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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Iran Plot Thickens
      •  Burisma Hacked by the Russians
      •  Get Ready for the Blue Mud to Fly
      •  Seventh Democratic Debate Is Tonight
      •  Baby, It's Cold Outside?
      •  Booker Is Out
      •  Chafee Is In

Iran Plot Thickens

Donald Trump has quite the habit of making a decision and, after his instructions have been carried out, figuring out the justification for that decision. While he's not the only president to indulge in putting the cart before the horse like this, he and his team are unusually bad at it, as their post hoc explanations are consistently full of holes. So it is with the killing of Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

Since Soleimani's death 10 days ago, the administration's justification for the attack has been that there was an imminent threat against the United States. On Friday, Trump got more specific, and said up to four American embassies were being targeted by the General. This is a fairly obvious justification to choose, for at least a couple of reasons. The first is legal; it makes the attack legitimate under both American and international law. The second is political; it allows Trump to claim that he's taken strong action to make certain that no Benghazi happens on his watch.

There are also some downsides to this justification, however—at least, if it's not true. Most obviously, everyone—Congress, the press, the public, America's allies—is going to want to know exactly what the evidence of an imminent attack was, at least in a general sense. The administration has never been able to answer that question. Another issue is that "imminent threat against an embassy" implies actions beyond just lobbing some bombs at Iraq. For example, warning the allegedly targeted embassies that they are in danger. No such warnings were issued.

All of this indicated that, once again, the administration was lying. And indeed, on Monday, their messaging related to the attack took a 90-degree turn. Trump, for his part, declared that it doesn't matter whether an attack was imminent or not (even though it's actually very important, legally and politically speaking). He also said his administration's explanations on this matter have "been totally consistent," which is another falsehood.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr, who keep trying to clean up the President's mess after he offers up whatever the story of the day is, also weighed in on Monday. Their latest story is that the killing was not, in fact, prompted by an imminent attack, but instead by deterrence. That is very different from the original justification. Barr added that discussions of an imminent attack are "something of a red herring." That brings two questions to mind: (1) If this is a red herring, then why was the administration the first to bring it up?, and (2) Why is the Attorney General taking a leading role in articulating the United States' military policy?

Anyhow, if the multiple and varied official explanations are lies, then what is the truth? It's looking more and more like the truth is exactly what you think it is. In the last few days, The New York Times reported, and the Wall Street Journal seconded, that Trump was trying to curry favor with the Republican senators whose acquittal votes he needs, and who desire a harder line on Iran. In other words, domestic political considerations, rather than American national security, appear to have been his primary motivation. If so, it means that Trump abused his official powers in service of personal goals, in an effort to...extricate himself from a situation where he abused his official powers in service of personal goals. It also means that the 176 people aboard Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 would be alive right now if not for Trump's willingness to put his own needs above everything else. In other words, their blood is on his hands.

Further strengthening the case that this was all about politics is that the Trump campaign has already run more than eight hundred distinct ads on Facebook bragging about the killing. Here's an example:

The ad features a 'power shot'
of Trump up against the American flag, and brags that thanks to Trump's actions, Soleimani is dead. It also asks people
to take a survey rating how great a commander-in-chief Trump is.

Maybe this was always part of the plan. Or maybe campaign manager Brad Parscale merely seizes upon whatever opportunities present themselves. Either way, it's very crass.

Time will tell exactly how this affects Trump and his (apparently) all-important reelection bid. Thus far, the polling is not breaking in his favor. A new ABC News/Ipsos survey of how Americans feel about the President's handling of Iran came out on Monday, and it reveals that 56% disapprove of his actions, and 52% said the U.S. was less safe as a result. Obviously, the base is still with Trump on this (as with everything), but he's not winning over anyone else.

There's also the question of whether or not the President will face any sort of consequences for what appears to be some very problematic behavior. On one hand, he manages to escape many things unscathed, whether it is obstruction of justice charges, or shady confabs with Vlad Putin, or calling white supremacists "good people." On the other hand, the things that do stick to him tend to take time to ripen fully. For example, seven weeks lapsed between the filing of the Ukraine whistleblower report (Aug. 12) and the House launching an inquiry (Sept. 24). So, we probably won't know if we have a Soleimanipot Dome situation on our hands until March, at the earliest. (Z)

Burisma Hacked by the Russians

Speaking of Donald Trump and the Russians, there was a story on that front on Monday, too. The New York Times reported that as the Ukraine scandal was unfolding, Team Putin successfully hacked Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company that once employed Hunter Biden, and that Trump is convinced is the linchpin of...well, something scandalous.

The Russian attack was successful, in that they gained access to at least one of Burisma's servers. Little more is known, at least publicly. For example, what were they looking for? Why? Did they find anything? If so, what are they going to do with it? The obvious, and most likely, explanation is that they were looking for dirt on the Biden family, to be used to aid Donald Trump. If they did find something (which is unlikely), they would undoubtedly sit on that until a more opportune time. As a reminder, they leaked the stolen DNC e-mails in June and July of 2016, once it was clear that Hillary Clinton would be the nominee.

The only thing that is clear at this point is that Russia will definitely be back for another go-round in 2020, using the same bag of tricks as in 2016 (with others possibly being added to the mix). There is no reason to think that they are not still on Team Trump; the Donald has paid very handsome dividends as far as Vladimir Putin is concerned. Whether Trump is actively cooperating with such activities is an open question. On one hand, Putin doesn't really need to talk to the President in order to know what to do. On the other hand, they do have a lot of secret conversations that the White House tries to downplay or outright hide. They're surely talking about something that Trump doesn't want the public to know about. (Z)

Get Ready for the Blue Mud to Fly

Thus far, during the 2020 cycle, the Democrats in general, and the two leading progressives—Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)—in particular, have been operating under something of a non-aggression pact. Yes, there are the occasional flare-ups of tension, as one of the second-tier candidates tries to gain some ground at the expense of one of the frontrunners (e.g., Kamala Harris vs. Joe Biden), but overall it's been a pretty civilized affair.

Not much longer, though. Once people start to cast actual ballots, the rubber meets the road, as candidates begin to run out of time to jockey for position. And so, with the Iowa caucuses just three weeks away, the slings and arrows were bound to begin flying. The only questions were: Who would make the first move, and when would they make it? This weekend, we got answers to those questions: Bernie Sanders, and immediately. His campaign staffers have been given a script to use when talking to Warren supporters, in essence telling them how to make the case that she's an unelectable elitist.

When that story broke on Sunday, Warren had a fairly measured response, remarking that "I was disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me." However, on Monday, in what is certainly a non-coincidence, Warren campaign insiders leaked to CNN the story of a Sanders-Warren meeting in December 2018, at which the Senators agreed on the (now-defunct) non-aggression pact. That makes Sanders, as the first to break the agreement, look a little bit bad. What makes him look worse, though, is an additional detail, namely that he allegedly declared that a woman cannot win a presidential election. That makes him look like a sexist.

Sanders, of course, denies he ever said such a thing. However, CNN had four different sources for their reporting, and it is somewhat unlikely that they made it up out of thin air. What is more probable is that whatever Sanders said was a little (or a lot) less problematic in context. For example, let's imagine he said something like: "I really think I should be the progressive standard-bearer in 2020; the 2016 result suggests that swing voters in the rust belt aren't ready for a woman president yet." If so, then the truth would lie somewhere in the middle between "Sanders said a woman can't become president" and "I never said that."

In any case, the important thing is that Warren and Sanders are now going after each other, and the peace pact is kaput. Certainly, key Republicans have taken notice. This weekend, Donald Trump noted what was happening with pleasure, asking a rally crowd "Elizabeth is very angry at Bernie. Do I see a feud brewing?" Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) decided to do a little ratfu**ing, and went on Fox News to share his opinion that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is holding back the articles of impeachment so that she can hurt Sanders by taking him off the campaign trail at the most inopportune time. Clearly, the Minority Leader knows how to play into the narrative that the Democratic establishment has it in for the Vermont Senator.

Incidentally, Sanders also has Joe Biden in his crosshairs, as well. Sanders surrogates were on TV this weekend, reminding people of Biden's vote for the Iraq War. The national co-chair of Sanders' campaign, Nina Turner, published an op-ed entitled "While Bernie Sanders has always stood up for African Americans, Joe Biden has repeatedly let us down." And Sanders himself is preparing to go after the former Veep for his willingness to cut Social Security benefits. Biden has thus far taken an "above the fray" approach to the campaign, but that's not going to last long if he's taking fire from all sides.

So, does this work to the benefit of the Democratic Party, or to its detriment? Should they be abiding by Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment of politics: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any other [Democrat]"? Politico's Jack Shafer, for one, thinks this sort of internecine fighting is not only inevitable, it's desirable, as it will force the candidates to really differentiate themselves and their policy positions. That's a fair point; the squabbling will also help to defuse some of the most common lines of attack that Republicans might use in the general election, making them "old news."

What the Democrats will not do, however, is embrace conspiracies (e.g., hitting Biden for Burisma) or racism (e.g., calling Warren "Pocahontas"). That would anger the base, and would also serve to legitimize those lines of attack when Trump deploys them in the general election. So even as the Democratic field goes to war with one another, they will still honor some rules of engagement. (Z)

Seventh Democratic Debate Is Tonight

Tonight, just as things are getting snippy between the members of the Democratic field, they will gather in Iowa for the last debate before people cast actual ballots. Hosts CNN and the Des Moines Register announced the podium order on Monday; from camera left to camera right it will be: Tom Steyer-Elizabeth Warren-Joe Biden-Bernie Sanders-Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend)-Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN).

Here are a few of the storylines to watch for:

  • Who will be on offense?: As we note above, Sanders is getting out the big guns right now. Warren and/or Biden could be planning to debut their own offensives. Klobuchar has raised pointed critiques of her fellow Democrats at the last two debates, and she, Buttigieg, and Steyer are running short on time. All this is to say that anyone could be ready to throw a few grenades. We'll see who does.

  • Who will be on defense?: In the early debates, Joe Biden was the primary target, as the obvious frontrunner. In the more recent debates, Biden largely avoided much withering fire, as folks focused on whoever was "on the rise" at that moment. That's Sanders right now. And, of course, Sanders and Warren are trying to knock each other off so as to become the progressive standard-bearer. So, any or all of the three leading candidates could have large targets on their backs. Attacking Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and Steyer right now seems like it would be a waste of precious time, so that trio is probably OK.

  • Whither Steyer?: Despite spending as much on advertising as all of the other Democratic candidates combined, Steyer barely made the cut for this debate. He's not likely to make the next one. So, will he exit with a bang or a whimper? He hasn't been at all aggressive in the previous debates, and he's likely to get much less speaking time than any other candidate. That means the smart money is on "whimper."

  • Iran: This is the big story of the moment, and is still developing (see above). It will certainly come up. It will be interesting to see how much time is spent on the subject, and it will be even more interesting to see what questions are asked.

  • Iowa: While Iran is of national and international interest, the point of holding the debate in Iowa, three weeks before the caucuses, is to make sure that issues of interest to Iowa voters are addressed. The problem is that the most significant, distinctive Iowa issue is farm subsidies, and few people outside of the Hawkeye State want to hear about that. Last time the Democrats debated in Iowa, the moderators worked in the Iowa angle by soliciting questions from a few locals (who asked about immigration) and by talking about the state's implementation of Obamacare. We'll see how they work it tonight.

  • Diversity: This will be the first debate with an all-white field. Will that come up? If so, how?

The debate is tonight from 9-11 ET, will be moderated by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer and political correspondent Abby Phillip and Register politics reporter Brianne Pfannenstiel, and will be broadcast by CNN on its cable channel and website. (Z)

Baby, It's Cold Outside?

This is outside the norm, even by Trump administration standards. First, note this tweet sent from the White House Twitter account on Sunday:

Then note that it wasn't snowing in Washington on Sunday and, in fact, it was warmer there (52 degrees) than in many parts of Florida or California.

Normally, it's not worth anyone's time to talk about dishonest tweets from this administration, since those are well within "dog bites man" territory these days. However, we are mentioning this one for two reasons. The first is that it's such an absurd and easily disproven lie. After all, there are over half a million people in Washington who can confirm that it wasn't snowing on Sunday. Either the administration is getting more sloppy or more unhinged. Second, and more significant, is that this is surely a response to the news that broke on Friday that 2019 was the second-hottest year on record, trailing only 2016. When it comes to peddling the narrative that climate change is not real, Trump and the GOP will say literally anything, including that it's snowing outside the White House, even when it clearly is not. (Z)

Booker Is Out

Tom Perez is apparently accomplishing what he wanted to with the structure of the Democratic debates: to gently shove non-viable candidates out the door. The latest casualty is Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who—about to miss his second debate in a row—bowed to reality on Monday and dropped out of the presidential race.

Booker, of course, never gained any real traction. What went wrong? Well, part of it was that, as a black man, he expected—despite abundant evidence that it doesn't work this way—to attract significant black support. An even bigger part of it, however, is that his campaign was, for lack of a better term, kind of vacuous. On Monday, in an e-mail to supporters, he wrote:

Nearly one year ago, I got in the race for president because I believed to my core that the answer to the common pain Americans are feeling right now, the answer to Donald Trump's hatred and division, is to reignite our spirit of common purpose to take on our biggest challenges and build a more just and fair country for everyone. I've always believed that. I still believe that. I'm proud I never compromised my faith in these principles during this campaign to score political points or tear down others. And maybe I'm stubborn, but I'll never abandon my faith in what we can accomplish when we join together. I will carry this fight forward—I just won't be doing it as a candidate for president this year.

What "fight" is he even talking about? This is an entirely meaningless collection of platitudes. And therein lies the rub. Booker is an impressive fellow—smart, charismatic, with a track record of success as an urban mayor. However, he never stood for much of anything. We all heard a hundred times that he's a vegan, and that he made a point of moving to the poorest part of Newark so he could "understand" the plight of folks there. But the main planks of his policy agenda, and the basics of his case for the presidency were never clear. With such a crowded field, a failure to differentiate is a fatal flaw, and so it is that Booker 2020 is no more. (Z)

Chafee Is In

Although the dominant theme right now is dropping out of the presidential race, Lincoln Chafee apparently did not get the same memo that Marianne Williamson and Cory Booker did. He has just thrown his hat into the ring, once again. This time around, he's running as...a Libertarian.

The former Rhode Island senator and governor did not explain his particular reasons for entering this year's race, instead focusing his announcement on his selling points: He hasn't had any scandals, he doesn't lie, and he doesn't favor war. The fact that those are "pros" in his favor, as opposed to just minimum expectations for any presidential candidate, certainly says something about the times in which we live. In any case, Democrats and independents clearly had little interest in what Chafee was selling back in 2016, and Republicans aren't going to forget that he ran for president as a member of the blue team and that he was national co-chair of Barack Obama's reelection campaign. By philosophy, Chafee actually is kind of a Libertarian—fiscally conservative, socially liberal—and he'll undoubtedly get some votes from people who check the name of any candidate with an (L) next to their name. However, it's hard to see how he makes any sort of dent in the presidential race, or even how he outperforms Gary Johnson from four years ago.

Meanwhile, Chafee is hardly the first person to go from "semi-serious presidential candidate" to "perennial presidential candidate with no chance of winning." The gold standard here is Harold Stassen, the former Minnesota governor who was a serious challenger for the GOP nomination in 1944, a barely-serious challenger in 1948 and 1952, and then a not-at-all-plausible challenger in the next six presidential elections. Alan Keyes, Norman Thomas, Lyndon LaRouche, and Eugene V. Debs also mounted at least three presidential campaigns each, and Jill Stein is likely to join that club this year. Why they do it—notoriety? sell books? draw attention to their cause?—undoubtedly varies on a case-by-case basis, and is really known only to the candidates themselves. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jan13 Questions about Impeachment Still Linger
Jan13 House Could Add New Articles of Impeachment after Trial Begins
Jan13 Sanders Leads in New Iowa Poll
Jan13 Bernie Takes the Gloves Off
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