“But what a fool believes, he sees… What seems to be is always better than nothing, than nothing at all…”
Long ago, in another age – 1979 actually – the nation was humming along to the hit song of the year, named Song of the Year by the Grammy panel – What a Fool Believes – the Doobie Brothers dabbling in a bit of epistemology – the branch of philosophy that examines knowledge itself, specifically how we know what we think we know, if we even know it at all, which we probably don’t. It’s hard to be certain of anything in Plato’s Cave – we only see the shadows and not the thing itself and so on – and sometimes even those shadows are deceptive.
In essence, we kid ourselves a lot, and that was good enough for Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins. They wrote a song that reminds us that what a fool believes is pretty much all that a fool sees, and often that’s a matter of maintaining one’s ego-structure. We’re reminded that something is always better than nothing – the alternative is existential despair. There’s a natural human impulse to believe something, anything – life cannot have no meaning at all. So we delude ourselves, like the guy in the song who wants to win back the girl who never gave him a second thought in the first place, or even a first thought.
That’s the problem. He made it all up, an alternative reality. What a fool mistakenly “believes” becomes the only thing he can see. All this is really quite dismal actually, but the tune was catchy and it had a good back-beat, and Michael Jackson was in one of the backing tracks, maybe. No one knows that for sure either. Maybe no one knows anything.
And what does Donald Trump know? The Washington Post team of Philip Rucker and John Hudson and Shane Harris and Josh Dawsey offers this:
The theory was born last Thursday in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, where President Trump stood before men in hard hats and orange construction vests for an environmental announcement and offered a fresh rationale for his controversial order to kill a top Iranian general.
“They were looking to blow up our embassy,” Trump said, referring to the heavily secured Baghdad facility that had become a magnet for protesters.
Later that night, at a raucous campaign rally in Ohio, Trump added to his story. The Iranians, he claimed, were planning to attack not only the U.S. Embassy in Iraq but also an undisclosed number of embassies in other countries.
And then Trump fleshed out his claim even further. “I can reveal I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies,” he said in an interview Friday with Fox News Channel.
Note that he said he “believed” that. He never said that was a fact. He made no assertion that what he said was true. He only said he believed that, very strongly of course. And that’s when the trouble started:
Trump’s statement was at best an unfounded theory and at worst a falsehood. At each turn in the commander in chief’s rapidly evolving narrative of why he authorized the Jan. 3 drone strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the machinery of government scrambled to adapt and respond.
The result is a credibility crisis for an administration that has long struggled to communicate factual information to the public. At a perilous moment for the nation’s security, with the United States at the brink of war with Iran, Trump is unable to rely on trustworthiness to justify his decision to take out Soleimani…
His trustworthiness had disappeared long ago. No banks would lend him money after a time, except for one part of DeutscheBank – the part always under investigation for laundering Russian mob money – and everyone knew he stiffed vendors – and Trump University was a sham – that cost him twenty-five million. And his charity has been shut down for good – fraud again. And there’s his lengthy record of exaggerations – from high school through last week – and odd little lies and smiling big lies and his ever-shifting rationales for almost everything.
All of that led to this:
In a rare public break with the president, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper acknowledged Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he had not reviewed any such evidence of a plot to attack four U.S. embassies, as Trump had suggested. Though he did not directly contradict Trump, Esper’s assessment was at odds with that of the president.
Inside the Pentagon and elsewhere in the government, there was skepticism about the president’s claim, as well as about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement that the threat from Soleimani was “imminent” and that hundreds of American lives were at risk.
No one in his own government was buying what Trump and Pompeo were selling, because no one actually needed that:
One senior administration official said the remarks from both men were unnecessary distractions from what many officials believed was a defensible policy decision.
In short, what those two said they believed didn’t matter a whole lot, because this had to be done, but then these two screwed everything up, because everyone had to scramble to cover for them:
U.S. officials, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive intelligence, have said Trump administration officials believed that Soleimani intended to escalate hostilities toward U.S. interests in the Middle East, to include possible attacks on diplomatic and military facilities.
This “stream” of intelligence, however, was not so specific that it let officials know when and where Soleimani intended to strike, officials said.
Despite Trump’s claim that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was one of four facilities under threat of attack, some embassy officials there said they did not receive an alert commensurate to the threat Trump described, said people familiar with the situation, who were not authorized to comment publicly.
And that angered quite a few people:
When officials in Washington or in a diplomatic outpost receive specific, credible information about threats to an embassy, warnings are typically sent to the U.S. personnel in the post to be vigilant and take precautions.
“If they had knowledge of an imminent threat, then you would’ve expected them to notify people,” said Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a retired career Foreign Service officer.
But that didn’t happen:
After the killing of Soleimani and Iran’s public vows to take vengeance, U.S. personnel in the region were on edge and asking colleagues about information related to emerging threats. Some who never received any information about such specific threats were angered and confused when Trump later claimed that the Baghdad embassy would have been attacked, when they had received no such information, said the people familiar with the situation.
Pompeo pushed back Monday against the charge that a notification was not sent, but he did not specify when or how it was transmitted.
Ah, those who were angered and confused didn’t get the memo about this specific threat to these four specific embassies, but then again, there was no such memo:
A State Department spokesman said Washington sent out a “worldwide security warning to every embassy alerting them of potential escalation with Iran,” but he did not say when that alert was sent.
The spokesman said that after the U.S. military killed two dozen members of an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq and Syria on Dec. 29, “every” regional security officer “and embassy in the region knew of the potential escalation threat that could be imposed on them.”
But there is no indication that embassy employees were warned of a credible threat, and the State Department did not respond to questions about whether the embassy in Baghdad took other measures that are typical when a specific threat is uncovered.
It seems that no one in the State Department wanted to comment. There’s no point in making their boss’s boss angry. There were other things to discuss:
With the question of imminence dogging the administration’s public defense of the Soleimani strike, other senior administration officials have shifted to vouching for the quality of the intelligence, rather than what it said about timing or particular targets. None of them has backed up Trump’s claim that four embassies were being targeted.
They had a new line. We know lots of stuff, and it’s all amazing!
That was the best way to approach this:
Trump tweeted Monday that “the future attack” by Soleimani was imminent – “but it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!”
Esper and national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien have described the intelligence about Soleimani’s plotting as “exquisite,” a term of art that implies specific knowledge about the general’s intentions. The term is often used to describe satellites and other technical collection methods designed to intercept a target’s communications or track his movements.
Esper said this intelligence was shared with only a handful of lawmakers, known as the Gang of Eight, who are routinely privy to highly classified and sensitive intelligence that is not shared with all members of Congress.
And they found out how he thought in general – which is better than specifics about doing anything – perhaps – but that’s the deal:
O’Brien spoke of the intelligence as a “stream” that had to be restricted to a small number of people. “I’d love to have the intelligence out there now,” he said. “But the president’s interpretation of that intelligence is very consistent with it.”
Subtly, the national security adviser was acknowledging what other U.S. officials have privately said about Trump’s statements: The president is giving his “opinion” about the intelligence, which doesn’t necessarily match that of the intelligence community or individual analysts in the government.
And how did that happen? That’s easy:
A former senior White House official offered another possibility: that one of Trump’s advisers speculated about possible attacks on embassies in a briefing with the president.
“I don’t believe he would have simply, out of thin air, come up with that, unless he was actually told something like that,” said the former official. “I’m sure someone told him that that was a possibility, and that stuck in his head.”
Everyone knows the song. What a fool believes, he sees. But there’s more to this:
At the root of Trump’s claim about four embassies is his obsession with avoiding a repeat of the deadly 2011 attack on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, as he watched protesters swarm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad late last month.
Trump has asked about embassy security on several occasions, according to a senior administration official, has been determined to make sure no embassy is compromised and has wanted the military to take out anyone who broached one.
“This was the anti-Benghazi,” Trump crowed before his rally crowd in Toledo last week. “We did it exactly the opposite of Benghazi, where they got there so late. All they saw when they got there days later were burning embers from days before. It’s all they saw. We got there very early. We saw what was happening. I saw what was happening. I said what’s that all about? And that was going to be another Benghazi had they broken through the final panels of glass.”
Trump’s Benghazi assertion, however, was false. Security forces arrived at the facility just hours, not days, after the attack.
But he believes that, and you can’t fact-check a belief, and Donald Trump believes lots of things, as Dana Milbank explores here:
Nobody ever accused President Trump of being consistent.
For weeks, the president clamored for a “fair trial” in the Senate to clear him of impeachment charges.
“I look forward to it,” he said on New Year’s Eve.
Trump also stated he wanted his aides “to testify in the Senate where they’ll get a fair trial.” White House counsel Pat Cipollone urged House Democrats to finish impeachment “so we can have a fair trial in the Senate.”
Now the House is about to deliver the impeachment articles – and suddenly Trump has lost enthusiasm for a trial.
“Many believe that by the Senate giving credence to a trial,” Trump tweeted on Sunday afternoon, “rather than an outright dismissal, it gives the partisan Democrat Witch Hunt credibility that it otherwise does not have. I agree!”
Lest “many believe” that was just a fleeting thought, Trump retweeted it Monday morning.
He has also recently said that “many believe” that he is the greatest American president of all time, and Milbank notes what is happening here:
“Many believe,” of course, is Trump-speak for “I believe.” And I understand why “many believe” a fair Senate trial would hurt Trump, if it means producing the documents and witnesses Trump refused to provide to the House. His defenses would wither faster than his explanations for the assassination of Iran’s Qasem Soleimani…
So this is just more of the same:
The truth is whatever Trump believes it to be – much as when he said his net worth was based on how he feels.
There was a time when people got in trouble for making things up like this. George W. Bush never lived down the infamous “Sixteen Words” in his 2003 State of the Union address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
And when the Obama administration used talking points falsely claiming the attack on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi was sparked by an anti-Islam video, Republicans answered with years of rage.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called Obama White House officials “scumbags” that “lied about” the Benghazi attack. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said the administration “made up a tale” and declared it “worthy of investigation.”
But now Graham and McConnell can both be expected to embrace Trump’s faith-based defense, both on the “imminent” Iran threat and on the president’s innocence in the Ukraine affair…
And that raises the key question. How would the I-believe defense play out in the Senate trial? It might play out like that famous passage from Alice in Wonderland:
Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “One can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
The Queen is a Republican. But then again, Alice was right. One can’t believe impossible things:
Top Senate Republicans on Monday rejected President Trump’s call for outright dismissal of the impeachment charges against him, but continued to grapple with the shape of the Senate trial that could begin as soon as this week.
Most Senate Republicans are eager to stage a trial that ends with Trump’s acquittal and vindication on charges that he abused the power of his office in his dealings with Ukraine and obstructed a subsequent investigation in the House. But over the weekend, Trump urged the Senate simply to dismiss the charges against him — without hearing arguments from House prosecutors or his own legal team.
On Monday, senior Republicans said immediate dismissal could not win approval in the chamber, where Republicans hold a 53-seat majority. And even some staunch Trump allies argued that the president’s legacy would benefit from a robust trial.
“I don’t think there’s any interest on our side of dismissing,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the fourth-ranking GOP senator. “Certainly, there aren’t 51 votes for a motion to dismiss.”
But wait! Trump “believes” the Senate should just dismiss all charges against him:
Republicans were maneuvering behind the scenes about the vexing issue of witnesses as former national security adviser John Bolton said last week that he would be willing to testify if he receives a Senate subpoena.
Still, Trump, in a post Sunday that he also retweeted on Monday, made clear that he was still pressing for the Senate to dismiss the charges.
“Many believe that by the Senate giving credence to a trial based on the no evidence, no crime, read the transcripts, ‘no pressure’ Impeachment Hoax, rather than an outright dismissal, it gives the partisan Democrat Witch Hunt credibility that it otherwise does not have. I agree!” he wrote.
But that’s just too bad, and they know what’s good for him, even if he doesn’t:
Senate Republicans, most of whom are prepared not to convict Trump on the two charges, believe a vote to acquit will provide a more emphatic statement to rebut the abuse-of-power and obstruction-of-Congress charges he faces over his demands that Ukraine launch investigations that would benefit him politically.
For that reason, McConnell has long preferred a vote to acquit Trump, rather than a vote to dismiss that has a higher likelihood of failure on the Senate floor – a view echoed Monday by his closest allies and rank-and-file senators.
Ah! They were telling him that what he “believes” has little if anything to do with reality. There are facts. There is reality. Deal with it. Okay, Boomer – you know that old song about what a fool believes becoming the only thing he can see. Sing along until that sinks in.