good way to confuse our allies:
Since Trump’s abrupt Syria announcement last month, a tug of war with allies and his advisers has roiled the national security apparatus over how, and whether, to execute a pullout. Netanyahu spoke to Trump two days before the president’s announcement and again a day afterward. French President Emmanuel Macron tried to get the president to change his mind. Even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who liked the policy, was concerned it could not be safely executed so quickly.
None of it mattered:
The episode illustrates the far-reaching consequences of Trump’s proclivity to make rash decisions with uneven follow-through, according to accounts of the discussions from more than a dozen current and former U.S. officials and international diplomats. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matters frankly.
The president’s erratic behavior on Syria cost him the most respected member of his Cabinet, former defense secretary Jim Mattis; rattled allies and partners unsure about U.S. commitment to the region; and increased the possibility of a military confrontation between Turkey and Kurdish forces in Syria.
Someone had to clean this up:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to reassure allies in a lengthy tour of Arab capitals last week, promising that the U.S. withdrawal will not alter the Trump administration’s commitment to fully defeat the Islamic State and drive Iranian forces out of Syria.
Expelling “every Iranian boot on the ground is an ambitious directive, but it’s ours. It is our mission,” Pompeo told reporters during a stop in the United Arab Emirates on Saturday. “The fact that a couple thousand uniformed personnel in Syria will be withdrawing is a tactical change. It doesn’t materially alter our capacity to perform military actions we need to perform.”
The message did little to reassure jittery allies.
And there’s this:
Netanyahu was the second foreign leader to learn of Trump’s decision last month… Trump’s first call with the Israeli leader on Dec. 17 was arranged after a weekend of effort by Bolton, Mattis and others to steer Trump from an abrupt decision. Current and former officials familiar with the events said some U.S. national security aides hoped that Netanyahu could help persuade Trump to slow the withdrawal, even if he went ahead with a planned announcement that week.
Netanyahu expressed concern that Iran would be the unintended beneficiary of what Trump cast as an “America First” disentanglement from foreign wars… Speaking diplomatically, he told Trump that Israel would “defend ourselves, by ourselves,” but would prefer more time to adjust, according to people familiar with their conversations.
Trump announced a 30-day withdrawal two days later.
But then he had second thoughts:
Trump was stung by Mattis’ resignation, which the president saw as an inappropriate public rebuke, people familiar with his views said. He was also angry about media coverage of his decision, including fact checks refuting his claim that the Islamic State had been defeated.
But in the weeks to follow, as he was also waging a battle with Democrats over a partial government shutdown, there were signs that Trump might be moderating his Syria position. Trump seemed less bothered by what he viewed as the reflexive caution and slow-walking of his directives by aides, more than a half dozen U.S. officials and international diplomats familiar with the debate said. The Pentagon suggested a departure timetable of four months rather than one, and Trump has distanced himself from his stated policy while denying there was a shift.
But the pullout started anyway, and it was Sunday night and he had his iPhone handy:
President Trump used Twitter Sunday night to spell out his plans for a pull-out in Syria.
“Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions,” he began…
Trump also threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” if the country hit the Kurds living in Syria.
That may have been an afterthought. What are the Kurds to him? But he does know that there’s one way to get what he wants – the threat to completely destroy the other party, right now. That’s what he does, instinctively. That’s the Art of the Deal. Give in or die.
That’s not going to work. Too much is happening. There are bigger issues. This was the weekend the Trump presidency teetered. The New York Times’ Peter Baker covers things falling apart:
So it has come to this: The president of the United States was asked over the weekend whether he is a Russian agent. And he refused to directly answer.
The question, which came from a friendly interviewer, not one of the “fake media” journalists he disparages, was “the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked,” he declared. But it is a question that has hung over his presidency now for two years.
And now things come to a head:
With Democrats now in charge of the House, the special counsel believed to be wrapping up his investigation, news media outlets competing for scoops and the first articles of impeachment already filed, Mr. Trump faces the prospect of an all-out political war for survival that may make the still-unresolved partial government shutdown pale by comparison.
This is war on many fronts:
The newly empowered Democrats summoned the president’s longtime personal lawyer to testify after he implicated Mr. Trump in an illegal scheme to arrange hush payments before the 2016 election for women who claimed to have had affairs with him. Legal papers disclosed that Mr. Trump’s onetime campaign chairman shared polling data with an associate tied by prosecutors to Russian intelligence.
Michael Cohen is going to tell all, in public, and why was Paul Manafort sending Trump campaign’s internal polling data to the Russians? But that’s not all:
New reports over the weekend added to the sense of siege at the White House. The New York Times reported that after Mr. Trump fired the FBI director, James B. Comey, in 2017, the bureau opened an investigation into whether the president was working for the Russians. And The Washington Post reported that Mr. Trump has gone out of his way as president to hide the details of his discussions with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia even from members of his own administration.
On that first item see Josh Marshall:
It’s worth reviewing the precise chain of events.
Trump fired Comey on Tuesday, May 9th, 2017. The following day, May 10th, Trump received Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in the Oval Office. US press was barred from the event. But the Russian state news agency TASS was invited to cover the meeting. The photos that were later released came out of Russia.
The White House later confirmed that Trump had taken this meeting because Vladimir Putin had personally asked him to on a phone call a few days earlier. “He chose to receive him because Putin asked him to,” a White House spokesman told Susan Glasser the following day. “Putin did specifically ask on the call when they last talked.”
At the meeting, Trump told Lavrov and Kislyak that he had just fired Comey and that this had removed the “pressure” he was under because of the FBI investigation into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia. “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off,” Trump told the two men according to an internal US government summary document based on notes taken during the meeting.
At the meeting, Trump also shared highly classified intelligence about the Islamic State with Lavrov, intelligence that apparently came from Israel and jeopardized field sources and operations in Syria.
And that was enough:
The fact of the meeting itself, held at President Putin’s request and with no US press allowed would have raised alarm bells throughout the US intelligence and counter-intelligence worlds and almost certainly figured into the decision to launch the investigation.
They may have had no choice, and Anne Applebaum adds this perspective:
Trump’s connection to Putin has been out in the open for years, long before he decided to run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. He has lavished praise on the Russian leader, in many forms of media, since at least 2013, when he speculated on Twitter that Putin might become his “new best friend.” His business relationships with Russia and Russians go back even further, to a 1987 trip to Moscow, which Trump said he made at the invitation of the then-Soviet ambassador. Kremlin state media has been openly promoting him and his political views since at least 2014, when Trump gave an interview to Fox News extravagantly praising the Sochi Winter Olympics.
During the election campaign, Trump openly hired, as his campaign manager, a man who had spent most of the previous decade promoting Russian interests in Ukraine. He openly called for Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email. He openly echoed the Russian state media’s slogans and conspiratorial language all the way through the latter part of his campaign, claiming, for instance, that President Barack Obama created the Islamic State terrorists and that Hillary Clinton would start World War III.
Throughout this period, Russia backed him with a sophisticated online campaign designed to inspire his voters and put others off from voting at all. Some of that campaign has been revealed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, but some of it was visible to anyone who read English-language Russian state media such as Sputnik or RT. Since his inauguration, Trump has shared U.S. secrets with the Russian foreign minister in the Oval Office, appeared cowed by the Russian president at a Helsinki news conference, if not frightened of him, and repeatedly sought to meet Putin without officials present or even, at one point, his own translator.
That’s the situation and this is the question:
The question, then, is not why the FBI launched a counterintelligence investigation into Trump in the days after he fired James B. Comey as FBI director, as the New York Times revealed Friday, but why are we surprised? And why did it take so long?
Those are good questions, and on the second item see Jennifer Rubin:
There is no logical reason that Trump would be going to such efforts to keep everyone else from knowing what he told Putin if there was not something untoward, embarrassing and/or incriminating in those discussions. Otherwise, those records would be essential for his own senior staff in formulating Trump’s desired Russia policy. Not knowing what was said would mean his own aides might work at cross purposes with the president and/or not take advantage of Putin’s own words. You tie your administration up in knots in this way only if the discussions didn’t concern U.S. policy (but instead Trump’s private affairs) and/or there was something compromising in the discussions. The very fact that Putin knows what was said and we don’t does raise the potential for blackmail.
Something nasty may be going on here:
Let’s remember where we started: “No collusion.” Since then we’ve learned of: more than 100 contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians, Moscow Trump Tower dealmaking that continued through the 2016 campaign, a June Trump Tower meeting where Russians offered “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, and Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort sharing polling data with a Russian linked to Kremlin intelligence operations.
As if that were not all bone-chilling enough, we saw Trump refuse to flat-out deny he was a Russian agent when asked by Fox News gadfly Jeanine Pirro.
Republican senators, when asked on Sunday, didn’t offer a complete rebuttal. Far from it. Asked about subpoenaing the translator to report on the Trump-Putin Helsinki meeting, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz weakly replied, “You know, I think it’s premature for that. I’ve seen the allegations. I want to find out a little bit more about what happened there. I want to learn more than just the allegations in the press.”
Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), invariably sober and circumspect, declined to rule out the possibility that the president was knowingly or unknowingly a Russian asset. He said: “Well, that’s the defining question of our investigation and the Mueller investigation.”
Peter Baker notes the response to all of this:
The new White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, has hired 17 new lawyers, according to the Post, as he prepares for a barrage of subpoenas from House Democratic committee chairmen.
But Mr. Trump’s inner circle has shrunk, and he has fewer advisers around him whom he trusts. His White House chief of staff is still serving in an acting capacity, and the West Wing is depleted by the shutdown. As he himself wrote on Twitter this weekend, “There’s almost nobody in the White House but me.”
But self-pity won’t help:
Democrats, for their part, say they are out for accountability, not blood, intent on forcing a president who went largely unchecked by a Republican Congress during his first two years in office to come clean on the many scandals that have erupted involving his business, taxes, campaign and administration.
They plan to get started in the coming days. On Tuesday, they will grill former Attorney General William P. Barr, who has been nominated by Mr. Trump to assume his old office again, about his approach to the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Mr. Barr wrote a private memo last year criticizing Mr. Mueller’s investigation, and Democrats will use his confirmation hearings to press him on whether the special counsel will be allowed to finish his work and report it to Congress.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic minority leader, also plans to force a vote in the Senate this week on the Trump administration’s plans to lifts sanctions on the companies of Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch close to Mr. Putin’s government, if he reduces his ownership stakes. Democrats plan to use the issue to argue that Mr. Trump has been soft on Russia.
But wait, there’s more:
Given the investigations, Mr. Trump may prefer a battle over the wall as more favorable ground to fight even with 800,000 federal workers furloughed or forced to work without pay. Polls suggest he is not winning with the broader public but has rallied his base in the fight.
More Americans blame Mr. Trump for the government shutdown than blame Democrats, and most oppose a border wall, according to a new survey by The Post and ABC News. But support for a wall has grown over the last year from 34 percent to 42 percent, fueled largely by Republicans, while opposition has slipped from 63 percent to 54 percent.
That’s a thin hope, but Jonathan Swan reports this:
I’ve spent the weekend calling Trump administration and congressional sources to get a read on what’s going to happen with the government shutdown. Nobody could confidently describe the exit ramp, and it seems there’s no immediate end in sight.
The only thing everyone agreed on was that Trump is so far dug in that there’s little if any chance he’ll reopen the government without a concession from Democrats. “Normally at this time [in a shutdown], we know what the exit is and we’re just waiting for the clear moment,” said a Republican member who is in close touch with Trump. “But there isn’t a clear path to an exit.”
There’s only this:
Senior administration officials have discussed inviting rank-and-file Democrats to the White House, hoping they may be willing to negotiate over funding for a barrier, according to two sources privy to the private discussions. They’re planning to target freshman Democratic House members from districts Trump won in 2016.
Republican officials involved conceded to me that it’s a stretch to imagine the White House can break Nancy Pelosi’s strong command of her caucus. But administration officials tell me they’re going to try.
Why bother? They’ve already lost this one. The public has turned on them, and by the way, this president of the United States was asked over the weekend whether he is a Russian agent, and he refused to directly answer that question. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, did say Trump’s Syria policy is “incredibly clear” – no matter what anyone thinks.
Everything is incredibly clear now.