Ascribed Meanings

There is always a temptation to ascribe a deep, unspoken strategy to Trump’s improvised approach to politics—to find order in the chaos, a signal in the noise. But all of the available evidence suggests that there is no plan at all, that Trump is a deeply incompetent liar who has no idea what he is doing and no respect for the few people around him who do. If there is war with Iran, it will be because of Trump’s incompetence and lies; if there is not, it will be in spite of these things. Coverage that attempts to find the hidden meaning behind his actions only obscures what’s really happening.

– Alex Shephard “What the Media is Getting Wrong about Soleimani’s Killing
The New Republic 1-7-2020

This week’s featured post is a review of how every president since FDR has talked about war: “Remember Normal Presidents?

This week everybody was talking about Iran

This week’s news has been dominated by the multiple incoherent stories the Trump administration has been telling about the killing of Soleimani.

One thing just about everybody in this country agrees on is that Soleimani was a bad guy. (Though Trump lies about this: “The Democrats and the Fake News are trying to make terrorist Soleimani into a wonderful guy“. If anybody has heard a single major voice in either the media or the Democratic leadership imply such a thing, mention it in the comments. I don’t know of any.) However, he was an Iranian official carrying out Iranian policy. Blaming him personally for every attack Iran has supported seems misguided. He was a replaceable individual who has been replaced; the Quds Force has a new commander, who presumably is following the same policy directives.


There has been much back-and-forth about whether Soleimani was killed to prevent an “imminent” attack, or just because he was evil. It’s important to understand why this point keeps coming up, because Trump keeps trying to have it both ways: He claims that an attack was imminent, but if challenged too hard backs off tobut it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!”

If Soleimani’s assassination wasn’t intended to break up an attack that was in progress and about to happen — and it’s hard to see how that could be; I mean, Soleimani wasn’t going to drive a truck bomb himself — then it’s arguable that Trump had no legal authority to order it. If, instead, he just decided that Soleimani was a bad guy and Iran had been getting away with too much, he should have sought authorization from Congress. “his horrible past” is an argument that Trump could have offered to Congress, but it’s not a justification now.

At the very least, Trump had an obligation to inform the Gang of Eight that the attack was happening.

This disrespect for Congress is why Republican Senator Mike Lee blew his stack after the classified briefing of the Senate by the Secretaries of State and Defense, and the heads of the CIA and the Joint Chiefs.

He also fumed that officials refused to acknowledge any “hypothetical” situations in which they would come to Congress for authorization for future military hostilities against Iran.

It’s fairly apparent that the administration is just making up the “imminent attack” argument, and dodging the legal authority issue. The briefing showed profound arrogance; the briefers walked away after 75 minutes with questions unanswered.

Trump himself has been lying outrageously, for example claiming that Soleimani was planning attacks on four US embassies. Apparently, though, the Secretary of Defense knew nothing about this, and the embassies in question were never notified that they faced an imminent threat.


When no one was killed in Iran’s reprisal strike against the Iraqi base where the Soleimani attack originated, many Trumpists declared the exchange a “win” for the US: We killed a major person on their side and they killed nobody on our side.

Ben Rhodes demonstrates how an adult looks at this: according to the results, not the body count.

Iran abandoned nuclear deal limits. Iraq wants us out. Counter ISIS mission is suspended. We don’t know what asymmetric attacks could come from Iran. Yet I see Trump supporters celebrating a “win”. What are we winning?

Is there any way in which Americans or our allies are safer now than before the assassination? Was some strategic purpose achieved?


Nobody really knows whether Iran intended to kill Americans or not in its missile strike. Of course Iran would say that the result was intended.


Iraq’s parliament voted unanimously that the prime minister should ask our 5200 troops to leave the country, and apparently the PM has asked Secretary of State Pompeo to send a delegation to Baghdad to negotiate the withdrawal. But we’re not going to do that. Here’s how a State Department spokesperson put it:

Our military presence in Iraq is to continue the fight against ISIS and as the secretary has said, we are committed to protecting Americans, Iraqis, and our coalition partners. At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership — not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East.

That makes us sound more like an occupying power than an ally. Any Iraqi militia that kills American troops can now claim that it is repelling invaders.

The Trump administration is also making economic threats against our “ally” Iraq if it insists on our troops leaving:

The Trump administration this week warned Iraq that it could lose access to its central bank account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York if Baghdad expels American troops from the region, Iraqi officials told The Wall Street Journal.


One of the week’s weirder stories was about a letter that somehow got shared with the Iraqi military.

The document in question was an unsigned draft of a memo from the US Command in Baghdad notifying the Iraqi government that some US forces in the country would be repositioned. It also seemed to suggest a removal of American forces from the country, prompting an immediate wave of questions, particularly after US officials in Baghdad said the letter was authentic but could not confirm whether it indicated a troop withdrawal.

You need to be a comedian, like Trevor Noah, to respond to this appropriately.

These people control nuclear weapons and they can’t even handle Microsoft Outlook.


If you want to put it all in perspective, again, it helps to be a comedian. Like Seth Meyers.


One of the points in the featured post is that Trump is not even trying to talk to the people who didn’t vote for him. That point was also made by Anderson Cooper in a Ridiculist segment about the 301 days that have passed since the last White House press briefing.

If you’re wondering “Who’s Stephanie Grisham?” you’re probably not a regular Fox News viewer, because that channel is seemingly the one place she feels safe enough to regularly appear.

… If a president were to escalate the potential danger to U.S. interests overseas by killing a high-ranking Iranian general, you might think the White House press secretary would head to the podium to keep the country and the world abreast of what’s going on, to try to fill in some gaps between the President’s Twitter threats. But that doesn’t happen any more.

Remember CJ on The West Wing? Imagine her going most of a year without filling the podium in the briefing room.

and impeachment

Nancy Pelosi says the articles of impeachment will go to the Senate soon, probably this week. The debate has begun about what, if anything, was accomplished by the delay. In my mind, it was important to put at least a little distance between the House and Senate processes, so that even low-information voters realize that the Senate isn’t going to hear any witnesses of its own, even though it could. If the case could still be pending when Trump gives his State of the Union address on February 4, that would be a bonus.

and Iowa

The Iowa caucuses are February 3, or three weeks from today. (Yes, they happen on a Monday. Every time.) The last Democratic debate before the caucuses happens tomorrow. Only six candidates qualified: Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, Steyer, and Warren.

The RCP polling average shows the top four bunched up. Sanders 21.3%, Buttigieg 21.0, Biden 17.7, Warren 17.0. Because the caucus process yields a much lower turnout than a primary would, and because there are complex rules about minor candidates’ supporters switching their votes, polls often do a bad job of predicting the outcome. So it would not really be an upset if any of those four won.

I would say that the front-runner is whoever the other candidates decide to attack in the debate. And if either Steyer or Klobuchar decides to go kamikaze and relentlessly attack one of the top four, that candidate probably won’t win. I’m not predicting that, but the possibility demonstrates how unpredictable the process is at this point.

and you also might be interested in …

The planet continues to heat up:

The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) announces today that 2019 was the fifth in a series of exceptionally warm years and the second warmest year globally ever recorded.


Maybe the secret to getting infrequent voters to the polls is to have their friends ask them.


5G will arrive in 2020, but it won’t live up to the hype.


Australia is still on fire.


The cancer death rate is down 29% between 1991 and 2017, with a 2.2% drop in 2017, the most recent year where statistics are available. Lung cancer accounts for much of the decline; researchers credit decreased smoking, as well as improvements in treatment.

I hate tie every story to Trump, but he has a way of inserting himself, sort of like Rhupert the Ostrich photobombing classic paintings. In this case, Trump took credit for the long-term trend whose most recent data is from the same year he took office: “A lot of good news coming out of this Administration.”


The justification for holding asylum seekers in concentration camps is that they won’t show up for their hearings, and instead will just vanish into the general immigrant population. At a rally last January, Trump claimed that only 2% show up “And those people, you almost don’t want, because they cannot be very smart.”

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University presents the actual numbers:

With rare exception, asylum seekers whose cases were decided in FY 2019 also showed up for every court hearing. This was true even though four out of five immigrants were not detained or had been previously released from ICE custody. In fact, among non-detained asylum seekers, 99 out of 100 (98.7%) attended all their court hearings.


Conservative rhetoric lauds local control and disparages rule by distant politicians and bureaucrats — except when localities want to protect the environment or gay rights or something. In Florida, Coral Gables outlawed plastic bags at stores and styrofoam containers at restaurants — and lost a lawsuit from a trade organization representing the big retail chains. State law doesn’t allow “regulation of the use of sale of polystyrene products by local governments.” Take that, small government.

Republicans are the party of big corporations, not local control. When WalMart can get what it wants from the state legislature, why let city councils screw that up?


Remember the whole pseudo-scandal about the Clinton Foundation and Uranium One?

A Justice Department inquiry launched more than two years ago to mollify conservatives clamoring for more investigations of Hillary Clinton has effectively ended with no tangible results, and current and former law enforcement officials said they never expected the effort to produce much of anything.

That’s a similar result to the State Department’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. So if you decided not to vote for Hillary because you figured there had to be fire somewhere under all that smoke — no, there wasn’t. You were conned.

Media Matters’ Matt Gertz traces the Uranium One story back to its source: Clinton Cash, a hit job written by Peter Schweitzer and pushed by Steve Bannon. A subsequent Schweitzer book, Secret Empires, is a source of much of the bogus reporting about Hunter Biden. Gertz comments on Schweitzer’s new book, Profiles in Corruption, which reportedly will target not just Biden but also “Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren.”

Journalists should consider this final and inevitable collapse of Schweizer’s bogus claims as they decide whether and how to cover his forthcoming book, which will reportedly target the purported corruption of several Democratic presidential candidates.

and let’s close with something wild and woolly

I never thought of wool as a medium for animation, but I guess it is.

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Comments

  • Paul Duff  On January 13, 2020 at 4:16 pm

    I am intrigued by the choice of the word assassination to describe the killing of Soleimani. Merriam Webster defines assassinate as 1. to murder (a usually prominent person) by sudden or secret attack often for political reasons
    2: to injure or destroy unexpectedly and treacherously. Oxford also includes treacheryin the definition. You have agreed that Soleimani is a “bad guy”. Indeed he is the military commander of a force that has planned, supported and executed a number of horrible attacks. Since US troops are deployed in a conflict zone in Iraq, I cannot see how Soleimani is not a legitimate target as he has command responsibility for the attacks committed by his forces. To deny this, denies the concept established at the Nuremburg trials. Therefore assassination is an inappropriate term. Whether it was lawful under US law is a separate issue. I am a retired Canadian military officer but I am a graduate of Fort Leavenworth and have some familiarity with the argument. While I would not wish to comment on that constitutional debate, I cannot see how the killing of a military commander in a conflict zone is anything other than a legitimate engagement and not an assassination.
    I love this blog and try to read it every week. Please keep it coming.

    • Guest  On January 14, 2020 at 10:49 am

      Thanks for the perspective, Paul, and we can certainly sidestep the constitutional debate here. Trump admitted that the decision on the sudden and secret Soleimani attack was reached to satisfy key impeachment allies in the Senate, ie political reasons. This literally meets the Webster dictionary definition of assassination provided. No imminent threat or urgent intelligence has been produced, which has even Matt Gaetz pissed off.

      Try flipping this around. At a time when his political power is being threatened domestically, a president from a country with which we have no declaration of war suddenly kills the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (or I guess the Chief of Defense Staff in Canada) on the urging of his political allies. Would that be assassination or legitimate engagement? We could even grant for the sake of argument that this Chairman of Chief has been complicit in previous war crimes and can be considered a “bad guy.”

      Semantics aside, what we call it doesn’t have much of anything to do with evaluating the wisdom of such a move. Have to admit this might be a first. Don’t think I’ve seen the principles established at Nuremberg used to defend US military “interventions” in the Middle East before. Somewhere out there Hannah Arendt is weeping in a rage.

  • Guest  On January 14, 2020 at 11:48 am

    The juxtaposition is too pointed, Doug, that I have to think it was a Freudian slip of some kind. “Republicans are the party of big corporations, not local control. When WalMart can get what it wants from the state legislature, why let city councils screw that up?” leads right into a full-throated defense of…former WalMart Board Director, the 2016 Walton family choice for president, and current owner of the DNC (unless she sold her controlling stake?) Hillary Clinton.

    Yes, Republicans are the party of big corporations, and that is something fans of democracy should lament and protest. The tougher pill to swallow for Democrats is that big corporations have also bought the party of Clinton, of Biden, of Buttigieg et al. Maybe it’s a secret, but substantial parts of the Affordable Care Act were written by insurance companies, and per the infamous 2014 Princeton study of US legislature, that was not a fluke. They found our laws are mostly made by and for big money rather than the people at large, across both R and D administrations. To all the Clinton/Biden/Buttigieg supporters who rightfully bemoan Republicans being the party of big corporations, and who have the moral fortitude to indict Democrats on the same principles, know that you have natural allies on the left.

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