I saw an article headline today arguing we should abolish the presidential pardon. Too much power in the hands of one person. For what it’s worth, I think the pardon power serves an important purpose (though it is an archaic one) and that we should see more pardons, really a lot more. But the point of the article, which is based on President Trump’s wanton and partial abuse of this power, focused my attention on a different point.
From TPM Reader JL …
Recent post on whether trump really needed to bend to pressure from senators was fascinating. At first I struggled with your description of maxing out wish lists. But then I thought about trump as Mafia don (always a useful frame) and it clicked. The whole concept of a Mafia organization is that being on the inside is great; the power and money and ego gratification are exciting. The don wants everyone to be happy and feel stroked. Except of course you have sold your soul and the day eventually comes when the piper must be paid…. still not sure I fully buy everything in the post but you may be onto something.
As I told JL, I’ve struggled to get my head around it myself. And I’m not sure I’ve fully done so. But I think I’m at least on to something. Trump’s approach to coalitional politics is very different from anything we’ve seen in modern presidential history.
With Iran’s admission that it accidentally shot down a civilian airliner the night of its retaliatory strikes against the US military bases in Iraq it is worth remembering that Russia has still not made a similar admission about the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shot down over Ukraine in 2014. The facts are not identical. In that case Russia provided Buk surface-to-air missiles to “separatists” operating in eastern Ukraine who seem to have thought they were shooting down a Ukrainian military jet.
Here we get into the inherent and intentional murkiness about which of these “separatists” aided by Russia were people who could legitimately be called “separatists” versus Russian military or Russian veterans operating with plausible deniability in Russia’s shadow invasion of eastern Ukraine. Whatever the precise details, the upshot is the same: As part of an intentional policy of using vaguely deniable proxies, Russia gave highly lethal weaponry (you need serious military hardware to shoot an airliner at cruising altitude out of the sky) to people operating with little command and control or oversight. The result was unthinkable tragedy. Not only has Russia never admitted responsibility it has continued to support and propagate various conspiracy theories and “false narratives” about what happened.
According to Bloomberg News, “U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials are assessing whether Russia is trying to undermine Joe Biden in its ongoing disinformation efforts with the former vice president still the front-runner in the race to challenge President Donald Trump.”
The fact of this or the fact of what they appear to be investigating is hardly surprising. Indeed, we can’t be surprised by something we already know.
One reader very reasonably asks: Is it really credible that Trump had to authorize this attack or risk being removed from office at his impeachment trial? That hardly seems credible. Indeed, to the extent that there’s a spectrum of Trump loyalty among Republican senators, the most loyal tend to line up with those most eager for aggressive military action against Iran. But I think this somewhat mistakes the nature of Trump’s presidency and how he has approached politics – pretty consistently – for years.
Happy Friday, January 10. House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) said Thursday evening that he doesn’t plan to subpoena former National Security Adviser John Bolton for testimony before an impending Senate impeachment trial. Here’s more on that and other stories we’re following.
It now seems very clear that that Ukrainian airliner that crashed after takeoff from Tehran was accidentally shot down by the Iranian military, almost certainly on some kind of hair trigger alert awaiting possible US retaliation after the volley of missiles which were retaliation for the assassination of Qassem Soleimani.
This was pretty clear on the basis of logic and probability. Even as aerophobe, I know that airliner crashes are extremely, extremely rare. In those rare instances, they seldom fall out of the sky on fire as this one did. The fact that this happened basically at the exact moment when the Iranians would have been awaiting US retaliation from the air in response to their missile attack makes the probabilities pretty clear.
We’re back to this question of when Nancy Pelosi is going to send the articles of impeachment, now going on a month old, to the Senate. One relatively prominent member of the Democratic caucus, Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA), actually went off message and then had to walk back his remarks this morning. So is it time? Is it time for Speaker Pelosi to go ahead and get on with it?
I can’t see any reason to rush this. Really none at all.
Happy Thursday, January 9. A House Democrat signaled earlier this morning that there might be an element of restlessness swelling within House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) caucus over her prolonged possession of the articles of impeachment. Hours later, he walked it back. Here’s more on that and other stories we’re following today.
TPM Reader BF disagrees with JB about who was pushing who on Trump’s decision to kill Qasem Solemaini …
No, no, no. JB is wrong here. This isn’t about Pompeo or some other lone actor talking Trump into something. And it isn’t about Trump surprising everyone by choosing a throw-away option.
I’ve written a few times that opacity, extortion and confusion are the hallmarks of Trumpism. I’ve spent the last couple months trying to draw these ideas together for a larger project. Part of this story centers on the ways American politics and specifically America’s relations abroad have been subsumed under fuzzy or opaque ties with a series of foreign powers — specifically ones where power is personalized in either strongman or familial rule, where political power is bundled together with wealth.
Good morning and happy Wednesday, January 8. There’s been quite a bit of news already this morning, and we’re waiting to hear the President’s address in response to Iran’s attack on two U.S. military bases in Iraq last night. That’s expected at 11 a.m. Here’s more on that and other stories we’re following:
Interesting response from TPM Reader JB, who has a background in government work …
I pretty much do believe sources within the Trump administration who claim to be surprised Trump took the extreme option of ordering the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, for two reasons. One is that he very likely had seen a variant of this option presented before, for example after the US drone shootdown incident last summer or the missile strike on Saudi oil facilities shortly after that. He didn’t bite on it then, which may have made some people complacent.
As noted below, in the broadest sense we know why President Trump ordered the assassination of Soleimani: it was an attempt to dominate a weaker power by dramatically escalating a simmering conflict. This squares with how states act and it squares with President Trump’s personality. Yet everything we’ve seen since the attack illustrates the consequences of a hollowed out national security decision-making process and an erratic and impulsive head of state.
Unnamed Pentagon officials have now suggested that President Trump opted for a policy option (the assassination) few if any of his advisors thought he’d consider. For all my criticism of President Trump, I’m deeply skeptical of these claims. This sounds like an effort to evade responsibility for the policy options the President was given. If the idea was that it’s nuts, he shouldn’t have been offered it. Still, it doesn’t speak well about the level of planning or coordination that went into this. We also have the claim that Soleimani was killed to avert an imminent threat to U.S. lives, a claim which seems clearly not to be true.
I’m inclined to think that John Bolton’s statement that he would comply with a subpoena from a Senate impeachment trial is largely meaningless. First of all, it only matters if he is in fact subpoenaed by the Senate — which is the whole question currently being debated. There’s little sign that this contingency will ever come to pass.
President Trump’s order to assassinate Iranian General Qasem Soleimani has momentarily pushed all from the headlines. But before last Friday and going forward all talk was of the impending impeachment trial in the Senate. As observers tried to make sense of the stand-off over the kind of trial that would be held, most attention focused on Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — the canonical “moderates” who have repeatedly been a Trump Era focus. But this is completely wrong, a frankly imbecilic mistake. I don’t know how much of this is Democrats’ focus or the press generally. It’s probably a mix. But it’s completely wrong, though Collins is in a separate category for reasons I will explain.
There are roughly half a dozen vulnerable Senate Republicans: Cory Gardner (R-CO), Martha McSally (R-AZ), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Susan Collins (R-ME), Joni Ernst (R-IA) and David Perdue (R-GA).
It is basically impossible to think that President Trump’s decision to authorize the dramatic assassination of Qasem Soleimani wasn’t influenced by his looming impeachment trial. But we’re also getting more detail now on the precise chain of events leading up to it. I recommend first this Twitter thread from the Times Rukmini Callimachi. The upshot is that the claim of disrupted future attacks was thin at best, inferences drawn from Soleimani’s travel itinerary placed in the context of the shadowy game of tit for tat the two countries have been playing for the last year.
From a different perspective, this is the kind of assemblage of evidence that gets made after you make a decision — justification rather than actual reason. Callimachi has more details. But there’s nothing about the version of the evidence she presents that would make anyone think there was evidence of a threat that required imminent action. Assuming her outlines of the evidence is correct, this is after the fact justification meant to put the operation on a better legal and political footing.